Pennine Way Stage 2: Crowden to Diggle

Published 6 May 2015

Catherine and her parents, walking the Pennine Way at Black Tor

Put yourself in this scene. In a few months’ time you will be travelling several thousand miles by plane to Nepal. After a couple of days in Kathmandu checking out the local sights, you’ll leave the city to set off on a walk. For several days you’ll walk towards Everest Basecamp, staying at little villages every evening. It’ll be a good, well made path, but it will be one which will take you steadily up hill.

In your planning you note that you need to do some preparation for the trip; get yourself up to the level of fitness that will be demanded for such a trip. You’ve done a lot of walking over the years and the hills are no stranger to you. But there’s one thing you’re a little worried about. The plan will see you carrying all your belongings in a rucksack. It’s been a while since you’ve carried such a heavy load on your back. You begin to think that you probably should get some practice in before you go out there.

Meanwhile, your daughter’s been on the phone. She tells you that she’ll be walking a section of the Pennine Way this May with her partner. And that gives you an idea. Your daughter always carries her own rucksack with her when she’s doing walking trips. So why don’t you offer to join them on the second day on the Pennine Way? You could carry their rucksacks for them. It will be good practice.

Pennine Way signpost at Crowden

Pointing to the Pennine Way at Crowden

And so it was that the next morning we got out of the car at Crowden and set off along the Pennine Way, having been relieved of our rucksacks, which were now being ably carried by our two sherpas, also known as Catherine’s parents, Mike and Julie. Their plan was to walk with us for the five or so miles to Black Hill, gaining invaluable insight into carrying several kilograms of weight on their backs. Once they got there they’d return our luggage, bid us farewell and head back to their car, parked up back at Crowden.

Well, I wasn’t going to argue. I always carry my own stuff when out hiking rather than paying someone to transport it for me. But it’s still always nice when you don’t have to carry anything at all. Instead of grunting as you struggle to slowly climb that steep hill, you can skip up it in a sprightly fashion. Or, at least, walk a bit faster. And the difference that a pack (or lack of) can make to walking speed was soon revealed by the way we suddenly found ourselves travelling much faster than our luggage.

Mike pointing his camera lens at my camera on the Pennine Way

The rucksacks weren’t entirely to blame. Mike was also weighed down by his substantially sized digital camera. Naturally this was not one of those “point and fire” devices, but one which required copious twiddling knobs and adjusting of focus to get the perfect shot in the way that camera experts do. In the time it took him just to assemble his giant photographic apparatus, focus in on the subject and take a picture, I’d usually be able to whip out my distinctly more compact camera, hit the shutter button, put it away and be half a mile away. Not that it put him off. Mighty rocks, tufts of browning grass, large clumps of heather; all were fair game for Mike’s giant lens. And the Pennine Way offered them in abundance. Attractive streams were a firm favourite for the camera lens, as they crept slowly down the hillside, flowing beautifully through rocks, just as they must have done for centuries. The mighty camera was frequently assembled and disassembled, as shot after shot was taken, and another few metres walked. Watching, I wasn’t quite sure I’d have the patience.

Still, we made it along, and silently, and without fanfare, we reached the top of Dun Hill where a milestone was waiting for us. Not a physical one, but one none-the-less. For the summit marked a boundary. The point when we’d leave Derbyshire and enter our second county, the county of Yorkshire.

Walking on stone slabs over Black Hill, next to large peaty pools

Keep firmly to the path when you're on Black Hill!

“Black Hill’s a morass!” is a common accusation of the place. It does have rather a reputation for wet peat, making going difficult for walkers. Massive pools of peaty water can swallow a boot in seconds, which can be rather off-putting. On the other hand, they can create a dramatic scene for a photograph, so it really does depend on your point of view. Not for nothing do some walkers avoid the whole place, giving it all up as a bad lot.

These days though, Black Hill’s reputation is rather unfair and those dank, dark pools aren’t anything to worry about. At least, as long as you stay on the paved paths that criss-cross the hill. Put a foot wrong though and you may never be seen again.

Looking at those pools of dark water from the safety of a stone paving flag however, does give you an impression of what the Pennine Way must have been before the paving was put in. How people coped with Black Hill before, I didn’t know. I could only imagine what this route must have been like for much of its life. Maybe I would have reached Black Hill’s top, taken one look at it, and headed off to the bright lights of the nearby town of Glossop instead, never to set foot on the Pennine Way again. There are some who cry that the paving slabs have ruined the character of the Pennine Way; that this is what the countryside is really like, and that’s what must be embraced; that the Pennine Way now is little different to an urban street, but if you’d asked most of the people on Black Hill that day whether the flags should be ripped up, I doubt most would have taken you up on it.

Besides, it’s not like the entire hill has been tarmacked over. There are still some side trails which head off in random directions if you wish to dice with danger and peat bog. One of those was about to be followed by Catherine’s parents as they headed back to their car. Rucksacks were exchanged; best wishes and hugs given. And then they were off, bouncing over the hillside with just a large camera bag between them.

And how did it help them on their Nepal trip go, you ask? Did the practice carrying all our luggage help them on their trip? Well, they did walk a day carrying their own stuff. And then they did what most visitors do when walking in Nepal. They employed a local sherpa to carry it all for them. By all accounts, in one deft move, the sherpa had lashed the two rucksacks together with rope, and started carrying them both on his back with relative ease, all whilst walking around the trail in flip flops.

Snoopy’s Snack Van on the road, and the Pennine Way as it crosses the road

According to popular wisdom, Snoopy’s Snack Van on the A635 near Wessenden Head is a purveyor of the largest bacon butties known to man. Whether this is an exaggeration or really is reality, I can’t tell you. I haven’t conducted extensive research on the matter. Didn’t even try one of Snoopy’s apparent finest. We passed by the white van not feeling particularly hungry. And besides, Catherine is vegetarian. But whatever the size of the food served at this slightly innocuous white van in a remote spot, the number of cars parked up in the lay-by next to it suggested Snoopy was doing a roaring trade.

Snoopy’s is just the latest of a long line of purveyors of refreshment on this wild moorland. Up until the 1950s, the role was fulfilled by the Isle of Skye Hotel, although quite how it got that name is another question entirely. The place was hardly close to any Scottish isle after all. However anyone wanting a pint now will be out of luck as the pub’s fate was sealed during the planning stages of the nearby Digley reservoir.

A compulsory purchase order was slapped on the property due to fears of the pub polluting the water that fed into the reservoir. A local battle ensued in an attempt to save it, but it was to no avail and the building was demolished afterwards. Well that’s the story according to most sources. The other one occasionally proffered is that it was demolished after a fire; local fire engines being unable to reach it due to heavy snows having blocked the roads.

Wessenden Head, on the Pennine Way

Whichever is accurate, there’s now little on the ground to mark the fact that there was a pub there at all; the only reminder being that the section of the A635 continues to be locally known as Isle of Skye Road to this day.

The Pennine Way doesn’t pass the site of all this controversy; Digley reservoir is actually a couple of miles away. However, there’s still plenty of water based action for the walker in the area, as the trail goes past Black Moss, Wessenden, Swellands and Redbrook reservoirs; all of which sit on the moorland quietly collecting and storing water for when it’s needed.

With its high rainfall, the Pennine hills naturally caught the eyes of the authorities of the nearby conurbations of Manchester and Sheffield. The various towns and cities needed a source of good, clean water for the ever growing population to drink, as well as supplying factories and businesses. It was for the people of Huddersfield that Digley and Wessenden were built, whilst Swellands and Redbrook found other uses, namely to supply the Huddersfield Narrow Canal.

Catherine standing near Redbrook Reservoir, on the Pennine Way

The Pennine Way made its way casually along as many of these reservoirs as it could muster, before depositing us quietly on the road at Standedge. The end of our walking day had been reached, and there was just one more task to do; head downhill to our B&B.

There are two options for accommodation for those arriving at Standedge. Turn right for the Yorkshire village of Marsden, or turn left for Greater Manchester and Diggle. The latter is slightly smaller but also just that bit nearer, which seemed a good enough reason to go with it. Now we just had to walk the mile and a half required to get there. But which route to follow? Take the simple but dull route down the main road, or follow the more sedate stylings of the Oldham Way – a forty mile stroll round the local Metropolitan Borough of Oldham – through fields of mud and sheep.

Naturally we opted for the option with the least tarmac and soon found ourselves covered in mud and sheep poo, stood in quiet, cosy street wandering around in circles wondering which of the many stone cottages housed the B&B that we’d been told was very easy to spot when you got there. For ten minutes we wandered around the place, getting increasingly more confused and frustrated at our ability to find the place. In the end we had to resort to using the telephone, where it turned out after a chat with a confused landlady, that we were in completely the wrong part of Diggle all along.

The Diggle Hotel, in Diggle, seen in the dark

Thankfully, the village pub was far easier to find. Being a Friday night the place was bustling with locals happily chatting as they devoured huge platefuls of food. We joined them, relaxing with a couple of pints and resting our weary feet; those paving slabs being just a bit tough on the feet. Still, if it meant we didn’t end up up to our waists in peat bog, that was something I was more than happy to put up with.


Steve Mills

12 August 2017 at 9:53 am

Rereading these early sections I note the recurrent comments about the paved sections. I first walked (most of) the Pennine Way as a student in 1966-7 and found the way over boglands had already even then become such a chaotic, wet and unattractive slog that 50 years later I was rather apprehensive about doing such a slog again. Most of the worst sections now have slogs which keep the human impact to a minimum and allow slow walkers like me to keep moving on at a steady pace. If this is progress I can live with it.

Jem Hills

26 April 2019 at 9:42 pm

Great route, I walked this last year with my good friend Andy McMenemy. There are some spectacular views on this route. The Diggle Hotel provied us with some well needed refreshment and I have been back on several occaisions. Its always great to find a very welcoming pub with great food and service.

Bob Hankinson

21 June 2021 at 1:02 pm

Dave, Ray and I did the PW in December 78, 13 days. Part of the time the bogs were frozen, which kept the feet dry. Short days, many times finishing in the dark as we came down.

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