Pennine Way Stage 3: Diggle to Hebden Bridge

Published 13 May 2015

The view from Higher Moor, on the Pennine Way

On the crowded bookshelves in my house can be found my favourite books about walking. In the hilarious “Pennine Walkies”, Mark Wallington recounts his tales of walking the Pennine Way (funnily enough) with his dog Boogie. The excuse given for the endeavour was that someone who was middle-aged needed an adventure; something exciting that would be preferential to sitting in front of the television set all day. Apparently that someone was Boogie. So over the course of a couple of weeks, the aforementioned canine, ably accompanied by his owner, headed north from their home near Edale, with Mark carrying everything they needed in his rucksack, complete with several kilograms of complete dog food.

But more remarkable than the excuse given for walking the trail, or the fact that Wallington did the whole thing carrying food for two, is that the fact that the intrepid duo walked the whole thing in great weather.

Weather is so important when walking. There’s nothing worse than spending day after day traipsing around in heavy rain; water seeping into your boots. No, good weather is what you want. Not too good of course, for you don’t want to be walking when it’s too hot. But somewhere in between. A bit of sun, a cool breeze and, most importantly, dry, very dry indeed.

In waterproofs on Standedge Ridge

Wallington had the dream scenario, and no mistake. We were to be less fortunate. After two days of near perfect weather, we were leaving Diggle prepared for the inevitable. Waterproofs and rucksack covers had been donned, and we set out of the door onto moorland hid under low level cloud, which was doing its best to make everywhere wet.

I’ve never been a fan of walking of the rain. I know there’s that old Scandinavian saying that “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing” (although to be fair, I was wearing a particularly shoddy pair of waterproofs) but no matter how good your walking boots are, walking on slippery rocks is rarely fun. And that’s just what the Pennine Way had in store for us over the course of the day.

But that was ahead of us. First we had to get there, making our way through the gloomy conditions; the Windy Hill transmitter ahead providing a good landmark to aim towards should we ever mislay the path. Which wasn’t likely as the cloud levels weren’t that low, but still, it’s nice to know you’re heading in the right direction.

Battered and faded sign saying ‘West Yorkshire’

And that direction was Yorkshire. Or West Yorkshire to be precise; a boundary marked with Greater Manchester by an extremely battered and worn sign at the side of the road. A sign emblazoned with a rose. It was probably supposed to be a white rose, but time had paid its toll and after years of standing on a desolate windswept piece of moorland the white rose of Yorkshire was definitely now more of a dull, murky grey.

A more modern sign – in far better condition – stood nearby, welcoming walkers and drivers not to Yorkshire – West or otherwise – but instead to Calderdale. What? No county pride up here, I hear you say? Well, no, for generally the only people who ever erect signs welcoming you to a county are a county council, and West Yorkshire doesn’t have one. West Yorkshire County Council ceased to be in 1986, abolished by the Thatcher government who decided that the last thing large metropolitan areas such as West Yorkshire, the West Midlands and Greater London needed was an over-arching body to coordinate and manage services. The council’s demise also meant there was no one love and care for that West Yorkshire sign.

Over on the other side of the boundary, an old white stone marker declared that people were now entering Lancashire, and specifically the area of the “Milnrow Local Board”, which has been defunct even longer than West Yorkshire County Council. The Local Board was axed in 1894, replaced by Milnrow Urban District Council, which itself reigned until 1974 when the whole caboodle was shifted out of Lancashire and into the shiny new Metropolitan Borough of Rochdale, part of the new Greater Manchester county – whose county council was similarly culled by a certain axe-wielding female Prime Minister.

It is here that I risk the wrath of some of my readers. “Milnrow has always been Lancashire” they’ll say. “That Greater Manchester thing is a myth. An abomination. A travesty. Lancashire we were, Lancashire we are, and Lancashire we always will be.”

There will similar tales from people in Saddleworth, the Ridings of Yorkshire and more. That these modern counties are fake; that they are nothing, and certainly not a patch on their right and PROPER county affiliation.

The Pennine Way arrives in Saddleworth

It’s an attitude I personally struggle to understand, for what, when all is said and done, is a county? Merely an arbitrary division of land, created for the purposes of administration, law making and revenue generation from the levy of taxes. The fact that some counties have existed for centuries, and some only for decades doesn’t alter the only reason they actually exist at all. There is nothing intrinsically sacred about any county, new or old. It’s just a plot of land which someone at some point has declared “Yes, this is it. Everything on the inside of this squiggle on this map, is the place and everything outside isn’t.”

And the fact is that in 1974, that definer of arbitrary lines decided that Milnrow was no more to be governed from Lancaster, reversing a decision made by another definer of arbitrary lines centuries earlier. These days it’s a decision made by civil servants based on local demographics. Back then it was because some king had given a patch of land to one of their mates. No, the truth is that there’s nothing especially sacred about the historic counties Lancashire, Yorkshire or any of their colleagues. They’re just older and, frankly, a lot more arbitrary.

Having said all that – and no doubt having now caused some readers to abandon reading in utter disgust, and – there’s a certain irony that in 2014 a new body was created. The West Yorkshire Combined Authority. And maybe if we give them a few years, they’ll put a new sign up.

The Pennine Way footbridge over the M62 motorway

Even a quarter of a mile away, the road noise from the M62 was more than noticeable. Six lane motorways aren’t the quietest of things. Hundreds of thousands of cars, lorries and more thunder along its tarmac as they travel between Leeds and Manchester. Up on the Pennine moorlands, the motorway reaches its highest point, and the Pennine Way walker gets an even higher place from which to admire it all. A simple but elegant footbridge bridge carries walkers over, 20m above the road. We weren’t the only ones crossing over the motorway. It may have been a wet and murky Sunday in May, however there were more than enough people around for the bridge to be quite busy.

After a brief foray into Yorkshire, the Pennine Way re-entered Greater Manchester again (look, let’s not get into that argument again) as it headed along Blackstone Edge; a gritstone escarpment with plenty of wet rocks to slip and slide around on.

Blackstone Edge

The lack of sun, coupled with the darkness of the rocks and boulders gave everywhere a grey and gloomy feel, and even a white painted trig point did little to cheer the place up. Cemented boldly onto a large lump of stone, it would surely be a contender for the top spot of any compiler’s “Top 10 incongruous trig points of the world” list.

Several of the rocks had also faced some less official vandalism. Many a reckless youth had headed several miles up in the middle of nowhere in order to chisel their name into one; most noticeably by one E Crossfield who appeared to have made their mark on several rocks in 1924. Hooligans, the lot of them. If the ninety year old E Crossfield is still with us, I hope the police will be knocking on his door soon.

Nearby was a stone that was even older. The exact reasons why the Aiggin Stone was erected are lost in time, but it’s believed by most that the simple gritstone pillar – emblazoned with a cross and the initials IT – marked the county boundary on an old packhorse route that was the M62 of its day.

The White House pub on the Pennine Way

In time the road was routed further downhill, where shelter could be more easily found. It even gained a number – the A58 – and is home to the White House pub. Originally opened in the 17th century, it’s a popular spot with motorists and even the odd Pennine Way walker too.

That’s not massively surprising. The pub’s white buildings shine out like a beacon on the gloomy wet day, and given the weather, it was hard to ignore its welcoming door. Ignore it though we did, plodding on in the ever increasing rain, as the Pennine Way snaked its way alongside the Little Hazzles and Warland Reservoirs; the duo busy collecting the water for later distribution to the people of nearby Rochdale and Oldham.

Despite the damp weather, we were being passed by a never ending parade of people heading in the opposite direction, most of whom were decked in flimsy waterproofs and soggy looking trainers; large groups, families, sullen teenagers who had clearly been dragged away from the TV or their games console. Thirty odd people walked past us. Then forty, fifty and more. What were all these people doing wandering around in the rain on a wet and miserable Sunday afternoon?

Light Hazzles reservoir, on the Pennine Way

Naturally, I could have asked. But that’s not the kind of thing you do. Instead, we just let them pass by as they stomped around in the mud, pretending to have fun. Later we did find out what they were up to. This was the Todmorden Boundary Walk, an annual charity outing organised by the local Rotary Club. Those taking part had the option of covering the full 22 miles of the boundary, taking a mere ten and a half hours, or of walking the slightly more manageable Pike Walk which came in at a mere 12 miles in five hours instead.

As the rain came down, I began to picture the discussions that would have happened a few hours earlier. They would no doubt have involved statements like “Come on, it will be fun!” somewhere along the way.

At least the boundary walkers didn’t have much further to go; the end was in sight for them, which was more than it was for us. For us the warm, welcoming embrace of our B&B was a fair few miles yet. And first we had to head to the place the boundary walkers had just hiked from.

Stoodley Pike, seen from a distance from the Pennine Way

By itself Stoodley Pike isn’t that impressive a hill, although it does offer a decent view of the surrounding area. What makes it stand out from its neighbours is the large monument stood on its top.

Work on the appropriately named Stoodley Pike Monument began in 1814. It was planned to celebrate the surrender of Napoleon Bonaparte and Paris during the Napoleonic Wars. Quite why the residents of nearby Todmorden felt so strongly that this was event would be best commemorated by erecting a large stone monument on a windswept hill, is another question entirely, but they did. However, the thing about building a monument to Napoleon surrendering and peace being restored in Europe is, that it all became moot when Napoleon then escapes his imprisonment and returned to power. Tools were naturally downed until Napoleon was had the ultimate defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. With him finally out of the equation, work on the monument was finally completed.

That wasn’t the end of the tale though. Lightning and poor weather saw the monument collapse in 1854, which you may think would have been enough for everyone to simply give it all up as a bad job. Undeterred though, the locals spent two years repairing it. Further work took place in 1889, including the addition of a lightning conductor, and the whole thing has been standing there rather solidly ever since.

At the top of Stoodley Pike

The best feature about Stoodley Pike Monument though is that you can go inside, which is exactly what we did. The monument’s 39 steps take you up to a small viewing platform, a mere 12 metres above the ground, and only a third of the way up the monument. The staircase isn’t lit, so much of the climb up is done in the dark; fun when all the concrete steps are slippery and wet, and I can tell you. But what a view it was. That short rise in height provided a splendid panorama. Well, until mist began to appear.

Back down on the ground, muddy paths and tracks led us the final few miles to Hebden Bridge. Or at least as close to Hebden Bridge as the Pennine Way dares to go. The trail doesn’t like to get too near, sticking to the eastern outskirts, and requiring the walker who is in search of the town’s many facilities to head a mile down the Rochdale Canal to get to Hebden Bridge proper.

Hebden Bridge is the few large towns on the Pennine Way, and most certainly the most distinctive of the group. Originally growing in the 18th century as a mill town, with a focus on the manufacturing of clothes, during the 1970s and 1980s the town became home to a sizeable community of artists, writers and photographers. We wouldn’t pass through any other towns on our travels that featured vegetarian cafés, arts centres, community gardens, arty murals along the side of the canal, and an independent cinema.

The Spirit of 69 mural on the canalside at Hebden Bridge

Posters plastered around the town revealed that comedian and writer Robert Newman – once part of a double act with David Baddiel, and a quarter of the seminal 1990s sketch show, The Mary Whitehouse Experience – would be visiting as part of his nationwide tour. It turned out that our B&B too fitted in with the writing theme, as the landlady’s husband was a foreign correspondent for a broadsheet newspaper. The walls of the house were filled with photographs of said journalist standing in a wide variety of far flung locations.

With all this culture on our doorstep, we did what any self-respecting walker would do. We went to the pub. This, to be fair, is better than some, for at least we spent the evening in the town. When writer Mark Wallington arrived in the town on his own Pennine Way journey, he hopped on a bus to Bradford for a curry instead.

But later on in the evening we took a stroll through the town, poking down its many nooks and crannies, falling slightly in love with its hippy-ish charms. Were it not for the fact that our next day’s B&B was already booked and the deposit paid for, maybe we would never have left. Well, who could turn down the charms of Rob Newman?

Have your say