Pennine Way Stage 4: Hebden Bridge to Ponden

Published 19 May 2015

The meeting of Graining Water and Reaps Water

Catherine was hobbling. The past three days of walking had taken their toll on her knee; a problem I’d had a couple of summers earlier whilst walking in the hills and mountains of France.

Such things can be a bit of a problem when you’re on a walking holiday. Whilst in the alps we’d had to pretty much abandon a days walk whilst I shuffled slowly in distinct agony. A day which didn’t get much better when we took a chair lift up a very tall hill which had a view of Mont Blanc. After wandering around and admiring the view, we arrived back at the left terminal to find it closed; the doors bolted and the chairs swinging silently in the afternoon breeze. The town was several hundred metres below us, accessible only by walking down a (thankfully snow free) ski run. The result was a very slow hour as I stumbled, swore and occasionally cried with every painful downward step.

Yes, knees can be a problem. But there was also a solution. A rather miraculous solution. And it came in a white tube with the words “Ibuprofen Gel” emblazoned on it.

Knee problems are usually caused by inflammation, something ibuprofen can swiftly cure. Indeed the only problem is that we didn’t have any, although that was easily solved by a visit to the nearby Co-Op, and a wait outside until it opened at its later than usual Bank Holiday opening hours. One purchase, and a hasty slathering of sticky gel on the offending body part, and within half an hour Catherine was ready to tackle anything the Pennine Way had to throw at us. Which was useful as there was some hill climbing to be done.

Pennine Way signpost pointing in the direction of a ‘Wainwright alternative’ or the main route

Hebden Bridge sits in a valley which means, rather inevitably, that the Pennine Way leaves it by heading up a hill. Up up and up we went, zig-zagging along narrow streets and tracks as we gently rose above the Calder Valley. Half way up a sign gave us the option of following the “Wainwright Route”, but with no idea where Alfred Wainwright’s variation would take us, we stuck with the official version.

Pry Hill, Low Pillings and Hebble Hole all followed; the hole being a local beauty spot next to a stream which looked like a rather pleasant place to while away some hours whilst having a leisurely picnic. Less so on a rather grey and gloomy day.

Most of the day passed in a whirl of heather topped moorland; the kind with the slightly wet paths that, if anything, sums up the Pennine Way in a nutshell. Were anyone to ask me in the pub to describe a typical Pennine Way scene, the answer would probably include the words “wild looking moorland” somewhere in it. The rest was reservoirs, silently collecting the rain for use in the nearby towns and cities. It was all rather quiet, barely a soul around for most of the day. Until, all of a sudden, a ruined farmhouse changed everything.

A large tree next to ruined buildings.

Absolutely not Wuthering Heights, right?

Top Withens hasn’t been occupied since 1926, which explains why it has no roof. Yet the place was in remarkably good nick otherwise. Yes, there may be grass where the kitchen used to be, but on the other hand, all the walls were in perfect condition and there wasn’t a single bit of rubble from the walls to be found.

Why this should be so can be best found in a simple stone plaque attached to the walls of former building:

A stone plaque inscribed with the following: Top Withens. This farmhouse has been associated with 'Wuthering Heights', the Earnshaw home in Emily Bronte's novel. The buildings, even when complete, bore no resemblance to the house she described, but the situation may have been in her mind when she wrote of the moorland setting of The Heights. This plaque has been placed here in response to many inquiries.

It's not Wuthering Heights, okay?

This farmhouse has been associated with “Wuthering Heights”, the Earnshaw home in Emily Brontë’s novel. The buildings, even when complete, bore no resemblance to the house she described, but the situation may have been in her mind when she wrote of the moorland setting of the Heights.

—Brontë Society 1964. This plaque has been placed here in response to many enquiries.

There may be absolutely no known connection between the farmhouse and Emily Brontë’s only novel, but that doesn’t stop hundreds and thousands of visitors heading up to Top Withens every year. And it’s not just Brits visiting either. Such is the draw of this remote place to the population of one country, that the route is also labelled in Japanese. It was hard not to wonder what all the Brontë groupies thought about their trek on reading the rather dismissive plaque that marked the highlight of their pilgrimage.

The only thing I knew about Wuthering Heights was Kate Bush’s near magical debut single, based on the novel. To me Top Withens was just an old building, with a lot of people poking about it. Dutifully we joined them in that poking, noting with vague interests where the windows would have been, and why the designers didn’t consider that a roof would be a useful thing to keep the rain out.

We left the crowds to their Mecca and headed down the substantial path, designed to allow a coach load of tourists to do the stroll, nodding greetings to every group as they headed on up the hill. There’s dedication in that journey – a six or seven mile round trip from the nearest car park.

Looking down on Ponden Reservoir

A reservoir was our destination, and near its side, the welcoming embrace of Ponden House where we’d be staying the night. Welcomed in, we were duly dispatched to the living room with a giant pot of tea and a plate of home-made biscuits, surrounded by the landlady’s family who were up for a visit.

“Are you having tea here tonight?” asked one. “My mum’s an excellent cook.”

We confessed that we weren’t. Knowing the nearest pub to be mile’s walk, and having heard about Pondon House’s fine reputation for an evening meal, we’d asked about it when booking, only to be told that Monday was the one night of the week that they weren’t available due to the owner going to an evening class.

“People do evening classes on a Bank Holiday Monday?” I’d said at the time, and as it turned out, the answer wasn’t that they didn’t. However with no evening meal booked, an evening stroll down the road to the Old Silent Inn was in order.

The Old Silent Inn, near the Pennine Way

The rather curious name is supposedly derived from the 18th century, when Bonnie Prince Charlie is reputed to have hid out there for several weeks. Under the threat of having their tongues cut out, the locals kept silent about the Prince’s location, despite the 30,000 guinea reward. After the prince had left, the pub was renamed after the fact that the villagers had held (and kept) their tongues.

The pub had clearly been extended over the years, with plenty of room for the inevitable large groups that must pass by on the Brontë tourist trail. But with the tourists dispersed back to their lodgings, the place was rather quiet, allowing us to spread out and relax before the difficult mile walk back to our lodgings. The evening light was faded as we stumbled lazily around the reservoir, staring at the blues and pinks from the sky, reflected on the water’s surface.

It was a fine sight; a joy to look at. And yet one which most of the people who came to the area to visit, would probably never get to see.

Ponden Reservoir at night


Steve Mills

12 August 2017 at 10:03 am

Rereading this it occurred to me that many fingerposts are reaching a certain age where the damp is starting to rot signs away. Many are however new, often where a subsequent trail (such as the Bronte trail) has led to the whole of a complex signpost being redone (coming from High Withens down to Ponden for instance). This means that while I mostly use my maps only for planning there are occasions when I have had to check when I suspect a signpost has gone AWOL. The bound strip maps are particularly useful for a trail that passes from sheet to sheet of conventional maps. Don’t rely on OS maps on the iPhone as signal strength can be an issue, and constant use can drain the phone far quicker than expected. I try to keep my phone for emergency use (and carry a power recharger just in case).

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