Pennine Way Stage 5: Ponden to Earby

Published 21 May 2015

Surgill Beck on the Pennine Way

Walk the Pennine Way and inevitably you’ll have a lot of fried breakfasts. Eggs, bacon and sausage will be a core feature of pretty much every B&B’s breakfast menu; the only difference will be what else adorns the plate, and the quality of the ingredients.

Both can vary enormously. Will there be black pudding or not? Tomatoes, beans or both? Is the bread from a packet, or homemade? Proper home cooked hashed browns, made with grated potato, or those strange triangular things you find in the frozen food section of the supermarket. And will the sausages be high quality ones with a significant proportion of meat, or those cheap ones full of rusk which leave you feeling bloated all day.

After every walking trip we’d end up reminiscing about the breakfasts, ranking each place we’d stayed against each other. The good, the bad and the ugly. The ugly such as one B&B in Scotland where I was proudly told by the proprietor that she cooked the whole thing the night before and simply microwaved it in the morning. Even the fried egg. “You can’t tell the difference,” she proclaimed. I held by council, but inside I begged to differ.

Ponden House on the Pennine Way

With the Pennine Way being the length it is, there were inevitably a lot of breakfasts to compare. Most were rather middle of the road – and none particularly terrible. But two stood out as being utterly fantastic. And one of them was Ponden House.

Everything about it was just superb. Great quality food, perfectly cooked. But the star was the potatoes. No frozen hashed browns here. But instead some new potatoes, cut in half and gently fried. The perfect set up for another day of walking.

Months later, sitting in a pub beer garden, we idly pondered sending out some sort of “Best Breakfast on the Pennine Way” award. And nearly did, before deciding that a) it would probably be a bit too naff, and b) it was all a bit too much hassle.

With barely a cloud in the sky, we hoisted our packs on our backs and bade Ponden farewell, as we set off for Thornton-in-Craven. The path skirted the side of the nearby reservoir, before taking us slowly and gently up hill. Fields and walls lined our way, until we hit Ikornshaw Moor for several miles of heather-topped moorland.

Peaty pools on Pennine moorland

The odd pool of peaty water glistened in the morning sun as we strode mightily over the wide slab-paved path. Whilst hated by some traditionalists, there’s no denying that the Pennine Way’s paving does make the journey a lot easier. It was difficult to imagine what it must have been like in some sections before the slabs went down; photographs of people jumping dramatically over massive sections of bog only making the mind further boggle. And ask most walkers whether they’d like to walk the Pennine Way on paving, or regularly find themselves stuck up to their waist in the peat, well I suspect supporters of the latter would be few and far between.

Not that the paving slabs were always welcomed. At times, walking the Pennine Way would feel like walking on a road. And on many a time we’d reach our B&B with sore feat and aching legs after a heavy day of walking on stone. The days when there wasn’t much paving – and, it must be said, nor much peat bog – were always welcomed firmly.

For the most part, we had the moorland to ourselves, but as we approached the edge we spotted a pair of beings carrying rather hefty rucksacks, wrapped with identical dark blue rucksack covers. Clearly carrying camping gear – or enough food for a small army – they scuttled around ahead of us, occasionally popping in and out of view like some sort of mirage. There was something almost beetle like about their silhouettes in the sun. They turned out to not be insects, but walkers from the Netherlands who had forgone their rather flat native landscape for the Pennine Way.

Stone building on High End Low on the Pennine Way

Often Pennine Way moorland would blend into one in the mind, however Ikornshaw Moor had some distinctive features, in the form of a series of buildings, close to the northern side of the moorland. Some were well built and solid looking, constructed out of stone and slate. Others had a more rickety feel to them, made out of corrugated iron. Whatever the building material, each shared a common element: boarded up windows.

From the outside there was no obvious reason for them being there, and weren’t even mentioned in our normally comprehensive guidebook. Presumably they were bothies and shelters of some kind, but we never did find out more.

The moorland gave way to farming country; grassy pastures lined by dry stone walls and occupied by sheep. Coming down to the village of Ikornshaw, our guide book tempted us with mentions of the Black Bull Inn; a famous and popular Pennine Way drinking spot. Or was. There’d be no welcoming pub landlord to serve us a lunch time pint. And whilst we could pull up a chair to a table, it would be in the furniture showroom that now occupied the site of the pub. Those now requiring liquid refreshment, rather than a new sofa, would need to make the mile or so walk up to the road to the neighbouring village of Cowling.

Opportunities for lunchtime drinks would prove to be rare on the Pennine Way, although that was probably for the best. One pint never seems enough, yet two is more than I needed at lunchtime to make the rest of the day go rather slowly. There’d be beer a-plenty in the evening; the fact that a walking trail in England rarely ends the day anywhere where there isn’t a pint is, after all, one of the benefits of walking in the country.

Picnic spot near Gill

Instead we began the climb out of the village, pausing at the corner of an attractive looking field, with plenty of shade, to scoff our packed lunch.

In a break from the usual routine, the Pennine Way now took us through fields and down deserted country lanes for a couple of miles, with a brief interlude through the sleepy village of Lothersdale. Which had a pub. And some people sat outside us stared at us intently as we walked up the main street. It was almost a relief to be back on the wild looking, heather topped moorland once more.

With no peat bog to navigate, Elslack Moor instantly won a few friends. No bog meant no paving slabs, with just a gentle and relaxing grassy path weaving its way through the brown heather. The only serious challenge was the odd patch of deep mud, which oozed and groaned under the weight of a human being and their hiking boot.

Foot squelching in the mud on Park Hill

For the most part, the Pennine Way headed along the edge of the moorland, separated from the lush green grass of the neighbouring field by the inevitable line of dry stone walls. And it wasn’t long before we were bouncing down more grassy fields towards the village of Thornton-in-Craven.

Thornton had a distinct flaw for the Pennine Way walker who has denied him or herself a lunchtime pint. It has no pub. And no pub meant that accommodation and refreshment would have to be found somewhere else. Which meant nearby Earby, a couple of miles off route.

On the face of it, it looked like the main way there would be down the A56 road, but close inspection also revealed what we took to be an old railway line which the Pennine Way crossed over near the remnants of Thornton’s old railway station. There was no right of way mentioned on the map, but it went to the right place in a more direct route than the road. All we needed to know was whether we could actually get down it.

Remains of the old platforms of the former Thornton-in-Craven railway station

We shrugged and took a gamble, only to pass a distinctly ominous sign a short way on.

“Warning. This private land is dangerous. Persons use it at their own risk and the County Council will accept no liability for any injury or damage resulting in such use.”

Eyebrows were raised. Although mostly as the county council in question appeared to be Lancashire, meaning we’d crossed out of the land of the white rose.

What was so dangerous about this former railway line? What was so sinister about it that Lancashire County Council saw fit to put this sign up, and why did they think that people might sue them over use of private land, presumably not owned by them? Who knew. But as there were some people happily walking dogs on the old trackbed, it didn’t seem like the place could be that dangerous. Still, from there on in, I was ever alert for the extreme danger that surely waited for us.

For a dangerous path, it was amazingly short of danger. Indeed it was so dangerous was it that several neighbouring fields had stiles in their fences, so that you could get easier access to this source of potential injury.

Remnant of the old railway, near Earby

I scoured the landscape as best I could, keeping my eyes alert for anything that result in a broken arm, or a sprained ankle. But the most dangerous thing I could see was a small remnant of the former railway. A block of wood with a small metal hinge on it. It was so far off the path that the chances of it harming anyone were next to zero. A tree stump could have done more damage to someone. The sign that had greeted us all seemed rather over-the-top for a bit of path that was clearly well used by the locals, and it was so difficult to work out why it simply hadn’t been made a formal right of way like so many other disused railway tracks in the country.

We were staying in the local YHA, tucked away on the far side of town down, and were greeted with a warm welcome by the warden who told us he’d “upgraded” our two bed room a full dorm “so you have plenty of space to spread out.” Although his follow up comment of “Also, the bigger rooms are easier for me to clean!” may have revealed his true motives.

The exterior of Earby hostel

Earby YHA

After dutifully admiring the larger room we’d been given, we set off for that long promised refreshment, at the Red Lion a short way down the road, parking up in the empty pub lounge, from where we ordered an epic feast to fill our bellies. Desert was even part of the main course, thanks to raspberries forming part of the side-salad.

As we ate, the pub got busier, mainly thanks to a large group of women who began to arrive in dribs and drabs. Given the looks in our direction, with the occasional “Oh!” of surprise, we were obviously sitting in their preferred spot in the pub’s lounge, although they soon settled into their new home at the other end of the small room.

Afterwards, I liked to imagine what they’d said when we departed. Was the air filled with comments of “Oh, thank goodness they’ve gone,” before everyone rushed to the newly vacant table? Or did in later weeks, find themselves sitting elsewhere in the pub? Maybe our interlude would see them introduced to the merits at sitting close to the bar, rather than closer to the door. Well, we’d never know.


Steve Mills

12 August 2017 at 9:43 am

I’d add a couple of points:
1. the way over the moors from Ponden looks at a distance like a straight forward lane with quick easy walking but close up is a slow slog up a waterlogged and reedy path
2. the way between the bothies and the main road is longer than it appears to be, which if hurrying for the Keighley bus can lead to the time being underestimated. The way zigzags over and around rough farmland before a sudden rush down to the traffic.
Still enjoying your site as I move north.

Alan Ritchie

9 June 2018 at 4:21 pm

Try the 17th century Tempest Arms for a night’s accommodation. It’s about a mile up the main road to Skipton from Thornton in Craven and just off the main road on the right(in a village called Elslack). I was charged £55 for a very comfortable room. Beautiful cooked breakfast in the morning too.

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