Day 5 - Marsden to Hebden Bridge

24km, no hikers

Moorland trails and field paths crossing a succession of valleys, with one stretch of metalled road.

In Marsden, a small stone town like Greenfield that used to be home to spinners and weavers, you find empty mills, at least one splendid drinking establishment, and a takeaway/café with seating for two people. The cafe opens at 6am Monday to Friday and a little later on Saturday. I ate a full English breakfast with a large coffee, and I took with me two huge bread-cakes stuffed with chicken and ham, all for the modest cost of six pounds sterling. I felt delighted that rip-off Britain had not yet extended its greedy tendrils into the nethermost depths of the former West Riding of Yorkshire.

I needed plenty of food because I was having a day on the Alternative Pennine Way. Whereas the Pennine Way north of Standedge tends to maintain its height for several miles, the ‘Alternative’ is more of a roller coaster. It cuts across the grain of the eastern flank of the Pennines, traversing steep-sided valleys separated by pastured ridges. On this windswept upland my father’s ancestors plied their trade as spinners and weavers of woollen cloth.

The route is well described in “The Alternative Pennine Way” by Denis Brook and Phil Hinchliffe, which ranks with the very best guidebooks. I feel the authors would have made good walking companions, joyfully citing the pubs they would pass, all of them vital in days of yore for local needs and for cross-Pennine travellers. Brook and Hinchliffe come across as bons vivants who enjoyed their overnight stops, their dinners with wine, and probably their luncheons too. Sadly, they would be disenchanted today between Marsden and Hebden Bridge, because almost every pub they mention as a potential feeding station has been converted to residential use. The Romans might have said, “Sic transit gloria mundi,” while the lunch-loving French would with feeling mutter, “Catastrophe!”

I cherish a lingering fondness for the old roads between the industrial West Riding and Lancashire. Compared with the M62 the views are better, the pace less frenetic. It’s not that I yearn for the days when we followed crawling convoys of smoking lorries up one side and down the other. Rather it’s a case of enjoying the ring of names like Nont Sarah’s, Blackstone Edge and Snake Pass. M62 is such a soulless title. It puts me in mind of a disease, somewhat like H1N1. Buckhaw Brow, Stainmore, and Cat and Fiddle remind me of an era when roads were sanded rather than salted, when we didn’t expect the car to start in cold weather, and when we deferred non-essential journeys across the Pennines until the spring. Such times!

The way out of Marsden onto Slaithwaite Moor was steep at first, then flat and boggy, and on this particular day it was misty. I crossed the moor to the main road which I followed for a few yards, listening in trepidation for the sounds of oncoming traffic. A pair of headlights glimmered blearily as I squeezed against the fence, and it was a relief to join a farm track that led me towards Dean Head Reservoir on a woollen carpet.


Dean Head Reservoir

Yes, woollen carpets are a famous product of the West Riding, but I’d hardly expected to find one three hundred and eighty metres above sea level, surfacing a farm road across a wet and windswept expanse of rough pasture. I mean, it’s hardly Las Vegas up there! However, brass can be accumulated hereabouts, and some canny Tyke has saved himself the cost of a skip and a landfill charge by offloading his off-cuts onto a collaborative farmer. I don’t blame this particular steward of our countryside for receiving such rubbish. When viewed in the context of the ugly accumulation of dead vehicles and builders’ rubble he has accepted over the years, an organic blanket that might have started as the fleece of a miserable sheep on these very slopes doesn’t seem particularly disgusting.

In addition to wool, the moors yield water, some of which fills many a rambler’s boots. Most of the valleys I crossed held millions of gallons in reservoirs: Cupwith, Dean Head, Scammonden, Booth Wood, Ryburn and Baitings, to mention only the nearest. The youngest is Scammonden, and it is also the best known because the M62 is built on its dam. As I moved north through the mist I heard the howl of six lanes of traffic long before descending to the farm road that led me through the underpass and across another valley to the next main road.

As I took a rest and aired my socks, a Yorkshireman – trust me, I was born one, and I have to admit some of us are unmistakeable – walked towards me with his little dog. I’m sanguine about being regarded as a vagrant, so it was no surprise to hear a low growl from the animal. The man slipped a leash over its head and squinted warily at me. I’d seen nobody in the previous ninety minutes, so I smiled and spoke. He answered with a comment about my boots and socks, and I told him I’d walked from Marsden. He stared with what I interpreted as incredulity.

‘By ‘eck, that’s a long way.’
‘Oh, I didn’t come by road.’
‘Eh?’
‘No, I came in a straight line, more or less. It’s about four miles.’
‘Oh.’

I could see he didn’t believe me.

‘Aye,’ I went on. ‘It’s a lot further by road.’
‘Ah.’
‘I’m going to Hebden Bridge.’

He took a step back.

‘What, walking?’
‘Aye, but not by road. More or less in a straight line.’
‘Hebden Bridge? That’s a long way.’
‘Aye, but I’ll get the bus back to Marsden, and then I’ll drive home for a game of dominos.’
‘Well!’
‘Aye.’
‘I’ll ‘ave to be off now.’
‘Don’t let me hold you up.’

He toddled away, doubtless relieved to have escaped from his one-sided conversation with a liar or a madman, possibly both.

My way continued across fields and along farm tracks, up and down steep slopes, mostly on paths which appeared lightly used. The roar of the M62 followed me for miles. At a sheep farm I chatted with two workers before checking my onward route.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’d better get cracking. Which way do I go?’
‘Down t’ side o’ t’ ‘ouse, an’ straight down t’ field,’ said one.
‘Aye,’ added the other with a smile, ‘it’s down ‘ill all t’ way to t’ bottom.’

We parted with shared guffaws and waves.

The first half of the day had been misty, but suddenly the sun burned through. I could see bleak moors to my left. Steep green slopes dotted with houses appeared to my right, looking down onto the towns in the valleys. At Cragg Vale I rested and tended my sore feet before a tiring climb, followed by a boggy and tussocky moorland plod and a steep descent into Hebden Bridge.

I hit the town about half past one and was soon aboard a bus to Huddersfield. What a glorious ride it was in bright sunshine. Instead of taking the shortest route, we toured through Cragg Vale and climbed westward onto the moor, almost to the Pennine Way at Blackstone Edge. We then ran back east to Ripponden, crossed the hill to Barkisland, and headed southwest past Dean Head Reservoir to Buckstones, not far from the watershed. From there we turned east again past Nont Sarah’s and into the centre of Huddersfield. If anyone wants to see where I walked without using their own legs, they should catch that bus – it’s the 900 service – and I shall use it if I’m tempted to return.

The drive home never felt sweeter, with the sun at my back and an invigorating day’s walk in my memory. After all that, I didn’t get my game of dominos. John had a car problem and couldn’t give Terry a lift. Terry set off walking but his leg played up, so he returned home. Walter and I waited and waited, but we had to make do with our beer and a conversation about gardening.

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