Ugh, what a horrible day. This time I can't blame the scenery because I could hardly see it; after the glorious weather of the last few days the Pennine Way suddenly switched to the cold, rainy disaster zone I remember so well from 2000, and along with the rain, memories flooded back of why I hated the bloody thing so much back then.
Then again, I'm not sure that brilliant weather would have transformed things that much, because for the vast majority of the day I was back on the moors, slogging across bleak and featureless bog and trying to fight the growing feeling that up here, the landscape is all too often monotonous, boring and depressing. I'm determined to resist the negative effects of the moors for as long as possible – I'd much rather enjoy them than avoid them – but after a day like today, it's hard to feel good about the high ground of West Yorkshire.
Luckily the moors aren't made up entirely of bleak high ground, because where there's lots of water there's lots of rivers, and rivers make valleys. Most of these valleys are home to beautiful villages, pretty little copses or modern reservoirs, and walking off a rain-driven moor down into a picturesque dale is one of the more pleasant aspects of trekking through this part of the world. Unfortunately, in inclement weather it's pretty much the only pleasant aspect.
This morning I woke up to rain and it didn't stop until a couple of miles from the end of my walk. Coupled with the fiercely cold wind that blew all morning, today was more like a miserable day in October than three days shy of the longest day of the year. By the time I slumped into Lothersdale and out of the rain, even my gaiters had given up the ghost; for the first time on this entire walk I got wet feet and it wasn't a pleasant feeling.
I didn't join the Pennine Way immediately; the Way itself steers clear of Hebden Bridge and in doing so misses out on one of the loveliest towns in the area. It also misses out on the valley that leads northwest out of Hebden, which is home to the National Trust's Hardcastle Crags, a delightful woodland dale that must be a real treat on a summer's day. Unfortunately, in the rain it's full of lethal wet stone paths and huge droplets falling from the trees and right down your neck, but it's still easy to see why people come here. Babbling Hebden Water runs through a pretty little wood and right past Gibson Mill, an old cotton mill that dates from 1800 but which closed down towards the end of the 19th century and re-opened as a tea room, dance hall and roller-skating rink. Currently it's derelict and is being refurbished by the National Trust and when it opens in 2005 it'll clearly be a great spot; as the distinctive mill chimney reflects in the surface of the still mill pond, it creates a beautiful composition of industrial revolution and Mother Nature, the perfect setting for a summer cuppa.
In the rain, though, it's not yet a place to hang around – it's still boarded up – so I kept plodding along the main road through the Crags and reluctantly headed back up towards the moors.
The difference between blindly following something like the Pennine Way and making up your own route boils down to making good judgement calls. As I climbed out of Hardcastle Crags, I came across such a call; I had to choose between a direct route over the top of a lonely moor, or a more roundabout, low-level track that went round the moor and remained at the same height. I looked at the options and I had no idea which to choose; sometimes you just have to gamble.
In the end I went for the direct route, which crossed the private Savile Estate to meet the Pennine Way at Walshaw Dean Reservoir. I didn't know if I'd be squelching through bog or yomping along a dry track – maps rarely give much of a clue – but luckily the track held out and took me through some prime grouse moor. Dotted along the side of the track were numbered concrete holes known as grouse butts; in season this is where members of shooting parties stand, ready to blow away the grouse, but in the driving rain this isn't the kind of place you'd visit for fun. In the rain it's eerie, bleak, cold and lonely, and I couldn't wait to get down the other side.
Unfortunately the grouse moors of Savile set the tone for the rest of the day and I spent hours trudging through the most desolate and depressing landscape I could have wished for. Not far from the reservoir I stumbled across Top Withens, a ruined farmhouse that appears to have been pieced back together with concrete and which looks decidedly unwelcoming in the mist. According to a plaque on the wall, Top Withens may or may not have inspired Emily Brontë when she wrote Wuthering Heights, but this uncertainty hasn't stopped the myth spreading far and wide. The plaque is at least honest enough to say the following:
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.
Like all good myths, the facts don't have to stand up to close scrutiny, and not only does the Pennine Way take in this lonely concrete farmhouse, but so does the Brontë Way, whose way-marker signs are tellingly in both English and Japanese.
The real story for me isn't Wuthering Heights but the tale of the Brontës themselves. Hailing from Haworth, a few miles east of the Pennine Way, the six siblings were brought up in the local parsonage by an austere aunt after their mother died when they were young. The two oldest sisters died from tuberculosis, contracted while away at school, so Charlotte and Emily, who were attending the same school, returned home to live with their brother Branwell and younger sister Anne.
To escape from this difficult life the sisters retreated into writing, publishing a collection of poems at their own expense; this sold a whopping two copies. However, in 1847 each of the sisters published a romantic novel: Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre, Emily wrote Wuthering Heights, and Anne wrote the less well-known Agnes Grey.
But although these books brought their rewards, success was short-lived. Within two years Branwell, Anne and Emily had also succumbed to tuberculosis, leaving Charlotte on her own, where she continued to enjoy literary success in the unhappy solitude of lonely Haworth. In 1854 she married a curate but a few months later she died in childbirth, just seven years after helping to invent chick-lit.
Wandering over these miserable moors in the horizontal rain is a good way to appreciate just how impressive the Brontës' achievements are. The Jacksons might have rocked and the Bee Gees might have had staying power, but the Brontës were the original purveyors of sibling talent. What a pity it all ended so abruptly.
Walking in lashing rain is one thing, but having to climb steep-sided valleys in lashing rain is another. From Top Withens the Pennine Way embarks on a series of steep descents and arduous climbs that aren't difficult in themselves, but which are a right bloody palaver in shitty weather. By the time I descended to Ponden Reservoir and climbed back up the other side, I was hardly in the mood for yet more miles of desolate heather and cotton grass, but that's what was on offer. Thankfully the Pennine pavement crew have also been busy on this section, and if you ignore the danger of slipping on the wet limestone paving stones then it's easy going... or it is if you can ignore the cold, wet, windy and thoroughly miserable weather.
I really want to like the moors, if only because there are still an awful lot of them to get through. The problem is I genuinely fail to see the appeal; the first four days of the Way have crossed large swathes of moor and even in great weather they're pretty mundane. If I was an ornithologist or a botanist, I'd have endless fun checking out the rare types of heather and the flocks of chirping birds circling overhead, but I'm not and I don't. I remember once going for a day walk in the rainforest near Cairns in Australia where I bumped into a guy who was so enthusiastic about discovering a particular type of dung beetle on the rainforest floor that he called me over, a total stranger, and proudly showed it to me. I was fascinated, but not by the dung beetle; instead I was mesmerised by the complete awe with which my newfound friend was transfixed, and all because of a beetle. I remember feeling a little jealous; it must be wonderful to be that passionate about nature, but instead of hanging around admiring this diminutive marvel of the natural world, I hoofed up the nearest summit and took in the view, which did the trick for me.
The problem with the moors is that the views are pretty boring. Fans go on about the different greens and greys and how beautiful they are, but all I see is more of the same and as often as not the weather rolls in and destroys the visibility anyway. Underfoot the walking is wet and boggy and the miles seem to crawl past. It isn't amazing walking and after four days of moor I'm bored, and because I've already done parts of the northern Way, I know there's more to come.
Perhaps the penny will drop later on and I'll fall for the Pennine Way after all; I really hope it does.
Between the Moors
Thankfully the people round here are so wonderful that I'm managing to kick my phobia of the North into touch. I might think the moors suck, but the villages and the inhabitants are great and to me that's the most important thing. For example, as I wound down into Ickornshaw, one valley over from my destination of Lothersdale, a bloke who was packing his car by the side of the road looked at me and launched into a conversation, just like that.
'Can't believe today after yesterday,' he said sympathetically, looking at the sky.
'Well, you've got to take the rough with the smooth,' I said.
'Should be better tomorrow,' he said.
'Hope so,' I said, and that was that. It might have been a short snippet, but when you've just rolled down from a soaking plod through undulating grey misery, a friendly nod and a few sympathetic words can really put the spring back in your step.
The same happened up the next hill, where I chatted to a farmer for a few minutes and swapped tales of walking and weather, and fortified by his promise that after the next field it was downhill all the way – a not-quite accurate summary of the rest of the walk, but close enough – I soon flopped into Lothersdale for a pint of Adnams, a slap-up meal and a very friendly B&B. And that's where I am now, steaming myself dry in the corner of the pub, listening to the gentle babble of conversation down the bar and looking forward to a rest day tomorrow. I might have accidentally picked a village with houses, a pub and absolutely nothing else (not even a shop or a Post Office) but after that slog through the moors, I don't care. All I need to do for the next day and a half is sit down, and that has a certain appeal.
I should also count myself lucky. Yesterday a local man discovered a tent pitched just outside the village, along with a backpack and a guidebook open at the page on Lothersdale... but he couldn't find a hiker. A few hours later the occupant still hadn't arrived so he called the police, and since then the local panda car has been driving up and down the roads, trying to find the missing person. It sounds like the plot from a book; I certainly wouldn't want to be out in weather like this.
Good job I'm in the pub, then.