The official Pennine Way guidebook says this is an 'easier and shorter day' than the journey from Edale to Crowden, but it doesn't take blisters into consideration. Surprisingly, for once I'm not talking about me, for it took poor David quite a while in the morning to dress his battered feet and bandage up the nasty gash in his elbow. I really felt for him; getting sore spots towards the end of the first day is bad enough, but walking on the blisters for days two, three and four is nothing short of pure, stretched out agony.
Because of this I didn't try to walk at David's pace today, or I'd have done myself damage. One of the golden rules of walking is to walk at the pace that suits you; if you go too fast then you'll tire yourself out, but the same is true if you have to slow yourself down to someone else's pace, as you're no longer firing along at your optimum speed. After this much time on the road I've found my rhythm, and yesterday David kept up fine; today, though, he sensibly stuck to a slower speed and I forged ahead, waiting for him every quarter of an hour to check he was doing OK. Tomorrow he sets off on his own while I take a rest day, and I figured it would be good if he found his own pace without trying to rush along with the energy of a Land's End to John o'Groats nutter.
If anything, today's walk has a worse reputation than the hoof over Kinder Scout. The main obstacle of the day is Black Hill, and back in the days when men were men and only pansies drank lager, Black Hill was a terrible place. These days, thanks once more to the miracle of stone slabs, it's another easy but long pavement walk over the most desolate and unwelcoming landscape you could possibly dream up.
Yet again I find myself trying to understand the appeal of boggy moors. A lot of people really love them; they absolutely adore the wilderness, the peaty streams that cascade down the hills, the grey-greens of the hills and the ruggedness of the whole thing. I appreciate these things, but even after two days of walking on the moors in the most perfectly sunny weather, they still leave me cold; given the choice between a day on the moors and a day pub-hopping along a river, I'd go for the river every time. Perhaps by the end of the Pennines I'll be a convert, but in the meantime I'm happy enough to trudge through the peat, though I'm not terribly inspired by it.
There's something fascinating about how awful the place is, though. Black Hill – which we reached via a long, slow ascent along a river and then a long, slow slog along a bog-hopping pavement – is, like Bleaklow, more interesting for what it could be than for what it is. On a sunny day in June the summit is home to a cairn, the pavement of the Pennine Way, crowds of day walkers who come up from the nearby A635, and flat, springy peat that looks and feels like chocolate sponge; but on a rainy October day with the wind lashing across the moor and the rain driving through the mist, Black Hill must be one of the most miserable places on the planet. I can't imagine what it must have been like before the paving slabs came along; if engineering has a champion, surely it's here.
Engineering is also evident in the huge television transmitter pole that sits nearby at Holme Moss. At a height of 750 feet, this was the world's most powerful TV transmitter when it was built in 1951, and it pivots on a hinge at its base so it can sway in the winds that batter the area. It's a lonely beacon in the midst of all this desolation, and for me all it did was conjure up pictures of cosy couches in front of the telly with the windows firmly shut; next time I'm watching TV with the wind howling in the guttering, I'll think of Holme Moss and just how glad I am that I'm a long, long away from it all.
At the top of Black Hill I asked one of the other walkers if he knew which county we were in. This isn't as ignorant a question as it might sound, for the trig point at Black Hill lies on a county border and as usual the Ordnance Survey map is little help when it comes to deciphering which border it actually is. I was pretty sure I'd just left Derbyshire and walked into West Yorkshire, but it turned out that he didn't have a clue either.
'Um, aren't we in Cheshire?' he said. 'Or was that Cheshire, and are we now in Greater Manchester?'
'I thought that was Derbyshire,' I said, pointing back the way we came. 'Isn't this Yorkshire we're going into?'
'Search me,' he said pointing into the bog. 'I'm just heading that way, that's all I know.'
This kind of confusion is understandable. Black Hill used to be the highest point in Cheshire, but then the county boundary moved and it became just another hill on the border of Derbyshire and Yorkshire. This sort of thing is happening all over the country; in 1997 the people of Rutland finally managed to get their old county back – albeit in the guise of a unitary authority – after campaigning against its 1974 merger with neighbouring Leicestershire; Bath used to be in Somerset, but now it's in the Bath and Northeast Somerset unitary authority, which despite the name isn't actually in Somerset; add in the creation of the West Midlands, Tyneside and Greater Manchester, and the dismissal of Middlesex in the face of Greater London, and it's little wonder visitors like me don't know which county we're in. It's an odd feeling, knowing where you are to within a few metres and being able to reel off names of local landmarks and villages while not having the foggiest which district you belong to.
Not only is it confusing, but it's also a little sad that we're losing our county identities. Today's destination, Standedge, is a good case in point; Standedge is in Saddleworth, which perches on the historical border between Yorkshire and Lancashire, and until recently Saddleworth was part of the West Riding of Yorkshire, which meant that natives of Saddleworth were eligible to play for Yorkshire County Cricket Club in the days when to get a boundary for Yorkshire you needed to be born within the Yorkshire boundary (these days the club accepts non-Yorkshiremen to keep up with other county sides). The celebrated local man Ammon Wrigley – writer, poet, archaeologist, historian, textile worker, artist, huntsman and, according to the local museum, lover of ale – described Saddleworth as 'a Lancashire population in a Yorkshire parish', but these days Saddleworth is part of the unitary authority of Oldham, a far less inspiring identity. I guess if someone as revered as the late Ammon Wrigley is no longer right, I shouldn't feel too bad about not really knowing where I am.
Then again, I'm a bit scared to ask. There's only so much you can get away with under the guise of Ignorant Southerner, especially when they find out you're actually from Staffordshire and really should know better.
Through the Reservoirs
After the peat of Black Hill, the Pennine Way takes a breather and plunges downhill to beautiful views over Holmfirth, home to that inexplicably popular TV irritation, Last of the Summer Wine. From here it's another slog across the A635, where a canny businesswoman sells fried egg sandwiches to hungry walkers from a van on the side of the road, and then the Way dives into reservoir country.
This part of the country is home to a number of man-made lakes that provide water for the large cities on either side of the Pennines. After the monotony of the bleak moorland, the ruffled reflections of these serene ponds make a pleasant change and the walking is easy and almost pretty. There are still long stretches of bog pavement and you wouldn't catch me up here in the rain, but at least Standedge has a great B&B and a pub within walking distance; we ended the day with a group of us heading over to the Great Western pub, where we drank them dry of Black Sheep Ale, ate them out of home-made fish pies and swapped stories about the second day of the Pennine Way. And while we drank I thought again of Ammon Wrigley, the author of classics like The Wind Among the Heather and Old Lancashire Words and Folk Sayings, for it was he who wrote these immortal words about his favourite beer, Friezland Ale, and they say a lot more about the post-walk pint than I ever could:
Whene'er I drink of Friezland Ale
Drawn from the old brown bottle
I feel as if a summer morn
Was running down my throttle
Aye, I'll drink to that.