“The best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot.” ~Strunk and White
Some time in the wee hours it occurred to me that spending the night atop a dam is damn foolish. It wasn’t that it had sprung a leak or anything, just that it stood exposed to a barrage of wind that never let up. Ever. The rain came and went, but the wind stuck with the task at hand: BEAT THEM DOWN!
We were down for the count when daylight emerged, defeated from a night without rest, a night spent worrying whether we’d get blown away. Well, I worried anyway. Ruth would have been able to sleep had it not been for my waking her every few minutes…
“Ruth, are you awake?”
“I am now.”
“Good. Me too. I can’t sleep with this wind.”
“Do you want me to read to you?”
That’s Ruth, always willing to put others first.
The condensation inside the tent’s fly would literally stream down atop us as the wind shook the shelter, leaving us as drenched as had we camped without the “protection” or just fell into the sea. All night I used a small towel to soak up the mess, wringing it out just outside the tent’s entrance, only to repeat the process four or five thousand times.
When Ruth finally roused, we collected our crap, packed up our ambulatory abode and all else wet into heavy-duty plastic bags and forged on, toward Stoodley Pike. It was nice to be mobile again, when worries tend to melt. This was especially the case with such a strong tailwind. It blew so ferociously that all we needed to do was lift our legs; it would do the rest.
Stoodley Pike is this gigantic pointy affair, similarly shaped to the dunce hat I used to be forced to wear during my school days. Its erection (hee, hee, he said erection) began in 1814, to celebrate the defeat of Napolean. Construction would soon come to a standstill however, after the French midget escaped from Elba. An inscription above the entrance tells a truncated version of the story and reads…
“Stoodley Pike a beacon monument erected by public subscription commenced in 1814 to commemorate the surrender of Paris to the allies and finished after the battle of Waterloo when peace was established in 1815. By a strange coincidence the pike fell on the day the Russian ambassador left London before declaration of war with Russia in 1854. Was rebuilt when peace was restored in 1856. Restored and lightning conductor fixed 1889.”
In this day and age it serves no real purpose other than to stand there looking closer than it is. The Pennine Way trekker spots the menacing structure for days on end, and as we carried on toward it we kept thinking we were just about there, only to have to continue carrying on and on and on. Its size is obviously deceiving from afar, as most distant, oversized objects tend to be: skyscrapers, mountains, German women and so forth. But as we grew nearer and nearer, we realized just how massive the thing was.
One hundred and twenty-ish feet, to be nearly exact (which is my preferred manner of being exact). Your eyes affix themselves to it from afar, as though it’s a beacon or a magnet. It’s not only a magnet for hikers, of course. Vandals bring hammers and chisels up to the monument to carve their names into the stones (which, when you think about it, is a pretty dumb practice when breaking the law). The practice has caused the majority of the erosion to the stonework, though the weather has done its fair share too, namely in the form of lightning, but also wind and rain.
In recent times the Pike has suffered from more modern and unsightly forms of graffiti, resulting in Man City being scrawled all over it, along with various other random messages in assorted colors of paint: ‘Martin loves Emma,’ ‘Jane loves Martin,’ ‘Emma hates Jane’ and those sorts of things. An old faded peace sign painted in the ‘60s (the 1960s, that is) sits high on the obelisk on its north side. Still, I subscribe to the notion that none of it can be considered damage quite like the monument itself, which destroyed what would’ve been a nice hilltop. We’re ‘vandals’ when we destroy something manmade and yet ‘developers’ when we obliterate what the gods have created.
Naturally, Ruth and I were pleased the monument still stood. The wind was at its strongest yet---almost impossible to stand in on such an exposed hill---and the structure offered some respite. We snapped a bunch of photos and scaled the thirty-nine steps inside, to get a better vantage of the world below. The view was, as it usually is from such high places, sensational. Cloud cover remained higher today, so that we could see for miles and not merely inches. Those nutty, wacky towns, Mankinholes and Lumbutts, were almost within spitting distance, if only the wind had been from the southeast and not the southwest. We could even make out the market town of Hebden Bridge, our goal for the day.
We turned our backs to the monument, and to the wind, and headed off. About a quarter mile after Stoodley we encountered a stone wall with a stile so narrow that we had to scrape our legs through one at a time. Farmers build these walls to restrain their sheep, but it would take an anorexic lamb to ever break out of this pen.
There must be no fewer than one hundred ways in which to clamber up and over a wall here in the UK. When the Pennine ambler isn’t forced over, he’s led through, via a door or a gate or a hole or some other secret means of access that’s not often easy to find or figure out. In the forty or so miles we’ve done, we’ve negotiated wooden ladders, stone steps, metal bridges, cement overpasses and gates designed by first-year engineering students. There have even been ropes in place to help the hiker over (or, quite possible, to help him hang himself). A survey done by the National Trails Agency reported that a hiker covering the entire length of the trail is obliged to navigate two hundred and eight-seven gates, two hundred and forty-nine timber stiles, one hundred and eight-three stone stiles and just over two hundred bridges. The elevation gained crossing stone walls alone is more than three-thousand vertical feet. I kid not.
The process of getting through or over a barricade is never fast and it seemed we’d spend half our day doing so. Worst of all, these crossings were always where the mud was at its nastiest. I could never figure out why this was---maybe from congregating hikers who might bottleneck at each crossing or from sheep planning their escape to the greener side of the fence---but every time we’d reach a wall, we knew we’d be at least ankle-deep in muck. We’d joked at one point that walking the Pennine Way would take half the time if it weren’t for walls.
Following more walls yet, we passed some black and white striped cattle, not like zebras so much as Neapolitan ice-cream, but with a darker chocolate and of course without the strawberry. Beyond that we crossed through the Lower Rough Head Farm, where a young rugged-looking farmer held a gate open for us, as though to welcome us onto the nice dirt lane that followed. The lane led us downhill at a gentle gradient and into a marvelous grove of trees. Most were deciduous and had already discarded their leaves, ready for the long winter ahead, but quite a few colors lingered.
The farmer had driven past us in his four-wheel drive Land Rover (the official vehicle of the English countryside, it appears), only to return in the other direction, leading a small herd of cattle back to his farm. We stepped aside and gave them all the room they needed, taking a few photos to help pass the time. Bovines seem relatively few in England, at least compared to sheep.
We continued on after the cow convoy, descending to the Rochdale Canal, a tranquil ribbon of water that runs for thirty-three miles connecting Manchester and Sowerby Bridge, though either end can be extended since in Manchester it connects with the Ashton and Bridgewater Canals and in Sowerby it hooks up with the Calder and Hebble Navigation. (Water knows no boundaries, of course, and if this path has taught us anything thus far, it is this.) All these canals and a few others form the “South Pennine Ring,” a seventy-mile long circular route that contains nearly two hundred locks and passes through the famous Standedge Tunnel (which we’d walked over the night before yesterday). In England the canals are practically endless.
So too is my love affair with them, if I haven’t already made that clear. Dating back to the first time I visited England, sometime in the ‘80s, I’ve romanticized about drifting throughout all the country’s inland waterways. There are approximately three thousand miles of navigable canals and rivers throughout the UK, all quite fetching and just waiting to be paddled. I’ve never paddled anywhere, but I’ve known plenty a paddle from my school days, so I figure I ought to be well versed.
The Rochdale Canal opened in 1804 and, like all canals, was designed to transport goods and commodities in large quantities. The railroad would later supersede these waterways but societies of rich, old men---those who gave a damn---would step in to safeguard the canal heritage and the canals themselves. If I’m ever wealthy beyond belief I will donate heavily; they’re worth preserving.
A few minutes after we locked step with the locked canal, a middle age man caught up to us. We shared the usual pleasantries when we’d learn that he actually lives on a narrowboat atop the canal. He told me about fifteen thousand people are believed to live afloat within Great Britain, but he only knew a few of them. I found this fascinating, naturally, and he and I conversed the entire way to Hebden, about a mile. I was torn: I wanted to take photos of the channel and bask in all its glory, but at the same time found this fellow and his life so utterly intriguing. Thankfully, Ruth snapped away, while he and I chattered away.
My impatience and excitement was probably all too obvious though, for when he ran into an old friend, a hippy-looking gal, I quickly thanked him for the talk and the lessons he had imparted (mainly about how the canals locks work) and continued on. We’d get our chance to take plenty of pictures again tomorrow as we retraced our steps and returned to the path, but dammit, I was here now! Carpe canal!
Hebden (pop: 4,500+/-) is known for a number of reasons, but all I knew was what I’d heard since starting our hike…
One, that it was worth the side-trip. No reasons were given for this, but we were assured it was worth our while. “Go, you’ll like it,” was about all we were told.
Two, it had been hit by some serious flooding already a few times this year. We’d soon catch plenty of evidence of this, as nearly half the stores were closed to repair the damage done.
And three, it had a “hippy element” that the UK so sorely lacks, an artsy-fartsy, New Age way about it. “Sorely,” said the fellow we’d been walking beside along the canal, “Because, let’s face it, the inhabitants of the UK are pretty uptight, stiff and mundane.” I wasn’t sure I agreed with his assessment, but it’s never a bad thing when there’s a little more flavor to experience.
Our first stop was to gather some groceries for the days ahead, whether flavorful or not, and then to locate our lodgings for the night, which Ruth had arranged via cell phone the previous evening. The grocery store was right on Hebden’s main strip and we’d already passed it, but we decided it was worth doubling back for (as food tends to be when starving).
We walked around the Co-Op looking for anything appealing, which meant just about anything edible (and even a few inedible delicacies). A hungry hiker is a dangerous hiker, and an even deadlier shopper, and it’s important when heading into the store not to grab a push trolley or shopping cart and instead stick with a basket, one you can carry. Indeed, this is one of the hiker’s golden rules: that which cannot fit into a basket shan’t fit in ye backpack. Ruth and I already understood this all too well so we worked hard to ignore our immediate cravings and instead pay heed to the next few days’ needs. Trust me, it’s tougher than it sounds.
Troublesome as though it was, we decided to wear our backpacks inside the store. The effect was that we’d bang into anyone or anything under eight feet tall, knocking over carefully stacked displays of food and greeting cards and whatnot, but our priority wasn’t to worry about others. Famine straightens priorities right out. Years ago, when I first started long-distance hiking, I’d leave my backpack outside of any store I went into, doing my best to keep a close eye on it. Ultimately though, I’d learn not to worry about the damn thing too much; I figured anyone foolish enough to attempt theft would almost certainly hurt themselves when lifting it. But the problem was that when dogs would walk by it, they tended to treat the poor pack in the same manner typically reserved for lampposts or tree trunks. Everywhere I’d hike beyond the store, I’d end up harassed by dogs attempting to mark their territory.
Following the shopping spree, we strolled through town in search of our accommodations, the White Lion Hotel. Most the shops were being renovated after having been hit by the massive floods over the summer. Two had hit in June and July, then, in what seemed a cruel twist of fate, just as so many shops were preparing to reopen, a third one struck in late September. Clearly, it had been a doozy, as here we were now in mid-November and the majority of shops had yet to reopen their doors. It was sad to see, but served as another reminder that Mother Nature always wins.
Town wasn’t big or anything, and we’d walked through the bulk of it within minutes, but we were each growing tired and cranky after a few of our toughest hiking days yet. It was time to get off our feet, and to get off each other’s nerves. But, rather than pull the guidebook out for the zillionth time, I decided we could find the White Lion without directions. A small argument ensued and it got to the point where I even asked a stranger for help…
“Excuse me mate,” I said, stopping the pimply teenager, “Do you know where we could find the White Lion Hotel?”
“Sure. See that building right here, the one you can just about reach out and touch, that’s where you’ll find it.”
Fatigue can be blinding. An hour or two later, when we were sitting inside the Shoulder of Mutton tavern just a door or two down and back in cahoots with one another, we’d share a good laugh at the kid’s handle on sarcasm, and how foolish we must’ve appeared. We’d also share enough cider to have trouble finding our way back to the White Lion. By now, I was becoming somewhat of a cider connoisseur, after Ruth had introduced me to the appley alcohol at The Peel’s Arm Pub in Padfield. I didn’t know what exactly I was searching for in a good cider, but what I lacked in palate I more than made up for calorically.
Although I was absolutely pissed(1), I was sure the hotel was as splendid as anywhere I’ve ever stayed. Ruth arranged it not to be extravagant or distance herself from life on the trail, but because she needed to take an important business call that evening. And although I’m no businessman, I knew it ill-advised to take said call in a leaky, noisy tent. When it came to it, however, the meeting had been canceled. For us it meant another opportunity to stroll around town without the worry of being back in time for anything other than sleep.
Ruth knew I wanted to visit the Hebden Bridge and Canal Visitor’s Centre (note the strange spelling used here, the same strange spelling all Brits use for the word center) and so we headed there first. It was only a forty-five second toddle away, despite our hobbling. Inside, we found all kinds of worthless information and a member of the staff who could annoy like no other. She was quite attractive, if only she’d kept her mouth shut. I quit arguing with her and decided that silence would be my defense, after she’d told me how easy it was to spot snow leopards in Tibet. “I’m an adventure guide,” she boasted, “And we see the cat all the time; you just have to know where too look.” I’m not sure how we came upon the subject, but I know how we left it(2).
A slightly more common creature, geese, stood outside the door of the visitor’s centER and attacked us as we departed, likely the employee’s relatives. This was the first annoying individual I’d met on the trip, and I’d hoped the last. There were enough annoyances to deal with, what with the weather and the stiles and of course the bog.
We soon realized after leaving the center that it was closing time in town, which, to me, always comes too early in rural England. We had no time to enjoy a bakery or a camping store, of which Hebden hosts three. In England early is taken seriously and almost all the shops shut by 6pm, even those not yet reopened.
As an admitted night owl, I should probably reside in a big city, but it’s these small towns I treasure, especially here in the UK. Hebden had been my favorite hamlet so far and, I’d dared to guess, would likely remain as such for the rest of the trip. It was hard to put a finger on it (and not just because that finger was so stiff and frigid), but there was something about the place that transcended description, a certain je ne sais quoi. It wasn’t the hippies or the lesbians or even the ancient buildings; it was an indefinable charm that can only be experienced by being there. I suggest going soon, before the place drowns.
(“Foot”note of the Day #1: To the English the phrase pissed doesn’t designate being infuriated but rather inebriated, the same context in which it is used it here.)
(“Foot”note of the Day #2: Oddly enough, just a week or so later I’d learn via an excellent nature show hosted by the venerable David Attenborough that the cat is one of the most elusive creatures on Earth: “Fewer than five hundred Westerners have ever seen a snow leopard in the wild.”)