Dry Moors: Marsden to Hebden Bridge

the touchy fuse-wire 
of parched grass,
tapers of bulrush and reed,
any tree
a primed mortar of tinder,
one spark enough to trigger
a march on the moor
by ranks of flame. – Simon Armitage, ‘The Dew Stone’

We left the New Inn in Marsden this morning admiring the potplants bordering their roadside seating area. Last night Stephen had asked a group of women why they were covering all the plants up with large plastic bags – was frost expected? They laughed. ‘No, love. This is the only way we can stop the sheep eating them!’ and that seems to be Marsden in a nutshell: as newly-crowned Poet Laureate and native son Simon Armitage observed, ‘Marsden actually looks like a small town, not least because of the big textile mills. But its mentality is very much that of a rural village. Sheep amble down the main street’. The sheep grazing the town’s football pitch were in fact the first thing we noticed as we came in last night.

As we climbed out of Marsden up onto the moors again, the views back to the town opened up a perspective not simply of the contemporary landscape, but also into the industrial history of this town. The sheds and mills of the wool and later cotton industries dominate the town as it stretches up and down both sides of the River Colne. We crossed over the canal and railway, their presence testimony to the changing nature of the 18th century wool industry supply chain: my expert on the early industrial history of Yorkshire explained that when we reach the day’s end in Hebden Bridge we will see the characteristic rows of worker housing – and were we to take a train to Todmorden for our rest day we would see similar houses but with huge windows in the top floors, where in the days before industrial production of wooden cloth, individuals worked piecemeal in the top floors of the houses as long as the light lasted. Once a week they would take their piece to market at the Piece Hall in Halifax. These were the days before work was timed by a clock, instead being regulated by the rhythm of daylight hours.

It occurred to us that this was pertinent to our own time: in the early days of sociological studies analysis of quality of life was based on quantitive rather than qualitative measurement. On this journey we have learnt to detach ourselves from clock measurement, and not be anxious about how fast we are covering the ground, but organise our time instead according to how long our lungs need to recover from a steep ascent, or how long we want to look at a view or at the tidal patterns of water flowing over a prehistoric beach, fossilised in the rock slabs of the Pennine Way.

Early in the day we stood with a young farmer and her trainee sheepdog puppy, contemplating the endless stream of vehicles far below us thundering along the M62. It seemed a bizarre sight, something from another world, another life.

Today’s route was in some ways a memory of the South West Coastal Path in that we climbed up onto one moor, went down the other side into a valley and up and over again. Rinse and repeat. One of the striking things about the literature of this area (poets like Ted Hughes and Simon Armitage, or writers like the Brontës) is the character of the moors: dark, forbidding, boggy underfoot and assailed at all times by a variety of meteorological forms of water, mist, cloud, clag, rain, snow. But we were conversely struck by the thirstiness of the land, the low water levels in the many reservoirs we have passed (our dry-stone waller of yesterday pronounced them ‘reservoys’ in his local dialect) and the almost unnecessary duckboards crossing small streams and dried-out bogs.

Four Freemasons whom we met in the Dog and Partridge who are walking the boundaries of South Yorkshire to raise money for their charity gave us a heads’ up to look out for some World War II archaeology on top of Great Manshead Hill. There, as part of Operation Starfish, ditches had been dug to mimic city streets or railway stations, and flooded with diesel and coal set explosively on fire to act as a decoy for German planes aiming to bomb Leeds and Manchester. We passed close to the control room which together with its blast wall is still extant.

There seems to be a good deal of local micro-generation of power by harnessing the incessant wind. Lone turbines of various designs turn and turn, some resembling the wings of huge birds, all sitting handsomely in this landscape and somehow harmonising with the surrounding stone walls and verges.

They were also a modern echo of another characteristic feature of the area: the early industrial chimneys, such as this one from an old leather-works, now a stone reclamation yard.

If the tops of the moors were dry, the valleys were cool and green, each one with its river running through it. We stopped in Cragg Vale for a much-needed drink in the Hinchliff Arms (sad we weren’t there at the right time to sample its gorgeous menu) before threading our way through the woods preparatory to heaving ourselves up the last immensely steep climb of the day.

Bohemian Hebden Bridge, ‘The Bath of the North’ was just a short run down into the next valley. An open-hearted, thriving place to spend our third, most welcome rest day.

And that was the end of Day 30. Almost half way through, by numbers of days walking, but ‘only’ 512 miles (820km) of what we think will be 1200 miles (1920km). Our total height climbed so far is a little over 19,000m. That’s two Everests!

Fly-through with photos and elevation

Marsden to Hebden Bridge

4 thoughts on “Dry Moors: Marsden to Hebden Bridge”

    1. Lovely, lovely name, West Riding. And it’s going to be even better today up the side of Malham Cove, we hope. Got to beat the rain today, arriving at about 4. Have a wonderful break! Xx

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