Every journey should have a goal; so said that lukewarm aficionado of the Pennines Alfred Wainwright.
Andrew Bibby’s is to follow the Pennine watershed, a journey only made possible since the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. Journalist Bibby’s other major project is the Freedom to Roam guide books which celebrate the open access areas available since the legislation allowed us (legally) on to hidden uplands
Andrew Bibby: The Backbone of England
His latest book aims to be more than a travelogue: more of an education. From explanation of the geology underpinning (or not!) the shaking earth of Mam Tor, through the historic outdoor battleground of Benny Rothman on Kinder Scout to the views of a gamekeeper on a large north Pennine estate.
His maxim in attempting to follow northern England’s watershed is: ‘Never cross running water’.
He joins the meticulous surveying of Bleaklow’s paths with ranger Peter McGrory. At just one kilometre per hour, recording everything from water scarification to depth of mud up his boots, it’s a slow job. The information gathered is then converted into a traffic light system for action: green, amber and red.
Following the watershed means diverting from the sometimes well-flagged confines of the Pennine Way into the morass of hags and groughs which form the backbone of England.
It’s astonishing to discover that, according to Bibby, the seemingly desolate and wild reaches of Bleaklow are among the most lead-polluted in the world, because of wind-blown emissions from the conurbations to the West. Its water is as acidic as battery electrolyte.
As you’d expect in a book following a watershed, H2O forms a great part of the discussion in the book, from grough blocking to raise the water table to the enigma of why drinking water is browner than it used to be.
The relentless journey north leaves the Pennine Way yet its influence is still evident: the watershed route was the original track of the national trail, its present way reserved as a foul-weather alternative. Surely always used more often than the main route?
There’s an account of a remarkable journey through Standedge Tunnel, the canal route which really should never have been built. Three miles long, and deeper underground than any other canal tunnel, so difficult that passage is now only permitted in British Waterways convoys, for which walkers can buy tickets and which can involve four hours of darkness as the flotilla proceeds at less than walking pace. Never can the sight of the grey Pennine sky be more welcome than at the re-emergence at Diggle.
The Pennines’ major players: Rothman, Wainwright and Tom Stephenson, whose idea of a route up the backbone of England met so much opposition, are frequent quotees, despite Wainwright’s evident dislike for the peat bogs.
The Pennine Way was a long time coming, from conception to realisation, and Stephenson’s vision was the subject of much debate. Bibby provides an interesting insight into how the eventual route became established.
In fact, it’s remarkable how these apparently remote moors and outcrops were the scenes of so much political activity – the Chartists held a mass meeting on Blackstone Edge to demand universal suffrage – until you realise how close the major industrial towns and cities are to the English watershed, and how their uplands were a draw to the proletarian masses toiling in the filth of 19th and 20th century northern England.
No-one who treads the moors after reading The Backbone of England will view their surroundings in the same way. Virtually every step of the peat-stained boot will be enriched by a historical, environmental and cultural understanding of which many will have previously ignorant.
Any journey along the uplands of Britain will eventually have to cross the vexed issue of windfarms. The watershed, high above the large centres of population, are obvious venues for the wind generation of power. Especially so because much of the terrain is without the protection of national park status, or even the ‘second division’ designation of Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The question of whether turbines are a necessary addition to the moors is asked but not answered.
Bibby has a reminder, too easily forgotten by those of us who regularly stand on the summits of lesser hills such as Boulsworth, of how recently these were forbidden territory, subjects of fiercely defended rights of gamekeepers to protect their grouse from hoi polloi or of water authorities to protect the supposed purity of the Pennine Water.
As hillwalkers, we probably overlook some of the most obvious sights on our outings. Farming has been a huge influence on the landscape for thousands of years. But do we ever give any thought about how it operates? Bibby interviews hillfarmer David Airey. He admits he wouldn’t be able to farm on a similar holding only 15 miles away. Only one breed of sheep is suited to the 2,500 acres he farms. His father took decades to ‘learn’ the farm.
And, did you know, a top-class ‘tup’ – ram – can sell for more than £100,000 or that ewes get an ante-natal ultrasound scan to see how many lambs they are bearing?
Industry in the watershed predates the great revolution of the 19th century, with mineral mining a major activity which still leaves its mark in many places. Yet, oddly, the Museum of Yorkshire Dales Lead Mining is not in the Yorkshire Dales, in fact it’s not even in Yorkshire.
But the most important industry, whether anyone likes it or not, is walking. Bibby unearths the important fact that, of the 42m annual journeys made to England’s national parks, more than a half are made for the purposes of going for a walk. The watershed has become a national asset for different reasons from those that may have existed a hundred or so years ago.
Entry into the Yorkshire Dales proper brings Bibby up against the legacy of a very different campaigner from the Rothmans and Stephensons of the Pennine access movement. Lady Mary Towneley, wife of the Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire, seeded the germ of a rideable route the length of the Pennines, an entity which is only now being established as the Pennine Bridleway.
A journey into the privileged world of the grouse shooter and gamekeeper also provides the answer to the puzzle many Pennine walkers must have silently asked themselves. What are those piles of white grit that are found incongruously in the middle of nowhere?
Nick Parker, head gamekeeper on the 5,000-acre Mossdale estate near Garsdale explains: they are laced with medication which kills parasitic infestation when red grouse hungrily gobble them down to aid their digestion. So now you know.
Mr Parker also, Bibby reveals, unsurprisingly hates the right to roam. It gets in the way of his ability to charge up to £130 for the privilege of shooting each pair of brace. And a party of shooters can blast around 100 brace a day. You do the maths, and work out why it was a Labour government that introduced the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. There’s still conflict between old money and new freedoms up on the watershed.
Moving north, Bibby encounters the railwaymen of the remote Garsdale station before pondering the origins of the curious cairns of Nine Standards Rigg, whose bog horrors will be familiar to journeymen and women along the Coast-to-Coast Walk.
The greatest obstacle to Bibby’s quest lay in getting permission to follow the watershed across the military firing ranges of Burton Fell and Little Fell, near the highest point of the Pennines. Persistence paid, and he and a friend were allowed to risk life and their limbs among the unexploded ordnance of the Pennine peat.
At the spectacular landscape of High Cup Nick, Bibby receives a potted geology lesson and translates this for the reader. He has a light touch, turning what could be turgid subjects into easily comprehensible chapters which hold the attention.
It’s for this reason I think the book is to be commended. It’s certainly not a walking guide: it’s too big and heavy to slip into your rucksack. Neither is it a coffee-table companion. It is a book to read, to note, before getting out your map and exploring the Pennines with a deeper knowledge: of the geology, social history, ecology, economics and natural history. Forays into the watershed will be enriched for a reading of The Backbone of England.
The author’s journey ends at Hadrian’s Wall, probably the most obvious evidence of mankind’s influence on a landscape that, though many erroneously believe the product of nature, has everywhere the fingerprint of human interference.
The Backbone of England is in the grand tradition of Arthur Raistrick’s studies of the Yorkshire Dales: a patchwork of observations threaded together to form a complete picture of the land. Read it and then pull on your boots. And take someone with you; they’ll be amazed at the breadth of your knowledge.
Bibby’s book is illustrated with some fine photography from John Morrison. If I have a complaint, it’s that the Pennines look just too sunny. The Pennines can throw some horrendous meteorology at all those who work in and enjoy its uplands. I would have liked to have seen more rain!
The Backbone of England; Landscape and Life on the Pennine Watershed, by Andrew Bibby, with photographs by John Morrison.
Published by Frances Lincoln Ltd