Endings and Beginnings at the Headwaters

The wind whips over the shallow pass at the head of the valley of Reaps Water, where we are seeing out the old year in a wild dusk.

From our vantage, three horizons away and with two more behind it, Stoodley Pike Monument is a navigation bouy, bobbing on the moorland swell.

My son swarms over the succession of escarpments known as the Hanging Stones, bracing himself against the wind which is thankfully pushing him away from the edge.

He chooses a stone to settle down in the lee of, for there is a ritual to observe on a Friday afternoon no matter where we are: enjoying a little bag of sweets, normally procured from the sweet shop in town after school and eaten with friends beside the river, but if needs be, consumed while crouched out of the wind behind a crag on a desolate moor with his dad.

Custom having been honoured, we make our way along the track of Gorple Gate above the seven fields once carved out of Black Moor to support Gorple, one of the highest and most isolated farms in the area. It was, remarkably, still inhabited at the time of the 1911 census, but I doubt remained so for much longer.

Although Gople’s nearest neighbours would have been Ladies Walk, Wood Plumpton and World’s End in the bowl of Widdop, being over the shoulder of the moor they would not have been seen from Gorple’s windows. Rather, it would have been the mile-distant glow at Raistrick Greave that would have been looked to for a sense of companionship on evenings such as this, when the waste pressed on all sides against its fragile field walls. But looking down the curiously green track to Gorple’s few remains, and beyond the reservoir to the dark smudge of Raistrick Greave set among its seven fields, it looks now as it would have done for the last decades of Gorple’s inhabitanted years, for the lights at Raistrick Greave went out in the 1880s.

Unknown valleys and reservoirs come into view beyond the pass; being a car-free household, the the other side of the moor, unserved by buses, remains unexplored. But there is a delight in gazing across entirely unfamiliar horizons as they fade in the dying light.

We about turn at the border and march up beside the fence that divides the Walshaw and Worsthorne estates onto the unnamed, unheralded summit that separates Widdop from the valley of Reaps Water.

Beside a boundary stone my son delights in plumbing the depths of the peat with his walking stick, daringly injecting it all the way up to its deer antler handle before dramatically extracting it from the hungry, sucking bog in a manner fitting for an alternative version of Arthurian legend.

The final red glare of the setting sun is revealed through glowering clouds. Since I am not going to keep my son (or, for that matter, myself) up until midnight, we take here, at the frontier between the ancient counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire, at the meeting of the watersheds of the Ribble and the Calder, at the boundary between westward-flowing water bound for the Irish Sea and eastward-flowing water bound for the North Sea, as our place and moment to mark the ending and beginning that is the passing of one year into another.

We return to these boundaries, and to endings and beginnings, the following day, seeing in the new year with an expedition taking in the length of the Colden Water, from its convergence with the River Calder…

…to its source near Hoof Stones Height. It has 18 crossings along its five-and-a-half mile course, and to stay in touch with the water as much as possible we meander a route that has us making maximal reasonable use of them, swapping valley sides 10 times during the trek upstream.

Early on, while standing on the late-18th century Milking Bridge below the site of Eaves Bottom Farm, as the first of the sun shafts through the boles of the beeches, a heron banks around a bend in the spectacular gorge and flies low over our heads, labouring on upstream and showing us the way.

We soon get to wish Sue – one of only seven other walkers we would meet on our nine-hour, 13-mile walk – a happy new year. When we tell her of our mission, by way of gentle warning of the tough going ahead of us she recalls helping guide children from Colden School on walks up to the treacherous bogs of Noah Dale, as the upper reaches of the valley are known. Across the other side of the stream we hail Bede, who is hanging above a raging weir and wading in a goit that once served Lower Lumb Mill, working away on his marvellous hyrdro-electric scheme which brings back into use the power of the water that once served 11 mills along this little tributary valley.

On the dam wall at vanished Bob Mill we wave to two brave souls about to engage in the keenly-observed local tradition of New Year’s Day outdoor swimming. My son honours their spirit with a brief paddle.

Onward, we weave between north bank and south bank, crossing at the 400-year-old Hebble Hole clapper bridge…

…where a dipper, entirely at home immersed in the torrent, breaks for cover upstream as we appear; at Jack Bridge, where we walk behind the silent school; at the elegant, delicate arch of Strines Bridge…

…; at the shelved waterfalls and rough, kestrel-patrolled fields above Rodmer Clough; and over the two concrete pipes that make for a newer crossing above Workhouse Farm.

At the ruin of Lower Heath we are whirled around by a quick succession of darting wildlife: first a flock of starlings flickers by, then a trio of hares bolt in all directions, one towards the ruin, which sends a clatter of wood pigeons from its stones, which finally provokes a female pheasant to explode from the rushes at our feet. At the former ruin of Higher Heath, we have a natter with its first occupier for many a decade, who warns us that the way under his garden is wet. He is not wrong; my son decants a good slug of bog water into his boot, and we spend a cold 20 minutes at the next ruin of Crabtree Field – out of which a barn owl ghosts, crosses the valley and perches on a fence post to wait for us to leave – drying his boot out and changing his socks. We cross the valley once again on a decidedly rickety wooden footbridge at the ruin which bears the stream’s name, Colden Water…

…and spend the next mile navigating our way through an almost continuous mire, using mounds of Molinia grass as stepping stones.

We detour onto Noah Dale dam, which once regulated and secured the flow of water to the valley’s mills, its stones overgrown with grasses riddled with vole tunnels. We look down at the waters rushing through the canyon of its V-shaped breach, which thanks to the dogged research of local historian Dave Smalley we know occurred in 1936 after years of neglect once steam power had robbed it of its usefulness.

Here we face a choice: which of the three cloughs which feed into the dam – Lead Mine Clough, Rush Candle Clough or North Grain – we should follow, for all three have a legitimate claim to be accorded the status of the Colden Water’s source. We choose the centre one, Rush Candle, and spend a happy hour springing up its sphagnum-rich, gentle contours. The absence of the tell-tale burnt patches of heather and the evident abandonment of the spring traps that are attached to poles across the dwindling stream suggest that this part of the moor is not currently intensively managed for driven grouse shooting, although there are shooting butts nearby. Higher up we find stone gully blocks, 7800 of which Moors for the Future have been installing across the South Pennines for the past three years in an effort to improve their hydrology and carbon capacity. Judging by the luxuriant health of the vegetation, in marked contrast to other nearby moors, they are working well.

We crest the ridge and cross the border fence into Lancashire, which opens out before us, the bulk of Pendle Hill the backdrop to Burnley’s sprawl. My son plants his walking stick, pronouncing the source to have been discovered.

We take in the trig point at Hoof Stones Height…

…before our long descent…

…past Egypt Farm’s Aberdeen Angus herd grazing on pungent hay amongst the ruins of Noah Dale…

…and Pad Laithe.

We cross the Colden Water one last time on Noah Dale Bridge…

…to make an ascent up Cross Clough. It’s our most direct route home, but it proves to be utterly pathless and, even after so many rugged moorland miles, the most ferociously rough going yet. My son frequently falls into hidden holes and stumbles in tangled knots of thigh-high moor grass, only to pick himself up again with a cheerful fortitude that has deserted me.

After forty minutes, to our utter relief, we reach the wide, walled track of Dukes Cut. Now is the time, I decide, to hand him the Wispa bar from his Christmas selection box that I had stashed in my bag as we left.

We giddily glide the three and a half miles home on puddled tracks that might as well, after that ordeal, be an airport’s moving walkway.

As we stride we glance over our shoulders at the drama of a furnace dusk through a menace of dark clouds bearing down on us, but ahead, beyond the jaws of Calderdale and above the wide plains of the Yorkshire coalfields, the sky is stratified into the rising blue of twilight and the pink of the reflected glow of sunset on the distant eastern brume.

As the gloom grows and home nears, the wind intones in the telegraph wires, and Jupiter winks between black branches.

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