Anyone driving up (or down) the M1 between junctions 37 to 40 cannot fail to notice the dramatic rise of a reinforced concrete tower away to the west. On my way through West Yorkshire I stopped for a closer look at the (Arqiva) Emley Moor Tower, the UK’s highest freestanding structure at 1,083 feet – 66 feet higher than the Shard and the 23rd tallest building in the world. In 1956 a 443 foot lattice tower was built to provide ITV broadcasts to Yorkshire but after the mast that replaced it collapsed in 1969, this tapered pillar topped by a steel antenna became operational in 1971. It takes one of the two internal lifts seven minutes to reach the circular microwave link room 900 feet up, but if elevators are not your thing there is always an 865 rung ladder. I stayed at a pub down the road and the next day drove past the haunting silhouette of Castle Hill to the Longdendale Valley in Derbyshire to park next to the Torside Reservoir in Crowden. My plan was an 8 mile circular walk up to the Yorkshire border to revisit Black Hill. I wanted to see for myself how much it had changed from when last there in 1994 when it was one of the most notorious places on the Pennine Way. What I found was the peat bog from hell, but in recent years a flagstone path has encouraged walkers along a single route to the trig point and beyond. My understanding was that this has seen a return of vegetation with the area now covered in rough moorland grasses and sphagnum moss. This I had to see.


     The first half of the walk would follow the Pennine Way along the valley of Crowden Great Brook, over Laddow Rocks and then on to Black Hill, a climb of 1,100 feet. When it opened in 1965 the Pennine Way climbed from Crowden Youth Hostel and took the Hey Moss route to Black Hill. Yet by August of 1966 it was altered to its current, slightly longer western route. Popular opinion seems to favour the original but curiosity had nagged at me to explore this long discarded route so this would be my return to Crowden. Beneath a sky of cloud torn by encouraging blue, I set off at 10am. Once I was back on the Pennine Way much of it became instantly recognisable as it skirted the flanks of Highstone Rocks, curiously it was practically the same sort of weather that I had back in May of 1994. I passed a cluster of trees planted in 1980 in memory of Harry Phillips, a true Manchester Rambler. At around the 1st mile I looked up into the valley from Black Tor, the way ahead was breathtaking and the further I went the views stretched even higher into an ever narrowing valley. I curved left towards a little stream coming down from the rise of Rake Moss. Its tumbling waters could still be heard from higher up, one of only a few sounds amongst the bleats of sheep and nearby birds amongst the gorse and heather. I looked up to a fine view of Laddow Rocks, a popular climbing area since it was first explored in 1901 by E.A. Baker. In 1916 some idiot even climbed them in clogs.


     The waters of Oakenclough Brook came down from the gathering grounds of two reservoirs above, Dovestone and Chew, scene of a recent and mysterious death. On Saturday 12th December 2015 the body of an elderly man was discovered next to a track with legs pointing downhill and arms across his chest. He was wearing clothing unsuitable for a midwinter walk on the moors and carried no identity. It was established he purchased a return ticket from Ealing Station in London the day before and travelled to Manchester. At 2pm he left a pub near Dovestone Reservoir and set off on a 2½ mile walk with sunset due at 3:49pm. When his body was discovered the following morning all that was found on him was £130 cash, the return train ticket and a thyroxine sodium medicine bottle from Pakistan containing strychnine, the cause of death. Strychnine is banned in most countries but can still be purchased for pest control in Pakistan. The man had no terminal illness but there was a metal plate manufactured in Pakistan on one of his upper leg bones from an accident three years earlier. The case has baffled police and left so many unanswered questions. Why did this European man travel from Asia then continue 200 miles with a return ticket to this lonely spot in the middle of winter to carry out what appears to have been a bizarre suicide? At the time I crossed Oakenclough Brook there were still no answers and his body continued to lay in the mortuary at the Royal Oldham Hospital.





     Along a narrow and exposed path that skirted the top of Laddow Rocks I looked back to a hazy view down the valley, views that became more limited the further I went. Below me was Crowden Great Brook, its waters destined to flow into the River Mersey. From the confluence of Meadowgrain Clough the walk got more exposed on an open grassy plateau and then followed a flagged path up Dun Hill to a rise of broken peat groughs. As the path continued through lumps of broken peat, I passed a cairn made of stones placed there by the passing of many walkers. These cairns are like the unwritten signature of a rambling brotherhood yet there are some walkers who hate them with a passion I have never fully understood. I have no opinion one way or another. I can see little worth in getting angry at them any more than I can see the point in picking up a stone and adding to their number. However, if you do find yourself out on the fells wandering in the mist and the murk, they can be a welcome reminder that you are on the correct path. Out of the peat gulleys I saw the whitewashed trig point of Black Hill. I was instantly held spellbound, the whole area was totally unrecognisable from 1994. Continuing along the flagstone path that acted like a bridge over watery bogs I strode through an area of reclaimed vegetation to the trig point that once stood on a spot known as Soldier’s Lump. It was twelve after midday and I had reached the top of Black Hill.





     What a transformation, this was a totally different place from the one I visited twenty two years earlier. Then it stood on an isle of solid ground known as Soldier’s Lump named in honour of the Royal Engineers who first surveyed this godforsaken place. In 1841 the framework of their 36 inch Great Ramsden Theodolite was discovered from the original triangulation survey of 1784 and can be found in the Kensington Science Museum. In 1994 I was lucky as a few dry days had left Black Hill in a docile mood and I just about made it to the trig point. One look in all directions revealed a sea of acidic peat, a chopped up quagmire that looked as though it had been stampeded by a herd of wildebeest. The exposed base looked like a solitary tooth in a rotten gum and I feared it might topple over, perhaps it had for today it has a Tower of Pisa look with a tilt towards the south. The conservation work began in 2003 and after thirteen years there is virtually no peat to be seen. It was stunning example of what can be achieved by careful land management and a few flag stones. At 1,909 feet Black Hill was once the highest point in Cheshire before the county boundary changes of 1974. Over a century of industrial pollution and wild fires reduced it to bare black peat and half a century of walkers didn’t help it much either. Its fearsome reputation amongst Pennine Way walkers was enhanced greatly by the guide writers. J.H.B. Peel described Black Hill as the most desolate spot on the whole walk, and the most dangerous. Most cheerless was Wainwright who revealed how he once sunk up to his waste in the slime of Black Hill only to be prized free by a walking companion. What I found most shocking about this revelation was that he actually had a walking companion! A more measured appraisal came from Frank Duerden who said that, ‘As with most potential difficulties up on the wild high ground, a degree of common sense and awareness should see most people through.’ From Black Hill the Pennine Way continues across Wessenden Moor and I was passed by a jogger making his way in that direction. As he approached I watched a vole scamper across one of the flagstones, twenty years earlier I wouldn’t have seen that. The jogger was on a recce to see how much of the Pennine Way he could run in four days as he intended jogging the entire National Trail in January 2017. On the previous day he had seen a bush fire over the moors near Bleaklow. A nearby ranger said that it had been started by a disposable barbeque and had caused damage to the local wildlife and nesting birds. As he trundled off the cutting wind told me it was time I moved on as well via the old, or original, Pennine Way route to Crowden.





     The way from there was not obvious so I set my compass across Tooleyshaw Moss and aimed for the distant lump of a cairn and post. To the eastern side of that was the line of an obvious and worn path. Over to the left I saw the 750 foot Holme Moss TV Mast a mile away, when erected in 1951 this was the world’s most powerful transmitter. A few steps further and I even saw the Emley Moor Tower 10¼ miles to the northeast. The path was easy to follow and with the occasional cairn to guide me I started coming down on the side of the pro-cairn lobby. I went through an entranceway of rising peat to follow an intriguing meander through high peat groughs before yet more open wilderness took me up the 1,729 foot broad grassy dome of West End Moss. At the 6th mile a line of posts headed me in the right direction, more or less, as various paths disappeared then reappeared in quick succession. Across the summit plateau an agitated lapwing swooped over me with its distressing call. Cloud was everywhere now making the distant hills to the south loom menacingly beyond the Longdendale Valley. The Pennine Way path I’d walked earlier had disappeared behind Bareholme Moss and I was of the opinion that route was better. This exposed path across open grassy wilderness was less interesting I reckoned. As I dropped to Hey Moss I could see the line of a green path stretch before me over a level fell whilst Crowden and the Torside Reservoir slowly came back into view.





    I dropped to the valley of Crowden Little Moor and followed a green track to an abandoned quarry alongside a tumble of large boulders. As the track bent left a stile to the right began an awkward descent to an old wooden sign pointing up that read ‘to open country,’ succinct I guess, brevity is everything in these parts you know! The drop continued to a tarmac lane which once led to the new Crowden Youth Hostel, these days it’s an outdoor education centre run by Rotherham Council. The old hostel once sat next to the busy A628, converted from six railway workers cottages it opened in 1965 specifically for the Pennine Way and was past its sell-by date even when I stopped there in 1994. It closed in the autumn of 2006 with the new one opening a year later. Exactly why the YHA closed the new hostel on the 31st March 2014, like so many others along the Pennine Way, is a question you’d have to ask them. I turned by back on yet another YHA fail and headed back to the car park. Crowden was once a thriving community with employment provided by local quarries, a bleach works, cotton mill and a railway station between 1860 and 1957. With the time at 2:30pm I sat at a picnic bench beside the car park and ate my lunch. I wasn’t hungry, but with a long drive ahead it gave me time to reflect on yet another fine walk up and over the feared heights of Black Hill. With dark grey clouds swirling above, I decided to leave before my luck finally gave out just as the rain began to fall.



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