‘Balm for the soul’: my beloved, blissful walk in the Forest of Bowland

This magical place is a history-imbued, gives-you-goosebumps expanse of fells, moors and farmland – with a fabulous pub at the end

Under close questioning, I’ve sometimes struggled to describe the Forest of Bowland. Apart from anything else, it’s not even a forest: the word, in this instance, is a reference to the royal hunting ground it was in medieval times. Explain to uninitiated that this remote part of Lancashire – a glorious, 312-sq-mile expanse of fells, moorland and farmland – is bordered by Lancaster to the north and Blackburn to the south, that it is quite near Burnley and even closer to Clitheroe, and expressions will inevitably remain blank, not to say disbelieving. By now, I know exactly what people are thinking, which is that the realm I describe is the product of some crazed hallucination.

But then, perhaps it is. Drive into the Forest of Bowland, and the feeling creeps over you: here is a secret world, a parallel universe straight out of a children’s book, or an ancient episode of Doctor Who. If it is beautiful, it’s also spooky. Down the years, I’ve so often got lost trying to find my way to the famous Inn at Whitewell, which looks over the River Hodder and is the greatest place to stay – though this is, of course, one reason why I favour it. Unlike the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, the Forest of Bowland is not a national park (it remains a mere area of outstanding natural beauty); it enjoys no association with the likes of Beatrix Potter nor William Wordsworth (though its enchantments may have moved JRR Tolkien, who went to school at nearby Stonyhurst College, to create Middle Earth). Nothing about it is obvious and, thanks to this, it remains empty of both cars and people. You’ve really no choice but to discover it for yourself. Even your mobile is useless here, as anyone who saw Steve Coogan in the first series of The Trip will know (he had to climb a hill to get a signal).

The Inn at Whitewell, Clitheroe, Lancashire, UK.
The Inn at Whitewell. Photograph: John Eveson/Alamy

It’s an excellent place to go walking, and if you’re in the market for a long and intrepid one, you’ll want to make for the fells at the head of the Trough of Bowland: the pass that connects Lancaster to Dunsop Bridge and Clitheroe beyond it, and the route famously taken by the Pendle Witches to their trial at Lancaster Castle in 1612. On a clear day, you can see Morecambe Bay, the fells of the Lake District and the Isle of Man from the top of Clougha Pike (also, allegedly, the Blackpool Tower). But while I, too, would be out from dawn till dusk given half the chance, there is another kind of walk I also strongly favour: the short but carefully timed pre-bath, pre-cocktail stroll. This form of perambulation ends in a pub garden if it’s spring or summer, and in the gloaming with thoughts of a fire if it is autumn or winter.

The walk I’m about to describe is one of these early evening affairs, and it is so loved by my domestic colleague, he put it in his spy novel, Our Friends in Berlin (appropriate, since it comes with elements of time travel). It takes about 90 minutes, and begins in the Ribble Valley in Bolton-by-Bowland, a platonic ideal of an English village with its two greens, pub and church (tiny Bolton has 44 listed buildings). The route, which is circular, starts close to the latter, where you’ll see, on the right hand side of the road, a private lane marked by white gates – an avenue that always induces in me the slight, but in this case unjustified, feeling that I’m trespassing (before its demolition in the 1950s, it led to Bowland Hall, the ancestral home of the Pudsay family, to whom we will return later).

But, no matter. Walk determinedly along it and, after a mile, you’ll reach a stone bridge and some yew trees, those great, arboreal sentinels of death. I love yews, inside the trunks of which, when mature, several people may hide, and whose berries are toxic (ancient armies would eat them rather than surrender). That said, when the road begins to drop down, there is an even eerier sight in the form of Pendle Hill looming in the distance. What a shame it is that no edition of Blake Morrison’s poems, A Discoverie of Witches, fits easily in the pocket of a waterproof.

Cross a cattle grid – about now, you’ll see a small, circular building known as King Henry’s Well – and turn left onto a track that passes a converted barn, leaving it via a kissing gate. Cross a pasture to another kissing gate, and into more upwardly sloping fields until you come to a tiny bridge over a stream which brings you to a narrow strip of fenced land and, beyond it, a wood to the right. A hamlet called Fooden is ahead. When you reach it, go through the farmyard and thence, at last, into fields. It’s at this point that this walk suddenly makes sense. The views of Bowland and, to the north-east, of the Yorkshire Dales are a balm for the soul. To pinch from Alfred Wainwright, hoard them as a miser hoards his gold. One day, you may need to revisit them in your mind’s eye.

Looking towards the Trough of Bowland along the River Hodder in the Forest of Bowland.
Looking towards the Trough of Bowland along the River Hodder in the Forest of Bowland. Photograph: David Clapp/Getty Images

You’re on your way back to the village now. In the fields, there are mature oak trees and, perhaps, a deceit of lapwings (the best collective noun of them all). You’ll be attentive to both, but you will also be high on the anticipation of a drink, or maybe a scone. Your state, at this point, then, can best be described as one of utter contentment – unless, of course, there are cows in the last couple of fields. I have read Posy Simmonds’s Tamara Drewe, in which a faithless husband is killed by a cow. I’ve also been chased by a stampeding herd more than once. If I’m alone, I’ll put the nearest dry stone wall between me and them.

The circular route around the Forest of Bowland.

Exiting the fields at last, the road leads you back down into Bolton. Before you reach it, make a detour into the churchyard, now on your right. There are a couple of benches on which you can sit for a while. But you should also, if it’s open, go into St Peter and St Paul in search of the Pudsay tomb, a memorial described as a “genealogical tour de force” by C B Newham in his brilliant new book, Country Church Monuments (I am such a nerd). It was with Sir Ralph Pudsay that Henry VI stayed after he lost the Battle of Hexham in 1464, hence the well you saw earlier. However, it’s for this slab of Egglestone marble that Pudsay is now remembered, engraved as it is with low-relief effigies of his three wives, Matilda, Margaret and Edwina, and his 25 children. It’s lovely to look at, Sir Ralph in his armour, and his women in their horned headdresses; they bring to mind the cover of the novels by Jean Plaidy and Anya Seton I liked as a teenager. But it’s also moving. Two of the wives, and several of his children, predeceased him. The children – Rowland and Mabel and Thomasine among them – are all named. Look out for William, the Rector of the Church at the Reformation, who’s dressed in a cassock (second row, third from left).

St Peter & St Paul’s Church, Bolton-by-Bowland, Lancashire
St Peter & St Paul’s Church, Bolton-by-Bowland. Photograph: Martin Singleton/Alamy

Bolton-by-Bowland is a good base for exploration. Slaidburn, with its lovely war memorial, and Downham, a location for the film Whistle Down the Wind (three children mistake a fugitive who’s hiding in a barn for Jesus Christ) are both nearby; so is Sawley, where there is a ruined abbey. But I’m a creature of habit, and I only ever visit Bolton at the allotted hour, to do this very walk. In the car park, we unlace our boots in the crepuscular gloom, and the quiet is almost unnerving. The witching hour. Around the village, lights will be coming on, warm pools of yellow before curtains are drawn. Yet the place is so often our own. If we saw a phalanx of cybermen marching towards us, we’d hardly be surprised.


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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