Wednesday , September 28 2022

A great moorland walk to a great pub: the Pack Horse Inn, West Yorkshire

Despite its name, Midgehole, the starting point of this walk, is rarely enveloped in clouds of the little pests, while any you do encounter will be left behind once you get up on to the moors.

And this is a walk that, thanks to the stiff climb from the National Trust car park at Midgehole, gets me and Finn, my border collie, on to the moors pretty quickly. A rough track takes us up through the woodlands of Hardcastle Crags, where there are green woodpeckers and deer.

Heading towards Walshaw on Cow Lane.
Heading towards Walshaw on Cow Lane

A sharp left turn at the top of the track leads to the bumpy Cow Lane, and there follows a flat stroll past Shackleton and Walshaw, skirting thick woodlands below and open, windswept fields above (it’s worth bearing in mind that this part of the route passes through or by a number of farms, so dogs need to be kept under control).

Were we to climb a little higher, we’d find ourselves on the southern fringes of Wadsworth Moor, which is effectively Wuthering Heights country – just a few miles north of here lies Top Withens, supposedly the setting for Emily Brontë’s novel.

I’ve been walking and cycling on the trails here since growing up in nearby Hebden Bridge in the 1970s No matter the season or weather this long, airy traverse never fails to blow the cobwebs away (often quite literally) and press the reset button. The views are sensational, taking in wild, wind-blasted moorland to the north and west, the deep green of Hardcastle Crags immediately below and the dark, huddled village of Heptonstall on “t’other side o’t’Crags”.

Stoodley Pike monument, viewed from Shackleton
Stoodley Pike monument, viewed from Shackleton

Unmissable on the southern horizon is the Victorian Stoodley Pike monument poking up into the sky at an altitude of 400 metres, below which lie the town of Todmorden and the narrow Calder Valley, where road, railway, river and canal jostle for space. On a clear day you’ll probably also see the 330-metre tower of Emley Moor transmitting station (the tallest freestanding structure in the country, at 21 metres taller than London’s Shard) in the far distance.

Finn and I continue west, eventually arriving above the pretty confluence of Alcomden Water and Graining Water at Blake Dean, where stone pillars, once supporting a 32-metre high trestle bridge that crossed this vertiginous little valley, thrust up out of the tussocky grass.

Moorland at Alcomden Water
Moorland at Alcomden Water

The pillars are all that remain of the infrastructure put in place at the start of the 20th century to allow the construction of a chain of reservoirs. Those reservoirs, which dot these lonesome uplands, were built to supply Halifax’s growing population with water. A narrow-gauge railway crossed the bridge, taking supplies to the construction sites, and a temporary hutted encampment known as Dawson City was constructed to house the navvies and their families, with up to 600 people resident there at times.

Perhaps more pertinent, however, is that from here I can also see the sturdy, whitewashed outline of the Pack Horse Inn on the other side of the defile; half an hour later we’re there, after a short stint on the Pennine Way and the minor road that, when the Pack Horse was built, was the route between Hebden Bridge and Burnley.

Looking back towards Blake Dean
Looking back towards Blake Dean

This was the pub in which I first got drunk, while camping with school friends on the nearby moors one freezing October half-term; I recall the landlord regaling us with tales of the climber Don Whillans making first ascents on nearby Widdop rocks in the 1950s and 60s and knocking back several pints in the pub afterwards. We followed Whillans’ example with the beer and eventually ended up staggering out of the Pack Horse to fall into the overflowing ditch on the opposite side of the road.

Today I make do with a brie and red onion baguette and a pint of White Rat cask ale while perusing black and white images of the reservoir construction work that line the walls. It’s easy to see why the settlement that sprung up around it was named Dawson City – the tough-looking navvies and the harsh landscape look every bit a Yorkshire version of Alaska’s goldrush shanty town.

The footbridge at Blake Dean
The footbridge at Blake Dean

Eventually, Finn and I head back out into the stiff breeze (there’s always a breeze up here, of varying degrees of stiffness) and continue along the rough tarmac road for half a mile before descending steeply to Blake Dean and those old stone bridge supports. Here a footpath and footbridge take us to the north bank of what, with the joining of Alcomden Water and Graining Water, has now become Hebden Beck, then down into the dappled, dark woodlands of Hardcastle Crags.

The undulating path meanders past Gibson Mill, a cotton mill built during the the Industrial Revolution (around 1800). Now owned by the National Trust, it was the organisation’s first sustainable property, and it’s worth stopping by to see exhibitions detailing work past and present to preserve the natural environment hereabouts; if the site looks familiar, you may have seen it in Mike Leigh’s 2018 film Peterloo.

Gibson Mill at Hardcastle Crags
Gibson Mill at Hardcastle Crags

From the mill we choose the riverside footpath back to Midgehole, mainly because it has a number of stepping stones that provide Finn with all the excuse he needs to make a detour into the chilly river, as well as ensuring that I have a mud-free dog in my car for the drive home.

Google map of the route

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Start Midgehole National Trust car park
Distance 11 miles
Time 5 hours
Total ascent 300 metres
Difficulty moderate
GPX route

The pub

Little has changed in 40 years … the Pack Horse
Little has changed in 40 years … the Pack Horse

The Pack Horse Inn (also known by locals as “t’Ridge”) is about 400 years old and, as the name suggests, was built to serve packhorse drivers travelling the moors between West Yorkshire and Lancashire (the county border is only a couple of miles away). Today it’s popular with Pennine Way walkers and other hikers, along with mountain bikers and road cyclists. It’s also dog-friendly.

I know from personal experience that the pub has changed relatively little in the past 40 years. Built to provide sanctuary from the often brutal weather experienced up here on top of the moors, the pub’s thick millstone grit walls and stone-mullioned windows provide a welcome sense of protection from the elements, as does the ever-burning fireplace.

That said, on a warm summer evening there’s nothing to beat an outdoor pint supped at one of the tables out front, with uplifting views across the moors and down into Hardcastle Crags.

Historic black and white images line the walls
Historic black and white images line the walls

It still offers an impressive choice of more than 100 single malt whiskies, just as it did when I first went as a teenager, along with a fine rotating range of guest cask ales. The meals are exactly what you need after a brisk yomp on the moors – tasty and generously portioned. Recommendations from locals include the black pudding and bacon stack, lamb Henry, and sticky toffee pudding; there are also vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options on the menu.

Where to stay

Less than 10 minutes’ drive from the start of the walk is Hebden Townhouse, in bohemian capital of the north Hebden Bridge. It’s a smart, recently refurbished B&B in the centre of town, a short walk from the station, with 12 en suite rooms, and generous continental breakfasts.

Those arriving by train, and feeling particularly energetic, could even start the walk from here; it will add another three miles to the route.
Doubles from £125 B&B

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