The Hobbity hop
You may never speak to me again, but in the interests of complete honesty, I’ll confess that I’m not a fan of Tolkien. I tried to read the Hobbit and failed. I fell asleep in the cinema and I don’t much care about that precious ring, but I have to say I’m not sure why Peter Jackson insisted on New Zealand as a location for his films when the Ribble Valley was available.
If Lancashire’s woods and rivers were the inspiration, if Stonyhurst provided a desk and a quiet corner for the author to spin his tales, why shift the filmmaking to the other side of the world? Okay, Peter Jackson is a New Zealander, and it probably reduced his commute, but on the LTR3 route, we had everything we needed for an epic adventure: lakes, towers and bridges, wooded dells, burbling streams, endless staircases, blue mountains and snow-dusted hills.
We started in Hurst Green (aka Hobbiton) with a threatening sky – and a forecast to match – and dropped straight away into Mill Wood where we followed Dean Brook uphill through the bare black trees. Sunlight filtered through, and every touch of green shone. We skipped across tree roots, and slabby stone, plunged feet into soft and softer earth and emerged to find the clouds had split to reveal blue skies. We followed a lane, chatting. Then, slow and laughing, we slithered down a bank planted with saplings and hauled ourselves up the other side passing a gorse bush – in bloom in February, but too chilled to share its coconut scent.
We climbed, then we contoured, the fields so soft that every footprint went deep, but the mood was good and energy levels high. We dropped into another tiny valley, across a footbridge and out onto a deserted golf course. We avoided the greens and trotted across, spotting bunkers that were filled not with sand but with hailstones from an earlier shower. Two minutes later we turned into the gates of Stonyhurst College.
Solid underfoot on the macadamed drive, we passed between the paired rectangular pools and advanced on the school, as above us gulls swirled in the blue. The light was strange – cold and pale, watery with low, white cloud as a backdrop for the stone, slate and towers. Every window appeared black and unwelcoming. I would not have wanted to be there alone at dusk.
We escaped the grounds through a stone-built stile onto a lane where neatly cropped hedges sparkled with melting hail and set off northwards toward Over Hacking, balancing across pipes as the sun cast long lean shadows across the earth. A deer flashed its rump as it disappeared into woods and we stepped briefly into its territory and just as quickly out again, following the contours of the hill before dropping rapidly downhill into Over Hacking Wood. There, forest creatures with any sense took off as we ran through. Below us, the River Hodder rushed past, but we ascended, high on the bank, on narrow paths that meandered through the trees. It was tough going, but glorious as the sun cut through, and we paused to enjoy a drink amongst the sweet, damp odours of the earth.
We needed that drink. The pause was followed by a short, easy descent and a long lung-bursting climb. The staircase that led out of the woods was so foreshortened that from its foot it appeared more like a ladder. On and on and on it climbed, until eventually, we came out onto a field which was made of water and glue. It tested every muscle and made the rutted hardcore track that followed feel like luxury.
When we were toiling through the glue, the sun was out, warm and spring-like. On the rutted track, the hail returned, sharp and stinging. We pulled up hoods and exchanged a ‘typical-British-weather’ shrug with a couple passing the other way. Just after we scraped ourselves through a holly bush that was guarding a stile, the weather changed again.
Soon, we’d made our way back to the Hodder and had a superb view of Cromwell’s Bridge – or on this Hobbity hop should this be Brandywine Bridge? With the river tearing underneath at a fair old lick, you wouldn’t have wanted to attempt a crossing. There was no need – our route followed the river, through Winkley Hall and onto the Ribble Way. There we saw our first lambs of the season, young enough, still, to have their shrivelled umbilical cords hanging from their bellies. It was raw in the wind, and one smart soul had climbed into the feed rack and was nestled against the fodder.
The Ribble headed west. We turned north, past glamping pods on the hillside and along a quiet tree-shrouded lane which we swapped for a sodden field and a long pull up the last hill. We passed an incongruous, bright-blue mountain of soil-conditioning pulp, awaiting a calmer day when it could be safely spread.
Stonyhurst came again into view. The roof of a turret. The dome of an observatory. Across a wall, the clean white horizontal of a crossbar. Then, in sunshine, we dropped back towards our start point. Damp footed, mud-coated, slightly tired and completely invigorated.
Millie’s Café beckoned. It was cosy. The staff were fantastic, the brew was piping hot, the breakfast slipped down, and, in the corner, a Hobbit quietly tucked a pair of muddy feet under the table.