What strange sorcery is this?
If you’re from a certain part of Lancashire, you’ll be familiar with the X43. It’s a bus service which whips people from Skipton through Colne and down to Manchester. Passing right through the Pendle region, the route is known as the Witch Way, and buses sport a picture of a witch, perched on her broomstick.
Sitting in traffic in Rawtenstall, yesterday, behind the witchy bus, I was reflecting that the artist had veered more towards Samantha from Bewitched than the old crones who boiled frog bits in Macbeth. And maybe this image stayed with me, because when I checked today's route on Strava, I could clearly see a witch again, perched, and flying towards the East. Okay, her hat wasn’t quite pointy enough, but let’s not split hairs.
And being by nature suspicious, I began to wonder whether this was deliberate. Had our guides, knowing we were heading to the heart of Pendle, pored over maps and crafted something a bit magical? If we turn sharp back on ourselves there, just after that stile, that will give us the bristly bit of the broom.
With this sort of thinking, the non-pointy hat makes sense – after we’d run over Twiston Moor, we had to squash the hat to reach another footpath. Indeed, while we were out running I had spotted something odd. I have a limited sense of direction, but even I noticed the route kept switching back. One minute, Pendle Hill was on the left. The next, it was on the right.
We started out in Barley. Early Saturday morning, and the car park was filled with mums helping teenagers hoist stuffed rucksacks onto their backs (Duke of Edinburgh Award season must see a huge upsurge in the demand for outdoor gear). As a steady parade of girls, heavily laden, set out for their first overnight camp, we nipped past in shorts and trainers. It did feel a little unkind, but it also felt wonderfully free. To be unencumbered. To park, for a couple of hours, any worries and to run along the valley bottom by Black Moss Water and out to the reservoirs beyond. I’d say conditions were perfect: bright and dry, T-shirt weather but not hot, barely a breeze. This also meant conditions were pretty perfect for the gnats. Somehow you forget about the little blighters in winter, then they return and hang about in gangs.
We left the water and began to climb up onto Twiston Moor, a long steady pull accompanied by the sound of skylarks. Around our feet, bog cotton, just beginning to turn to seed and mosses with bright orange seed pods.
And the view from the top? Stunning. Weets Hill that we had run up in January. Ingleborough in the distance, Gisburn and the Ribble Valley in all its glory. At our side, Pendle, with tiny figures picking their way up the steps.
After we’d run to the top of the moor, we ran down again. Then up again. Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t covering the same bit of ground, just making sure that the route met LTR’s usual standard of ‘mildly undulating’ whilst simultaneously drawing the back of a witch. I recommend it for anyone who needs to spice up their hill training. Pick a lovely morning – as we had done – make sure there’s a good crop of cute spring lambs about and curlews overhead (your legs will be burning from the ascent, so distraction is helpful) and sketch something. We added a hunch to the witch’s back and then stopped for a drink.
The drink must have been spiked. Strange things happened afterwards. Under the influence of the potion, I could have sworn we ran downhill – not up. Then we appeared to follow a contour line rather than play at seeing how many of them we could cross. The boggy ground became firm enough for dry feet and the nettles didn’t sting. I’d started the day with a dodgy knee, and it was holding up. The clouds that had been forecast weren’t gathering. What strange sorcery was this?
Spells often wear off. This one didn’t. Even when we stopped our easy traverse and started up the hill at Under Pendle, the magic held. The climb was steep but short, and all around the narrow paths of Ogden Hill, the stones and the overhanging banks failed to trip. We turned at Ogden Clough, and passed the reservoir through stile, after stile, after stile. As we made our way past the dam, some of the youngsters we’d last seen at the carpark were toiling up the slope. Our morning might have been charmed. Theirs looked like it might turn out to be character building.
One last hill, above Buttock Plantation, and we’d completed the bristly end of the broom. Just a gentle potter now, across the fields and back to Barley.
The guides were playing a trick. Just as we spied the LTR sign near our start point, we were led away from it – foul treachery. A heap of stones to climb, ankle-twisting, rubbly monsters, lurking under the trees and cruel at this stage. But just as I was about to succumb to walking, the stones vanished, the lane turned benign: firm packed earth, tree lined, fresh and green. At the end a short bank to run down, and then across the road to White Hough Water where, we paddled into the river, with just a tad of slipping and sliding. Witches can’t cross running water. We managed just fine.
With sopping feet, but the broom handle complete, we followed the track back through Boothman Wood and towards a good bit of breakfast at The Cabin. Even there, our luck continued. It was warm enough to sit outside, to slurp at milkshakes and scoff thick slices of hot-buttered toast.
All this witch business? Yes, I’m probably crackers. But, in my defence, we did pass a farmhouse with an inordinately large number of cats outside. Blame an over-active imagination. Blame the X43 bus. It doesn’t matter – sorcery or not, this was a magical run.