England’s Glory

Before I set out this morning, I was reading a novel. Set in 1919, its principal characters are scarred both physically and mentally, by their “Great” War experiences. As you’d expect, the tale isn’t a barrel of laughs, but I’m reading about fictional characters. I can close the book and head out to the hills, forgetting the young men whose sacrifice, now, seems so damned futile. 

But, when you get close to Pendle Hill, as we did on this morning’s run, there’s a giant reminder of just how fortunate recent generations have been. Colne is marking 100 years since the end of the conflict, and on the hillside, just below the brow, is the outline of three white poppies. It’s perhaps a bit too easy to ignore why it’s there and to marvel instead at the artwork’s scale or wonder how the fleece that’s been used to shape the petals is holding up in the stiff breeze.

One of saddest things about the men and boys who were this war’s casualties was their willingness – at least in 1914 – to volunteer. To fight for “King and Country” was seen as noble, and perhaps nothing epitomises the sentiment as much as Rupert Brooke’s sonnet, The Soldier. Here’s the first part of it: 

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

That line – England’s “flowers to love, her ways to roam” – this morning, the area around Roughlee was the perfect example. England when it’s blessed by the sun.

It was filled with colour, with birdsong, with tall foxgloves, the chirrup of grasshoppers and the buzzing of bees. Its trees were soft and swaying.  Grass heads were fat and purple, minuscule butterflies skipped around the rushes, midges waited for dusk on the underside of leaves. Galls hung from tree branches, insects tunnelled into their roots. Cattle, sun-warmed and settled, lay cudding, their coats gleaming, rich russet and velvet black. Ponies gathered in the shade, tails swishing. Thistle heads, a magenta accent to an upland field. By a culvert, a tangle of meadow vetch; by a stile, the spike of a spotted orchid; on a shaded lane, the creamy, plate-like heads of fragrant elderflower.  

Oops, sorry, I’m getting a bit carried away by it all. But that’s what we have: England in summer. An idea that saw men march off willingly to war, but which is, in fact, a complex mix of habitats and landscapes: rural, urban, built and natural, farmed and wild. 

Over a 10k distance, it’s surprising how much diversity there is –  everything from the cool of a conifer plantation to riverbanks and pasture. Pretty cottages, elaborate wrought-iron kissing gates, huge, beefy stone-built walls, and if the route gets a bit hilly in places, then the views will be worth it.  You’ll be able to see far more of what makes the countryside of England special.

We left the carpark at Barley had headed out of the village, heading towards Pendle Hill along snickets and cobbled lanes, then along a well-trodden path at the side of which a stream burbled. We passed a tree with an enormous cavity in the trunk – a perfect spot for a goblin to hide – and kept ascending, although the gradient, at least, was kind. Ahead was the steep stony track to the summit of Pendle. Tiny figures – one in bright pink – were making steady progress. We didn’t follow, turning left instead, cutting through a stingy-scratchy bit of overgrown green stuff before emerging into fields where the sheep lazed in the sunshine. The views were already worth a pause, sloping fields framing the valley, stands of trees, dark in the distance and the glint of water in reservoirs below.   

We continued our contouring run around the base of the hill, one minute on grass cropped to nothing by grazing sheep, the next through long swards, filled with buttercups and rushes. Then we descended carefully through the steep wooded slopes of Buttock Plantation, hanging onto trees and watching out for trailing brambles and roots. At the bottom of the slope, there was chest-high bracken, thick and strong. At Ogden Clough, we crossed the waterway by an inscribed stone:

Witch: female, cunning, manless, old, daughter of such, of evil faith, In the murk of Pendle Hill, a crone.

Not wanting to tarry in the murk of Pendle Hill – just in case there were lurking crones – we headed uphill through Fell Wood where the trees stretched skyward and the path tried to follow. All the nattering and chattering stopped for a while as we fought for breath. Finally, the path levelled. Set with stones, it still needed care, but it was peaceful, pretty, earthy and fresh. As we left the plantation, a woodpecker once more started to drum on a tree. 

Beyond the wood, at the highest point of our route, we had views down to Burnley at one side, and towards Gisburn at the other. We trotted down the fields to Newchurch, then headed up to another plantation where we ate Jammie Dodgers and topped up on fluids while picking out the route we’d already run. 

A lovely, long gentle descent followed and then we picked up the course of White Hough Water and followed its southern bank until it became obvious we were finding pottering along a riverbank far too easy and were led back uphill again to do a loop of Roughlee itself. But, it wasn’t that tough, and the uphills were evened out by the downhills, and crossing the stepping stones at Pendle Water was fun (even though if we’d have gone straight through the watery stuff, I doubt we’d have washed away. It’s been very dry of late – which was good news because heading back towards Barley, some of our route had definite wet-weather-quagmire potential). 

Our route back led us through some smashing fields – long lush grass for resistance work and wooden stiles for a breather every couple of hundred yards. The few cattle in the fields barely batted an eyelid as we passed.  As we neared our destination, we were offered two options to finish. One involved a track. The other involved a track we’d need to make. It took us through a lot of undergrowth, ash saplings, hawthorn, branches, brambles, across some unidentifiable lumpy-bumpy stuff and a struggle of rubble and tree stumps. It was a slow finish, but lots of fun. 

Back in Barley, with the griddle in the café hot and breakfast calling, we settled down at the tables outside and waited for the brews and sausage butties. The site was busy. Walkers, cyclists, possibly other runners, out in force to enjoy the best of England on a fine summer Saturday. Exhilarated from the run, I’d forgotten the poppies and what they stood for. I’d forgotten that this landscape has been fought for throughout history, not just through armed conflict but also by the mass trespasses of the 1930s which did so much to help people like us enjoy our natural landscapes 

On days like today, it’s easy to see that it’s worth fighting for. It is beautiful out there. 

Kate Woodward