Three bears, a barn owl and a visit from The Bard

Chipping was holding its annual show. From the outskirts of the village, the low sounds of a PA system announced pony classes. Farmers were busy carting their best livestock towards the show ring. A man was reducing the height of a stile ready for the afternoon’s fell race and the village’s population had been swelled by a race of flowerpot men. One, the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, sat on his bench and watched us as we set out to explore.

The day was bright. The early chill was already being replaced by the promised warmth, and we set out through the village, getting into a gentle rhythm. Soon we left the tarmac behind, turned onto long, lush grass and struck out across the fields. The lambs, born in the spring, fat now, and growing good fleeces ready for winter, barely lifted their heads as we passed by.

The next field was stunning. The sward, weighted with recent rain, shone like silver in the sunlight. In the distance, the bulk of Pendle Hill rose from the valley bottom, its profile imposing and dark.
We negotiated a stile by a tree packed with crab apples and slipped into the shady cool of woodland. Underfoot, twigs snapped. There were dark green oak leaves with fat yellow acorns. There was a rustle of feathers, the protesting calls of a disturbed pheasant and the sweet earthy smell of mud. The drought conditions have gone, and the grass is growing fast. The ground has regained its ‘give’ and the streams are slowly filling again.

We passed an outcrop of rocks, debated whether it was natural or the site of an ancient quarry, but came to no sound conclusion. The entrance to a shaft, natural or otherwise, was capped with a substantial cage. A spell on a quiet lane and then another patch of woodland, where we crossed Greystoneley Brook for the first time.

We turned onto a lane. Opposite a cottage, stood a small stand of trees. As we passed, a barn owl emerged from the foliage and flew slowly by, going out of our line of sight far too quickly. A few minutes later, crossing another field, we spied the bird again, flying low just a few yards away. The day already felt special, but the owl was a moment of magic.

A little while later, we pottered back into trees and re-crossed the brook by a salmon run. When it’s been so dry, the sight and burbling sounds of running water are very welcome. In the shade, crane flies were bumbling through the stalks of dried grasses. In the sunlight, ladybirds were pinpricks of shining colour, and hawthorn bushes were thick with their ripening fruit. Cresting a hill, we discovered we were far from alone in a field. A small herd of suckler cattle – cows with calves at foot – watched as we made slow and quiet progress through their domain, but they too were quiet, steady, calm and content. Leaving the field, we entered a farmyard where swallows treated us to a display of aerial acrobatics as they hunted on the wing.

We turned onto higher ground, a long sweeping track that climbed gently towards Burnslack Fell and then contoured around the base of the hills rather than heading up them. A few stones, a few puddles, a lot of laughs and chatter as we made our way west towards Parlick in the sunshine. Blue skies, white clouds, vibrant green grass and skylarks bouncing into flight.

A stop for drinks and a few welcome Jelly Babies and we were ready to tackle stepping stones across another small stream. The stones themselves stood well proud of the water, but perhaps the flow wasn’t yet back up to its normal levels. Back onto the track, and then into a deceptively bumpy field, studded with creamy yellow mushrooms, and beyond that into a maze of waist-high rushes, where your feet became invisible and zig-zagging was the only way to go forwards. The grasses swished as we snaked a course through.

We must have climbed a fair way, for now, it seemed that we were always heading downhill. The slopes were gentle and often they needed to be. The new damp conditions had left surfaces slick. We took our time, making sure feet were firmly planted, calling out warnings about slippery stones, low branches, brambles and the threat of stinging nettles.

The challenge was never enough to be uncomfortable but was pitched just right to keep you on your toes. Was the dried-up bog, dry enough to hold your weight? Was the stile, in effect, a seesaw? Was the ford as shallow as it looked? The answer in all cases was yes.

If you’ve recalled the title of this blog and are wondering where the three bears are, I should admit that I wasn’t referring to the return of a large carnivorous mammal to the Ribble Valley. It’s a reference to that old familiar tale where Goldilocks found conditions to be just right. And this was a Goldilocks run, where everything from the weather and the views, from the gradients on the climbs to the dappled shade of the wooded glades was spot on. Everyone seemed to smile the whole way around. The pace allowed us to stop and admire the scenery, and Chipping and its surroundings were looking fabulous in their late summer colours.

We made our way back to the village, and I believe our faces must have shown the buzz we’d got from being on the trails because, in the carpark, we met a poet who treated us to a performance of his work. Through the wonders of the internet, I’ve surmised he was William Michael Neary, also known as The Bard of Bowland, Chipping born and clearly devoted to the area. The poem is called A Land for Your Dreams and begins:

“Bowland, Oh, Bowland, she’s wild and she’s free…”

It was the most unusual way to end a run. A chance encounter, no more, but entirely fitting. Those of us still discovering this beautiful area – and falling a little in love with it – finding a connection with someone who has this landscape entwined with his soul.

After such a meeting, it’s wise to take a few minutes to reflect. Luckily, the Cobbled Corner Café was just a few yards away and had the kettle on. Sausage butties, poached eggs and coffee were taken on board and the talk about running adventures kept flowing.

Kate Woodward