Forest of Bowland Weekend

I was the last of our party to set off for home from Dunsop Bridge on Sunday. With a measure of sadness, I watched everyone depart. Sitting in my car, in the pouring rain, I found releasing the clutch pedal surprisingly difficult. My joints were refusing to cooperate. I promised myself a soak in the bath and a night on the sofa with the feet up, but just a few yards down the road I was already thinking I want to do that again. That weekend was amazing. 

In three days, we’d had five runs. We’d pottered around Barrowford’s trails on a mild afternoon, we’d charged through woodland by torchlight, we’d made the journey from Sawley to Barrowford via lanes, tracks and bridleways and returned via a route that saw Pendle Hill in the way and ploughed on regardless. Finally, we’d gone to the very centre of the UK and added another 10 miles to the weekend’s tally.

I’ll admit to being pleased that I’d made it around all the routes. I’ll admit to feeling totally cream-crackered, and I’ll admit to something else if you promise not to call me a complete softy: fellow trail runners – you are a brilliant bunch and it’s been a joy to be with you. 

I think that trail running brings out the best in people. When running isn’t competitive, there’s a different dynamic. You learn about each other’s strengths, but you don’t capitalise on the things they find more of a challenge. It’s inspiring to hear what people have done, what they’re training for and which landscapes they love. It’s the shared experience of the slippery descent, the foot-soaking moss and of tiptoeing safely past a herd of curious Angus steers. It makes me happy. I think it makes you happy too.

If you heard me uttering a few choice words as I was heading up the zig-zags on Pendle, I’m sorry.  If I pinched one too many of your chips in the pub, I apologise. Thank you for every hand you offered when climbing the stiles, thank you for holding gates, thanks for every warning you called out and for trying to get Match of the Day on the TV late on Saturday night. Thanks for the brews made and the laughs and the giggles, the encouragement when the knees were whingeing and for so many moments of sheer magic.  

Now, after all that gushing sentimentality, let’s see if I can remember where we ran. 

Friday, 1st March – A trot around Barrowford – 7km

We met at the Pendle Heritage Centre and started with a quick round of introductions. For some, there were lots of new face and names, but the conversation was soon flowing on the perennial pre-run topic of what to wear. The afternoon was overcast but dry, and we’d been waiting to start down by Pendle Water. Away from the river, the air felt warmer, and once we were moving, we were regretting the extra layers. 

It took no time to leave the tarmac behind. We picked up a track that saw us nipping under a dual carriageway and onto the side of the Leeds–Liverpool canal. Just beyond that lies a path which winds through a stretch of woodland and emerges by a road. On the other side, there is another leafy lane, industrial buildings vying with the greenery, a paddock with a stout pony, another road crossing and then a long sloping field – where a flock of sheep made a rapid getaway as we approached.

Just beyond the pavements where most runners plod are footpaths, footbridges, cottages tucked into corners, there are green spaces and tracks across them, bare hawthorns waiting for the real spring, a reservoir that’s invisible until you’re at its side – a feeder perhaps for the adjacent waterway. There is the delight of discovery, of spotting a track that leads somewhere new. 

We crossed the canal and headed towards Higherford, then took the stone packhorse bridge across Pendle Water. North of the village, just beyond the creep of housing, lies rich pasture land. It’s verdant, gently sloping, good easy running apart from one well-disguised bog right at the end that that soaked everyone’s feet. Standing there, waiting to use the stile, joking about how we’d almost managed a run with dry tootsies, the last of the ice was broken. Squelching just a little, we headed back to base for a brew, a doughnut and a change of footwear. 

Friday, 1st March – Headtorches at the ready in Sabden – 10km 

The gang had grown. Those whose work commitments left them unable to join the fun earlier, met us in Sabden for our night run, raring to go. It was a chatty, noisy crew that headed out past St Nicholas Church. There was enough daylight to see the odd hazard on the wide trail that took us east along the valley, but head-torches torches were rapidly switched on when we crossed Sabden Brook and headed over the rough, tussocky grassland up to Padiham Heights. 

From the high point, the lights of the towns and villages below twinkled – made warm and magical by the darkness and distance. But the raw, elemental nature of our surroundings returned almost immediately as we had to cross a bog. It wasn’t as bad as sink-or-swim, more a case of getting ready to change direction when the person in front plunged deeper than expected. Cattle were mentioned which prompted some swift progress across the tricky ground, but mercifully, no hooves were heard thundering, and we clambered over a rickety stile into Black Hill Woods. 

We ran through, calling out warnings about tree roots and trailing branches, our world reduced to the scope of a torch beam, concentrating on every step, trying to be agile, feeling the thrill of the pace. In Well Wood, we slowed, crunching through the undergrowth, feet caught on snaking brambles, shielding our eyes from the sparse twigs of beech saplings, watching out for fallen branches that we’d have to jump over. Then, shortly afterwards, the woods changed character again. Now we were running through mature trees on firm clear paths, simple to follow and sloping gently downhill.  

We carried on crossing fields and tracks towards Read and then turned north plunging once more into woodland, following a narrow descending trail, half smothered by holly bushes, where rounded rocks glistened with damp. Beyond, there was a footbridge and a climb back onto the higher ground, part way up Wiswell Moor. in the distance, we could see the illuminated spire of Sabden’s church, and we contoured around the hillside, heading towards the light. 

A quick drive up the road and we arrived at the Sparrowhawk in Fence. Seated together at a long table, we tucked into the plates of our pre-ordered food. There was high praise for the black pudding starters, the goat’s cheese tart and the steak and ale pie. The dessert menu proved tempting, and several of us fell into the crumble trap. 

It’s worth knowing that the Sparrowhawk’s coffee is served hotter than molten lava. if you want to drink one in three weeks, order it now. 

And then we grabbed some shuteye. 

Saturday 2nd March – Sawley to Barrowford – 21km

By 8.30 on Saturday morning, we were on the trails. The weather had looked threatening, but just five minutes after setting out, jackets were being stuffed into backpacks and the gloves were off. As we passed Skinners Sike, a dozen or more deer were running through the woodland, their grace and stealth in marked contrast to our slow and noisy progress up the slope. 

Flat fields gave us the chance to find some rhythm, and soon we’d crossed under a railway bridge and were heading towards Rimington. There, parked close to a paddock filled with pygmy goats, was the LTR car. Sarah, acting as support crew for the weekend, was waiting with goodies and we topped ourselves up before heading off again.  

Still a long way in the distance, there was a stand of trees on the horizon. We’d been trying to guess how long it would take us to reach it, but it was clear we needed to gain a lot more height. The ascent started gently enough but continued and continued. The fields became a track, the track became high moorland, the ground got tricky, the odd pheasant startled out of the undergrowth, sheep tracks wound through newly planted trees, stiles were wet and slippery, beds of spongy moss lurked … and then we were there, in those woods on the horizon at the high point of our morning’s run and energy levels soared as we started the descent through the trees. A few fields later, there was the support car again, with chocolate brioche and drinks, and we fell on the supplies like starving creatures. 

The sun was trying to punch its way through the cloud. Curlews were calling, a horse entertained us with a skittish dance. We dropped into woods, crossed streams under trees festooned with catkins, spied two men on the hunt for buried treasure and nearly dognapped a spaniel which thought we looked like fun. By Pendle Water the daffodils were out, trees were decorated with blossom and it felt like spring. We crossed the river, picked up and followed the canal and finished the morning with a quick trot through the park. 

The half marathon in the bag, lunch was required, so we piled into the Barrowford base – where Sarah had prepared a fantastic spread – and fed our faces. 

And then it started. “Who’s going to run back to Sawley?”

Could we face running the distance again, this time taking in Pendle Hill en route? Wouldn’t it be nice to put the feet up, find a café for coffee and cake? Rest up, ready for tomorrow’s run? There was no pressure. No arms twisted. No guilt trip or persuasion. This was always how it was planned, and people made their own decisions.  

Saturday 2nd March – Barrowford to Sawley – 21km

Ten of us set out. Ten of us made it. If you’d have asked me ten minutes after we’d set out whether I’d made the right decision, I would have said no. I knew Pendle Hill was in the middle. I knew we were going over it, but I kind of forgot that the uphill started long before we reached the foot of the hill.  I’d expected the challenge to be tough, but I expected that to become evident towards the end, not right at the beginning.

We climbed back out of Barrowford, crossed the fields and dropped into Roughlee, used stepping stones to get across the river and then headed uphill again. We ran through a stretch of woodland and found ourselves on a lane perilously close to our Whitehough base. There was a quick discussion about whether anyone wanted to call it a day, but we all agreed to keep on going.  

Getting to Barley involved contouring around the fields and a path consumed by brambles and tumbled walls. It was spotting with rain. A few walkers were on the main path to Pendle, but more were heading down. The track was well used, with regular erosion-preventing steps set into it. Each felt massive, but we were on a mission and that big monstrous hill in front of us was going to be conquered. We just needed a few Haribos, and fortunately, a bag was on hand.  

The zig-zags were tough. The wind was in our face and the pace was slow, but the experience was not without its moments of levity – a young man standing on the 6- foot-wide-path asked us whether this was the route down. His dog had already decided to set off. Hopefully, he followed. Eventually, along a stony track, the trig point appeared, but the wind was too strong for hanging around. We set off into the teeth of it, huddled into a tight formation and ran along Pendle’s rounded spine.  

Part way along, we stepped into the shelter. The walls of the stone-built structure describe an almost complete circle with just a thin slit allowing access. It’s open to the skies but inside the walls are bench lined, and it’s remarkably cosy. The breather was welcome, giving us the chance to enjoy a quick drink free from the raging wind. 

Getting off Pendle was probably tougher than getting up it. The descent route challenged everyone. Steep, stony and cursed with tumbling rocks, it needed every bit of concentration – each step judged, footing and balance checked before you took another. But as we dropped lower, we became sheltered from the wind, and once down, on soft, easy gradients it was wonderful to run again, to feel the flow of easy movement. 

With Pendle done, the running was much easier. Sheltered by hedgerows we made good progress and kept looking at the bulk of the hill we’d just run up and down. From the outskirts of Downham, it looked ridiculous. We’d done it, but it had taken its toll and we were relieved to see Sarah and the support car with its stock of drinks, flapjacks and crisps. Later, she said it was scary when we descended on the food. 

The last few miles were pretty. We followed Ings Beck from Twiston to Downham Mill and crossed the tiny stone bridge over the river. The rain had begun to fall, it was getting chilly, but spirits were high. We began to look out for landmarks that would show how close we were to Sawley. We went under the same railway line we’d nipped under early in the morning, we crossed the same main road just a mile to the east. A bridlepath through some trees, poor light and slick paths needing extra caution, and then we could see the ruins of Sawley Abbey, and the Spread Eagle and it’s promised pint. 

The bedraggled crew that walked into the pub were soggy, muddy and tired. There was a real sense of relief that it was done, but also a warm sense of satisfaction. The beer was perfect. 

Later that evening, the rain set in – and set in heavy. We got wet again, running from the car to The Lounge in Barrowford, but inside the atmosphere was lively and fun. The burgers were massive, the Piri-Piri chicken very spicy and the pancakes were served with syrup and ice cream. 

But hey, we’d earned it.

And then we grabbed some shuteye. 

And a lie in. And a big breakfast. 

Sunday 3rd March – Dunsop Bridge – 16km

Everything packed up bar running gear, we drove over to the very centre of the UK, Dunsop Bridge, for the last of our five runs. From the car park, we could see a rather ominous looking hill, but the route started easily enough with a slow trot up the River Dunsop valley. At either side, steep slopes filled with bracken and heather, but where we were, there was nothing more testing than wet feet and soft mossy grass. 

Crossing the river, the route began to climb. At the foot of Costy Clough, we passed between two waterfalls, emerging on a trail that contoured around a slope buttressed against landslides. Heather scratched at bare skin, feet needed placing carefully, but still, the real climb lay ahead. 

By a farm, we stopped for drinks and then started to zig-zag up Dunsop Fell. The path gave way to eroded peat, sparse moorland grasses, sandy rocks, cloughs and the occasional footpath marker. This was soft going and fun, with the rich organic earth cushioning the steps, and when we made it to the top the cloud had stayed away, and we had a brief but brilliant panoramic view. 

The descent was simply fantastic. The ideal gradient for running. Not too simple, not too technical and when we got off the hill, we found Sarah waiting with slices of melon and Eccles cakes, which turns out to be a super combination. 

We didn’t hang around because it was starting to rain, and our last three miles were a trifle damp. The idea of coffee and cake at Puddleducks Café was very tempting and even though the legs were flagging, we kept on running. More stiles, more woods, more tracks, more steps and trails. More laughs, more squelching, more support, more mud splashed in more places. 

And then it was over – the café stop was the last port of call on this brilliant, testing, affirming adventure. It was a weekend of beautiful countryside, endless variety, trails of every nature and enough food to sink a ship. This kind of experience will always teach you things about yourself, but it’s being with others which makes it special. This was a weekend about sharing – the many highs, the challenging moments, the chips and the whole blooming-bonkers experience. 

Like I say, I want to do it again. 

Who’s up for it?

Kate Woodward