Curlew River

Failure to complete a planned hike invariably leaves you with an uncomfortable feeling of doubt. Were the reasons you turned back genuine, or self deception when what you really wanted were a drink and a hot bath?

It was a day of unpredictable late April weather in the Forest of Bowland. The four of us had picnicked on a hillside, largely in sunshine, in the lee of a dry stone wall before climbing towards Totridge Fell. Suddenly, as we set off again, the temperature seemed to plummet and we were walking in a brief blizzard, the north wind plastering us with wet snow. The route was unclear. Poor visibility didn’t help. There was some argument about whether or not we should abandon it. We wimped out.

The Inn at WhitewellOur starting point had been the Inn at Whitewell, a hotel almost as eccentric as the weather but so comfortable that the desire to get back there probably  influenced our decision. The hotel is full of antiques. On the mantelpiece in the room my wife and I had booked was a vintage tie press. On a table next to our four poster was a black dial telephone from the days when exchanges had names and people pressed button A in phone boxes.

Throughout the building the walls are covered in old artwork. “They must have bought every hunting print in the North of England”, said one of my walking companions. Charles Bowman, currently in charge of this ancient coaching inn, so hates the thought of those little UHT cartons left on do-it-yourself hot drinks trays in so many British hotel bedrooms that tea and coffee are delivered at no extra charge. He is the third Bowman to be involved with the Inn. His father Richard played cricket for Lancashire, which accounts for the scuffed balls used as key fobs. Some of these must by quite old, though probably not old enough to have been delivered by Harold Larwood, the fast bowler at the centre of the 1932-33 “bodyline” Test Match controversy, whose biography was among the books left on my bedside table.

View from the dining room - Inn at WhitewellWe had eaten, the evening before our walk, in the main dining room. Next day we would dine in the flagstone floored bar. The main advantage of the former was the stunning view from the bay window by our table, straight down the Hodder Valley to distant fells. That of the latter turned out to be fish pie, that was billed, justifiably, as famous.

A booklet of walks was available in the reception room, which doubles as a wine shop. We headed north towards the village of Dunsop Bridge. Curlews called wistfully from the marshy ground between footpath and river. Bright billed oystercatchers – they  have moved increasingly inland in recent decades – took off noisily at our approach. We passed fine example of the vernacular architecture, stout stone houses with door lintels, sometime betraying great age. In the valley bottom meadows were just born lambs of the oddly name lonk breed, their ewes sporting extravagantly curled horns.

Stepping stones behind the Inn at WhitewellThe Forest of Bowland, an ANOB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty)in Lancashire,  lies broadly in triangle made up by Lancaster, Clitheroe and Settle. It was a medieval royal hunting ground and remains part of the Duchy of Lancaster. Its gritstone fells are close to those of the Lake District but attract fewer walkers.

Large swathes of its heather moorlands are managed for red grouse shooting but they are also home to the rare hen harrier and an extensive area has also been designated a Special Protection Area under the European Birds Directive. Anglers fish its rivers for trout, salmon and grayling. Seven miles of water are available to the Inn’s guests.

Had we completed the route we would have crossed the Hodder near the Inn via a long string of stepping stones, a cautious process which we had experienced the previous afternoon. As it was we headed back along a quiet road. I was questioning our decision to abort when we heard a crash of thunder. Thus we were able to congratulate ourselves on the wisdom of descending to the valley. And it seemed even more sensible when lashing rain drove us to the shelter of a church porch.

Climbing to the fellBesides, the asphalt walk brought a couple of unexpected compensations. First we spotted a couple of lapwing chicks in a field, its parents doing their best to divert attention from them. Lapwings, according to Birds Britannica, will sometimes even feign a broken wing, dragging on along the ground to tempt a predator from the nest. The collective word for them is a deceit. The second compensation was the sight of a curlew, caught in flight through my binoculars against a blue again sky, an image that will endure long after the day’s frustration fades from my memory.

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Roger Bray

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