For experienced hill-walkers only. About ten miles with challenging terrain in parts.
The OS 1:25000 “Dark Peak” map and good compass are essential, as is a stick for testing the ground, before you commit to tread.
Black Hill. A sinister sounding name; a dark reputation. The second, challenging day for walkers attempting the full length of The Pennine Way; a grim summit of black, boggy peat, stained even blacker by the industrial grime brought on the howling wind from the Lancashire mills.
The reality today is a whole lot brighter. The Clean Air Act and on-going conservation work to repair the damaged moorlands, make this a destination teeming with wildlife and full of scenic value, every step of the way.
The walk starts out from Crowden, a hamlet, at grid reference SK072992, where you will find a car park, slightly off the A628. Walk past the toilet block, northwards, passing a large campsite on your left and wooded picnic area on your right. This path will bring you to a sort of crossroads where you need to turn left up the metalled track, passing a farm on your right and over the bridge at Crowden Brook. Already, the road noise is behind you, replaced by birdsong and the walking is very pleasant.
About 250 metres up from the brook you will discover a wooden signpost pointing right: “The Pennine Way”. From hereon, stick to whatever looks like the main path and you can’t really go wrong until you enter the open moorland section.
The views are stunning, even at this early stage, so take time to look around and admire the changing scene. The way passes easily over a few fields and a couple of stiles before entering the open access area through a gate next to a stand of coniferous trees.
Below, near Crowden Brook, you’ll see the big new YHA hostel and outdoor activity centre. On the once quarried rock faces to your left you are likely to see parties learning the rudiments of climbing and abseiling. The stump of an old stone pier to the right of the path is evidence of the extent of the former stone industry in this valley; it is such a peaceful, rural scene today.
While the path remains easy to follow for a long while, as you continue up the Western side of the valley, the scene becomes ever more dramatic, with large square boulders scattered across hillsides that sweep majestically up to the dark fringe of crags. Scatterings of birch, holly, larch and rowan break up the bracken, moor grasses and heather; already the “go-back-go-back” call of the red grouse will have been heard. Rarities such as peregrine falcons and ring ouzels breed in the high rocks.
Crossing a small stream the path heads steeply up, passing by a gorgeous cascade in Oaken Clough Brook, before emerging onto the moorland plateau at Laddow Moss. The next mile is a sometimes hair-raising jaunt along the edge of the clough, but is truly exhilarating. Laddow Rocks are an obvious photo opportunity, towering over the depths of the canyon as the brook far below takes a sharp kink in its course. “Canyon” might sound like too strong a term, but the valley here is worthy of it; this has to be one of the most breath-taking vistas in the Peak District. Laddow Rocks was one of the first destinations for climbers setting out from Manchester in the late19th century, when the sport first started; there are records of men climbing here in their clogs.
As the path approaches near to Crowden Great Brook once more, the scene is much more tame, but no less interesting. A classic V-shaped valley here, near its source, the stream is surprisingly wide as it flows over a series of horizontal slabs in the bedrock.
For a short time the path becomes less distinct, but as you are simply following the brook onto the open moor, there should be no real confusion. As the view finally opens out in full, there can be no mistaking the Pennine Way, for from here, pretty much all the way to the summit of Black Hill, the path is paved with stone slabs air-lifted in from former cotton mills. This used to be the most notorious section of the walk; boggy, foggy and extremely treacherous. The exposed black peat gave its name to the hill, while the curses of hikers gave the place its reputation.
Some incredibly important conservation work is being carried out by the Moors for the Future partnership, in order to put this moor - and many others in the Peak District - back to how they were at the start of industrial revolution.
The paved Pennine Way takes you safely through the fantastic results already achieved by the environmental teams. Pools on either side are once more brimming with life and dammed by healthy masses of peat. Cotton grass dances in the late Spring; among nesting birds that thrive in these high damp areas are snipe, lapwing and the splendid, but increasingly rare golden plover.
The wide-open space makes distances deceiving; it seems as if the summit will never be reached. Finally, after an uphill trudge, the white trig point comes into view, reflected in the blue waters of the pools, (on a fine day). So much peat has eroded away over the decades that the pillar stands high and dry at the former summit level, shored-up on a platform of stones and leaning at a very precarious angle, for a trig point.
Now for the tricky part. In theory, (on the map) the path home now departs from the trig point (and Pennine Way) in a Southeasterly direction. So boggy is this next section of the walk, you will see that walkers have struck out in all kinds of detours to avoid the pools and mires. Given that you should only be attempting this walk in good visibility, look for the distinct cairn, Southeast in the near distance; that is your first goal. Take a compass bearing on it, as it will disappear at times behind the haggs of peat. Counter-intuitively, some of the shallower pools may prove firmer ground than the solid-looking peat around them; test every step with a stick – and good luck!
Having reached the impressive cairn, give yourselves a pat on the back; things are much easier from here on. The path is more distinct now, as it follows the “groughs” (sandy channels between the peat “haggs”) over Tooleyshaw Moss. To the East you cannot fail to have noticed that we are passing within two miles of Holme Moss TV transmitter, the top of which is sticking up above the skyline; a highly useful point for orientation.
There is a definite sense of “homeward bound” now, as the route gently descends before climbing once more to near the summit of White Low, topped by a stake. You will see that there are in fact two paths along this saddle of moor, one public and one not so, (though effectively it makes no difference on this open access moorland). To add to the confusion they cross over each other twice and, passing over Westend Moss, neither seems to do what it should, according to the map. So use the trodden way as a hint only, making for a point near the summit of White Low before rounding the fish-shaped pool on Westend Moss, (a dry-ish anticlimax in reality, not worth making a special effort to view). Eventually, you will arrive at the edge of the plateau, looking down into Longdendale.
Fantastic views, yet again, from here; better still, the route back to Crowden is clearly visible. The two paths offer a choice of ways, but the “non-public” one is psychologically more inviting, as its entire course is visible from here, almost all the way to the car park. This is the path dropping gradually down into the clough, to the right; keep on a steady line and don’t get led astray by sheep tracks disappearing too steeply towards the brook. This is the other Crowden Brook, Crowden Little Brook; not quite as dramatic, but its valley is worth the turning of your head, as the spurs of Black Hill sweep down to the waters below.
A track is soon met to take you easily down past some old quarry workings on your left, (with some interestingly-shaped boulders strewn across the hillside). Finally, just as you leave the open access area, Brockholes Wood, clinging to the valley’s side, is an SSSI and an important habitat for pied flycatchers and redstarts. Well worth a visit if the legs can take it.