Date: There are two versions of this walk, a shorter and a longer version. The short version was done on 16th April 2020. With not much else to occupy myself walking-wise, thanks to lockdown, I returned to complete the longer version 18 days later, on 4th May 2020. Pictures on this page are drawn from both walks.
Weather conditions: 16th Apr: In most ways, a glorious day of blue skies and perfect temperatures; except that it was a little breezy.
4th May: Cooler and cloudier, though still quite pleasant for walking. Rain threatened for most of the day but never quite fell.
County Top bagged: Black Hill, which stands at 582m/1,909ft above sea level at grid reference SE078046.
Black Hill is both a historic and modern Top, but has changed its county allegiance over time. Historically its summit was located on the border of Cheshire and the West Riding of Yorkshire, and was the highest point in the former county. In 1974 various county boundaries were redrawn, and the summit found itself lying on the border between Derbyshire and West Yorkshire. Yet it remains the highest point in a county: only, that county is now West Yorkshire: specifically, the local authority of Kirklees, based around Huddersfield.
Rankings by altitude:
- 44th of the 91 historic Tops;
- 34th of the 172 modern Tops;
- 51st of the full list of 196.
Black Hill is one of seven County Tops, historic and modern, to be ‘Black’ — the most of any ‘colour’. It is also one of seven CTs located on, or within a very short distance of, the Pennine Way, along with Kinder Scout (Derbyshire), Black Chew Head (Oldham), Blackstone Edge (Rochdale), Withins Height (Bradford), The Cheviot (Northumberland) and Cairn Hill (Roxburghshire).
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Start and end point of walk: The full version of this walk starts and finishes at Marsden railway station. This is served by regular services connecting Manchester Piccadilly and Huddersfield.
The short version of the walk — which is obviously easier, but also less interesting (while still being a decent short walk) — starts and finishes at the little roadside car park above the reservoir of Wessenden Head, just off the A635 at grid reference SE077077. This can be reached by occasional buses that connect Greenfield railway station, on the Manchester Piccadilly to Huddersfield line, with Holmfirth. These run on Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday at the present time.
The long version of the walk took me around five hours: the short version, two hours (both including a leisurely lunch break on the summit).
Pub at end: The Railway Inn in Marsden stands right outside the railway station, as its name attests — but what it is like, I have no idea, seeing as I did this walk while all pubs were shut thanks to the Great Paranoia (see commentary).
Distance walked: From Marsden railway station to the summit and back, via the variations on the way down, is around 12.4 miles/20km approximately. The shorter version of the walk is 4.25 miles/6.8km approximately.
Feet of ascent: The full version of the walk is 1,700 feet/520m approximately.
Difficulty: ★★★. The full version of the walk gets three stars because it is quite a hike distance-wise, and a full day’s work. But terrain-wise, it’s not difficult. Anyone still basing their view of what it will be like on old copies of A. Wainwright’s Pennine Way Companion will be pleasantly surprised by its utter simplicity. The days of battling through peaty quagmires to reach the summit of Black Hill are long gone. Only at one point — the crossing of Dean Clough (which you have to do twice) — is there any steepness; and note also that signs warn you off this crossing after heavy rain.
Use sunscreen on a hot day, because once out of Marsden, there is no shade nor shelter on this walk whatsoever.
Ease of access: ★★★★. We are pretty much in the centre of the country here and Black Hill could be bagged on a day trip from most of England, and probably Scotland, with a bit of planning. Marsden isn’t served by express services on the Manchester to Huddersfield line, but as long as you change trains in one or other of those principal stations it’s not going to be hard to reach.
Scenic qualities: ★★★. I nearly gave this four stars because in many ways it is a grand walk. Lovers of bleak Pennine moorland will enjoy it, although that landscape can be an acquired taste. There are some fine views of the Holmfirth and Huddersfield districts and the Wessenden valley is, if not actually pretty, as close to cute as you will find around here. However, the summit of Black Hill is undistinguished and lacks views — this is the dullest and least attractive part of the walk. And I wouldn’t come here on a rainy or misty day.
The area: The county of Cheshire is to the north-west of England what Surrey is to the south-east — the epitome of affluent suburbia. Black Hill never really bought into this aspect of it, being stuck up in a distant salient, an almost-detached portion of Cheshire territory that used to reach into the Pennines but which the good Tory-voting folk of the county were happy to delegate to the uncouth types from over the Pennines in 1974. The whole walk these days takes place in West Yorkshire.
The immediate area is characteristic of its foster parent, with expansive, bleak moorlands slowly giving way to fields enclosed in dry-stone walls as one drops off into the valleys. It’s a wide-open landscape, not dramatic exactly, and scarred by industry and pylons, but I’ve lived in the vicinity for over a quarter of a century now and, well, I’m still here.
Map: The very first OS Outdoor Leisure map to be published covers Black Hill, namely OL1 Peak District — Dark Peak area. Marsden sneaks onto the bottom of OL21 South Pennines. Not that you will need either map in order to undertake the walk.
Route: It would take rare talent to get lost on this walk, so this section does not need to be long. The first task is to get out of Marsden the right way. From the station, go down Station Road, turn right onto Church Lane, then left onto Fall Lane. Go under the main road, past the football club and straight across the mini-roundabout onto Binn Road, which is the way to take out of town.
There are variations possible with the subsequent ascent of the Wessenden valley, but my advice is to leave them for the way down, so I will describe them later. Just carry on up Binn Road until reaching the obvious reservoir access road on the right, which take.
This way ascends past the four reservoirs in the valley, named, in order: Butterly, Blakeley, Wessenden and Wessenden Head. Keep on the left-hand side of the water as you see it, there is no reason to cross to the other side at any point. The path is easy to walk on, uphill but never steep. After about three and a half miles it comes out onto a road, by a small car park. This is where the short version of the walk begins and ends.
From here walk the couple of hundred yards to the main road. Astonishingly, there used to be a pub here (The Isle Of Skye), but you will see no sign of it now. Cross over the A635 with care (although visibility of oncoming cars is not a problem), turn right for a short distance, then take the path on the left through the wall, signposted to Black Hill.
Except for a few very short sections, all is on the stone flags from this point and the path is impossible to lose. Only the crossing of Dean Clough might cause difficulty. Both banks are steep, the northern one (the one you descend on the way there, and climb on the way back) being the higher. The view to the west will hold the attention: you can see most of Kirklees (Holmfirth and, once you get higher up, Huddersfield).
It is remarkable how little Black Hill nowadays resembles the description and illustrations provided by Wainwright in his 1967 guidebook to the Pennine Way. Black Hill’s Wikipedia page (as of 16/4/20) mentions in passing that ‘restoration work’ has recently taken place around the summit. This has eliminated almost all the exposed peat that made Black Hill’s name appropriate, but also made it a desperate trial for walkers, particularly in bad weather.
But perhaps this work has also robbed Black Hill of its distinctiveness. The white-painted trig point now stands in a plateau of heather and grass that is friendlier, but could be anywhere within a hundred miles. Nor is there much to see from the summit thanks to its flatness, except the mast of the Holme Moss transmitting station. I walked a little way further to see if a view opened up, but the sight of distant hills, depicted here, is as much as you get.
Once you’ve done what you wanted to do on the summit, even if it’s just have lunch (as I did), retrace your steps to the main road and the car park before turning back down the Wessenden valley.
The walk back to Marsden would outstay its welcome, except that there are a couple of variations possible, which add interest and pleasure to the return journey, hence my recommending they are left until the descent. First, when you come to the Pennine Way sign that appears to be pointing over the edge of a cliff, take the path which is actually there, and at the bottom double back down a path which leads along the side of the river and the banks of the Blakeley reservoir. This is a pleasant little dell (see the picture) and a nice break from the main path.
There is no similar way alongside the Butterly reservoir (despite appearances), so stay on the main track, but once at the dam you can cross it and inspect the various bits of associated engineering, before dropping down a long straight stairway into the valley. The path beside the Wessenden Brook then leads past the monumental, but derelict, buildings of the old mill and back into town.
Permitted exercise commentary: I don’t want to, and am not qualified to, pass judgements about the steps being taken to combat the threat of everyone’s favourite virus at this time. Suffice it to say that we in Britain are still permitted to take moderate bouts of exercise outdoors, and I believe that doing so is essential to my short-, medium- and long-term physical and mental health. Neither version of the walk described on this page takes place far from my house. I have not been able to go to my usual countryside playground, the Lake District, for at least six weeks now. I accept the restriction. I am not using public transport or meeting with friends. On the simple paths that one follows on this walk I put no more ‘pressure on the NHS’ than I would have by going up and down the steep stairs at home.
Differences of opinion are evident within ‘authority’. The drive to Black Hill on April 16th took me through the territory of two police forces, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire. The road from Greenfield to the tops, under Manchester’s jurisdiction, was peppered with bright yellow signs warning about the total closure of beauty spots like Dove Stone reservoir and the paths around. Access roads were barricaded off, and even the laybys on the A635 blocked with cones. But over the summit, and into West Yorkshire, there was none of this, so on both days that I visited several cars were parked at Wessenden Head. Exercise is good, it is helpful. Hurrah then for West Yorkshire’s more reasonable and sensible acknowledgement of these kinds of need.
I am finding it increasingly hard to accept some of the excesses of lockdown. It seems to me that no one really knows how this virus spreads most readily, but the general consensus seems to be that outdoor activities are less likely to transmit it than indoor ones. Add to that the other physical and mental health benefits of a good walk and the ongoing closure of the countryside — at least, indirect closure — seems to be counter-productive. By the latter point I mean, even if we are allowed to walk, are we being trusted to travel to the places where we can walk?
I don’t agree with the restrictions on travel but I also see little point in being fined for crossing some arbitrary boundary that divides ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ travel. I have been sticking within West Yorkshire in recent weeks. But after my first bag of this 10th County Top I said it would be nice to rebag Black Hill via a more ambitious route: driving up and starting at 1500’ above sea level was not the most authentic hiking experience. It turned out to be a worthy walk from Marsden, and I’m glad I returned: I feel I have done this summit properly now, and recommend it. Remember — things have changed since Wainwright’s day!
And the next walk? Oh, Christ knows… it could be anything. However long it takes for the general intermix of infection, risk, fear and paranoia to shift enough to allow it to happen. There may be a couple of other CTs near enough to allow this kind of visit, particularly if a more tolerant attitude develops to solo travel. Even so, I just have to wait…. and wait…
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