Date: 14th March 2021, with Clare.
Weather conditions: Very mixed. We had periods of sunshine and periods of sleety drizzle, and on occasion these came only a few minutes apart. Things generally deteriorated through the day but fortunately we were having our cups of tea at the end before anything really grim blew in.
County Top bagged: Woolley Edge, the summit of which is marked by a trig point at SE307134 (pictured) that has a spot height of 577 feet/176m above sea level. This is the highest point in the local authority of Wakefield.
Like all the other metropolitan boroughs, Wakefield became administratively independent in 1986 when Margaret Thatcher, desperate to get Ken Livingstone (then leader of the Greater London Council) out of a job, abolished all the urban counties that had been created in 1974 — in this case, West Yorkshire. Of the five CTs which lie within the borders of that former county (the others are the Tops of Leeds, Bradford, Kirklees and Calderdale), Woolley Edge is easily the lowest, and the only one not in the Pennines.
It’s the only Top to give its name to a motorway service station. Which is a rather dubious honour, if you think about it.
By altitude it ranks 118th of the 172 modern tops and 139th of the full list of 196.
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Start and end point of walk: Started and finished at the visitor centre of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (hereafter, the YSP), just south of the village of West Bretton. The walk took us about 3¼ hours.
Pub at end: There doesn’t appear to be a pub of any kind in West Bretton — which is a pretty damning indictment for a village of its size, if you ask me. Refreshments are available in the YSP, though as we did this walk during the Great Fear, we couldn’t confirm whether the café is licensed under normal circumstances. At present, you can get only snacks and a cup of tea. (Or that other caffeinated stuff.)
Distance walked: We covered 7.25 miles/11.7km approximately. Your own figure will be dependent on how much perambulation takes place around the YSP.
Feet of ascent: 590 feet/180m approx.
Difficulty: ★★. The final haul up to the Edge is a little steep, but beyond that, all is straightforward walking. It’s muddy, though, and if you do this in trainers you’ll probably regret it.
Ease of access: ★★★★. No problem at all to reach this if you’re in a car. The walk straddles both sides of the M1 at junction 38, just south of the eponymous Woolley Edge services. If you do want to travel by public transport, probably the best option is to use Darton railway station, which is on the Leeds – Wakefield – Sheffield line. This is just over a mile south of junction 38. West Bretton also has buses to Wakefield.
Scenic qualities: ★★. The YSP adds interest and visual appeal to the walk, and the views from up on the Edge are quite extensive. But this is not mountain country. You are in agricultural Britain, and that usually means mud, as it does here. The M1 doesn’t intrude that much visually, but it’s constantly audible so this isn’t a walk to undertake for the peace and quiet.
The area: Despite having lived in its fellow Yorkshire authorities Leeds, then Calderdale, since 1993, I have never engaged much with Wakefield. A factor in this may be that it’s the biggest city in Britain — some say, Europe — to have never had a professional football club. Rugby League is what Wakefield watches for its sporting kicks, with two top-flight teams (Wakefield Trinity and Castleford) and another second-tier club (Featherstone Rovers) within the city boundaries. But I’ve never understood that activity.
The Yorkshire Sculpture Park was opened in 1977. It changes its outdoor exhibits frequently, so you will see different things if you re-visit. Bretton Hall, around which it lies, was a teacher training college affiliated with the University of Leeds, my (and Clare’s) alma mater: this was always considered the institution’s Siberia. It closed in 2007, and has since rotted away gracefully. Plans to turn it into a hotel and offices are maybe not looking such a healthy investment, under present circumstances.
Map: This walk was arranged too late to pick up OS Explorer 278: Sheffield and Barnsley. We got round without it, though it would have been useful at some points.
On this summary map, our starting point is marked by the blue ‘V’ just south of West Bretton village. We went round the circuit anti-clockwise. The summit is marked by the trig point symbol to the north-east (top right).
Route: This walk is OK, but I wouldn’t travel great distances just to do it. On a sunny day it’ll be a pleasant ramble but there is a tad too much road walking, and where it does avoid roads it tends to lead into mud. But if you’re keen on the work of people like Henry Moore and Damien Hirst then you’ll want to come to the YSP anyway, and bagging the Top while you’re there is a nice way of extending the day and exploring the area. It certainly didn’t feel like a wasted day.
What route you take through the YSP does depend on whether there are particular works you want to see (pick up a map from the visitor centre). There is usually a park gate open that gives access to the A637 nearer to the motorway junction (at the other blue ‘V’ shown on the walk map), and if you can use this I would do so, as that would allow you to explore the park on both sides of the lake before leaving. But under Great Fear conditions, this gate has been closed, even for pedestrians, so we followed the route as outlined here.
From the visitor centre, head downhill bearing to the right of the old college campus, and past the impressively-rumped statue pictured here (it’s a rabbit…. honestly). Cross the lake at Cascade Bridge, actually a dam. Head uphill from there and when the path opens up into pasture, bear left and then cross the fence by a stile.
This leads to a rather poor-quality path that heads along the edge of a field, rises a little through woodland, then comes out into another field at a complex junction of paths. Check the map; the way is downhill at this point, keeping to the side of the wood and then dropping down a very muddy path that arrives at a road between some houses and a farm, where these cows live.
Turn left at the road to come out onto the A637. Follow the north side of the roundabout to take you under the M1. Take care at each road crossing — visibility is OK but cars are moving very fast here. Follow the sign to Woolley Edge to climb up Haigh Lane for a few hundred yards. You can follow this road all the way to the top if you like, but the pavement will peter out, so we bore right by the old chapel (now a nursing home) up a lane to Near Moor Farm, where a very faded signpost indicates that there is a public footpath through the farm yard and up through fields to the scout hut in the woods.
The map here suggests you can bear left along a right of way but there’s no obvious path that corresponds to this so just follow the scouts’ steep driveway up to the Woolley Edge road above, and turn left. Here there is no real alternative to having to walk along the side of the road. There are some decent views, but that’s the only plus point. Follow the road past the crossroads at the top of Haigh Lane, then turn right up a path that takes you into the woods parallel with the road, and attains the trig column that is the summit of Wakefield a short way later.
We retraced our steps from this point to the crossroads and then descended via the upper part of Haigh Lane, then the footpath that leads round the edge of Savin Royd Wood. The map indicates a right-of-way from here that heads directly back to the entrance to the YSP, south of West Bretton. But though the right-of-way may well still exist, there is no way to assert it, because there is no apparent means of crossing the M1 at this point. So we ended up heading north along a clear (but muddy) path that passes a couple of ventilation shafts for the railway tunnel below, and comes out onto the road near the service station.
Turn left at this point, and the rest of the way is on tarmac. Keep turning left and you will be led through West Bretton village and back to the Sculpture Park.
Sabbath Commentary: This was my third Sunday in a row out walking. Seven days ago I completed the second of my routes up Blackstone Edge. On 28th February, in glorious ‘first day of spring’ weather, Clare and I walked the first instalment of the Calderdale Way, from our home in Hebden Bridge to Todmorden.
That became one of those rare things in my life right now — an unblogged walk. The Calderdale Way, which circuits my home valley for 50 miles, has plenty of potential for a post, or series of them. But it’s C’s project, her idea all along. So it didn’t feel right to usurp it. We’ve got at least five, and possibly six, more segments to walk yet, with a commitment to have done it all by the end of 2021. Maybe I’ll write something about the whole thing when all are completed.
The CTs though — that’s my project. The weather forecast was not positive, so another trip up any local Pennine moorlands was less desirable. Woolley Edge and the YSP delivered a reasonable walk under the circumstances, but as with everything else over the last twelve months, how much nicer it might have been if everything had been fully open. Not that we missed out on patronising a local hostelry in West Bretton: I’m still shocked that a place like that can’t muster a single public house.
The news? Depressing. I speculated on here in September how I foresaw ‘anti-Covid’ laws, forbidding gatherings of more than six, being used to stamp on any political dissent which might emerge. Last night in London we saw the actuality. Vigils held to express anger at the death of a woman in London — a serving policeman has been arrested for the crime — were broken up by police in the name of ‘public health’. ‘Safety’ as far as Authority is concerned means cowering at home in fear: even what we did today is officially frowned upon.
You might think, won’t it all be OK again after the end of this month, when these restrictions start being lifted? Yes, I hope it will. But the precedent has been set. As it has been with regard to pubs being shut for more than three months, high streets closed and boarded up for the same length of time, and no nightclubs for approaching a year (16th March marks the anniversary of the first panicked clamping of sphincters around the UK).
If the country does open up its arms again — and that means also to foreign visitors — then I will welcome it wholeheartedly. But it hasn’t happened yet. Life still goes on just a couple of days at a time.
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