Walk of the Month: Somewhere in the middle of nowhere

Mark Rowe stumps through the Forest of Bowland to the official centre of the British Isles - and a lonely and desolate spot it is too
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The Independent Travel

'Bowland is big, bold and it's in your face," said Dave Padley, the area's countryside officer, grinning like a child in a sweet shop. "I just the love the sheer isolated desolation. There are places in Bowland where you are miles from the nearest habitation and there's not many of those left in this crowded island."

It's difficult to resist such a carrot when it's dangled in front of you. There are other reasons to visit the 312 square miles of the Forest of Bowland in north Lancashire. It's an Area of Oustanding Natural Beauty, the UK's largest breeding site for hen harriers, and home to merlins, short-eared owls, and ring ouzel. The Pendle witches, executed in 1612 for using witchcraft to murder 17 people, hailed from here, too.

What's more, it is not even a forest. Bowland was once a royal hunting forest but proved to be too far from London. As a result, ownership became something of a free for all for the local gentry who sliced it up into private estates. The present Duke of Westminster owns a sizeable chunk. This historical legacy made Bowland a cause célèbre for campaigners demanding the right to roam and greater access. Bowland was the first area to be opened up under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act and celebrated the first anniversary of its augmented access last week.

While walkers rejoiced at the right to roam, a few things are worth noting. Access land is often remote and rough. Where paths exist, they can be little more than sheep trails and often give up the ghost altogether. This area is noted for its sphagnum mosses and bogs and you will need gaiters; expect at times occasionally to sink one leg into the bogs as far as your knees. Your reward for such difficulties is some of the wildest and emptiest scenery in the UK.

The walk starts in the tiny village of Dunsop. In an overhang of a feudal tenant-landlord relationship, Dunsop is owned by the Duchy of Lancaster and everyone pays rent to the Queen. The village green is idyllic and hosts a colony of ducks grown obese on packed-lunch leftovers. BT's 100,000th telephone box is located here, and though it has seen better days, it is handy as there is no mobile reception in the valley.

Start at the post office, which doubles as Puddleducks café. Take the bridleway just before the bridge and follow the paved way to a block of cottages, and on to the path running by the River Dunsop. Cross a wooden footbridge and turn right up the snug, fern-fringed Dunsop valley with conifer plantations on either side. The bowl-shaped Middle Knoll soon looms ahead. After two miles, you cross a weir and reach an information board. Cross the footbridge and continue up the valley. The path briefly twists away from the river and you must skip across some stepping stones before rising above the valley. It then continues, boggy in parts, to the remote Whitendale Farm. The story goes that news of the end of the First World War took six weeks to reach Whitendale and neighbouring Brennand farms.

Turn left between two dry-stone walls to reach the farm. Respect the farmhouse's privacy and keep to the left of the garden before turning right, passing the farm and going through two gates. The path along the bottom of Whitendale Fell is well marked, often with posts for Salterfell, but will give you your first taste of the bogs that lie ahead. Grouse shooting is a lucrative business hereabouts and you will doubtless startle dozens of the birds as you plod along.

After a couple of miles, you reach the Hornby Road (an ancient track) where the reward for the sweaty climb is a dramatic view, with broad sweeps of moorland rising on three sides and Dunsop valley far below. Turn left and continue for just under a mile to a gate and a fence. Turn left, with the fence on your right, and follow it uphill. There is a path, but it is often overwhelmed by the bogs. It is probably easiest to keep close to the fence. Eventually, the fence bears right - keep with it until you reach a kissing gate. Though you are only at 490m, the sheer wilderness can bring on that on-top-of-the-Earth feeling.

On your right are the slightly sinister boulders of Wolfhole Crag but our walk turns left to follow the fence to reach White Crag. Keep with the fence as it then swings south towards Whitendale Hanging Stones. According to Ordnance Survey, these nondescript boulders mark the centre of Britain, when you include its 401 outer-lying islands. Follow the fence as it continues under the glare of the severe ravines of Whin Fell. It can be slow going, as the path here has well and truly surrendered to the bogs. You reach the remains of a dry-stone wall where the hill drops steeply and must be negotiated with some care. A wall runs in from the left to an unstable stone stile, which you cross and head south again to reach another wall, a stile and a footpath. Turn right along the footpath to reach Brennand Farm. The paved road here leads back to the information point in front of Middle Knoll, where you pick up the route back to Dunsop Bridge.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

Distance: 12 miles.
Time: Up to six hours.
OS Map: OL 41 Forest of Bowland and Ribblesdale.
Staying there: The author stayed at Woodend Farm (01200 448223), Dunsop Bridge. This is a working farm, which has been run by the Whitaker family for 99 years, offering b&b from £25 per person per night.
Getting there: Dunsop Bridge is best reached by bus from Clitheroe, which is served by Virgin trains to Preston and Manchester and Northern Rail to Clitheroe. Call 08457 484950 for train times.

For more information: Visit www.forestof bowland.com or call 01772 531473.

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