Roaming in the Forest of Bowland is now a more eco-friendly pursuit, thanks to a bus service for walkers. By Mike Gerrard
WE WOULD have to miss the duck race ("Cash Prizes. pounds 1 per ticket. pounds 1 per duck"), but we had a bus to catch. It was the first Bowland Pathfinder Bus of the year, a scheme introduced by Lancashire County Council to help walkers and to cut the use of cars in the Hodder Valley. Most roads in the area are little more than single tracks, and reducing the numbers of cars using them helps to keep them safe and suitably rural.

The little Bowland Pathfinder tootles between Preston, Clitheroe, the Beacon Fell Information Centre and the stone-built villages in between. It links with trains from Manchester and enables walkers to plan straight walks rather than circular ones back to the car. If you don't want to plan, there are organised 'Pathfinder' walks with guides most Sundays from now until 6 September. We were joining one from Dunsop Bridge to Slaidburn with 17 other walkers, two rangers and a Hilda Ogden T-shirt.

"Hello Chuck" said the T-shirt, while the lady inside it asked if we were waiting for the bus. The T-shirt, she explained, had been a present from a friend. "I do this very bad impression of Hilda Ogden singing 'The hills are alive, with the sound of music.' So someone gave me this T-shirt." "Maybe you could do it halfway round the walk?" we asked. "Oh no, it's not a pretty sound and I need a few drinks first."

We got on the bus and paid 90p to head for the centre of Britain. According to Ordnance Survey, the village of Dunsop Bridge is our geographical heart, and a telephone box symbolises the spot (though the actual location is in a field close by).

"Most of the land around," said the walk leader, Paul, "is owned by the Duchy of Lancaster, and it's the part of the country to which the Queen said she'd like to retire, which caused some publicity a while back.

"The area's called the Forest of Bowland, though the word 'forest' originally meant a hunting area rather than its present-day meaning.

Local people weren't permitted to hunt in the forest or to remove anything, except what they could pick up off the floor or reach with a stick or a shepherd's crook, and it's thought this is where the expression 'by hook or by crook' originated.

I also knew, from previous visits to one of my favourite parts of Britain, that if anyone was found hunting deer without permission, they were taken to the court which sat at the Inn at Whitewell and charged with the crime of "venison".

We walked down a drive lined with redwood trees to Thorneyholme Hall, once a nunnery and more recently a beauty spa. "This is the only area of Lancashire where you get good numbers of buzzards, so keep an eye out for those," Paul told us.

As we strolled in the warm sunshine along the banks of the Hodder, two oyster-catchers flew over our heads, calling to each other.

"They come inland at this time of year to breed," said Paul. "I've even seen cormorants around here. The fishermen kill them because they say they eat all the fish. Well... I mean, that's what cormorants do."

We climbed a grassy hill till we were high up between Hodder Bank Fell and Birkett Fell, where Bronze Age remains have been found on the hilltops.

Across a little valley, Paul spotted the black tail-end of a stoat, snaking its way through the bushes. We reached a field and a hare long-legged it away from us. Curlews called and a skylark sang.

We crossed Giddy Bridge and Paul pointed out a medieval latrine on the side of a farmhouse. Lush meadows took us back down towards the Hodder and a round of drinks at the Parker's Arms in Newton, with its welcoming signs: only customers were allowed to use the carpark, or to use the toilets, and no one could eat any food not bought on the premises.

On a bench in front of the pub, one walker took out a plastic bag from his day-pack. The landlady was there at the door, obviously fresh from her "How to win new customers" course. "I shall have to ask you to put that away as we don't allow people to bring food onto the premises," she said.

"I wouldn't mind," he said when she'd retreated, "but I wasn't even going to eat it. I was checking what we'd got left. Has she got video surveillance in there?"

"I was going to have a Polo mint, but I don't think I'll risk it," someone added.

We walked back along the river to Slaidburn's friendlier Riverside Cafe, where we had a cup of tea, wondered who'd won the duck race and watched the Pathfinder bus pull in, bang on time.

Pathfinder walks are free. For details of these and a bus timetable, ring Lancashire County Council (Tel: 01772 264709) or the Beacon Fell Information Centre (Tel/Fax: 01995 640557).