Britain Central? It's a stop in the Forest of Bowland

An often mist-shrouded land is the first to be opened by the right to roam law. Robert Nurden explores

Thomp, thomp, thomp. As we rounded the corner by Slaidburn post office, eight walkers, all in a line, were cleaning the mud off their Scarpas and Merrells after a hard day's yomping on the moors. The unnecessarily loud ritual over, they slipped into the Hark to Bounty pub to devote the rest of their evening to the local ales. With the weak winter sun edging behind the slate roofs and a sharp wind slaking off the hills, we sneaked in behind them and bagged a spot by the roaring fire.

We'd come to the Forest of Bowland, in east Lancashire, to walk to the middle of Great Britain. This, my research told me, was a springy patch of ground 600 metres west of the Whitendale Hanging Stones - grid reference SD63770 56550.

A bit of an anoraky thing to do, I grant you. Well, Harry from Cornwall certainly thought it was. "What are you doing that for?" he asked pointedly, as his wet clothes steamed in front of the blaze in the public bar. He'd come to walk these gently sweeping moors of heather, bracken, blanket bog and dry stone walls, all by himself. "It's only a piece of wet moss. Anyway, if that's what you want to do, go ahead. Good luck. You'll need it."

The next day dawned bright and clear. We drove to Dunsop Bridge and parked. Before striding out, we made a call in British Telecom's 100,000th payphone, in which a plaque marks the "centre of the kingdom", and the fact that Sir Ranulph Fiennes officially opened it in 1992.

Most non-Lancastrians have never heard of the Forest of Bowland. Much lower than the mountains of the Lake District, it is nevertheless dubbed "England's last great wilderness" - 300 square miles of pristine landscape. It contains very few trees, in this instance the word forest denoting a royal hunting ground rather than a wooded area. Its unfamiliarity is down to the fact that much of it is privately owned, either by the Duke of Westminster or United Utilities, and its raison d'être is grouse-shooting.

Until 19 September 2004 that is, when it became the first moorland area in Britain designated by The Countryside and Right of Way Act 2000 to be opened to the public. Walkers could roam it at will.

The gently moulded hillsides of Bowland make most of the walks manageable. Our 12-mile route took us along Whitendale valley, where frightened pheasants screeched, buffeting up into the air and dropping into the safety of clumps of golden bracken. On Hard Hill, this sound gave way to clonking, as pairs of grouse sprung from under our feet and beat a clumsy aerial path towards swaths of impenetrable, purple heather. And on one occasion, we saw what we thought was a hen-harrier, emblem of Bowland, flying majestically along a stony ridge.

It was then that we noticed that our route ahead was overlaid with an ominous film of mist. It cascaded down the hillside like the spreading of a tablecloth. Banks of grey cloud were gathering, a vicious wind cut through the grass, and large spots of rain splashed on to our cagoules. Within minutes, visibility was only a few yards. Up there in the murky gloom the centre of Britain still stood - but we weren't going to be seeing it. We gave up and retraced our steps.

The reception area of the Inn at Whitewell is a wine shop, so our stay there had a good, if slightly eccentric, beginning. Our room key was attached to a cricket ball, and that was because the owner, Richard Bowman, is a former Lancashire cricketer. Even if you don't stay, make a point of dropping in: the food is superb. When it's like this - all bustle and friendliness - you realise that an inn really is something special, quite distinct from a hotel, guest house or pub.

Walking is the best way of unearthing the special magic of quiet, unhurried Bowland. But cycling is another. We hired bikes and pedalled through Gisburn Forest, which really is a forest. We followed the track under the tree canopy - ideal because it was tipping down - and stopped to look out over Stock's Reservoir. Through misted-up binoculars we could spot wigeon, mallard, teal and flocks of the ubiquitous Canada geese.

Carrying on through the firs, we caught the lolloping flight of an owl as it scudded around in the gloom. The wet-weather shelter at Martin's Laithe enabled us to eat our sad, soggy sandwiches before we headed back.

Our damp, aching limbs called for some emergency retail therapy. It was on offer in abundance at Bashall Barn, a farmer's market stuffed with local goodies, including joints of succulent Bowland lamb. Down the road near Chipping we stumbled across brown signs to Bowland Wild Boar Park, where we leaned over fences, peering at these primordial creatures that used to roam these hills. Then, cruelly, we purchased them in sausage form.

Downham, a picturesque village with panoramic views of imperious, bald-headed Pendle Hill, is the location for the BBC 1950s drama Born and Bred. The infamous Pendle witches of 1612 - Old Demdike, Chattox and Alice Nutter among them - all came from this area. Their trial is the most documented of its kind in British history. In the graveyard at St Mary's at Newchurch-in-Pendle there is the witches' grave, marked with a skull and crossbones. The church tower contains "the Eye of God", which is designed to keep parishioners safe from evil spirits.

Downham's other claim to fame is slightly more down-to-earth: the pig sties of a disused farm have been converted into public conveniences, the imaginative use of the original pens as urinals gaining it a coveted design award.

When a boy, J R R Tolkien used to holiday at nearby Stonyhurst College, gaining inspiration from the Ribble Valley for his descriptions of Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings. You can - inevitably - take the Tolkien trail, a five-mile walk through the land once trodden by Gandalf and Frodo.

The steep-sided grandeur of the Trough of Bowland eventually ushered us away, but not before we'd stocked up on sweets at Downham's village store. The tall, rangy figure in front of us was ordering a quarter of liquorice allsorts from one of the old sweet jars. It was Harry, complete with plus-fours. "Hello! Did you find the centre of Britain?" he asked with a smirk.

"Yes, it was really impressive," we lied. "Glad we made the effort."

GIVE ME THE FACTS

Where to Stay

The Hark to Bounty Inn, Slaidburn, Clitheroe, Lancashire (01200 446246; www.harktobounty.co.uk) offers double rooms from £59.50 per night with breakfast. The Inn at Whitewell, near Clitheroe, Lancashire BB7 3AT (01200 448222) has doubles from £94 per night with breakfast. Open peat fires cost £6 extra.

What to do

Bikes can be hired from Higher High Field, Slaidburn (01200 446670). Bowland Wild Boar Park (01995 61554); Bashall Barn (01200 428964).

Further information

Bowland Visitor Centre, Beacon Fell Country Park (01995 640557; www.forestofbowland.com) and Lancashire Countryside Service (01772 534709) has details of guided walks and other activities. The Bowland Transit system makes linear walks possible; its buses will also take bikes and deviate off the route to pick up passengers (01995 618 25).

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