Wilderness is a relative term. In Britain it is difficult to find the kind of mind-bogglingly empty vastness akin to Siberia or parts of Canada. Then again, venture into Scotland’s Cairngorm plateau in mid-winter or roam the remote peaks of the Fisherfield Forest and you will certainly feel like you’ve escaped the trappings of civilisation. However, for many of us it requires a large amount of commitment, travel, time and effort to get away to such Highland majesty.
But there are places where you can at least get a taste of wilderness right on the doorstep of some of Britain’s largest population centres. Places where you can get tossed about by fierce winds, watch dark clouds build over moody moors and marvel as the sunrise adds a magical sheen to the battered heather on a frost-bitten winter’s morning.
Enter the Calderdale Way, an awesomely accessible long-distance hike that delivers enough Pennine wilderness to be utterly enthralling, yet is close enough to civilisation that you can end each day sheltering by a cosy log fire with a beverage in hand. It’s a beguiling 50-mile (80 km) loop that hikers have enjoyed for almost half a century.
Starting at West Vale and encircling Halifax, Hebden Bridge and Todmorden, the Way follows old packhorse routes and country lanes across exposed gritstone moorland and through gorgeous wooded valleys, to many of the region’s charming settlements. There are many opportunities for wildlife watching, particularly in the pockets of woodland that dot the countryside.
You discover spectacular landscapes that have inspired some of Britain’s greatest poets and writers, such as Ted Hughes and Emily Brontë. Local legends abound on the moors, ascribed to their ancient structures, monoliths and gritstone formations. There are also murky secrets to discover in villages that harbour tales of counterfeiting cartels and bloody betrayal.
Calderdale was on the long list when Britain’s national parks were first devised but missed out due to the amount of industrial infrastructure remaining on the moors. Many would argue that this heritage adds to the character of the landscape, rather than detracting from its undoubted beauty. These vestiges of past labours reveal the story of the land and consider the interplay between natural and human forces.
The highlights of the Way are many and include: Ripponden, a charming village of narrow lanes and quaint stone cottages; Mankinholes, a picturesque hamlet in the shadow of the majestic Stoodley Pike; Heptonstall, a historic village perched on a spur above the valley; Midgley Moor, a vast heather moorland that boasts tremendous views; and Luddenden Dean, a delightful, wooded valley.
I have split the Way into four stages of between 11 and 14 miles (18 and 23 km) in length. My itinerary sticks to the traditional approach, beginning and ending at Clay House in West Vale and heading in a clockwise direction. There’s nothing to stop you completing the circuit in reverse or from your own chosen start point.
Accommodation is easily sought in the valley’s towns and villages, should you wish to shorten or lengthen stage. Warm layers and waterproofs are highly recommended, as this is one of England’s wettest regions and the exposed moorland can brew up challenging conditions. When this happens, you can deviate from the route and head for the comforts of the valley at any time without difficulty. In the warmer months, it is a hike that is suitable for all reasonably fit walkers — just don’t forget your suncream.
Calderdale is especially beautiful during the colder months, particularly on frosty, blue-sky mornings. If you plan a winter round, check ahead with accommodation providers and eateries to make sure they are open.
To access the Way, West Vale is just under a 3-mile (5 km) walk from Halifax train station, or a short bus ride. It is also just off the M62 between Leeds and Manchester.
For a long-distance hike of similar character, check out the neighbouring Rossendale Way: komoot.com/collection/1095887
The opening stage is a tale of three moors and three valleys. Starting from West Vale, it ascends onto Norland Moor, before descending into the picturesque village of Ripponden in the Ryburn Valley. Next is an ascent across the broad northern flanks of Great Manshead Hill and a descent to Cragg Vale…
This stage arcs around the Upper Calder Valley, rising and falling as it explores the landscape above and around Todmorden, before a high traverse affords wonderful views across the valley. The stage ends in Heptonstall above Hebden Bridge, one of Yorkshire’s most historic and distinctive villages.
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The penultimate stage takes you on an atmospheric journey across the edge of the rugged, wild moorland to the north of Calderdale. Having tackled the moors, you descend into delightful Luddenden Dean and its superb wooded trails, before once more taking to the high ground and eventually reaching the…
The final stage is probably the least wild feeling, as you venture through the countryside between Halifax and Bradford, visiting a few quiet villages en route. You meet the River Calder at the market town of Brighouse, before ending the hike in West Vale.
From Catherine Slack, descend to the south east…
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