Bowland is connoisseur’s country. On first impressions, it’s long heathery ridges wrapped around green valleys, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s wide horizons and tight-knit villages. It’s easy striding on a grassy ridge with paragliders wheeling past like giant exotic moths. It’s a flounder through knee-deep snow to get a sunset view, and then the electrifying realisation that those razor-sharp outlines are the Carneddau, 120km distant. It’s lying back on a warm rock and listening to the bubbling call of the curlew. It’s the pleasure of the unexpected: a mossy green clough incised into the edge of a wide dark moor, a wrinkled fist of gritstone suddenly appearing from the endless heather, a hare rocketing from cover a few metres away. It’s an easy amble through meadows glowing with buttercups and a white-knuckle ride on the rocky mountain bike trails of Gisburn Forest.
Let the hordes scurry past to the Lakes and Dales; we know there’s plenty of pleasure to be found right here. In the absence of the hordes, the pleasure of solitude is one of the chief delights. Apart from a few hotspots–and even those mostly at weekends–Bowland remains relatively quiet. I have often walked for hours without seeing another soul. If you want crowds, you’ve come to the wrong place.
The Forest of Bowland, by strict definition, is a compact block of upland country including extensive areas of moorland over 400m (1310ft), with its highest summit at Ward’s Stone (561m/1841ft). Pedants might debate the inclusion of Longridge Fell, separated from the main mass by the valleys of Loud and Hodder, but it is clearly cut from the same cloth. Geographically, there’s no question that Pendle Hill is not part of the Forest of Bowland, though it is geologically akin and it does fall under the same Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)–and anyway, it’s just too good to leave out. The total area of the AONB is 803 sq kilometres (310 sq miles), of which over 90% is in Lancashire; the rest is claimed by North Yorkshire and abuts the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
The word ‘Forest’ may lead some to expect a heavily wooded area, but that’s not what we see today. Small woods abound but larger forests are rare, apart from Gisburn Forest (Lancashire’s largest) in the east and a lesser expanse on Longridge Fell. The name actually harks back to an older meaning of the word, an area set aside for hunting, usually by royalty or the nobility. This status, along with the relative infertility of most of the area, helps account for its low population. Today shooting – grouse on the high moors, pheasant on the lower slopes – remains economically important and influences the management of the uplands in particular, sustaining the globally rare and important heather moorland habitat. You might not relish the idea of killing birds in the name of sport, but two facts are inescapable: without the shoots, the landscape would soon look very different; and, without the shoots, many (already scarce) rural jobs would be lost. This is not untouched wilderness – nowhere in England is – but it is country that often feels wild.
In distant views the fells may appear smooth and rounded, but close up they often appear much rockier – never more exuberantly so than on Clougha Pike. A few crags, like Thorn Crag and Cold Stone, have attracted the attention of rock climbers, but there are no really popular climbing grounds to compare with the Peak District. Belying its gloomy reputation, the gritstone of the heights is typically quite light in colour, sometimes glinting silvery in the sunlight, and many of the outcrops are a pleasure to scramble about on.
Underlying the grit, and often outcropping on the lower slopes, is Carboniferous Limestone; this has been extensively quarried around Clitheroe. These lower slopes and valley floors are green and relatively fertile, but dominated by dairy farming rather than arable. It’s a landscape of small fields and scattered woods, the essence of Middle England – or even, some say, Middle-earth (see Walk C11).
Bowland is a rich and many-faceted area. I would hardly feel that I knew it properly if I had not explored by bike as well as on foot. To give as wide an experience of Bowland as possible, this book therefore includes walks (both circular and linear) as rides for both road and mountain bikes. Of course the bike routes could be done on foot as well – though not vice versa. But they are, honestly, easier and more fun by bike.