I used to love walking when I was in my teens and twenties. Then I married a woman who was a real townie, and my long walks in the countryside petered out. Instead, I found myself making trips to other towns and cities, adopting her lifestyle and enjoying eating and drinking in all the different restaurants and cafes on offer. There’s nothing wrong with a life like that, but I never realised how much I missed a good hike until recently, when I had some time off over Christmas, and decided to go for a long walk on my own.
Gisburn Forest is in the North of England, a deciduous woodland and conifer plantation covering some 1245 hectares (3076 acres), with almost 90% tree cover. I’ve loved the place since my salad days, have written two novels set in the area, and I still visit some of my favourite spots with my wife on a semi-regular basis. Even though she’s no country girl, she can appreciate why I love it so much.
It made perfect sense for my first long walk to be through Gisburn Forest, and I chose to go in search of Hindley Head, one of several abandoned farmhouses within the estate. I had been eager to make the trip over in my new VW ID.3, and finally got to experience how it cruised silently through the country lanes, sailing up steep hills as if they weren’t there.
I’m well aware that 3000 acres is a fairly large area, and with most of it being dense forest, I knew there would be little to no mobile phone coverage, and that it would be easy to get lost if I just set off wandering through the trees and tried to find my way without some kind of navigation aid. In order to save my wife the trouble of calling out the emergency services if I didn’t return, I pre-planned a route to Hindley Head before the trip, and downloaded the route to my phone, which was charged to 100% when I arrived.
It was forecast to be a cold but dry day, so I wrapped up well, put on my walking wellies, and set off from the car park at the bottom of School Lane near Stocks Reservoir, at the beginning of the first leg, which would bring me out at the smaller car park at the top of School Lane. I ate two sandwiches as I walked through the trees, enjoying the sounds of nature.
Before long I came to a large cleared section that wasn’t shown on the Ordnance Survey map, but I was on a narrow gravel path, and knew from my GPS position that I was on-track, so I took a few minutes to pause and enjoy the view over the tree tops and the distant fells.
Not long after I took the above photo, I reached the top of School Lane and crossed the road for the next leg of the hike, which took me through a part of the forest I’ve never explored before. Several trees were down as a result of the recent Storm Arwen, including some that had been stopped mid-fall by other trees. The path continued beneath some of these, and I was careful to keep an eye out for any further falls as I went through.
As I continued, I noticed fresh deer droppings everywhere, which indicated there were deer around. Gisburn Forest has a good population of sika deer, and I have seen a couple over the years. I carried on walking and kept to the path, but it started to get quite muddy and slippy in places. I was thankful for my wellies, and relieved when I reached a denser part of the forest, where I found myself on firmer ground that was covered in pine needles and cones.
My relief didn’t last long. I continued following what I thought was the path, but it was no longer obvious, and I suddenly found myself trying to navigate a bog. The ground became increasingly soft as I pressed on, sure I was on-track, until suddenly my feet oozed down into a rusty brown sludge that indicated the presence of iron-oxidising bacteria. I panicked, and stumbled, and the slime splashed everywhere as my feet sank deep with every step, but I managed to stay dry and on my feet.
I checked my phone to see where I was in relation to the planned route, and could see I had gone slightly wrong. At this point I could see from the map that I was very close to one of the many gravel tracks that cut through the forest, and I knew I had to get to it, but first I had to climb out of the bog and up a steep six-foot bank. It was tricky, but I made it. I found the gravel track straight away, but unfortunately I couldn’t find my planned path again, and so I had to take a diversion along the track.
At this point I decided to change my plan and head for Hesbert Hall instead, which is another abandoned farmhouse within the forest. From there I could back-track to Hindley Head in the opposite direction to which I had planned. I was impressed when I reached Hesbert Hall, and couldn’t believe such a beautiful old farm was deserted. I would be happy to live in it!
I struggled to find the right path again, but didn’t want to give up without reaching the abandoned Hindley Head, so I followed a heading through the woods, and eventually found myself on-track. The ground became very boggy again, and I was worried about a repeat of my earlier performance. Fortunately, I managed to avoid the wettest parts, and eventually came to a clearing, with Hindley Head right in front of me. This old place was a bit more spooky, and for some reason I felt slightly unnerved.
It was getting late in the afternoon and the light was starting to fail. I was aware I had a good hour and ten minutes walk back to the car, but I wanted to get a different view, so I moved closer so I could see the old barn. I made a mental note to visit again and explore further when I had more time, but I knew I was running out of daylight and had to start heading home.
I went back into the forest and followed the edge of the drystone wall down towards where the gravel track would be. It was tricky in places due to fallen trees, and as I looked out across the old meadows I saw another ruin, White Hill House, which I would have passed on my outward journey if I had found the path again after stumbling into the bog. I wanted to get closer but I didn’t want to attempt going through those thick trees again so late in the day.
I followed the return leg of my hike as planned, down through the forest and back to School Lane car park. I was a little disappointed about deviating from my original route, and even more disappointed about not seeing White Hill House close up, but I’ll do that some other day.
Back at the car I had a hot coffee waiting for me in my Chilly’s bottle, and it tasted so good after the long walk. I drank it sitting in the driver’s seat, before making my way home, back over the hills, through the twisting country lanes.
The route I created is here on Outdooractive. It’s marked as moderate, due to it being over five miles, but as a hike it’s perfectly within the capabilities of a fit person wearing sensible clothing and footwear.