A couple of years ago I took part in a pedometer challenge and headed for the summit of Pendle Hill. Part of the route took me along the lanes between Downham and Pendleton. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was in ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ country so, after hearing a Radio 4 feature about the film’s director Bryan Forbes, I decided to revisit this tucked away bit of Pendle countryside.
- village history
- Pendle Hill
- Whistle Down the Wind
- ancient lanes
MAP (click on it to open in a new window)
This is what I call a ‘there and back’ walk, as opposed to a circuit. The route follows the base of Pendle Hill, starting just outside Pendleton and reaching Downham before turning round to come back. There was a slight detour on the way back, following the footpath towards Worsaw Hill and then dropping down into the farm where Whistle Down the Wind was filmed.
When I heard the radio broadcast on Bryan Forbes, the fact that it was shot in Pendle made me hire the film to see which bit they were talking about, so it came as a surprise to see that it was this location they’d chosen. I’d heard of the film, but hadn’t seen it and walking this route after watching the film I was struck by how little had changed, apart from everything being in colour these days.
(A couple of weeks later I was sat next to the brook in Downham when someone told me that tv aerials, satellite dishes, telegraph poles and other bits of modern paraphernalia are not allowed in the village. So, apart from the shop being a house and cars parked in the road, that would explain why nothing has changed since 1961. Even the telephone box where Aunty Dolly rang the police is still there!)
In addition to film locations I was also interested in following what appeared to be an ancient lane. On the map this lane runs from Pendleton Hall to Little Mearley Hall, and there are tell tale signs of a historic route; the lines of hawthorns and parallel ditches. Little Mearley Hall is late 16th century and survives with a few 18th century additions. It also has a bay window that came from Sawley Abbey. To the south, Mearley Hall is the relatively modern replacement of an original house pulled down in the 19th century. In fact Mearley is more than just a couple of old buildings; it was a township and the summit of Pendle Hill was part of it.
There’s more information on Mearley and the familes who owned the land here at British History Online.
Once you’re off the track and back on the tarmac lanes it’s time to take care for a few hundred yards as the road is particularly narrow, but it soon widens. And you’re probably thinking ‘why are you walking in the road?’ Well, at the time I did this walk there was still a risk of disappearing into hidden boggy ground, the off-road routes went through farms and I always feel uncomfortable wandering through someone else’s property, even if it is a public footpath. I made an exception this time though at Worsaw End House because of its film location status. Curiosity would get the better of me.
When I did reach the farm I would have liked to have seen the two trees at the back of the barn where, in the film, Alan Bates is found hiding. There’s a scene where the kids go running off towards these trees and to the tune of We Three Kings can be seen in the distance dancing like three little sprites. It was quite a nostalgic scene, bringing back childhood (childish?) memories of playing out over the fields, wellies on, totally inappropriate clothing! And no cares. In fact, the whole film is one long innocent nostalgia trip with its rusty old play equipment on bone hard surfaces, local neighbourhood bully and bottles of pop drunk through the luxury of a paper straw. (My god, how old is this guy, you’re thinking. Well, I’m not telling yer.)
The route continues on to Downham and entering the village over the bridge. This is a typically old Pendle village, but you’ll probably overlook the lack of modern rooftop contraptions until the detail is pointed out to you. Now it makes sense why the red phone box has survived, except of course, in 1961 it was grey! Downham is overlooked by Downham Hall, built in 1835, but with some parts dated to the 1600s. It’s the home of the Assheton family who own the village, or to be precise, the estate which contains the village. They’ve been here since 1558, but the settlement could be a thousand years old. The course of a Roman road is marked on the OS map and originally linked Ribchester to Ilkley in Yorkshire. Cromwell’s men stayed here in 1648 just before the battle of Preston
I usually stop for coffee at the Post Office cafe; it’s scalding hot, but that only forces me to stop a bit longer while it cools. Alternatively there’s the pub and its extravagently priced shandy: £3.40 a pint. I haven’t yet looked around the church, St Leonard’s, but I bet the wine’s cheaper. Origins of the church can be traced back to the late 13th century, 1296, but the current structure dates from 1910, with a 15th century gothic tower. Downham has its own website full of history and information and a collection of walks in PDF format. You can access all that by clicking. here. And British History Online has more information.
At this point in the walk I turn and head back for Pendleton, but I’ll take the footpaths across the fields to Worsaw Hill House. You go up a track alongside the houses shortly after crossing the bridge at the lower end of the village. Now I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m in a place like this I often think about how landscape features influence the communities within and around them. Here you are left in no doubt that you are in the presence of a giant.
Pendle Hill, according to Natural England, is 557m high and made of Millstone Grit sandstone. (Upper Carboniferous shales and sandstones of the Pendle Grit Formation, to be exact.) It was all part of a river delta that was later covered by swamp. Hard to imagine the area being so flat. Along the numerous walks I’ve done around Bowland, Pendle and the Ribble valley, I’ve often had the sense of Pendle Hill being a distant or close observer; a watchman with its severe northern slope forever reminding you of its looming existence. Would the Pendle witch hunts have taken place or been so severe without such a gloomy intimidating feature towering over the villages and hamlets around its flanks?
Who knows, but it’s a subject I’d like to study further; the role the landscape plays on the psychology of communities and settlements. Something to mull over another day. For this walk, I’ve dropped down the side of Worsaw Hill’s limestone slopes, wandered past the front door of the cinematic Bostock’s farm and back onto the lanes of Mearley to where I’m parked. I haven’t got wet or sunburned; haven’t been bothered by cows, hassled by sheep or worried by dogs. It’s been a good day.