As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to the Forest of Bowland, Florence Fortnam tries out the Bowland Rambler Sunday Service, a new bus service that connects walkers with starting and finishing points of a series of walks in the area.
Next year, the Forest of Bowland will be celebrating its 50th anniversary as one of the UK’s Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. But despite its fifty-year history as a protected area, this lesser-known AONB is still overlooked by people making a beeline for the neighbouring Yorkshire Dales – good news for those intent on keeping this patch of Lancashire a secret for a little while longer.
“It’s a real balance trying to increase visitor numbers whilst working to maintain the AONB’s peaceful charm,” says Hetty Byrne, Sustainable Tourism Officer for the AONB. Having grown up here, she’s keen to protect it for future generations. “There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to shout about it too much,” and as we sped over hill and heath without spying another soul, I couldn’t help but agree.
I was accompanying Hetty on the new Bowland Rambler Sunday Service, a bus service connecting walkers with the starting and finishing points of a series of walks in the area, allowing visitors and locals to ditch the car for the day. Running from May to September, the service connects Clitheroe, Accrington, Settle and Burnley with the heart of the region. There are a number of self guided routes that visitors can take linked to the bus route that the AONB have developed, so if you fancy company on your rambles, you can hook up with others to do the same route.
If your company is of the four-legged variety, you’ll be pleased to know that they are as welcome as the rest of us on the service – good news for Hetty’s lively springer, Josh, who was leaping around in a frenzy the moment he spotted our walking boots. Within minutes of boarding the bus in Clitheroe’s town centre we had left the pretty market town and had broken out into the heather moorland, following the ribboning dry stone walling through a string of pretty villages lining the River Hodder, which snaked its way into the heart of the AONB. Less than ten minutes and two stops later, we had a bus packed with eager walkers tightening laces and consulting maps. “It’s only be operating for two weeks,” Hetty explained, “It’s great to see so many people using the service already”.
We were soon stepping off the bus in Newton-in-Bowland outside the Parker’s Arms, the sort of pub that weary limbs long to find at the end of a walk, with a gently-sloping garden looking over the Ribble Valley and a menu that details the provenance of every ingredient, from the butter to the beef, all sourced within a 30-mile radius.
We were testing out one of the suggested itineraries, the Newton to Slaidburn circular, a five-mile walk which initially follows the river before heading through some beautiful hay meadows, including Lancashire’s newly-designated Coronation Meadow, which were rich in different grasses, including the beautifully-named melancholy thistle, meadowsweet, and eyebrights.
We wandered past farms and fields of playful lambs before descending into Slaidburn for a sandwich at The Riverbank Tearooms and a stretch out on the grassy bank lining the river. From here we looped back through buttercup meadows, over streams and through sun dappled woodland before finding ourselves back in Slaidburn for a well deserved ice cream. It was a warm, sunny Sunday in June – perfect walking conditions – yet we only came across one couple the whole day: blissfully quiet. The last bus back to Clitheroe was just after five, so you get the entire day out in the AONB if you want it.
My bed for the night was at Bleasdale Cottages, a collection of converted outbuildings on a farm to the south of the AONB. With just a flat valley between the farm and the Fair Snape Fell, the hill that rises to the east, you really do feel in the middle of nowhere. A majestic setting – isolated and inspiring – and packed with wildlife.
Which was why I was here: to go wildlife spotting. That evening I exchanged walking sticks for binoculars and followed owners Anne and Robert and the new addition to their family – a shiny telescope – out into the fields. We stopped to watch lapwings scamper across the ground and oyster-catchers perform aerobatics in the late evening sun, and were serenaded by the beautiful shrill call of a pair of courting curlews, made even more magical against the backdrop of the hills which were turning purple in the fading light.
But what I was really after was to see a hare: this was hare country, after all. We saw several pairs of large pointy ears bounding across distant fields, moving far too quickly to catch them through the telescope. But as we started heading in the direction of the farm, we caught sight of one in a grassy border of a field, stretched out dozing blissfully in the sun, one huge paw flopped casually over its eyes, shielding himself from the late evening rays. I returned home happy.
It had been my first introduction to wildlife watching and I can safely say it won’t be my last. In fact, I think I might be hooked: a pair of binoculars has already made it onto my Christmas wishlist.
>> For more ideas of where to stay and things to do in the Forest of Bowland, see our: