Bowland: empty promises fulfilled

by Martin.Pilkington

One of the UK's best-kept secrets, Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland has glorious countryside, fantastic fishing and birdwatching, plus fine food and wine - and no crowds

Let the crowds flock to the Lakes. They will still be fighting the M6 traffic long after the well-informed are in the embrace of the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire’s rural heartland. Doubtless there is somewhere a bureaucratically precise definition of Bowland’s boundaries, but in layman’s terms it stretches from the M6 in the west to the Yorkshire Dales National Park in the east, with Lancaster and Settle on the northern edge and Clitheroe and Longridge the southern. Bowland encompasses roughly 400 square miles of upland moor, rolling green hills, and the remnants of ancient forest once far more extensive and a royal hunting ground – indeed the Duchy of Lancaster still owns great swathes of land here.

This is such empty country. While fine-weather Lancastrians from further afield may make a trip here at weekends, from Monday to Friday, even in summer, you can find all the space you need to forget the outside world and lose yourself in peace and quiet. Out of season, you’ll spot more tractors and farm pick-ups than visitor vehicles.

Cutting across from east to west is the Trough of Bowland, a glacial valley cut deep by melt waters, sometimes with spectacular sides. And one of the most beautiful little roads in England links Lancaster and Dunsop Bridge, twisting between Whin’s Brow and Hawthornthwaite Fell. Dunsop claims to be the geographic centre of Britain, though with little more than a teashop and village store, it’s hardly the economic hub: this is a place for paddling in the stream and feeding the ducks on the green while eating ice creams, or the starting point for marked walks across Duchy land, depending on your mood.

Innumerable streams criss-cross Bowland, feeding the rivers Ribble, Hodder, Calder, Wyre and Roeburn. Fishermen love the place, especially The Inn at Whitewell, parts of which date back to 1300 or so. The inn has its own water, and in the trout season gentlemen farmers base themselves at Whitewell, enjoying the fine food and wine (it houses an independent wine merchant’s) along with the fishing. The inn is perched above the Hodder in one of the more thickly forested parts of Bowland, enhancing the feeling of being apart from the world. John Buchan’s Edward Leithen would have been right at home here.

For more modest piscatorial budgets, the huge Stocks Reservoir offers equally good sport, and is one of the best places locally for marked forest walks and even cycle-ways, but simply staying still and watching the wildfowl is equally attractive, particularly in the winter when among the wigeons, teals and pochards you can sometimes see such rarer sights as gadwalls and red-throated divers.

More pleasures of the flesh are to be had in Clitheroe, full of eateries but especially celebrated for wine merchants D Byrne & Co. Don’t be fooled by the narrow store-front - the cellars go on for about 50 yards into the steep hill. And don’t miss Cowman’s (aptly titled) butchers on Castle Street, which makes the best sausages (and widest variety) you’ll ever find, perfect for self-catering breakfasts. And for those wanting someone else to cook, and cook extraordinarily well, top-end dining at The Longridge Restaurant is the great draw.

Competition is tough, but perhaps the prettiest settlement in Bowland is Chipping, great to stroll around and admire the strange little stone yards and the solid stone cottages, with nice pubs to boot, plus the rather idiosyncratic architecture of The Gibbon Bridge Hotel. Slaidburn would argue about that accolade, and the Hark to Bounty Inn is the sort of pub walkers dream of finding as base camp – big breakfasts; good beer. With a little planning, lunch at The Coach and Horses in Bolton-by-Bowland would follow after two or three hours of walking.

But Bowland is far more about the empty spaces than the settled ones. Find a path and walk it; get up high on the moors and look towards the vast Morecambe Bay in the distance; take a forest trail. And every now and then, think about the crowds at the better-known beauty spots in Lakeland. It’s hard not to feel smug when leaving the M6 at junction 31A or 33 and, within minutes, hitting the scenic side-roads drawing you in to Bowland. I no longer bother trying.

Martin.Pilkington

Martin Pilkington is a freelance writer and journalist, writing for a wide variety of magazines and websites including Sailing Today, Harper's Wine and Spirit, Lovefood.com, Hortus, various county magazines, and the wonderful information-britain.com. His particular interests are food and drink writing and travel, with another strand in business journalism. All three of those areas were linked in his previous career as a polyglot sales director in manufacturing industry, being paid to travel the world and eat well. Married to a very supportive wife who didn't faint when he decided to change career in his late forties, a company merger having given him the option, Martin has a teenage son who is still not convinced that what he does now is a proper job. And as it is so much fun, he may be right. Favourite places: France: Normandy, the Dordogne, the Cevennes, Burgundy for the food and wine. He loves the USA having travelled extensively there on business, Indonesia likewise, and the Basque region of Spain where they really know how to eat.