Pendle Hill & Aitken Wood: Black magic, public burnings and sculpture trails in darkest Lancashire

We take one of the city’s celebrated soul artists and a BBC Radio 1 broadcaster to explore some of the region’s most gruesome history. From mist-covered heights, to thick forests and spooky sculptures, it’s a fitting Halloween hike.

By Manchester's Finest | October 31st '22

Walk: Pendle Hill & Aitken Wood
Difficulty:
 Moderate
Time: 2h 40m
Distance: 7.89km
Elevation: 556m

If you hail from east Lancashire the mythology surrounding our next Weekend Walks destination should be familiar. Once home to arguably the most famous witch’s coven in Britain, those ten women met a fiery and unjust end in 1612 at the hands of a biased and brutal judicial system which made it impossible to defend against accusations of sorcery. As such, the place has a pretty unique vibe to say the least. 

Pendle Hill

Locals say if you can see Pendle Hill it’s about to rain, and if you can’t it’s already chucking it down. As Finest arrives at the foot of this atmospheric 557m high mound of barren, moor-like earth higher ground is seeped in a mist almost fully cloaking the summit. Thankfully, though, while the wind is out it’s a relatively dry day when we meet this week’s special guest: Victoria Jane. 

Hanna Outdoors & Victoria Jane

No stranger to our pages — read our full interview with her from earlier this year — this bonafide risen star of Manchester’s contemporary soul scene is best known for broadcasting sublime sounds to the nation as host of BBC Radio 1’s Future Soul show, and her own work as singer-songwriter responsible for a slew of mesmerising modern classics. Helpfully, she also grew up as a member of the National Trust and regularly hits the countryside for outdoor pursuits.

Starting Out

Our starting point for the route is outside the appropriately-named Cauldron snack bar, and from here the next step is straightforward, or at least obvious. Hit the clearly marked Public Highway heading up Pendle Hill itself, which quickly forks in two directions, North and South, forming a loop meeting at the crest. We opt for the sightly steeper and faster ascent, where the path criss-crosses as it climbs. To follow in our footsteps, bear left on the path once you’ve left the small cluster of buildings behind.

Things begin to get a little straighter the higher you get as stone and gravelled track meanders its way to a climax. Don’t forget to take some time out to take in the stunning scenery — there are amazing views across the towns of Burnley, Colne and Nelson from here (albeit not all in one direction). At the very top, you’ll find a Trig Marker, or Triangulation Point — a large slab of white stone people relied on to get their bearings before sat nav on mobile was a thing. Give it a hug if you feel inclined, we did. 

Foray into Farmland

As Jane points out, the return leg of this section is easier, with the route North taking us down a gentler slope. Follow this all the way back to the starting point, but don’t stop there. Instead, continue passed the hamlet, over the gate and down another marked path cutting through fields to Brown House Farm: essentially the next building you see out in front, with Pendle Hill behind. As in our video, you’ll have an opportunity to get personal with some porky pals in the form of typically friendly and muddy pigs. 

Once acquainted, it’s time to continue in the same direction, and onto the next smallholding — Ing Ends Farm. You’ll know the place by the small stream that runs through the land. A wooden bridge helps you across, and onto a track due East, heading to Barley Lane.

When you meet the proper road, you’ll be able to see Barley village in front. Bear in that direction, then follow Barley Lane over another small river (confusingly, this actually means turning off the road you were on, so keep an eye on street signs). Continue for around 1.5miles, or 2.4km, until you reach the entrance to Aitken Wood, passing Black Moss Water en route, where the ducks might be out paddling, and — when we visited — a lone horse stands in the field. 

Into the Woods

Now things take a turn for the eerie. Follow the path into the treeline and skies above quickly dull over due to the canopy of branches overhead. If the scenery isn’t Blair Witch enough, the Pendle Sculpture Trail, which inhabits Aitken Wood, probably is. Opened in 2012 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the infamous Pendle Witch Trials, a number of artworks create a brooding, macabre tension, including a statue of the Witch Finder himself: that’s the guy with questionable qualifications who was tasked with rooting out and condemning to death women supposedly connected to the dark arts. 

Elsewhere, a copper piece outlines the shape of those ten unfortunate souls brought to trial and eventually burnt at the stake, while a dryad — those Greek mythological woodland creatures who appear in the form of tree-women — is found hidden among the bark. There are also a few intriguing structures and pieces made from sticks dotted around, adding an air of Paganism to the place. As Victoria points out, it’s probably not the best spot for dog walking alone at dusk. You have been warned. 

Thoroughly freaked out, and having completed the circular sculpture trail, the rest of today’s journey is easy as they come. Like a lost walker being threatened by a weapon wielding madman, head right back the way you came from — onto Barley Lane. Follow this right into the centre of Barley village and onto the obligatory post-hike drink. Choose a pint, choose a soft drink, maybe opt for food. Whatever your decision, we recommend the Pendle Inn in the centre of the settlement, where you can breath a sigh of relief that your soul has been saved. 

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