As I type these words into the mini-keyboard on my Blackberry (I really do love to combine travel and writing), I cannot help but feel amazed that I have not written about the Woodhead Pass before. The reason I am so surprised at myself is that it is a route I have travelled scores of time in my life and which I follow every time I return home to the UK. It crosses the Pennines, the range of hills that run like a spine down the centre of England, and links the cities of Sheffield and Manchester. Not only is it an important way of linking two major British cities, but it also provides some absolutely wonderful scenery and serves to remind me that no matter where I am returning from, there is plenty to appreciate close to home.
Even though Woodhead links two of the largest cities in the North of England, it is no great highway. Unlike the M62, which crosses the Pennines further North and links Liverpool, Leeds and Hull, Woodhead is a one-lane road that winds through the hills. At both ends, it begins in rather mundane style with modern dual- carriageways and motorways. However, in between when the road hits the hills, it is truly beautiful.
As I usually experience Woodhead from the Manchester side first, I will begin my description from that trajectory. After leaving the thick tarmac of the M57, the route begins in the small village of Tintwhistle. This part of the journey is famed for its horrendous traffic congestion and for the cute little houses that make up the village. The majority of the houses are the former cottages of textile workers who used to work in the mills. They are small and made from stone taken from the hills around the village. As cute as Tintwhistle is, there is little reason to linger. The better parts of the journey come when the road leaves humanity and heads into wilderness - or the nearest to wilderness that England has to offer.
After Tintwhistle, Woodhead passes through the foothills of the Pennines. These are dotted with the occasional cottage and plenty of trees. There are also two or three large reservoirs that hold much of the North of England's drinking water. They are very pretty in themselves. They sit at the bottom of rolling valleys and the dark waters contrast beautifully with the green of the hills. However, as nice as they are, I enjoy them more as natural barometers. The water levels and state of the surrounding area show the type of weather the UK has been experiencing. In the summer, the waters are often frighteningly low and the earth is ringed at the levels from which it has receded. This creates a wonderful effect of colours - light at the top grading down to dark just above the water-level. In winter, things are different. The water is often just inches from the level of the road after heavy rainfall. The area also highlights climate change problems as the UK faces increasing problems with both drought and floods, which can be seen in both winter and summer.
Once past the reservoirs, you move onto the Penines themselves. On a basic level, these hills are imposing - though they could not be described as mountains - and roll for miles in all directions. However, their greatest strength is their transformative abilities. In summer, they are lush and green and unbelievably inviting for anyone interested in hiking. In the winter, when the snows descend - I often see this when I return at Christmas - the landscape is harsh and bleak taking an almost minimalist feel with white land and grey skies punctuated by the occasional dark and skeletal tree. In the spring, the whole area takes on a wonderful flush of colour as the heather that covers many of the hills blooms purple. And, finally, in autumn, everything is a wonderful brown/orange as the heather and wild grasses begin to die for the winter.
I many ways, Woodhead is merely a road that takes me home for the holidays. However, it is also a fantastic drive across some beautiful countryside.