The other day I came across a word I hadn’t heard before. A word which unlocked a memory that I have held on to since my first Pennine Way journey back in 2000, ‘Cloudland’; it means the sky, or a region of unreality, a place of the imagination, a dreamland.
Mid-August, high summer in the Pennine Hills. I was away from Hawes early in the morning heading north along the Pennine Way, 12 miles over some marvelous high country, up and over Great Shunner Fell to Thwaite and then on to the hamlet of Keld, where the Coast to Coast Walk crosses the Pennine Way. It was also the day I walked to ‘Cloudland’.
Even at this time of year the weather in these parts can be unpredictable. A morning chill was already giving the slightest nod toward the coming autumn. I hoped that the sun, busy climbing away from dawn into a clear Pennine-blue sky, would soon shake off any coolness.
This hike begins with a long plod on a path up the rising moorland toward the summit of Great Shunner Fell. Here the Way finally begins to feels mountainous. At 2340 feet, Great Shunner is the highest point since Edale, with views to be anticipated and savoured. On a clear day there are the Lakeland peaks to enjoy and then views south to Ingleborough. To the north, if the visibility is good, there is just about the tiny distant shape of Tan Hill Inn, the highest Inn in England, and beyond looms the dome of Cross Fell, the very summit of the Pennine journey.
With my head full of summits I began the labour of a long rising climb towards Crag End Beacon, the gateway to the Great Shunner summit. I was enjoying the moment of being out on a big moor on such a sparkling day.
I fell into the rhythm of my stride and became absorbed into the landscape. Almost without realising it, as the path took me higher and higher, I walked into a rapidly blurring land of mist and cloud. I had unwittingly opened the door into Cloudland.
The bright sunlight failed to an eerie, timeless and shadowless white. The vastness of the fell disappeared behind a closing curtain until there was just me alone, wrapped in thick soundless cloud. Surrounded by white and by the white noise of my breathing as it crashed into the silence of the moor.
I held my breath and listen to the landscape…. nothing; the silence around me was profound, enchanting even. Was the moor was holding its breath too? I shivered at the sudden coldness of the air against my warm skin. I looked hard, trying to see through and further than the white walls all around me. I sensed I was not alone in the landscape. The spirits of the moorland are swirling around me, lost in Cloudland too perhaps. Are there voices of travellers from another time calling out to me? I listen hard again. Are those the sound of footsteps moving along the path? Expectantly I wait for figures to loom out of the mist. The air fills with a haunting cry; a ghost is calling to me, wailing out over the fell.
Abruptly the spell is broken. I realise it is the urgent cry of a Curlew, perhaps calling to its summer brood, trying to return through the white-out to a nest hidden deep in the clouds. It is a sound I recognise, common to the uplands in summer, both evocative and memorable, and reassuring today. I begin to breathe again. The ghosts are gone, I smile and I move on.
With a limited view through the brume I’m careful now to stay on the path, thankfully it is well defined. Still climbing up the fell-side, finally I sense a hint of blue sky above. Like a train emerging from a tunnel I popped out of the cloud almost at the summit. In full sunlight I’m standing on the edge of a sea of white cloud tops. It is a beautiful sight. I enjoy the moment, feel the warmth of the sun and press on.
I have often thought since of about my experience that day on Great Shunner Fell and now I realise it was the day I visited Cloudland.
You never know when you might find yourself in Cloudland. Give the walk up Great Shunner Fell a go, you will not be disappointed. Go there and back from either Hawes or Thwaite or here is a great circular walk.