“Bowland covers almost 800 sq kms of fells, bogs, moorland, rushing streams and steep valleys”
Forest of Bowland, England – The 2017 BMW X5M was perfect to take a journey down my memory lane through the Forest of Bowland in northern Lancashire, 400 kms north of London.
It’s where I enjoyed childhood picnics by proverbial babbling brooks, after a short drive in the back seat of my grandpa’s black Morris Oxford, circa the early 1950s.
It’s rarely explored by anybody other than locals, keen cyclists and intrepid fell walkers drawn to its rugged landscape. Firstly, enough geography to sketch an outline for me to colour. The name Forest of Bowland would appear to be a misnomer to 21st century ears, for there have been few trees there since the Bronze Age, which if memory serves ended around 500 BC. Its designation relates to ancient hunting rights divided up among the landed gentry – look it up if you feel you must.
Bowland covers almost 800 sq kms of fells, bogs, moorland, rushing streams and steep valleys, brightened in the summer by flowering heather. I know, a description bleak enough to put off anybody from venturing forth. However, its stark nature and extreme quietude draw those motoring along its narrow lanes, past ramshackle farms and maybestopping for a cuppa in an ancient village or sleepy hamlet.
It seems remote but its borders are within 30 minutes of significant Lancashire conurbations, such as Preston and Blackburn, whose industrial past contributed greatly to the nation’s economy. My journeys there in the late 50s began from my home town, the seaside resort of Blackpool, noted for fresh air fun by millions since the early 19th century. It would generally take an hour because my grandpa Robinson drove no faster than a notch or two below 50 km/h, no matter what the posted limit.
My recent day out began in the market town of Garstang, 16 km north of the city of Preston and a similar distance south of Lancaster. The latter being where they hanged the Pendle Witches in the summer of 1612 – natives of the byways I was to navigate.
I pulled out a “one inch to one mile” Ordnance Survey map, determined to do this the old-fashioned way. My drive partner gave me a withering look.
After a few minutes of enjoying the V8 hum and hedgerows pass me at 100 klicks – sorry, grandpa – I forded a bridge over the M6 motorway. It was the crossing between 2016 and goodness knows how many centuries back. The eight-gear-tranny was tested on winding, steep roads cut through bog. It was the sheep’s turn to give withering looks, moving reluctantly aside.
An hour went by and it was hard to recall when the last motorized vehicle had gone by. Wrong turns prompted the draping of the massive OS map over the hood (bonnet, as they say there). It was dispatched to the cavernous rear.
Terrain enforced a slower pace and the driver was thus able to enjoy the scenery as passenger in a horse and carriage surely did a few centuries earlier. Or indeed, the back-seat occupant of my grandpa’s sedan.
We descended into Dunsop Bridge. The dead centre of Britain. The Puddleducks Tea Room provided a cup of steaming tea and a scone, naturally. Souvenir tea towel in hand, it was time to take the X5 through a long succession of sharp and tricky corners, at a slightly higher speed than favoured by Grandpa. No sickness or lurch to report.
Slaidburn is Norse for “sheep pasture by the stream”, chirped my part-time navigator, by now reading the research material and leaving the heavy work to BMW technology.
The Gisburn (Forest) area (yes, there are trees) is an open invitation to cyclists, to bruise knees and burst lungs! Perhaps another time. Apparently, Sir Bradley Wiggins, Tour de France winner, trains on the severe slopes.
Clitheroe loomed and I swear the car crept into eighth-gear and pressed the pedal almost to the metal. More tea beneath the shadow of the ancient Norman keep. Wonder if that’s where errant speeders spent the night, or longer.
A slight detour to historic Stonyhurst College, a private school run by the Jesuit order. Signs warn those without business are not welcome. A $100,000-plus machine would fool anybody into believing we were potential fee payers.
This magnificent 18th century stone-built edifice is awe inspiring. It inspired JRR Tolkien to write parts of “Lord of the Rings” while visiting his son at the college. Variations on local place names appear in the masterpiece.
Pendle Hill, overshadowing the valley, is associated with the 16th century witches. Many Tolkien fans believe it to be a model for Middle Earth’s Misty Mountains.
Some locations described in the Sherlock Holmes novel “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, authored by former student Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, bear resemble local landmarks.
Daylight faded and we headed for the hills – literally – our spooky route out. The lanes narrowed still more, so much so that the screen on the dash warned of impending collisions with unseen objects on both sides!
The entire journey was just 111 kilometres but the experience warped time and a few centuries passed before our eyes.
Contemporary facts: The 2017 BMW X5M’s 567 hp. 4.4-litre V8, is matched to an 8-speed auto transmission and base price is $105, 900. Another $2,500 buys Night Vision with Pedestrian Detection – and sheep?