The llama’s breath momentarily condenses in the cold air, dispersing against a backdrop of small fields, rocky slopes and ancient walls. But this is no Peruvian mountainside; nor are the walls Inca in origin. I’m in company with a troupe of llamas, intrigued children and fascinated adults, following a walled trackway first developed 500 years ago for trains of packhorses, making the crossing between Lancashire and Yorkshire.
The Pennine Bridleway National Trail meanders through Saddleworth, linking the moorlands of the Dark Peak to the steep, wooded vales of the South Pennines. Amid the reservoir-littered uplands and stone-walled pastures stand a string of tiny hamlets and farmsteads. One such is Higher Oxhey Farm, secluded high above Oldham, just yards from the Pennine Bridleway and home to Saddleworth Llama Trekking.
It’s 12 years since the farm owner Helen Taylor indulged in this extreme form of agricultural diversification. With sheep farming in the doldrums, the need to create a new income stream became pressing. Hearing of a llama farm in Devon, Helen investigated the idea of keeping llamas high in the Pennines. The remarkable placidity of the animals and downright curiosity value made them ideal as a visitor attraction. A new business was born.
Llamas have a history as beasts of burden in the Andes stretching into the mists of time; their English cousins in the hills above the Tame Valley have life somewhat easier. With just a few minutes’ instruction we’re teamed up with Chisum, Romeo and Robbie (most trekking llamas are male), halters in hand and primed to be led into the wilds by our curious, alert, shaggy companions.
While we walk alongside, the llamas and their lovable donkey companions, Harry and Bobby, carry light panniers (useful for carrying rucksacks or a picnic hamper) along the undulating sliver of slushy sand and gritstone tracks, threading this glorious countryside. The treks last anything between two and five hours (up to about eight miles).
These beguiling relatives of the camel are said to help relieve stress, while their gentle humming voices have a pitch that soothes and relaxes – therapeutic llama karma. It’s impossible not to be captivated by their Miss Piggy eyelashes and comical, winsome smile; their lengthy necks supporting a head that rolls slightly from side to side as we progress along the old track.
High on the moors
The dense network of tracks curls through a challenging landscape of high moors and deep cloughs that, a century ago, hid countless drift-mines and small quarries. Umpteen tumbled ruins mark long-lost farms and barns; fortunately our target is far from derelict. The Rams Head Inn draws us like a moorland magnet. Leaving the llamas hitched to handy posts outside, we chow down on quality fodder and some cracking beer. On warmer summer days, a leisurely picnic in a flowery Pennine meadow or heathery hollow is a firm favourite with families.
The onward track slides beside the inn, dropping into the peaceful Piethorn Valley, a string of reservoirs backed by multi-coloured moorlands. The Pennine Bridleway is an ongoing project linking Middleton Top in Derbyshire to Byrness in Northumberland, a colossal 347 miles. It crystallised from determined work and campaigning by Lady Mary Towneley 20 years ago – the Mary Towneley Loop, north of Rochdale, is named in her memory. The southern half is essentially complete, with stretches in North Yorkshire and Cumbria slated for official opening later this year.
All too soon it’s time for our comical caravan to head back to High Oxhey and its absorbing collection of rare farm animals; I’m musing on whether you can be breathalysed for being tipsy in charge of a llama.
The llamas, relaxed as ever, set an easy pace, raising huge smiles from fellow Pennine Bridleway users along the way. In winter it’s a bracing outing; the balmier days of summer see these high-country tracks bright with harebells and buttercups, while the rippling moors glow with bilberry bushes and echo to the calls of curlews and oystercatchers.
On one of England’s least-known National Trails, walking with llamas is easily the most memorable way to discover the sublime Pennine countryside.