Buckden to Keld
Updated: Jan 19
Pennine Journey – Day 3 – 21 miles
Maybe it was the kindness of the weather – despite heavy skies, the threatened rain never came.
Maybe it was the distance: at 21 miles this was the first proper walk since my long walk two years back.
Maybe it was the simple fact that the day's journey was pretty much fabulous from start to end.
Whatever the reason, the near-marathon tramp from Buckden to distant Keld was a box of walking delights.
My breakfast companions at the (excellent) Buckden Inn were a couple walking the Dales Way.
Like me they’re exiles from the southeast, who moved to God’s Own Country two decades back. A working life spent commuting three hours a day was slowly killing them, they tell me. So they moved north, and they’ve not looked back. Now they were exploring their new home turf by walking it, splitting the Dales Way into two gentle rambling trips.
It sounded pretty good to me.
The day gets off to a fine start; a gently ramped incline out of Wharfedale on the flanks of Buckden Pike through oak woods carpeted with bluebells. Blossom hangs heavy, limestone teeth break the moor and the views open west with each upward stride; at the crossing of Park Lane there are waterfalls ahead and behind – rain-depleted rivulets splashing down cragged steps 60 feet high. On stormy days this must be a place of high drama.
At Causeway Moss the Pennine Journey finds the moor. Gilbert Lane is an old drovers' road, threading an organic way through the bluffs, working the landscape to advantage across the upland plateau of Stake Moss, a sprawling sea of squelchy not-very-much sandwiched between Wensleydale and Wharfedale.
But for the slowly shifting panoramas there is little to occupy the eye on these barren heights. But music there is in abundance; the mews of curlew; the chattering of skylark and, best of all, the other-worldly burbles of lapwing, flapping ahead and above always, keeping a watchful eye on this intruder in their territory.
So the miles slip by, bounding over springy wayside turf, unpaid audience to an age-old moorland symphony.
From Great Silky Top a green lane makes a scythed descent to Stalling Busk.
It was in this tiny hamlet, folded into the cloistered valley of Raydale, that members of the Ramblers met in 1996 with National Park chiefs to craft the prototype access bill that would lay the foundations for the Labour Government’s Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act four years later. That bill formalised the right to roam – long promised, long delayed – and increased the area of open access land in the Yorkshire Dales National Park from four per cent to just over 60. All is quiet in this one-road hamlet today, nestled between Bob Lane and Busk Lane, and it's hard to imagine the key role it played in securing nationwide access to our uplands, or the dreams evoked over a kitchen table at what became known as the Stalling Busk Conference. We owe those campaigners much.
A few hundred yards further on there are ghosts of a different kind: the original church of St Matthew, now ruins and mossed graves, a place of peace in this hill-rimmed bowl, its congregation supplanted to the new church of St Matthew sited in the heart of Stalling Busk. I put down my pack and wander the skeletal remains, breeze rippling unmowed meadow grass.
Over the brow a Dales rarity: a lake, one of just two in limestone country (the other is fabulous Malham Tarn, a day-and-a-half's tramp southwest). Wainwright wasn't impressed with Semer Water: "It is a flooded field," he notes acerbically. Harsh words from the Bradburnian, perhaps informed by his love of the more dramatic tarns and meres of Lakeland. Even so, he must have been more-than-usually grumpy when passing, because while Semer Water is no Wast Water, from a little gravel beach on its north bank there's a lyrical tranquility to it, myriad shades of grey reflected in gently shifting waters.
From here the onwards path tracks the outflow River Bain. It's the second stretch of river walking in as many days, though in character the Bain is world's apart from the much finer Wharfe; there's no limestone here, no rapids or rivulets that give the Wharfe its springtime youth. Instead water lilies rise beside golden reeds while ducks and geese dabble lazily in the mirrored shallows.
A short up-and-over of Bracken Hill lead into the Wensleydale village of Bainbridge, a settlement with Roman origins, where to support the main export of the valley I find a café and order a ploughman's lunch with not one, nor two but three different varieties of Wallace and Gromit's favourite cheese.
It is 2 o'clock when I finish my last crumbles of Wensleydale and make tracks again.
Today’s suggested leg of the Pennine Journey, at a perfectly reasonable 17.5 miles, ends in Gunnerside. But accommodation in lower Swaledale had been in scant supply, so I’d booked into the next stopping point but one en route, Keld. The onward journey added a further five miles to the day's walk, which meant picking up the pace as I headed uphill again to cross my second pass of the day.
Through Askrigg, another handsome Dales village, and the setting of fictional Darrowby in the TV adaptation of James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small. Then a Pennine Journey first: a stretch of road walking on the long pull onto bleak Askrigg Common.
A first maybe, but it's noteworthy that tarmac has been so long coming. For while today's Pennine Journey route makes the most of footpaths, national trails and off-road tracks, the majority of Wainwright's original 'campaign' was along public roads. Yes, his journey was a walk, but it was also, in the original sense of the word, a road trip – only on much quieter roads.
Not that there's much traffic travelling over lonely Askrigg Common today: during my half-hour uphill grind I'm passed by a landrover, a quad bike and a couple of cyclists, who pass in the blink of an eye.
Even quieter is the gated lane that sticks to the contours above Oxnop Scar.
It's a byway that time left behind, giving access to a handful of backwater properties, the most isolated being Oxnop Ghyll (above Oxnop Gill) a desperately lonely, if handsome, country house perched high on the hill.
Now I love my own space as much as the next recluse, but Oxnop Ghyll challenges even me. Think a house suitable for Uncle Monty’s antisocial brother and you’re somewhere close. Ironic, then, that even here – with moorland miles to the next-door property – neighbourly disputes can erupt, as they did when the Rev. Charles Yeats, a newcomer to the valley, bought the house from a local farmer only to fall out in dramatic legal fashion over access rights to nearby fields. Not the best way to make friends in your newly-adopted valley.
Past Lousy Hill and over the Swale to Gunnerside, downstream from the "flowery alpine village" of Muker where Wainwright spends his second night ("there is not another place like it," he opines.). Here I spend an embarrassing few minutes trying to find a way out of the jumbled village. Noting my navigational confusion a couple of kids get on their bikes and ride with me down a cottage-lined alleyway back onto the not-so-straight-or-narrow.
The next five miles – the riverside walk to Keld – is pure charm: bluebells and wild garlic weave white–blue underlays below dry-stone walls; lambs bound the meadows; oak and ash cling to craggy limestone outcrops overhanging the industrious Swale; ducks waddle the fields with duckling trails; and around each bend rabbits race for hillside burrows. You could stop every 50 yards along this north bank and lose an enchanted hour.
As the Swale veers north into the traffic-free valley of Upper Swaledale, the pastural is left behind. It is high on the slopes of Kisdon opposite that the Pennine Way makes its terraced journey to Keld after the gruelling ascent of Great Shunner Fell. When walking the Way two years back I'd eyed this snaking valley-bottom path with envy, and it's every bit as good as I'd imagined.
Upper Swaledale answers the call of the wild: it has the feel of a Scottish Glen, with the earnest Swale cutting a wide channel through seas of boulders piled up in spate. A few dozen yards beyond the meadow floodplain either side the ground rises suddenly in steep valleysides cloaked in hanging woods of oak and ash studded with Maytime primroses. A mile upstream, nestled in the shadowed cleft of Swinner Gill, are relics from the past: levels, huts and workings of the lead mines that once won great wealth from these lonely heights.
Where the Swale makes a second broad sweep – west this time, heading for the hills – the ghost settlement of Hartlakes, abandoned above the restless straits, demands answers: Why was it left? Family tragedy? Pastures no longer able to turn a profit? Too far from the madding crowd? It is interesting that after dark even locals are wary of these quiet ruins.
Journey's end – with unweary feet – is Keld Lodge, the hostel that provides an isolated upland refuge for walkers not just of the Pennine Journey, but also the Pennine Way and Coast to Coast path. It is, as Wainwright was to later note in his Pennine Way Companion, as close to a major walking terminus as anywhere in Britain.
Not that you'd know it tonight, with just one other table of guests in quiet conversation as I work my way through the never-insubstantial portions of solid walking grub.
As I sit in the window seat, the clouds – that have weighed heavy over limestone country since I left faraway Buckden – break for a moment, bathing the hills opposite in gold.
It’s a fitting end to a fine day, and the day in which the concerns of work and home have been finally walked away.