Horton in Ribblesdale to Buckden
Updated: Jan 19
Pennine Journey – Day 2 – 12.75 miles
Was it something I said?, I wondered, as I tucked into the Golden Lion's cooked breakfast.
Surely someone would come down for their Coco Pops and beans-on-toast shortly.
But I waited and waited in echoey silence at the far end of a long, empty dining room that had the vibe of a winter-sun holiday in Blackpool.
No company. No social obligations. Wainwright's dream breakfast.
On the plus side, It's reassuring to know that in the Dales there is still an off-peak season – even in honeypot Horton in Ribblesdale; those days are long gone across the border in Lakeland.
This was the day the Pennine Journey picked up its pace and rose in height, crossing passes on Foxup Moor then Horse Head Moor to leapfrog Littondale and reach Wharfedale, stomping ground for that enduringly popular long distance footpath, the Dales Way.
It's a fabulous stroll, with a blend of open moorland under big skies, cloistered valleys in which hamlets reside that have changed little since Wainwright struck his lonely path, and a fine wander along the Wharfe, where bluebells nestle beneath riverside oaks, where steep hillside banks are studded with primroses, and where swallows sweep over limestone waters.
The day begins with a brisk up-and-over of Foxup Moor; a steady ascent tracking the Pennine Way to begin with between limestone walls onto the breast of crouching Pen-y-ghent.
Last time I walked this path I was among the Three Peak hordes. Today there's not a soul about except a solitary fell-runner with her dogs.
She asks where I'm walking.
"The Pennine Journey? Never heard of it."
She looks skyward – big billows are sprouting west above Ingleborough, while north the sky is darkening a dozen shades of grey.
“Reckon we’ll get away with it?” she asks.
We'd be lucky. Rain was already in the air, cold wind sinking south. She says goodbye and runs on, dogs bounding ahead.
Minutes later the ground drops away at Hull Pot, one of the largest sinkholes in Britain. After heavy rainfall waterfalls thunder into this impressive crater on the moor. Today all is benign, moorland birds flitting between blossomed thorns that rim the crags.
These shake holes – some vast, many much smaller – are one of the characteristic features of limestone country. Below us is a subterranean labyrinth of passages, caves and caverns, many linked. A few miles south of here the famous 'Three Counties' Lancaster Hole and Easegill Caverns System, with over 53 miles of passages, is believed to be the longest system in Britain. It's a vaguely terrifying thought for those of us who find solace in the high places.
It's the erosive qualities of limestone that explains many of the characteristic landforms of the Dales, from the sink holes (the most iconic, which I’ll pass in two weeks time, is Gaping Gill, on the southeastern flanks of Ingleborough), through the vast stretches of pockmarked pavement to the many phantom streams. A mile later I come to a typical example: a beck that bubbles up among a dense plume of spagnam moss only to disappear again, just as suddenly, three metres downstream. Waterfalls that come and go; streams that rise and sink, rivers that flow only in spate – there's an impermanence to the Dales waterscapes that lend mystery and magic to the countryside.
On the far side of Plover Hill, with its every-way outlook of moorland and sheep prairie, I pass my second (and last) walker of the day.
Near enough to here is where Wainwright had his own encounter – albeit one that started with a scream; "had it been dark," he notes in A Pennine Journey, "I would have taken to my heels. There was murder being done."
The screams came, it turned out, from a snared rabbit. After a few hundred words spent pitying the terrified creature AW does the honourable thing and frees it onto the moor, prompting, a few pages later – and after passing the suspected huntsman – a soliloquy on the trappers' craft. "This killing of God's creatures is a sorry business, and I cannot for the life of me see that it is less murder to kill a dumb animal than a human being. Indeed, it seems to me more criminal."
Wainwright would go on, of course, to become chairman of Animal Rescue Cumbria, acquiring the charity's present home at Kapellan (you pass near it on the Dales Way) and gifting royalties from his books to help feed, shelter and rehome thousands of abandoned cats and dogs. He also illustrated Richard Adams' 1977 novel The Plague Dogs, in which Rowf and Snitter escape a Lakeland vivisection lab bound for the open waters of the Irish Sea.
The path drops into Littondale, the narrow backwater valley whose waters feed the Wharfe. At the road end is Foxup, terminus hamlet before the moor. WIth its arched bridge, ancient parkland ashes and 17th century stone barns, it's like walking into the past. Only the shiny Massey Ferguson in the drive, price tag £80,000+, shows times have changed.
Then, without lingering, the Pennine Journey climbs again, steeply this time on a zig-zag green lane to Horse Head and an off-route triangulation point that is a high point for the day, both figuratively and literally. From here there are views for miles over the Dales uplands; moors layered behind moors with only two craggy towers rising from the curves: Pen-y-ghent and Ingleborough, bastions of Craven.
The descent into Langstrothdale in this sudden spring shower becomes more joyful with each step. Hawthorn scrub, dressed in white, clings to the limestone scree that sweeps down to Hagg Beck. Swathes of yellow – splashes of unlikely colour on the sepia moor – are primroses on the vertiginous valleysides, not just in ones and twos, but by the thousand, fields of gold shining bright in the shifting mists.
Then down into the valley where the Pennine Journey joins the Dales Way at Yockenthwaite, surely one of the loveliest farms in the Dales, with its fine stonework, carefully hued arches – even an old cow byre, where a dozen cattle munch lazily on last year's hay.
These are farms like they used to be: small scale, mainly sheep-based, supported by upland hay meadows, with not a metalised out-building in sight. How different to the Lakes, where even the most isolated of farms is surrounded by towering iron barns and storage sheds. Why the difference? A subtly contrasting farming tradition? Greater support – or planning oversight – from the relevant National Park Authority? More money? One clue may come from diversification: Yockenthwaite Farm is known for its up-market Granola, which enjoys distribution throughout the north of England.
The walk improves further still as it follows the Dales Way for three miles of sylvan river walking along the still-infant Wharfe.
The Wharfe rises just a few miles northwest of here, in the boggy mires of Oughtershaw Moss, before winding its way south to join the Ouse south of York.
It's one of Yorkshire's great rivers, and, tracked by the Dales Way for its first few dozen miles, one of its loveliest too.
Today's short spell in its company is pure charm: narrow trods tracking mossy walls; weaving ways among waterside meadows; and on the approach to Hubberholme, a glade of bluebells beneath lichened oaks that sheep have not yet found. I rest my pack and sit awhile, the sultry grey above passing and breaks of blue throwing sunlit beams down the wooded valleysides.
And so into Buckden, the Upper Wharfedale hamlet of distilled Dales loveliness.
My arrival – sunshine and afternoon tea in the beautifully manicured garden of the West Winds tearoom – is rather different to that which greeted Wainwright.
After a long day on the fells AW finally staggered into Buckden as night was falling. And he walked into darkness. Not the light-spoiled night sky we've become used to in the sodium age, where every street has its lights and every home security lamps. But a darkness so thick he is forced to feel his way along the cobbled streets using his hands.
"I could see nothing; neither notice-board nor cottages. I knew there were cottages here, and that I was amongst them, but I was as powerless to find a front door as though I had been struck blind... That night was the blackest I remember... the village was as silent as if it lay under a plague."
Nowhere else in A Pennine Journey are the closing days of the Victorian Age so graphically evoked; the weight of the blackness beyond the hearth weighing down on the prose. These were dark days, in more ways than one.
How much of this was hyperbole?, I wonder, posing the question to the owner of the West Winds as I munched scones.
Not so much, he replies, pointing out the location of the cottage it is thought AW finally bedded down in (with a little help from an unseen angel) before noting that on cloudless winter nights it is still possible to lose yourself in the Buckden darkness.
"Don't leave home without a torch," he says, by way of a sign-off.