Kirkby Malham to Horton in Ribblesdale
Updated: Jan 28, 2020
Pennine Way - Day 6 - 19.4 miles - 'Rockin''
Mention the Three Peaks and a few years back most people would think Ben Nevis, Snowdon and Scafell Pike.
Not any more. Now the big charity events centre around the tiny village of Horton in Ribblesdale – a single street with a few stone-built cottages along it – which has become an unlikely host to an even unlikelier event: scaling three of Yorkshire’s bigger hills, only one of which is actually worth climbing. (Controversial, I know, but Ingleborough – meh – and Whernside – double meh.)
Quite why so many people choose to put themselves through the misery of trudging 24 miles in 12 hours along paving slabs to summit, at best, one worthwhile mountain is a mystery to me. Especially when across the border in Cumbria you can pick majestic peaks by the dozen. That said, the Lakes are well served by tourists. If the villages around these Dales peaks do well out of the craze it’s hard to judge it too harshly.
But it definitely is weird.
Thankfully the Pennine Way doesn’t bother with boring Ingleborough and shapeless Whernside. It does, however, ride up and over beautiful Pen-y-ghent, and en route from Malhamdale does a whistlestop tour of some of the Dales’ finest rock scenery. With brooding skies overhead that kept throwing patches of sun onto the hills it was a wonderful day to stride out.
The result? A long walk that was one of the unequivocal highlights of LeJog to date.
I started out early from my AirBnB. The ozzies were up at six and away by eight. I followed them a few minutes later.
My host had recommended leaving the Pennine Way for a brief trip up Gordale Beck to Gordale Scar. It added a few miles to what was already a long day, and, with two mountain climbs and 3,350+ft of ascent, one of the toughest of both the Pennine Way and LeJog.
But so many people have sung the praises of the Scar over the past few days it seemed churlish not to make the detour.
En route through the meadows of Malhamdale I passed an unusually early-rising Duke Of Edinburgh group.
I always like passing these groups of youngsters. Often they’re the only fellow walkers I pass all day and they’re typically either walking as one in over-earnest companionship (Day 1), arguing over the route (Day 2) or walking single file in sullen, exhausted silence (Day 3).
Whichever day of their expedition it is, though, they are always fantastically well equipped.
I was striding along in what has become my usual walking garb: shorts and T-shirt. And here they all were in waterproof tops and bottoms, fleeces, a few sublayers apiece and each of them with their pack fully rainproofed – even though showers weren't forecast. I wondered whether they’d got crampons concealed in their rucksacks. You can, after all, never be too prepared.
Probably the only thing the kids actually needed today were their emergency rations, which invariably get consumed within five minutes of parental drop-off.
My wry early morning chuckles were to be proved ill-conceived a few hours later, though, when crossing Fountains Fell I was forced to keep adding layers (five and counting) as the relentless Pennine wind kept getting harder and colder. By the time I reached the summit wall on Pen-y-ghent I was regretting not having gloves. Which proved the youngsters had got it right.
I'll keep the cynicism to myself in future.
Past Janet’s Foss, enchanting waterfall in a fairytale glade. Then on through a perfectly located campsite at the mouth of Gordale Scar. If I was forced at gunpoint to spend a night under canvas I’d do it here, among the buttercups and with sparkling Gordale Beck snaking briskly through the watermeadows.
Then up the steepening limestone ravine to the 16-million year old Scar: a mighty tumble of tufa between towering cliffs, over which flow two waterfalls. A group ahead were scrambling up the falls, thinking nothing of the so-called Leap of Faith.
With the minutes slipping by and a day’s worth of walking ahead I beat a regretful retreat, but I’ll be back.
Into the village of Malham for a pot of Yorkshire tea. It’s pretty enough – how could it not be in this most attractive of valleys? – but a look through a leaflet for local accommodation shows every other house is a holiday let. The curse of the tourist honeyspot; the Elterwater of the Dales.
Back on the Pennine Way and up the valley to Malham Cove, if anything more impressive than the Scar. It's as if the mountainside has been sliced away by giant hand, leaving a single towering cliff face. Once upon a time water flowed as a cataract over here. Now it does so only when the labyrinth of caves below ground fill up as they last did for a few hours during 2015’s Storm Desmond, when England’s highest waterfall tumbled over its 260ft drop for the first time in 200 years.
Even without the water – which issues instead from the cliff base – the Cove casts a spell on those below, gawping up in awed silence, humbled by the unnerving scale of the rock barrier, shining white behind the gently shifting leaves of ash and oak.
Onwards and 400 steps upwards to the limestone pavement that forms a scythed gallery atop the Cove. It’s busy up here, tourists pacing closer to the cliff edge than I dared for selfies.
The pavement is used to the attention: it’s featured in dozens of films and TV shows, including as a backdrop to Harry and Hermione’s search for the final Horcrux (and Ron) during Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1).
Picking my way across the clints and grikes I check my camera: 100 photos and it’s barely 11am. If I was to reach Horton by nightfall I needed to pocket the camera and get walking.
Into the dry valley of Ing Scar, memories of the Derbyshire Dales as I wove along and up, cliffs high above and then, as I gained height, below.
A deviation on Dean Moor, following a couple who were in hindsight lost. Two lessons in one: a) follow no-one, ever; b) even when the scenery's this good, keep one eye on the map.
To Malham Tarn, its outlet stream flowing for a few hundred meters before sinking into the ground. It's a glacial lake, the highest of its kind in Britain, and holds nearly every conservation designation going. The route round it is a nice break from moor and rock, with rich woodlands protecting the impressive lakeside hunting lodge, once home to the eccentric, solitude-loving, wealthy and benevolent Liberal and Liberal Unionist MP Walter Morrison. It's now a field study centre leased from the National Trust.
Fountains Fell feels likes proper mountain walking for the first time on my LeJog.
It's round about here that Wainwright seems to start enjoying the Pennine Way.
Until now the pithy route descriptions given for each leg have been near-universally negative: "Hard labour", "Wet and weary trudge", "Why?", "A profound deterioration in quality" , "What a mess" and, my personal favourite, "You will question your own sanity".
Now there's rock underfoot AW lightens up. "Enjoyable and exciting" (Gordale Scar), "Fascinating" (Malham Cove), "Interesting" (Malham Tarn), "Very, very good" (Horton) and "A real mountain, at last" (Pen-y-ghent).
Wainwright was, of course, a civil servant. He kept up his day job as Kendal Borough Treasurer even as his Pictorial Guides bought him worldwide renown – and a small fortune in royalties – until his retirement in 1967.
But though he was brilliant at his job, at best colleagues would describe him as quietly diligent. He made no secret of his disdain of the social side of office life – memorably slipping out of his own farewell party.
In idle moments I wonder what he would have made of the modern workplace. The team-building days, the SWOT analyses, the social nights and – God forbid – the office Christmas party.
One of the business ideas on my long list is a book of gently humorous cartoons depicting Wainwright in Modern Britain. Trying to grapple with OS Apps, posh wine bars, SIRI, geocaching and Julia Bradbury walking shows.
A project for another day.
What's clear is that the great man was starting – just – to enjoy the Pennine Way by this point, and for a devoted mountain man the reason became clear at the 'stone men' cairns atop Fountains Fell.
Not Fountain Fell itself, which is big but forgettable, but the first view of Pen-y-ghent.
Before today I thought the Lakes had a near-monopoly on England’s best mountains. Not any more. Pen-y-ghent is a gem. Not only does it pack a visual punch from pretty much every angle, it’s also bags of fun to climb: a gentle approach followed by an airy scramble up its rocky nose.
But boy was it windy. As I gained height it became ever harder to maintain a straight line. The only shelter came from the summit wall, where walkers were sheltering for picnics, tea breaks and to add more layers.
With every step up the views got better: east to bulky Fountains Fell, west to Whernside et al, shrouded in blanket mist that was getting thicker by the minute. With the cloud base falling and wind rising, temperatures were falling fast on the tops.
There was interest in the valleys too: remote hill farms picked out by lances of light, the Godbeams of crepuscular rays so prized by landscape and weather photographers.
My own camera was having none of it. With 292 pictures down, the battery was blinking red. A timely reminder to stop snapping and start looking around instead.
On the summit I met Terence, a friend from the Lakes.
He's an authority on all things walking who's helped advise me on everything from pack weight to LeJog route options (thanks Terence). We had a quick last scan of the view, then, keen to be out of the summit blast, made our way down the stone slabs that have been laid to halt erosion on the fell's west flank.
People were still climbing up by the dozen, such is the Three Peaks' draw, waylaying Terence's black labrador, Lucy, who had no interest in giving up the attention.
Horton was rammed. People of all nationalities were jostling for food and drink to celebrate the end of their Three Peak assaults. A steady stream of beer and champagne was leaving the pubs on trays.
It explained why I'd tried and failed to find accommodation for the night.
That's one of the reasons I’m heading home for a day or two. I live just up the road and Terence's offer of a lift to my own bed was too good to turn down.
Although I’d happily get up tomorrow and carry on the trail, LeJog's main hardship (for me at least) is that it consumes every waking (and walking) minute. Normal life is inevitably put on hold – even as it continues.
So for the next couple of days I’m going to catch up on the boring everyday. Pay the bills, have a haircut and shave, buy new boots and do some work – all the things I’ve not found time for during the past five weeks.
I will also R&R.
Who knows, maybe my strange dream about warm foot baths, Columbo box sets, Dominos Pizza and Phil Cunningham will prove to be a premonition?
On second thoughts, probably not. Dominos don’t deliver up my valley and Phil Cunningham's on tour. Though I could certainly find time for a few Columbos.
I’m back on the trail Tuesday.