Sedbergh to Ingleton
Updated: Jan 20, 2020
Pennine Journey - Day 16 - 17.75 miles
It has long been a belief of mine that most human beings get a handful of perfect days thrown at them over their lifetime.
Some are the days you might guess in advance – wedding day, honeymoon, birth of a child, that kind of thing – but most come unannounced. Nights with old friends that end at dawn. A Christmas morning when the snows come. For better or worse, most of mine seem to involve mountains, music and beer – in no particular order. A long afternoon that transitioned to evening at the Langdale Folk Festival. A night in Birmingham exploring canal-side bars. An afternoon wander on Ard Crags with my other half, the heather purple, the air still, and a half-bottle of champagne in the rucksack (AW would almost certainly not have approved!).
And now, today’s walk, under the Maytime blue skies that have stayed with me for pretty much my entire journey south, added to that list without question.
I am charmed by Sedbergh by the time it comes to leave.
It’s not a town that shouts about its attractions. Sure, there’s the picture-perfect school, which owns a good number of the handsome stone buildings around town. And there’s its location; terraced on the lower flanks of gentle Winder and the Howgills, the slopes Wainwright likened to sleeping elephants.
But the real interest is away from the mainstreet, in the cobbled alleys and yards that run behind; the hidden rows of cottages and flagged squares, the immaculately-maintained gardens away from the public eye.
I love the fact that the main street’s thriving, with all kinds of indie shops and cafés. I love the fact they’re so proud of their ‘twinned’ town – the Slovenian settlement of Zreče – the result of an unlikely BBC2 series in which the residents of Sedbergh voted for the European town they most wanted as a distant friend (turnout for the vote was higher than for many national elections). Most of all I love the fact that Sedbergh has reinvented itself as a Book Town, its heart and soul the fabulous Westgate Books, in which bibliophiles can lose an hour or three.
It’s almost a tear to leave.
But Dentdale awaits…
Dent has had a hold on my imagination for the best part of 40 years.
It started with a mug in my mum and dad's kitchen – brown, hand-pottered – with the simple four letter word 'DENT' on it.
It was also dented.
As a child I assumed the label and the dent were a kind of crockery joke.
It was only years later that I learned Dent was a place, in the Dales, and that my mum and dad bought the mug on a Christmas trip to the village before I was born.
But for whatever reason – and despite having moved just up the road in Cumbria a few years back – I’d still not set a foot in Dentdale until today, when after cresting the shoulder of Burton Hill the Pennine Journey joins the Dales Way for what is surely one of the loveliest walks in these Isles.
The PJ’s first introduction to the valley is a fairytale amble down an age-old drover’s road, honeysuckle on one side, bilberry bushes below moss-clad walls on the other. The road enters bluebell-carpeted Gap Wood high on the valleyside; like lapwings, bluebells have been constant companions on this long walk. And like lapwings, I will never tire of them
Down onto a tiny terrace path that threads between the immaculate farms at Gap, lambs jumping in the meadows, cuckoos calling between hillsides.
In the valley bottom the path crosses the River Dee and follows the far-side lane for a mile. In lesser valleys this road walking would be a chore. Not here, though. Shoulder-high hedges have been laid by a past-master; hazel, sycamore, willow, woven among parkland trees – oaks and ashes that have landmarked generations. And below a bounty of wildflowers; anemone, sorrel, wild daffodil and, of course, more bluebells.
Then it’s all change, as the Dales Way finds the Dee, which tumbles from gently circling ochre pools over pebble-cascades, peat-water rippling gold in the morning sun. Buttercups drape yellow on the riverside meadows and far above thorn-softened crags spotted with blossom line the horizon.
At a field edge I pick a dandelion clock and blow the hours onto the breeze that stirs the oaks.
Forget Wasdale, I think, Forget Buttermere and Kentmere and even wonderful Longsleddale. This is it: the perfect mountain valley, every step a delight, and every step new, a feast for the eyes, a verdance to nature that is intoxicating. As if some master landscape designer has been at work across millenia crafting something exquisite.
The names delight too: Brown Beck Star; Doblin’s Hill; Tub Holes; Wham; Coppy Lathe; Kitty Barn; Corn Close; Butter Pots; Peacock Hill; Tofts. (Though pity the stock at Cage Farm.)
Very occasionally the landscape, the land custodians, those who work the land and a few happy accidents of geology, ecology and climate coincide through centuries to result in something special. Lorton Vale in Lakeland is one of those places. This remote Yorkshire Dale is another.
People have loved this valley for centuries; and that love is evident everywhere – in the hedgerows, the stone-lined river banks, the wildlfowers, the stepping stones, at one point a field drain not just dug out into a bank, but lined with flags. The care and detail is extraordinary.
Nor is that care consigned to history; just above Mill Bridge a lad is walling; and polite reminder notices in the valley-bottom ask that walkers don’t disturb the wildflowers.
Nor does Dent, the town, disappoint.
It’s a hard job stirring from lemon sponge at a sunny table outside the charming Dent Heritage Centre café – among the old Fordsons and Allis-Chalmers – but there are rewards around each shy corner; the immaculately maintained cottages, the fine old inns, a granite monolith celebrating the life of local boy-made-good Adam Sedgwick, friend of Wordsworth and one of the founding fathers of modern geology (Cumbrian granite in limestone country) and, most of all, the cobbled streets, tarmacced over in almost every other northern town.
This isolated hamlet was once a stronghold of knitters. So prolific were the folk of the village, they were reputed to have a higher output than anywhere else in northern England. This was part skill, but part also a refined ability to multi-task: knitting stockings, caps, gloves, and sweaters not only at home, but also while walking and working – weaving fabric as they turned the butter churn or wandered the stock roads.
The industrial revolution did for Dent's knitters. By the time AW reached Dent knitting was nothing but a hobby for a few older women, the menfolk having long since downed needles. He notes instead the ramshackle housing ("There is no beauty in Dent's black walls and grotesque lines,") the poverty ("one is reminded forcibly of the squalid slums that feature in every film of the Revolution,") but, most poignantly of all, his host for the night clicking her knitting needles while her husband drums his fingers "in tune on the edge of his chair", hands still tapping out the rhythms of the past.
It’s all change as the Pennine Journey leaves Dent.
With each uphill step the valley is left further behind, its honeysuckle air and golden waters a fairytale chapter closed for today. Pastures transition to moorland on the long pull up Whernside, highest of the Yorkshire Three Peaks where the Dales Way is abandoned for the Dales High Way – its airier sibling – and the ancient drover’s track of Great Wold that links Dentdale with Little Dale.
The PJ leaves the drover’s way at Boot of the Wold, striking due south along a lonely old moorland trail; no Three Peakers here, their upland motorway joined shortly before the final summit lift. I continue plodding onwards, passing the incongruous Knoutbery Hill tarns, so rare in the Dales, panorama opening not only of the supine Howgills, but also distant Lakeland, the great whaleback of Whernside cresting ahead.
It’s impossible to miss the stark demographic change of walkers as the summit nears. Before now everyone I’ve passed since Sedbergh has been over 60. Now, on the official Three Peaks route, everyone's sub-40. ‘Challenge’ walks: that’s what hook the young. Not the kind of ponderous wander I'm engaged with.
Onto the final summit ridge, now with a fierce wind blasting an icy summit. I pull on a jumper, then a jacket, struggling to stand upright. It's a reminder that even on fine days Whernside’s no walk in the park. In driving rain the ascent can be brutal.
And finally to the summit, where the Irish Sea shimmers gold on the western horizon and the sense of space and isolation makes for arresting views. So vast are the distances here, and so spread the peaks that the panorama has a different flavour from the more crowded view from Gable, say, or Scafell. Here the outlook has the feel of an upland plateau, from which distant peaks thrust up many miles distant.
Dominating the landscape are the three monarchs of Craven; Whernside, Pen-y-ghent and Ingleborough, looking every inch the statesman across the gulf of Twisleton. The moors and mountains blaze then fade as high-above clouds sail past. One moment the crags of Ingleborough are etched with hyper-real clarity; the next the mountain is lost in shadow, melding into the moorlands that roll far on either side.
If Dentdale and the grandstand view from Whernside were all today’s walk had to offer I would have removed my boots a happy man.
But there's more to come.
The Pennine Journey leaves the hurrying Three Peak crowds at Bruntscar to break southwest along the terraced shoulder of Whernside. The path has little to commend it at first; it’s Pennine moorland, only this time there are no lapwings or curlews on the cold, stiff breeze.
But then the limestone starts breaking the rushed moorland skein in great grazes of ivory, and so begins an hour walking above one of the geological wonders of this country.
The limestone pavement is topsy turvey. Starting life as skeletal fragments of marine organisms on the ocean floor, the limestone has been pushed skyward by tectonic upthrusts over millennia to top these Yorkshire moors. The scouring of glaciers exposed the rock to rain and that rain is responsible for the characteristic fissures (‘grykes’) and worn blocks (‘clints’) that gleam white as the path crosses Scales Moor.
As I walk shifting light dials the drama up a level. Cloud shadow blankets the valley bottom while sunbeam spotlights sweep the screed monolith of Ingleborough and the tapered lines of its limestone crags – White Scars, Raven Scar, Fell Close Rocks, New Close Rocks; curtain walls protecting a giant's castle shattered in some distant battle.
I look across the once ocean-bed, transfixed now, its fluid forms a labyrinth of accidental artistry and hear myself saying: 'Wow' before I've even formulated the word. If this is the culmination of 200 miles of walking then all has been worthwhile.
Suddenly the clouds above break again casting a blinding blaze across the landscape.
From Twisleton Scar it’s a mile descent to Ingleton, England's potholing capital.
Much of the route makes use of the private 'Waterfalls Walk' that draws thousands of visitors a day to Beezley and Snow Falls in high season.
It’s a fine walk through mossy old oak woods with more than a few vertiginous views of the tumbling River Doe.
But today it’s simply an afterword to a walk that couldn't be bettered.
If I started the day thinking I'd seen much of the bounty the north country has to offer, I ended it realising I don't know the half of it.