Settle to Horton in Ribblesdale
Updated: Jan 21
Pennine Journey - Day 1 - 7.25 miles
On 24 September, 1938 a 31-year-old Alfred Wainwright, still clerk in the Treasurer’s Department at Blackburn Town Hall, arrived in Settle to embark on a long distance walking expedition.
These were troubled times. Tensions were rising in Europe and the Far East. Hitler was re-arming Germany. Fascists were seizing power not just in Germany, but also in Italy and Spain."In September 1938 events were moving to a crisis,” notes Wainwright in the first words of A Pennine Journey. “Everybody felt sick, upset, nervous. Nobody smiled any more.”
It was partly to escape the stormclouds of war that Wainwright set out into the green Pennine unknown.
“I was fortunate to have a fortnight’s holiday due, and so I fled the familiar scene… In the solitude of the Pennine hills, I found peace. On these desolate moors war seemd incongruous.” With everyone caught up in preparations for conflict the Bradburnian pretty much had the hills to himself. “They provided,” he continues, “the comfort and reassurance I badly needed."
In the months following his return to Blackburn – wallowing in “acute urban depression” – AW put pen to paper to log memories of his long walk. The manuscript, a curious grab-bag of personal reflections, travel writing, philosophical musings, mischievous revelations and nature notes, was then (if we are to believe the marketing) abandoned and set aside in a drawer, which is where it stayed as AW’s star shone ever brighter; as his Pictorial Guides made of him a celebrity, and he moved up in the world to become a leading light in Lakeland publishing and a reluctant hero to fellwalkers the world over.
Only then, nearly five decades since he’d penned it, did Wainwright show the 'lost’ manuscript to his Michael Joseph editor Jenny Dereham, who liked it, thought it would sell and duly published it, not, fortunately, as The Pennine Campaign (his working title), but as A Pennine Journey. So it stands, a time capsule travelogue from the pre-war years with – again, if we are to believe the marketing – not a word changed.
The latest chapter in the book’s story – it had not been easy to get hold of a copy; until very recently it was out of print (I had to borrow mine from Keswick library) – is that the Wainwright Society have negotiated rights from the Wainwright Estate to reprint it.
With AW's hardback in my backpack, alongside a copy of David and Heather Pitt's Pennine Journey guidebook, I travel from Carlisle south on the Carlisle–Settle line.
It's one of the country’s iconic railway journeys, on a line that embodies the vision, commitments and follies of a bygone age; many hundreds of men died building the line, hacking and hauling, battling winds and rains and snow before returning home to the wind-blasted Blea Moor shantytowns of Sebastopol and Belgravia, where rats and smallpox ran rife. Their legacy? Not just the line, but Ribblehead Viaduct, the 24-arch limestone memorial to graft and engineering that draws the eye from many miles distant.
They don't make 'em like they used to.
Settle railway station is the official start of the Journey, where AW placed his boots 80-odd years back. A plaque in a waiting room on the south-bound platform records the spot.
The Pennine Journey leaves the historic town of Settle with little more than a backward glance. There's no struggle to escape-suburbia here; in ten minutes you’re up and out, dry-stone walled Banks Lane gaining height as you pass Castlebergh Plantation.
This is the woodland memorial to Settle's most famous son, Tot (Thomas) Lord, leading light of the Pig Yard Club, cave hunters of yore who scoured the nearby Victoria, Jubilee and Attermire caverns for the bones of prehistoric bear, mammoth, hyena and rhino.
Tot Lord lived for many years at Town Head, a mansion overlooking the town that the great Dales chronicler Bill Mitchell noted was "almost oriental... Tot might be sitting on a cane chair, beside a cane table, not far from the massive elephant skull. On summer days, butterflies fluttered around petalled plants." Town Head is long gone, demolished in 1972, but its grounds – the Plantation – have been replanted with native oak, rowan, cherry and hazel so that locals might wander again in the footsteps of their curious local hero.
Banks Lane meets the open fell on Low High Hill. A few hundred metres higher lies Middle High Hill. And there's a High Hill on the horizon – though sadly no High High Hill.
Already urban life is behind, the moors and dales ahead, path weaving over pastures studded with silver-white limestone and through hillside copses. A drop into sleepy Langcliffe then the way continues along Howson Lane. It's a farm track emblematic of the Dales: perfectly maintained walls channelling through patchwork fields in which new-born lambs are dancing; gentle inclines made for foot travellers generations long-past and later horses, that follows at a half-mile’s distance the meandering Ribble.
The ascent of Stainforth Scar – the imposing limstone crag that has dominated the northward horizon since pulling out of Settle – is the first hard graft of the Pennine Journey. But with bluebells in the woods and thorns just past blossom studding the hillside it’s not a big ask.
On the Scar-top plateau the path enters Lower Wiskill, a farm managed along traditional lines. Their wildflower meadows (of which just 2% survive nationwide) will not be in full bloom for months, but already the pastures are ablaze with cowslips, the occasional early purple orchid breaking the sward. Butterflies dance on a Maytime breeze.
The descent to Stainforth is even better: age-old limestone steps drop the traveller steeply down through a fairytale coppiced woodland clinging to the Scar in a flush of sunshine-dappled greens, blues and whites.
A brief breather in Stainforth, then it’s onto the moors.
It's my first taste of wild country on the Pennine Journey. And while on the hills above Settle there were plenty of walkers here I have the moor to myself. It's just me, the cattle and the sheep, skylarks voicing an endless descant.
The path north is dominated by the brooding uplift of Pen-y-ghent, the 2,277 foot Three Peaks icon, not the highest (that honour goes to Whernside), but, from this approach at least, surely the most dramatic. Continuing north across Overdale takes you onto its breast – and many Pennine Journeyers choose to bag the hill as part of their trip.
The official route, though, strikes left on Moor Head Lane, another walled track, primroses bursting from its banks. Views south are dominated by the massive scar of Dry Rigg quarry – which is bringing down Moughton Nab one blast at a time. Clouds thicken as I pick through the scars, patches of gold rolling across the landscape, moving the focus from faraway hills to distant valleys. God-rays puncture the clouds to pick out hills below; first Pen-y-ghent then distant Ingleborough.
A delightful green lane loses height from the moor and drops down via Dub Cote into the Three Peaks mecca of Horton in Ribblesdale.
It was buzzing last time I was here – in the height of summer, 2017, as I walked the Pennine Way. Tonight I’m the only person staying at the Golden Lion Hotel, and the only person in the bar until 20 locals arrive en masse, switch on the telly directly above where I'm sitting jotting diary notes, and polish off the first of many pints as they watch Liverpool being trounced by Barcelona.
And so starts a Journey.