This blog needs lightening up I think. For the last few posts I’ve been banging on about Everest and avalanches and so forth, and you’re probably getting a bit fed up with it, so this week I’ve decided to return to my hill walking roots. To assist me in lightening the tone there’s no better person than Captain Chaos, also known as my old trekking buddy Ken.
I first met Ken on a trek in Ladakh in 2005, which happened to coincide with a rather exciting Ashes series. Somehow he’d managed to pick up cricket commentary by radio (well, we were in India after all), and he wandered over high passes in a breathtaking desert landscape wearing earphones and intermittently crying, “well bowled, Freddy”, or “Michael Vaughan, you beauty!” Once a serious athlete who has completed 57 marathons with a best time of 2½ hours, generally speaking Ken isn’t one to take life too seriously, and he has always regarded finding a decent pint as important as reaching a summit.
A couple of weekends ago he invited me up north to walk the Yorkshire 3 Peaks with him. When most people think of the 3 Peaks, they think of the popular activity of completing the highest peak in Scotland, England and Wales (Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon) in 24 hours, an activity that has become the charity challenge equivalent of eating a McDonald’s. While each of the three peaks is a good hill walk in its own right, doing them in 24 hours involves a lot of time spent driving, and is therefore a challenge that appeals to people who prefer sitting in a minibus to actual walking (of whom there are many).
The Yorkshire 3 Peaks Walk is not to be confused with this. It’s a single 25 mile day walk involving 1600 metres of ascent and descent which crosses the three hills of Pen-y-Ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s also popular as a charity challenge, and consequently some of the paths are quite eroded and boggy, but in most places they are well maintained with flagstones, gravel and even boardwalks. The first recorded completion was in 1887 by J.R. Wynne Edwards and D.R. Smith in a time of 10 hours. There is now an annual 3 Peaks Race (on a shorter 23 mile circuit) which regularly has completion times of under three hours.
The Yorkshire 3 Peaks Walk is one for connoisseurs, and the great writer Alfred Wainwright once expressed dismay about the racers and charity challengers who walk it. “Some people have chosen to regard the walk as a race, and this is to be greatly regretted. Walking is a pleasure to be enjoyed in comfort,” he said. It was therefore unfortunate when one of Ken’s mates let slip in his local boozer the night before that he’d once completed it in 8½ hours. For a man like Ken, who has run round three times, this was akin to placing a glass of beer at regular intervals along the route. In his sixties now, Ken’s marathon days are in the past, and while we certainly wouldn’t be running with me in tow either, my only previous attempt took me 9½ hours, so the chances were quite high we would be walking more briskly than Wainwright would have liked.
The usual starting point is the Pen-y-Ghent Café in Horton in Ribblesdale, a little village nestling in the Ribble Valley between Ingleborough and Pen-y-Ghent. The café operates a clocking-in-and-out system, where you can drop your names and start time in the letterbox at the beginning of the walk. From here a footpath heads through fields up Pen-y-Ghent rising like a giant long barrow on the horizon above you. We left at 7.40. It was a beautiful morning, if a little on the chilly side, and at that hour we found ourselves walking directly into the sun as we climbed. Ken fell into conversation with some Geordie lads who clearly weren’t regular walkers. They had no map with them and were hoping to find the route by following the crowds (which is entirely possible on a sunny Saturday). Slightly more improbably they were hoping to complete the walk and be back in Horton for a pub lunch at the Crown Inn. They became a little disheartened when Ken told them it would take at least 9 hours.
A Lancashire lad from Bolton, Ken told me he has to take Anti-Yorkshire pills in order to cross the border into the land of the White Rose, but they usually wear off after 10 hours. This meant we needed to move quickly. Meanwhile as a Yorkshireman myself, I was breathing in the fresh Dales air which tasted like honey. 3 Peaks Walkers get a decent morale boost at the beginning of the walk as the first peak, Pen-y-Ghent can be ascended within the first hour. The path follows a gentle incline alongside a dry stone wall for most of the ascent, before climbing steeply below the summit. Views back across the rolling green landscape of Ribblesdale to Ingleborough are extensive, and you can see quite a way beyond into Lancashire. The summit is something of a plateau, and it resembled the station platform at Clapham Junction, heaving with walkers.
We took a couple of quick photos and hurried on. Everyone else was resting at the summit, and within a few minutes we were alone again, if not for long. Pen-y-Ghent is the most outlying of the three hills, and there is a long walk across a broad grassy plain to the next one, Whernside. This is the most eroded part of the walk, and the footpath here is frequently boggy and very muddy. There are a few short ascents and descents where bog hopping and mud wading are necessary, and I imagine there are a few expletives issuing forth when people slide on their backsides and end up browner than a sun-tanned pig in mud heaven. Ken and I are both quite sure-footed, and we managed to stay on our feet, but there were a couple of times I needed to hurry him along when he found himself walking behind shapely young ladies (his description, not mine). The first part of the descent from Pen-y-Ghent follows the Pennine Way on a firm trail contouring beneath the summit. It then descends sharply before crossing miles and miles of muddy grassland, the gentle elongated summit of Whernside seeming a long way off on the far horizon. We were making good time and appeared to be the quickest in the field, overtaking hundreds of people in large groups across this section.
Eventually the trail passes through a farmyard and out onto a road, which it follows for about half a mile to a road junction on top of Blea Moor. The famous Ribblehead Viaduct dominates the foreground here as it passes in front of our next objective, Whernside. Built in 1870 to carry the picturesque Settle-Carlisle railway line across the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, it rises 30 metres above the ground in a series of slender arches, and stretches for 400 metres across the moor. Last time I did the 3 Peaks, there were quite a few trainspotters mingling here in their flared trousers, horn-rimmed glasses and 70s haircuts (not really), who told us that a steam train was due past in a few minutes time, so we hung around to watch. More importantly there’s also a burger van here and I was feeling a bit peckish. Ken instructed me to stop for a bacon sandwich while he continued onwards, as he expected me to catch him up again. The old fella’s quicker than he thinks, though. I was delayed for about 15 minutes and he was nearly on the summit of Whernside before I caught him. I had to walk so quickly that I kept getting abuse from young boy racers as I sped past them up the hill.
Whernside is definitely my favourite summit out of the three. The trail to its top follows the railway line for a short stretch before rising gently on a long sweeping arc across grassy moorland as it curves round the back of Whernside, bringing you up it from the far side. The summit is a long three kilometre ridge, which means you enjoy great views south for quite a good long walk, to Pen-y-Ghent and Ingleborough, and even further west as far as the Irish Sea. We reached the summit at about 12.30, which meant we’d be pushing it to complete the walk in 8½ hours. We were both tiring by then, so we adjusted our target to a respectable 9 hours which enabled us to enjoy the walk a little more.
The descent into Chapel-le-Dale from Whernside is steep and exhilarating, and has great views of the flat top of Ingleborough rising up ahead. Down in the dale the trail passes through a couple of farmyards, one of which has a tea shop. A trio of youngsters passed us here, remarkably the first people to do so since we started the walk. They were muttering to each other about getting to the tea shop ahead of us to be first in the queue, and I think they were a bit surprised when 60-something Ken legged it past them shouting, “come on then, lads!” I genuinely thought he was going to run the remaining half mile to the tea shop, but he stopped by a cattle grid at the bottom of the hill to wait for me, and the youngsters, who by now had spread out in their attempt to keep up with him, must have been quite relieved. At the tea shop I downed a brisk pint of orange squash with ice, and Ken had half a mug of tea before slinging the rest into a hedge in his eagerness to push on.
Ingleborough is the most picturesque of the three peaks, rising like a table and surrounded by limestone pavement, a geological feature I remember learning about in GCSE geography: in a nutshell, it’s a flat surface of rock containing alternating slabs (“clints”) and cracks (“grikes”), created by a glacier retreating across a flat bed of limestone during the last ice age. Vegetation, including small hawthorn trees, spring from some of the grikes and they’re altogether quite pleasing to look upon. The path crosses a series of fields before rising above an apron of limestone pavement into the Ingleborough Nature Reserve, a wetland habitat crossed by a boardwalk (or less charitably, a bog). A short steep climb follows onto the summit ridge, and the summit itself is a huge plateau. There were as many people there as there had been on Pen-y-Ghent’s summit, but because it’s so vast it didn’t feel crowded up there. Ingleborough lies on the far west of the Yorkshire Dales, and there are no significant hills between it and the sea, which meant we had views for miles while we enjoyed our Curly Wurlies (that’s a chocolate bar in case you don’t know).
We had about an hour and a half to get back down to Horton in Ribblesdale if we were to meet our 9 hour deadline. It’s a long one, across a rough boulder field to begin with, before taking a more gentle route across a shoulder of Ingleborough’s outlying neighbour, Simon Fell. The path was muddy again lower down as we passed through the extensive area of limestone pavement known as Sulber. For over an hour Pen-y-Ghent rose ahead of us on the horizon like a beacon, and somewhere beneath it was Horton; but we couldn’t see the village until we were quite close, at a point where the path drops steeply through muddy fields. I kept glancing at my watch to see if we were running to deadline. It was Ken’s 14th 3 Peaks Walk, so he was much more familiar with timings than I was.
“It’s going to be tight,” he said. “The path has a bit of jiggery pokery before we reach Horton.”
“I thought you liked jiggery pokery, Ken,” I replied.
As we reached the top of the village a couple of youngsters sprinted past us in their determination to get to the Pen-y-Ghent Café and clock in. I was more confident that we had jigged and poked our way down from Ingleborough perfectly. We strolled casually through the village and walked into the Pen-y-Ghent Café on the dot of our 9 hour deadline. We both had sore feet, but were thoroughly satisfied. I bought two big pint mugs of tea and a chocolate brownie and we sat down at a table in the warmth of the café. Ken was complaining of tiredness, and saying he wasn’t sure he fancied going to the pub tonight. Thankfully the pint of tea seemed to sort this surprising turn of events. The day wasn’t over for me. Ken’s a boy racer at heart, and we still had to get back to Bolton in his red two-seater Audi penis extens, I mean sports car. The less said about this journey the better, but let’s just say it didn’t take 9 hours.
It had been a grand day out on one of Britain’s classic hill walks in pleasant company, and we couldn’t have asked for better weather. This gave me something to reflect upon as the scenery flew past out of my passenger window.
For a more vivid taste of the Yorkshire Dales on a fine autumn day, you can see my photos of our walk here.