Hebden Bridge to Keld

May 2013

Rosalind was waiting for me at Piccadilly Station and we walked to Victoria Station to catch the train to Hebden Bridge. Here it was drizzling slightly as we walked along the canal and then up the hill, where our accommodation for the night was in a pleasant, old fashioned ‘garden’ room at the back of the house. We went back down to the popular Stubbings Wharf pub for our evening meal where we had to wait quite a while, but the food was good.

Our landlady was very talkative over breakfast next morning. As a leader of a local rambling group she was very keen to tell us where to go, but couldn’t read a map and her directions were decidedly hazy. There were also rather a lot of house rules which we did or didn’t obey. For instance, boot laces had to be tucked inside the boots, not left hanging over the edge to drip on her floor. She checked that we hadn’t stolen any toiletries from the bathroom then made sure we held our rucksacks in front of us so as not to mark the wall as we made a hurried escape.

The Pennine Way was quite close, but as we were going the Pretty Way we rejected the damp moorland and instead climbed over the hill on confusing paths to drop into the Hebden Water Valley. On the way, we went through the little village of Heptonstall, passing a ‘road closed’ sign. A landslip had blocked the bypass road. Hebden Bridge was suffering the consequences of another year of serious flooding.

The dull weather didn’t detract from the beauty of the valley but enhanced the fresh green of the beech leaves. Bluebells and many other flowers were growing beside the crystal-clear Hebden Water. It was a delightful walk.

We stopped for coffee at the National Trust visitors’ centre then gradually climbed out of the valley, negotiating the fallen tree that was being removed from the path before pausing to take in the vista across the valley. A track along the ridge above Hardcastle Crags could clearly be seen.

Reaching the road, we followed it up to the Pack Horse where we joined the Pennine Way. The damp atmosphere turned to drizzle and by lunchtime it was raining quite hard. We retreated to a copse on private land and, turning the sheep out of their shelter, we ate our food in relative comfort. After all, sheep have naturally waterproof, woolly coats.

Donning our festival capes, we emerged from the trees. The capes had been a good buy. Mine cost £1 at the local supermarket and it was ideal for keeping off the worst of the rain. Appearances didn’t matter.

We continued along the track to the Walshaw Dean reservoirs where the water level was surprisingly low considering how much rain there had been.

It had taken ten years to construct the reservoir at the beginning of the 20th century to provide water for Halifax. A five-mile long railway was built along the ridge above Hardcastle Crags to take the workers from the shanty town of Dawson’s City, near Heptonstall, to the site. An architect from Hebden Bridge, Henry Cockcroft, designed the trestle bridge which spanned the valley and it was built with local labour. Despite its exposure the 105ft high bridge withstood rain, snow and gale force winds until it was demolished when no longer needed after the completion of the reservoirs. The locals called it the eighth wonder of the world.

The new slabs which had been laid to make a path up to Withins Height End were rather slippery. There were piles of them at the top of the hill ready to extend the causeway over the moor. The Pennine Way is the oldest and one of the longest long-distance paths, opening in 1965 and extending from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders, a distance of 267 miles. The popularity of the walk has caused serious erosion problems across some of the peat moors and it is a constant battle to maintain the route while causing as little damage to the environment as possible.

On the brow of the next hill we came across an isolated ruin overlooking the valley. A plaque on the wall states ‘Top Withens. This farmhouse has been associated with Wuthering Heights, the Earnshaw home in Emily Bronte’s novel. The building, even when complete, bears no resemblance to the house she described, but the situation may have been in her mind when she wrote of the moorland setting of the Heights.’

With a thin drizzle falling and a lone sheep cropping the wet grass, it was certainly a desolate spot.

We descended to our lodgings for the night at Ponden House where we received a friendly welcome from our landlady who lived at nearby Ponden Hall, supposedly Thrushcross Grange in the novel. There was plenty of newspaper to stuff our boots before partaking of tea and biscuits in the lounge. A hot bath was followed by a home-cooked evening meal. It couldn’t be better. Also dining with us were a marathon-running 65-year-old and her daughter who were doing the Bronte round, which of course included a trip to the ruined farmhouse. Later we were introduced to their large golden retriever who had been waiting patiently in the car.

We slept well again that night.

There were four other Pennine Way walkers at breakfast next morning who were having vast quantities of luggage carried for them. One woman even had spare boots to put on. The ones she had been wearing weren’t quite dry on the outside.

It was a dull day but not raining. We set off at last, then had some difficulty finding the path, but were soon up on the moor. Curlews were making their distinctive cry overhead and a family of grouse chicks scuttled along the path in front of us, trying to get away but not venturing off the stone slabs.

Out of nowhere on the bleak moorland we came across a stone windbreak where we stopped for elevenses before pressing on across the featureless terrain. The route deteriorated going down to Ickornshaw, passing a line of ramshackle, boarded-up shanties. What nefarious activities took place behind the shuttered windows we could only speculate.

The well-known poet, Simon Armitage, was also intrigued with these black huts when he passed them on his gruelling endurance test along the Pennine Way in 2010. He failed the test, not attempting to climb Kinder Scout, five or six miles from the end, in mist and driving rain. His poem about the huts is recounted in his book ‘Walking Home’. This tells the story of his trials and tribulations on the muddy trek, coping with driving rain, wind, mist, peat bogs, you name it, paying his way by giving poetry recitals in the evenings. Rosalind and I are very grateful for our personal good weather fairy, Roswenda, who usually keeps off the worst of the rain, and equally grateful that we don’t have to recite poetry after a full day’s walk.

Negotiating the stone-walled fields on the other side of the valley was not easy. We lost our way and did a stretch along the road. Our navigation failed us again; we missed the direct way down to Lothersdale and only just got to The Hare and Hounds before it closed at 2 o’clock. The Pennine Way walkers who shared breakfast with us were having a picnic outside. The landlord was bemoaning the fact that fewer people were walking the Pennine Way these days. The distances were too long and there were many other friendlier long-distance-paths to choose from.

The distances were too long for us too, which is why we diverted from the route, making our way over Tow Top towards Throstlenest Farm. There were black, thundery clouds all round us, but our personal section of lighter sky stayed overhead. Further on I missed what was marked as a main track on the map (it wasn’t) so we had some extra road walking, much to Rosalind’s displeasure. My attempts to distract her by pointing out places of interest along the route were a dismal failure.

However, when we finally arrived at the farm we had a warm welcome. It was very well appointed, although the complicated combination-tap in the wash basin sprayed water all over the floor every time it was turned on. After our luxury baths, we had a picnic in our room, as it was a long way to the nearest pub along the dreaded road.

Next morning, we came down to one of the best breakfasts ever which we thoroughly enjoyed before setting out in the general direction of a footpath at the back of the farm marked on the map. Crossing the lane, we found our way up Ramshaw (964ft) and on to Burnt Hill (1,079ft). The open moorland was studded with cotton grass (Simon Armitage wrote a poem about this too), the ground springy underfoot. This was a much better alternative than plodding back up the road. We came down to the farm where I had taken the wrong turn yesterday. I excused myself because there was nothing to indicate a public footpath. This was not a walker-friendly area.

Retracing our tracks over Tow Top we soon regained the Pennine Way which went over Little Pinhaw, passing the spot where Robert Wilson is buried. A series of hilltop beacons had been set up to warn of an impending invasion by Napoleon. Robert Wilson was one of the beacon guards who had been trapped in their hut by severe weather in the winter of 1805. He set out to replenish provisions but didn’t make it. His body was later found only 150 yards from the hut.

It was a short walk to the top of Pinhaw Beacon from where there were fine panoramic views of the surrounding peat moors and across the valley to the limestone country where we would be tomorrow.

Leaving the moorland behind we descended to Thornton-in-Craven then passed through lush green fields to join the Leeds and Liverpool Canal just before the village of East Marton. Here the canal passes through a curious double-arched bridge. When a ‘new’ road was constructed at a higher level, a new arch was built on top of the old one.

After the canal, we went through more verdant fields and climbed Scalebar Hill. From here we could make out the shapes of the first of the limestone outcrops, getting ever closer.

Reaching the Masons Arms in the centre of the historic village of Gargrave we were shown into very comfortable accommodation in the annex. We had some good pub grub followed by an excellent night’s sleep.

The sun was already shining in a clear blue sky when we woke up. After a leisurely breakfast, we left the Mason’s Arms, first crossing the River Aire which bisected the village, and then the canal as it looped its way around the outskirts. Orange markers along the path made route-finding easier and we were intrigued as to what they were for. The scenery all around was lovely as we walked through green flower-covered meadows and eventually came alongside the River Aire again. We made several stops beside the babbling brook, watching the swallows, wagtails and a dipper, all busy in their search for food.

The aspect gradually changed as we got deeper into limestone country. The buttercups and other wild flowers along the bank were now interspersed with swathes of wild garlic.

Just after Aire Head, the source of the river, we turned off along Gordale Beck, joining a stream of tourists who were going to Janet’s Foss, making the best of the fine weather. We passed through a green dell, carpeted with wild garlic, at the end of which was the foss. It was warm enough for some hardy individuals to be swimming in the pool below the waterfall.

We didn’t see anything of Janet, the queen of the local fairies, who was supposed to live in a cave behind the waterfall.

Leaving the fairy grotto, we joined the string of people on the pilgrimage to Gordale Scar, a dramatic limestone ravine with overhanging cliffs.

After taking photographs, we followed the signs to the top of Malham Cove, picking our way gingerly over the limestone pavements, and went down the stepped path to the bottom of the Cove to take more photographs.

The youth hostel in Malham village had recently been refurbished and on being allocated our room we tossed for the bottom bunk. Rosalind lost, so she had to do the mountaineering. In our younger days, we would have been tossing for the upper bunk.

After a very acceptable evening meal served at the table we checked out the shortest route to join the Pennine Way at the top of Malham Cove. Tomorrow would be a long day; we didn’t want to do more than was absolutely necessary.

Back at the hostel the warden explained the reason for the orange markers. No fewer than 1,400 sturdy long-distance walkers supporting Oxfam were attempting the Trekkers Trail, a 100k (62 mile) circuit from Skipton to Horton-in-Ribblesdale and back! No wonder I hadn’t managed to find any accommodation in Horton. Incidentally, I volunteer for Oxfam but had heard nothing about this yearly event.

After an early breakfast and a prompt start we went up the road then cut across to the top of Malham Cove. Very soon the first of the Oxfam trekkers overtook us and were soon disappearing into the distance.

We followed more sedately up to pretty Malham Tarn then along a dale to a minor road. Refreshments were available here for the hoards to fortify them before they tackled Fountains Fell (2,000ft).

Many walkers and runners overtook us as we made our ascent. Higher up, a tough, ancient breed of cattle with large horns, were grazing with their calves on both sides of the path. BIG DADDY calmly assessed the situation, rounded up his large family and moved them off the path to safety. We felt much safer too.

After several false summits, we finally reached the highest point where we stopped to have our lunch. A couple of mountain rescue volunteers were checking that everyone was fit to carry on. Of course they were, they’d only covered about 25 miles.

In the ‘good old days’ when there was an accident in the mountains and the international distress signal (six blasts on a whistle) was heard, all the able-bodied young men in the area would rush to the rescue. The unfortunate victim was then man-handled across sometimes steep and rocky terrain to the nearest road to await an ambulance, assuming someone had managed to locate a telephone box to call one. Now the mountain rescue teams are comprised of highly trained volunteers of both sexes, equipped with specialised equipment and backed up by mountain rescue services or the air ambulance, able to winch the casualties out of difficult situations, getting them to hospital much faster.

We dropped down into the valley where quite a few of the trekkers were milling about at the water station, then climbed up onto the shoulder of Pen-y-Ghent. Rosalind thought that it was a mountain too far and that we should go straight down to Horton, but then changed her mind and decided to give it a go. The ascent required some scrambling, but it wasn’t too bad, and we were soon on the summit at 2415ft.

The Oxfam trekkers had gone the direct way down, so we were surprised to see two more marshals at the top. They told us there was a fell race in progress and the runners would be approaching ‘any minute now’. Sure enough, as we set off down the path the first ones were upon us and down in the valley before we’d covered 100 metres. We were in constant danger of being flattened until our ways diverged.

The long approach track to Horton-in-Ribblesdale was rough underfoot. Now the only other walkers were a family group. The children shared their sweets with us, perhaps realising that we were as tired as they were.

The village was teeming with competitors. Some had had enough and were retiring having completed 30 miles, settling for the bronze medal. The gold and silver contenders would be continuing throughout the night.

We found the station and were waiting for the train to Settle when three elderly ladies dashed across the line from the direction of Whernside to join us. They had just completed the three peaks challenge, covering over 23 miles and climbing Ingleborough, Pen-y-Ghent and Whernside in eleven hours. Rosalind and my achievements, 15 miles and two peaks in just over 8 hours, paled into insignificance compared with those of just about everyone else who had been out on the fells that day. Oh well.

When the train arrived at Settle we walked to our B&B where we received a warm welcome. Luckily the nearest source of food was a top rate fish and chip restaurant, so we didn’t have to go too far for our meal.

Back at our digs we showered and fell into bed, well pleased with our day.

Breakfast next morning was first class and we shared it with a group who had just done the three peaks challenge, also a rather small man in a business suit who was way out of his comfort zone.

We walked along the River Ribble to buy some sandwiches for lunch, but the supermarket wasn’t open, so we caught the train back to Horton. Here we bought much better rolls in the café before setting off on the Pennine Way again. We passed several shake holes, formed by water washing surface clay down cracks in the limestone or by the collapse of an underground cave. At Sell Gill Holes, one of the entrances to a large area of underground caves, we had a break. Two lambs were oblivious to the danger as they jumped from rock to rock above, seeking out the patches of lush green grass. Their mother grazed close by, unperturbed.

Limestone has formed over many millions of years from shells and skeletons of animals being laid down in sedimentary rock. Over time, erosion caused by water from receding glaciers has created a labyrinth of underground caverns and caves as well as the limestone pavements and spectacular outcrops to be seen at Malham cove and elsewhere.

A little further on, I tripped over nothing and fell, protesting to Rosalind that I was ok even before I hit the ground. She found that quite amusing.

It was to be a shorter day today, so we came off the Pennine Way and descended towards the Ribblehead Viaduct via the Dales Way, which had been upgraded to a wide, surfaced track. At the bottom, a substantial bridge was being built over Gayle Beck.

We plodded along the boring road with bikers zooming past us and eventually reached the Railway Inn, where we were to spend the night.

In the evening we went to have a closer look at the viaduct, the longest on the Settle to Carlisle Railway. It was completed in 1870 and cost many lives in its construction. Batty Green, the site of the shanty town where over 2,000 navvies had lived with their families was close by and another 80 people had died there during a smallpox epidemic.

During the latter half of the 20th century the railway suffered from a lack of investment; the condition of the tunnels and viaducts deteriorated to the point when British Rail decided to close the line. There was a huge outcry from local authorities and rail enthusiasts. Finally, the government refused to let the line be closed and the repair work began. The Ribblehead Viaduct was fully restored in the early 1990s. Today, the line is important for taking freight off the congested West Coast Main Line and is a popular tourist attraction, running steam trains between Settle and Carlisle during the summer months.

The sun was shining next morning as we re-plodded the road to join the Dales Way again. It wasn’t so bad this time in the absence of the bikers. Crossing the bridge construction site, we re-joined the Pennine Way on the ridge then followed the Roman road over Cam Fell past the lonely outpost of Cam Houses. Bed and breakfast had been provided here in former years but no longer, which was the reason for our detour to the valley last night.

A little further on we found out why the track was being upgraded. A notice on a gate informed us that a haul road was being built over the ridge to link forestry work in the valley to the station at Ribblehead, despite local opposition. It will certainly make for less pleasant walking when lorries loaded with timber are trundling past all the time.

After we left the concrete the going was much more enjoyable. Many varieties of rock plant were lining the path and there were far-reaching views to all points of the compass.

Coming down into the valley we soon reached to the little town of Hawes, where Wensleydale cheese has been made in the creamery for over 100 years. We made use of the local amenities and had a cup of tea and a teacake each before continuing along the pretty valley to the Green Dragon Inn at Hardraw.

Our excellent accommodation was in an annex overlooking flower-clad meadows and hills. We had a rest then walked along the beautiful dell in the pub grounds to Hardraw Force, the longest single plunge waterfall in England. It was more of a waterspout than a force as the weather had been dry for some days, but a natural amphitheatre had been carved out below Hardraw Scar. For over 100 years this has been the unlikely venue for a brass band competition held every autumn.

After our meal, we went out to explore the village. It was in an idyllic position. The clouds which had gathered during the day had cleared and it was a lovely evening. We investigated the public telephone box as there had been no mobile phone signal since Settle, but we couldn’t open the door because of an elderberry tree obstructing it. Our husbands would have to wait for news.

That night we went to bed with the curtains drawn back so in the morning we would be able to appreciate the view from the window when we woke up.

And we woke up to another lovely, sunny day. We didn’t linger over breakfast and were soon climbing out of the valley on the lower slopes of Great Shunner Fell, at 2,340ft the third highest peak in the Yorkshire Dales and the highest point on the Pennine Way so far. The underlying hard sandstone rock was resistant to the ravaging effects of glaciation, and had left an extensive plateau of exposed moorland and upland bog. The path was paved in places but there were still some peat hags to cross as well as boggy sections. Sometimes the bog was so deep that the paving stones had disappeared under the surface and a stick was useful to estimate the depth of the black ooze.

Up on the open moorland we saw lapwings, curlews, wheatears and a miscellany of little brown birds which we couldn’t name. There were fabulous views which included the Three Peaks, Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-Ghent.

Quite a few locals were out walking but none who were doing the Pennine Way. Needless-to-say, most of them overtook us and soon disappeared into the distance. The popularity of the fell has resulted in the loss of the native heath and a regeneration process is in progress. We didn’t see much sign of this on the way up, but as we meandered over the top and down the other side we did see quite a few small patches of heather.

We stopped above a waterfall in a gully for a drink from our water bottles and were surprised when a couple we had met on our way down came over to us, handing Rosalind her hat. She hadn’t realised she had dropped it.

The track became very rough as we approached the little village of Thwaite where we stopped to have tea and a cookie at the café. Suitably refreshed, we climbed out of the buttercup meadows of Swaledale on a high-level path which was lined with blueberry plants and thyme. As we contoured Kidson Hill above the River Swale the views changed constantly. There were flowers all around, including a bank of primroses – in June!

The 1,636ft high hill was formed when moraine left by the retreating glaciers after the last ice age blocked the River Swale, which originally flowed on the west side, diverting it to the east, forming the present gorge.

Reluctantly we came down into Keld, another section of our marathon completed.

Wainwright’s coast to coast walk crosses the Pennine Way at Keld. When we reached our B&B several coast to coast walkers had already got their drinks from the bar and were chatting in the garden. The prospect of hot baths was more compelling than a drink, but afterwards we shared experiences with the coast to coasters over an excellent meal provided by our landlady who was a professional chef.

In the evening, we were pleased to find that the public telephone box worked (!) as there was still no mobile phone signal. We contacted our respective husbands to inform them that we were still in the land of the living and would be coming home tomorrow.

Next morning, before catching the bus for the first leg of our journey home, we went down to the River Swale to take photographs of the waterfalls, as we had done the last time we were here in 1999.

In the autumn of 1999 we had completed Wainwright’s coast to coast walk from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire. This meant that for our Land’s End to John O’Groats project we could continue northwards from anywhere along the coast to coast route. As we both love the Lake District, we decided that we would like to walk the Cumbria Way from Rosthwaite in Borrowdale to Carlisle. From there we could follow Hadrian’s Wall to Housesteads, where we would re-join the Pennine Way to continue our journey north.

Well, we were going the Pretty Way, not the shortest!

The next section: Rosthwaite to Keld.