First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
When you get a crisp, clear day in a long North Yorkshire winter, it’s a case of grabbing it with both hands. I caught the early train to Horton-in-Ribblesdale, and was striding through the stone-built village with smoking breath and tingling fingers as the clock said ten. A clear sky lay over Ribblesdale, a backdrop of intense blue for the leonine profile of Pen-y-ghent hill.
Up in Horton Scar Lane the stone walls sparkled with hoar frost, and the sheep in the whitened fields nosed the stiff grasses suspiciously, as if nature had played a nasty trick on them. The old packhorse track rose straight and steady up the fellside, bordered with kerbstones cut and shaped centuries ago by the drovers and wool transporters who used this ancient way to cross from dale to dale. The Pennine Way, Britain’s first designated National Trail, climbs the old thoroughfare, and nowadays it is walkers’ boots that keep Horton Scar Lane well trodden.
The limestone of these hills is riddled with potholes, and the Pennine Way runs near two tremendous examples up on the flanks of Pen-y-ghent. I stepped aside to stare into the crag-lined gash of Hull Pot, as broad and deep as a city block. Hunt Pot, by contrast, made a tight black slit in its rock terrace, a door to a dark dwelling for one of the boggarts or goblins that haunted the imaginings of dales dwellers in times past. The path ran on eastwards, steepening as it climbed, to turn south along the sharp ridge crest of Pen-y-ghent.
No-one knows the meaning of this hill’s Welsh-sounding name. ‘The hill of the …’ Of the what? The great steps, perhaps. The south-facing profile of Pen-y-ghent resembles a recumbent lion, gazing away south towards the Lancashire border 15 miles off. The beast’s face is composed of two enormous steps in the rock, a pair of terraces, the upper one of dark gritstone rough to the touch, the lower of smooth light-grey limestone. From the lion’s forehead at 2,273 ft there was an immense prospect this morning over a wide, frost-gripped landscape from which rose Pen-y-ghent’s two neighbouring summits, bulky Whernside and tent-shaped Ingleborough.
One of the great challenge excursions of these islands, the 25-mile Three Peaks Walk, involves surmounting the three sister hills and returning to Horton within 12 hours, having climbed more than 5,000 feet in the day. Descending Pen-y-ghent’s steps, I vividly remembered stumbling into the Pen-y-ghent Café at Horton, stiff-legged, sweat-sodden and smeared with peat after completing the circuit – and the blissful taste of that first mug of tea.
The broad walker’s highway of the Pennine Way dropped gently from the terrace steps to Churn Milk Hole, another pothole depression. Here the drover’s track of Long Lane led away from the National Trail, descending the hillside by easy stages, a long two miles under the blue sky in a pinching wind, the view across Ribblesdale dominated by the grey bowl of a giant quarry. Down in the dale bottom a winding path led me back to Horton through the frozen meadows, with the rush and babble of the River Ribble for a wintry marching song.
Start & finish: Horton-in-Ribblesdale station (OS ref SD 803727)
Getting there: Train (www.thetrainline.com) to Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Road: A65, B6480 to Settle; B6479 to Horton-in-Ribblesdale
Walk (8½ miles, moderate/steep grade, OS Explorer OL2): Follow Pennine Way from Horton to climb to Pen-y-ghent summit (OS ref 838733). Descend south on PW for 1 mile to Churn Milk Hole (835718); right down Long Lane for 2 miles to Helwith Bridge; follow Ribble Way beside river back to Horton.
Lunch: Pen-y-ghent Café (01726-860333), famous for walker-friendliness and mugs of tea, or warm and welcoming Golden Lion Hotel (01726-860206; www.goldenlionhotel.co.uk), Horton-in-Ribblesdale
More info: Settle TIC (01726-825192; www.yorkshiredales.org)