Monday, 2 November 2015

Pennine Wandering

I'm always impressed by overseas competitors who come to some of our challenging races over unmarked courses like the Dragon's Back or The Spine and perform so well without ever having set foot on the ground until the start of the event. Very competent performers.  But those of us operating nearer the back of the pack need as much help as we can get if we are to have any chance of success, and one of the best ways of increasing that chance is to get familiar with the route. This isn't necessarily just for making the navigation easier (though of course it helps) but more about understanding the ground, the lie of the land as it were, so you can plan your journey on the day (or days!) to best effect. The ground underfoot, what the climbs feel like, where you can get water and other supplies and many other bits of information make strategy and decision-making much easier during the event, as well as taking away one area of potential "nasty surprises" if you don't know what's coming.

So with The Spine looming rather more closely on the horizon now, I felt I should get to know a bit more about the Pennine Way. The only part I had covered so far was the section from Middleton to Alston, courtesy of the excellent "Pennine 39" event organised by Joe Faulkner back in July. I wasn't after the full immersion experience (dark, snow, wind etc), just to understand the terrain, and to get the maximum benefit from this I decided that it should be done in daylight  -  most people who have done a few long events are familiar enough with finding their way around in the dark, it's a skill almost independent of where you actually find yourself.

For my first outing a couple of weeks ago, Jan was very helpful in ensuring that my car was dropped at Middleton followed by me at Gargrave after tea, leaving a couple of hours to wander easily through the fields (dry in October but by all accounts somewhat moister in an average January) along to the Buck Inn in Malham and some dinner. Earliest possible breakfast at the pub was 8.30am, so with daylight at least an hour earlier it would have been a bit of an indulgence, so they left me a sandwich out and I started off up the trail at just after 7.30. 

It was misty and quite atmospheric along the easy track to Malham Cove and on up a set of steps to the famous limestone pavement on top. No single track along the top, it seems everyone finds their own way across the rocks until the track reappears with convenient Pennine Way sign at the Eastern edge. Interesting walking along the dry Watlowes valley leads to another little uphill then level ground across to Malham Tarn. It would be easy to run here but I'd decided that as I don't expect to run much during the actual Spine event I would use this trip to experiment with various walking speeds. My aim today was to average 3 miles an hour, including stops, but without running anywhere. I had also made sure my rucksack weight was at least as heavy as I plan to carry in January, 8kg compared with a January target of 6kg, to see what effect this had on overall speed. I frequently carry this weight when out walking with Jan in the Lakes, but never at this sort of overall speed so it was going to be interesting to see how it worked out.

It's easy wide tracks and a road around the tarn; I seemed to pass the Field Centre (Spine Checkpoint 1,5) at about breakfast time, lots of activity inside but no-one out and about yet. A turning off the track a few hundred yards past the Field centre led to a path through fields and across a minor road to Tennant Gill Farm, where the first ascent of the day, Fountains Fell, starts. It's a gentle ascent up a well-defined path, but the mist got progressively thicker and visibility was down to twenty yards or so as I passed the summit. The path then seemed to dive off rather abruptly down to the right, so I checked the map. This was the first time I had looked at either map or gps that day, because from Malham to here the route is well marked and (in daylight) very easy to follow. Once assured that this was correct, I put the map away and only referred to it once or twice again for the remainder of the day. The path down the fell was good, rocky at first and a bit soggy for the last bit down to a road with a cattle grid. The road to the grid was blocked by a herd of cows which I had to shoulder out of the way a bit to get through - those in the fields South of Malham moved away easily in response to a sharp word or two, but these fell-grazing beasts were clearly made of sterner stuff.

A few hundred yards along the road was the turn-off towards Pen-y-Ghent, and here at last the mist finally dispersed to give the promised fine day. 

Looking back to Fountains Fell in (now!) fine weather

The ascent looks a bit daunting but quite a lot of the height is gained on the gentle approach track and the steep section at the top up a rock staircase (some natural, some engineered) is quite short. I came across other walkers for the first time here, most were doing Pen-y-Ghent as a round trip from Horton-in-Ribblesdale, the village which was my next target. It's a fair way down to Horton and the track is stony but otherwise simple and I got down in time for lunch. I was looking forward to sampling the well-known Pen-y-Ghent Cafe but it turned out to be "Closed on Tuesdays" so I made do with a pint of Coke and a sandwich and chips at the Crown Inn just down the road.

Approaching Pen-y-Ghent

From Horton to Hawes the route is almost all following long jeep tracks, easy to follow. It climbs steadily up to the "Cam Road" which hangs around the 1900ft contour for several miles, and which I already had a passing acquaintance with as it is also followed for a mile or so by the Dales Way which I walked with my brother and our wives back in August this year. On this clear and sunny October day, the compensation for the relative "sameness" of the walking came from ever-increasing views along the way, especially after the Cam Road moves to the left of the highest ground further on.

Signpost on the Cam Road  -  Pen-y-Ghent fading away behind

I left the jeep track for the final descent to Hawes along a narrower footpath across the fell, at first quite rocky but later boggy, ending with a bit of road and a few fields into town. I got to Hawes just 10 hours after leaving Malham which was in line with my 3mph average target, and checked in at the Bull Hotel (which is actually a B&B so I ended up with dinner at the nearby Crown   -  2nd Crown of the day!). Walking at 3mph felt a bit stretching; I could have made it easier by not stopping so long for lunch, but I decided to go for a little bit slower the following day to see how that felt.

Tomorrow was due to be the bad weather day for the week, misty and very wet but possibly clearing up later. The landlady's offer of a bacon sandwich if I could hang on until 7.45 was too good to miss, so it was nearly 8am before I set off wetly through the fields to Hardraw. From here, the next objective was Great Shunner Fell. I had never heard of this before I started studying the PW route a few weeks ago, and then I was quite surprised to find that it is higher than Pen-y-Ghent. It was a steady though never steep climb to the summit through steady rain and pretty poor visibility. The route was initially a jeep track, then turning into a natural path up the fell, intermittently slabbed. Easy to follow in daylight it's probably a bit harder to pick out in the dark. The summit announced its presence with a cairn and the cruciform shelter which seems popular in these parts. The path down was very similar to the one up in reverse, but I speculated that it could be unnerving in fresh untracked snow as there were clearly deep bogs off to the side of the track in many places - the sort of nervous excitement you get when you're the first up a crevassed glacier after a fresh snowfall.

Thwaite, the first sign of habitation since Hardraw turned up; it had a cafe but I was a bit keener not to waste too much time today  -  I had decided to travel slower and it's about 34 miles from Hawes to Middleton. On the plus side, the weather seemed to have shot its bolt and was gradually improving.

Looking back to Thwaite in improving weather

The next section, up and around Kisdon Hill alongside the River Swale, was a delightful interlude. Fairly slow going due to the rocky singletrack but with real variety; steeper contours, trees with a range of Autumn colours, a new view every few hundred yards. It felt more like being back in the Lakes than the normally more austere Pennines. But it didn't last long. A short descent to cross the river (and the Coast-to-Coast path, another project for next year) just before Keld then it was a steady but gentle uphill over the moor to my half-way point for the day at Tan Hill. Apart form the cafe at Thwaite, which is only about 8 miles out of Hawes, the pub at Tan Hill is the only possibility of a warm stop on this 34 mile stretch so in January it would be great to get there during opening hours. Today I couldn't resist a pint of shandy to go with the lunch.

The first section of Sleightholme Moor which follows Tan Hill seems to be generally regarded as one of the wetter areas of the Pennine Way. Even after a very dry Autumn it lived up to this reputation, though I suspect the knee-deep bits that I encountered are probably double this depth in a warmish winter. A couple of weeks at minus ten after Christmas would be great! The "white-topped posts" you read about which are maybe two hundred yards apart keep you on the right line in reasonable visibility, but the line is straight so a bearing should get you from one to the next OK. To start with I was a bit confused because there are white posts all over this moor; the majority of them are markers for bird feeders so you just need to be sure that the speck of white in the distance that you're homing in on is actually a route marker!

But after a mile or so a path appears following a beck on the right, and a bit further on it takes to slightly higher ground to the left. I found the walk across this bit quite inspiring. It's surely a trick of the contours but apart from the narrow trod you are following, from here you can see no sign of human impact on the landscape as far as the horizon in all directions  - an unusual experience in our crowded little island. This ended as I reached a definitely uninspiring new bridge over the beck carrying a shooting road, which the PW then follows for a mile or so. A bit of wet agricultural ground followed after Sleightholme Farm and I didn't find the best way through the little gorge before Trough Heads, but once up on the path across the moor again the constant noise of the fast-approaching A66 made its impact  -  a completely different scene from that of barely an hour ago.

Lonely Sleightholme Moor

Downhill to the natural stone "God's Bridge" then up to the underpass, noting that it would be a dry if somewhat noisy place for a break if Tan Hill is shut, then I set off over the final few miles towards Middleton. I didn't warm to this stretch, a series of featureless, rather boggy moors interspersed with minor road crossings. It got dark around Baldersdale but that didn't seem to detract much from the scenery at this point. By the time I reached the Brough to Middleton road I was just navigating in the dark through wet fields and odd bits of moor. I decided I wasn't learning much now so I forsook the final couple of miles around Harter Fell for the road into Middleton, a bit further but probably much quicker. I reached Middleton 12 hours after setting out from Hawes; only a bit slower than yesterday but it felt much more comfortable so a good bit of learning there. Home in two hours in time for a late dinner.

I'm not sure if I'll manage many (if any) multi-day reccies along the PW, the logistics are a bit complicated to make the best use of time, but I'll certainly carry on getting to know as much of the route as I can by "out-and-back" days from the car. On these, so long as I get one way in daylight, it won't matter if it's dark for some of the way back.

Anyway, that's about 107 miles covered so far  -  only about another 160 to go!


Since writing the above, I've had my first out-and-back trip from Edale to Bleaklow Head. It was a day of mist, poor visibility and almost continual rain, only clearing at about 4pm. I had read that the stream at Kinder Downfall rarely flows, so after the dry Autumn we've had I expected nothing. After no more than 8 hours of steady rain, it was a 10 foot wide, mid-calf-deep steady wade. Conditions can change fast in these hills!

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