Welcome to LEJoG Day 46 – tuck in

Day 46 pre-amble

Certainly the best day walk on the Pennine Way so far, and arguably the best walk of my LEJoG to date. I’d go so far as to say if you don’t enjoy this stage, you’ve no business being a distance walker. With the caveat that, if you don’t like climbing mountains, you’re excused. But for me, Day 46 was a feast.

LEJoG Day 46 (Saturday 25 May 2019)

Malham to Horton-in-Ribblesdale (15 miles)

Cumulative: 640 miles

Facts: Time on walk: 4 hours 45 minutes. Average speed: 3.16 mph. Weather: Bright, warm start, becoming overcast and cooler; rain and mist on Pen-y-Ghent.

Practicalities: As long ago as Christmas, I had booked Friday night at YHA Malham. However, the only available room was in a dorm – my other two advance hostel bookings were in private rooms. The closer I got to the trip, the less I fancied an evening and night with strangers and external bathroom facilities. Finally I bit the bullet, cancelled and booked alternative accommodation at Dalesgate Lodge in Skipton. This was excellent and only 10 minutes from Skipton station. That evening, enjoyed my first meal at a Pizza Express since hitting it hard in Birmingham last summer. As it was on the menu, it was only right that I should try my first one of these as well. I’m rather glad I did.

To be fair, another key reason for my cold feet was the absence of a train station in Malham. The Friday bus timetable was also unfriendly. This left the necessity of booking what would probably have been an expensive taxi. As it turned out, the Saturday bus timetable for Skipton to Malham was much more convenient. After checking out, walked 20 minutes to the bus station and caught the 9:45 bus. There was some very heavy traffic on the way. However my start time wasn’t much different to a typical day where I just leave the hotel door and start the walk.

During the bus journey, Jan at Middle Studfold Farm (my Saturday night accommodation) texted me to ask what time I would be arriving in Horton. I knew the hotel was around a mile from Horton itself and expected to walk, but they generously offered to pick me up from the car park at the Golden Lion. Which helped put me in the right mood for the banquet to come.

The walk

Start: Bus stop opposite Buck Inn, Malham, 10:45am. End: Pen-y-Ghent Café, Horton-in-Ribblesdale, 4:10pm.

The first of the day’s treats – already teased yesterday of course – is Malham Cove, virtually upon you within 10 minutes of leaving the village centre. Now I’m conscious that I haven’t gone into detail about many of the picturesque locations so far on this journey through Britain, tending to rely on links or other blogs. But honestly: this is a gorgeous and genuinely awe-inspiring place and I really regretted not being able to stay longer. Even if we treat this as just one course in the feast, we must acknowledge its multiple layers.

Approaching along a superbly-kept path, the sheer face of the limestone cliff dominates the walker’s vista.

Malham Cove approach, LEJoG Day 46

The approach to Malham Cove

There are (four hundred and twenty-one!) steps to the left of this photo which are part of the Pennine Way. But no-one, even a Pennine Way purist, is surely going to come here and not get closer to the face. It’s a very short diversion in any case.

Malham Cove face, LEJoG Day 46

The 260-foot cliff face at Malham Cove: note climbers perched bottom right, about 40ft up

This enclosed space in front of the cliff was already starting to get busier after a few minutes, so I left to climb the steps to the top. Good training for Fountains Fell and Pen-y-ghent, and not to be underestimated.

Malham Cove steps

Looking back at climbers on the steps at Malham Cove – not sure a 2D photo quite conveys how steep this climb is

At the top is what’s referred to as a “limestone pavement”. This description doesn’t really do justice to the surreal limestone formations underfoot, however. I developed this earworm within seconds.

Malham Cove surface, LEJoG Day 46

“Walking On The Moon” – lunar limestone landscape atop Malham Cove

Malham Cove surface closeup

Close-up of the rock formations (and half my right foot)

Well this isn’t like me, padding it out with photographs – better do some writing huh? Reluctantly dragged myself away and entered the dry valley of Watlowes. Also very attractive and might have warranted another photo if I hadn’t already gone crazy at Malham Cove. The only downside here was the very stony path. But as I’d been in the Lake District just over a week ago this was far from onerous. There’s a short, sharp climb out of the valley, then you follow a stone wall before branching left on what seems like an aimless section, at least until you see the car park and road (and refreshement van) ahead of you.

This is the main car park for Malham Tarn, a small lake with woods at the far side. It’s an obvious lunch spot, but the skies were rather grey and so I stopped for only 10 minutes and a packet of crisps.

Malham Tarn, LEJoG Day 46

Malham Tarn, looking across to woods and Malham Tarn House Study Centre

Rounding the tarn, there’s a stretch of a hundred yards or so which is rife with flying insects. I recommend carrying some repellent and spraying liberally. A wide track takes you round the far side of the tarn and into the woods. You are then diverted around the study centre and descend as far as a gate in the wall. Here you turn right and head back into open country.

The section between here and Tennant Gill Farm (mile 6) is entirely unremarkable. After crossing the road leading to Tennant Gill I came across a couple who were heading the wrong way (W instead of N). They asked me which way was correct, I got out my map and told them it was straight ahead, but they didn’t seems to believe me and continued heading towards Stangill Fell for a couple of minutes before deciding the helpful chap with the map was probably right after all. What can you do?

There’s a decent little climb from Tennant Gill Farm to a stile, and then you’re on Fountains Fell. Now this is a long ascent and you never actually reach the summit. The views are generally pretty desolate in all directions. But I thought it was great. I can understand how some would find it uninspiring, with little to distinguish it from, say, Black Hill, Ickornshaw Moor or the road to Top Withens. And there’s no doubt whatsoever that it’s overshadowed by what comes next. However, two miles on a very clear path, with some steep sections, bridges and undulations to stop you from feeling bored, is tiring and very satisfying.

Fountain Fell cairns, LEJoG Day 46

Cairns (2149ft, 655m – higher than Kinder) on Fountains Fell

On BBC’s Test Match Special, there’s an award called the “champagne moment”, explained here. I regard champagne as the single most over-rated alcoholic drink in existence, while accepting it as a byword for something to be celebrated. There is no competition for the champagne moment of Day 46 – see the header image. The first sighting of Pen-y-ghent is so magnificent that I like to think even Fountains Fell haters would feel their hearts soar. Let the famously cantankerous Alfred Wainwright, rendered yet more impatient by the bogs and bleakness of the Pennine Way, be your example. Apparently he declared of Pen-y-ghent: “At last… a real mountain.” I’m with him: it was the highlight of the Pennine Way so far.

The excitement builds as you are able to see it from several different angles as you approach. Descending the far side of Fountains Fell, you’re first attracted to that distinctive shape with the clearly-defined step. As you draw closer, on the road past Rainscar House Farm, you get more of an idea of scale and gradient, and begin to realise it’s going to be a proper challenge. Finally, after turning right past Dale Head Farm, you can take it head-on:

Pen-y-ghent approach, LEJoG Day 46

Around 10-15 minutes from the shoulder of Pen-y-ghent

Pen-y-ghent ascent

Assuming you don’t turn left at that signpost, time for the serious business

NB: The shoulder of Pen-y-ghent (this point) is approximately 11 miles from Malham

It’s worth quoting Trailblazer here before offering my impressions of the final ascent:

Long-dreaded ascent looks gruelling but only takes 15 minutes of panting.

I didn’t dread it at all – I’d ticked off 16 new Wainwrights in the Lake District 1-2 weeks ago, and Pen-y-ghent would struggle to make the top half of those in terms of height. Indeed, as a distinctively-shaped mountain with a tantalisingly long approach vector, I was looking forward to it.

It’s more gruelling than the Trailblazer writers make out. Both “steps” are tough, and I definitely appreciated the rest afforded by waiting for two fairly large groups to descend the upper step. Parts of the climb need care, too – not exactly scrambling but there are a number of judgement calls on the right path to choose over the larger and more spaced out rocks.

Pen-y-ghent descenders

Don’t look now – some of those descending Pen-y-ghent as I reached the upper “step”

Once the major exertions were over, the final path to the summit cairn was reasonably level. Ate a protein bar at the top but didn’t stay long because the rain had started to come down harder and the views were disappointing as a result.

As for the descent, well, it’s not as punishing as the Miners’ Track at Snowdon would be a month later, but a couple of miles downhill on very hard stone isn’t much to write home about. Nevertheless, there were some atmospheric retrospectives of the mountain itself:

Pen-y-ghent from descent side

Pen-y-ghent, seen from north side while descending to Horton

Pen-y-ghent in mist

Same aspect, a couple of minutes later, summit and upper step now shrouded in mist

There isn’t much to say about the rest of the walk to Horton-in-Ribblesdale, capital of the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge. Except that, as ever, it seemed longer than it appeared on the map, and my final mileage was slightly more than the one in the guidebook.

The walk finished at the Pen-y-ghent Café, traditional starting point for the Three Peaks and something of a local legend. At this juncture the Pennine Way continues to the right, while my pick-up location was on the left. Sadly however the café is closed until further notice. Count your many blessings, walkers.

After the walk

Called Middle Studfold Farm; Edd picked me up from the Golden Lion car park. Middle Studfold turned out to be one of the true gems of this journey. It would have 10/10 on booking.com if I’d been able to find it on booking.com. But this was one of my rare forays into Trip Advisor, where it has over 100 reviews, a 5/5 rating and is ranked #1 of 6 B&Bs/inns in Horton. The hosts were fantastic, for a start. Cake and tea is provided on arrival. The three-course menus were splendid. And then there was the bath…

External bathroom, but private. I’m usually a shower person who appreciates a bath now and again but have long since ceased to regard bathing as a pleasure. That all changed here. This was probably the most luxurious, sumptuous, even sensuous bubble bath I’ve ever had. The temperature was perfect, the depth was perfect, the feeling of complete relaxation and rejuvenation was exactly what a bather dreams of, especially after 15 miles and two mountains. Almost everything a bather dreams of, anyway: if the fleeting fantasy running rampant through my head had actually been happening, it would have healed my soul more swiftly than even the most memorable walk.

At the table for evening meal, Jan seated a young man called Miles opposite me. I was on my second course when he arrived. We didn’t speak for a while, then he initiated conversation about walking (a good bet, obviously!). It so happened that, give or take 15 years on the clock, we were in remarkably similar situations. Both distance walkers, both losing weight and getting fitter, both using fitness apps, both watching macros, both challenging ourselves. He was doing the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge the following day: rain was forecast but he wasn’t fazed at all.

Actually, a quick digression here: it’s easy (especially for a Brit) to complain about wet conditions but the worst weather for walking is hot with no breeze. He was also off on the West Highland Way in August, and taking in some Munros rather than sticking strictly to the route. I’m due on the WHW in either 2020 or 2021. He was really easy to talk to, completely non-judgemental, interested and engaging company. Even had an unplanned single malt after my dessert so I could carry on the conversation. A really good night all round.

Postscript – My Listening Pleasure

Not today, thank you.

Picture (taken 25 May 2019) shows the exhilarating reveal of Pen-y-Ghent, as you come round the shoulder of Fountains Fell and start to descend. Genuinely one of the single most glorious moments, not just of LEJoG, but of my entire walking career.

Next: Day 47 (26 May 2019)… in which most other Brits would be cramming in multiple references to Wallace and Gromit, but I’ve never seen any of their films (!), so bear with this philistine.

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