Looking up from the lovely village of Horton in Ribblesdale, the objective is clear: the long profile of a hill dominating the village. Uncluttered by other fells it stands alone, rising above lush green pastures.
“Here I am,” it says. “My name is Penyghent.”
Along with Whernside and Ingleborough, it forms a triangle known as the Three Peaks, the trail around them being a tough hike across serious limestone country. At twenty miles or so, it’s not a challenge to be taken lightly and though I’m familiar with each of the beauties in this crown, I’ve yet to sample them all on the same day, and I probably never will; it would spoil them. The hills have never been a test of endurance for me. They’ve tested my courage at times, my presence of mind, and my resolve, but for every laboured breath I’ve vented on them, they’ve returned the effort ten fold in treasures beyond imagining. And the treasure is never in the distance won, nor completion of the trial, but always glittering in the details along the way.
The pull up Brackenbottom Scar was the first test of ill-used lungs, and it took me a while to get going. On the plus side, the early morning rains had swept east, dragging with them a clearing sky that promised clarity and sunburn, while a freshening wind felt like it would keep the heat at bay. It’s a well worn route, leading up to the limestone terraces on the southern face of the hill. Here the wind shrieks down from the north, pulling mist with it and a chill that seeps into your bones, freezing the sweat you’ve already worked up. Then the fun begins – a modest scramble up dark, water dribbling crags. Although hardly mountaineering, I found an old voice whispering hillcraft in my ears – three point contact, look, think, reach, pull,… and I felt a childish tinglel as I engaged a younger part of myself and heaved my bones skywards.
I’m reading a book at the moment by Robert Moss*. In it he talks of shamanic journeys into one’s past, searching for the pieces of ourselves we’ve left behind, fragments that didn’t want to join in with the way they felt our lives were going.
I know what he means; a good deal of my self remains in these windy places and I don’t seek them out often enough, though the energy they lend me when I do is always a tonic. Get to a certain age and look back, and you realise there’s not much of your old self left – the self you thought you were. There are just bits of you scattered like pebbles, fallen through a hole in your pocket, a trail of fifty years, pockmarked by the wreckage of one disappointment after another, and always these lost bits of yourself looking at the ruins and saying: what the hell happened there?
Having come up the southern face of the hill, the normal circular route will take you west, along the Pennine Way, back to Horton in Ribblesdale – a respectable, beautiful hike of around six miles. Or you can head north across a pristine waste of russet moor, to the sublime loneliness of Plover Hill – a circuit of about eight miles – no crowds, like on the summit of Penyghent – just the plaintive call of the Curlew and the run of your own thoughts.
There I sat down among the white bobbing heads of the cotton grass, and scanned the rim of the nameless northern hills through binoculars – wild Yorkshire! My soul was out there, splashed up to his knees in mud, tireless, eating up the miles as he crossed one dale to the next, reading the land, seeing magic in it, reading the stories in the stones, then sleeping deep and dreaming dreams rich in meaning.
I know how much that part of myself loves the hills, and how the hills are few in the life I’m living now. But lately I’ve felt a need for his eye, for his grit in the face of storms, for his energy, his spirit, and above all for his sense of perspective.
They say the past is gone, that we should waste no time with it. But that’s too simplistic. A careful scouting of the past will reveal those lost parts of ourselves, fragments we failed to bring with us into our present lives. It does no harm to go looking for them, and upon finding them the energy released can bring a welcome relief, like the sun chasing shadows from the dale,…
…. refreshing as the giant mug of tea waiting for me back in the Horton Cafe.
* Moss, Dreaming the soul back home.