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penyghent

Penyghent – Yorkshire Dales

I wasn’t sure what reception I’d get at Horton in Ribblesdale. In the fledgling pandemic days, locals barricaded the car parks to keep visitors away. But things were pretty much back to normal this morning. I wanted to get the winter sleep out of my legs and, it now being August, there was a growing sense of urgency about matters. Walking on the flat is better than nothing, but what a hill walker needs is a hill. And what better hill is there than Penyghent?

Penyghent, isn’t the highest of the Yorkshire peaks but it’s got to be the prettiest. Its ascent from Horton involves a long pull up the Brackenbottom scars, then  a couple of easy scrambles to the top. The downside is it’s a popular route, on the three-peaks circuit, so there’s never a time when you’ll have it to yourself. Today was no exception.

The drive over was busy, the A59 a long snarl of impatient heavies and white vans. I was cut up by a pair of vans at the Tickled Trout doing a hundred miles an hour. Then there were the Hooray Henriettas in their Chelsea-tractors who can’t always be relied upon to signal their intentions when whizzing around roundabouts. And the giant hardcore wagons thundering along the A682 and the A65 seemed even bigger and faster and more thundery than usual. Maybe I’m just too old to be venturing far these days.

As for the hill, it was a slow moving procession. The groups were well spaced out, but several of them were over-large and troublesome on the pass. For a while I trailed an old timer. He stepped aside to let me through, then gave me a shake of the head and told me with a touch of pathos he was not the man he used to be. The guy was well into his eighties, memories of many a mountain trail etched into the lines of his face. We were coming up to the five hundred meter contour by then and a couple of miles out of Horton, so he wasn’t doing too bad. A sit down to admire the view, a swig water, and he’d be fine.

You scramble for a joke at times like that, something to make light. I told him we could all say the same, about not being the man we used to be. I’m not sure where that came from. Sometimes the unconscious speaks its own mind, unbidden.

I saw him on the summit later, making steady progress. He might not have been as fast as he was – which I suppose is what he meant – but he lacked none of the grit. That’s the important thing for a man. Once we lose our grit, we’re done because life will always find a way of testing it, no matter how old we get.

The summit was a busy spot for lunch, crowds and bits of ancient banana skin scattered everywhere. The overlarge groups were annoying. One of them comprised corporate types with iPhones poised, responding to business emails at the tops of their voices. So, it was a quick bite and off. Sadly, the three peaks route was always a magnet for pricks.

If you want lonely on Penyghent, you head north from the summit to Plover Hill. Then it’s back down the knee-breaking length of the Foxup Road. But not today. Today, I was just grateful to be out on the hill, grateful for the aliveness of it, and the scent of the wild.

Penyghent left me with aching hips, but the rest of me was fine. If I have any doubts about myself it’s a waning confidence on the roads. They seem crazy-busy now, or maybe I’m slowing down. Am I the man I used to be? Well no, of course not. But then like I said to the old-timer, none of us are. We can only hope the bits of youth we’ve lost to the inevitable leakage of time are replaced with something else. Call it an eye for the sublime, and a more mindfully placed step. I don’t know.

There was a coffee shop in Horton doing takeaways. Face mask and hand gel, granted access. All is change. We just have to roll with it, and be accepting.

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penyghent from horton ir

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.

penyghent from foxup rd

* Moss, Dreaming the soul back home.

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