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The path to Whernside

It was summer, the last time I walked this route up Whernside, which is perhaps why I remember it so well. Which summer though? Let me see: I was driving a blue, mark four Cortina, which means it was 1982, and I was 21.

It was also my summer of love, or rather it was my discovery of the love of the transcendent phenomenon that is hill walking. Girls would come later, but the hills were more constant, always a revelation, and, like the present Lady Graeme, always happy to take me as I am.

It was a hot, dry summer, that year, and no trains ran on the Settle to Carlisle line. There was a strike by ASLEF over flexible rostering. The boss-class still moan about it in their histories of the period. They never did get the unions, or class warfare.

Today is cold. Back home, down on the Lancashire Plain, it’s been spring for weeks. The hedgerows are greening, the buds are budding, and the cherries and hawthorns are blossoming. But here, in Yorkshire, it’s still winter. An arctic blast greets us at Ribblehead, as we crack open the car door. There’s ice in the roadside gulleys, and an ominous bank of cloud is jostling the sunshine, threatening hail. The three peaks each have a cap of snow, and I’m wondering if we should have packed our ancient instep crampons – purchased from Settle’s legendary “Cave and Crag”, now sadly gone. I can’t remember the last time I wore them, and probably couldn’t work out how to fasten them anyway – they were always a pain. I should get some of those newfangled microspikes, but I keep thinking my days of winter walking are over.

Still here we are.

Ribblehead Viaduct – Settle to Carlisle line

The Ribblehead Viaduct is magnificent. A soaring masterpiece, circa 1875, when Britain called itself great, and without irony, though mostly because labour was cheap, and expendable, especially Irish hands, like my grandfather’s. But let’s not go down that road. It was all a long time ago, except time is less fixed for me these days, since I am no longer called to heel by the alarm clock every morning.

Last night I dreamed I was an apprentice again, back in the old factory, a place of several thousand souls. I was seeing and talking to people I had forgotten I knew, and whom I have not seen since nineteen seventy-nine. Sights, sounds, scents, … it was strange, but comforting to know those souls are still as they were, that we are all still as we always were, always are, somewhere in this weird thing we call time.

Anyway, it’s not the most dramatic of peaks, Whernside. It lacks the shapely grandeur of Ingleborough or Penyghent. But, being the biggest of the trio, it counts itself as King, and rightly so. And it’s not without its charms. By far the biggest charm, however, is the rising perspective is grants us of its nearest neighbour, Ingleborough, whose brutal geology is starkly displayed today, courtesy of a dusting of snow, which trickles down the gulleys in crinkles of dentritic splendour. Most of my photographs today are of Ingleborough. Whernside, I find, isn’t photogenic at all.

Ingleborough

The wind drops as we enter the lee of the land, and the chill shock of Ribblehead fades as we warm on the ascent. There are few other walkers about. That ominous bank of boiling cloud is a worry, but we’ll keep our eye on it. We’re overtaken by a lady who looks to be more senior than our own years, then a gentleman more senior than hers. Age is a funny business, part driven, I think, by something inside us. In the hills, I have known a man of eighty easily outpace a man of fifty, simply because he refuses to believe he is getting on. We can grow old at any age, give up and whither at forty if we choose. All we have to do is look back, and then we stiffen.

I am climbing the path up Whernside, so I must still be 21. This is not looking back. This is participating in the eternal, and therefore timeless, adventure. It’s a mystery, to which the hills grant us a tantalising clue. Or so I tell myself.

One foot in front of the other. Pause. Admire the view. Take some pictures. Plod on. We cross the snowline. Up close, it’s just a dusting, not exactly Tyrolean. But you can’t underestimate the British hills. Here, sudden change, and overconfidence are your enemies. Check the Met office, read the sky. Pack another layer, a head-torch, a survival bag. Know how to read a map, and use a compass, or at the very least walk with someone else who can. Yes, the OS app on our phones or our Garmin is terrific, but our technology is deskilling us, and that’s a risk in the hills, where we need our wits about us.

My last visit to Whernside was not 1982. It was around 2006. I came up from Dent that day. November I think. I made the summit with the left side of me white with frost, and my ear burning. I came down with tinnitus, which still bothers me off and on. That was a very cold day, a good day, another journey in life’s album of eternal nows.

A wall runs along the summit, and there’s a curved shelter which gets us out of the wind today. We catch up with the senior lady and exchange pleasantries. She is joined by a Yorkshireman who claims never to have been up the hill before. When asked why not, he explains with a grin that he could never get his van up it.

The way off the hill used to be like free-fall but, like many of our most treasured mountains, much has been done to tackle erosion, and there is now a carefully laid, twisty path that snakes us down in double quick-time, towards the valley bottom. Then it’s a couple of miles through pleasant pastures, back to Ribblehead, and the car. About eight and a quarter miles round, fourteen hundred feet of ascent.

I was never a hill athlete. I could not have climbed Whernside, having first climbed Penyghent and walked the moors from Horton. I could never have then gone on to tackle that imposing wall of Ingleborough. Those who attempt the three peaks have my admiration. That’s a walk that takes fitness, and character.

So, anyway, back to the car. A lonely spot, Ribblehead – a collection of cottages and a pub, but it has a railway station. Coffee and cakes next, then. A toss up between Horton and Ingleton. Okay, … Ingleton it is. Beats working.

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