…in which I’m too honest to steal a JCB, I conquer my fear of Penyghent and I ponder the weirdness of human interaction.
Hawes to Fountains Fell, 22 miles.
Plenty of breakfast at Hawes, of course, then nothing until Horton in Ribblesdale where there’s a public toilet and either of the two pubs may do lunch. However during the day a visit to the Penyghent Cafe is surely compulsory? Its lovely owners have put the Pennine Way at the heart of their business for years now and deserve support. Their vegetarian options are imaginative and their takeaway sandwiches excellent. I had a bacon sarnie, chips, a pint of tea and a buttered Chorley cake – all good. They have a concise but well-chosen range of outdoor gear for sale too.
I’d planned to camp on Penyghent but the summit is stony and due to its popularity had regrettable hygiene issues. More to the point, the King Of The Hoolies was in residence, with his sidekicks the Duke of Hail and the Prince of Sleet. I worried that after a night of semi-solid precipitation the steep descent might be icy at dawn; although it has an easterly aspect it would take a while for the sun to rise over Fountains Fell. Having left Hawes in the dark at six, I was on Penyghent by four in the afternoon so able to press on.
As it turned out this was a cunning plan because on Fountains Fell there’s some of the best wild camping on The Way, in the lee of a well built, windproof wall that snakes around a little so can provide shelter from most aspects other than perhaps southwest or northeast. I was snug as a bug in a pretty aggressive south-easterly. It’s high and cold up there so summit camping cautions and disclaimers apply. Stick close to the path or the wall as there are old mine workings too, into which one might lethally tumble.
From Hawes Hostel I walked down to and along the main road into town then right and uphill past the school and The Creamery, before turning right into the houses past the substantial and strangely illuminated bus shelter. I probably turned off too early as it then got a bit interesting wiggling through the housing estate in the dark. I just headed vaguely uphill through assorted driveways and ginnels and eventually emerged onto The Way as it was passing Ivy House.
Once you get onto Gaudy Lane, The Way becomes a straightforward country walk to Horton along substantial tracks, although the path becomes more typically vague around Ten End. Don’t climb too high here or you’ll just have to drop down again to find The West Cam Road, which then contours around Sleddale and Dodd Fell without really gaining or losing height. Don’t miss the turn-off south at Cam End. Follow your nose down to pretty Ling Gill Bridge, then I’d get your compass out again as the section around Old Ing is a bit disorientating although quite well signed.
The Way leaves Horton eastish across the road a few yards southish from the cafe. Navigation over Penyghent is straightforward although the southbound descent from the summit is briefly but divertingly mountainous.
It’s surprisingly far along the road to the steep track up Fountains Fell, which is then also a doddle navigationally but a hard slog, bleak on top and still a long way from Malham. Check your timings carefully if you’re not equipped for sleeping out.
It was pitch dark when I emerged from the haven of Hawes Hostel, pre-warmed by pre-dawn coffee, in entirely clean and bone-dry clothes and armed with a spare mince and mushy pea pie for breakfast. The Creamery fans were blowing cheesily, the bus stop glowing eerily, the denizens of the small but navigationally challenging housing estate rose sleepily and I strode cheerfully up Gaudy Lane. In October you’d never realise this is in June one of Yorkshire’s most floriferous botanical spectacles.
I must have been suffering from hill-hunger after my day off as I climbed too high and too far east at Ten End. There were no vehicles on the Cam Road this time until West Gate, where bafflingly I came upon an abandoned JCB with its engine running; a huge thing, just sitting there dieseling away in the middle of nowhere with nobody around. I was tempted to clamber on board and indulge in a spot of random trenching and earth moving.
Further down I thought I was going to be run over by a road roller and had to step off The Way smartly, well, as smartly as it takes to avoid an oncoming road roller. Somebody definitely wants this track to be vehicle-accessible at all seasons, goodness knows why. Everything in Camland is called Cam something, except for Camm Farm, which is called Camm something. As I pondered their mysteriously deviant signage, a slab of cloud like a massive grey, lumpy mattress heaved itself temporarily and very slightly to the left, revealing my first glimpse of Penyghent.
I thought I’d have the Penyghent Cafe all to myself but should have known better. It was rammed to the gunnels with junior soldiers, all ordering completely different meals with sleepy teenage indecision that didn’t augur well for their future effectiveness in the precision delivery of coordinated armed interventions. Despite being extraordinarily busy the proprietor was as relaxed and engaging as always, correctly identifying me as a Wayfarer and kindly offering me the Pennine Way logbook while balancing three bacon sandwiches in his other hand. ‘Oh yes, I signed that in June’ I said, breezily. I’d been looking forward all morning to making that announcement. The staff had about thirty more orders to cook and the junior soldiers were all busy on their phones, so I made it somewhat to myself. That’s how it is on The Way.
Something I hadn’t been looking forward to was Penyghent, the ascent of which in June had been mildly traumatic. As I slogged up the drove road towards the peak, the clouds broke and sunshine briefly bathed its broken biscuit profile in a warm radiance.
Halfway up the last steep section the sun vanished, as suddenly and darkly as if The Hobgoblin had slipped his top hat over it. Out of nowhere, The King Of The Hoolies whisked over the summit and brazenly stole my hat, carrying it off towards the west cliffs at unfeasible speed and elevation.
Pulling my hood up grumpily I stumbled onto the grotty top, which was strewn with litter and worse. I was promptly battered by hail and sleet. The good news was that it was barely four o’clock, so I changed my mind about camping up there and stomped off down the flagstones, trying to feel brave.
And in fact there was no reason not to. The sun came out again at the top of the steep bit, which seemed so much easier than it had done going up. By halfway down I felt a fool for having dreaded it all the way from KY. Not only that, as the variably solid precipitation edged away to the east I was guided down it by a cheery and encouraging rainbow.
I hate heights, but for some reason going down Penyghent was easy, even enjoyable. Going up, I’d been assailed by a fearful awareness of increasing but unknowable exposure behind me. Going down, I could see ahead and downwards quite clearly. There was, seen from this angle, no precipitous rocky drop, just steep but grassy slopes down which, at a pinch and risking injury, I might even have deliberately rolled as a child. The bottom was clearly visible and hence I could see ahead of me that the steep section was unscarily short. Going up the top is invisible, as if an infinite terrifying steepness awaits. ‘Easy!’ I shouted back up at the silly, lumpy old knob. But I still can’t love Penyghent. It remains for me not a highlight of the Pennine Way but an interloper, often crowded and out of character. Also, people do fall off it, so take it easy on that steep bit.
Slithering uncertainly down the steep side of Fountains Fell in the gathering gloom came a slight and slightly baffled looking German girl, very young, with braces on her teeth. I looked up and behind her for her family, but they all clearly had the sense to be elsewhere at this point in her short life. She turned out to be the last through-hiker I would meet; still in her teens, I would say, yet aiming to complete The Way alone, northbound, in October. She asked if I thought she had time to make it over Penyghent and into Horton before dark.
At such a moment one is torn. Should one say ‘dunno, sorry, good luck’ for fear of getting sued? Should one chortle ‘ha, fit and young like you, no problem’, then later read of her demise at the bottom of Hunt Pot, having fallen down it in the dark? One certainly doesn’t want to say ‘hm, a little thing like you, love, I’d get the bus’. How to strike a balance between patronising and irresponsible? Gender issues, cultural issues, generation issues. There isn’t a bus. Oh lawks.
‘If it was me’, I said, ‘as it’s now four thirty in October and the weather’s closing in I’d take the short cut to Brackenbottom Scar. But I’m much older than you and the track down from Penyghent is hard but obvious, even by headtorch.’ She thanked me sweetly and gingerly descended through a near-vertical bog, her body language unconfident. I hoped I’d said the right thing. I wondered if I should have spent more time talking with her, but after viewing the camping prospects on Penyghent I had unconfidences of my own to address concerning a sleeping place.
The fog thickened as I topped out onto Fountains Fell but there, meandering but solid, was a beautifully restored stone wall; perfect shelter from the stiff wind and with many a kindly-looking grassy patch beside it. Darkness was falling but, out of the wind, I rigged the Stealth tent in a calm and mindful way for a change; it looked almost competent.
Just as I was turning in, a chorus of shouting and barking came from over the wall. Alarmed, I peered into the gloom and made out the briskly striding silhouette of a lone woman and the even more briskly scuttling silhouettes of two Springers, after which she was continuously hollering in the ever-hopeful but always ineffectual way of a Springer owner. She and her dogs will have subsequently descended most of Fountains Fell in pitch darkness.
Given the signs indicating old mine workings, I was surprised at her choice of near-nocturnal canine playground as Springers are notoriously careless – two members of my family have lost and nearly lost Springers that decided to leap off a cliff and a viaduct respectively. Had she noticed the Stealth tent behind the wall I suppose she might have been similarly surprised at my camping up there.