The Pennine Way was England’s first official national trail, crossing three national parks along its 268 miles (430 km). Starting from Edale in the south, the Pennine Way climbs through the Peak District, continues through the south Pennines to the Yorkshire Dales, the north Pennines and then to the Northumberland national park, ending at Kirk Yethlom.
The Pennine Way has become one of the “must do” trails for any long distance walker or thru-hiker in the UK with its combination of wild and remote sections, picturesque villages and endless moors. As a must do trail I had no doubt I would want to walk it too, and I chose to hike it in sections through the autumn and winter of 2015-2016, walking over the weekend or on short holidays.
The Pennine Way Part 3 – Weather Roller Coaster From Gargrave to Bowes
The third section of my trip was planned to be a proper winter trip: 3 days over the Christmas holiday when the Yorkshire Dales are white and frosty, letting me test and play in winter conditions; sadly, that didn’t happen. Instead, the weather decided to give me some of everything: a sunny afternoon along the River Aire that turned into gale force winds at night, to constant rain and even snow on Great Shunner Fell – I got it all during this trip.
I specifically planned for a 3 day trip to allow me to walk the whole length of the Yorkshire Dales Pennine Way section in one go, allowing for a full immersion in the national park and enabling a simpler travel by public transportation. The walk itself is indeed stunning, passing many fells, some over 700m, giving stunning views in the changing sky conditions.
The missing link – Thornton-In-Craven to Gargrave
If you read my previous accounts of my Pennine Way walk, you know that last time I stopped at Thornton-In-Craven, so that is where I planned on continuing from. On the first day of this trip I arrived to Skipton in order to take the first bus to Thornton (at 10:24), but after 11:00 had passed in the bus station and none of the drivers knew where the bus was, I decided that considering the short days, I needed get on the trail, so I caught the first bus that headed towards the trail – the 580 bus from Skipton to Gargrave.
In reality, it meant not walking a 5km section between Thornton and Gargrave that is mainly [very wet] grazing fields.
Day 1 – Gargrave to Malham Tarn (17.3km)
My adventure started before I even got off bus number 580 at the Gargrave village centre as we forded several flooded road sections, not knowing if the bus will make it. In Gargrave I erred on the cautious side and got off near the post office (too early) and found myself walking to the start of the trail near the Church Street Bridge (the right place!).
I picked up the Pennine Way on the main junction in Gargrave where the A65 meets Church Street, where a delightful sign can be found telling me I have covered 70 miles of the Pennine Way and have 186 more miles to go – easy! I headed north around the little tearooms and followed the sleepy West Street (signs provided). Pass the bridge and on to, where I could see the promise of wet ground: the fields all around were soaked. Passing Gragrave House, the road turns into a dirt road, following a small plantation for 200 meters on the right. Right at the end of the plantation, the Pennine Way leaves the road to the right.
From here I negotiated an uphill climb through grazing fields and then crossed fields for about 2.5km, hoping to keep the right path for the gate opening on the other side. The ground was very wet and slippery, but the weather was superb with a warm sun and a cold wind – perfect hiking weather.
After some guess work around Haw crag about which opening to take (the one straight north in the little gully ahead), I reached the small curve in the road (follow the signs around it) and down to a little footpath bridge. The flooding damage was very visible all around and I picked the trail following River Aire north. Quickly the trail started to disappear into deep puddles, knee deep gate passes and river spills – it was clear to see that this whole area has been under water lately.
The day stayed nice and sunny and the trail continued following River Aire all the way to Malham, some 5km, passing via Ariton and Hanlith on a pretty clear and well-marked path. I met a couple of elderly gentlemen who were out for a walk from Gargrave to Malham and back and we chatted a bit about my route and their past experience with it (they are locals and have walked it many times), reaching to Hanlith together. In Hanlith there is a slight diversion from the river, turning right at the road past the farm and climbing up the hill. Continue following the road, turning left with the bend and just as the road turns again you will find the trail leaving the road to your left.
As I approached Malham I learned two things: the trail leading to the village was one big puddle that turn into paved paths, and that Malham is very, very popular on sunny days! The area was very busy with families and groups going up to Malham cove and some even heading to Malham tarn! I walked into the village centre, heading to the second fork, left to the bridge over Malham Beck and just followed the many people coming back from the cove. The trail leaves the road but remains a very good trail.
The weather was turning cooler and windier and the sun was getting lower as I reached the climb up to the west (on the left) of Malham cove. A good strenuous climb, I was up there in 15 minutes, trying not to step on people and seeking my route away from the crowds. The skies were still hazy so I didn’t have great views from the top of the cove. I continued on the lip of the cove heading east until I found the sign pointing north to Malham tarn. I picked the clear path and the signs all the way to the Malham tarn car park, just under 2 km away. The temperatures had dropped around the tarn, with the wind-chill increasing rapidly, driving less insane people into their cars and to warm places.
The walk around the tarn was boggy at first but you quickly pick up a dirt road heading to the north shore of the tarn. The views were amazing and the thin woods gave an eerie feeling in the fading light. I continued walking past the field centre on the north shore (woohoo – toilets!) and started looking for a place to camp. I reached Water Houses without having found a suitable place, so I left the road with the Pennine Way and headed north into the fields, hoping to find a semi-shelter for a night that was due to be windy and wet.
I found a nice spot near a low wall just past the houses on the slope of a small crest overlooking Far Fell, which I would be walking in the morning. I set up my Trailstar, that I brought back from retirement, despite the early time – it was only 15:00 with more than an hour of light, but I knew that if I continued it would mean camping on the fell, something I was avoiding in the bad weather. Instead, I walked all around, climbing the hills all around my camp seeking views and some cell phone reception to let my wife know that I was fine – I was not successful. When the sun went down I went into my tent for a long evening of reading in my sleeping bag, making tea, dinner, more tea and eventually sleep.
Day 2 – Malham Tarn to Bluebell Hill [Hardraw] (43.3km)
After a wild night (though I was comfortable in my sleeping bag), I got up early to get as much walking done as I could. I started walking at 7:30as the night was turning into a deep blue of early morning, joining the Pennine Way at the bottom of the crest and heading north. Following the signs, the trail goes through 2 km of grazing fields which were mainly blurs of green in the early morning light until reaching the road and then onto the approach road (the left gate) to Tennant Gill. Follow the dirt road and turn left when on the first split, taking you around the farm and then between the milking pen (on the right) and hay bale storage (on the left); head straight up the hill ahead.
Up the hill I entered Middle Fell on what had turned out to be a dry and cold morning; the views were stunning, but the strong wind ruined any attempt for decent pictures, making them all a blur as I tried to stand straight and stable! The trail is pretty clear here though boggy at times, heading North West and then turning north towards Grouse Butts. About one km later the trail veers North West again towards a disused quarry where open shafts are dotting the fell (keep to the trail!). At this time the wind picked up again, bringing rain with it to make the already demanding fell even more demanding. I started the descent to Blishmire close on an extremely slippery slope – a grassy, wet and muddy slope that threatened to send my feet away from me with every step. I also finally managed to make contact with my wife as this area has some cell reception.
The road at Blishmire close is reached through the very wet and boggy final stretch of the trail, then it is a turn left (south west) and a km of road walking until leaving the road again next to Dale Head (and the dramatic farm there) on route to climb Pen-y-Ghent. Last time I was here, in March (2015), it was snowy, frozen and the climb was a tad too scary, but this time the rain had stopped and the clouds lifted a bit – I was ready for a nice climb.
Follow the well-marked and signed trail to Pen-y-Ghent, turning right at Churn Milk Hole, climbing up to the wall and heading straight north to the top. The climb to Pen-y-Ghent can be a bit scary as it does require some hand work to support the climb in a couple of spots, and as I got higher the wind started to really pick up, pushing on to the rocks a few times in a less then friendly manner. Luckily the wind was behind me and wasn’t aiming to through me off, but rather assertively sending me up to the top. At the top I couldn’t even stand straight, bent over by the wind, so I just stumbled to the trig point and found some refuge behind the wall at the top.
Climbing the wall at the top towards Horton-in-Ribblesdale, it was a knee crunching descent but a nice one nonetheless. 10 minutes into my walk down, a strong wind brought in heavy sideways rain that soaked me to my undergarments within minutes. From this point on I was focused solely on reaching Horton and the cafe I remembered was down there. It was a long walk (only 3 km, but it felt endless) down the hill before joining the Pennine Journey at the bottom of the hill on a wide and comfortable 4×4 road. By the time I reached Horton-in-Ribblesdale, the rain was nothing but a light drizzle and I was wet and cold in many places.
Into to the small woodland and past a few houses, the Pennine Way reaches a road (B6479) where you need to turn right, heading north. Up ahead there are (in order) a cafe on the left, a parking lot with a pay phone and public toilets (no water filling facilities) and then a pub where the trail leaves the road again. I had a 30 minute break in the cafe enjoying a hot coffee and homemade chocolate cake; both were good and much needed for energy and morale. Leaving the cafe, head to the Crown hotel (the pub) and turn right just in front of it before the road bridge – the gate and the trail are right ahead.
At this point I realised that my goal of passing Hawes was more than 24km away and I had just over 3 hours of light left – it was time to move it, and move it fast. Luckily just out of Horton the trail is mostly clear, well-marked and easy to follow, so I started picking up the pace. Three kms of a 4×4 dirt road contouring around the western edge of Horton Moor leads to a fork in the road near Birkwith Moor (signs are easily visible) and after turning left on the fork and walking 600m, the Pennine Way joins the Pennine Bridleway near Old-Ing farm. Turning right with the Pennine Bridleway, the trail is now a clear wide dirt road that allows for great views all around. The sky cleared for a while and I could move to “auto-walk”: a fast 6 km/h pace while looking all around me, forgetting that my legs and feet were working hard.
Passing the newly recovered Gill Rigg restored forest gorge, I got a glimpse of what this area might look like if it was reforested – what a sight that would be! Another 1.5 km and the Pennine Way joins another trail at Cam End: the Dales Way. From here I had perfect views of the Yorkshire Three Peaks (that have a much better maintained trail than the Pennine Way!) as the sun was getting lower and the clouds higher. Taking right towards Cam fell, the road was being worked on to become a pressed gravel road and I continued on, climbing higher and looking east at Cam Woodlands. The wind was picking up again but the walk was good and brisk.
At the fork above the old quarry, the Dales Way goes right while the Pennine Way continues left and higher up the fell. About a km further on, as the views to the east fully open up, the trail abruptly becomes a smooth black tarmac road, beautifully made – if only I had my road bike! Just past the gate where we say goodbye to the Pennine Bridleway, the Pennine Way leaves the road at a very clear and lonely sign near the road. I left the tarmac as the drizzle returned.
From the tarmac the trail is an easy, simple affair: a wide path along the north western contour of Dodd Fell, looking over Snaizeholme Valley on a glorious late afternoon. Just before Ten End, the trail leaves the 4×4 road and veers to the north east towards Gayle and Hawes. The rain had stopped but it was getting darker, the clouds were back and the world was becoming full of long shadows. At the bottom of Ten End the trail disappears a bit into the bog – keep close to the crest and veer around the bog heading east, the trail will be on the other side.
The rest of my descent to Gayle was wet and slippery, as trails tend to be closer to settled areas. I walked and slipped and then walked and slipped some more until picking up Gaudy Lane just past Gaudy house. From here it is all about streets and houses. The darkness was rapidly falling and by the time I reached Gayle it was completely dark. The Pennine Way cuts through several meadows through Gayle and Hawes for a more direct route, but those sections were dark, wet and very uninviting. I decided to walk all the way to Hardraw on the roads, making the walk not really exciting, but in pitch black I didn’t care about much but reaching my camp and retiring for the night.
Gayle is a sleepy little suburban-style village mixed with a few farms, but Hawes is a little busier, sitting on the A684. I walked down to the main junction that leads from Hawes to Gayle and then turned right into town to find many pubs, shops, chippies and more. The area was very busy with locals and tourists, who I later found out come from the Hawes Campervan Park down the road. Passed the bridge over Gayle Beck and turned left to Burnt Acres Road, quickly passing a few bends in the road and reaching the camping site that had a big sign: “no tents,” so they wouldn’t be getting my money.
I stopped for a much needed conversation with my wife and daughter, exchanging experiences from the last couple of days and after that I went to the kitchen area in the camping site and got 4 litres of water for the night. Another few wet and windy (the rain was back) kms of climbing to the junction towards Hardraw and then passing Hardraw and the very inviting Green Dragon Pub, I continued a bit further on to the point where the Pennine Way turns right off the road and starts climbing up the hill.
I wish I could tell you more about the walk up to Bluebell Hill and how I walked to the edge of the fell and back a bit to find a place to camp near the trail; tell you about the rabbits and pheasants I spooked in my night walk or how the trail is surrounded by a protective wall, but I could see barely any of it – it was too dark.
In a much needed break in the rain I set up my camp, stripped out of my wet clothes and dove into my sleeping bag to have dinner, listen to the wind and rain, read and then sleep – a long and satisfying day.
Day 3 – Bluebell Hill [Hardraw] to Bowes (39.6km)
My last day on this trip was a direct extension of the night: cold, windy and wet. The rain continued, mostly a drizzle but getting stronger at times, making the idea of leaving the sleeping bag very, very unappealing. Nonetheless, I got up at 6:30, slowly made my way out of the bag, into wet clothes, had a quick coffee and cookies and I was again walking with the first rays of the sun by 7:30.
Climbing up to Great Shunner Fell was a true battle with the elements – when I left my camp it was drizzly and windy, turning into very strong winds and drizzly, then heavy rain with gales, hail and eventually snow at the summit; I was not prepared for such conditions! After leaving my camp site it was a short walk to the point where the fell began and civilization ended, and crossing the small wall I was ready for a good climb.
The trail is wide and clear, well-marked all the way up to Hearne Top, then past the gate and onto Black Hill Mos. From here the walk is less steep but the weather was closing in again, bringing freezing winds and cold rain to make sure I climbed quickly. It was a long and wet slog through bog, mud, puddles and flagstones, trying to move fast to warm up and get out of the horrible conditions that were forming around me. The trail, luckily, is very clear and well signed, and even in the worsening conditions I didn’t need to pull out my map or GPS, just keep on going up and up. After 4.5km and more than an hour of walking, I reached the top and was pushed forward by the strong wind; I decided to take the hint and make a hasty retreat to lower, less cold and more protected grounds in the valley ahead.
The walk down from Great Shunner Fell was tricky as water, slushy ice and snow were covering the trail and the wind was pushing me forward. I took my time to make sure I walked carefully to avoid slipping and injuring myself from hitting the flagstones. Slowly, as I moved away from and below the 716m peak, the rain mostly stopped and the wind stayed though it helped to dry my trousers, which were soaked. I still had no sensation in my hands and feet but the rest of my body was starting to warm up.
Here, too, the trail is clear with flagstones at times or bogs at others, but the heavy rain made most of the way down into a stream – cold and rapid, which at times veered away just to recollect 10 meters ahead. I made the 3km steep descent quickly, while enjoying beautiful views over to Green Side as the clouds were breaking. Eventually the trail joins a 4×4 road made of loose cobble stones (very slippery!) and the final descent into Thwaite was imminent as I became surrounded by stone agricultural structures. At the road I turned right and followed the signs to the hamlets centre where I found the Kearton Hotel – and they had an open cafe! I had a good coffee and brownie while enjoying being in a warm building, relaxing and finally getting sensation in all my digits – I was ready to get going.
Leaving Kearton Hotel, I took a left (away from where I came) and headed to the end of the road, where a small gate leads out to a trail between some fences. It is an ugly start but it gets much better, quickly. Follow the signs and cross the fields to start climbing up to the southern slope of Kisdon. The way was muddy to the small stone bridge, but past that the trail goes into a bit of a steep climb on a narrow route. At about 300m, the trail starts contouring the hill to the east, passing some more muddy grazing fields where it is obvious that the locals walk their dogs often (the trail is well used). There is another gate onto a wide 4×4 road and then it open views to the north and east on to River Swale and Arn Gill.
There is another tricky section in which the Pennine Way meets a few other trails – take the left with the sign and stay level with the contours, the trail is easily seen from there. From here it is a little maze of old walls and woods that were a muddy, slippery mess when I walked them, with grassy patches when my feet came out from under me. The weather was nice and the walk to Birk Hill was very nice: getting into old woodland near the river, the Pennine Way meets the Pennine Journey and I actually saw some more walkers. When the trail descended to meet the River Swale, I found a nice little waterfall after the bridge that I spent a few minutes marvelling (despite the time limit). From the river it is a hard climb on wide roads and through East Stonesdale, continuing up to Black Moor.
The walk on Black Moor is really nice, on an open trail on the west contours of the moor. The river below was pretty excited from all the rain, there were breaks in the cloud and open views to Ravenseat Moor. I met other walkers on the way to Tan Hill; my guess is that they were heading to the Tan Hill Inn (the highest pub in England!). I could see myself making this 6km walk from Stonesdale to the pub on a windy afternoon for a couple of pints and a good walk back, what a great idea! On the moor I fell into a fast and consistent pace, enjoying the easy footing, clear markings and the open moor. The climb up to Tan Hill and then seeing the pub 100m to the north was quite the sight, and if I wasn’t in a rush to catch a train I would have been very tempted to stay for a couple of pints.
I walked down to the pub, enquired about a way to get to Darlington and my train (you can always ask, as a pint sounded really nice), but no success. Instead, the nice men at the bar filled up my water bottles and I was back on the moor. The wind had picked up again and the drizzle returned – I did not look forward to this part of the walk.
From the pub it is a short walk east (right) to find the Pennine Way going into Bowes Moor. Immediately the trail was great: clear and straight forward, though a bit narrow. After about 100m the trail was gone and I was in a middle of a knee-deep, freezing bog. It was 13:30 and my time was short: I had 4 hours to get to Bernard Castle for the last bus to Darlington. At this time I finally got some cell signal and my wife managed to get through after almost a day of no contact (no service). I got an earful for not being in touch for so long (a woman 8 months pregnant is allowed to do that), and after 15 minutes of conversation my toes were fully numb and I had to get going. I finished the conversation with my wife and started to try and find my way to Darlington.
I started heading north, stumbling about in the water, following what I thought are markings for the Pennine Way until I realized they are just bog restoration markings. Checking my map closely I found that the trail started by paralleling the road towards east (number 70), so I started following it. Soon enough I found the first marking, cairn and Frumming Beck. The trail follows the beck for 2.5km so finding it was a huge success. I picked up the boggy, wet, muddy crumbling trail and tried to pick up some speed. The rain was back with a vengeance and the wind picked up again – I was soaked again. With no alternative, I hunkered into my hood and moved on. The biggest danger on this part is the wooden planks used to walk over very deep bog sections. The planks can be very useful, but they are very slippery when wet (is it ever dry in the bog?), so a wire mesh could have been useful to reduce the danger of slipping; I opted for baby steps on them.
Somewhere along the way I realized I hadn’t eaten for a few hours and with the temperatures dropping, I needed some energy. My new “lunch on the go” kit of 70g dried chorizo and a pack of 6 Scottish oat cakes were out and I managed to consume it all while doing 5km/h in driving rain and wind – not bad! The walk felt very long and I finally arrived to the bridge over White Stone Gill. Cross the bridge to the right and follow the road from here to Sleightholme, simple right? The rain was getting heavier and fully horizontal and the road was moving on the open moor, getting me fully cold and wet. I kept on walking, hiding in my rain jacket, and when I arrived to Sleightholme I decided to forgo the trail that crosses the Beck and climbs up to Wytham Moor, and stuck to the road.
I said goodbye to the Pennine Way and made my miserable way to Bowes and then hopefully home. The rain persisted and the couple of cars that passed completely ignored my begging for a ride. I continued making my way on the road as the rain calmed down, alternating between walking and running as I was running out of time for the bus and I was too cold. After 5km of following the road, seeing sheep that looked wetter than me along the way, I finally made it to the outskirts of Bowes and where I would be finally saying goodbye to the Pennine Way for a while.
I made my way to road A67 under the bridge that leads to Bernard Castle at 16:20, knowing I had just over an hour to get to the bus. I started walking along the road, trying to catch a ride but I got nothing but speeding cars, trying to run away from my scary presence – so much for northern hospitality! I ended up running the 4 miles from Bowes to Bernard Castle in full gear, making in to the bus with 20 minutes to spare.
Section end and a break
This part of the Pennine Way is amazing; the Yorkshire Dales are vast, open and manage to constantly keep an edge of wildness. I wish sheep grazing would be stopped here and reforestation would begin, bringing the wooded fells back to life – that would make this section truly amazing.
The weather was a challenge at times, but it seems that every trip like this makes me more prepared for the harsh British weather and I feel more and more comfortable with that. The distances I covered in these conditions make me believe I can do the Cape Wrath Trail in 8 days as I plan on doing in a few months.
For now, I will need to have a break from my section hikes along the Pennine Way; I have covered roughly half the distance during this winter (2015-2016), with short days and long travels, for a total of 7 days. In the summer I will be back for a couple of long weekends (3 days) to complete the second, northern, half of the trail. The reason for my break is the coming birth of our son and my plans to walk the Cape Wrath Trail in April.
What a great section that was!