Tuesday, 26 November 2013

A Walk in Wensleydale

A friend -Alex- and I have taken to going for walks together around the local hills. We're not talking long expeditions here, just walks that take a morning or an afternoon. Though it's true that there are wonderful places to be found for those who go further afield, as I tend to do, it's easy to overlook what's on our doorstep.

Regular readers of this blog may well say that I don't. It's not long since I did what I'm about to do - write about Pen Hill, the nearest "big hill" to Leyburn. It is true that I am besotted by the place, but my regular visits are usually made running, not walking. When we were discussing where to go the other week, I suggested Pen Hill for this very reason. It had been a while since I'd simply wandered around on it, soaking up the details that usually flash past.

Pen Hill: Southern Edge
We parked at the highest point on the road over Melmerby Moor, at the Eastern end of the hill and walked up the track over the moor, over the area known as "Little Pen Hill" before veering North to take East Gate path, which leads up to the Southern edge of the plateau. This one of my favourite local places. There is a small, natural outcrop of rocks there. They're just too small for "bouldering" but big enough for one to enjoy sheltering behind them or sitting on top of them. The spot has a wildness about it - it takes just enough effort to get there for it to feel set apart from the world below. I touch here on an aspect of big, sprawling plateau-topped hills: they're not the only place with this quality but they do often have a magical feel to them. Perhaps it's because what looks like a single great lump from a distance turns out to be a collection of seemingly self-contained worlds.

Cotton Grass: Pen Hill Plateau
We moved on from the world of the rocky outcrop to the world of  Ram's Gill, a small, but steep-sided clough where we stopped for a few minutes to look at the map and set a bearing from there to the true summit of the hill. A fence leading from there to the summit is shown on my OS map - but there's no fence there now. I say the summit, but it would be wrong to call it the summit of Pen Hill. That name, strictly speaking applies to the Eastern end of the plateau, slightly sharper in outline than the Western end. Although the hill as a whole is known locally as "Pen Hill" the area of the true summit is actually called the Height of Hazely.

This section of the walk was extremely hard going underfoot - one had to be continually on the lookout for holes under the thick mat that makes up the surface of the moor. If one is not careful one is forever stumbling. The photo of cotton grass (above) was taken looking towards this bleak area. There is no "cone" to walk towards. One simply becomes increasingly aware that more and more of the horizon is visible. Finally, one enters a zone with a 360-degree view. The summit is somewhere within it. We found a tussock that seemed to be just a little higher than the others but I know from experience on other hills that one can while away an afternoon looking for that elusive highest point! From the "zone", the hill seemed to slope away in all directions - obviously, you might say, but from other vantage points the whole plateau area does look pretty uniformly flat. You know you're more or less on the top when you get there.

Pen Hill: cairn overlooking Coverdale and "the Whernsides"
The rest of the walk was easier. Until we turned towards the summit we'd been walking along the wilder, Southern edge of the hill. Fewer people visit it so the paths are fainter and less easy underfoot. However, in my opinion, that quality of wildness I referred to more than makes up for this. It also overlooks Coverdale (one of my favourite Dales) and "the Whernsides".

The Northern edge, where we now quickly found ourselves, is more frequented. The paths are well-worn by more adventurous dog-walkers. They tend to run along the cliffs of Black Scar and Penhill Scar - it's a spectacular area, and probably affords the best aerial view you can get of Wensleydale without leaving the ground.

The good paths made for fast going and we soon reached the Iron-Age chieftan's grave and the pile of stones that stands at the Eastern  end of the hill. The sun was setting and the full moon rising as we dropped down the steep hillside and crossed the fields on our way back to the car. We left behind us a landscape bathed in an extraordinary light.

Astute readers will realise the photos I've used to illustrate this post are ones I took a while ago as the cotton grass isn't out right now.


Joanne Noragon said...

I love cairns and will have one some day. The stone, not the terrier, which already lives here!

George said...

Sounds like a terrific walk, Dominic. I enjoyed it vicariously.

Brigitta Huegel said...

Dear Dominic,
thank you for these stunning photos with their impressing colours and a landscape of wideness and solitude. What a view!
The vegetation of the moors is a very special one (near Bremen, the city where I come from, people lived more than a century ago as poor peat cutters, and the artists went to Worpswede and painted the landscape and the sky).
Knowing the moor a bit I was one of those readers you spoke to in the footnote: I wondered about the cotton grass.
The foam of them on the moor: what a extraordinary sight!

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments.

JN: Start collecting rocks. It only takes two to make a small one!

George: It was. You would have liked it.

BH: Cotton-grass is extraordinary, isn't it? Furry flowers. I would guess people used to cut peat to burn round here, but I can't think where I've seen evidence of it.

Gwil W said...

Pen Hill actually means (as you probably already know Dominic) Hill Hill. Pen is Welsh for Hill so Pen Hill used to be in Wales. Yes it really did. Hill Hill hasn't moved, it's Wales that has shrunk to a fraction of it's former size.

LadyArt said...

...following you along your path is a sort of holiday - very relaxing... lots of memories! Thank you!

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments.

Gwil W: I've often wondered about Penyghent, too. You got me Googling. Often when so doing one gets sidetracked and find out things one didn't know and weren't looking for. This was one such case. I never knew there was a Wales in Rotherham too, but I do now.

LadyArt: One of the great things about writing about walking is that it makes armchair walking possible!

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thanks for this Dom. I have never been up Penn Hill and am not likely ever to do so, so it was really interesting. I didn't know about the Iron Age grave at all.

A Cuban In London said...

Thanks for that walk. I feel exhausted now (just joking!).

Greetings from London.