The Pennine Way. Lothersdale to Fountains Fell
Day 5. 20 miles
I was up before the alarm sounded today. The early morning light coupled with being separated from the fresh air only by a couple of layers of canvas ensured that each morning so far I’d awoken super early which is fine by me; early starts meant a lovely and deserted Pennine Way, and contemplating the walk so far and the day ahead as I slowly woke up I realised that I couldn’t have been happier with the progress made up to now. Navigation had been without any problems, and the only real incident so far had been those pesky cows from yesterday. If I had cause for any complaint, it was that walking in baking hot heat was somewhat uncomfortable, more so when I had to for the most part forage for my own water, but that is really scraping the barrel of possible problems – and I had made the decision to walk the trail in midsummer. However, a 5:00 departure this calm morning provided ideal conditions to walk in, and being a Sunday when I was highly likely to hit crowds sometime, somewhere, it was lovely to spend the first four hours spent walking to Gargrave without passing one single person. I’d also found the time before departure for a quick brew and a couple of bites of delicious, spicy parkin and I was on my way. By 5:30 I was up on the moors at Pinhaw Beacon, with beautiful clear and panoramic views. From there it was downhill all the way via fields and farms to Thornton in Craven and then through even more fields to reach the Leeds to Liverpool canal; busy with bikes and pedestrians in 2017; at 7:30 in the morning I had it completely to myself. A recommended cafe was nearby, though I was far too early for that, and so more parkin was consumed and helped to rocket me over the fields to Gargrave, the biggest village on the Pennine Way so far, but a very lovely one and with cafes, a Co-op and other amenities it's pretty much essential to stop off there for whatever tickles your fancy.
The way into Gargrave is across the last of the many fields between the village and the canal, and the walkway deposits walkers opposite a church, and in passing I got into conversation with a retired farmer, originally I think from Burnley. “How you doing, lad? You walking the Pennine? I’ve just dropped t’wife off at church, I don’t go in me-self, though”. We stood talking for a while, I mentioned the cow incident from yesterdays approach to Lothersdale, and was most sobered by the story he told me of his friend who had a farm next to Pen Y Ghent, who one morning went to tend to the calves produced by a cow he’d had for years, and was killed when the cow head butted him out of nowhere. If I hadn’t already decided to give cows a wide berth going forward, I certainly did then and it was in the back of my mind that I’d be heading to Pen Y Ghent this time tomorrow. But back to the now, and I thought I’d timed my arrival into Gargrave perfectly to be able to enjoy a breakfast at the Daleside Café. But it was 8:45, and I’d got the opening time wrong. On Sundays it didn’t open until 10. Bugger. Reluctant to hang around for an hour, I popped to the Coop for supplies as I still had another camping night left tonight before enjoying a room in a pub in Hawes tomorrow. I stocked up on the usual essentials – noodles, milk, cereal bars - and then decided to push straight on to Malham and instead have a big lunch at one of the pubs there. The section between Gargrave and Malham was one of my favourites from last time. The Dales officially starts in Gargrave and the Pennine from here heads through beautiful fields with drystone walls, winding narrow lanes, and the shadows of trees glistening in the gentle streams and river. There is some lane walking out of Gargrave before a climb into the first of the fields and it was with some good fortune that by this point the sun was beaming down from a blue summer sky and the fields stretched out in front of me were lime green patchworks. The only blot at this juncture was caused by more sodding cows who were standing at the other side of the gate once I’d reached Eshton Moor. Another stand off ensued before I realised this was another battle I was not going to win, and therefore I scrambled over a wall in the adjacent field and plodded through low lying thistles for five minutes before entering the moor further down the way, and way away from the cows who I could see behind me still loitering around the gate. It felt good to beat them at their own game, though until I exited the moor I did continue to turn my head every few seconds to make sure I wasn’t being charged at.
Safely out of the moor, the Pennine then meanders through some picturesque scenery, through some woodland and over a little bridge that spans the gentle River Ayre, in the shadow of a winding lane sandwiched narrowly between beautifully kept drystone walls. I encountered my first walkers of the day, a friendly couple of retirees from Bradford who stopped for a chat, and then I headed through more fields to Kirkby Malham, where we stayed in 2017 at the village pub. When we departed the next day, it was a quiet Monday morning and we had Malham and the surrounding fields to ourselves. Being a Sunday lunchtime now I knew that would most certainly not be the case today, and emerging from the hill beyond Hamlith I could see in the distance rows of cars parked outside Malham, and cars mean people and I could only imagine that the village would be rammed. Therefore, I delayed my arrival somewhat by deciding to stop in a field to boil some water for a tea break and to dry out my sweaty t-shirt, but this stop off was also partly tactical due to heavy rain being scheduled for early afternoon, by which time I planned to decamp to the Buck Inn for a late lunch. The break I enjoyed under the sun was well-earned and the peace and quiet was needed - I even had a little nap - before I headed through fields of walkers and families enjoying picnics and then in to the village centre to be a part of the horde. I easily found a table in the pub and it was only surprising that the place was so quiet. I enjoyed a delicious steak pie, though the heavy rain scheduled only turned out to be a few drops. It was then back into the throng that I knew would only subside by the time I got to the top of, and then away from the magnificent Malham Cove. The three-hundred odd steps to reach the summit weren’t too bad, I’ve learnt to take my time on the steps rather than bound up them and end up staggering away once back on the flat. The top of the cove is magnificent. What was once underneath a waterfall that would rival Niagara is now a karst limestone pavement which is somewhat troublesome to navigate over, being as it is both slippy and with the added problem of offering no obvious Pennine path which led to a fair amount of confusion in 2017. This time I knew where to go - along the front of the cove to the fence on the eastern side then up through the dramatic landscape of the Watlowes. It was just as busy on top of the cove so I didn’t hang around, and sure enough the crowds completely cleared once I headed onto the rocky grass and onwards up the Pennine Way.
When I planned the walk and was roughly making a list of where I would prefer to wild camp, one of my first thoughts was a night up on or around Malham Cove. Having my evening meal with a view back over Malham to stare into was an appealing one. But like the best laid plans, being as I ended up arriving there halfway through the afternoon with the added problem of numerous visitors coming and going - and with seven hours of daylight remaining - it just made sense to push on. And so, with no particular end point in mind, I had the luxury of being able to just carry on walking and stop, within reason, where and when I felt like it. This relaxed mind set corresponded nicely with another of my favourite sections of the Pennine Way, that of the Watlowes and onwards around Malham Tarn and then into the remoteness and beauty of the approach to Tennants Gill Farm. The Watlowes is a dry limestone valley which is beautiful to walk through, and a little climb leads to an almost 180 degree turn as the path winds its way around the hills and out onto the lime green grass, peppered with limestone rocks and as the crags end the path widens and is bordered with drystone walls, and numerous sheep scarper around. Approaching the narrow lane that heads along the southern edge of the tarn – incidentally the highest lake in the country - I could see in the distance what appeared to be a little caravan, but with a queue forming next to it. It couldn’t be an ice cream van, could it? It bloody well could. And it was. And in the beautiful late afternoon sun, I treated myself to a 99 flake that subsequently on a cocktail of refreshingly scooped vanilla and flaky chocolate propelled me around the tarn, round the back of the house that is now a field studies centre, and eventually to the empty expanse and peace and quiet of the fields that lead to the remote Tennant Gill Farm, sitting in the shadow of Fountains Fell. It must be one of the remotest habitations in the country. From the top of Fountains Fell you have the delight of observing that nothing in view is man-made.
I’d finally shaken off the day trippers and once I’d left Malham Tarn behind, I didn’t see a solitary walker for the rest of the day. The next obstacle to climb, that of Fountains Fell, sits above Tennants Gill Farm and to eat into tomorrows mileage – which includes, by the way, the assault on Pen Y Ghent – I did consider the walk up to the summit and camping on the other side, especially as the ascent isn’t too taxing as the path slowly winds up the mountain before a more sudden sort of drop down. However, tiredness quickly began to set in and though I managed ten minutes or so of vertical climbing I decided to stray off the path and find somewhere flat and comfortable to set up home for the night which I eventually found in amongst some longish grass and with views back over the farm and fields and mountains in to the distance and on this clear evening, I could also make out Malham Tarn, too. This kind of camping was exactly what I was looking and hoping for when I began the walk back in Edale. Completing the Pennine Way was the priority but the want to escape civilisation for a fortnight and to find places of remote beauty, and peace and quiet both via the walking and by pitching my tent at the end of each day just added to the increasing feeling of tranquility that I was enjoying. Friends and family before departure had asked whether I’d experience loneliness doing this. Not even close, all I wanted was what I had found; just the countryside and I. On this evening, the late lunch in Malham ensured only some noodles were required for dinner, and as much as I wanted to stay up for the sunset, the twenty odd miles undertaken today ensured I was out like a light.