The Pennine Way III: Malham to Tan Hill

Trip Start Apr 01, 2010
Trip End Jul 31, 2010

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Flag of United Kingdom  , England,
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

With all respect to the hard scrambles back in the Dark Peak area, the Pennine Way gets serious after Malham. The contour lines on our next few Ordnance Survey maps were alarmingly abundant and dense. The path up Great Shunner Fell looked like it went on more or less forever. The route to the peak of Pen-y-Ghent was shorter, but shot up steeply until it appeared to traverse a cliff face. These were hills on a different scale to anything we'd crossed to date, and we fully expected them to chew us up and spit us out.

As luck would have it, this was also the point where the traditional Pennine weather reasserted itself. We left Malham on 7 June under gray skies and drenching spurts of rain. Malham Cove, a natural amphitheatre formed by a long-gone waterfall, was still magnificent, as was Malham Tarn (a rare lake in a landscape of porous limestone, where streams routinely drop into sinkholes and reemerge miles away). The rain had stopped, mercifully, by the ascent of Pen-y-Ghent, which was just as steep and ghastly as it had looked on the map. Lovely views at the top, though, including the sun shining on distant Morecambe Bay - our first view of the sea from the trail since we left the Severn estuary back in the Cotswolds.

That night in Horton-in-Ribblesdale, we had our first MRE dinner - the US military's Meal Ready to Eat field rations. Somehow we'd never eaten these while in Afghanistan, but Joel's mother had found some on sale in Minnesota and mailed them to us. They were astonishingly high in calories (1500 minimum) and candidly stated that most were from fat. (We realised that neither of us had ever been taught that fat was an energy food - the lesson we'd taken away from our nutrition education was "carbs=energy","fat=early death"). Just the thing to sustain a highly active soldier, or two heavy-laden long distance hikers. Every bit of the meal was wrapped in plastic; you heated the main course by slipping it into a bag with a little water and a heating element, though either we were doing this wrong or our heating chemicals were well past their prime. Still, we could always toss the food on our camp stove to finish the job.

The next day was even more drizzly and windy. Thankfully, Fi's Aunt R and Uncle P met us halfway atop Dodd Fell, where we had lunch in the shelter of their car (much to the envy of our fellow hikers slogging past). Joel and R then walked down into Wensleydale, meeting Fi and P in Hawes for tea and (a couple miles on) at Hardraw's Green Dragon Inn for dinner, camping, and a rather impressive waterfall.

The following day, 9 June, was our wettest since Newquay back in Cornwall.  In the morning Joel slogged over Great Shunner Fell.  The flagstone path was slowly succumbing to the peat bog, sucked down stone by stone, leaving black gaps in the trail.  The OS map shows the top of the Fell as a 360-degree scenic viewpoint.  When Joel got there, it had 20 meter visibility and a fierce wet wind.

At the bottom, recovering with a coffee in the village of Thwaite, Joel was rejoined by Fi -- along with our friend A (who does de-mining work in Kabul) and A's mother H.  Yorkshire lasses A and H were perfect company for a chilly wet day hiking.  As we walked through upper Swaledale, they were infectiously enthusiastic about the light misty rain and wind -- perfect walking weather!  As we got up on the moor and the rain got more persistent, they mused on how much nicer a hot drink was after a long cold wet hike.  By the time we finally reached shelter at Tan Hill Inn, the rain was horizontal, the wind was howling, we were all thoroughly drenched, and even A and H were saying how ready they were for the walk to be over -- but without their encouraging, optimistic company, we would have been miserable for hours.

We quickly changed our plans from camping outside Tan Hill to paying for a room, and with our boots drying by the hearth settled into the weird world of England's highest pub. Tan Hill feels a bit like a medieval inn, where all sorts of folk are thrown together in the only shelter available for miles. There's nothing else nearby, and the moor is so misty and desolate you could miss Tan Hill from 100 yards away. Inside, it's raucous and offbeat. The humourously rude bar staff toss any change from your drink into a charity jar; a sign proclaims that they've already stolen and redistributed 2000-odd from their patrons this year. (This also includes a 1 tax per mobile phone use). The landlady is the loud, cheerily abrasive heart of the place.

We put our boots in front of the fire to dry and settled into a nice warm couch with our pints of Marston's and Old Peculier.  As we tucked into our supper, a bunch of Yorkshire musicians who were on their summer cross-country cycle trip broke out their instruments from a support van and spent the rest of the night playing Irish reels and American folk/country tunes.  A couple posh London girls wandered in and asked for John Lennon's "Imagine," which the band tackled with gracious good humour despite it not being quite their oeuvre.  The pub dogs ran around getting underfoot.

When we left in the morning, we told the landlady how much we'd enjoyed our stay. "Well, piss off and don't tell anybody," was her amiable response. You didn't hear it from us.
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