The ultimate walker’s road trip
Three days, three national parks, three classic walks and no major roads. Let’s drive.
THE AMERICANS BELIEVE they have the monopoly on the road trip. But they don’t. Fair enough, the very words ‘road trip’ conjure up icons of Americana; of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or Thelma and Louise in, well, Thelma and Louise. Having such a big country to explore, the Americans have been obsessed with telling stories about exploring it. And again, fair play. It’s a beautiful place.
But Britons have been doing road trips for far longer. Think of Dr Johnson and James Boswell romping across Scotland in the 1780s. Or read The Compleat Angler (1653) and follow Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton around the rivers of England, turning fishing into philosophy in the guise of Viator and Pescator. And then, more latterly, there is Withnail and I, which gives any American road movie a run for its money.
Even more latterly, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reinvented the British road trip with a series called The Trip. In it, the two comedians toured the country house restaurants of northern England, allegedly reviewing them, but mostly doing impressions of Roger Moore and Michael Caine.
It was while watching The Trip that we had a brainwave. What would the ultimate walker’s road trip look like? Where might it go?
The habit of most walkers presented with a three-day window is to settle on one location and explore it to the hilt. Nothing wrong with that. But what if you could make it a journey between three spectacular and very different places? Turn it into a voyage that unfolds and develops; that twists and turns like the story of a good road movie? That would be something, wouldn’t it?
First priority: three superstars. That didn’t take long. England’s three most popular national parks are close enough to link with scenic drives, but different enough from each other to offer exactly the sort of beginning-middle-end narrative a road trip needs. Best of all, they can be linked without setting a wheel on a motorway or a major road.
The Peak District. The Yorkshire Dales. The Lake District. Not just superstars, then, but megastars.
Next priority: someone to share it with. Because as any film fan knows, a good road movie is about the dialogue as well as the scenery.
Happily I had just the character. My friend Matt, a former colleague on CW who still writes frequently for the magazine ( you’ll find him elsewhere in this issue trying to work a Google camera and reviewing trousers).
Both of us are at a bit of a turning point on the great footpath of life. Matt has just returned from a five-year meandering in New Zealand, and he and Mrs Matt are about to welcome their first child.
I’ve recently hit 40 and my eldest has suddenly stopped being a toddler and is apparently about to go to high school. So Matt and I are both slightly dizzy with the big things of the world, and thus our road trip became a pause for breath. A cross between a lads’ weekend and a mid-life walkabout (with the kind permission of Mrs Matt, of course).
You don’t have to be at some major turning point in your life to embark on this trip. But for me and him, it gave the whole project an added momentousness. Almost, dare we say it, a plot.
The big question now was, which walks? Stanage Edge, Malham Cove, Catbells? Dove Dale, Aysgarth Falls, Blencathra? The options seemed endless. But eventually, like the infinite number of monkeys typing Hamlet, we got there: The Great Ridge, Ingleborough and Helvellyn.
Then it was just about finding the best route between the three. Begone satnav, with your quick, efficient and dull routes from A to B. We wanted scenery, new frontiers, unexpected sights. And maybe an exciting zig-zaggy road or two. And that meant an afternoon with an atlas. I’ve had more fun afternoons. But not many.
“What if you could make it a journey between three spectacular and very difffferent places; a voyage that twists and turns like the story of a really good road movie?”
THE GREAT RIDGE
I’m not sure where the name Great Ridge actually comes from. You certainly won’t find it on the OS map. But it’s what everyone calls it, this two-mile scarp that separates the valleys of Hope and Edale. At one end is the shapely curve of Lose Hill. Along the way are Hollins Cross, Barker Bank and the mad little cliff of Back Tor, topped by the loneliest Scots pine in Derbyshire. And at the other is Mam Tor. The Shivering Mountain. The Devourer of Roads. So it’s a Ridge, and it’s Great. And so, in the words of Jarvis Cocker, it started there.
We set out from Castleton, heading off up Mam Tor via the remains of the A625. The digested road.
“It looks like earthquake damage,” said Matt. “I feel like I’m back in New Zealand.”
He’s not far from the truth. This road, once the main link between Manchester and Sheffield, was slowly eaten by Mam Tor over 40 years as the mountain took umbrage at the band of black Tarmac slashing across its face. Today you can climb it untroubled by cars, marvelling at the victory of mountain over man.
The view from Mam Tor’s summit is almost certainly the finest in the Peak District. There it all is: the Hope Valley, Edale, Kinder Scout, Stanage Edge. This being a sweltering Sunday afternoon, we were sharing the view with quite a few others of course: a dozen nationalities; toddlers and octogenarians; cyclists and runners.
Bouncing along the ridge, we yakked of this and that, of history and future; of parenthood and processed cheese. We chatted to a German tourist on Back Tor, and a Canadian couple on Lose Hill. Then we ducked away from the crowds by heading down Losehill Edge, a lovely path which clearly isn’t in all the guidebooks that everyone else buys.
A pause in the Cheshire Cheese at Hope and a gentle return by Peakshole Water, and we were back at the car. Loading up Google Maps, I tapped in ‘Castleton to Ingleton’. 2 hours 21, it promptly told me. But then I punched in the route I’d drawn on the atlas. Revised journey time: 3 hours 20. “Short is boring,” I ventured. And off we went.
ON THE ROAD ( Part 1)
We quickly began to see the trip as a revolt against the tyranny of satnav. How many times have we dashed across the country, making for honeypot places by the quickest means possible? How much do we miss by doing that?
The answer is a lot. I knew about Ladybower, the Snake Pass, Crowden. I knew about Haworth and the jaw-slapping view from the pass over Holme Moss. But the hilltop road linking Glossop with Longdendale? New to me. The drive from Holmfirth to Greenfield, with its spectacular view over Dove Stones? Likewise. I can say the same for the A6024 above Hayden Brook, and the B6138 at Blackstone Reservoir. When our little lane sneaked under the M62 at Saddleworth, we felt somehow like fugitives, hiding from the agents of the Matrix.
On came Cragg Vale, Hebden Bridge, Oxenhope. Every one of them made me want to come back and explore them on foot. This wasn’t driving. It was window shopping.
When we pulled in at Hipping Hall, just up the road from Ingleton, it was nearly seven. The evening sun played on the hotel’s water garden, and in the distance, Ingleborough slowly turned pink.
Hipping Hall was one of the stars of The Trip. It was here that Coogan and Brydon were “introduced” to their cheese course (“Hello, cheese!”) and Brydon, presented with a caper emulsion on his scallops, declared himself “undecided on the froth”.
So, in the sumptuous drapings of the timberbeamed restaurant, Matt and I had a go at the fourcourse menu. We tried not to do impressions but a few leaked out. Presumably any hotel touched by The Trip is now used to wags pretending to be Coogan and Brydon, so hopefully our brief forays into Ken Bruce and an over-emoting Michael Caine were fairly harmless. At one point, the maitre d’ emerged with a crab salad, carefully explaining the local provenance of its ingredients. He then handed over a small pot of liquid lettuce to pour over it.
“Liquid lettuce! Does that grow round here too?” Matt asked. I didn’t know whether to laugh or faceplant the table in shame. But it was a pleasingly Trippy moment.
“The view from Mam Tor’s summit is the finest in the Peak District. The Hope Valley. Edale. Kinder Scout. Stanage Edge.”
Ingleborough is a noisy mountain.
It has possibly the most identifiable profile of any hill anywhere: the flat-topped head, the triple-drop slide of a nose. It hovers, looms, demands attention. It’s loud, like a rumbling timpani. If any British mountain ever suited Also Sprach Zarathustra, it’s Ingleborough.
“A noisy mountain? Do people really pay you to write stuff like that?”
That’s what Matt said, when I tried the analogy out on him as we wound our way up the long green lane from Ingleton to Crina Bottom. (I’m still letting it through, though.)
Instead, we talked of old times. Of the fact that when he left his job on CW he left behind a fencing foil, a tweed jacket and an ossified banana. We are still looking for good homes for all three.
The conversation carried us all the way up through the steep upper reaches of Ingleborough’s noggin, through the ramparts of its Iron Age citadel and up to the cross-shaped wall shelter on the summit.
And up here, all was right with the world. We met people. We watched trains crossing the Ribblehead Viaduct. The air smelt of peat and juniper.
The thing with Ingleborough, though, is that climbing it is only half the story. This is a mountain that is just as fascinating to look at as to be on. So after a stop at the Old Hill Inn, we continued across Chapel-le-Dale and up onto the limestone ledges known as Twistleton Scars. Ranged beneath the southern flanks of Whernside, these crazy-cracked terraces are stunning in themselves (especially when topped off by a lone, windblasted hawthorn), but they also offer by far the best view of Ingleborough. Look at it on the first page of this feature, sitting alone in the sky like Kilimanjaro. Still noisy, even two miles distant.
“Up here, all was right with the world. We met people. We watched trains crossing the Ribblehead Viaduct. The air smelt of peat and juniper.”
It was noisy back in Ingleton, too: kids had fled the school gates to leap into the open-air pool or lark about in the River Greta. In the way only two chaps of our age can, we pondered: “Do you think they know how lucky they are?” “Nope. They haven’t a clue.” That said, the kids weren’t about to jump into a compact sports utility vehicle and take one of the greatest drives in the country listening to music from the Nineties. Finally we’d got one over on them.
ON THE ROAD ( Part 2)
Day Two’s road journey is, if anything, even better.
Up between Whernside and Ingleborough, past Ribblehead; through Hawes and over the Buttertubs Pass, which in places put us in mind of the final moments of The Italian Job.
Wensleydale, Swaledale, Keld: icons of the Pennine Way. And then – perhaps the best bit of the whole trip – Birkdale. This utterly stunning valley carried us from Keld down into the vale of Mallerstang, revealing a mammoth view of Wild Boar Fell. Again, we were landscape browsing on a colossal scale. Every place made us want to come back and spend more time in it.
On we went past the Orton fells and Great Asby Scar, until, tip-toeing under the M6, the terrain slipped gently fromf Yorkshire limestone to Cumbrian grit. At Pooley Bridge, we hit Ullswater.
And suddenly, with England’s curviest lake opening in front of us and big, cloud-bothering mountains down the far end, we could be nowhere else than the Lake District.
The Inn on the Lake, icon of Glenridding and launchpad for a million assaults on Helvellyn, looked splendid in the dusk.
On the lawn sloping down to the shore of Ullswater, a bridal party planned the big day. Fairy lights twinkled in the trees. Across the water, Place Fell basked in the last of the day’s sun.
Matt and I strolled down to the lake, talking of the impending parenthood. Not all our conversations are about Kraft slices and liquid lettuce. Sometimes the big stuff comes up.
Next morning, the sun broke over Place Fell and streamed into the windows of the Inn on the Lake, and Helvellyn called. We were up and out sharpish, plodding gently up the Miresbeck path that climbs the shoulder of Birkhouse Moor, keeping the mighty architecture of Helvellyn out of sight until we came face to face with it all at High Spying How.
Striding Edge – our route to the top – tends to split opinion three ways. Some dread even the sight of it: a steep-sided arête soaring 1700ft above Grisedale (to the left) and 200ft above Red Tarn (to the right).
Some find it thrilling: the ultimate expression of the walkable footpath, quickening the pulse and filling the memory card in moments.
And believe it or not, plenty of people think it’s easy peasy. Pah, they sniff: at no point except the very end do you really need to put your hands on the rock; at no point do you have to straddle the apex of the ridge with a leg either side. And it’s too damn busy.
Personally I’m in the middle camp. I love it to bits. Even the busyness doesn’t bother me. I love the communal chit-chat, and I think it helps those who are feeling uncertain if there are others around to reassure them.
So if I may defend its inclusion on this trip: a) if taken carefully and slowly,
it should delight more than terrify, and b) an easier path runs just below the ridgeline on the northern side, while another circumvents the nasty descent of the Bad Step on the south side. So there are ways to take the edge off the edge.
Then came the final steep scrabble to the top of Helvellyn. And then, almost before we knew it, Matt and I had topped out on the highest, rockiest and most thrilling peak of our trip.
I say ‘peak’, but Helvellyn’s top is actually a broad, pinkish-orange runway. There’s no queuing to touch a summit cairn, no wobbling around on a shattered boulder field. Instead walkers simply bimble about, drinking in the views and gossiping at the wall shelter.
So there stood Matt and I, at the zenith of a journey that started two days previously in the middle of the Peak District. All around us, the entire world pinwheeled. But this time we just stood there and enjoyed it.
THE VOYAGE HOME
The walk down, and the journey back to our original meeting point somewhere in Nottinghamshire, flew by in no time. Some of it was even quiet, as if we had so much to process that our idiot tongues had to stop wagging for a bit.
In my head I was plotting walking trips to Cragg Vale, the Orton fells and Birkdale. I noticed Matt smiling quietly. He was either thinking about the mystery and wonder of becoming a father, or possibly cheese.
I was also thinking how much I hope you’d enjoy this trip. Do it, I urge you. Rise up against the satnav. Embrace the spaces in between. See the nation as it truly is, rather than the redacted document you get from the big roads. Meander.
And crucially, take someone who needs the Trip as much as you do. We can give you the routes, the hotel details and some general advice. But what you really need is someone to make you laugh, to help with the navigation and – just occasionally – to help you tackle the big things of the world. May the road rise to meet you, as the Irish say. On a trip like this, it definitely will.
“Atop Helvellyn, walkers simply bimble about, drinking in the massive views and gossiping at the wall shelter.”
LET ME TELL YOU A STORY… From atop the wall shelter on Ingleborough, Matt (and narrator Nick) are about to share the story of an awfully big adventure. ORIGINAL TRIPPERS Steve Coogan (left) and Rob Brydon bimbled around northern England in The Trip.
MOMENT OF CALM A pause on the shore of Ullswater, courtesy of The Inn on the Lake.
THE NEW TRIPPERS Nick (left) and Matt having a philosophical chat on top of Helvellyn.
OLD SCHOOL Our jaunt was planned entirely via the AA Road Atlas, £2 from your local petrol station. uHAPPY DAYS It yielded moments like this, looking out over Edale from Back Tor on the Great Ridge.
THE GRAND TOR Back Tor, the second most famous collapsing mountain on the Great Ridge.
Barker Bank, Back Tor and Lose Hill unfold from the path off Mam Tor. WALKING THE LINE ALAN NOVELLI/ ALAMY* PHOTO:
Ingleborough. Even its summit crags have exciting names: The Arks, Swine Tail and (our favourite) The Black Shiver. BIG BEAST JON SPARKS/ALAMY PHOTO:
AN EDGY EXPERIENCE Striding Edge, and in particular the Bad Step at its far end. If you don’t like it, there are ways to avoid the worst of it. If you like it, it could be the best bit of the whole trip. JON SPARKS/ALAMY PHOTO:
HELVELLYN Britain’s answer to Table Mountain, with Striding Edge left and Swirral Edge right.