This weekend had been booked many months in advance with Rich who had obtained a weekend pass from his wife. The problem with booking backpacking trips so far in advance is that you have no idea what the weather will have in store for you. The forecast in the lead up to this backpack was not promising to say the least ,with gale force winds and heavy rain being threatened. The reality for once was much better with classic winter conditions up on the moors during the second day.
The map below shows most of the route for the weekend. Our overnight halt has been excluded, for reasons that will become apparent later on.
Day 1 – 11 miles with 580 metres ascent
The car park in Askrigg did not fill me with confidence, as sitting in the middle of it was a car that had seen much better days. It was probably down to an accident but gave a strange feeling of edginess more akin to my inner city living. It looked like it had been the victim of joyriders.
Geared up we headed down the high street and took the lane towards Mill Gill, covered in a layer of refrozen slush. A group of chickens were waiting by someones front door perhaps waiting to be fed, surrounded by antique looking garden equipment. A scene of perfect rural idyl located on a residential street.
The waterfall at the head of Mill Gill was a totally unexpected treat with a large volume of water thundering through a cleft in the rocks. As good as most in the Dales yet one I think is pretty much off the beaten track. Even though the thaw had been in place for a couple of weeks now there were still large amounts of ice covering the rocks in this secret little valley. With lower water volumes I would be surprised if this fall had not at least partially frozen over.
Further upstream the river becomes Whitfield beck, another deep valley hidden amongst the fields and full of mature beech trees. A path on the west side climbs steep slopes high above the river and it was here that I felt warm liquid dripping off my fingers. It turned out to be my own blood, probably done when grabbing at some grass stalks whilst walking along. A tiny cut but the blood got everywhere. I was glad to have a small first aid kit, something that would be easy to overlook. Whitfield Gill Force was another powerful waterfall but it was difficult to get a good view as it was far below the end of the path. Retracing our footsteps to a foot bridge we crossed the river and made our way up to Low Straights Lane. To say that this was treacherous would be an understatement as snow had melted and then refrozen into sheet ice. It was hard work staying upright and we swapped from side to side seeking out any vegetation to walk on instead.
Safely reaching the lane above Askrigg we ascended the tarmac towards Arn Gill on what looked like a wet road. It turned out to be black ice, almost impossible to stand up on. Driving up or down its steep slopes would be lethal. Arn Gill looks worthy of exploration but sadly has no right of way up it. What it did have though was a good display of dead moles on the wall.
A sudden sound of gun fire got us a little nervous and we spotted camouflaged men in the surrounding fields waving orange flags. Some people do have odd hobbies, especially if that includes waving flags in fields and arranging moles on walls.
We were glad to escape onto the track that contours at a mid level along the length of Wensleydale towards Castle Bolton. This initially was another skating rink and as usual I was the one to come a cropper. It is a pleasant five miles or so to Castle Bolton with views across the valley with Addlebrough being particularly prominent. The skies started to get very dramatic, a combination of broody dark clouds with the odd ray of sunshine piercing through.
Above Caperby the track passes through low moorland on its way to Castle Bolton and the afternoon light started to come to an end. As if like magic the broodiness of the earlier sky gave way to welcome pinks lighting up fluffy clouds, with the landscape slowly having the colour sucked out of it as darkness approached.
We sat for a while on a bench in Castle Bolton as the light faded, the huge castle looking foreboding on this winters day. A bus pulled up on its way to Hawes and we resisted temptation to hop on it back to the van, excited to be heading for our destination for the night. I had heard of a hut a couple of hours away that was open for use and we had the prospect of a fire and somewhere to cook and get comfy during the long night ahead. In what direction we headed I will not say but it was fun walking in the dark by headtorch, stars shining brightly overhead but with more dark clouds lining up on the horizon.
I always get the same tingling of excitement when approaching bothy accommodation and the following questions enter my mind. Does the place actually exist? Will it be locked? Will there be other people there? Out of the dark night two buildings loomed and my anticipation increased. We approached the first and we stood at the door, willing it to be unlocked. The latch clicked easily and the door opened to a small room with a table, loads of chairs, a sofa and best of all a fireplace with piles of coal and wood. Success!
The other much larger building was explored and here we found a wood burner and more coal and piles of wood, there was even a flushing toilet. To add to the charm of the place there was a welcoming visitors book.
Wanting to camp we headed round the back to find somewhere suitable to pitch the tents. Being much higher than where we had walked during daylight hours the ground was still covered in a couple of inches of snow and was frozen solid underneath. We struggled for sometime to finally get the tents up, pegs having to be shifted around to allow penetration into the hard ground.
With numb fingers and cold feet we headed to the smaller hut and soon had a fire blazing away. There is something magical about sitting in a remote hut in the middle of winter with a fire warming your tired body. We had the space to spread about and cook in comfort, luxury compared to the confines of a small tent.
I suddenly noticed snow on the floor near the door which had not been there when we entered. Opening the door I was greeted by a swirling white world, the tiny snowflakes glistening like jewels, reflecting the light from my headtorch. I stepped out and realised that at least an inch had fallen in the hour we had been in the hut, all traces of our previous footsteps now covered.
By 9.00pm we were tired and ready to retire to our respective tents, although it was a drag to leave the warmth of the dying embers. Winter nights without artificial lights distort perceptions of time, it felt like the early hours already. Crunching across virgin snow to our tents was magical, although getting into cold sleeping bags was not!
Day 2 – 7.5 miles with 270 metres ascent
Dawn came late but had the courtesy to bring with it clear blue skies tinged with the pink of the rising sun. Richard was still in his tent and my morning greetings were ignored. I wondered around for a while, buried in my down jacket and took some photos of our camp and its surroundings. It was a true winter wonderland.
I resorted to shaking Richard from outside his tent to wake him before returning to mine and packing. It was cold work taking down the tent and retrieving the pegs out of the snow. It was good to be able to stuff all my gear into my rucksack and take into the hut to sort at leisure. A couple of cups of coffee and bacon noodles were consumed from the comfort of a table and chairs. I kept popping out to take in the beauty of my surroundings. I think that I will be back very soon!
We are now magically back in Castle Bolton and heading north up the track towards Rowantree scar. The sun is still shining from an almost cloudless sky but it is the wind that is the dominant factor up here on the moors. It was tugging at our clothes and stinging our faces whilst shifting the snow about in clouds of spindrift. However the going was easy as we followed the tracks of a vehicle that had recently passed this way.
At the 420 metre contour the track was left and the going became difficult with deep heather covered by snow. Not my favourite type of walking as you can never be sure of your foot placement. As usual I spoilt things by saying that at least it was not misty. Within ten minutes our world was one of swirling white, without glasses for protection it was difficult to see with snow blowing directly into our faces. I plodded along feeling a little sorry for myself.
As suddenly as it started it stopped, the clouds shifting away and leaving clear blue skies once again. Pleasure was restored with a good firm track taking over, leading to the shooting house which dominates the horizon.
A great location if there ever was one, a sentinel watching over the bleak moors. I have to admit that I envy the owners.
A drystone wall stretched off towards the horizon across more trackless moors. We plodded along but no matter how far we walked when we turned around the shooting house appeared to be getting no further away. It may have been the fact that the going was tough, or the clear air made objects appear closer.
Avoiding the tough heather we stuck to the wall which also brough difficulties in the form of deep soft drifts, although it was fun sinking nearly up to our waists and then trying to struggle free!
There appeared to be a contrast between the lower eastern moors and the higher western moors. Here the snow was broken by heather, outcrops and drystone walls. To the west the covering of snow appeared absolute, an unbroken white blanket smothering everything. It may have been difficult going up above the 700 metre contour.
Ellerkin scar has been calling me from my map every time I think about a walk in the Dales. I have to say that it did not disappoint and better still its short-cropped grassy slopes were nearly snow free. The walking was easy and the views were breathtaking. The sun was just starting a fiery display providing the ground with a warm glow. We walked the high level promenade slowly taking in as much scenery as our eyes would allow.
To the west the steep slopes were still snow-clad and too slippery to walk on. Rich being braver than me tested the possibility of becoming a human sledge, waterproofs being a good friction free surface. It went well with no injury so I also gave it a go, what a huge buzz!
Just before the road back down into Askrigg was reached the sun did a final fiery assault on the sky before disappearing behind the clouds. A breathtaking end to a magical day.