Whernside, one of the Yorkshire Dales’ Three Peaks, is often thought to be relatively uninteresting walking country compared with its partners, Ingleborough and Pen-y-Ghent. This is unfair. Whernside can be bleak, but there is plenty to see. If you stick to the popular path, the going is easier than on either of the other two fells and, in good weather, it’s quite hard to get lost; so do try not to.
From side on, Whernside looks like a long, slumbering, monster. The name is Old Norse in origin – Whern from quern (a millstone – Old Norse kvern) and side from saettr, summer pasture. It’s a ridge, running roughly north-south, on the border with Cumbria. At 2,415’ (736m) it is the highest summit in North Yorkshire and, as one of the Three Peaks it is prone to all those fit-types zooming up and down it; so it can feel a bit like the M25 during rush hour – except that things do tend to keep moving. When I last walked it the enthusiasts must have been on the other two peaks, or training in Wales, because it was reasonably peaceful.
Like nearly all things, there’s a variety of ways of tackling Whernside. But the most straightforward route starts and finishes at Ribblehead on the B6255 between Ingleton and Hawes. It’s about 8 miles and I’ve done it (aging and overweight) in about 4-5 hours.
You’ll walk by the impressive 104’ high 440 yard long Ribblehead Viaduct, which carries the Carlisle-Settle railway. Completed in 1870, it claimed countless lives during its construction through accidents, fighting and disease. If you want to stop awhile, you can see traces of the industrial archaeology – about 1,000 men were engaged at Ribblehead, living there in shanty towns with their families. The railway itself opened in 1876 and has almost been closed twice, once in the 1960s and again in the 1980s, but it’s still going strong. There’s a station at Ribblehead – so you could easily get to this walk by train. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a steam loco on the bridge – a magnificent sight, just like being in a Harry Potter movie, but without the wands.
Heading past the viaduct on your left, the path follows the railway past Blea Moor signal box, up by the side of a cute little aqueduct which shepherds Force Gill over the railway, and past Force Gill waterfalls. The railway disappears on your right into Blea Tunnel, 2,629 yards (2,404 metres) long and up to 500 feet (152 metres) below the surface. It was dug by hand and took four years and several deaths to finish.
The path up Whernside turns west (left) and you begin your relatively short ascent. Now, if you take a little something with you to enjoy en route (I’m thinking sandwiches, pies, coffee – that kind of ‘little something’) I should point out that there are few decent spots for a picnic beyond this point. I like to search out a convenient stone, preferably free of the detritus of previous visitors, reasonably sheltered, and with a good view. There are views, but no sheltered picnic spots on this side of Whernside. Also, the path hereabouts tends to be decidedly soggy and, once you start to climb the ridge it can get a little breezy. Oh yes.
On a clear day, you can see for miles from the top. To the south east, Ribblehead Viaduct and the railway snakes across the landscape, a stunning juxtaposition of Dales country with an engineering triumph. Behind that looms Ingleborough. To the west, beautiful Dentdale and, to the south west, you can see Morecambe Bay and even the off-shore wind farms.
Somewhere on Whernside are the remains of at least two aircraft crashes, that of an RAF Wellington that came down on 21st April 1944, killing six of its seven crew, and a Royal Navy Barracuda that crashed on 15th December 1945.
The path off Whernside will take you down to your left (east-ish), then left again (north-west), past Winterscales Farm and back under the viaduct. If you’ve been very good, you might find an ice cream van parked up nearby. Or there’s the Station Inn.
As usual when you’re walking in these parts, leave the high heels and trainers behind, wear good boots, sensible clothing and take a map (Ordnance Survey OL 2).