Walking Whernside

Last updated on June 23rd, 2024 at 03:02 pm

Whernside, North Yorkshire, Three Peaks
Whernside, Ribblehead Viaduct, North Yorkshire

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.

Blea Moor, signal box, Whernside, Yorkshire Dales

Do not confuse Whernside with Great Whernside, about 17 miles to the east, near Kettlewell. Naturally, Great Whernside is not quite as high as this Whernside.

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.

Whernside from Chapel-le-Dale

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.

Force Gill, aqueduct, Whernside, Yorkshire Dales
Force Gill, waterfall, Whernside

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.

Whernside, tarn, Yorkshire Dales, Three Peaks

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.

Dentdale, view, Whernside
 Ingleborough, Whernside

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.

Ribblehead from Whernside, Carlisle-Settle Railway

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).


19 thoughts on “Walking Whernside”

  1. Hi Mike – I wrote a long comment and then hit a button and whoosh off into the Yorkshire mists of time – obviously now gone!

    You are getting us up to speed and walking … something I’ve never enjoyed – but then I didn’t know I had a birth-defect hip and a left leg an inch short (only found out 2 years ago!) … could have made the difference – though playing, hockey, tennis and squash was just fine for the many decades!

    I’d love to visit the Ribblehead Viaduct … it’s always looked amazing and I’d love to look around the industrial past … was it there that they had some workers’ cottages and one they ‘restored’ and as they were stripping back the wallpaper found old newspapers used as wallpaper underneath – 130 years old or so …

    Then the ‘band’ that plays on the train to passengers – that must be amazing to be able to enjoy the scenery and the music …

    Wonderful photos and descriptions and that etymology again … love it – cheers Hilary

    1. I’ve written about the camps before and will do again, but to the untrained eye (like mine), there’s little to see at Ribblehead now, Hilary, no huts – just scars and bumps in the landscape. There’s a couple of useful information boards. The viaduct, though, is a fabulous sight. You’re thinking of the ‘music and ale’ trips on the Carlisle-Settle Railway? I’ve not experienced one of those, but they sound great – here’s the place to look http://www.settle-carlisle.co.uk/ 🙂

    1. From what I can make out, bits of aircraft remain – and it seems to have been common practice in the past, because I have seen quite a bit about it on the web. There are many crash sights in Yorkshire, unfortunately.

  2. Beautiful views, Mike!! It’s so cool to see green grass in the foreground and snow on the mountains in the distance. Love that last picture with the sheep. 😀 What time of year did you take these photos?

    Yorkshire is one of the places I’d love to visit if we get back to England, mainly because I’m a big James Herriot fan. I’ve read all the books multiple times, and we have the BBC series on DVD. The Ribblehead Viaduct does look straight out of Harry Potter — really spectacular.

    Thanks for sharing the views and the info. with us. That hike would be good exercise for sure! Thanks for your visit earlier and hope you’re having a good week!



    1. Hi Denise – thanks. The wintry shots (including the last one with the sheep) were taken in December. The others were taken in June. Let me know when you plan your visit to Yorkshire – maybe I can help with a few ideas. All the best.

  3. First, just reading this, with all those (to me) whimsical English place names is a delight. But then to see your photos and especially the penultimate one. If I were to ever take this walk (not likely as I live in San Diego, California and not much of a traveler) I would probably want to stay up there on top just enjoying the wide and high views for as long as I could before coming back down again. Very lovely.

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