Whernside, at 2,415 feet (736 metres) is the highest of the Three Yorkshire Peaks, the other two being Ingleborough (2,372 feet) and Pen-Y-Ghent (2277 feet). It’s name is thought to be derived from ‘whern’ which is thought to be a corruption of the word ‘quern’ meaning ‘millstone’ and ‘side’ from old Norse ‘sættr’, meaning an area of summer pasture. If we put them together we have, ‘Area of millstone’ or ‘Area where millstone is got’. OK, it’s a bit clumsy but this seems to be the consensus and it certainly makes sense when you look at the type of stone that breaks the surface of the grass and is exposed on the side of the ridges.
We park on the side of the B6255 in a lay-by near Ribblehead Station. It has been created for walkers doing the Whernside loop and also from passers-by who’re exposed to the sudden appearance of the majestic structure of the Ribblehead Viaduct. Prior to the existence of the lay-by the motorist following this road for the first time on seeing this fabulous structure would create mayhem by conducting a full emergency-stop followed by the abandonment of their vehicle to take in this astonishing sight and if they were lucky, a train would magically appear and complete the picture.
Of course, if they hit the jackpot, a “steam” train would appear and all vehicular traffic would grind to a halt without a cross word being said such is the impact of this glorious sight.
We’re getting changed and adding a few layers as the wind is biting and the clouds are threateningly dark but we do it with frequent glances towards the beautiful viaduct built between 1870 and 1874 at a cost of £343,318.
Once suitably kitted-up we cross the road and head towards the viaduct and some of the stuff that I’d read the previous night comes buzzing through my head…
This fabulous 24 arch stone structure was built by over a thousand navvies who lived in shanty towns scattered around its base. It’s a grade 2 listed building and the ground underneath and around it is scheduled an ancient monument. There are some remains of the shanty towns but nothing that I can discern with regard to structure. We could be crossing “Batty Wife Hole” or “Sebastopol” or “Belgravia”;. The navvies gave their chaotic settlements strange or posh names perhaps as an escape from the brutality of the existence. There’s certainly plenty of evidence of the harshness and loss during the construction years in Chapel-le-Dale cemetery where the remains of the 100 or so navvies who lost their lives on the construction site lie with their wives and children who died of God knows what diseases or malnourishment; they lived and died in a time that ‘little’ people were expendable but it doesn’t detract from the magnificence of the structure.
We stop a couple of times as we walk adjacent to the arches, you have to, at over a hundred feet tall (32m) it’s so imposing. Here’s a bit of factual trivia from Wikipedia:
Ribblehead Viaduct is 440 yards (400 m) long, and 104 feet (32 m) above the valley floor at its highest point, designed to carry two tracks. It is made up of twenty-four arches of 45 feet (14 m) span, with foundations 25 feet (7.6 m) deep. Every 6th pier is 50% thicker to mitigate against complete collapse should any pier fail. The north end of the viaduct is 13 feet (4.0 m) higher in elevation than the south end leading to a gradient of 1:100.
1.5 million bricks were used in the construction and some of the limestone blocks weigh 8 tons each.
We continue along the path adjacent to the railway track and our heart and breathing rate step up a notch. It’s not steep but it is constant and we’re going to have to get used to this as we pass a sign that informs us that Whernside is four and three quarters of a mile (7.7km) and the gradient varies between ‘up’ and ‘very-up’.
The railway track arches around to the right and we cross a stone bridge that sits alongside another that’s carrying a stream in full flow. It’s the first time I’ve stood next to an aqueduct and it’s fascinating and hypnotic as we watch the water cascade and eddy it’s way across the railway only a few feet below.
We’re on the Dales Highway now with Force Gill Ridge on our right and Force Gill Waterfall in full flow on our left. The path becomes steeper and we stop a couple of times to catch our breath and also take in the surrounds which vary between benign beauty, when the sky is blue, to threateningly dramatic but still beautiful as the dark rain-filled clouds race across the summit dropping their drenching contents on the bracken and stone. We only suffer some minor showers on the periphery of the action and we’re grateful. We’re also encouraged that blue-sky-bits seem to be taking precedence.
The path abruptly turns from steps to track over a style and we’re on fairly open moor although there are fields beyond the drystone wall to our right and bracken, rocks and the odd tarn with the other peaks in the distance to our left.
Another mile and we’re on to some serious ‘up’ and Dave needs a pee so we invite the three ladies that we’ve met several times to pass us by. I tell them the reason of course and there’s laughter followed by banter related to their need for a pee being conducted just in time near the railway track. A train arrived just after the performance. Long distance walking has its moments!.
We’re now in sight of the Whernside Ridge and the views below are spectacular as the sun makes more frequent appearances. We’re at about 2000 feet (600 metres) but it doesn’t feel like it as the surrounding area is only a few hundred feet below. It’s slightly surreal in as much as to the right is a gently rolling pasture and to the left is a drop that’s not quite a cliff but not suitable for sledging either.
At the trig point the ladies have camped in the lee of the drystone wall eating lunch and we take our place in a semi-circular structure that is equally protective against the biting wind.
We’ve met Harry Lambie, a delightful Scottish gentleman on the way up, and he’s been walking with us and chatting on the ascent. He’s from the West Coast and has a gentle, easy to understand accent, which is probably an essential as he’s in customer service at Glasgow Airport.
There’s a flurry of photograph taking but in short bursts as the weather varies between bitter-cold with sunshine and bitter-cold with cloud and rain.
During the clear periods we can see all three viaducts in a panorama that is spectacular. Two to our left, Smardale Viaduct and Arten Gill; both are higher than Ribblehead but both significantly shorter in length.
The ladies are first away followed by the ‘hares’ in our group and we follow on at a gentler pace taking in the scenery that is constantly changing according to the light and cloud. One minute we have a clear view the valley with shadows of clouds scurrying across the fields and in the next we’re peering through cloud as it hugs the ridge where we’re walking. As we progress, the cloud disperses and the weather improves enabling us to pick out the track as it disappears over the edge of the ridge and becomes intermittent steps and then winds its way into the distance below.
The descent is long and pulls at the front of the legs. We meet a group of firefighters from Grimsby and let them through. They’re on their second peak of the day and are doing the three peaks in under 12 hours, I ask if it’s sponsored and surprised with the negative reply, it’s just team building is the response!
At the bottom we’re bathed in sunshine as we loop our way back towards the viaduct and follow the markers with a little bit of help from my Viewranger App skipping between the OS Map and Google Hybrid. There’s an element of ambiguity over a swampy, reed covered field as there are two exits but the viaduct is the target and that makes it easy to decide.
We pass under the viaduct this time and pass over the navvy settlement areas yet again and feel the ghosts of the workers who built this landmark. Whilst it stands, they have a wonderful memorial; RIP.
Back at the car and we say goodbye to Harry with a parting joke and we’re ready for an evening meal and, perhaps, a beer.
Thanks to Dave Rider for setting up this adventure, thank you to George Renwick who maintains and organises this marvellous group and thanks to our wonderful friends for being part of it…G..x
Please feel free to like, comment or share. Also please disagree if any of the facts need clarification or correction.
Footnote: Over two years ago I had a major operation to repair an aortic aneurysm. All of the walks I’ve done since then are the result of the skills of Consultant Vascular Surgeon Ms Monica Hansrani and the vascular team together with the x-ray teams, the ward staff and all the ancillary staff at the Friarage Hospital and James Cook hospital without whom I would be a memory rather than making memories.