Summit camping isn’t to be taken lightly, it can be hostile, daunting, challenging and dangerous, you’re exposed and open to the elements, usually miles away from any help, it’s unlikely you’ll have a phone signal and the conditions up there can be very bleak and formidable, whilst in the towns and villages below, it can be pleasant and calm. If you keep your kit together and packed within the rucksack, with only the essentials removed, it can be exceptionally beneficial, a good tent and sleeping bag, ones which pack away in minutes can be life saving, the tent, one that can withstand the storm can also prove imperative, always expect and be prepared for the worst conditions, even in the middle of summer. Before departure, if you do intend to camp on the summits, which can be the most inspiring and awesome experiences imaginable, prior to departure, simply check the weather forecast, and, if it’s favourable, go for it, if not, don’t, it’s as simple as that, even then, ensure you know exactly where you are, and, if necessary, a suitable route down.
One of the worst scenario’s in the possibility of thunder and lightening (Donner und Blitz), I experienced it once on Ilkley Moor and, without a doubt, it’s terrifying, the natural instinct is to flee and hope for the best, but, a safer method is to remain where you are, abandon your kit, unload every metal object you carry into the rucksack, leave it exposed and remove yourself at least one hundred yards away from it, layer yourself in your waterproof clothing, lay down and make yourself as small as possible, and, try to out weather the storm, that way, your rucksack and it’s metallic content will hopefully attract any lightening strike before you do.
To be close to a lightening strike, what does it feel like, I’ll tell you, imagine a hair dryer, with a huge extractor with a 6 feet diameter, then, imagine it’s been left running for an hour, as you approach it, it’s just been switched off, then, as you pass, it’s flicked on for a brief moment, maybe a second, then, unexpectedly, a sudden gust of hot air hits you, it shouldn’t have done, but it did, that’s how it feels.
“The charm of Kettlewell is an abiding charm, and to those of us whose life is spent amid the hurley-burley of city life, the village seems the peculiar abode of peace and quiet beauty; its limestone terraces, with their fringes of hazel and rowan coppices give to the district a characteristic beauty. But the special glory of Kettlewell is not that of colour, but of line. Situated at the junction of the main valley of the Wharfe valley, which descend from the Coverhead Pass, Kettlewell is the converging point of many contour lines, and to the eye which delights in the flow and ripple of sky line there is a beauty in Kettlewell which is all its own.” Written over one hundred years ago by Professor Moorman and today, just as applicable.
Having taken the week off work, half term, a chance to spend some time with my son, and, succeeded on the first occasion to convince him how a wild camp in the dales could enhance his standard of life, teach him how to say cheerio rather than ‘tara’, keep him from loose women, alcohol and drugs, possibly convert him to paganism, cannibalism and human sacrifice, warn him of the dangers of women who wear gold shoes and use words such as ‘darling’, ‘babe’ and ‘hun’ and men who use the word ‘matey’ and wear white trousers and slip on shoes without socks, and pink tennis shirts, important things in life he needs to know, sadly, on this occasion, my words of wisdom fell on deaf ears and he wasn’t being fooled by any of it. So, with a last minute decision, late on that Friday afternoon, I departed towards Kettlewell for what I imagined to be a relatively easy and short horseshoe walk from Kettlewell to Starbotton, over Old Cote Moor before descending towards Arncliffe, then, returning to Kettlewell. The intention was to wild camp somewhere above Arncliffe, have a look around the village the following morning prior to returning over Middlesmoor Pasture back to Kettlewell, home for midday and arriving in Holmfirth for 2pm and my nephews birthday party, no problem, thought I.
Forever the optimist, the canine Mountain Meg and I departed from Kettlewell on the western side of the shallow, tranquil and slowly flowing river Wharfe, (completely opposite to the version after a few days of heavy rainfall), for the couple of miles walk towards the picturesque village of Starbotton. The footpath is well marked, easy to follow and scenic, I know it well and it’s very popular. It borders Upper Wharfedale and it’s only a few minutes into the riverbank walk before you enter the wonderful dale. It took an excited Meg only a few minutes before she entered the clear water and introduced herself to the late afternoons refreshing, shallow river. Although, being on the riverbank between the trees and bushes, the midges were already making their presence felt, and, as always, I always forget something, this time, it was my long sleeved shirt, the midges were guaranteed a field day.
Whilst brewing up under the bridge I met the only person I was going to meet for the entire walk, he too came from Leeds, we had a good old natter, he was staying in his campervan on the car park owned by the local garage at Kettlewell, £2 a night to stay on it, not bad by any means. He told me how he too hiked and had done several long distance European footpaths, but, the look on his face when I told him I was intending to wild camp over the nearby summit was priceless, “Where’s your tent and sleeping bag?” he shockingly asked. The wonders of modern equipment, it did make me curious about his claimed European adventures?
The ascent, like all ascents, looked daunting from the riverbank, but, with a clearly worn footpath to follow, it certainly eased the navigational issues. especially as the weather was unexpectedly still warm. A good old ascent and hike was now the lead agenda, let’s be real, this outing wasn’t in the isolated wildernesses of Alaska or Siberia, around here, there’s a chance of a phone signal, and, at the most, I may have been only a couple of miles from a village or road, but, that doesn’t mean accidents don’t happen, so, bearing all this in mind, back pack loaded, extra water bottle filled, Mountain Meg, looking excited at the forthcoming challenge, commence our ascent we did.
It’s unusual to be back tracking on a designated route, but, on this occasion, that was the case, well, almost, the first part of the ascent did run diagonally parallel to the riverbank route as it climbed through an area of woodland, a rarity in itself, there’s not much hillside woodland remaining any more, there hasn’t been for hundreds of years. Woodland has been cleared for a variety of purposes since the last Ice Age resulting in the current low cover in the Dales. Semi-natural woodlands are now very scarce in the National Park and account for only 1 % of the Dales area. Many of these are very small in size and have been modified for many centuries through clearance, heavy stock grazing or re-planting with non-native species. Consequently native woodland continues to be one of the National Park priority habitats and the subject of active work by a number of organisations. If Sweden is just a clearing in a forest, then this is just a forest in the Dales, a very small forest and so unusual.
My initial thought was hammock, tarp and fire, well I was a sixer in the 15th North Leeds Cub Scouts, but, as that wasn’t on my agenda, and I didn’t carry a hammock or a tarp, such an idea was never going to materialise. Something which did, was the view into the valley basin below, the one I’d walked a little earlier, I may as well have walked another dale in another valley, this was marvellous, it was 2 for the price of 1, talk about value for money. The scenic terrain was a more than a visual pleasure, the ancient field systems were clearly visible, how old were they, who divided and worked them, how many people lived amongst them, what did they live in, where were their homes, where are they buried, where are their bones, who and what did they worship, they certainly hadn’t gone far, somewhere amongst the grazing pastures, there they lay, to this day, their ghosts were all around me, bloody marvellous. The long abandoned and derelict barns and sheepfold, they all took a wonderful new meaning from above.
As usual, I’d underestimated the challenge and effort required in the permitted time I’d allowed myself. You’d think I’d learn but I never do, the confidence balances of over and under needed addressing. Maybe the overall distance was somewhere in the region of 6 or 7 miles, hardly a marathon, but, in the time I’d convinced myself I could complete it, and the time of day I’d commenced, the two figures didn’t tally, and, slowly lurking in, from the north, creeping like a ghostly spirit from Valhalla, came the threatening black cloud, I could hear it, it was baying me, as though it was challenging me, was it bored of my constantly irritating, challenging confrontation, it wanted to remind me, once and for all, who was the master of these domains, and, naturally, it wasn’t me. A deep feeling of isolation and vulnerability was beginning to bite. I continued with my journey into the heart of darkness and my ascent.
I realised that time wasn’t on my side, the following day’s commitments were too important, others were depending on me, so, after studying the map, I took a compass bearing and headed in my new direction.
Ascending Moor End Fell, I transformed in Tom Hanks in the film Castaway, Mountain Meg became Wilson and we were having a wonderful conversation, well, one of us was, the other simply chased rabbits and constantly wagged her tail. “If we’re going to make it to the summit Meg, we’re going to have to get a move on”! “It’s a change of plan, we’re going to have to come back another day and maybe start at Arncliffe when we have more time”! I’m sure she understood.
By this time we were no longer on a footpath, simply ascending and heading in a southerly direction, there were a couple of wonderful old stiles to cross and some derelict and ruined old barns, who built them, how long had they stood there, why were they neglected and permitted to collapse and deteriorate. The night sky was darkening the terrain and the entire aura seemed to change by the minute. I was beginning to feel hungry and looking for a sheltered location to make camp. Earlier I’d seen a cow pat, quite a fresh one, so, with a beady eye covering the area for the random ‘Daisy’ or ‘Bully’, I continued, fortunately, the only local residents on the fell were the sheep, a Yorkshire Dale without sheep, can you imagine it?
As always, the summit was exposed and quite windy, dusk was becoming night and if I didn’t make a hasty decision and find a sheltered location, I’d soon be in total darkness in a far more precarious position. The southerly route I was following, ran adjacent to a summit dry stone wall, and, at a wall junction I decided to settle down for the night, sheltered from two sides, and in a tiny dry dip, I pitched the tent, fed the sorrowfully looking Meg and fed myself with a boil in the bag army surplus meal I’d bought on line, I will not be making a similar digestive investment ever again, I think I bought a pack of 10, lamb rogan josh with chick peas, apparently, they can be consumed either hot or cold, if there’s ever a reason not to join the armed services, then these meals are suffice.
This certainly wasn’t 5-star accommodation but it was the best available, the wind was stronger than it had been all day, probably due to the fact that I was on the summit plane, it caused a little difficulty in holding the tent together as I pegged it down, but, that was soon overcome, then the flysheet and a quick insertion of the roll mat and sleeping bag. Food cooked, coffee made, boots off, head torch on, kit tucked under the flysheet, pure luxury. Once inside the tent and sleeping bag, even on the bumpy tufts beneath you and as the wind batters the tent and the constant flapping rattles the flysheet, the sheer delight of the dry and warm shelter makes all the effort so worthwhile, there’s very little to compare with the sense of achievement accomplished, a feeling of success. The dark, cold, eerie world outside is put on hold, in this confined but not claustrophobic world, this temporary isolation is the perfect escapism from the entire world and it’s insane contents, even Mountain Meg agreed as she pushed her way alongside, ensuring her spot on the dry and insulating roll mat.
Unlike the previous week, when I’d awoken to a bright, blue skied and sunny, clear morning, I did appreciate how lucky I had been, this mornings weather didn’t equal it. It’s unusual to emerge from the tent to such a sheer delight, on this particular morning, such a gift was restricted and the morning mist dominated the surroundings, I was in cloud, and, only for the briefest of moments did I receive a sneak view of the valley below and the intended, original destination of Arncliffe. Not that it mattered, not in the least, I’d had a night out on the hills, that was my intention and it’s what I’d achieved, the route had only been an idea, I don’t compete or watch the time and distance any more, there’s no point.
Breakfast in the mist, there’s a magical feel about it, I fed Meg the second half of the tinned dog food, as I, reluctantly, succumbed to my second military ration boil in the bag rogan josh, I was tempted to switch mine for hers, they both had a similar visual appeal, although, I strongly believe that Meg’s was far superior in both taste and nutritional value, I glanced at her, knowingly she glared back at me, she understood what I was thinking, protecting her superior meal she growled protectively, no way on this earth was she exchanging hers for mine, she’s no dumb animal, story of my life!
After breakfast and packing away all the kit, I decided it may be a cute idea to actually establish exactly where I was, I had a rough idea, but, I needed to know how far I was from the established footpath back down to Kettlewell, GPS on, a quick reading, link it to the OS map and hey presto, location known, that’s about as long as it takes.
At most, the established footpath and descent can’t have been more than a few hundred yards from where I’d camped. The morning was still misty, cloudy and damp, but that’s simply part of the wild camp, it’s still an eerie feeling been in such a situation, although, even after a lumpy nights sleep, the exhilaration of been ‘up there’ is still a superb buzz, and, there’s no hangover, no expense other than a little fuel and food, and, a real sense of having achieved and done something.
Having descended down one of the most beautiful fell sides I can remember, into one of the most beautiful dales imaginable, I was brought back down to reality by 2 phone calls on my mobile, next time, it stays hidden in the car until I’m ready to communicate with the outside world. I had a busy day ahead, so, it was time to head home. On arrival back at the car park, I called over the road to pay the £2 parking fee in the local garage, the evidence of retribution against those who fail to pay was obvious, so, I photographed it, probably the best £2 for a night out I’ve ever paid in my life, once again, all’s well in Kettlewell. Next time, I’ve made a date with Cracoe Fell, it’s one of those with a monolith on it’s summit, I’ve driven past it dozens of times and always wondered, “what’s that on the top of that fell and why’s it there?”, so, it’s time to discover why and pay a visit, till the next time, Auf Wiedersehen.