This loose confederation of hills – Horse Head Moor (608m), Birks Fell (614m) and Firth Fell (607m) – is the bulky watershed between Littondale and Upper Wharfedale. They form a boggy, featureless summit plateau that stretches for over 6km – if you’re tackling this in low visibility, you need to be confident with your navigation. Whatever the visibility and whatever the weather, you will want gaiters.
From Kettlewell, I follow the Dales Way along the west bank of the Wharfe. Meadow sweet crowds round the path, browning now with the season. It would be quite something to have been here earlier in the year, white blossoms swaying, the air thick with their heavy, sweet scent. Here and there, wood cranes bill and yarrow put in appearances. The last of the year’s knapweed brings a flash of purple to the fields.
Further along the valley, autumn’s colours are starting to make themselves known. Hawthorns, crouched low against the wind, are thick with red berries. I pass a stand of three blackthorn trees, heavy with dark, pearlescent sloe.
The Dales Way winds across the valley floor much as the river itself does. Wharfedale was carved out by a glacier – it is broad and flat, steep-sided. Deciduous trees, walled off from the sheep, crowd up its flanks. In places, flushes bring the water table to the surface and pasture gives way to sedges and rushes, even cress.
At Buckden, I dip off the path and head up the road. There is a footpath to Hubberholme, but the road is quicker and I set off late in the day. The character of the road makes it popular with touring bikes – bear it in mind if there are dogs or children in your party. I should add that I was met with nothing but courtesy by the motorcyclist that passed me.
I pass the George at Hubberholme – it was camping here as a child where my cousin made me scared of spiders. Thanks, Fiona. Beyond, the road climbs into the unknown – to me at any rate as I’ve never been up into Langstrothdale. Yockenthwaite Moor rises in steep, knobbly terraces to the north. At Rasigill, I turn due west off the road to climb the northern bank of Hagg Beck. The steep path pulls me quickly onto unimproved pasture and I am soon above the still, humid air of the valley and enjoying the breeze.
The ground levels out and I find myself looking across Littondale to the eastern end of Plover Hill. Beyond Pen-y-Ghent’s summit, Ingleborough squats with its head in the cloud. My pleasure at the cooler air is short-lived; the sky darkens as clouds pile in overhead and my soft-shell goes on. The songs I’ve heard through summer – wheatear, curlew, skylark – are absent. They’ve left for warmer or lower climes.
To the northwest lies the Horse Head trig-point. If you are young, carefree, here earlier and like to touch the trig-point, go for it. I am much older, a tiny bit wiser and late, so I turn southeast along the fell top. The summit plateau is broad – almost a 1km wide in places – and featureless. It is also boggy. I mean really boggy. There are places where the sphagnum will suck your legs down until your crotch is on the ground. Fortunately, there is a boundary wall running the length of the ridge. If you handrail this and pay close attention to the map for the walls and fences running out from it then you cannot get lost. You will have to deviate away from the wall in places to avoid the deep gashes in the peat and the worst of the pools. Count the side walls and fences as you pass them. There is a gate or stile in every single one. If you find yourself climbing a wall, stop because a) you shouldn’t, it’s bad form and b) you’re going the wrong way. The boundary wall (in places it is a fence) will be on your right until you leave the ridge.
I have to say, a lot of the summit plateau is very much the same. It undulates around the 600m mark, it is boggy and not much seems to change. It makes you think you are not making forward progress. After passing through the second gate, you will see a standing pool of water that you will think is Birks Tarn. It is not Birks Tarn. Around 450m past your third gate, you will find a ruined field barn built into the wall. You can sit out of the wind and stare at the 614m summit of the ridge. Or you can stare at Birks Tarn. That really is Birks Tarn.
As I leave the ruins, a merlin – our smallest falcon – clips up over the wall ahead of me and skims off low over the fell. In the Middle Ages, falcons and hawks were often named for the largest prey they could take. It is thought that the merlin takes its name from the French name for blackbird, emerillon.
Once I’m beyond the boggiest sections, red grouse crisscross the fell, wings a-whirr, the sky rattling with their churring call. After what seems like hours of the same level trudge, the fell finally starts to fall away. Weathered gritstone juts from the turf – grass now instead of sedge and rushes. A notch cuts across the narrowing ridge and I frolic in the unexpected topographical interest. Another 1.5km of gentle descent sees me peel off the side of the hill. A steep, wide path takes me down through limestone terraces and back to Kettlewell and Grunty.
My pack (a Macpac Amp 25) contained: Haglofs Spitz II jacket, Millet Touring Hoody jacket, Rab Bergen pants, Montane Flux jacket, Marmot XT gloves, OS OL Sheet 30, Silva mirror-sighting compass, Julbo sunglasses, Benchmade Presidio lock-knife, Petzl Tikka Plus 2 headtorch, coffee, water, Cornish pasty, peanut brittle (may contain nuts. Except that peanuts aren’t nuts).I wore Garmont Vetta Mnt boots, Montane Vortex Stretch gaiters, Montane Terra pants, some long-sleeved bamboo top I got from TK Maxx.