As I cross the footbridge over the River Ribble, I see my first ever dipper. The bird gives one quick bob, a curt curtsey, before it flies away.
The very best of omens.
We walk past Horton in Ribblesdale’s tiny train station, stepping over the single tracks. There were hordes of hikers mustering in the village when I arrived earlier, but most went the other way. The circular of the Yorkshire Three Peaks can be done in either direction. Our guide, Col, isn’t quite sure why most head for Pen-y-ghent first. It’s simply an unquestioned tradition.
The uphill begins almost immediately, though it’s soft and tame for now. The grass is cropped too low by sheep to be bothered by the bowling wind. But among the fringes of limestone pavement, where the nip of teeth can’t reach, my eyes are pulled left and right by lances of deep pink orchids. Early Purple Orchid, I later find from Google. Flecks of brightness amidst Yorkshire’s greys and browns. Further up, we find ourselves looking down into a valley where other colours bloom; but these are tents, not flowers, erected by cavers. Somewhere beneath them is a cavern that could fit St Paul’s Cathedral, Col tells us.
Ingleborough is our first peak, and it seems to treat us kindly—though I suspect this is more to do with the freshness of my legs. I wait in suspense to feel how my body reacts to the trial. The last time I walked this much in one day was in 2015, when I did a walking marathon along the Thames Valley Path; two miles more than the Yorkshire Three Peaks, but utterly flat. Arthritis has put me through the wringer since, and just these last few weeks, a new kind of pain has reared its head in my hips. I’d wondered if I should cancel.
But I have to know if I can still go this far over one day.
We flee the windy peak of Ingleborough down a steep, roughly paved path that reminds me of the forbidding Stairs of Cirith Ungol, that Frodo and Sam used to get into Mordor. Many dogs with their owners come the other way, including an intrepid pug who seems to have no trouble breathing; perhaps he has something to prove to himself too.
The second peak, Whernside, is a close neighbour to Ingleborough. After a short stop at a shop in a barn to buy surprisingly cheap (and good) cake, we step onto its toes. The going feels longer this time, one of those never-ending ascents littered with false summits. Lots of people are coming from the other way suddenly, though they can’t all be Three Peakers, unless they started in the early hours of the morning. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.
Whernside feels like a long flat ridge, and not the right shape for the highest point in Yorkshire. A wall of stones runs along it like a spine, marking the border with Cumbria. All around us, clouds tumble through the sky, a ray of sun sometimes slipping through to strike a distant valley. I was grateful for the absence of rain, and then I hankered for blue sky, but Col says this cool overcast weather is the best for a hike like this.
Whernside’s back isn’t so harsh to climb down. Further below, as the path curves, people the size of ants are ascending in a long line. It’s a tame version of that infamous photo of the queue of climbers on Mount Everest, and I can see Col’s point now about going in the direction less travelled. There’s much stepping aside at the points where the path narrows to flagstones surrounded by boggy ground, but the pace is relaxed, and my body feels happy. Fluffy white dots of cottongrass quiver all around. From unseen skylarks come an endless spring of song, and every once in a while, I catch the burbling flute of a curlew.
It’s a long long walk to the final peak, Pen-y-ghent, and we can see it most of the way. It’s a strange thing, to be able to see your destination from so far ahead. Pretty much every other hike I’ve ever been on has had woods or hills or both in the way, twisting and turning. This peak takes a long time to grow. I begin to go mad from too many sheep and too few trees. My pace has slowed, and my legs and hips are sore; a bit of Normal Person Pain mixed in with the arthritis. But I’ve had far worse. I chomp on a few Haribo Tangfastics before the steep ascent. The last time I had these sweets was just before I jumped into the waters off France, for the third swim of my Channel relay. I’d scoffed the whole packet and all the way to the beach I was letting out Haribo burps. Which is why I limit myself, this time.
We all make it to the top. We applaud ourselves and enjoy the solitude. The way down after is the most treacherous yet, all scrambly rock, but we’ve got enough left to give. Horton in Ribblesdale is tucked in just below. It’s quiet, when we arrive. We left after most of the other groups, and perhaps we were a little slower. Over eleven hours have passed.
Down here, the air is still. It’s another world. I clamber into my car and head back to my room for the night, but my body hasn’t caught up. Something of me is still up on Pen-y-ghent, standing and facing the unbroken fury of the wind, feeling and hearing in its bluster, ‘YOU ARE ALIVE. YOU ARE ALIVE. You are alive.’