WHERNSIDE was once thought to be England's loftiest peak but now its claim is more modest – simply the highest point in Yorkshire. Roger Ratcliffe presents a portrait of the mountain.
Poor old Whernside. It doesn't look anything like a noble mountain.
It has no charismatic profile, no neck-challenging views at close quarters from the dale floor, no magnificent thrusts of vertigo-inducing rock face to gape at – in fact, barely a sharp angle is to be found anywhere on its massive bulk.
If a small child in nursery school was asked to draw a simple mountain, it would look nothing like Whernside. More likely, the drawing would vaguely resemble Whernside's companions in the famous trinity of Yorkshire Dales peaks, Penyghent and Ingleborough.
Penyghent's shape has been likened to a huge, maned lion, crouching and ready to pounce, while Ingleborough's is that of a gigantic pyramid that was neatly decapitated by a glacier in the last Ice Age to make it the best-known table-top mountain in Britain.
But poor Whernside's outline suggests nothing more than a colossal beached whale. Except, of course, its location is a long way from any beach. It is just a seemingly interminable ridge, rising in search of a shapely summit that would look more in keeping with its eminent status. Even in the gloomy Yorkshire Dales nether world of potholes, caves and caverns, it can't muster any bragging rights over its neighbours. Penyghent has the enormous chasm of Hull Pot, said to be the largest hole in England, while Ingleborough's Gaping Gill contains a huge underground chamber that could amply accommodate a cathedral. But Whernside's only claim to subterranean fame is Blea Moor Tunnel, which carries the Settle-Carlisle line beneath its northern flank.
The final indignity is that while its Three Peaks partners are staple views on calendars and picture-postcards, the thousands of photographs taken of Whernside each year are usually by accident. It just happens to form a backdrop to the dramatic railway viaduct at Ribblehead.
Upstaged by something that appears to be a child's train set when seen from the mountain, Whernside is also largely unloved by those who climb it. To the thousands who take up the challenge of the 24-mile, 12-hour Three Peaks walk, it's nothing more than the dull slog in the middle: the anti-climax following the ascent of shapely Penyghent, and the energy-sapper before the triumphant conquering of Ingleborough.
And unlike its companions, Whernside has no village to call its own. Just as Zermatt famously sits at the foot of the Matterhorn, it's hard to think of Horton-in-Ribblesdale without Penyghent looming on the eastern horizon, while Ingleborough is claimed and cherished by the people of Clapham as well as by those who live at Ingleton. But around poor Whernside's huge girth, there are only a couple of remote inns and a few scattered farms.
While mountains like the Matterhorn, Everest and, yes, even Ingleborough, were born great, Whernside had greatness thrust upon it. Although in 1812 it was claimed by John Bigland to be England's highest mountain in his The Beauties of England and Wales, the height of 5,340 feet above sea level he gave it turned out to be wildly wrong. Not even Britain's loftiest summit, Ben Nevis, is that high.
But when more accurate triangulation techniques were invented, Whernside was found to be less than half the size, a decidedly more humble 2,419 feet, leaving it still 166 feet short of being even – in those days – the highest place in the historic County of Yorkshire. That title went to Mickle Fell, which lies in the North Pennines between Upper Teesdale and the Eden Valley.
However, Mickle Fell was gifted to County Durham in the great redrawing of local government boundaries more than 30 years ago. The identity of the civil servant whose pencil gave away Mickle Fell is unrecorded, which is a shame because, just as Sir Edmund Hillary's name will perpetually be linked to Everest, in a more bizarre way the name of this Whitehall bureaucrat should always be associated with Whernside.
For when the boundary changes came into effect, in 1974 – perhaps it's no coincidence that it happened on April Fool's Day – he or she allowed one of the least mountain-like mountains in Britain to become known as "Yorkshire's Everest".
But guess what? Suddenly, Whernside demanded to be climbed. Those Tykes who couldn't be bothered driving up the Great North Road to Scotch Corner and turning west on the A66 to climb Mickle Fell, thus claiming their birthright, found that a simple drive along the A65 brought them within reach of the highest point in Yorkshire.
As for the few people who lived in its shadow, they found themselves being told there was now more to Whernside than met the eye. Michael Faraday, for example, has lived all his 61 years beneath Whernside. He grew up in the small hamlet of Chapel-le-Dale, down on the Hawes-Ingleton turnpike, and has spent the last 41 years of his life as a sheep farmer at Kingsdale Head, some 1,100 feet up the mountain.
Did he feel a closer bond with Whernside when it achieved such greatness? "Not particularly," he replies. "I mean, it didn't suddenly grow higher overnight, did it? But a lot of my farm's on it and my Dales-bred sheep are there, so I've always seen Whernside as my livelihood." The biggest change to the mountain, Michael says, is the weather. It now rarely gets a thick covering of snow.
"At one time it was nothing new for us to be fastened in up here for three days, but that's no longer a problem. My memories are of it being white on the summit for two or three months every winter."
The other change to Whernside he's seen has been caused by walkers since the 1970s. "There used to be a fair depth of soil on the top but all that's being eroded away by boots. There are far more people going up there than we got three or four decades ago, that's for sure."
The majority of the several thousand who climb Whernside each year are doing the Three Peaks challenge walk, which is said to have been invented by DR Smith and JR Wynne-Edwards, teachers at Giggleswick School, in July 1887. An annual fell race was introduced in 1954, with superhumans finishing the course in under three hours, followed by a yearly cyclo-cross race in 1961. Finally, Army teams began to drive Land-Rovers round the entire course.
But despite having a barely recognisable mountain shape, and few people lingering on its summit longer than they have to, surely Whernside must have some redeeming features?
Well, the obvious one is that the views across to Penyghent and Ingleborough are superb, a feast for camera lenses, whereas it's doubtful anyone bothers to take pictures of Whernside from the other summits. And it has another point in its favour. Alfred Wainwright, author of perhaps the best walking guide to the Yorkshire Dales, could only ever see the good points in mountains. Whernside, he wrote, at least has its own sparkling necklace of jewels in a series of tarns that are strung across its north-facing breast. Wainwright added that the full length of its south-west ridge was "a tonic for jaded minds and a splendid exercise for the legs". Which is true – for those in the know, it's one of the finest ridge walks in England and a great place to get away from other walkers, even in summer.
However, Wainwright went on to heap far more praise on Penyghent and Ingleborough. The former had "high class", he said, while the latter he described as "wonderful", and confessed it had been a favourite of his since he was a young man.
So, poor old Whernside. You can forgive it for perhaps muttering to its neighbours in the dead of night: "Yes, but I'm still Yorkshire's highest mountain."