Friday 11th February 2005

Great Whernside is the mass that dominates the skyline north-east of Kettlewell. At 704 metres above sea level, it is Yorkshire’s fifth highest peak and separates Wharfedale from Nidderdale. Often confused with Whernside by Ribblehead, it is quite foreboding and nowhere near as glamorous as its cousins the Three Peaks.

I have a long association with this mountain, which started in 1964 when as a 12 year old scout I spent the weekend on its slopes at Hag Dyke, the highest farmhouse in England. Great Whernside’s dark reputation fascinates and attracts me so last Friday, a beautiful morning, I decided to scale its heights.

The road from Bedale comes “o’er tops” past Middleham and Carlton, through Coverdale, an ancient route which passes the Hunters Stone. At the point where Tor Dyke crosses the road there is ample parking and an easy but steep ascent straight to the summit. I climbed quickly and Kettlewell soon looked a long way below and the Dales Tops popped up giving misty views of Buckden Pike, Pen-y-Ghent and Ingleborough. On clear days you can see many more.

Two Tornadoes, presumably from Leeming, roared past me at what is these days low level and my thoughts drifted to Great Whernside’s reputation. Whilst the most famous local air crash during the war was on Buckden Pike (see link, I know of three crashes on the slopes of Great Whernside. These were a Halifax DT578 in 1943, a B17 Flying Fortress in 1945 and a Mosquito in 1948. I believe there were no survivors from these crashes. In 1964 we were excited to find the moors scattered with bits of wreckage which we collected and took back to Hag Dyke where there was also a photograph of a scout with the gruesome find of a flying boot. So many lost lives – my thoughts turned to the forthcoming 60th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden and the ludicrous suggestion that the Queen should apologise. Those were different and very dark days. Whilst I was enjoying my weekend at Hag Dyke in 1964, Captain Ware, a friend of my father, was piloting Vulcans out of Finningley with live H-bombs on board. His mission to bomb Moscow when ordered. There would have been no one left to apologise for that one.


Tor Dyke

Looking up at Tor Dyke

As I walked along the top of the summit I looked down into the valley called Scale Park. An old pal of mine, David Plews, aka Wirral, farms West Scale Park as did his father before him. He and I were boarders at Ermysteds Grammar School in Skipton. Wirral had to board because he passed his 11 plus and there were no buses. He was a good rugby player and is well known in Wharfedale for all sorts of exploits. He has scratched a living off this bit of land since leaving school and has yet to marry but there has been no shortage of applicants, he’s just been too busy! Wirral’s mum, now 78, walks the two miles to Kettlewell nearly every day for provisions. This would be impressive even without the ascent of Park Rash, Yorkshire’s steepest hairpin bend, which makes her efforts quite remarkable. Wirral once took me down Park Rash in his Landrover at about 40mph – never again.

On reaching the trig point I poured myself a cup of tea and reflected on my good fortune. Beautiful Yorkshire scenery, great memories, good friends and good health what more could a man ask for?

I descended to the steep cliff that is the backdrop to Hag Dyke. What a weekend that was! It was a school scout trip but the scoutmaster / housemaster didn’t bother to join us until the Saturday night, by which time we had enjoyed the adventure of exploring Providence Pot – an infamous pothole, wandered around Great Whernside in the mist and encountered rats in the dormitory. The writs would be flying like Tornadoes these days!

Turning right I followed the edge of the escarpment along the easterly edge of Scale Park. I had read somewhere that Tor Dyke was a Dark Age dyke but this always seemed unlikely. Type “Tor Dyke” into Google and you will find websites about the Yorkshire pre-Roman tribe the Brigantes which tell you the dyke was built by Venutius. The Internet just brims with misinformation. Whittaker’s History of Craven solves the puzzle. In 1410 Ralph, Earl of Westmoreland, was granted a licence by Henry IV to enclose 300 acres by Kettlewell. Ralph was a Neville and owned Middleham Castle. Whittaker writes “this is the origin of Scale Park, now divided into two enclosures and so-called from a long and steep ascent within it from Craven to Coverdale”. Mystery solved, but what was the purpose of the dyke? Walking along the eastern escarpment it is clear that the whole area is a natural enclosure except at the Northern end. The dyke was dug to complete the enclosure and connect the steep Eastern and Western valley sides. I suspect it would have rich areas of green grass by comparison to the open country to attract deer to leap in. They certainly would not be able to leap back out. There is a similar device at the medieval Norton Towers near Rylstone.

The last part of my walk brought me alongside Tor Dyke and back to my car. It is likely that wolves were still roaming the open fells in the 14th Century. The monks of Whitby mention wolves in 1396 and a Robert Plumpton was employed as late as 1460 to catch wolves in Sherwood Forest. I imagine this deer park enclosure was designed to keep the deer together, safe from such wolves. This seems to make more sense than Venutius defending Kettlewell against advancing Roman legions – unless of course they’d heard the famous stories of the King’s Head lock-ins!

Alistair Hall