At 543m, Gibbon Hill is one of several high points on the rounded ridge that separates Apedale from Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales. I walked up it once before, many years ago, when I first moved to the area but, although I’ve often been out on my mountain bike on the tracks around it, I’ve not been to the summit since. The idea of revisiting it has been at the back of my mind for a long time. Walking over hills is a very different experience to cycling over them. Walking is obviously slower, one is more in touch with the land and there is more time to take things in. Cycling brings with it a whole different set of attractions. I enjoy both but for some time I’ve been thinking of going for walks through the places I visit on my mountain bike, as I often see, when cycling, intriguing features of the landscape that are often inaccessible on a bike and which cry out to be explored on foot.
Gibbon Hill is a case in point. I often find myself cycling along a Land Rover track that contours its north side. It crosses a stream, Grovebeck Gill, just before it comes to a shooting lodge. On the uphill side, the stream vanishes into a steep-sided cleft. I often wonder what I’d find if I dismounted and walked up it. Perusing the map the other day, I was fascinated to see that it leads to a disused lead mine. The mine workings and the stream bed run a good part of the way to the ridge – and the summit of Gibbon Hill.
As I didn’t have a whole afternoon to devote to the walk, to save time I parked half way up on the road that runs over the hill from Grinton to Redmire. I made my way across the moor, knowing that if I kept walking west I would soon intercept the gill and the mine workings. It didn’t take long. Once at the cleft (known at this point as Kay Hush), I clambered down it through the heather to the stony bed of the gill and made my way up it. It gradually became less and less deep and I finally found myself stepping out, back onto the open moor. The ground was rough and had obviously been mined. Here and there there were spoil heaps. There were long stretches of peat devoid of heather, sometimes covered with a scattering of shattered limestone fragments. It was at this point that I came across the first of several tiny skeletons laid out on the peat. I saw few signs of life on this walk. I saw a couple of geese stood by a pool. Later I saw them as they flew over my head. I saw more signs of death. Several times, as well as the skeletons, I came across a scattering of feathers that, from a distance, I mistook for cotton-grass (which, of course, is not in flower yet).
Here and there, as I made my way through the workings, I came across pieces of wood. I was curious to know where they all came from. Finally, to my surprise, I came across a pit, full of pieces of wood. I was put in mind of Cornelia Parker’s exploding garden shed.
It wasn’t far from the wood-pile to the ridge itself. Distances on rough moorland can be deceptive: things that look a long way off can actually be quite close. Add to this the fact that in the absence of well-trodden paths one moves quite slowly and one can see how one can quickly get demoralised. Walking here has to be unhurried and philosophical. Put one foot in front of the other, then the other in front of the one – and so on. It is good that the ground is a pleasure to look at. The grass grows in tussocks. Each blade, green at the base, dwindles to a white, straggly tendril that drapes itself over the heather that grows around it.
In no time at all I reached the wire fence that runs the length of the ridge and turned right. All of a sudden I could see into both Swaledale and Apedale. I was surrounded by hills, although it was difficult to see far as it was quite hazy. I made my way along the fence to the summit. Although, as I said, I had visited it once before a long time ago, nothing about it seemed familiar. I sat myself down in the heather and ate an orange. A fence used to run away northwards from this point. All that remains of it now are a few decayed wooden posts.
When I set off back down, I decided to take a closer look at a tree I’d seen not far from the summit. I wondered if, perhaps, someone had brought their old Christmas tree to this remote place and planted it. Surely not. I can only think a bird dropped a seed. There are no other trees for miles. Being in such an exposed place, it’s grown into the shape of the prevailing wind.
I toyed with the idea of simply retracing my steps back down Grovebeck Gill but decided to follow the ridge instead. The sun was getting quite close to the horizon and I thought I’d cover the ground more quickly if I went that way. All I needed to do was walk along the fence until I came to the prominent cairns on the next named summit, Height O’Greets. I’d made my way down from there many times. I set off and on reaching the cairns, I turned down into Swaledale towards the road. Then, on a whim, I changed course. I could afford to do this, as I was now making good time. As I said, I knew this part of the route well and, as so much of this walk had been completely new to me I didn’t want the sense of discovery to end. I veered off towards Grovebeck Moss, where I found myself weaving a path through flat, bright green patches of ground. A small pool seemed to glow, completely filled as it was with a gelatinous mass of green algae. Fortunately for me, I decided, it hadn’t rained much recently. If it had, I’m quite sure I’d have ended the walk sodden from the knees down. I got back to the car not long after sunset.