We’ve climbed for half an hour when the summit makes its first appearance, piercing through the moody clouds above. My 17-year-old daughter Nathalie points in disbelief. ‘What!? We’re climbing all the way up there?’
It’s the first day of a family walking holiday in the Yorkshire Dales, with my husband and our two daughters, and the summit in question is Pen-y-ghent. The famous ‘Three Peaks Challenge’ involves climbing this and two neighbouring peaks in under 12 hours.
Pen-y-ghent is only 2,277ft high but its pesky gradient slows our pace to a trudge, and it offends our egos when fell runners overtake us, sprinting so nimbly they look as if they’re flying.
The footpath up to Pen-y-ghent, which is 2,277ft high. The famous ‘Three Peaks Challenge’ involves climbing this and two neighbouring peaks in under 12 hours
Two hours later, the final push is a clamber over steep rocks. While my husband Marc, Nathalie and her 15-year-old sister Hannah manage it with ease, vertigo gets the better of me as I search for footholds and handholds to haul myself up.
No matter that it’s dense fog at the top and we’ve missed out on what should have been a stunning view, there’s a great sense of accomplishment, with Nathalie beaming: ‘We did it!’
The idea of a holiday spent exercising in the great outdoors after the first lockdown ended appealed greatly to our family. And it wasn’t just us – HF Holidays, which specialises in walking trips, was deluged with enquiries. And as much as we’d have liked to join one of its guided family holidays, those were all full so we plumped for one of its self-guided breaks instead.
Our base is Newfield Hall, a baronial mansion near the village of Malham dating from 1856 and sitting in two acres of grounds within the Yorkshire Dales National Park. There are endless vistas of farmland crisscrossed with higgledy-piggledy dry-stone walls.
The view from Malham Cove, a towering 230ft curved limestone cliff in the Yorkshire Dales National Park
Place of rest: Inside Newfield Hall, where Jo and her family stayed. It is a baronial mansion near the village of Malham dating from 1856 and sitting in two acres of grounds within the Yorkshire Dales National Park
The price is so reasonable for our full-board stay that we anticipate some skimping, but everything is faultless. Rooms are stylish, towels and sheets are high-quality and dinner that night is a feast of chicken liver parfait, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and pear tarte tatin, all washed down with a bottle of red.
Over coffee in the drawing room afterwards, guests compare walking notes.
Sarah from Berkshire is travelling with her 83-year-old mother. ‘Do you think she could manage Pen- y-ghent?’ she asks.
You can imagine what I’m thinking, but I describe the hike and let them decide. The next morning dawns hot and sunny and we’re woken by the gentle sound of sheep bleating. We catch Sarah and her mum setting off. ‘Which hike are you doing?’ I ask. Their answer: Pen-y-ghent.
Simon’s Seat on Barden Fell in the Yorkshire Dales. Jo says a walking break in the Dales is about getting an invigorating dose of fresh air which leaves everyone – octogenarians and teenagers included – with a fantastic afterglow
Buckden Pike, where Jo and her family tucked into picnic lunches and marvelled at how there are no pylons or roads in sight
We stick to flatter terrain and take a three-mile riverside walk along the Pennine Way – a National Trail stretching from the Peak District to the Scottish Borders – which takes us from Newfield Hall to Malham.
From here, several of the Dales’ showstoppers are within easy reach: a waterfall, a gorge and Malham Cove, a towering 230ft curved limestone cliff.
We climb to the top, where there’s a walkable ‘pavement’ – a patchwork of uneven limestone slabs with crevices in between. From here, the sheer, giddying drop to the ground below is unnerving, although the girls jump around as if it’s a giant, elevated game of hopscotch.
The Victorian spa town of Harrogate, where there’s still a whiff of sulphur in the air near the former Royal Pump Room
A waitress at Yorkshire institution Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms, which opened in Harrogate in 1919
Later we found out how our octogenarian friend fared on Pen-y-ghent… No problem!
Much as I wish otherwise, our children are not as enamoured by walking as Marc and me, and it’s a godsend when local friends (who also have kids) offer to take us on their favourite treks.
The next two days are spent following them up hilly, heather-coated moorland and peatland, and the youngsters are so distracted by each other that they don’t think about their feet.
Each hike has a high point – one is Simon’s Seat, the other is Buckden Pike – where we tuck into picnic lunches and marvel at how there are no pylons or roads in sight.
The view of craggy fells stretching towards the horizon is exactly the same as author Charlotte Bronte, who hailed from nearby Haworth, would have seen it two centuries ago.
By day five, we’ve clocked up at least 40 miles on foot and my daughters need a change of scenery. A 50-minute drive takes us to the Victorian spa town of Harrogate, where there’s still a whiff of sulphur in the air near the former Royal Pump Room, which now houses the town’s museum.
As a reward for their hiking, I give the girls money to burn in what they claim is the best vintage shop they’ve ever seen (it’s called Space). Then I take them back in time to a Yorkshire institution that opened in 1919: Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms. When tiered silver platters of sandwiches, scones and cakes arrive, we are in afternoon tea heaven.
Worth the walk: The icy waters of Stainforth Force. Jo took the plunge into the water and said it was ‘cool, fresh and wakes me up in a good way’
Our last day offers a final adventure. The Yorkshire Dales are blessed with waterfalls, and beneath each cascade sits a natural swimming pool. We pack swimsuits and head for my friend’s favourite wild swim spot: Stainforth Force. It’s peaceful, it’s pretty, it’s… icy!
I dip in one toe and the next before committing to the plunge. It’s cool, fresh and wakes me up in a good way. When I finally emerge I feel so alive that I go straight back in for a second fix.
And that pretty much sums up what a walking break in the Dales is about – an invigorating dose of fresh air which leaves everyone – octogenarians and teenagers included – with a fantastic afterglow.
Now that’s what I call a holiday.
Jo Kessel was a guest of HF Holidays (hfholidays.co.uk). A four-night, full-board self-guided walking break starts from £300pp (under-18s half-price). Four-night, half-board family breaks start from £465pp (under-18s go free).