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Ingleborough summit View across the monument

The Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge: Ingleborough’s Sensitive Summit

Thursday 27 August, 2020, by Lily Mulvey

A commonly followed Three Peaks route.
Image in the public domain subject to creative commons licence.

Every year thousands of people take part in the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge. This involves a circular walk of some 38.6 kilometres, including 1585 metres of ascent up Whernside, Ingleborough and Pen-y-ghent. As if this wasn’t hard enough, those who take part are challenged to complete the walk in under 12 hours. The route rewards the walker with some breath-taking vistas (and some very sore legs!), but before you embark on the challenge, there are some very important things you need to know about the second highest peak, Ingleborough.

Though not the tallest of the mountains (Whernside pips it to the post at 736 metres to Ingleborough’s 723 metres), Ingleborough is certainly the most visually commanding of the three. It also boasts another important feature: “Britain’s highest hillfort” – or does it?

Aerial view of the monument in 1985 ©YDNPA

Britain’s Highest Hillfort?

For many years, archaeologists have been talking about the “Iron Age hillfort” at Ingleborough’s summit. The feature is even scheduled by Historic England as a “large univallate hillfort”. It is recorded that 20 roundhouse remains are situated on a plateau of approximately 16 acres and encircled by the remains of a broken stone rampart almost 1000 metres long.

Part of the remains of the enclosing wall at the summit of Ingleborough. ©YDNPA

It has been theorised that the settlement was a defensive structure that belonged to the Brigantes, a tribe of Celtic people who once controlled a large section of northern Britain. The location of the settlement goes some way to support this theory. Being on the top of one of the highest mountains for miles around would certainly have afforded a great degree of protection, not to mention the possibility that Ingleborough was situated on a tribal boundary, which fits in with what historians know about the placement and uses of so-called hillforts. The huge rampart would have affected significant shelter from the strong winds at the summit which, although cold now, would have been more comfortable during the milder climate that Britain enjoyed when the site was occupied.

However, recent work has begun to reassess these interpretations. For one thing, although the climate was milder back then, it is hard to believe that it could have been so mild as to allow human habitation at over 700 metres above sea level. There have been suggestions that the site was only inhabited during summer months, but even then the weather – especially at night – would have been bitingly cold. And there is no evidence that the enclosing wall was built at the same time as the “huts” that stand within it.

Aerial image of some of the circles ©YDNPA

Not to mention the difficulty of getting supplies up to the summit, especially in bad weather. Though historically there has been a spring some 50 feet below the site, it would not have been protected by the “rampart”, which surely defeats the purpose of a defensive structure.

Further, the small number of circles within such a large enclosure is evidence against the idea that an entire tribe could have been housed within it – as does the complete lack of any evidence for hearths on which to cook food or keep warm. And although there is significant recorded evidence of human habitation further down the slopes of the mountain, no evidential link has been found between the sites as of yet.

An Alternative Theory

So – if the site was not a hillfort, what was it? Recent work has suggested that the circular features seen in the images are not hut circles but structures that are known as “ring cairns”. Ring cairns were features of the prehistoric ritual landscape. They were circular banks of earth and stone empty in the centre occasionally (but by no means always) housing a burial inside. 

If the features are indeed ring cairns, this would mean that the site on Ingleborough was of ritual use. Certainly, such a prominent feature in the local landscape would have drawn the attention of people for miles around, making it the perfect spot for such an important site. It is also important to consider the fact that the ring structures may not be the earliest features on the site – activity on the site may date back to the Neolithic period.

The summit of Ingleborough (scanned image). On the right, two walkers make the final ascent. In the distance, one of the “modern cairns” constructed of stone taken from the remains of the enclosing wall and ring cairns ©YDNPA


So even if the site on Ingleborough is not actually a hillfort, it is still vitally important to British heritage. Unfortunately, the site is under serious threat. One of the biggest threats comes from visitor erosion, something which has increased in recent years. As you can see in the picture of the site above, the thin vegetation is being gradually worn away by heavy foot traffic.

Some evidence of the heavy erosion ©YDNPA

But perhaps the most significant threat comes from visitors to the site physically disturbing the archaeology. These days it is common to build what are known as “modern” or “walkers’ cairns” – essentially the piling up of stones at the summit of the mountain in order to celebrate a successful climb. Some people may also spell out their names for a good picture opportunity.

While this is all good fun, people may not realise that the stones they are using come from monuments that are thousands of years old! On a much smaller scale, it is like picking up and rearranging the standing stones of Stonehenge! Some of the circles have clearly been damaged by this activity, and it is important that the practice is ended if we are to have any chance of preserving this important site.

A walker has written their name using stones taken from the wall and ring cairns! ©YDNPA

So if you – or someone you know – are thinking about taking part in the Three Peaks Challenge (or simply making the climb up Ingleborough) please be aware of the sensitivity of the site. By all means feel free to explore this incredible monument, but please don’t disturb the stones!

Further reading

Luke, Yvonne, Rethinking Ingleborough (MA Thesis, 2003).

Picture of Lily Mulvey

Lily Mulvey

Lily is the Authority's Historic Environment Apprentice

12 Replies to “The Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge: Ingleborough’s Sensitive Summit”

  1. Sarah Baker says:

    Whilst not disagreeing with you at all that disturbing the ancient stones is not the way to go in this sensitive area I do think you could have been a little more careful about how you have published and handled this. Writing a name in stone is often done in honour of a loved one who has passed away, and done perhaps in a place that was special to them or even where their ashes are scattered. The ‘Sue’ named in stone here could be dead and this was the way her family found to commemorate her passing, in which case your publicising of their ‘monument’ to her is a little lacking in sensitivity. I don’t know if this was recent but with restrictions on attendance at funerals in these covid times and the fact that most people are cremated these days so there are no graves to visit means that the bereaved are trying to find other ways to channel their feelings of loss. I accept this might not be the case here but never-the-less please aim to consider the recently bereft as well as the long dead and try to curb your judgement and criticism of those who may well be trying hard at an awful time in their lives.

    • Mark Sadler says:

      Hi Sarah, thanks for taking the trouble to reply. The ‘Sue’ example is by no means recent, but it does serve to support the point that Lily makes here about Ingeleborough being an important British heritage site and the threat posed by visitor erosion. As she says ‘many people don’t realise that the stones they are using come from monuments thousands of years old’. We hope blog posts like this will help people appreciate the historical significance of peaks like Ingleborough. And while we absolutely get why people may want to head onto Ingleborough to remember loved ones, we would always encourage that they leave no trace.

    • Bielsaisgod says:

      Does this mean I’m perfectly ok to write my dead grandmothers name on the side of your house to commemorate her? Vandalism is vandalism regardless of the reason.

  2. Sarah Baker says:

    Mr. Sadler thank you for your response and you couldn’t have a bigger supporter in preserving heritage sites. You seem to have now altered the original wording of this post which referred to “Don’t be like Sue”, which was rather unfortunate if the Sue in question was someone’s loved one who has passed away. I speak as someone who has parents scattered in two other national parks, with not a single stone out of place in either place.

  3. Dan. says:

    Ingleborough Summit is a scheduled ancient monument.
    I dont care if this is a commemoration of a lost relative it shouldn’t be done.
    If everyone who scattered ashes on Ingleborough… which many do, and then left things like this then it would look like neolithic graffiti.
    Maybe a small plaque or similar for your personal grievance but not a great big pile of stones that everyone has to see.

  4. Sue says:

    Most Sue’s are alive and well and hope to stay that way although not fit enough for the walk challenge, some have additional names too.
    Dilydaydream Farmer

  5. John J says:

    I’m afraid the argument that Sue might be commemorated by the stones in question doesn’t hold water any more than me painting a loved ones name on a local building would.

    We all need to just leave stuff alone. It isn’t much to ask and most people would hate to be remembered as the person who wrecked an archaeological site.

  6. David Perry says:

    So sod it if Sue is someone’s love one – it doesn’t make it right moving stones from walls or elsewhere.

    I live in Robin Hood’s Bay and we get people leaving memorials screwed to the rock armour, cliffs on other people’s benches.

    I even stood on someone’s Grandma once before I realised it was her ashes deposited in a pile in front of the seat.

  7. Matthew says:

    A well written and relevant article. Please ignore the hand-wringers conjuring up inages of the poor deceased ‘Sue’ from thin air.

  8. Suzanne says:

    Take only memories. Leave only footprints…. Whether someone has made this as a memorial or not is irrelevant it should not be happening!

  9. Deb says:

    Lets hope Sue has dumped whoever felt this was a good idea.

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