SEVERAL weeks ago an intrepid group of walkers began a challenge to scale a series of Dales peaks – ascending Great Whernside, Buckden Pike and Penyghent and points in between on consecutive Saturdays.

It was a relatively arduous but rewarding expedition. On the first Saturday, marked by beautifully clear conditions, they walked from Kettlewell up Great Whernside, then dropped down for the climb up to Buckden Pike. That was followed by a walk to Cray and Yockenthwaite, then over Horsehead Pass to Halton Gill – a distance of 16 miles and 4,400 feet of ascent, according to walk organiser Cliff Gosden.

The next Saturday was ‘a much less promising day’, but the heavy rain stopped just in time for the start. From Halton Gill they headed for Pen-y-Ghent, then back down to Arncliffe and finally over Middlesmoor Pasture and back to Kettlewell, after 17 miles and 3,694 feet of ascent.

The walkers were tired but happy after completing the challenge – a result perhaps not very different to countless similar treks conducted by people intent on enjoying the best Craven’s countryside has to offer.

There was, however, another side to the Parish Peaks Walk.

All the peaks conquered by the group, consisting of 14 people on the first Saturday and ten on the second, fall within the boundaries of the Parish of Upper Wharfedale and Littondale, an entity which did not even exist a year ago.

So the walk was intended to mark the formation of the new parish, bringing together four historic churches in some of Craven’s most remote and beautiful landscapes.

Until earlier this year the churches, though served by the same vicar, the Rev James Theodosius, were divided into three different parishes which encompassed the most northerly part of Wharfedale and neighbouring Littondale, plus some adjoining smaller valleys.

The former parishes were Kettlewell with Conistone, which contained St Mary’s Church in Kettlewell and the church at nearby Conistone, also St Mary’s; St Michael and All Angels at Hubberholme and St Oswald’s, Arncliffe with Halton Gill.

The churches serve an area defined by small rural communities and some of most distinctive and spectacular scenery in the Dales.

They include the secluded beauty of Hubberholme that so entranced JB Priestley; the rugged splendor of Kilnsey Crag, just across the valley from Conistone; the slopes around Arncliffe where Emmerdale Farm was first filmed and Kettlewell, the ‘mini-hub’ of this part of the Dales.

They were all part of the same Upper Wharfedale Benefice, but the parishes still each had their own separate organisations – with church wardens, secretaries, treasurers, and three distinct parochial church councils.

In a bid to maintain and enhance the life of the churches and to avoid duplication of effort the vicar and the church communities drew up ‘unification’ plans, which they put to the Church of England’s also relatively new Diocese of Leeds.

The idea was to combine the advantages of having one parish structure with retaining the individual character of the church communities, which would be encouraged to have their own approach in areas such as worship and social activities.

The diocese considered the plans and gave its approval earlier this year, in remarkably quick time for such a change. Thus the Parish of Upper Wharfedale and Littondale was born.

James said: “There is so much good work done by church goers and members of the community to maintain a thriving Christian presence in such a remote and beautiful area, but often that work is overshadowed by the heavy weight of legal demands and governance.

“We thought if we could reduce that governance it would free us up to concentrate upon the worship, hospitality and outreach and celebrate all that is being done. It’s hard to be small and rural in our culture at present because it’s seen as unsuccessful.

“But we want to rejoice in the uniqueness of this area – being small is part of our character and identity. It doesn’t mean that we are unsuccessful, dying or without dynamism – on the contrary.”

Reflecting on the response to the change from his congregations, James said: “The members of all the churches have been brilliant and entered into the journey with hope and open minds. That’s not to say that it’s been easy, and difficult things had to be negotiated.

“But people have been generous and careful with one another. It’s a real testament to the church members in Upper Wharfedale and Littondale.

“We have now had six months of the new governance and things are going well. We are encouraging more people to get involved and share the work that was done by a few in the past and the new governance allows us to do that.

“Importantly, we are holding on to the character of each of the churches whilst looking to share skills and creativity.”

The Parish Peaks Walk in some respects symbolised the wider journey being taken by the church communities. “Walking the Parish Peaks was a real joy. We could celebrate and really feel the unique environment in which we live and the beauty of God’s creation and know that we all share that inheritance,” said James.

“By walking together, it was if we were saying: ‘Let’s help one another keep this alive and thriving for all who will live, work and visit here in the future’ – there’s something about the landscape that encourages that vision.”