I’ll start this blog with a viewpoint regarding geography and county boundaries. The Howgill Fells are a small group of about 40 hills situated in the north of England. They sit almost triangularly between the towns of Sedbergh, Kirkby Stephen and Tebay, almost divided in half with northern and southern sections. The northern half sitting in the county of Westmorland and the southern half sitting in the West Riding of Yorkshire’s Sedbergh District. Although I was born in the Claro District it was a real pleasure to visit the Sedbergh District, so, if these named locations are relevant on my birth certificate, they are still very relevant to me. 1974 boundary changes introduced by suited bureaucrats sat behind desks in Civic Halls, to me, have no meaning or value, the Vikings gave us the Ridings, (Thridings = third) and, if they were good enough for them, they’re certainly good enough for me.
Sedbergh sits at the convergence of four rivers, the Rawthey, Clough, Dee and Lune, a beautiful dales town that even features in the Domesday Book. This was my first visit and I was very impressed with the comfortable feel of this historic old market town, other than it had a famous public school, (where, incidentally, a distant relative of mine (very distant), has only recently left), I knew very little else about it. Dwarved by the mighty Howgills it was very popular with the legendary lakeland author Alfred Wainwright and his works include some of its many surrounding fells. An historic town, Sedbergh has been a thriving community for hundreds of years, with a market dating from the 13th Century. The town was a staging point for commercial routes across the Pennines. Dating from Saxon times, it still displays clear reminders of the influence of the subsequent Saxons, Vikings and Normans. The town has immense character including cobbled streets and historic houses, with the hallmarks of the old knitting and woollen trades which made the area such a thriving community.
The most difficult point of any walk is finding the starting point, this one was no different, the instructions I was following stated:- “The start is the pay and display car park in Sedbergh (Grid ref SD659921) near the Tourist Information Centre. Leave the car park and walk east along Main Street to join Long Lane. Not far after the junction with Castlehaw Lane on your left take the signed footpath left (Grid ref. SD661921). This leads past a housing development on your right to join a lane – Thorns Lane. Continue ahead on this lane to Underbank (Grid ref. SD667925). Here take the footpath on your right that leads across fields passing below Stone Hall to bring you to Hollin Hill, which is passed on your left.
The onward path is generally easy to follow and you soon arrive at Ellerthwaite where you join a tarmac lane. Go left (east) along the lane which becomes a green lane after passing Thursgill. This is a beautiful section of the walk with the River Rawthey below on your right and pleasant views ahead. Hobdale Beck with its waterfalls adds interest as the green lane undulates towards Cautley.” Pure simplicity 🙂
I did the usual crossing of farmland in the wrong direction in search of the illusive gate to the hidden entrance to the unmistakable footpath to the required route, this included a small farmers field which had chickens, 2 emus, goats and some sheep in it, another which contained a lovely wooden bridge which was unfortunately inaccessible from one end, although the latter one, had a lovely old lady in the garden who pointed me in the direction of the official stile which led onto the required route, at last!
The last time I’d come close to this ‘neck of the woods’ was at least 20 years earlier when a couple of friends and myself did Wild Boar Fell, a nearby summit but not listed as been in the Howgills, So this one, a ten mile horseshoe with what’s believed to be the highest waterfall in England at its half way point, did, possess a wonderful and magnetic charm for yours truly. Anyway, having directed myself through the wonderful maze of Sedbergh and finally discovered my route to the required destination of the first half of my walk, which runs parallel to the River Rawthey to Cautley. A beautiful section of the walk which totally outweighed the frustration of its discovery.
This section of the walk is gentle and scenic, the waterfalls and streams which gently flow into it ensure the requirement of carrying extra water unnecessary, there’s a constant source to top up your water bottle, (once you’ve added the purification tablets), it was like the calm before the storm, in fact, it was too gentle, almost deceptive, but, a more superior way to spend a warm and clear Friday evening I couldn’t imagine.
On arriving at Cautley Beck, everything changes, it’s as though a spiritual message descends upon you, it’s telling you how the easy part’s done, more effort required from this point onwards, the feeling of the isolation within the expanse of the wilderness takes its grip, there’s a whole new terrain awaiting you, one where you feel alone and without assistance, you are the master of your own destiny, there’s a sense of fresh and independent challenge, an inspirational feeling, it’s you and the fells, waterfalls, wild and deep, rocky crags and gulleys’, they’re unforgiving, you slip up and you’re in trouble, very serious trouble, with little chance of assistance, there lay the almost perverse attraction, the challenge.
Cautley Spout is the highest cascading waterfall in England, it’s a broken drop of waterfalls which tumbles a total 650 feet (198m). Gaping Gill on Ingleborough falls a greater distance but that descends into a pothole, and, Hardraw Force has a greater unbroken fall above ground, but Cautley Spout, from a viewpoint, really does take some beating as it proudly stands, dominating the head of a wild and bleak glacial valley, after it’s worked its way down through the high plateau above, The Calf. This fall is one of the few cascade falls in England; most are either tiered or plunge falls.
I always read the local information and description signs wherever I find them, and, the one at the base of the valley made particularly interesting reading, and not really one for the feint hearted, especially on an early evening, alone, with the intention of camping up there. It tells of the Iron Age footpath, which, archaeologists discovered and how it, without an understanding or explanation, simply terminates close to the waterfall base. What did these ancient people do there, was it ritual, spiritual, sacrificial, they don’t know, and, believe it or not, nor do I, but I do know it added a little eeriness to my expectations. As I continued up the valley I could feel the terrain closing in on me, entrapping me in a gargantuan funnel, the contours on the map told me the terrain was soon to become steeper, much steeper, and, I’d decided to ascend as much of it as I could prior to losing daylight. It was then, as I approached the waterfall itself, I could see horses, some sheep and two horses, I’d already seen their hoof prints in the mud, but, I never expected to see them alone, without riders or owners. They had no harnesses or anything, they were simply grazing with the sheep, who owned them, were they owned, I didn’t know. There are tales of wild horses roaming freely around the Howgills, it seems a difficult thing to believe on a tiny island where every square inch is owned by somebody or something bigger?
Because I’d eaten late, had little sleep and I knew the task involved of the sheer and steep ascent ahead of me, I decided to have breakfast when I’d climbed the awaiting and daunting terrain. Although my location was in the shadow of the surrounding hillsides, the glorious morning sun was working its way round to emblazen down on me, a more encouraging sign I couldn’t have wished for, that, and having the entire valley to myself, this was my Valhalla.
Having packed away all my kit, (I still need to reduce the weight of the backpack, even with what I consider the bare necessities, it still greatly weighs me down), I mentally prepared myself for what I knew to be the most physically demanding part of my route.
It’s either an age thing or a fitness thing or a combination of the two, but, ascending this magnificently steep waterfall, even on a well stepped and rocky footpath, it was as strenous and difficult as I’d expected, rewarding, but, very hard on these old legs. As I took one of too many rests to mention, the views were outstanding, Wild Boar Fell was visible in the distance, so too were other surrounding summits of which I knew nothing of, although, another early morning walker who I’d surprisingly met, told me he was heading for Yarlside, which, I discovered was close to where we were and it stood in the old neighbouring county of Westmorland, fantastic how I was bascially on the border of those traditional wonderful county borders of the West Riding and Westmorland.
Having ascended the waterfall and upwardly continued, a route I beleived to be Force Ghyll Beck, I stopped for my boil in the bag breakfast, a hot coffee and another early morning break, all were welcoming. My exact location I didn’t know, if I maintained the route and track, following its easterly direction, I would join the Dales High Way footpath and the return route to Sedbergh, something I was sure of.
There it was, the Dales High Way footpath, the ghyll I’d previously followed, after the climb to the top of Cautley Spout, for that time of the day, after very little sleep, had severely drained me, but, its incredible after such a little navigational success, you can forget the aches and pains required to achieve it, and that’s exactly what happened. I was at the summit of the Howgills, with clear views, blue sky and a scenery the camera sometimes fails to complement.
The Lake District was clearly in view, the Yorkshire Dales were clearly in view, the surrounding Howgills were clearly in view, even the M6 motorway was clearly in view, Howgill summits I still knew nothing of, not even their names; something to be addressed at a later date.
The descent was still another 5 miles to until I reached Sedbergh, the Saturday morning weather was bringing people out en masse, fell runners, walkers and even cyclists, unlike me, some really were ‘running up that hill’. What was in store for me, a wonderful high altitude footpath returning to my destination, what had I done, another amazing night on the fells with incredible scenery I’d once again, earned, and, rewards I’d never forget. The Howgills, the amazing, incredible, often ignored Howgills will be revisited and walked and studied in greater detail very soon, as for now, home James, and don’t spare the horses, even the wild, or, not so wild ones I’d seen earlier.