Having just watched one of the best documentaries I have ever seen, an hour-long, brilliantly filmed testimony to one of the Lake Districts finest, Blencathra and Sharp Edge, the memories of my visit there 30+ years ago came flooding back, we climbed it in bad weather, low cloud, mist and drizzle, we scrambled the ridge and at one point, I lifted myself up one of the rugged rocks, pulled myself up and almost over the shiny, slippy rock, as my head and shoulders ascended the edge, the view awaiting me was, to say the least, very memorable, a sheer drop of maybe 500 feet below me to Scales Tarn, I can still feel that absorbing breath of shock which immediately absorbed me, one of the most memorable breaths of my life. The point I’m eventually and gradually making is quite simply, that such a wonderful documentary will guarantee an over population of Blencathra (Saddleback to the purists), and, for me, the Lake District is and always has been, over populated, the beauty of the entire region guarantees it. This mass of people, for me, defeats the object of the challenge and the solo trip. Navigation is made easy when you can ask for guidance and directions, check with others of your location, where to aim for if you feel lost and isolated, how to react if you do become lost, these skills are vital to learn for yourself, that’s why, I choose quieter locations, new to me, and, often, in poor weather, that way, each outing I take, my skills improve, and that’s my target; you never know, one day I may master it!
So, why Hell Ghyll, simple, until recently I’d never heard of it, and, it’s located in an area I’m unfamiliar with, on a route I’d never walked, and, as it happened, on a day of cloud and mist, more challenging to navigate and free from people! Basically, with a name like that, the attraction was instant!
The route was roughly a 7 mile horseshoe with the wonderful looking pub at its start and finish, not that I’d have the opportunity to sample its fine ales, my visit was a day one and, from what I could see, there were no facilities for camping, (I may be wrong on that one, I hope so, the location is wonderful for various alternative walking routes, so, outside a pub, would be a marvellous spot to pitch a tent for a couple of days).
From the pub the route took me about a mile, via a footpath and Cobbles Hill to join the The High Way footpath, a gradual ascent, but not over difficult, even for these old and weary legs, trek and a tremendous introduction to what would become a wonderful day in Wensleydale.
In February, in the Yorkshire Dales, usually, there are 2 kinds of weather, rain, or, it’s about to start raining, it suits me fine, I’m prepared for it, and, it virtually guarantees the hills and dales, if only for a few hours, belong to me, and only me. Lost in this world of silent contemplation I can forget about everything and any issues or problems that may be on my mind.
People put time recommendations on routes such as these, I think this one had a 3 hour time attached to it, who decides such times? Why are they suggested, if a walk such as this takes me 10 hours, I’m happy with it, I try not to look at my watch if possible, watching the clock instead of the scenery simply defeats the purpose of being there.
After ascending to a footpath/bridleway marked on the map as The High Way I became slightly confused if this was part of the relatively recently formed Dales High Way, or not. I don’t know it’s route even if it has been included on recently published OS maps since March 2014. The High Way footpath was my route for a couple of miles, it was a delight to follow, littered with the ghostly remains of farm buildings, lime kilns and fast flowing streams descending down the hill-side into the early stages of the River Ure. An easy NWN route to follow which took me towards my next destination, Hell Ghyll Bridge.
Had I been there a few days earlier, the sound of the trains running along the Settle-Carlisle railway line in the valley below, would have been powered by steam engines, as, during the previous weekend, as part of the celebrations of the reopening of the line, steam engines had been running along the famously scenic route.
The mist covered moorland to my right, Abbotside Common, is home to the black grouse and there are warning signs to protect them along the route, it mention’s how dog’s must be kept on a lead which, isn’t a bad thing, although, I’d covered half the track with my canine companion before I saw any such signpost, not that Mountain Meg, has the heart or the temperament to harm or catch anything, respecting the rules isn’t unreasonable.
The weather had been unfavourable all day, and, as the hours progressed, it gradually deteriorated, there was no heavy rain, it was simply becoming mistier, wetter and heavier in dull, grey cloud. It didn’t deter my day, it simply spoiled the views of this magnificent valley and the surrounding terrain.
Of all the tracks I’d covered over the years, this particular stretch of the High Way was truly dynamic, it was littered with history and fascination, it had fast flowing ghylls descending into the valley below, shake holes, abandoned farm houses, buildings and lime kilns, all the evidence of a once well worked location, fed on harsh surroundings and tough physical labour, a place without modern comforts or luxury, isolated and exposed to the wild elements, if only these structures could tell their tales, stories of long harsh winters with little or no means of communication to the outside world, an amazing couple of miles hiking, truly exhilarating. Now, the only residents are the ghosts of those long gone, and, when the weather permits, the sheep, as they graze and maintain their wild and rugged lifestyle, in their challenging, bleak but outstanding terrain.
The High Way, at least the stretch of it I covered, between Hell Ghyll Bridge and the point I joined it, just below High Dyke, I found confusing with the modern long distance trail known as the Dales High Way. The one I walked is an ancient track, with evidence supporting it was used in the Bronze Age, (discovery of flint tools), then, used by the Romans (discovery of the Mallerstang Hoard), as they tracked between their forts in Wensleydale and the A66. In more recent times it was often used by Lady Anne Clifford, the Countess of Pembroke, as she journeyed between her many castles, the track was in use until the 1820s when the new turnpike road (now the B6259) was built.. Even the buildings ruins along the High Way seem far too elaborate in their construction to have been merely for sheep, these were dwellings, and, it’s said that one, of the ruins was used as an inn called the Highway House, on a well-used route through the mountains – well used, not only by nobility, but also by drovers, tradespeople, and highwaymen, too. And Mary Queen of Scots is said to have passed along it in 1568, on her way from Carlisle to imprisonment in Bolton Castle.
THE DALES HIGH WAY was conceived in 2007 by husband and wife, Tony and Chris Grogan. It’s a 90 mile route across the high points of the Yorkshire Dales. It starts in Saltaire and finishes in Appleby with a return journey via the Settle-Carlisle railway line. Since March 2014 the route has been shown on OS leisure maps, and it is recognised by the Long Distance Walkers Association. It is described on Bradford’s official tourism site and the Yorkshire Dales National Park website. An informal “Friends of A Dales High Way” group has been established.
The High Way really was as it’s name suggests, an ancient road, well known as an important route through the hills and dales, how many feet have walked across it, how many incidents have occurred on it, how many lives have been lost along it, who knows, I certainly don’t.
Dating from 1825, Hell Ghyll Bridge is a single arch span which replaced an earlier structure. One of the parapets houses a particular stone which is believed to be an original boundary stone between the traditional counties of the West Riding of Yorkshire and Westmorland, the true counties, I always choose to ignore the ludicrous boundary changes introduced in 1974.
Prior to reaching Hell Ghyll Bridge, (who named it that and why?), all the ghylls, streams and becks were feeders for the River Ure below, the county border really did leap out and define itself here, Hell Ghyll is a feeder for the River Eden. It’s entirely Westmorland and is one of the few large rivers in England that flows northwards. The source of the river is on the high limestone fells above Mallerstang Common, near the West Riding border, and makes its way across eastern Westmorland, with the hills of the North Pennines to the East, and the fells of the Lake District to the west, to Carlisle. Here it merges with other rivers to form the great Solway Firth estuary, before reaching the open sea, 90 miles (145 km) from its source.
The River Ure is approximately 74 miles (119 km) long from its source to the point where it changes its name to the River Ouse. It is the principal river of Wensleydale, which is the only one of the major dales now named after a village rather than its river. The old name for the valley was Yoredale after the river that runs through it.It’s is one of many rivers and waterways that drain the Dales into the River Ouse. Tributaries of the Ure include the River Swale and the River Skell.
I felt as though I’d almost achieved my target, not my complete route, I’d only achieved half of that, but, Hell Ghyll was the mysterious object of desire and, without any real difficulty, I’d found it, a feeling of gratification.
Although it had been a wet and drizzly day, it hadn’t rained heavily, had it done so, the surrounding view and running water would have been tremendously more aggressive. Once at the base of the stream, there it was, in all it’s magnificence, Hell Ghyll Force. The waterfall is a single drop fall of around 8 metres (25 feet). Hell Ghyll, which begins its life as Red Ghyll, is fed by water rising from the High Seat range of fells. I was informed that, as part of the Duke of Edinburgh Award, on conclusion, participants were expected to leap into the pool at the waterfall’s base, not something I intended to copy, not that day.
At this half way point it was time for some refreshment, even with all the modern equipment and fast boiling cooking kit, this was the occasion to divulge into the traditional pre-made sandwiches and a flask of piping hot coffee. At least the coffee was mine, the sandwiches I had to share, old Mountain Meg simply stared at me the moment I’d sat down and opened my snack, it takes a stronger person than myself to refuse a hungry hound some tuna sandwiches, besides, she was great company and she deserved every bit.
I was surprised to see how close to the waterfall stood the Settle-Carlisle railway line, maybe 200 yards from each other and the waterfall is clearly visible from the train.
My intention had been to return to the car via a route ascending Grisedale Common on the opposite side of the valley. A walk through clearly defined marsh and bog, with an ascent to the common, prior to returning to the car. I departed with a full intention of completing the route, but, only a few minutes into it I had second thoughts. The terrain was saturated, and, the marsh was unforgiving. Each step through it requires twice, or even three times the effort of an established track or footpath, the mist and cloud were covering the summits and the drizzle was turning into rain, I made the executive decision to descend back to the road and opt for the easier option. I took the direct route and found myself confronted with a dry stone wall, as I climbed over it (had I damaged it I would have immediately repaired it), I slipped and fell backwards into the marsh, I was saturated, soaked to the skin, a shame, but these things happen.
I was disillusioned, cold, wet and now pretty miserable, it was about 3 miles back to the car and considering my state, it was going to be a long three miles, but, these moments ensure these outings are memorable and they make good conversation.
As I slogged along the road back to the car, it was too late to take to my Gortex jacket, the damage had been done, but, the railway line and it’s viaducts and tunnels became a major attraction, something I’ve decided to treat my son to during the school holidays at Easter, he will love the journey to Carlisle and back to Leeds, so will I. Anyway, maybe the route wasn’t completed but my target of Hell Ghyll had been achieved, I’d had a wonderful day and I was looking forward to arriving home and divulging into a good stew and vegetables, another wonderful day in God’s Own County.