In Wainwright’s Bootsteps

Map (c) Kim Ralls


When I started walking Alfred Wainwright was a name that I was always familiar with, but I had never really paid much attention to his work until I found out he had written two of his pictorial guides covering the Howgill Fells and the countryside around the Three Peaks. I bought copies of both books (second hand as they appear to, sadly, be out of print) and instantly fell in love with his style of writing and, of course, the maps he drew with such detail and accuracy. I’ve followed two of his walks so far, the ascent of Winder and the walk to Yordas Cave, and was eager to try a third. This might be seen as lazy as opposed to finding and writing about walks of my own, but I wanted to see if I could actually complete one of his walks using nothing but the map in the book and his information. The fact is that the books were written in the 70s and, whilst the landscape changes relatively slowly, I was curious to see if there was any change. I mean, the books were out of print; was that because they were no longer valid, or was there simply no interest in them? As will be seen from this walk, the latter is the most likely reason and I think this is incredibly sad. His books are beautiful and while the volumes focusing on the Lakeland fells are his best known, the two volumes I have in my possession are just as valid and the walks just as fascinating.

1. Howgill Lane, Sedbergh (c) Kim Ralls

As with my ascent of Winder, this walk begins in the centre of Sedbergh and follows Howgill Lane up towards Lockbank Farm and its tempting sign directing unsuspecting walkers further along the road to the local ice-cream parlour. What cunning fiends these people are!

I resisted temptation (barely) and made my way through the farmyard and up beyond the boundary wall onto the slopes of the fells. My target for today was the next peak along from Winder, called Arant Haw and pronounced, I assume, as you would read it. If I ever find I am in error, I shall let you know and update this post accordingly. With the sun beating down on the back of my head it promised to be a similar day to my last trip; fluffy clouds scudding across a pale blue sky and the impossible quiet of the fells broken only by the gentle breeze or the occasional sheep calling to the rest of the flock. The summer had been very dry so far and the ground beneath my feet was soft and dusty and made the first few feet of the climb a little tough on the backs of the legs.

2. The only way is up (c) Kim Ralls

The flank of Winder is covered in bracken at this time of year, lush green in colour and standing out in stark contrast to the grass bleached brown by weeks of constant sunshine. The few sheep I had seen so far had obviously been newly-clipped and were looking very embarrassed about the whole affair, similar to the way people say how much they love the travesty the hairdresser has just visited upon them even though, deep down, it is gnawing away at their very soul.

The first part of the climb was old territory to me, having come down this way from the summit of Winder, and I kept wondering if I was just repeating the photographs from that previous walk. Of course, the big difference was that I had a few more lenses this time around and spent most of the time with a 28mm lens on my camera instead of the old 18-55mm zoom. Just having a different lens on the camera changes how you take a photo – different lenses having their own strengths and weaknesses – and today I had the advantage of the clouds drifting over the landscape and changing the light from one moment to the next.

3. Looking back (c) Kim Ralls

At long last I reached the top of the first climb and paused to catch my breath whilst looking at the cross-roads of two paths; the path I was on went straight ahead, whilst the other wound up from the East end of Settle, passed Settlebeck Gill and up towards the summit of Winder. After the days of hot sunshine, there was no sound from the gill and, if I’d taken the time to climb down to it, I’ve no doubt I would have found a dry bed where normally a brisk stream flows.

The path climbs gently towards the ridge that connects Winder and Arant Haw and in the distance I could see people on bicycles making their way up the slopes of the latter, though why you would want to cycle up these fells is beyond me. The idea of exerting yourself needlessly in order to reach the summits of these fells is something I will never understand; Wainwright mentions the Three Peaks Walk in his book Walks In Limestone Country, even going so far as to provide his own exquisite maps for walkers to follow, but from reading his introduction to the walk you get the idea that he had no time for people whose only goal was to complete the challenge solely for the bragging rights. My own opinion is that a walk, any walk, should be undertaken with the simple goal of enjoying the journey and the views along the way.

One of the reasons I adore walking in the Howgills so much is that the ground underfoot is beautifully soft and springy and, as Wainwright himself says, “a pair of boots would last a lifetime if all fell walking was like this”. Indeed, for those like me who don’t own a set of proper walking boots (mine are more trainers, than boots) the ground on these fells is a positive boon compared to the solid ground of the Yorkshire Dales where a pair of soft soles means you feel every bit of stone and grit and, by journey’s end, the feet feel raw with blisters.

4. Arant Haw (c) Kim Ralls

From the path along the ridge, Arant Haw doesn’t look all that impressive, even though it is nearly another five hundred feet higher than Winder at 1989 feet and its gentle curves disguise a relatively steep ascent. Indeed, the last few hundred feet were incredibly hard work for someone as unfit as myself – I was made to feel even more feeble by a couple just north of middle age who all but scampered passed me with a smile and a cheery ‘hello!’

In my defence I will say that looking at them I reckon I weighed more than both of them combined.

I staggered on up the hill, stopping frequently to get my breath and to enjoy the sheer beauty of the vistas on all sides; the summit to the North, the smaller summit of Crook to the East, Winder and Sedbergh to the South and, best of all, the deep valley of the Crosedale Beck to the West that opens out onto the rolling countryside of the Lune Valley and the beginning of the Lakeland Fells. The shadows of clouds slid gracefully over the land and the breeze began to pick up, providing some much-needed relief from the heat of the morning sun.

5. Looking West (c) Kim Ralls

Although the final climb is quite steep, it is mercifully short and the view from the summit is more than worth the effort. I could try to describe it to you, but I think the best option is to let the images (an admittedly poor substitute) speak for themselves.

6. The summit (c) Kim Ralls
7. Brown Moor (c) Kim Ralls

My original plan, as with Winder, was to use the summit as the half-way mark and stop for a bite to eat before carrying on. However, it was a little early and I wasn’t actually feeling that hungry, so I decided to carry on a little way until my stomach told me it was time to stop. There was only one small problem, though. Wainwright’s map showed the path going off to the West and down a ridge to Nab and then down to the boundary wall and back to Sedbergh. All well and good, except the OS map showed no such path and so I would have to rely on a forty year-old hand-drawn map and hope the landscape hadn’t changed too much in the intervening years.

8. Middle Tongue (c) Kim Ralls

To my eye there was a faint path down the ridge and I followed it hoping that it wasn’t about to fail me or, worse, end in an insurmountable drop. The good news is that the descent was proving to be a lot easier than the ascent, the turf lovely and soft beneath my feet and a cool breeze clearing the hot air. I even started singing quietly to myself at one point, so enjoyable was the experience (it was an old Norfolk folk song called Barton Broad Ditty, if anyone’s interested). These really are the epitome of the term ‘rolling hills’ and, amazingly, Wainwright’s forty year-old map proved far truer than I could have expected. I always try to make my own maps as accurate as possible, but I am no artist and cannot hold a candle to the master in whose bootsteps I was following. Above the boundary wall the fells are open access and so, technically, a walker can go wherever he or she feels able. That said, it is best to stick to the footpaths, whether OS or Wainwright, as the slopes can look a lot gentler than they are. Walking down the ridge I was cognisant of the very large drops on either side of the path; not good for someone who’s a little nervous when it comes to heights.

9. The way down (c) Kim Ralls

Talking of deceptive slopes, the above photo doesn’t quite convey just how steep the descent becomes beyond the fell known as Nab. At times I half-expected to end up slipping and sliding to the bottom on my backside but I made it to the raucous cries of the sheep who had watched my descent with a certain amount of bored disinterest until I came near enough to spook them.

10. What’s so funny? (c) Kim Ralls

At the bottom of Nab I sat on a convenient rock and broke out my sandwiches. After so much scrambling I was more than a little peckish, though I was a little nervous as a red kite and pair of buzzards began to circle above: were they after my ham sarnies?

Actually, joking aside, it was a delight to see the birds above especially as they don’t seem as common around my own neighbourhood and to see three at once was completely unexpected. I tried to change the lens on my camera in time to take a couple of photos, but by the time I had wrestled the telephoto from my camera bag and attached it to the camera, the birds were long gone. Oh well, I was certain there would be chances on other walks. At that moment I was happy enough with having achieved my goal and more than a little grateful that Wainwright’s map had proven accurate after so many years. The landscape of the Dales is still virtually unchanged from the days of James Herriot, but old maps and footpaths still have to be updated every now and then. Paths erode and new walls are put up and old ones taken down. In an open area like the Howgills, such changes are unlikely but it’s better to err on the side of caution.

Anyway, I finished my lunch and hauled myself to my feet, the rock was actually quite comfortable and I was reluctant to leave. But I needed to finish the walk and still, according to the map, had a fair way to go.

The path slopes down towards the boundary wall where it crosses the Crosedale Beck via a ford next to an old sheepfold that is also mentioned on Wainwright’s map.

11. Sheepfold (c) Kim Ralls

Beyond the sheepfold you can see the summit of Arant Haw and even, if you look closely, a bird of prey that refused to come closer to have its picture taken. As I carried on, I heard the unmistakable cry of a buzzard in the air above and this time I had my long lens on the camera in time as it glided straight overhead. I snapped away and hoped that at least one of the photos would come out in focus. Zoomed in to 210mm I had a fantastic view of the bird, though what I really wanted was for it to come low enough so that I could get some hills or trees in the background for a little context.

12. Buzzard (c) Kim Ralls

It wasn’t one of the easiest subjects I’ve tried to photograph, but I at least managed to get a couple of shots with the birds feathers illuminated by the sun. Realising that I was taking too long photographing the buzzard, I turned and headed on with a certain amount of reluctance. However, I did take one last shot that probably ranks near the top of the best photos I’ve taken.

13. Buzzard Express (c) Kim Ralls

It wasn’t until I got home and looked at the photo on the computer that I realised I had photographed the train as well. Some people have suggested that I crop the photo to make the bird bigger, but I prefer this angle because although the bird is quite small the rest of the photo presents it in context and the angle of the sun meant that the bird is quite distinct.

My mission accomplished, I carried on through a bracken-lined path along the boundary wall.

14. Looking back towards Brown Moor (c) Kim Ralls

The breeze had died down by this time and the heat was beginning to build once more. I passed a gate opening onto a short track that led down towards Howgill Lane and I was tempted to follow it and get my feet on terra firma once more, if only to save me from the scramble that was to come. But, being a stickler for such things, I decided to stay on Wainwright’s path and follow it back to town. Unfortunately, I managed to miss the path as it plunged into the bracken and, to make my life easier, I thought it would be a simple matter of following the boundary wall until I came back to Lockbank Farm. A perfectly reasonable assumption, you might say, except that I had to slip and slide down a steep gully where a small stream had carved its way down through the rock.

15. Rock climbing, anyone? (c) Kim Ralls

In order to spare anyone from repeating my mistake, I’ve traced the correct path on my map rather than the route I actually took. Mercifully I was able to re-join the correct path, overgrown as it was with bracken that in places was up to my chest. The gate to Lockbank Farm was certainly a sight for sore eyes and I made my weary way back into town, once again noting that poor planning meant I didn’t have any change for the ice-cream parlour advertised on the farm gate. One day I shall sample its delights, but this wasn’t to be the day. Although I try to vary the entries in this blog, I can promise that I shall be returning to the Howgills as often as I can, such is the beauty of this part of the world. The Lakes and the Dales are the more popular destinations for walkers in the North, but there is something about the Howgills that draws me back; not just the beauty of the land, but the feeling that you are cutting all ties with civilisation as you roam the hills with nothing but an OS map, a bottle of water and the occasional Facebook update – how on earth do I manage to get 4G in the middle of nowhere?

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