I’m sure many of you have had this dilemma – you fancy doing something but your partner wants something different. On one occasion with Chris in North Wales, I wanted to do the Nantlle Ridge but she fancied an exhibition at the Tate Modern Gallery in Liverpool. The compromise was fairly simple. We parked the camper near the start of the ridge, and I set my alarm for 0530. By 0600 I was out on the hill having a great time, and four hours after that was back at the van to be welcomed with coffee and a hot bacon ‘sarnie’ – wearing a highly visible red top has its advantages! Four hours later we were at the gallery.
I’m in the “Don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” school. One artist I do admire, though, is the internationally acclaimed Andy Goldsworthy, mainly for the way he works with nature and natural objects. Between 1996 and 2003, Goldsworthy completed a major art project in Cumbria consisting of 46 sheepfolds. I knew the location of one of these folds, tucked away in a lonely valley in the Howgill Fells, and it seemed a good ‘hook’ to hang a walk on.
Mind you, it might not have happened. The forecast for the previous three days had said that Wednesday was going to be fine and even sunny. In West Yorkshire, though, we woke up to low cloud and leaden skies. If we hadn’t arranged to meet up with my mate John Bamber, the project might well have been put on hold, but ‘travelling hopefully’ did the trick. By Skipton the clouds were higher, and by Kirkby Lonsdale we had clear skies – to think that we could so easily have bailed out.
The Howgills are one of the most viewed groups of hills in the UK – every day literally thousands of people drive by them, between junctions 37 and 38 on the M6 Motorway. Many would regard this as the most scenic stretch of Motorway in the country, yet the hills are quiet and hardly visited. Mind you, these hills have a serious identity crisis – although included in the Yorkshire Dales National Park they are actually in the county of Cumbria.
We started out from the Cross Keys, between Sedburgh and Kirkby Stephen. If you are seeking solace in strong drink, the Cross Keys isn’t for you – it’s a temperance pub! Where you will find solace, though, is in the scenery. The Howgills are mostly rolling, grassy hills without drama, but there are one or two surprises. One of these is the magnificent Cautley Spout, which never fails to impress.
The highest waterfall in England is underground in Gaping Gill, but Cautley Spout is the highest above ground, falling for almost 200 metres down a series of rock steps. The sheepfold we were heading for is next to Red Gill Beck, which is one of the streams feeding the cascades, and the first part of the route picked a way up a steep path on the right of the falls. Steep is the word – in about 600 metres linear distance the path gains about 200 metres of height, which is an average gradient of 1 in 3. Some individual sections are steeper.
From the top of the falls, an easy meander of 600 metres up the beck brought us to the fold. It’s a washfold restored by Goldsworthy, with the addition of a pyramid shaped cairn at one corner to commemorate the foot-and-mouth disaster of 2001, and to mark a renewal in sheep farming. The isolated nature of the fold makes it a quiet, unspoiled spot. Impressive as Goldsworthy’s work is, it’s also worth remembering the farmers who built the original fold.
This was more than just a trip to a gallery, though, and more grandeur was to come. We retraced our steps to the top of the falls, then followed the narrow path (not shown on the map) that skirts the top of Cautley Crags. The views were impressive, as was the drop to our left – not a place to stumble! When the crags faded out we struck off over the flat untracked ridge of Great Dummacks to Calders.
From Calders an easy rolling path took us to The Calf, at 676 metres the highest top in the Howgills. The panorama here is stunning, though today we found the views obscured somewhat by what appeared to be a temperature inversion. John and I enjoyed the game of “Spot the mountain”, made more entertaining when you can only see the topmost section of the mountain in question – we both picked out the Scafells fairly quickly, but Helvellyn had us scratching our heads for a minute or so.
An easy walk along good paths took us to another steep and untracked section leading down to Bowderdale Head, where we joined another good path back down to the valley and “the pub with no beer”. Well you can’t have everything, and the warmest hill-day so far this year, together with great views, made this particular compromise acceptable.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock – Images tagged (JB) © John Bamber