Escape to the Howgills

Driving from my home in Durham towards the south eastern side of the Lake District or to Lancaster leads me across the A66 before I turn off and descend through the Eden Valley and Kirkby Stephen before entering the Lune valley where I join the M6, which follows the course of the Lune through the narrow gap between the high hills of the Howgills and the Winfell Ridge.  It is one of the most spectacular stretches of motorway in the country and I yearn for occasions when I do not have to rush past these hills in pursuit of deadlines.   Those chances do not come very often and, when they do, the weather is not always conducive to walking at high altitude.  However, last Friday, the gods smiled on me: the weather was perfect and I had nothing to pull me back across the Pennines and every excuse to linger.   I pulled off the M6, followed the A684 into Sedbergh and, just 15 minutes after I left the motorway, I was locking my car and following a footpath onto the fells.

There is something about the geology of the Howgills that sets them apart from the hills around them: the Lake District peaks have hard, jagged outlines whilst the Pennines reflect the tilted beds of Carboniferous limestone and sandstone.   The Howgills, however, have soft, convex outlines.  They are of Silurian sandstone though why this should give them such a different topography to the surrounding areas, I do not know.  From a distance they resemble a herd of recumbent cattle and it is no surprise that the highest peak – to which I was heading – was The Calf.

The convex form of these hills means that the first part of the walk is hard work and I had to pause at intervals to look down on s to look back at the small market town of Sedbergh below me and, beyond, the westernmost extremities of the Yorkshire Dales.   As I gained altitude, however, the slope gradually lessened and I was soon on an undulating, but gradually rising, grassy ridge heading north with just a few sheep for company.   The closely-cropped springy turf made for comfortable walking but the absence of wild flowers amidst the grass reminded me of George Monbiot’s phrase “sheep-wrecked”.   Apart from these sheep, I had the fells almost to myself, passing just half a dozen other walkers in three hours.

The summit of the calf is marked by a triangulation point, which offered the culmination of a series of outstanding views.  To the south west, I could see the northern end of Morcambe Bay glistening in the late afternoon sunlight.  Letting my eyes move northward from here, I could see the peaks of the Lake District laid out before me: Old Man of Coniston, Scafell Pike and Great Gable, Helvellyn and, in the far distance, Blencathra.  Then, continuing my panorama across the Eden Valley, I saw the sharp outline of the Pennines with, just discernible, the crenellations that marked Cross Fell, Great Dun Fell and Little Dun Fell.   Far below, I could just see the M6 snaking through the valley below, where drivers, no doubt, were gazing wistfully up at the hills just as I had done so often in the past.

Eventually, I tore myself away from the top of the Calf and followed the path back towards Sedbergh.  It was early evening as I rounded Winder, the first (or final, depending on your direction) undulation on the ridge.   Below me, I could make out activity on the fields of Sedbergh School, and could hear the distant cheers of spectators to what may have been a tug-of-war contest.   The summit of Winder is, I have been told, the turning point for the school’s cross-country run; it is a school with a ferocious reputation for sport, as I could hear.   Ironically, the town’s other claim to fame is its association with the foundation of the Quakers, the religious group whose views mostly closely align with my own.  Their founder, George Fox, preached both in the churchyard of St Andrew’s church below me, and on the nearby Firbank Fell, and the meeting house at Brigflatts, just outside the town, is the second oldest in the country.

The 12 kilometre loop took me about three hours and I was sitting in lengthening shadows outside the local fish and chip shop (the “Haddock Paddock”) sipping shandy from a can and enjoying the last of the afternoon’s sun.   And then it was back into the car for the drive across to the Eden Valley and finally onto the A66 to cross the Pennines.   It’s a tough commute.   But you shouldn’t feel too sorry for me…

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