Discover the Howgills

Sandwiched between the Lakes and the Pennines, the beautiful and unspoilt Howgill Fells are finally receiving the accolades they deserve. Tony Greenbank explores a walker's paradise

Howgills

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The M6 motorway, carving a great gully through the rocks of Cumbria on its journey north, gives access to the Howgills like the Karakorum Highway brings climbers to towering Himalayan peaks. OK, so peaks like Winder, Yarlside and the Calf may not resonate like K2, Nanga Parbat and Gasherbrum, but they can still ignite a spark deep in the soul. These skylines are smooth and sleek, bitten deep by combes and ghylls. Clad in a tawny lion’s mane of windswept grass, they are now at their best, enriched by fiery red bracken and tumbling waterfalls. An October covering of snow may even trace the skylines under starry skies without a trace of light pollution, a plus as the clocks go back. The main staging post for the Howgills – poised between the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales – is Junction 38 at Tebay, a truck stop which recently underwent a £500,000 makeover. From the neighbouring roundabout, it takes less than an hour to circumnavigate these uplifting 40 square miles of upland on quiet local roads. With evocative names such as Blease Fell, Hare Shaw and Rispa Pike, the fells are incredibly compact compared with the 880 square miles of neighbouring Lakeland. ‘All the better for that’, say Howgills fans who revel in the variety of green footpaths. Alfred Wainwright described them as “like velvet curtains in sunlight, like silken drapes at sunset”. And yet the Howgills are still left alone. They only receive a fraction of visitors compared with the estimated 15 million a year who pour into the Lake District. The Howgills have few historical associations in the shape of remains The Romans did establish a fortified camp at Low Borrow Bridge, on a site where signs have been found of prehistoric dwellers. And Norsemen came later, leaving their trace in names like becks for streams, gills for ravines and dales for valleys. Even the traditional walls that put man’s stamp on the Lakeland fells are missing from these hills, formed from rocks known by geologists as Coniston Grit. Award-winning drystone waller Steve Allen, who lives in Tebay, confirms there are virtually no outcrops, scree slopes or small quarries. “This means,” he says, pointing to the open fellside above his house, “walling stone is scarce. Even hilltop cairns are rare. Just a few small stones suffice.” Long, empty and hauntingly beautiful dales meet like spokes of a wheel at an elevated ‘stage’ from where 20 or so of the tallest summits cluster together at heights of around 609m (2,000ft) – “a huddle of squatting elephants” is another description Mr Wainwright used.
 
Breathless
Ascending them taxes leg muscles, lungs and resolve. But how they take the breath away in another sense too, by offering galvanising views from the Pennines to the Lakes and out to the glittering sea. A heart-shaped wood on the flanks of the Howgills excites attention from those travelling along the M6 or the high-speed trains on the West Coast line from Euston to Glasgow. The two run together through the Lune Gorge in what was once Westmorland before the administrative county boundaries changed in 1974. “The wood is actually called Broken Ghyll Plantation,” says farmer’s wife Hilary Wilson. “The fact that it grows on the banks of a ravine gives the illusion it is heart-shaped.” Hilary is known locally as the Apple Lady, skilled at identifying different species. She loves these wild hills with their varying moods; she has seen her Heart Wood leaves turn sunset red – only to be nipped by hard autumn frosts overnight and shower down next day like rose-tinted confetti. By October annual events have long gone – like the Sedbergh Festival of Books and Drama, Greenholme Show, Cowper Day Horse Sales in Kirkby Stephen and Ravenstonedale Agricultural Show. There is still much to do, though. Pubs dispense shepherd’s pie and real ale while bracing country walks beckon in every direction, offering a bonanza time for gathering hazelnuts and blackberries, sloes, hips and haws. Everywhere there is a vibrant communal spirit, as shown in close-knit Tebay village, where four railwaymen were tragically killed one Sunday in 2004 by a runaway wagon while they worked on the West Coast line. There is a memorial to the four above Tebay’s most spectacular location, a limestone gorge channelling the River Lune.
 
Literary centre
In 2006, Sedbergh launched itself as England’s Book Town in the footsteps of Wales’s book town, Hay-on-Wye. Bookshops now proliferate in the main street and cobbled yards, complementing the famous public school founded in 1525. The town is not twee – there are splendid pubs, a working men’s club and good eating houses. The only other Howgill villages besides Tebay are Newbiggin-on-Lune and its neighbour, Ravenstonedale. They both lie in an area of outstanding beauty on the northern fringes of the Howgills – and are now bypassed by the A685 between Tebay and Kirkby Stephen. Near Tebay is the picturesque village of Orton, just two miles away, with its popular farmers’ market, an extensive scar of limestone pavements and, a rarity in these parts, Sunbiggin Tarn. Kirkby Stephen is another Howgills satellite, popular with visitors, just four miles from Ravenstonedale. A vibrant market town like Sedbergh, with many narrow winding passageways and a market square, it is the gateway to Mallerstang in the gentle Eden Valley. This wonderful Grand Canyon of a dale – a study in luminous green fields vying with white limestone scars overlooked by black millstone grit – gives the best access to an adjacent group of fells regarded by walkers as inseparable from the Howgills. Their names? Wild Boar Fell, Swarth Fell and Baugh Fell. This trio alone cover an area as big as the Howgills over a bleak expanse of magnificent upland, again trackless and unspoilt. “Mallerstang is the kind of dale they don’t make any more,” says Simon Cummins, a signalman on the Settle-Carlisle railway who mans the Blea Moor signal box at Ribblehead near the famous viaduct in the Yorkshire Dales. But he has also worked at Garsdale signal box by the station that serves both Mallerstang and the Howgills too. Simon’s house in upper Mallerstang lies near the source of the River Eden in bleakest moorland. Here is where Dick Turpin is said to have leapt across Hell Gill on Black Bess to flee the hangman’s noose yet again, while in the 1980s the desolate moorland near his home provided the setting for An American Werewolf in London. To Simon the area is “absolute paradise”. Visitors might agree to differ, as the vista from Aisgill cottages at the head of Mallerstang is one of the most outlandish in England. Undeterred, he and his wife Sue relish their front door view across the road to the wilderness and grit-stone snout of Wild Boar Fell. The last boar in England is said to have been killed here by Sir Hugh de Morville. He was also one of the knights who slew Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.
 
Haunted knight
Later de Morville became convinced that the murdered archbishop had returned to haunt him in the hills above Pendragon Castle, the photogenic ruins of which stand vivid and stark by the roadside in the dale. Above it towers the gritstone buttress of the Nab, which many have said looks like a human face in profile, perhaps the true identity of Sir Hugh’s spectre? These days you’re more likely to see a trainspotter than a vengeful spirit on the slopes of Wild Boar Fell, at least whenever a steam train is due on the Settle-Carlisle railway. The famous line, which dubs itself England’s most scenic railway, takes you on a 72-mile route from Settle in North Yorkshire to Carlisle, including the spectacular Ribblehead Viaduct. In terms of the Howgills, the line gives two other stopping-off points for exploring the area, namely the stations for Dent and Garsdale, plus a panoramic view from a carriage as the fells themselves slip by. One thing is certain; whatever view you spy from the train, it will be one that very rarely includes another human being. As you walk these fells you’ll meet few people. Even the indigenous Rough Fell sheep, as Alfred Wainwright wrote, regard passing walkers with disbelief. The roads are equally empty, especially on the eastern, southern and western flanks. Parking spaces? No problem.
The red BT phone box in Howgill, after which the range is named, says it all. While visiting the hamlet, I finally opened the door after a titanic tug of war – the hinges creaking all the while – to be met with an interior festooned with cobwebs. It seemed apt. Here is a land that time forgot.
 

WHERE TO STAY IN THE HOWGILLS

 
 
A Corner of Eden B&B
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Low Stennerskeugh, Ravenstonedale, Cumbria CA17 4LL
Tel: 01539 623370
It’s fitting that in the humble, timeless Howgills a bed and breakfast pips all other places to stay. A Corner of Eden, however, is no ordinary accommodation. This handsome Georgian farmhouse is set like a jewel among emerald fells and proves something of a revelation. Debbie Temple and Richard Greaves have renovated and cosseted their beloved farm home into the height of luxury, winning universal praise. Fell walking is not obligatory. The limestone pavements of Stennerskeugh Clouds and torrenting falls of Cautley Spout and Uldale Force may be on the doorstep, but even closer to hand are the delights of the Butler’s Pantry (full of scrumptious treats) – log fire, well-stocked honesty bar – and Debbie and Richard can even be persuaded to cook dinner accompanied by fine wines from the cellar. Borrow wellies and Barbours to walk to the local pub, three fields away. Slippers and dressing gowns wait in every room – with homemade sloe gin.
 
Howgills Bunk Barn
Castle Farm, Castle Haw, Sedbergh, Cumbria
Tel: 01539 621990
Howgills Bunk Barn is light years from the stereotypical camping barn. Pristine and more like five-star hotel accommodation, here are eight bedrooms (en-suite showers), a spacious lounge/dining room, two kitchens, a meeting room with TV and last but not least, a commodious drying room.
 
Westmorland Hotel
Near Orton, Penrith, Cumbria CA10 3SB
Tel: 01539 624351
It is not the usual habitat for a luxury hotel, but the Westmorland, just one minute from the M6 Tebay Services, proves there is a first for everything. An award-winning restaurant with delicious menus featuring only fresh, local produce complements the contemporary bedrooms and luxury bathrooms.
 

 
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 26 OCOUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!
 

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