Nine Standards Rigg is a modest hill, but it dominates the market town of Kirkby Stephen, at the southern end of Cumbria’s Eden Valley. Geographically it sits right on England’s watershed. The springs on its northern and western sides flow into the River Eden, and on to the Irish Sea, while its opposite flanks drain into Swaledale and ultimately the North Sea.
This has always been border country. Their empire in decline, the Romans retreated here from Hadrian’s Wall, to use the natural barriers of the Pennines and Howgills to protect their territories to the south. Centuries later, the last Viking King of York, Eric Bloodaxe, was killed in a skirmish on Stainmore, a barren plain that links Nine Standards Rigg with the backbone of the North Pennines. Later still, in medieval times, the Eden Valley was repeatedly ravaged by marauding Scots.
Looking up to Nine Standards Rigg from the town, the horizon is pierced by a row of tiny teeth. These are the Nine Standards, a line of cairns of varying shapes and sizes.
Stretching across a small plateau not quite at the hill’s summit, their purpose is surrounded in mystery. One story goes that they were built to fool Scots raiders that there was an English army encampment protecting the town. It seems unlikely, but it’s true that they were standing as far back as the 16th century and possibly much earlier, as they are mentioned in medieval property charters.
Crossing Frank’s Bridge out of Kirkby Stephen, the path runs alongside the river before climbing gently towards Ewbank Scar. Legend tells of a local landowner of that name, out hunting on a misty day and hell bent on catching his prey. Alas, he tumbled over the cliff edge along with his dogs, horse and the fleeing stag. Today the scar is encased in a glade of trees, with a stream babbling along its base. In spring or summer it is an enchanting place, although of a wintry evening it has a haunting atmosphere more in keeping with the tragic tale.
Time and tide
The path continues upwards past Ladthwaite Farm, towards the gate leading on to Hartley Fell. Here, cross from protected pastures, enclosed with dry stone walls, on to open fell. This is a boundary that has risen and fallen over the centuries, as land has dropped in and out of management, like the long, slow ebb and flow of a tide.
Make your way up the stony track, keeping one long wall to your right, until at last you break away into Faraday Gill. A few small cairns keep you on track, with skylarks to serenade the way. Clamber over some flagstones helpfully laid in the boggy peat and finally the Nine Standards appear ahead.
Close up, the mystery is no nearer to being resolved. This strange procession of different dry stone structures is arranged in a perfect line. The cairns have been continually rebuilt over the years, so who knows if they match the originals, except in their number?
Perhaps they really are just a landmark, a place for hill farmers to meet and exchange their wandering sheep. The largest incorporates a low stone bench encircling its dome – a fine place to sit and take in the view.
Back to Hartley
It’s time to head back the way you came, bearing right at the fell gate to take a country lane back to Hartley and from there to Kirkby Stephen itself.
HOW TO GET THERE
Leave the M6 at J38, following the A685 to Kirkby Stephen. Kirkby Stephen station is served by trains from Leeds and Carlisle.
FIND OUT MORE
The Bay Horse
A cosy, welcoming inn with a reputation for good food and ale.
An ideal base for exploring the area, and with plenty to look forward to at the end of a long day of walking.
Explore castle ruins brimming with legend and history.