The term “rolling hills” could have been coined with the Howgill Fells in mind. Driving along the A684 towards Sedbergh I could see them rising above the town, a collection of deceptively gentle-looking slopes covered in verdant greenery. Parking in a pay and display car park at one end of the high street, I followed my newly aquired OS map (owing to a lack of memory, I’d had to delete my maps from the phone) and promptly got lost looking for the path up to the base of the fells.
I did, however, come across a distinctive mound that, according to the map, was once the motte and bailey of a medieval castle. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see any way to look at it more closely and, let’s be honest, there were far more impressive mounds to climb as you can see in the photo of the car park.
I eventually found the track next to Westwood Books, a former cinema now converted into a veritable warehouse of secondhand tomes. Sedbergh proudly proclaims its status as ‘England’s Book Town’ and for an avid reader such as myself, it’s a paradise of second-hand books. I would be investigating the town’s wares later in the day and coming away with a couple of books that I’d been after for some time. It was a good thing that I put plenty of money into the machine in the car park – once my walk was over, I completely lost track of time whilst browsing in the various bookshops in town.
The track didn’t look too steep and neither did the slopes of the fells that I could see through gaps in the hedges and trees. However, by the time I reached a stile and passed into a field of cows the sweat was running down my face and neck and I had to stop for a breather. When you walk regularly for a while and then stop, it’s amazing how rapidly the body becomes unfit. The walk had barely begun and I already felt as if I’d undergone an arduous trek through the countryside. This did not bode well.
The cows were lying on a small mound (these featured prominently throughout the walk) in the middle of their field and they watched me as I walked as confidently as I could manage whilst keeping close to the wall. I ended up wading through thick mud that tried to tug the boots from my feet and, whilst keeping an eye on one or two of the cows who had decided to stand up and plod towards me, I missed the stile out of the field. The cows lay down again and I got out of the field by climbing over the gate in the top left corner and looking around in case I had to apologise to the farmer.
That was to be only my first encounter with livestock on this walk. For now, I took another breather and admired the (admittedly over-cast) view of Sedbergh and the hills on the other side.
The Howgills are not like the fells and hills of the Dales. They’re not limestone, for one thing, and the gorse and bracken-covered slopes appear gentle and easy, unlike the craggy sides of Pen Hill and its like. The Howgills have interesting names like Winder, Arant Haw and The Calf and based on the views I’d had so far, I had a feeling I’d be coming back for more.
But I wasn’t going to accomplish anything standing around and so I followed a track of stones and hardcore along the banks of Settlebeck Gill (a gill being a small stream). It was dark under the trees and although the beck looked lovely, babbling and burbling over the rocks below, I couldn’t quite get the right angle to take a decent photo without slithering down the bank with no assurance that I could get out again. I’ve included the one photo I decided to keep, although it doesn’t even come close to doing the scene justice. A professional photographer would undoubtedly be able to take a good photo under these conditions; I make no claim to being a pro.
Even with such a well-made track to walk on, the going was tiring. My being deceived by the apparently gentle slopes was to be a recurring theme throughout this walk.
And being out of shape wasn’t my only problem.
I used to practice a martial art that involved a lot of kneeling on hard wooden floors (Iaido – the Japanese art of the sword) and discovered that I have a problem with my knees. In a normal human body there is a pad of fat fixed between the knee joint that stops the bones grinding against each other. Unfortunately, my fat pads aren’t fixed in place and, occasionally, one or both of them slips out and causes me a lot of pain. According to the doctor, this is a condition that either fixes itself or remains with me for the rest of my life. Granted there are worse conditions to suffer from, but it can be a pain in the proverbial when out walking. Ascending the track past the gill, I had to stop frequently as my knees were starting to hurt.
Near the top of the track the trees and bushes gave way and I had a magnificent view of the town and the surrounding fells. A simple wooden bench meant that I could sit down and give my knees a rest whilst taking photos with my camera – I don’t believe in suffering for one’s art.
At this point my map showed the footpath climbing up alongside Settlebeck Gill in what looking like a savagely steep ascent and I had a feeling my knees would not cope with it. However, a woman walking her dog came along what was apparently a path along the base of the hill and, even though it wasn’t on the map, I thought I’d try that way and see if there was a gentler way to the summit – take it from me, if you’re body’s protesting there’s no sense in flogging it unnecessarily.
It wasn’t long before I was wishing I’d gone up the other path. Following the wall on one side and the bracken on the other, the path was a slippery morass of mud and pools and streams that threatened to send me sprawling at any moment. I was in two minds as to whether or not I should put my camera away until I was on firmer ground, not wanting to risk falling over and damaging it (or me, for that matter!)
I decided to keep it out; after all you never know what you might see and, knowing my luck, the moment I put it away I’d need to take it out again to shoot something spectacular and fleeting.
And so I went on my slippery way with one hand holding my camera and the other stretched out for balance as required. I’m glad the only eyes watching me belonged to the sheep grazing in the bracken; if they thought I looked ridiculous they weren’t saying.
Almost half-way along this path I got a much better view of the town and stopped to take a photo. An RAF jet roared overhead, sending the sheep scurrying into the bracken (you’d think they’d be used to that sort of thing round here). It was over and gone before I’d even had the chance to see it let alone try to photograph it. The sun had poked its head out of the clouds whilst I scanned the sky for the aircraft and then hid again as I raised my camera to photograph the town (and, yes, it was spectacular and fleeting).
I was disappointed that the weather wasn’t better. Granted, the forecast had been for grey skies, so it wasn’t as though I’d been expecting bright sunshine. But grey skies can be hard to photograph without either underexposing the ground or overexposing the sky (hence why some of the photos in this entry are darker than I would like). I do carry a set of filters for this purpose, but they’re a pain in the backside to fit onto the lens and I didn’t think any of the photos I’d taken so far were too bad – I could always try lightening them on the computer once I got home.
I’d ordered a polarising filter the other day, but it hadn’t arrived in time for this walk (a polorising filter is like a set of sunglasses for your camera and it has the added advantage of enhancing colour and contrast; it would have been perfect for a day like this).
With no help from the map, it was hard to guage how far the path went until, finally, I came across a farm gate and a sign suggesting I try the local ice-cream. Anyone who knows me well will find it hard to believe that I didn’t partake immediately. However, contrary to popular opinion, I do have a modicum of will-power when it comes to food and I resisted tempation and followed the path as it finally began to climb. At this point the map indicated that I was on an actual footpath. Not only that, but reading the contours indicated that, apart from one stretch close to where I stood, it would be a nice gentle ascent to the summit of Winder. The original path might have been a quicker ascent, but I’d enjoyed the view of the town and there would always be other opportunities to explore the paths up and down the fells.
As I climbed, the sun came out once more and really brought out the colour in the clouds above the town; I couldn’t resist taking the photo and it’s probably my favourite from the whole walk.
After taking the photo, I turned and followed the path as it turned and took a steep climb up the slopes. I was feeling good; my knees had stopped aching, the sun was shining sporadically and it was almost time to stop and enjoy the picnic I’d bought in town (not that I’m obsessed with food).
As I walked I imagined all the fine views I would have from the summit; the town, the valley, the fells beyond Winder. As much as I love the Dales and all the hidden footpaths that I’ve yet to explore near my own home, I was falling in love with the fells above Sedbergh even though I had been there less than half a day.
Sheep scattered as I began my ascent. They ran sure-footed over the slopes, bounding with unexpected grace to get away from the galumphing Southerner with his camera, backpack and picnic. I took a step and my left foot slipped on a patch of mud. Arms flailing, I kept my balance as I felt my knee twist and a blast of pain shoot through my leg. The grey skies were turned blue as I used every swear-word in my vocabulary.
I took a tentative step and felt the pain again. There was no way I was going to complete the climb to the summit. It was with some reluctance and a large amount of anger that I turned back and retraced my footsteps back to the farm gate. Every step was agony but there was no other way and, who knows, most of the time when this sort of thing happens the knee pops back in of its own accord and I have no further trouble.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case and I limped back into town, dreading the drive home in a van with a manual gearbox. As you can imagine, every gear change sent a fresh wave of pain up and down my leg and even Lynyrd Skynyrd blasting out at full volume couldn’t drown out my cursing. Goodness knows what the wildlife thought.
I had planned this walk for weeks, looking forward to it because it was wholly new ground that I could return to again and again. The map had shown so many different paths over the fells and I had plans to explore them all eventually. For now, they would have to wait for another day. I got home and stretched out on the sofa where, to my immeasurable relief (and slight annoyance), I felt and heard my knee pop back into place. By then it was too late to go back and try the walk again and so I opened up one of the books I had bought in town and began to plot.
I’d return to Sedbergh and the Howgills, that was certain. After all, lightning couldn’t strike twice, could it?