Best wishes for all who have followed the blog this year. I hope you all have a great Christmas and a peaceful new year.
We’ve had some splendid walks this year. I have no “walk of the year”, for we’ve enjoyed them all. But our first ascent of Cross Fell – the highest top in the Pennines – has to be up there on the list. A terrific ascent and we hope to do it again this coming year from a different direction.
But one of the joys this past year has been our exploration of the countryside of County Durham. County Durham doesn’t seem to score highly on destinations when you talk to walkers, which is a great pity. It offers a terrific variety of scenery, some excellent footpaths and bridleways and lots of good, remote countryside. Do look at some of the blogs to see where we’ve walked.
There have been some disasters for walkers this year, notably the de-registering of common land in the Pennines, where the MoD has snatched the fells above Murton and Hilton. If they think that’s going to deter yours truly from walking there, well, they’re in for a shock!
Time, this coming year, for a bit more militancy in the rambling movement. Where was the big rally on Murton Pike against the thieving of common land? I’ve been active in the rambling movement for over fifty years, but it seems to me that rambling organisations have become too much part of the Establishment…
Where has the fight gone?
I remember the happy days of Forbidden Britain campaigns and trespasses. Where did it all go wrong? With our wild countryside and national parks and AONBs under threat why aren’t they out there battling? Apart from the worthy Open Spaces Society, I hear very little about actual active campaigning.
So this coming year I intend to be far more critical of threats to our countryside and our right to walk across it. It’s important not just to walk but to put something back. Our great outdoors is not just some vast gymnasium, but a precious resource that needs protecting.
I salute the good folk of Brighton who are fighting to stop building over their precious nature reserve. I applaud the farmers and villagers of Murton and Hilton who took on the MoD. Neither battle is over.
So lets get militant, folks…
Enjoy and celebrate our walks but stand up and be counted when our rights to walk and our countryside are threatened…
A village where the locals attacked a common land intrusion by their landowner, following a path where the “big house” servants walked to church, and tea importers with a sideline in opium dealing. The history you encounter on a five-mile walk in the countryside of Westmorland.
We set out from the village of Crosby Ravensworth, walking to Flass House. This path, running along the banks of the pretty River Lyvennet, was used by the servants of Flass each sunday as they made their way to church in Crosby Ravensworth. To facilitate their passage, the owners of Flass built two beautiful step stiles in the drystone walls. They’re still there today, and I hope they remain safe from the zealots who want every stile destroyed in favour of gates.
A pretty path, the river a delight and the autumn colours quite beautiful. A heron stood as still as a sculpture in the water, looking for fish. It took off after a while, flapping like something out of prehistoric times, its weird cry echoing across the landscape. I’ve always liked herons. There’s something so wonderful about these riparian denizens.
As we walked, I thought a lot about the servants of Flass, obliged to go to church in their few hours of leisure. Programmes like Downton Abbey give the impression that being a servant was great fun. It wasn’t. It was darned hard work, with little time for yourself and appalling pay. I’m old enough to remember lots of old people who’d been in service – it was a huge chunk of the British population until World War Two. I can’t recall one who looked back fondly on their days of servitude, or felt particularly charitable towards their so-called “masters”.
The Dent family, who owned Flass, made their money from tea and opium importing – though we should note that opium was perfectly legal in those days. Hence all the opium dens around the country (I put one in my novel Deadly Quest – those of us who write Victorian crime stories love the idea), and, of course, poets like Wordsworth and writers like de Quincy spent most of the time high on the stuff and its derivative, laudanum.
Interestingly, given its history, a more recent occupier of Flass was raided and jailed for running a cannabis factory from the premises – sort of appropriate in a way.
The path goes through a tunnel just before you reach the high back wall of Flass, carrying a track into the owner’s pheasant preserves. The path beyond was beautiful in the autumn light, like an Atkinson Grimshaw painting, or something out of a ghost story by MR James.
Flass House, built in 1851, is currently empty and being renovated. We thought the house was an ugly pile, a long way from its Italianate or Palladian influences. But you can see the back gate in the surrounding wall through which the servants would emerge every sunday for their walk to church.
A few hundred yards on brought us into the pretty village of Maulds Meaburn, one of only three left in England where sheep still graze on the village green. This was once the village “waste”, land common to all. It was the scene of a modest rebellion way back in 1585 (October 22nd, to be precise), when the villagers fought off an attempt by their landlord to build on their waste.
The landowner, Christopher Lowther, built a little court-house in the middle of the green, an intrusion into the villagers’ ancient rights. The village wives abused the workmen Lowther had hired and Lowther himself. They threw stones at them, but the building went on. On the night of 28th October, a number of Lowther’s tenants, led by one James Fletcher, armed with pitchforks, axes, long-piked sticks, swords, dagger and other “unlawful engines”, attacked the building and razed it to the ground.
It all led to a court case in York, where the villagers argued that, according to the indentures, the lord couldn’t build on the waste without the villagers consent. That if they ignored the intrusion, he might further encroach on their common ground. They said that Lowther refused to listen.
Taking on a landowner in 1586 was seldom a good idea. Lowther won compensation of £8, and the attacking villagers were fined between 40 shillings and £3 as a punishment. Still Lowther wasn’t satisfied, bringing the matter to trial again. He managed to obtain a decree to have a piece of the ground to build his court house.
The Lowthers had incredible power over the populace (some might argue the family still do!) His tenants in Maulds Meaburn were obliged to carry sixty loads of coal, paying themselves in advance, from the pits on Stainmore, and having to haul it the many miles to Lowther Hall. This too led eventually to a legal dispute. The ruling still came down on Lowther’s side, though the tenants were granted the right to take the coal only as far as Meaburn Hall, instead of Lowther.
Today, the green is peaceful, the river idyllic and the cottages picturesque. There can’t be a village in the land that isn’t able to tell similar bitter stories.
To get a view over the whole valley, we followed the footpaths and lanes up to Brackenslack, then paths back down to Maulds Meaburn, before walking back past Flass to Crosby Ravensworth, now walking in the direction the servants would have taken on their way to church.
In the churchyard, we examined the graves of some members of the tea and opium dealing Dent family. The two villages have really changed very little since they lived here, and their servants walked the old ways of the Lyvennet valley.
A few blogs ago, I reported that Beacon Hill in Penrith was under threat from plans by the Lowther family to build on this grand high place. I’m pleased to report that public protest has persuaded the Lowther estate to withdraw their plans – at least for the high points of the Beacon.
We all associate Robin Hood with Sherwood Forest, but as far as place-names go, the outlaw appears all over England. I was minded of this the other day, as we were strolling around Richmond Castle in Yorkshire. Or Richmondshire, if you prefer. There’s a ruined tower in the castle named after the old wolfshead.
As it happens, there’s little historical basis for the name. Popular thought decrees that romantic Victorians called it Robin Hood’s Tower.
I suspect the same happened with lots of other Robin Hood links, the names are either there through the efforts of recent romanticism and…
Then there were lots of Robin Hoods. As some of you might know, I’ve spent the last couple of years writing a series of novels in which I’ve tried to root Robin in medieval reality. I’ve set my books in Sherwood Forest, though my Robin makes excursions into Westmorland, where there are lots of Robin sites, briefly Barnsdale, Fountains Abbey, Hathersage in Derbyshire.
My own belief is there was once an original Robin Hood. Who he was and where and when he lived, we shall never know. But rest assured, he wasn’t the romantic outlaw of legend. But he obviously made a name for himself, for I believe that that Robin Hood became a generic name for lots of other, possibly bold, outlaws.
And that’s why you find the place name in so many places across the land. They were named after their local Robin – lots of successors to the original.
Walking on the Westmorland fells, we often visit Robin Hood’s Grave – it’s obviously a cairn of questionable age. At Fountains Abbey, there’s a Robin Hood’s Well and Wood. (I used it as a setting for my Robin Hood novel Villain). Tradition alleges – with little evidence – that the monk called Friar Tuck trained at Fountains Abbey, though as far as the old ballads go, Tuck was a late arrival. Much later in the Middle Ages, a robber-monk called Tuck appeared in reality at Lindfield in Sussex. Nothing to do with Robin Hood, though you wonder if the Sussex monk was named after an earlier legend.
You get little help from the Robin Hood ballads. Only a few are very early, the first claiming Barnsdale as Robin’s hideout, though interestingly it also has the Sheriff of Nottingham as a character. I must say that had I been a medieval outlaw, I wouldn’t have chosen Barnsdale as a refuge. It was a place then of open heaths and small woods – not a very good place to hide if you are literally outside the law and anyone can bring you down.
The problem is, the ballads that we have were probably written down from original oral sources, and the person writing them down localised them so that they referred to places his audience might know. So the original Robin could have come from anywhere. Just fill in the blanks as you rewrite the old verses.
But other place names – there’s a strong tradition that Little John hailed from Hathersage in Derbyshire – you can still see his purported and very massive grave. There are several other Robin Hood graves, including the famous and currently threatened one at Kirklees.
We also have Robin Hood’s Bay on the Yorkshire coast, where the outlaw saw off some pirates. There are also several Robin Hood pubs, including one in Penrith in Cumbria – though – as you are getting nearer to Carlisle, you are really entering the territory of the outlaw Adam Bell, whose adventures and crew are very similar to Mr Hood’s. There’s Robin Hood’s Stride in the Peak and a lot of other Robin features across the north and Midlands. Geographically, he got about as much as King Arthur.
And, of course, there is Robin Hood International Airport – a sight that would probably have overwhelmed the original ballad writers.
So if you have another Robin Hood location, do leave a comment, especially if it’s not one of the famous ones.
I’m currently working on the fourth and final novel in my Robin Hood series. The first three are out in paperback and on Kindle if you fancy a read (Just click on the link below for more information).
Interesting, I think, that a legend can have a validity for nigh on a thousand years, and that a medieval peasant could come into our very different 21st century and we could still both relate to the character of Robin Hood.
For a walk including the three highest summits in the Pennines you need a good clear day. Because the long ridge of tops on the western edge of the north Pennines offer magnificent views across the Eden Valley to the Lake District in one direction, and over the wild fells of the Pennines in the other.
Cross Fell (2,930 feet) is not only the highest point of the Pennines, but – if you exclude the Lake District mountains – the highest summit in England.
It’s a fell that lives in myth as well as history. In its past history it was known locally as Fiends Fell, the abode of demons. It’s the home of the ferocious Helm Wind, the only named wind in Britain, which has been known to sweep down from its heights and devastate the Eden valley below. St Augustine is said to have blessed the hill to take away its curse, hence the word Cross – though some point out it means cross as in angry.
Seeing it most days in the distance, in all its moods, I can well imagine it as the sort of place where trolls might live. Cross Fell has an average of 110 inches of rain every year, and the snow has been known to deck its long ridgy top for 140 days a year.
But it was in a benevolent mood when we climbed it the other day, offering no more than a pleasant breeze to take away the heat of a scorching day. We were glad of the slight wind, for we notched up twenty miles through some of the loneliest country in England.
We left the village of Dufton in a blazing heatwave, following the Pennine Way as it wound around Dufton Pike to Cosca Hill. The walk up to Knock Old Man is the steep bit of the walk, but the views over the Eden valley and its guardian pikes – Murton Pike, Dufton Pike and Knock Pike – were stunning. Not as green as usual, for the heatwave has seared them an almost autumnal brown.
This is wonderful walking country. It’s true what they say – if the nearby Lake District didn’t exist, these north Pennines would be thronging with fellwalkers. We did see a few people doing the Pennine Way, but nowhere near as many as would have been there once upon a time.
Until Knock Old Man is passed, the secrets of the high Pennines remain hidden from view. Then, as the ridge is achieved, the vista over remote country to Teesdale comes into view. Like Dartmoor on a grander scale, I thought. Miles and miles and miles of wild mountainous land.
The only thing to remind you that you are in the 21st century is the golf ball radar station – air traffic control – on Great Dun Fell, which looks like it has wandered in from a science fiction film. The private road leading up to it is the highest bit of tarmacced road in England. We followed the ridge towards it, seeing nothing alive but the odd moorland bird, and a stoat scampering along the path as we went.
On then over Little Dun Fell to the head of the Crowdundle beck, which I know quite well in its lower stages. Once you’re up on the ridge, there’s little climbing left to do – just a gentle ascent through a rocky band and then a stroll along the ridge to the top of Cross Fell, with its rocky cairn and shelter in the shape of a cross.
It’s worth the climb – so much to see, right across to Ullswater and distant Derwent Water, Blencathra, Helvellyn – too many summits to name.
If the Fiends Fell could talk, what stories it might tell. Of the Romans who marched from fort to fort in the valley below, the Vikings who settled the pastoral landscape beneath, probably scaring their children to sleep with their tales of trolls on this great height. And of the many walkers who’ve come along the Pennine Way, making their own memories of the long and high range of hills along the way.
We took a long and circuitous route back to Dufton through Knock, stopping all the while to gaze back at where we had been – past the golfball radar station, up to the top of Cross Fell’s long plateau. After even a brief moment, it seems almost unbelievable that you were ever up there.
A wonderful day’s walking.
And a big thank you to the Trolls of the Fiends Fell, for granting us a special dispensation of good weather and clear views.
A fantastic karst landscape, terrific views and a Neolithic stone circle made this a wonderful morning walk from the little village of Orton. Although this ramble is in the county of Cumbria, this landscape has recently been added to the Yorkshire Dales National Park – and deservedly so.
Perhaps one day we’ll get our old county boundaries restored. Politicians should never have fiddled with them in the first place!
We set out from the village of Orton, where you can park for free in the village square. Buses are, to say the least, infrequent. The village itself is a bit of a gem, a grand old church and quite a selection of ancient buildings.
The original name of the place was Sker-Overton, changed to Orton in the local dialect. I found this out quite recently when I was researching my novel Villain – the third in the series which brings some reality back to the legend of Robin Hood. My book starts on the wild moorlands above Orton, before my villains return to Sherwood Forest.
Curiously, there are a lot of Robin Hood links in this part of Cumbria. His “grave” is high above the village. It was a visit to that a couple of years ago which inspired the start of my book. There were a lot of outlaws in these parts in medieval times, not least Adam Bell in nearby Inglewood Forest.
We followed the Coast to Coast long-distance path up through Broadfell Farm up to Orton Scar and the Beacon Hill. From here there are superb views across to the Lake District in one direction and the Howgill Fells in another, the valley of the River Lune in between.
Following the wall to the top of Beacon Hill, we came to the cross built to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Here you get all round views, the ones I’ve mentioned before with the addition of the long heights of the northern Pennines.
The karst landscape of limestone pavement had already begun, intensifying in its splendour as we gained height. Walking north-east, following an impressive stone wall, we came to the entrance of the Great Asby Scar National Nature Reserve.
Great Asby Scar is one of the best limestone pavements in Britain. There’s something almost unearthly about this landscape. I can’t even describe what it is. You need to go there and look for yourself. It’s almost as though you’ve stepped outside time.
A good path leads out of the nature reserve to a cross-ways on the far-eastern edge of Beacon Hill. A wide track leading around the Knott, one of the highest points on the walk.
As the Knott is the highest hill in the Westmorland Dales, we thought we should climb it at last. It’s a modest height, surmounted by a trig point and crossed by a stone wall. An easy ascent, but well worth it for the excellent views.
We descended a track called Knott Lane – and here’s another impressive sight. A stone circle from the Neolithic period.
The Gamelands Stone Circle is situated on what was once open moorland, but the circle was first ploughed out in 1863. A wall was constructed nearby and most of the stones have been tumbled over time, probably deliberately in the course of agricultural works. At one point there was probably a burial kist within the circle. It was certainly visible in Victorian times, but has long gone.
Despite these interferences, the stone circle, one of the largest in the north, is still impressive. You can stand there and wonder about its purpose. There are many proposed solutions. It is, they say locally, not often visited.
It’s possible to return to Orton on footpaths from there, but we chose the lane back to the village, a very old road indeed.
A walk that lives in my mind as I think back, because of the strange landscape and that old stone circle.
These Westmorland Dales make an excellent addition to the National Parks Family. Away from the route of the Coast to Coast path, this is a very quiet area – you can walk all day and hardly see anyone. If you are staying in the district, Orton, Appleby and Kirkby Stephen or the villages thereabouts, are good places to find accommodation. There are buses to Appleby and Kirkby Stephen and sometimes Orton as well.
For many years The Nab, at the heart of the Martindale Deer Forest, was the Wainwright you weren’t supposed to visit, lest you disturbed the hunting preserves of the Martindale Deer Forest owners.
The myth was put about that it was the deer they were all keen to save from disturbance. It was never true. It was the value of the sporting estate that was at peril. Heaven forbid that the peasants should try to roam around its closely-guarded acres.
Even Wainwright urged caution; under pressure he suggested that walkers shouldn’t intrude, but then went on to include the route description in his The Far Eastern Fells book, admitting that he’d trespassed there itself, getting away with it “due to his remarked resemblance to an old stag”.
But then came the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW), which gave a right to roam across this sacred fell. And yes, there’s been not the slightest indication that the deer have been much disturbed by the visiting ramblers. In truth, the herd was never much up on The Nab itself, preferring the woodlands around the Rampsgill Beck, where walkers seldom tramped.
Even early last century, the deer forest proprietors were iffy about the common herd (us) coming for a stroll in this part of the Lake District. The Earl of Lonsdale (1857-1944), who liked to bill himself as England’s premier sportsman, went positively apoplectic at the thought of any feet but his own treading this ground. In a lifetime devoted to ostentatious pleasure, a rambler or fellwalker was obviously Lonsdale’s particular bete noire.
On my bookshelves, I have a charming little volume entitled Wayside Pageant by W.L. Andrews and A.P. Macguire, which is full of the joys of exploring the English countryside. It was published in 1933.
The authors obviously thought it a good idea to invite Lord Lonsdale to write one of those nice introductions to their book, the kind which famous men contribute from time to time to enliven such works. They probably regretted the invitation. The Right Hon. The Earl of Lonsdale KG GCVO sent them back a furious screed condemning all fellwalkers as trespassers and upstarts who vandalise and set fire to the countryside.
His lordship gave ramblers the kind of write-up the early Vikings might have got from displaced locals when they first raided the vales of Lakeland.
The authors, perhaps in a spirit of ironic contempt, published his lordship’s views as they stood. Reading it today you have to chuckle. It’s a wonder Lord Lonsdale didn’t burst a blood vessel.
Not that everyone was unwelcome in the vicinity of The Nab. Just before World War One, they had Germany’s Kaiser Bill over to stay, so that he could take pot shots at the deer. The bungalow he stayed in is still there, below The Nab. You can rent it if you have pots of cash.
All this by way of introduction, for on a glowery day we walked out from Harstop and climbed Rest Dodd before taking a gentle stroll down the ridge to The Nab. We sat at the highest point and looked down at the bungalow where the Kaiser stayed. A splendid if uneventful walk. It would have been even nicer to dodge keepers and gillies, but that’s the price of progress.
The views, down Martindale towards Ullswater, are staggeringly dramatic. The Nab is certainly a hill that all ramblers should seek out and visit. It’s rather beautiful in itself too, particularly when you view its bulbous mass from the vicinity of Hallin Fell.
And nice that we’ve progressed so far that the barbed wire and “Keep Out” notices of Wainwright’s day are no longer there as a blot on the landscape. Distant memories of a darker age in the Lake District.
Sometimes we walk in the footsteps of people who trod the hills thousands of years ago. The other day – a blazing hot morning – we walked up from the Cumbrian village of Orton to seek out the Castle Folds Romano-British settlement – a rare defended position set out amidst the limestone pavement of Great Asby Scar, re-used as a shieling in medieval times.
It is now, thankfully, though in the county of Cumbria, in the Westmorland Dales section of the Yorkshire Dales National Park – and every one who values our wild landscapes should approve of this improved level of protection.
We walked up from the village of Orton, using the bridleway to Street lane – and a joy that was in itself, with its profusion of wild flowers, including the increasingly rare ragged robin. Up then past Scarside Farm and then out on to the Great Asby National Nature Reserve.
This extensive area of limestone pavement was looking at its best and most dramatic, with its wide views over the Eden valley to the great ramparts of the Pennines. Good easy walking too, as we made our way along the walls of Asby Winderwath Common.
Then at last to Castle Fold. The defended settlement is set on a long knoll rising out of the surrounding limestone pavement – which undoubtedly provided the rocks for the rampart walls. When intact, it must have been a most impressive structure. There are other Romano-British settlements not far away, but Castle Folds was built purely for defence – not just against casual raiders, but perhaps some specific major threat, hence its considerable proportions.
Built not by the Roman occupiers of this land, but by the natives who existed alongside them.
Archaeologists believe that its once mighty walls were deliberately torn down, though in medieval times the ruins were used once again as a shieling, summer grazing for livestock.
It’s a deeply atmospheric place, and you could sit there for a long time contemplating its, perhaps bloody, history.
All through our walk the weather had been scorching hot, but as we prepared to leave Castle Folds, we felt the first hint of moisture in the air. Then a positive downpour as we retraced our footsteps into Orton. We saw no other walkers all day, though a frog greeted us as we walked down by the Orton Beck.
Castle Folds is a fascinating place – rare, archaeologically, and well worth the several miles of walk. Even as I write this I dwell on the men and women who sought shelter behind its high walls.
Who was their enemy? What was the fear that made them build such an elaborate structure? And was the medieval stockman, who dwelt there centuries later, at all superstitious about the blood that might have been spilled there?