Walking into Prehistory

A Neolithic stone circle, a Bronze Age burial cairn used again in the Dark Ages, and a Romano-British defensive settlement – centuries of history in a walk of several miles from the village of Orton in the Westmorland Dales.DSCF1640

Confusingly, the Westmorland Dales are part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, though not actually in Yorkshire. Not even in the ancient county of Westmorland, which in the 1970s was dragged unwillingly into the new county of Cumbria. I do wish the politicos had left our old counties alone!

Snatching a rare dry morning off from the almost continuous rain of the past few months, we set off from Orton taking the old road leading to Kirkby Stephen – once a busy highway in times past, but now with only the occasional motor car.DSCF1650

Autumn is coming late here, the trees bearing just the first signs of the  beautiful colouring we love to welcome.

A bridleway leaves the lane winding up towards the limestone heights below the Westmorland Dales high ground of Knott.  In a field just off the track is a good, though disturbed Neolithic stone circle. At some point in the farming history of the area the circle’s stones were interfered with – though not drastically. You can still get an understanding of what our New Stone Age ancestors would have seen.

Neolithic Stone Circle at Gamelands (c) John Bainbridge 2019

We’ve visited this stone circle several times now and it’s worth seeing, full of atmosphere in a wild setting – it’s just off Wainwright’s Coast to Coast long-distance path and worth the slight diversion.

We followed the track to the fellside, following the wall eastwards in search of a burial cairn we hadn’t seen before. This is now access land under CRoW (the hard-won Countryside and Rights of Way Act) so you may wander freely, though there is a path by the wall taking you in the right direction through the moorland intakes.

The burial cairn is situated high up on the hillside (map reference 6655309003). A grand place to be buried, with views across the the Howgill, Shap and Lakeland Fells, overlooking the wide valley of the River Lune.

The Burial Cairn (c) John Bainbridge 2019

The cairn, dating to the Bronze Age, was excavated some years ago. It contained a male skeleton found placed on his left side with his hands up to his face, with a triangular chert implement placed by his head.

What is particularly interesting is that the cairn was re-used for burial by the Angles (5-9th centuries AD), three burials found in shallow stone-lined graves. There may be bodies there, undisturbed by past archaeological investigation.

I find it fascinating to imagine the people from the past who walked these same hills, seeing probably similar views, though the valley would have been more wooded. In reality, these folk would have been very like us.

Limestone Pavement (c) John Bainbridge 2019

We climbed the hillside, passing through a gap in the wall to Castle Folds, a defensive Romano-British settlement, situated amidst some stunning limestone pavement.

The 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.

Castle Folds Settlement (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Built not by the Roman occupiers of this land, but by the natives who existed alongside them. Interesting to see how the builders incorporated the natural limestone pavement into their defences.

Acrchaeologists 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.

 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?

We followed a very long wall down to a gate leading out of the Great Asby Scar Nature Reserve, limestone pavement by our side much of the way, descending by Scar Side Farm back to Orton, and tea and tea-cakes in the excellent cafe where they also make delicious chocolate. Outside the cafe were parked some vintage motor cycles, their riders seeking refreshment within. As we were leaving, some walkers – probably doing the Coast to Coast – came in. The first walkers we’d seen that day.

The Westmorland Dales well deserve their National Park status. Lovely sweeping countryside and terrific history and archaeology. Well worth exploring and Orton and the villages around excellent starting points.


On Callander Crags

It was such a beautiful day after our early morning walk up Ben A’an, that we decided another ramble was called for – up to the high ground of Callander Crags. Now this is usually pushed as a tourist walk, but it’s not as easy as is sometimes suggested. Worth it though for the stunning views.

Queen Victoria’s Cairn (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Leaving Callander we walked up along steep woodland paths to the crags. In fact, these are barely visible when the leaves are on the trees, but what you do get are widening views back over Ben Ledi – a favourite of ours – up the glen towards Loch Venechar, and over the wild country beyond the Keltie Water.

Ben Ledi (c) John Bainbridge 2019

You are left in no doubt that this is the Highland Line. You stand near the top and look across to where the Trossachs dip down to the lower ground of the Central Belt. On our clear day we could see the Wallace Monument at Stirling and the flow of the River Teith.

The path winds on – woodland falling away towards the town on one side and lonely hill country to the north.DSCF1611

Eventually, we came to the cairn built by local worthy Malcolm Ferguson to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee of 1897 – a wonderful viewpoint over the town.

Callander (c) John Bainbridge 2019

A steep descent, muddy and slippery, brought us down to a farm road, along which we headed back to the town. We took a short diversion to look at the Chalybeate Red Well. An ancient spring with a history dating back to pagan times. The water comes out so thick, it’s more gunge than liquid.

The Red Well (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Soon afterwards the town was reached. We passed Arden House, which was the film location for the television series Dr Finlay’s Casebook when I was young. The author of the stories, A J Cronin knew the town. He probably walked the route we had taken as did, in their time, two greater writers, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Arden House (c) John Bainbridge 2019

All three used this wonderful Trossachs landscape in their fiction.

On Ben A’an

On a beautiful September morning, we found our way to the top of Ben A’an, that modest but rather stunning hill in the Trossachs. If you want a short walk, I commend it to you, though do as we did and get there early. It’s a popular ascent, and by going early in the morning – we had another walk planned for the afternoon – we beat the crowds and had the summit to ourselves.

Loch Katrine from the top.  

Modest Ben A’an might be, but its a scenic route to the top, with views back down to Loch Achray, which itself features in the history of Scottish stravaiging and hillwalking. There was a popular howff down there where the working class walkers from Glasgow etc. would bed down for the night in the 1920s/30s often having got there after a hard week’s work.

A shapely hill  

Those climbers of earlier days have long been an inspiration to me, fortunately some left memoirs of their exploits. I never walk in Scotland without thinking of them. Out of their walks and battles of old came the Scottish Land Reform Act (and what a pity that elements of that legislation are being chipped away by the powers that be). Their adventures are one of the most potent aspects of recent Scottish history.

Loch Achray 

Ben A’an is an Anglicization of Am Binnean, allegedly by Sir Walter Scott, who culturally reinvented the Trossachs, and Scotland as well, in such works of literature as The Lady of the Lake and Rob Roy.

It’s a steep and steady climb to the top, through some gorgeous scenery. accompanied by falling water for much of the way.

Summit Fever
Summit Fever 

And what a beautifully shaped hill Ben A’an is from this side. From its shape alone it deserves to be called a mountain – it has a worthier profile than many a larger hill.DSCF1602

It also has, I think, one of the finest view in Scotland, right along Loch Katrine to the Arrochar Alps. We had a perfect morning to see that view, and the summit to ourselves. It brought back many memories of over half a century ago when I saw these hills for the first time.

By the time we were descending more walkers had started to arrive, a united nations of walkers, not just Scottish and English, but from Europe and the United States. All sharing a beautiful Scottish morning.

(c) J and A Bainbridge

Walk to a Forgotten Graveyard

We owe Wensleydale Cheese to the monks of Jervaulx Abbey, not to mention the training of racehorses that goes on in this part of the Yorkshire Dales as well.DSCF1511

I’ve featured Jervaulx Abbey on this blog before, so, although we started from there, we took a different route the other day. (We missed out the abbey, though not the splendid tea-room.)

And on our way we found a footpath contention, a hillside with superb views over Lower Wensleydale, and – most interesting of all – a forgotten graveyard. The footpath contention I’ll leave to the next blog, as it raises some interesting points for the country walker.

Above Hammer Farm (c) John Bainbridge 2019

The owners of Jervaulx Abbey kindly let ramblers use their car park, for the modest sum of £1. There was a small section of busy main road, before we turned into the quiet byways of Newstead Lane and Stark Bank Lane, climbing steadily upwards towards Witton Moor. We didn’t continue all the way to the top, turning along the footpath to Hammer Farm.

It was from a quarry near here that much of the stone came for the building of Jervaulx Abbey. From the high ground above Hammer Farm, there are fine views over Lower Wensleydale.

Gamekeeper’s Cottage (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Having climbed we descended, passing the gamekeeper’s cottage, before descending towards East Witton,

There present church, which can be seen on the way down, is relatively new, built in 1809 by the Earl of Ailesbury, to commemorate the fiftieth year of the reign of King George III, using the stone from the earlier church which dated back to Norman times – one of those acts of vandalism that makes me want to shudder. In the churchyard is the grave of the television presenter Richard Whiteley.

East Witton (c) John Bainbridge 2019

There is only one reminder of the old church – a much neglected and overgrown graveyard, many of the headstones bearing ancient and fascinating inscriptions. It is worth doing the walk just to see this remnant of the original church. The graveyard, at Low Thorpe, shielded by sycamores and covered with long grass and stinging nettles, deserves a good exploration.

In Catholic days there was a tradition that, before burials, coffins were carried once around the churchyard and sprinkled with holy water from a stone bowl which once stood on one edge. Among the graves, it is said, one contained the body of an infant with two heads and another buried child had the head of a hare.

It’s worth getting stung by the nettles to see the place.DSCF1513

East Witton might have become a more important place, but for a plague of 1563 which was so bad its market was abandoned.

From East Witton, we followed the footpaths to Cover Bridge, below which the River Cover meets the River Yore. There’s an inn here, and tradition has it that the recipe for Wensleydale Cheese was given to Mr Towler, the landlord, by the monks of Jervaulx after the Dissolution. Although now known as Wensleydale, the cheese was first known as Coverham Cheese.DSCF1509

We followed the River Yore back to Jervaulx. We didn’t see the legendary kelpie or water horse which haunts the river here, but we did see some fly fishermen negotiating the river with their wading sticks.

An interesting walk – not least because of the attractive village of East Witton and the mysterious graveyard at Low Thorpe. Add on a visit to Jervaulx Abbey and it’s quite a walk through English history.

Fawe Park v The Trespassers

On a scorching Monday morning, we walked the north-west corner of Derwent Water, passing Fawe Park, in Victorian times the scene of access battles and trespassing protests. Battles long over, though, interestingly, there is still an appalling lack of public access on that corner of a very beautiful lake.DSCF1456

Not that there aren’t rights of way – there are. But not as many as along the other banks of Derwent Water. And there is a strong presumption that walkers shouldn’t stray from the signposted tracks. And even as you walk through the beautiful woodland, you are often corralled in between unnecessary fences.DSCF1459

When we think of the need to trespass, we tend to dwell on the battles in the Peak District and the Forest of Bowland – though the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) has remedied some of these problems.

But the Lake District has had periods were traditional access has been denied. Before World War Two, the Lowther Estates tried to deny access to much of the hill country east of Angle Tarn.

But back in Victoria’s reign, when the rich took to building new houses in the most picturesque corners of the Lake District, there were considerable battles. Newcomers to the district closed at least twenty-two footpaths around Ambleside, there was an attempt to restrict access to the Stockghyll Force waterfall, landowners tried to deny access to the summit of Latrigg Fell – all places were people had traditionally walked.

Even earlier, William Wordsworth, by then a pro-landowning Tory, was so incensed by the blockage of an ancient path that he tore away the obstruction, as I’ve related in my book The Compleat Trespasser.

In the 1850s, James Spencer-Bell built the house of Fawe Park on the shores of Derwentwater. Riders and walkers had used the nearby ancient track going through the estate for generations. He died in 1872, leaving the property to his wife and eldest son. In 1885 access to the path was blocked on the grounds that its use invaded their privacy.  Discussions were held with Mrs Spencer-Bell, after the death of her son, but she was unwilling to compromise.DSCF1467

In 1887,  the Keswick Footpaths Association, compiled a report on the evidence supporting the public’s right to use the footpath across Fawe Park and this was submitted to Counsel for legal opinion. The lawyers opinion supported the existence of the right of way. On the 30 August of that year, local campaigners Mr Jenkinson and Mr Routh Fitzpatrick led a protest group to Fawe Park where they were confronted by Mrs Spencer-Bell who refused to remove the barriers.  Mr Routh Fitzpatrick ordered the barricades down and proceeded to lead his walkers along the path.

Undaunted, Mrs Spencer-Bell restored the barriers.

Equally undaunted, the footpath association declared that they would remove the barriers again on on 28 September. At least of 500 protestors – many of them leading members of the local community – marched on Fawe Park, removing the barriers and taking the old track.

This time, Mrs Spencer Bell yielded to pressure and no further attempts were made to close the footpath.

But, the thought occurred to me as we walked, this is still the area around Derwent Water with the least access. There are Private – Keep Out signs on either side of the Derwent Water circuit path. There are, if you are walking north from Hawse End, only a couple of places where you can access the lake, the most prominent being by the boat station at Nichol End.DSCF1466

The other is at Lingholm, where – by grace and favour – you can walk down to the lake courtesy of the owners of the cafe. And very beautiful it is too, with its connections to Beatrix Potter, who stayed there and Fawe Park, and used both as settings for her delightful stories. You can also visit the impressive walled garden there.

But some of the countryside around is still out of bounds.DSCF1455

I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it, England and Wales needs the kind of Land Reform, with the massively increased access rights, that we enjoy every time we go walking in Scotland.

No more piecemeal access!

We want the real thing!

(c) Text and pictures John Bainbridge 2019


Over Dunmail Raise

In a car you hardly notice the steep climb over Dunmail Raise, as you drive the busy Loughrigg Circuit February 2014 023tourist route from Grasmere to Keswick. Just another hill on a fast stretch of road, widened in recent years so that motorists might overtake struggling lorries and holiday coaches. Not considered one of the classic Lake District mountain passes, despite the dramatic crags and summits all around. The great stone cairn, between the two carriageways, looks interesting but flashes by in an instant.  Motorists probably don’t know that the Raise once marked the southern boundary of the kingdom of Strathclyde or the division between Westmorland and Cumberland.

But looked at from the surrounding summits of Steel Fell, Helm Crag or Seat Sandal, you get a perspective of Dunmail’s importance as a mountain pass giving access through the surrounding high ground.  Its significance as one of the few easier routes across the Lake District confirmed by the presence of a World War Two Pillbox, guarding the pass from both directions. A wise precaution. Armies have marched this way for thousands of years.

     The Raise gets its name from just such a warrior, Dunmail,  Norseman and King of Cumberland, defeated in battle here by the Saxon King Edmund in 945 AD. The giant cairn, or raise, now hemmed in between  two modern carriageways, is said to be his last resting place, the stones laid over his body by his surviving troops.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that the cairn has been  repositioned on several occasions by road-builders, absorbing rocks from a drystone wall that once marked the county boundary.

Legend says Dunmail’s golden crown was taken from the pass to nearby Grizedale Tarn and thrown into its dark waters, until Dunmail might rise to lead his men again. Once a year his phantom army appears to take the crown from the tarn down to the Raise only to hear Dunmail’s voice moan in the wind “Not yet, my warriors. In a little while. Not yet!”  On dark stormy days, as you follow in their footsteps, you can almost believe it.  The legend is rather compromised by the fact that Dunmail apparently died on pilgrimage to Rome many years after 945.

The old tale was often in William Wordsworth’s mind, as he walked the once narrow road over the Raise, a route he took by day and night, whatever the weather.  During the Napoleonic Wars he would come this way in the dark with Thomas de Quincy, author of The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, so that they might waylay the courier bringing news from Keswick of Bonaparte’s invasion of Spain. There must have been sad memories for Wordsworth when he made this journey in later years. It was in the hills above the Raise that he had taken a last walk with his brother John, who drowned when his ship was wrecked in the English Channel in 1805.

Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy, and friend and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge would regularly tramp ‘over the Rays’ to Keswick and back, sometimes diverting via the summit of Helvellyn. Towards the end of her life, Dorothy Wordsworth could still mount the steep hill at a steady four miles an hour, such was the conditioning brought about by many years of hard fellwalking. In the Wordworth’s time, travelling on foot or horseback was the regular way to travel the road leading up to the Raise, so much so that Dorothy commented in her journal on the unusual sight of someone making the journey in a chaise.

The arrival of the railway from Kendal to Windermere encouraged a regular stagecoach service onwards to Keswick, Dunmail Raise representing quite a challenge to coachmen. On the northward  journey the coach driver would sometimes make fitter passengers disembark and walk up the steep hill, so that his horses could cope with the gradient. The descent could be equally perilous, great skill being needed to prevent the coach running away.  The Lakeland writer William Palmer, recalling Victorian days, tells how the road was scored by the skid marks of coaches as drivers hauled on their brakes during the descent.

At Town Head, on the Grasmere side of the Raise, was the toll bar, where the toll-keeper would take the fee for using this stretch of road. In 1851, John Hawking, a man well-known to Wordsworth, was still working away at this unpopular job at the age of 76, aided by his 52 year old wife Betsy.  Most of the tolls he collected would have been taken from carriages of early Lake District tourists, or the occasional carrier’s cart. Wilier Lakelanders, droving sheep or cattle, or moving goods by pack-pony, would  bypass Dunmail Raise altogether to avoid paying the toll.  Coach fares would have been well beyond the pockets of working people. Horse-drawn coaches for tourists continued to come through the Raise as recently as the 1920s.

In Victorian times this bleak pass was well known as an atchin tan (camping place) for Romanies. Why choose such an exposed place to halt?  Possibly to avoid conflict with the farmers and villagers of Grasmere. The Lake District writer William Palmer recalled pulling a Gypsy lad from under the wheels of a horse-drawn coach at this point, earning the gratitude of an ancient fortune-teller, who told him he would only prosper with a lifetime of hard work. Palmer noted that she spoke pure Romani and that her words had to be interpreted by a cheroot-smoking younger woman

During its days as a county boundary, the head of the Raise was considered very much a frontier between the north and south of the Lake District, residents on each side holding the belief that little good came from the opposite end of the pass, a prejudice broken down only with easier access to cars and travel.

By the 1930s, Dunmail Raise was starting to become the busy motor road that we see today, deterring the traveller on foot or on horseback.  William Palmer, who had known the road from Victoria’s reign, noting that many of the old hummocks had been ironed out by successive road builders. More recently, the Raise has become the only Lakeland pass with an effective dual carriageway, the two opposing lanes trapping King Dunmail’s cairn on an island that can be hazardous to anyone who wants to walk there.

But despite these changes, today’s traveller is seeing much the same views of wild mountains and the broad vale of Grasmere as Wordsworth, William Palmer’s Gypsies, and the coach passengers who visited the Lake District during Queen Victoria’s reign. Every wanderer through this Lake District pass adds a tale to the long history of Dunmail Raise.

A Walk on Kerrera

Just a five minute ferry ride across from near Oban is the island of Kerrera. Delightful coast and moorland walking, fantastic views across to the Argyll mainland and out towards several Hebridean islands. Our walk took place on one of the hottest days I have ever known in Scotland. A perfect day for a walk.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

We chose to do the southern circuit of the island, from the ferry landing, so that we might see Gylen Castle and the views towards Jura. The walk around the island is on a good track, with reasonable gradients. There are many reminders that Kerrera was once part of the kingdom of Norway. It is not difficult to imagine Viking longships slipping into the quiet coves of this island.

One of the first places you come to, walking southwards, is Horseshoe Bay, where in 1249 Alexander II of Scotland began his campaign to reclaim the Hebrides from Norwegian control. His campaign never got off the ground. He was taken ill and died in a field nearby; called Dail Righ, the king’s field to this day. In 1263, a fleet of one hundred and twenty longships, under the command of Norway’s King Haakon I, moored here on the way to defeat at the Battle of Largs.  Kerrera is so unspoiled it feels like it all happened yesterday.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

At the next inlet, Little Horseshoe Bay is a row of
delightful cottages, once the homes of quarry workers, before becoming the centre of the local lobster industry.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

A mile further on is Gylen Castle, standing gaunt and mysterious on its clifftop above the swirling waters of the Atlantic. Okay – I admit they weren’t swirling when we got there. In fact the Atlantic was still and blue. But the atmosphere of this old ruin sinks into your imagination. Gylen Castle is a place haunted by bloody deeds. It could have come straight out of a story by Scott, or Neil Munro, or John Buchan. It cries out to be in a novel. In 1647, it was besieged by Leslie’s covenanters, who forced the garrison of clan MacDougall to surrender, slaughtering all the defenders, except one youth, as they came out. The castle was put to the torch, and has been abandoned ever since. We sat for a while on the stony beach nearby. All was perfect peace. It felt like the edge of the world. Souls can grow calm in places like that.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

Nearby we found refreshment at a tea garden before continuing our journey. They have a bunkhouse as well, if you are tempted to spend some time on this jewel in the Firth Of Lorne.

The western side of the island became wilder as we made our way northwards, the track narrower, but with superb views towards Mull and Morvern. At Bar-nam-Boc-Bay are the remains of what was once a port, a crossing point to Mull, a place where thousands of cattle a year were brought from the islands by drovers. You can almost hear the cry of the men and the lowing of the cattle amidst its ruins.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

Here we began to cross the island, back to the ferry, taking in the highest grounds of the walk. This high stretch is called Am Maolan – the Wild Place – and wild it is, seeming far higher and more remote than its contours would suggest. A long descent brought us back to Kerrera’s Victorian schoolhouse, and to the four o’clock ferry, which we caught with just half a minute to spare. If you haven’t been to Kerrera, then I can recommend it. The memories are priceless. A day out of the madness that we call modern life.

Text and pictures (c) John Bainbridge 2019