Around this time of the year they appear, and draw crowds of admirers. And I’m one. I look forward to seeing the bluebells and can’t wait until they make their first appearance of the year.
They are a stunning sight, whether as part of a woodland floor, or covering bare hillsides.
On Sunday we walked up to Flakebridge Wood, near to Appleby in Cumbria. A pleasant walk up Well House Lane, a quiet no through road, its own banks lined with the flowers. Flakebridge has some of the best bluebells in Cumbria and it is worth the trip if you are nearby. You can walk out the way we went, or start from Dufton, rambling through the bluebell-rich Dufton Gill on the way.
If you are in Devon, at the other end of the country, try looking at the lower banks of the River Mardle on south-east Dartmoor, or the southern slopes of Fire Beacon above Sidmouth.
Why are we so stunned by the sight of flowers? Why do we pause for a while to admire that great view across the countryside? What is it in our human make up that makes us appreciate such things?
I don’t have any answers. Only that life would be poorer if there were no bluebells. If they were about for much of the year, perhaps we’d take them for granted. It’s the brief glimpse that makes us admire them and miss them when they’ve gone.
So get out there into the countryside and enjoy them while you can – and fight to preserve the woodlands where they grow. The thought that future generations might not see such sights is thoroughly despairing – yet many of our ancient woodlands are under terrible threat from developers and exploiters.
Britain has lost much of its ancient woodlands – we should make sure that this destruction ends. So please support at least one group that is fighting for our countryside.
Over the next couple of weeks we are going out to seek more bluebells.
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…
There was a wonderful cloud inversion as we drove up Hartside on the way to Garrigill, for a walk along the Pennine Way and the South Tyne Trail. One of the best we’ve seen for a long time, hiding the levels of the Eden and the Solway. The high Pennines around were high above the clouds, a hard frost giving a ‘first taste of winter’ look to this wild northern countryside.
The road to Alston has one of the steepest climbs in the country as it ascends to Hartside – the once familiar cafe now a sad ruin after a recent fire. Interestingly, it was turnpiked in the 18th century at the expense of the Commissioners of Greenwich Hospital in London, mostly because they owned a lot of moorland around Alston.
Turnpikes were effectively toll roads, built at the expense of private companies. I suppose, given that there was no real income tax at the time, it was the only way roads could be funded. Companies did it for profit, of course.
The snag was that people had to pay for travel, no matter how poor they may be. Some rich travellers didn’t like to pay either. It wasn’t unknown for wealthy gents to leap the toll gates on their horses. George Templar of Stover, Devon, made rather a habit of it.
But in a round about way, the creation of toll roads might have preserved some of our old ways, our ancient tracks which are now rights of way. Cunning travellers, seeking ways to avoid paying at the tollhouses, would seek out any useful untolled track that took them in the right direction. Hence, old stretches of road, footpaths and bridleways gained a new and surreptitious use.
We had intended beginning our walk from Alston, but they were resurfacing the road through. Instead, we started from Garrigill, so familiar to walkers of the Pennine Way, who come down tired and thirsty from the wilderness around Cross Fell.
Garrigill a pretty little village, one of the remotest in England. It was once named Gerard’s Gill. During the productive years of the lead-mining industry over a thousand people lived in Garrigill. It has shrunk by several hundred since.
We followed the Pennine Way along the South Tyne, which also bears the route of the South Tyne Trail. A pretty walk this, along a particularly beautiful stretch of river. The autumn colours were at their best, and it was pleasing to see a considerable amount of fly agaric – associated so much with fairies and witchcraft. It’s a powerful hallucinegenic and dangerous. Witches, they say, used to make their flying ointment from it. We hadn’t seen any for a long time. It gets its name by its ability to attract flies, of course.
Above the path are several farms bearing the name Skydes, High, Middle and Low – interesting name, perhaps Norse? There’s a Danish word which is similar, meaning fire or fusillade or shooting. If anyone has a definite explanation of the word please let me know…
I never walk the Pennine Way without thinking of the many people who have walked it – not least Tom Stephenson who created it – I met him once a long time ago – and Wainwright, who wrote a guidebook, but didn’t like the trail very much.
Whatever your views, this stretch is a delight, wooded riverbank and surrounding high moorland.
We came out in Alston, the highest market town in England (though the folk of Buxton would dispute that claim) – a nightmare on this day as they were tarring the main road through. A pleasant place, which has been used for films and television. It was used in a recent production of Oliver Twist – appropriately for Charles Dickens visited the town in 1838 while researching his next novel Nicholas Nickleby.
Like Garrigill, it was a boom town in lead mining days. Silver was mined here too, the ore often being sent down for minting in Carlisle. Its market dates back to 1154.
Seeking a slight alternative back we took the well-established track to Nattrass Gill, passing through Annat Walls farm – where an old farmhouse has become a barn. Wonderful, these old buildings. So little changed. You could easily film a period drama in any one of them.
Nattrass Gill is a waterfall running through a wooded ravine, crossed by a narrow footbridge. It was a scenic spot beloved by Victorian tourists, though there were fewer trees in those days. The stone steps were put in to facilitate their access. A pretty spot, rather dramatic. Were in nearer the roads it would be thronged by modern-day tourists. Pleasant that you have to walk if you want to see it.
From Bleagate Farm – it gets a mention in documents dating back to the 1300s – we were retracing our steps of the morning, along the South Tyne back to Garrigill. The frost of the morning had lifted and there was bright sunshine, adding a delight to the autumn colours.
Brownber Hill – you see its splendid shape from so many places. Many gaze, I suspect, but few climb to its lonely summit. But why not? It’s a grand hill and a terrific viewpoint. A dramatic rampart of the Eden edge of the North Pennines.
It’s not that people don’t walk in the area. Nearby Dufton Pike is regularly climbed – and Brownber is higher than Dufton Pike. The Pennine Way runs not far away. The leadmining valley of Threlkeld Side goes to one side of Brownber.
It may well be, and I don’t know, that before the CRoW Act (Countryside and Rights of Way Act) access to Brownber Hill might have been discouraged.
But it’s access land now.
We walk in this area a great deal. We’ve never seen anyone ascending, descending or on the top of Brownber Hill. And, I have to admit, we hadn’t either until yesterday, though we’ve often meant to do it. Walkers in the area could do both Brownber and Dufton Pike in a pleasant morning expedition.
We followed the Pusgil Track up from Dufton, passing Dufton Pike, to where the footpath heads downs to the Rundale Beck. Crossing the wall by a stile we walked steeply downhill and crossed the beck.
Now, despite being access land there’s no actual access point on to Brownber Hill here (I seem to recall that the CRoW Act was supposed to create access points?) So we climbed a wooden fence by a wired-up gate.
A very clear path leads up to the top of the hill, undoubtedly created by a quad bike in its early stages. A simple but quite steep path that leads without argument to the summit of Brownber Hill.
Although Brownber comes to a dramatic and rocky edge above the beck, the highest point – and its debateable – is on a wide and featureless plateau. Sphagnum moss like a vast cushion to walk on, though curiously dry – no doubt because of the rock not far down.
The views from the top are excellent, along the line of border pikes and across the Eden Valley and across to the greater heights of the Lake District mountains. Beyond, and to the east and north, are the mysterious hills of the Pennines. Great walking country and free of the crowds you find in more popular hillscapes.
Brownber continues into its larger neighbour Rossgill Edge, a great rocky ledge where the lead-miners sunk shafts and made hushes. It would have been nice to continue our walk up on to its heights, but a fence-topped stone wall makes access difficult – another access denial that the Ramblers Association and the CRoW people should look at.
We followed the stone wall back down to the beck. In some ways the most dramatic side of the hill, where it attains a beautiful and craggy shape, great splurges of white quartz colouring the darker rocks.
An easy crossing of the beck and then back along the Pusgil Track to Dufton.
Brownber Hill is certainly worth a climb, though how splendid it would be if the access could be improved both on the Dufton Pike side and on the ridge between Brownber and Rossgill Edge.
Industry has brought its own tracks to our countryside. Many of the paths we follow today were created or adapted by those who worked the land in various ways, not least mining.
The Pennines have been worked for lead since at least Roman times, though there was a great spurt of activity in the Victorian age. A hard life it was too for those miners, dreadful hard work in appalling conditions. The pay was poor. Many of the miners died young.
I have mining ancestors, though they mined coal. They didn’t live very long, so I have considerable sympathy for the lead miners who worked in such a hard environment as the high hills of the Pennines.
We walked from Dufton up to Great Rundale Tarn in the hope of seeing the heather out, but it was long past its best – the long winter and the early summer heatwave seems to have interfered with the country calendar around here.
We’d last come this way in the winter, when the snow was still clinging to the Pennine hills. Re-walking a route in all seasons gives a good idea of what life might have been like for the men and women who lived and worked these hills in times past.
The track from Dufton runs past Pusgill, around Dufton Pike before making a steady ascent up through what is a land of dereliction, where the old lead mines would have been. Here are the adits, the remnants of shafts, the ruins of stone huts, the great rocky slopes of waste. The track itself along which men would have walked out from Dufton to face many hours of hard labour, until they could return to the comfort of their beds.
Mine workers never got rich from their toils in the Pennines (or elsewhere) – the fruits of their labours went into the pockets of the mine-owners and shareholders. Not a lot’s changed really!
There were a few grouse about as we came above the mining valley to the shooting box, which stands isolated on the edge of the Pennines plateau. But not as many as we saw in the winter, when we came across the blackcock. The wilderness – surely the last great wilderness in England – goes for many miles to the north-east, where the Tee, Tyne and Wear begin their journeys to the North Sea.
Great Rundale Tarn, with its little unamed neighbour stood cold and bleak on the top of the hill. The kind of mere where Grendel might have crept from in Beowulf. Not a place of beauty, more a little lake of nightmare, devoid of birdlife or much else. Worth looking at, though I preferred it on our winter walk when its waters were iced over.
We came back over White Rake and Cow Band, where there’s a lot more evidence of mining, including a hush – where miners stored water on the top of hills, releasing it in a great rush to remove the top-soil, to reveal the ore. Here too are shafts, drainage adits and the wrecks of more huts.
A grand place for good views too, clear across the Eden valley to the far hills of the Lake District.
I can find little written material about these mines, even though the industry continued until into the last century. We can only surmise what happened along the Great Rundale Beck from what we know about Pennine lead-mining generally.
A lovely day, but you leave the place thanking your lucky stars you weren’t forced to work the day through, and possibly the night as well, as a lead-miner.
Back in the days when I was an area footpaths secretary for the Ramblers Association, the usual moan of the country landowners association was that our quaint network of footpaths should be cut down and rationalised because, they said, “who is interested in the way our ancestors walked to church?”
Er, well actually I am, just as I’m interested in the way drovers took the beasts over the hillside, pedlars and jaggers used our ancient paths to travel from village to hamlet, and miners made tracks on their way to distant moorland mines.
It’s what this blog’s all about. Our path network is a hugely important part of British history, as relevant to our understanding of the past as Stonehenge, our great cathedrals, our ancient castles and our country’s battlefields.
But these paths are only of value if we are walking in the steps of our ancestors, which is why I believe they should never be closed and diverted only in exceptional circumstances. I’ve seen some terrible diversions agreed by rambling group footpath officers, some of whom shouldn’t be in the job.
These thoughts came to mind a lot as we walked from the Cumbrian village of Dufton to its parish church, which is situated some three-quarters of a mile from the village – a long way for the villagers to walk on a sunday. They had an immediate choice of walking there along a quiet country lane which leads to the hamlet of Knock, while farmers coming from the Pennines side of the valley could use a rather charming public footpath which exists today, winding across the farm field through a splendid squeeze stile into the churchyard.
We walked out of Dufton, the place of the doves, beloved of the poet Auden, and sought out this path, knowing we were walking in the steps of generations of local people who’ve walked this way. These were lands owned by some of the famous names, such as the Dacres and the Howards.
Dufton Church is an absolute delight. St. Cuthbert’s is ¾ mile north west of the village between Dufton and Knock. Some of the present church fabric dates to at least the 12th century, though there was almost certainly a church on this spot much earlier. Tradition says that St Cuthbert’s body was rested here, having been carried by the Lindisfarne monks fleeing from the Vikings during ninth century. It was rebuilt in 1784 and again in 1853.
Today, it has a wonderfully peaceful atmosphere. Well worth a visit even on this shortest of walks. Following a rather nice and growing tradition, they have filled a back pew with second-hand books on sale to help refurbish the church fabric. I purchased a copy of the short stories of Maxim Gorky, published in Moscow – you do wonder how the book ended up in such a very English church?
Have you noticed that it’s not uncommon for churches to be situated a long way from their parish village? There’s no explanation as to why Dufton church was placed where it is, though it is almost equidistant between Dufton and Knock, so that might be a reason. Chapel goers in Dufton were spared the walk, their chapel being within the village confines.
There are similar splendid examples in Dorset, while on Dartmoor, Okehampton church is a good way out of the town, and Brent Tor is situated on the very top of a rugged hilltop. Perhaps these distant locations were a test of faith?
Whenever I follow a church path I always recall that scene in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles when Tess and the other milkmaids from Talbothays Farm are walking to church and have to be carried across a ford by Angel Clare.
The path continued across the churchyard and we followed it to the lane leading into Knock, a remote Pennine hamlet with some rather splendid architecture. We walked up the bridleway leading to the rounded hill of Knock Pike, in search of blackberries, but we were too late for any worth picking – many a walker on the old ways would have mouched in the same way over the centuries.
We travelled the footpath to the Rundale Beck, and then took the Pennine Way back into Dufton, a route we know well. Some of these paths made for animal droving or used by the lead miners who’ve frequented this place since Roman times.
I’m appalled that the Ministry of Defence is applying to deregister Hilton, Murton and Warcop Commons near to Appleby -in what Commons campaigner Kate Ashbrook has described as “the biggest threat to Common Land Since the Enclosure Movement”.
Now we walk a great deal on these threatened lands, which are part of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s stunning scenery and offers real wild walking of the finest quality.
I hope this will be vigorously resisted.
Friends of the Lake District say:
Cumbria County Council has announced a two day public inquiry into the applications by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to deregister Hilton, Murton and Warcop Commons, near Appleby in Westmorland.
These commons represent 3% of the stock of common land in Cumbria. 15 years ago the MoD applied to extinguish the common rights over the land to give them more control and flexibility. At that time, they stated categorically that they would not apply to deregister the land as common land. This is now precisely what they have done, with little or no evidence as to why. The applications are strongly opposed by ourselves, the Open Spaces Society (OSS), the Foundation for Common Land, the Federation of Cumbrian Commoners, and the local residents.
The inquiry will take place on 12 – 13 September and will be Barrister led. It will only focus on the legal issues surrounding the applications. This is very complex and the OSS has engaged their own Barrister to present their case which we support. There are issues of principle at stake here, namely the fact that the applications are completely at odds with Government policy on common land, that the MoD expressly undertook not to deregister the commons, and also that we believe the applications do not meet the legislative requirements.
Kate Ashbrook, General Secretary – The Open Spaces Society writes:
Local and national organisations(1) are campaigning to stop the Ministry of Defence from destroying a vast area of Cumbria’s cultural history. The MoD wants to deregister three large upland commons(2)and turn them into private land. Objectors say the deregistration would be unlawful and flies in the face of undertakings made by the MoD, at a public inquiry, to keep the commons registered in perpetuity(3).
MoD will privatise around 1% (4,500 hectares) of England’s total common land(4) if Cumbria County Council grants it permission(5). This would be the largest enclosure since the major enclosures of commons in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The threatened commons are to the north-east of Appleby-in-Westmorland, in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
If the land is deregistered, it will bring to an end hundreds of years of tradition of upland commoning, and the farming community, which used to have vital grazing rights over this land, would be denied any opportunity in future to graze their stock there.
The land would also lose protection against encroachment and development since works on common land require the consent of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in addition to any planning permission.
William Patterson of the Hilton Commoners’ Association said: ‘When the MOD negotiated the buy-out and extinguishment of the commoners’ grazing rights (known as ‘stints’) on Hilton Fell, Murton Fell and Warcop Fell, one of the fundamental issues was MoD’s agreement to leave the fells on the commons register. On the strength of this undertaking, the commoners accepted the buy-out. It is a breach of trust that the MoD now wants to cancel that undertaking without making a further agreement. I believe that to safeguard the future of these fells the land must remain on the commons register.’
Julia Aglionby of Foundation for Common Land commented: ‘Common land is the most valuable and protected type of land in England, an immensely precious resource for society that has already been reduced to a mere 3% of England’s area. The MoD’s arguments for deregistering 11,000 acres of commons at Warcop are spurious, legally contestable and not in the national interest.’
Viv Lewis of The Federation of Cumbria Commoners said: ‘The Federation is very much opposed to the MoD’s proposal to de-register Hilton, Murton and Warcop commons. Common land is important to hill farmers and makes up some of our most treasured landscapes. If the hills stop being common land and the commoners lose their rights to graze and the sheep leave the hills, what’s to become of the uplands?’
Jan Darrall, of Friends of the Lake District added: ‘The three commons of Warcop, Hilton and Murton amount to 3% of Cumbria’s common land. There is no foundation for the MoD to deregister our commons and destroy our cultural heritage and to deny local use. They gave undertakings during the 2001 Inquiry that the land would remain as common land and are now reneging on this so as to have total control over the land for who knows what? We need to fight for our rich common land to remain for all to enjoy.’
Hugh Craddock, of the Open Spaces Society commented: ‘For too long, the MoD has wasted taxpayers’ money ruminating on theoretical risks to the future of the Warcop training estate which have no substance in reality. Now the MoD is wasting more money, and other people’s time, on pursuing an application for deregistration of the Warcop, Hilton and Murton commons which is not only unnecessary and misguided, but entirely contrary to undertakings it previously gave. We shall fight the MoD in its pointless campaign which has dragged on for too long. We hope that the MoD sees sense and withdraws its application, and focuses its resources on managing the Warcop commons in accordance with the commitments it gave in 2002.’
1 The organisations are: Hilton Commoners’ Association, Cumbria Federation of Commons, the Foundation for Common Land, the Friends of the Lake District, and the Open Spaces Society.
2 Common land is land subject to rights of common, to graze animals or collect wood for instance, or waste land of the manor not subject to rights. The public has the right to walk on nearly all commons, and to ride on many. Any works on common land require the consent of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, under section 38 of the Commons Act 2006, in addition to any planning permission.
The three registered Commons are Hilton, Murton and Warcop. The applications to Cumbria County Council are listed as CA14/3 -CL26 Murton; CA14/4 -CL27 Hilton Fell; & -CL122 Burton Fell and Warcop Fell.
3 A public inquiry, held in Appleby in 2001, led to all grazing rights on the commons being bought out by the MoD. In return the MoD created some additional access opportunities on Murton Common and undertook not to deregister the Commons. It also undertook to create new common rights to ensure that the commons would exist in perpetuity. These limited rights were never delivered by the MoD.
4 Cumbria contains around 31% of the registered common land in England which is mostly in the uplands—the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, and North Pennines. The area covered by commons in Cumbria is 112,786 ha and these three commons cover some 4,500 ha.
5 Cumbria County Council is the commons registration authority for the county and has received three applications from the MoD to deregister the commons of Murton, Hilton and Warcop. The Council will determine the applications but the objectors believe that if it approves them, it would not be in accordance with the Commons Act 2006.