Sedbergh – and you lift up your eyes to the wonderful Howgill Fells. A favourite range of hills for me. But the lower ground, in the river valleys below Sedbergh makes for grand walking as well. Just into the New Year we fancied a short walk in the area, so that we could spend some time browsing in the Sedbergh bookshops afterwards – it is after all a book town.
Sedbergh is also the home of an English public (private) school. They were mowing the grass on the sports fields as we wandered through, for the pupils were due back later in the day.
As always, I think of one particular ex-pupil when I pass by the school – F. Spencer Chapman, whose books were everywhere when I was young. Spencer Chapman was a considerable mountaineer and arctic explorer in his younger days. He was on Gino Watkins’ last expedition in Greenland. He then spent over three years organising resistance groups behind the Japanese lines in World War Two. He wrote some memorable books, which are still worth reading, such as Watkins’ Last Expedition, Memoirs of a Mountaineer, The Jungle is Neutral and Living Dangerously.
There’s no doubt that his years as a soldier behind enemy lines affected him greatly. He seemed to have difficulty in settling down to domestic life in the post-war years. In modern terms he probably suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. His experiences and ill-health led him to suicide.
These places around Sedbergh must all have been known to him, perhaps fuelling his love of adventure.
Our walk led us down to the picturesque hamlet of Birks, before we took footpaths across the fields to Brigflatts. An interesting hamlet, for here is a Quaker meeting house dating back to 1874, visited and inspired by Charles James Fox. I’m going to do a walk soon in the steps of the Quakers so I’ll leave it there for now. All I will say, is that the Meeting Place is a building of great peace with a restful garden to sit in. Across the lane is the peaceful Quakers’ Burial Ground – the last resting place of the poet Basil Bunting.
We walked up to the road and then up a very beautiful bridleway past Ingmire Hall, though there are few glimpses of the building from the path. Ingmire Hall is a 16th Century house built around the remains of a pele tower. It was enlarged in the early nineteenth century, partially destroyed by fire in the 1920s and partially remodelled in 1989.
A short road walk brought us to a farm track leading up to the old farming hamlet of Underwinder – appropriately named for it stands hard under the great hill of Winder, then a steep climb up to Howgill Lane, which we followed downhill back into Sedbergh. Then a delicious hour browsing in the second-hand bookshops. A heavenly way to spend a day.
But glancing up at the Howgill Fells – and there are splendid vistas of Winder as you do this walk – reminds us that it’s a while since we’ve climbed their beautiful rounded slopes. No wonder the Sedbergh school song celebrates this fine landscape:
Oh Eton hath her River and Clifton hath her down, And Winchester her cloisters and immemorial town. But ours the mountain fastness, the deep romantic ghylls, Where Clough and Dee and Rawthey, Come singing from the hills!
Refrain For it isn’t our ancient lineage, there are others as old as we. And it isn’t our pious founders, though we honour their memory. ‘Tis the hills that are stood around us, unchanged since our days began. It is Cautley, Calf and WINDER, that make the Sedbergh man.
(Winder to sound a bit like window, rather than winding something up).
A while now since I’ve walked on the South Downs – but here’s a memory of the downland in winter – taken from my book Wayfarer’s Dole…
On a frozen day in February I was on the South Downs again, walking up to Rackham Hill from Burpham. The village stands at the end of a lane that is a terminus for motor traffic, but continues in several directions for those on foot or horseback. Burpham’s church was begun in Saxon times, standing hard by the earthen banks of a hill fort.
Whether that was built by Saxons or Danes is subject to much dispute. In the first half of the last century its vicar was Tickner Edwardes, who wrote some delightful books on the countryside and the craft of keeping bees. Burpham is a delightful village. John Ruskin commented that he would live there if Coniston didn’t exist.
I took the lane to High Peppering, passing a herd of bison in a field as I set out. These Downs are covered in antiquities, and a tumulus known as the Burgh was the first on my route. Even in February skylarks danced almost invisibly in the heights, the great sweep of downland alive with their song.
The hillside was a gentle acclivity, just steep enough to make me warm up and breathe in the fresh air. The chalk was frozen hard and slippery, walking had to be done with care. I was following an ancient track, leading up from Burpham and the valley of the Arun the important track that followed the ridge of the higher Downs.
I find it humbling, walking the ways people have journeyed for countless millennia. These tracks, now the recreational delight of walker and rider remain functional – farmers still use them. Sheep are driven here, as they have been since man first farmed the Downs. They grazed beside me, making an occasional sound to add to the singing of the larks. I watched them as the combatants of past wars, the pedlars, the pilgrims and other travellers of times gone must have done.
There is a timelessness about so much of our countryside, as though you could glance sideways and see history relived all around. In a sense you can, for the traces of the past are everywhere. Within view of these old tracks are prehistoric flint mines, field systems and burial mounds. An hour’s wandering brought me to Rackham Banks, an immense earthwork of deep trenches and mighty ramparts. Its purpose is debatable, but as I sat there in a freezing breeze I could not help but consider how much work was involved in the construction.
The slight haze from the early frost had lifted. I could see for many miles. Amberley Wild Brooks were flooded, offering an irregular silver sheen in the plain at the foot of the hill. In another direction were the downs and borstals of Arundel Park, white with ice. A herd of Friesian cattle huddled together out of the wind on the leeward slope of Amberley Mount.
Tearing myself away I climbed on to the ridge path running over Rackham Hill, now part of the South Downs Way national trail. Despite a height of just a few hundred feet it seemed as though I was on top of the world. And in a sense I was for every trace of the stress which comes with everyday living had vanished.
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…
George Borrow, the Victorian writer and traveller, had links with Scotland long before he undertook his great tour of the country in 1858. As a boy he had studied at the High School in Edinburgh during the winter months of 1813-14, arriving in the city with his father’s regiment, the West Norfolk Militia, garrisoning the Castle towards the close of the Napoleonic Wars.
These were wild times for the young Borrow. When not at school he was caught up in boyish battles between the Old and New Towns. He made the acquaintance of the militia’s drummer boy, David Haggart, who deserted soon afterwards to become a notorious burglar and footpad, hanged in 1821 for killing his gaoler at Dumfries. Borrow spent much of his youth on the march with the regiment, giving him a taste for a life of vagabondage.
Despite an adventurous adulthood, spent living with Gypsies in England and touring Spain as a missionary – expeditions that inspired his books Lavengro and The Bible in Spain – he never forgot this youthful time in Scotland. In Lavengro he was to recall the excitement of crossing the Tweed into the northern kingdom and gaining a first view of the Highlands.
George Borrow visited Scotland in 1858, mourning the recent death of his beloved mother. He had found the grief difficult to cope with and his wife suggested a palliative walking tour ‘to recruit his health and spirit’. Even in middle age Borrow was an indefatigable tramper. In younger days he had walked the 112 miles from London to Norwich in a single day. In 1854 he had undertook a vast pedestrian exploration of Wales in search of that land’s ancient literature, immortalised in his classic book Wild Wales. This inveterate walker would often remark to his long-suffering wife ‘I’m just going for a walk’ and then disappear for weeks at a time.
Writing to a friend he was to recall that ‘in the latter part of the year ’58, I visited the Highlands and walked several hundred miles amongst them’. Borrow’s notebooks and letters suggest that he had thoughts of turning his experiences into a book, a companion to Wild Wales, but depression and the ill-fortune of a writing life meant the project was abandoned. It is, however, possible, using the notes he made, to recreate the route Borrow took during this extensive Scottish tour.
Borrow started out from his old stamping ground of Edinburgh, after coming much of the way by ship from Yarmouth. He was not particularly impressed. He wrote to his wife that the city was ‘wonderfully altered since I was here, and I don’t think for the better’. A winding route took him through Glasgow and on to Inverness.
These early days were not happy, for Borrow, argumentative at the best of times, had fallen foul of a ferryman whilst crossing the Firth. ‘The other day,’ he complained to his wife, ‘I was swindled out of a shilling by a villain to whom I had given it for change.’ Borrow had wanted to recourse to law but, he reported, the ferryman ‘had a clan about him…and I should have been outsworn’.
Once on the move, Borrow was much happier. He took a steamer from Inverness to Fort Augustus, amidst what he describes in his notebook as ‘a dreadful hurricane of wind and rain’. Despite the weather he was more in his element, meeting a woman from Dornoch who, though having no Gaelic herself, showed him a Gaelic book of spiritual songs by ‘one Robertson’ and talked to him about Alexander Cumming, ‘a fat blacksmith and great singer of Gaelic songs’. Borrow was a polyglot who could speak over twenty languages and had more than a nodding acquaintance with the Gaelic.
He spent four days in Fort Augustus, exploring the locality. He records that ‘the first day I passed over the Corryarrick…nearly up to my middle in snow. As soon as I had passed it I was in Badenoch. The road on the farther side was horrible, and I was obliged to wade several rivulets, one of which was very boisterous and nearly threw me down’.
On October 22nd Borrow left Oban for Mull which in his own words he ‘traversed in every direction’, commenting that the scenery was ‘very wild country, perhaps the wildest in Europe’. From his notes and letters it is clear that he climbed Ben More, where he gathered some moss for his step-daughter Henrietta, and visited Salen, Iona and Tobermory, whilst staying with Ann Petrie at the Mull Hotel for a shilling a night. On the conclusion to this visit, Borrow noted that ‘the best Scottish Gaelic is said to be spoken in the Isle of Mull, which, however, is very thinly inhabited’.
According to his notes, Borrow left Oban for Greenock via the ‘Mull of Cantire’ (Kintyre) finally arriving in Glasgow, the whole journey accomplished in one day on November 3rd, though by what means of transportation is unclear. From Glasgow he returned to Inverness by train.
This journey was the occasion of another Borrovian argument. Stretching his legs during a ten minute break in the journey at Huntly, the train went without him. ‘Purposely,’ he complained to his wife, almost as though the locomotive had a life of its own.
He telegraphed ahead to Keith so that his luggage might be rescued. A reply came that it could not be found. ‘I instantly said that I would bring an action against the company, and walked off to the town, where I stated the facts to a magistrate. He advised me to bring my action. I went back and found the people frightened. They telegraphed again – and the reply came back that the things were safe’. Borrow in full ire could be a threatening prospect, over six feet tall and trained in the art of boxing.
By 21st November Borrow was in Thurso, writing to his wife that since his last letter to her he had walked 160 miles. ‘I have been to Johnny Groat’s (sic). I had tolerably fine weather all the way, but within two or three miles of that place a terrible storm arose; the next day the country was covered with ice and snow. There is at present a kind of Greenland winter, colder almost than I ever knew the winter in Russia’.
After having to wait impatiently for a steamer, Borrow crossed over to Orkney where he visited the cathedral in Kirkwall and Hoy. Here he had a chance to revel in his status as a famous author. ‘I have been treated here with every kindness and civility. As soon as the people knew who I was they could scarcely make enough of me’. On the 28th November he crossed to Shetland, buying ‘shawls, veils and hosiery’ in a shop in Lerwick, before returning by boat to Aberdeen, then back to Inverness.
Sending on his possessions, Borrow undertook one last magnificent tramp through the Highlands, from Inverness to Dunkeld and then to Stirling. ‘I never enjoyed a walk more – the weather was tolerably fine, and I was amidst some of the finest scenery in the world’. From Stirling he took the fashionable walking tour into the Trossachs to see Loch Katrine and Loch Lomond ‘thirty-eight miles over horrible roads’. He had read about the area in the novels of Walter Scott, whose books he admired even though Borrow couldn’t ever stomach the promotion of what he called ‘Charlie-over-the-waterism’, being a confirmed anti-Jacobite.
At the end of his long journey, Borrow wrote to his wife ‘I have now seen the whole of Scotland that is worth seeing, and walked 600 miles; a person here must depend entirely upon himself and his own legs’.
He died at Oulton in Suffolk in 1881, mostly forgotten and with his books out of favour. Only with the renewed interest in country walking at the turn of the 20th century did George Borrow become popular again. It is one of the tragedies of walking literature that Borrow did not write a book on Scotland to match Wild Wales. His interest in the Scottish people and the Gaelic language might have provided a classic of Scottish travel.
I’ve written a short eBook about my interest in George Borrow (out now for just 99 pence/cents.) Here’s a link if you want to have a look.
The Lich Way on Dartmoor, running from Bellever to Lydford was the first corpse road I ever followed, a long stretch across some of the wildest parts of the Moor. In fact, I helped to identify a probable early part of the route, correcting the way marked on the Ordnance Survey map, during my time at the Dartmoor Preservation Association. It’s a track well worth seeking out.
I’ve walked a number of corpse paths since in various parts of the country, including some of the best-known in Cumbria. But in the past couple of weeks I’ve learned about a great many more – including some we’ve walked without even realising it…
All thanks to a splendid new book on the subject by Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park – The Corpse Roads of Cumbria (Chitty Mouse Press ISBN 9781985190344) which I absolutely recommend.
A fortnight ago, we went to a talk by Alan at Penrith Library. If he repeats the talk near to you do go and listen. Alan’s a terrific speaker who shares his enthusiasm for these ancient paths in a very informative way. Walking the ways that the folk of old used to convey their dear departed to their last resting places makes you look at the whole countryside and its paths in a new way.
Alan and Lesley’s sumptuously illustrated book is well-worth getting. Worth reading even if you live a long way away from Cumbria, for the wealth of knowledge not only about the paths themselves, but on the tales and legends that go with them.
Did you know, for instance, that you can have bridal paths as well as bridlepaths? And what does happen if you encounter corpse candles or death lights? And just what was the death-chair of Brampton? Want to know how to identify a coffin-rest? And do you really want to hear a death-rap?
Even if you are not superstitious, these old paths take you into the very heart of some great walking country, and the authors have provided some excellent maps to help you follow in their footsteps. There are lots of new walks for us listed and we’re looking forward to seeking them out over the coming months.
One particular path of interest is the oft-walked and well-signposted corpse road between Ambleside and Grasmere. But is it? As the authors point out, William Wordsworth, who had two homes adjacent to it and who walked it every day, never mentioned it as a corpse way. Intriguing!
To go back to Dartmoor – apart from the Lich Way (you’ll find the route described in William Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor) there were other shorter corpse roads. On Dartmeet Hill is the Coffin Stone, a natural boulder inscribed with crosses and the initials of the dead whose corpses were rested upon it on their way to Widecombe Church – legend has it that the great crack in it appeared when the body of some evil-doer was placed upon it – and retributive lightning split it in two?
The Corpse Roads of Cumbria is available through all good bookshops, other stores in Cumbria and online. Do read it!
THE COMPLEAT TRESPASSER Journeys into the Heart of Forbidden Britain by John Bainbridge
WALK MAGAZINE SAID OF THE COMPLEAT TRESPASSER:
“On a vagabonding tour through Britain’s most delightful countryside and forbidden tracts, Bainbridge charts the history of access and assesses the present state of the law. Villainous landowners feature; so do the likes of GHB Ward and CEM Joad, calling at rallies for access to mountain and moor. Gamekeepers, spring-guns and mass trespasses also get a look-in. Redolent of country air, with nature and archaeology dealt with in graphic style, the book evokes the age of campaigns before words like ‘stakeholder’ and ‘partnership’ were hatched out. The author lends his support to the England Coast Path campaign and calls for the Scottish access model to be extended throughout Britain. It’s thought-provoking stuff and well worth a read.”
In 1932, five ramblers in England were imprisoned for daring to walk in their own countryside. The Mass Trespass on to Kinder Scout, which led to their arrests, has since become an iconic symbol of the campaign for the freedom to roam in the British countryside.
The Compleat Trespasser – Journeys Into The Heart Of Forbidden Britain, written by outdoor journalist John Bainbridge, looks at just why the British were – and still are – denied responsible access to much of their own land. This book examines how events throughout history led to the countryside being the preserve of the few rather than the many.
It examines the landscapes to which access is still denied, from stretches of moorland and downland to many of our beautiful forests and woodlands. It poses the question: should we walk and trespass through these areas regardless of restrictions?
An inveterate trespasser, John Bainbridge gives an account of some of his own journeys into Britain’s forbidden lands, as he walks in the steps of poachers, literary figures and pioneer ramblers. The book concludes with a helpful chapter of “Notes for Prospective Trespassers”, giving a practical feel to this handbook on the art of trespass. At a time when government is putting our civil liberties at threat, destroying the beauties of our countryside, and your right to access it, this book is a most useful read.
Epiacum, the Romans called it, a second-century fort built to guard the empire’s interests in Pennine lead mining, and probably to provide backup for Hadrian’s Wall. It’s unique in being the only lozenge-shaped fort in Britain – rather than the more familiar playing-card shape, and has the most complex defences of any Roman fort yet found. By coincidence, I’ve just finished reading Bernard Cornwell’s latest historical novel War of the Wolf, where he uses the fort fictionally in a climactic Viking battle several centuries after the Romans left our shores.
It’s a wonderfully lonely spot, high up on the fells with just isolated farms nearby and miles of wild countryside all around. You can drive there, but we preferred to walk from the market town of Alston, three miles away. The paths up there are pleasant too, the Pennine Way and Isaac’s Tea Trail.
Isaac’s Tea Trail? Isn’t that grand! But this isn’t an invented route linking up all the tea-shops in the vicinity. It’s named in honour of the legendary tea-seller, itinerant, jagger and well thought-of fundraiser Isaac Holden. Isaac began his working life as a lead miner in these hills. He travelled these hills, selling tea – then quite a pricey commodity – to isolated farming communities. The trail, thirty-six miles long, uses many of the ancient paths he would have taken.
We hope to walk much more of this path in time, but we very much enjoyed our first experience of it on the walk up to Epiacum – the Roman fort must have been quite a familiar sight to Isaac as he earned his hard living.
I’ve written before about the joys of Alston – high up in the North Pennines. Familiar if you’ve never been there as a film location. Productions of Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre and some of the Catherine Cookson films have used it as a setting. You can see why. Take away the cars and some minor infrastructure and you could easily be back a couple of centuries.
Memories of a war of a later time were evoked as we walked past Alston’s War Memorial. I write this as we near the centenary of the Armistice. My great uncle, Harry Howl Jeffs was killed in October 1918, just a fortnight before the end of the Great War, having served for much of the conflict. Fortunately my grandfather Joseph Bainbridge came home from the Trenches. My own father, another Joe Bainbridge, survived a great deal of fighting in World War Two. I read the names on all war memorials – men and women who lived in beautiful countryside like this never to come back. I wonder what the Romans stationed up at Epiacum would think if they could know that two thousand years after their time we still haven’t found a way of weaning the human race away from war.
A lovely stretch of the Tea Trail and Pennine Way followed as we made our way uphill into wilder countryside. It reminded me of some parts of the Scottish Borders and, of course, it really is. The wild frontier of the Roman Empire. At least after the Romans had to withdraw from the line of the Antonine Wall.
After Harbut Law, we climbed and then descended to the beautiful valley of the Gilderdale Burn, which we crossed on a footbridge. The Gilderdale Burn is the boundary between Cumberland and Northumberland. It must have been so familiar to the Romans marching this way along the nearby Roman road known as the Maiden Way.
A long but gradual ascent through sheep ranges brought us at last to Whitley Castle, Epiacum. Even though all that is left are the long mounds which were once the footage of walls and the defensive ditches it is still very impressive. Such was the confidence of its Roman defenders, that it’s actually overlooked by higher ground, itself covered by the mounds and scars of more recent lead mining activity.
We searched the molehills in vain for Roman artefacts – not that we ever have any luck. Some people do, however, and “molehill archaeology” events are occasionally held at the site. There’s a board with a useful illustration of what Epiacum might have looked like. The glory that was the Roman Empire might have left this spot, but the site is still magnificent.
We followed the footpath down to Kirkhaugh Railway Station, on what is now the South Tynedale Railway heritage line. In fact, the station is a shelter and not much more but, in the season, you can catch an old train here from Alston and walk up to Epiacum – a thrilling way to get there.
The South Tynedale Railway was once part of the main railway line between Alston and Haltwhistle. In an act of folly by British Rail it was closed to passengers in 1976. Fortunately, enthusiasts replaced the line with a two foot narrow gauge railway – the highest in England and is now run as a charitable institution. The charity has several steam and diesel engines and is working on the restoration of more. We will certainly be seeking a ride in the future.
The South Tyne Trail runs alongside the railway line, fenced off for safety. A lovely level stretch of the trail, open for both walkers and cyclists. The scenery along the South Tyne river is very attractive. We crossed back from Northumberland into Cumberland along the way back to Alston.
As we wandered back, I thought a lot about Isaac Holden, the jagger in tea, who would have known every fell and valley in these wild hills. A tough life no doubt, but probably a healthier and safer one than lead mining. We hope to walk more of his Tea Trail in the future.
Despite the Tea Trail route and the Pennine Way, this is still countryside neglected by lots of walkers. So if you fancy a change from the fells of the Lake District why not give it a go?