Exploring Unknown Footpaths

Richard Jefferies, the Victorian country chronicler, was always full of praise for country footpaths – “always get over a stile” was his motto. And he was right. You never know what you might find when you take a walk down a public footpath or bridleway that you haven’t been down before.

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The Modern Stone Circle (c) John Bainbridge 2019

A few blogs ago, I mentioned that we had started to explore public footpaths to the west of the Cumbrian (properly Westmorland) village of Maulds Meaburn. We just scratched the surface last time. This time we walked further into unknown countryside.

And what did we see? Well, how about two modern stone circles? A house lived in by a Victorian artist? A quiet and peaceful hamlet with a coal-mining history? Not to mention some very peaceful and, I suspect, mostly untrodden countryside – and I mean that. While locals may use these paths, there were few signs that ramblers from further afield come here very often.

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Snowdrops in the lane (c) John Bainbridge 2019

We set off from Crosby Ravensworth, following the now familiar Servants’ Path (see blogs passim) past Flass House to Maulds Meaburn, that charming village where sheep still graze on the village greens.

Just past Low Bridge, we took the footpath to Howebeck Bridge, where there is a splendid and ancient stone step stile out on to the lane. At the foot of Morland Bank, we took the footpath past the charmingly named Prickly Bank Wood towards Reagill hamlet. Judging by the lack of footprints, not many people walk this way, though the path runs through charming countryside with good view over the Pennines. There are also some splendid old agricultural buildings along the route.

Before we got to Reagill, below Beechwood Farm, we noticed that someone had built a small but well made stone circle, to a prehistoric design. And not much further on, just before we struck the Reagill lane, we saw another modern circle, inscribed with mystical words. I’d be fascinated to know more about these and why they were built. if you know, please comment below.

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Old Agricultural Building (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Reagill seems to be one of the hamlets that time forgot, though it has an interesting history. It was once called Renegill, and the nearby Grange was the home of the 19th century artist and sculptor Thomas Bland, who decorated the neighbourhood with some of his sculpted work. In centuries past, the rich seem of coal that runs underground here was worked on a small-scale, though there a record of at least one fatality.

But now Reagill is a place of peace, clinging to its hillside, high above the Eden valley, with vast views across to the Pennines. Apart from locals, you wonder who ever comes here? Yet there are a number of public footpaths around the place, which deserve to be better known and used.

We followed the lane down past Reagill Grange, once the home of Thomas Bland, taking the bridleway and then a footpath to the very small hamlet of Witherslack (lovely name!) which is little more than a working farm.

Although you can walk back to Crosby Ravensworth by paths, we chose to follow the quiet lanes, as they offer wide views across the valley of the River Lyvenett.

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River Lyvenett (c) John Bainbridge 2019

All through our walk we didn’t see another walker, despite this being unspoiled and very attractive countryside. Yet walking the old ways is important. Without regular use, they may simply be lost.

How splendid if guidebook writers would abandon the well-walked areas and turn their pens to writing up walks on the little-used footpaths and bridleways…

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Walking Sacred Landscapes

There’s no doubt that the people who lived in this country in what we call prehistory regarding the land as sacred. Just look around and see the stone circles, henges and stone rows they left behind. It is hard for us to enter their mindset, though most folk still experience a sense of wonder when they visit these historic sites.

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The Cockpit Stone Circle (c) John Bainbridge 2019

The question that often occurs to me is whether the places where the circles, rows etc. now stand were in some way held to be sacred before those structures were erected. That might explain why, in some cases, stones for these antiquities were often brought considerable distances to the sites where they now stand. Why bother? Why not just use the stones of the local area, or erect these monuments close to where the source stones were?

I’m an amateur antiquarian and not an archaeologist, so I’m not qualified to give an opinion. If you are please comment below with your thoughts…

But just look at the surviving sites – the great monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury, the rich archaeology of Dartmoor, the many stone circles of Aberdeenshire, the wonders of Kilmartin Glen in Argyll – the list goes on.

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The Copstone (c) John Bainbridge 2019

I was considering this the other day when we were taking one of our regular walks on the edge of the Lake District, across the fells of Askham and Moor Divock.

There’s no doubt that this wide stretch of moorland was one of these sacred stretches of landscape – the evidence is there for all to see with the remnants of rows, an excellent stone circle now called The Cockpit, banks and ditches. In my Dartmoor days we would have described it as a sanctuary.

And where these ancient people went – and we should think of them not as savages but as human beings as mentally sophisticated as we are – we have a multiplicity of trackways. The ways that these men and women took not only to survive day to day, but to access sacred sites.

On the fells around Moor Divock, there are a great many tracks. Some undoubtedly of recent origin, but others which must have existed for thousands of years.

Crossing the hillside is the Roman road known as High Street. Was it built by the Romans? I don’t think so. I think it was a prehistoric way across the eastern Lake District fells, that the Romans adopted and probably improved.

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High Street (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Take a walk along it and consider that – High Street not a relatively recent Roman road, but one of the oldest roads in Britain. Perhaps dating back to Neolithic times when the men and women who dwelt in these hills first felt the need to travel regularly, unlike their ancestors, the hunters who had no defined routes, but simply followed the herds of animals they needed for food.

When we walk the old ways, we are often walking in the steps of the most ancient of our ancestors. So take a walk along the old tracks and visit these old sites – the circles, henges and row. Take a walk and wonder as well as wander.

 

Land Beyond Domesday

The Domesday book was William of Normandy’s great survey of England, as he consolidated his realm after his invasion of England in 1066 – though the Domesday Book wasn’t begun until 1085. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has it:

Then, at the midwinter, was the king in Gloucester with his council … . After this had the king a large meeting, and very deep consultation with his council, about this land; how it was occupied, and by what sort of men. Then sent he his men over all England into each shire; commissioning them to find out “How many hundreds of hides were in the shire, what land the king himself had, and what stock upon the land; or, what dues he ought to have by the year from the shire.”

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Bandley Wood (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Contrary to popular belief, William the Bastard (as he was better known at the time) didn’t achieve victory in 1066. It took several bloody years to subdue England. In some parts of the country – in the north and the west – his troops carried out what can only be described as ethnic cleansing of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse populations.

Nevertheless, the Domesday Book is very useful for historians. I often referred to it when I was writing topographical books and articles in the past. But, in reality, the Domesday Book is a snapshot of late Anglo-Saxon England, for the Normans were had only just begun to make their mark by 1085.

So it always comes as a surprise that you can walk in parts of England that get no mention at all in the Domesday Book, as we did the other day. For much of what we now call Cumbria doesn’t feature in Domesday at all. Why Not? Because at the time they were not in England at all – they were in Scotland. And even then they were mostly settled by Norsemen. The Vikings who had gone beyond raiding, settling instead.

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Bandley Wood (c) John Bainbridge 2019

A couple of blogs ago, I mentioned the Hoff Beck (two Norse words) and the fact that the Eden Rivers Trust has established a walk along some of its length, describing our walk from Bandley Bridge (first recorded as a crossing place in 1292) to Rutter Force. (Force – another Norse word).

The other day, we strolled the other part of the Hoff Beck walk to the settlement of Colby – another place, like nearby Appleby, settled by the Norse folk. Look at the -by at the end of those names. A clear indicator of a place-name of Norse origins. Appleby might have gone on to be the County Town of Westmorland, and, even though a Roman road ran by it, it probably didn’t exist before the Vikings settled there.

Bandley Bridge is interesting, for though the footbridge is relatively modern, there must probably have always been a bridge there, for there is no obvious ford and the 1292 record specifically refers to a brig or bridge.

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Bandley Bridge (c) John Bainbridge 2019

It’s in lonely countryside, walked mostly by locals and those ramblers who’ve sought out the Dales High Way track across and around the Pennines. It’s a place full of atmosphere too, probably not changed that much since those ancient times.

We followed the Hoff Beck down to Colby, where the little river becomes the Colby Beck, before seeking out the greater waters of the River Eden. A long drawn-out hamlet, Colby, of cottages of varying ages. No doubt many built on sites that were used a thousand years ago. And, in a gap between the settlements, there’s a field full of bumps and mounds, which might repay some archaeological investigation. I often wonder if it was the site of the original Norse settlement.

We crossed the Colby Beck at a bridge over what was clearly an ancient fording place, and took the farm track towards Colby Laithes. Go beyond the farm and there’s a set of large stepping stones not marked on the Ordnance Survey map, but which look as though they’ve been there for centuries. You can cross them and follow the River Eden much of the way back to Appleby.

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The Track To Thistley Hill (c) John Bainbridge 2019

We didn’t, preferring the higher path over Thistly Hill, which offered fine views over the snow-covered Pennines. An old track this, for although it seems to be a headland path around the edges of fields, it is wider than most headland paths and distinct on level and vegetation from the neighbouring fields, suggesting that this is a old way, from which the hedge on one side has been removed.

It eventually enters woodland just before Appleby, at an interesting junction with another old track coming up from the river. Paths that have almost certainly existed for centuries, and perhaps for the thousand years when this was all the territory of the Norsemen, part of Scotland, and way outside William the Bastard’s Domesday Book.

 

 

A Land of Peaceful Footpaths

I never walk a public footpath without wondering why it’s there? We’re fortunate to have so many of these fascinating tracks to explore, many of them deep-rooted in our social history.

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Path west of Mains Wood (C) John Bainbridge 2019

We’ve walked several times from Crosby Ravensworth in the Westmorland Dales (although now in Cumbria, the Dales are part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park). It shows in the quality of the footpaths. National Park staff have been busy waymarking the paths in the area and producing a leaflet of some suggested walks.) We’ve often gone up on to Crosby Ravensworth Fell, glorious wild country, and I blogged a walk to Maulds Meaburn via Flass House on October 24th last year.

We repeated the first part of that walk on Sunday, taking the path past Flass House – built by Victorians on the profits of the opium trade – to reach Maulds Meaburn. As I noted in my October blog, this path by the River Lyvennet was made-up by the owners so that their servants might more easily access Crosby Ravensworth church every Sunday.

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The Servants’ Path (c) John Bainbridge 2019

A fascinating path in so many ways, but we’d really come to look at the paths west of Maulds Meaburn village. Looking at the map, we saw quite a network of paths criss-crossing the area. Too many to explore on one walk, so we thought we’d sample a few to get the lie of the land.

Maulds Meaburn’s a fascinating village in so many ways. It’s one of the three villages in England where sheep are still grazed on the village green.

Many of the cottages show evidence of the crofts and tofts grazing system, where each house had its own narrow strip of arable land to the rear – a common practice in medieval times. These segments of land still exist, and the map indicates earthworks running along the furthest-most boundary, undoubtedly offering protection to the crofts in earlier times. It was also a village with a rebellious nature, as I related on my October blog.

Just beyond Low Bridge, at the northernmost point of the village, we headed west up a footpath to Mains Wood. This long strip of woodland probably originated as a hunting or shooting covert (you don’t pronounce the t) and there was some evidence that it is today, as it appears to be owned by the ubiquitous Lowther Estates.

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Old Road Sign in Maulds Meaburn (c) John Bainbridge 2019

In the midst of the wood there’s a wider access track, and here we met a friendly farmer on his quad bike – farmers in these areas seem to be particularly welcoming to walkers, which is nice. Emerging from the wood, the path ran beneath a splendid avenue of trees. They were rumbling and groaning in the fierce wind that was sweeping the valley and hill slopes.

The path offered a fine view over a lot of splendid and unspoiled fields, all the way to the distant and snow-capped Pennine heights around High Cup Nick and Roman Fell…

And there were several enticing footpaths, heading in several directions across this attractive and I suspect seldom-visited countryside. A temptation for another day.

We took a path heading south past a well-kept stone-barn (technically you should, I suspect, describe it as a ‘cow ‘us’ – cow house). We glimpsed inside. The stalls were intact and though it didn’t appear to be in use, you could see an interior that has probably not changed for several generations.

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Cow ‘Us (c) John Bainbridge 2019

South of the barn was a bridleway, sometimes enclosed – suggesting that it is particularly ancient – and often just along the edges of fields, where agricultural improvements have removed one of the enclosing hedges.

The track wound down to Crake Trees – we didn’t take the path to the ruins of the 12th century manor, as we’re saving that for another day, and soon found ourselves back on the lane leading back into Crosby Ravensworth.

A walk of less than five miles, undertaken on a gusty and freezing January day, but in that short space history dating back a thousand years or more.

The Victorian naturalist Richard Jefferies (do read his books) said somewhere that every footpath is worthy of exploration and has something interesting along its route. He was right – another reason why we should preserve our paths along their original routes.

They are the old ways back into our history.

Walking the Corpse Roads

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. 51f383GvkwL._SY362_BO1,204,203,200_

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!

Pennine Leadmining Tracks to Great Rundale Tarn

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.DSCF0642

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.DSCF0640

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.DSCF0626

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!VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

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.DSCF0633

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.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

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.

Text and pictures (c) J. and A. Bainbridge

Walking the Old Ways to Church

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?”

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Path across a field (c) John Bainbridge 2018

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.

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The way to go (c) John Bainbridge 2018

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.

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Dufton Church (c) John Bainbridge 2018

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?

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The squeeze stile into the churchyard (c) John Bainbridge 2018

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.