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.

 

The Hoff Beck Walk

I was pleased to see that the Eden Rivers Trust has created a formal walk – the Hoff Beck Walk – along the lovely little river of that name close to Appleby in Westmorland. The new trail follows the Hoff Beck from Colby to the picturesque Rutter Falls, passing through peaceful and uncrowded countryside.

Rutter Falls (C) John Bainbridge 2019

I’ve walked the Hoff Beck many times over the years, starting from Appleby. It really is a grand stretch of river and you rarely see any other walkers. While I’ve walked the length of the new trail, I usually complete a circuit via the village of Ormside, returning along the River Eden.

The Eden Rivers Trust has placed informative noticeboards at several points along the walk, giving details of local history and riparian wildlife – the Hoff Beck is particularly good if you want to watch herons. I saw a kingfisher once near Bandley Bridge, and there are otters too – though you have to be lucky to see one. If you want a better chance do the walk just after dawn or in the late evening.

The other day, we walked out from Appleby, taking the attractive bridleway through Rachel’s Wood to Bandley Bridge. You can stroll downstream to Colby and back from here if you wish to. Although the footbridge at Bandley is relatively modern, the crossing place is ancient. The first record of a crossing here dates back to 1292, where it is described at Bangelmibrigg.

The crossing here probably dates back a long time before that, to the time when the Vikings settled around Appleby, giving the name to this river, Hoff and Beck are both Norse words in origin.

Following the Hoff Beck upstream, we descended to Cuddling Hole. Now I’ve always puzzled as to the origins of that name, my mind going off in various lascivious directions. I’ve been wrong in those assumptions and I should have known better, for I was well acquainted with a very similar word.

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The Hoff Beck (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Cuddling is a local expression for tickling trout, a way of catching them by hand. I really should have guessed, for guddling is a well-known expression in the Lake District (Arthur Ransome used it in his novel The Picts and the Martyrs – a terrific read which I recommend to you). Interestingly, the word used to be current on Dartmoor, very familiar with an old poacher I used to know there. Arthur Ransome used to fish in the nearby Eden – perhaps he tried the Hoff Beck as well?

A walk across the fields brought us to the hamlet of Hoff, where there’s a pub if you need refreshment. Some lovely ancient barns here. A place lost in time. The next few fields below Low Rutter farm can be muddy after wet weather, but on the frosty day we walked it they were fine.

I’ve done this walk in pelting rain, snow and in last summer’s heatwave and it offers something new each time. In last summer’s drought, the waterfall of Rutter Force had dried up altogether. Now the water was back, making the picturesque falls a delight to see. The building next to the force started out as a corn mill and was latterly a bobbin mill. With its footbridge and ford it must be another ancient crossing place, though I miss the tea shop that used to be there. It marks the official end of the Hoff Beck River Walk.

We walked up to the lane and crossed the fields to the house marked on the map as Porch Cottage, though now called the Donkey’s Nest. From there a quiet lane took us down under the Settle to Carlisle railway line to the peaceful village of Great Ormside.

The church here, standing next to a farmhouse with a Pele Tower, is one of England’s gems, built on a defensive mound that was used by both Saxons and Vikings. I’ve written in praise of it in my walking book Wayfarer’s Dole. As with many Christian buildings it began its existence as a Pagan site, used as a burial ground by the Vikings. Much of what you see today dates to the late 11th-century.

In 1823, the Ormside Bowl, Anglo-Saxon in origin and dating to the 7th or 8th century was found in the churchyard. It’s now in York Museum. In 1898 the body of a Viking warrior, complete with sword, was unearthed in the churchyard. You can see his sword at the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle.

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Great Ormside Church (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Sadly, cracks have appeared in the church tower and expensive repairs are needed. If you can send a donation to help please do.

The parishioners are certainly rallying round with fundraising measures. We bought a delicious jar of home-made marmalade, which was on sale in the church. So if you do visit take some spare cash to support this worthy cause!

Leaving the village, we went under the Settle-Carlisle railway once again, to follow the River Eden back to Appleby. This path starts in woodland high above the river, before descending to its banks, giving more chances to see wildlife. A peaceful stretch of river, now part of the Lady Anne’s Way trail – which follows in the steps of Lady Anne Clifford, the well-known diarist of the 17th century.

After the woodland ends, the path follows the river through water meadows, emerging at Jubilee Ford at Appleby – a popular crossing place for Gypsies during the Appleby Horse Fair week in June.

A grand walk of about eight miles – and it is good that the Eden Rivers Trust has delineated some of it as the Hoff Beck Walk – a Westmorland river that deserves to be better known.

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!

Walking to England’s Highest Roman Fort

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.

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The defensive ditches of Epiacum (c) John Bainbridge 2018

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.DSCF0849

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.

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Alston (c) John Bainbridge 2018

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.

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Epiacum

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.

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The heights above the fort, seen from its old wall. (c) John Bainbridge 2018

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.

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At Kirkhaugh Station (c) John Bainbridge 2018

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.

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Where two counties meet (c) John Bainbridge 2018

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?

 

 

Brownber – A Much Neglected Hill

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.DSCF0756

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.DSCF0770

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.DSCF0769

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.

(c) Text and pictures John Bainbridge

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