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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Dartmoor Path in Peril

One of Dartmoor’s oldest paths is under threat of being stopped up – and you have just a few days to object.

The footpath, running through Okehampton Battlecamp, on the northern boundary of the Dartmoor National Park, is facing closure by the Ministry of Defence, despite the fact that it existed long before the battlecamp was built. The path has never been closed, even when the battlecamp was fully garrisoned. Now the camp is only used sporadically when troops train on Dartmoor.

 The proposed new path, mostly running around the edge of the battlecamp, is not as commodious to users as the present route. It is longer, nowhere near as attractive and not as convenient to walkers who wish to access the open moorland beyond the camp. Walkers would be obliged to walk further to regain the point they would have used by following the original path. Some of the proposed alternative is already accessible to walkers.

The MoD and Defence Estates have not made out the case as to why the path should be stopped up. This path existed long before the camp and has been there throughout the camp’s history. It was NOT deemed inconvenient when the path had almost a permanent garrison, nor was it removed during the IRA emergencies. The former commandant of the camp told me in the 1990s that he didn’t consider the path to be a problem.

I’ve used this path for over fifty years, and I don’t judge that my presence has been any sort of inconvenience to the military. Nor them to me.

The stopping up will increase the amount of road traffic going up to Moor Gate, as walkers seek to cut down the length of the proposed alternative.

When the battlecamp was built the people of Okehampton were promised that the path would remain as it is. It is one of Dartmoor’s ancient paths.

The Ministry of Defence never cease to baffle me. They are underfunded by over seven billion pounds, they are having difficulties recruiting and can hardly afford to properly equip our troops. We now have the smallest standing army since the Crimean War, yet they are holding on to almost as much land – at great expense – as they had at the height of National Service.

Yet they seem to be prepared to blue taxpayers’ cash pursuing footpath stopping up orders like this one. And only recently they seized the Commoners’ Rights of farmers in the parishes of Hilton and Murton in Cumbria in a shameful bit of land-grabbing.

Shouldn’t this underfunded government department be getting its priorities right?

You have just four days from now to register an objection. You can email an objection to the Secretary of State at nationalcasework@dft.gov. uk

Or you can write (as soon as possible please) to National Transport Casework Team, Tyneside House, Newcastle upon Tyne NE4 7AR. Please note that all objections must be in by 7th March.

 

 

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

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.

 

 

Journey Through Britain

I find it hard to believe that John Hillaby’s classic walking book Journey Through Britain was first published fifty years ago. Scan

It’s an important book for me, though I only read it a couple of years after it came out. So important, it was one of the reasons I gave up a secure job in the Post Office, at the age of twenty, taking to the road for a life of tramping and writing.

John Hillaby’s book is an account of the long walk he took from Land’s End to John O’Groats in the mid-Sixties. More than half a century ago, so his walk is now an exploration of a fascinating point in British history – Britain in the Sixties was a very different country to the one we had now. There was still industrial infrastructure, and people were, I think, kinder and more compassionate. For all Britain’s faults – and there were many – it was a more hopeful time than now.

John Hillaby was a particularly fine writer, and Journey Through Britain was his masterpiece. He had other walking adventures and several more books, but none work quite as well for me.

Hillaby had intended to walk the length of the country just following our ancient trackways, a wonderful network of footpaths and bridleways, but this proved impossible. Many were blocked by overgrowth, were unwaymarked or deliberately obstructed. Those of us who were path campaigners at the time know that those were dark days in the history of access. So Hillaby was forced to take to roads and lanes from time to time, though there are plenty of accounts of path and wild walking too.

And what a route Hillaby took – along the Cornish coast, across Dartmoor, through the Somerset Levels to Aust Ferry on the Bristol Channel (the Severn Bridge hadn’t been completed.) Then up through the Black Mountains and Offa’s Dyke, through the Midland to the start of the then-fledgling Pennine Way. Across the Scottish borders and through the Highlands to the lonely lands of the far north.

Every chapter is fascinating to read, for Hillaby is very good at giving pen-portraits of the people he met along the way – poachers and transport-cafe waitresses, an itinerant and whisky-loving bagpiper, policemen and folk who were suspicious of walkers. He’s modest too – he often admits to losing his way, comes a cropper around Cranmere Pool on Dartmoor, has to make weary detours, finds the then new Pennine Way a bit of a trial. He walks through fine weather and foul, but every step shows a great love for this remarkable landscape.

Interestingly, John Hillably thought that he was going to be one of the last in a long line of literary tramps. He says that his book might be the ‘lay of one of the last’. He was wrong, of course; many have walked that long walk since and several more writers have written worthy books – I commend to you those by Chris Townsend and Hamish Brown. Journey Through Britain was not only a best-seller, but an inspiration to so many other walkers.

I planned to do that long walk across our land myself. I never did – though I’ve wandered through most of the places John Hillaby described on my own walks.

So if you want a beautiful armchair ramble, do sit down with Journey Through Britain, and relive John Hillaby’s own expedition through the spring and early summer of a year in the 1960s – across an England, Wales and Scotland that are still much the same, but in many ways so very different.