We snatched a glorious day again last week for a walk that took us through several interesting periods of history, from prehistoric times to Victorian industrial archaeology – walking a landscape of old drovers’ tracks, disused railways, pillow mounds and a place where a whole village was evicted to keep a landowner happy.
Ravenstonedale (pronounce it something like Rassendal) is a village on the northern edge of the Howgill Fells, situated just off the main road between Kirkby Stephen and Tebay in Cumbria.
There had been heavy rain the previous days and well into the night, but the clouds had scattered by the time we set out. It left a fair amount of glutinous mud, so if you’re thinking of following in our footsteps you might want to try when there’s been a bit of a dry spell.
Ravenstonedale has a most interesting church, though sadly it was locked when we were there. But there is the base of a Saxon cross in the churchyard and the ruins of a Gilbertine Priory. The Gilbertines were the only English-founded religious order in medieval times.
Gilbert, who started the order, was born in Sempringham in Lincolnshire. The late and much-missed outdoor writer Showell Styles suggested that Gilbert – who wandered afoot on pilgrimages to Rome – should be the patron saint of ramblers.
Anyway these ramblers set out via Town Head and Greenside on our way to the neighbouring village of Newbiggin on Lune. Just beyond Town Head Farm, the footpath dips down to an old bridge over a rocky bourne, empty of water as it apparently often is, like the rocky bed of a lost river. Presumably in this Limestone landscape the water generally goes underground, only filling this dry river bed in the wettest of conditions.
On then past Greenside taking a stretch of lane and then paths to High Greenside and Beckstones. A wonderfully unspoiled landscape, with grand views up towards Green Bell and the northern Howgills. Ideal for moorland bird watching.
A path by the Dry Beck brought us to Newbiggin on Lune. Its Victorian chapel is now a private house. We sauntered down the village street to the busy main road, then took a footpath leading to Brownber.
But halfway there we turned right on to the disused track of the old railway line, a marvellous piece of Victorian engineering which used to take travellers from Tebay to Kirkby Stephen. Another of those useful lines stupidly removed in 1962.
Good for walking though as it winds through increasingly wild countryside, climbing gently upwards towards a hillside with the odd name of Severals, taking in along the way the old embankments and cuttings cut across this landscape by the railway navvies.
Just after we left a fine walled cutting, we went through a kissing gate to our right and mounted a round hill known as Sandy Bank. On the far side, running alongside a stone wall is a track once used by drovers. Hundreds of years old, at a guess. Perhaps even more ancient.
As you look around this old land, you are probably seeing what earlier travellers saw over centuries. Unspoiled and wild, the railway probably the most recent intrusion – and nature is slowly reclaiming even that.
We followed the old track down to Smardale Bridge, an ancient crossing of the Scandal Beck. The present bridge is at least two hundred years old, but you get the feeling that this crossing place is even older, only the waters of the beck and the cry of the moorland birds breaking the stillness.
Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Path comes here. On a documentary made late in his life, that grand old man Alfred Wainwright might be seen sitting on the wall of the bridge. He’s gone from us now – one more historical memory in the long history of this landscape.
Nearby are the Giants’ Graves. Pillow mounds in fact. Normally, I’d associate these vast earthen banks with rabbit warrening, though local tradition has it that these were used to dry bracken – a puzzlement to me. I can remember during my early Dartmoor days, farmers cutting bracken for bedding – but they used to just take it back to their barns to dry out. If any reader knows how you use pillow mounds to dry bracken, please do let me know.
We retraced our footsteps a few yards and took a footpath to Todwray. On the hillside above the first part of the path are some fine examples of strip lynchets, evidence of medieval farming, for there was once a farming village not far away.
The village and the villagers were thrown of the land by Thomas Wharton in 1560. Wharton wanted to extend his deer park. The villagers and their village were dispensable. Sounds like the kind of character who’d get an arrow in his back in one of my historical novels!
He built an embankment to mark the boundary of his deer park, traces of which are still there. A good job we have a record of Wharton’s activities or archaeologists might still be puzzling over the origins of this grassy bank.
After a steep descent we came back down to the Scandal Beck, which we followed back into Ravenstonedale, going back under the busy main road beneath a fairly modern bridge – an ugly construction, though who knows? In centuries to come antiquarians might pore over its concrete and praise its 20th century construction techniques?
A lovely walk of six or seven miles where, for a few hours, you can time-travel through many periods of English history.