One walk of a dozen miles, but thousands of years of British history, from Romano-British settlements to medieval and Tudor deer parks, old droving routes used by Scots herding cattle into England, and railways built in Victorian times by hard-working navvies.
Walkers in this country are fortunate to be able to experience the palimpsest that is our history so readily. We should never take it for granted, for our countryside and wild places are always under threat.
Friday was one of those warmer winter days, as we set out from Kirkby Stephen to explore the countryside around Smardale Fell and Ash Fell. Remote much of it and mostly empty of people. Only where we had to cross two main roads was there much sense of being in the 21st century.
The first part of the walk followed Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Path from Kirkby and out on to Smardale Fell, though we had to make a small diversion at the edge of the town to avoid men trimming trees.
You are not much beyond Greenriggs Farm before you start to get a sense of the wildness and history of this landscape. The stone-walled enclosures themselves are probably some centuries old, telling their own historical tale of man’s wresting of the wild fellside from nature.
These rights of way, footpaths and bridleways, are almost certainly older than the intakes they cross. When you walk this land you are in the footsteps of those who journeyed this way for thousands of years.
On Smardale Fell are tumuli dating to the Bronze Age. Just before we passed under the line of the Settle to Carlisle railway, are the homes and fields of a Romano-British settlement, which faded out of history sometime around 800 AD, when Saxons and Vikings had come here and the might of Rome was but a distant memory.
The railway line itself, still happily in use, is a reminder that the Victorians made their mark on this land. Imagine how hard the navvies worked in this wild place, probably in the most appalling weather, to construct the line in the years between 1869 and 1876.
As we climbed towards the highest points of Smardale Fell, the view opened out – there were the Howgill Fells and the distant hills of Lakeland, the mighty northern Pennines, still touched by the last of the snow, the deep valleys of the River Eden and River Lune, filled with cloud inversions like long white ghosts.
This is a landscape of grouse, which suddenly burst from the heather with their whirring cries of warning.
We left the Coast to Coast path and took the path over The Riggs to Fell Road, a humble road from the Lune Valley once, but now the busy main road from Tebay to Kirkby Stephen.
After a long stretch through wild and peaceful it comes almost as a shock to encounter motor traffic, with its noise and fumes. Fortunately, we only had to follow a hundred yards of the road, some of it the remnants of its original line which disappeared with road widening in the 1960s.
We were out now on Ash Fell Edge, following the wall above Ashfell Farm to Lytheside Farm. Here there are good views to Ravenstonedale and the Howgills – some of the best walking areas in Cumbria.
After Lytheside, we walked past Tarn House, looking down on the stretch of water from which it takes its name, and then down Tommy Road – a lovely old byway ruined by litter (why do some Britons have to be so filthy?), then on to the path to Low House and Wharton Hall.
As the wide gap in the walls indicate, these were drovers’ tracks; the way hardened men brought the beasts from the Scottish Borders to sell at the English markets, over so many years. A trade that existed until taken over by the Victorian railways and then motor traffic. Droving was a very skilled profession. For the drovers it was important to move the herd swiftly but not callously – the price they got depended on the animals being in good condition.
Much of this country was part of Lord Wharton’s deer park. A scene of conflict between a landowner and the peasants. Communities were moved so that Wharton could have the pleasures of the chase.
I’ve written about Wharton Hall in a previous blog. The ancestral home of the Wharton family dates to the 1300s, though much of what you see now in Tudor. It played little part in the wider history of England, though King James I visited. Now it’s a working farm, but the buildings and the Tudor gatehouse are impressive.
We followed the drive down to Halfpenny House – this is now a modern home, but the original building which once stood here was a place where the drovers rested for the night, paying a halfpenny as a fee.
But look back up the hillside, on to Whinny Hill and there’s a link with our more recent history, a pill-box built for the military c.1940, when the folk of this quiet place anticipated a visit from the troops of Hitler’s Third Reich.
Happily, the invasion never happened or this quiet hillside might well have been a killing ground. There are some historic possibilities I’m glad our country escaped.
We wandered back down the long street of Kirkby Stephen, busy with traffic. It’s a town I’ve always had a fondness for. A Walkers are Welcome town.
A place to begin walks into so many periods of time.
All pictures (c) John Bainbridge 2018: (click on them to enlarge).