On arriving at Kirkby Stephen station, a quick change into my boots and we set off from the station car park at around 10.15am. The first kilometre was an uninspiring trudge along the verge of the A685 to Lane Head but this was quickly dispatched. From here the route would mostly quiet paths and trails with only occasional sections of country lane linking them. Soon we were at the start of the bridleway over Smardale Fell which forms part of the Coast 2 Coast route, the weather was glorious and we were looking forward to the next few days.
Smardale Fell is surrounded by evidence left by previous times – the impressive viaduct in the distance, the well worn drovers route over to a charming little pack horse bridge hidden away in Smardale Gill, ruined lime kilns, old railway buildings recently restored. Long sections of the sunken walled trail was still filled deep with snow making for slow progress on occasions as we played Russian roulette not knowing if it the frozen crust would hold or we’d go thigh deep in the drifts. We stopped for lunch on the side of the old railway embankment and enjoyed the view of the rolling grassy Howgill Fells that would be our destination for the night.
It had been a cracking route over to Newbiggin on Lune followed by another short road section to take us to Bowerdale and the start of the Howgills. The Howgill Fells are a hidden gem known for their grassy ridges and hidden gullies that seem to be undiscovered by most of the walkers that descend on the neighbouring Yorkshire Dales or the Lakes. They’re all the better for it too. The climb up the Dales High Way was on boggy grass to start with but the higher we climbed the firmer the ground became, until it was frozen solid. It had clearly been frozen for weeks and there was no running water in sight. We’d be melting snow that night. There must be a very healthy short eared owl and fox population judging by enormous amount of poop that they’d left all over the trail. Sadly we saw neither but they were living in the Howgills in significant numbers and using the Dales High Way to hunt and move around.
We had intended to camp near to the lake at the summit of The Calf, at 676m it's the highest point in the Howgill Fells. However, the weather forecast was for storm force winds and heavy snow starting that evening. Instead we made camp at around 550m on Hazelgill Knott in the hope it might be more sheltered and perhaps a little less windy. We had to search to find an area where the ground had softened sufficiently in the sun to get our pegs into the ground. Out came the stove and a pan of snow was melted and boiling in no time. After dinner as the sun went down, the wind started to build and we decided to call it a night and head for the warmth of our respective tents. By 6.30pm I was tucked up cosily in a new sleep system. With the ground frozen and the air temperature well below freezing plus the wind chill making it feel colder still, I was glad of the -18C temperature rating. I woke with a start at 11pm as the wind was howling past the tent with such ferocity lashing snow and later sleet against the fabric. I lay wondering how the tent would hold up as the wind grew in intensity. The wind was unrelenting and continued for most of the night. The Met Office has predicted 50mph+ winds and it sounded and felt they were right.
I woke at 6.30am surprised that it was light and I had somehow managed to sleep through most of the storm. It was now pouring with rain but the wind had lightened a little. On wet miserable mornings you are glad of the extra space of taking a 2 person tent to use solo. I packed everything from the shelter of the tent and then packed the tent down as fast as possible.
We were soon on our way heading upwards towards The Calf which was hidden in cloud and fog. The rain was of the horizontal variety and had turned the snow on the path to slippery slush. The lake near the summit was frozen solid but with a slushy top layer so neither of us were brave enough to venture across it but numerous footprints suggested others before us had. At the summit we paused for a quick photo in the rain and they continued on our way. We were looking forward to lunch in a warm café in Sedbergh. There’s nothing like a warm dry café with a pot of tea and hot food to provide motivation when the weather is grim.
The weather broke briefly as we neared Sedbergh and we were faced with a precipitous grass bank to get down. We must have looked ridiculous zig-zagging our way down but the grass was so wet it wouldn’t have take much to end up tumbling down it. When we got to the bottom we realised there was a much easier route down hidden by the gorse bushes. Typical!
Sedbergh is in Cumbria but part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, it has something of a confused identity. It was busy with weekend day trippers and the café we planned to eat at had people queuing to get in. We were too hungry to wait and opted to try an Italian restaurant which was empty. Not always a good sign but it meant no waiting to be seated or served. It was a fantastic choice, the food was superb – we both had a huge pizza and shared a bowl of chips and the service was awesome. The manageress had our soaking wet gear drying on radiators while we ate so by the time we finished the meal our jackets, over trousers and gloves were all but dry.
We set off on our way with full stomachs and typically the rain started within moments of leaving the restaurant. We stopped in Sedbergh only to buy a couple of pies from the local butchers for lunch the following day – maybe not ultralight but they looked too good to pass.
The walk to Dent is largely on old walled trails apart from a riverside path along the river Dee which we followed to our destination. The rain had continued without stopping so we were pretty bedraggled when we arrived in Dent. Unbeknown to us it had been the annual Dentdale Run with almost 700 competitors so what is usually a very quaint peaceful village was heaving. We headed to the campsite, pitched our tents in torrential rain and headed straight to the pub. The Sun Inn had standing room only but we got lucky and found a table near the fire in the George and Dragon over the road. Several pints of fine Cumbrian ale and a plate of Scampi and chips left us feeling very chilled. Better still the rain had finally stopped when we left the pub.
Dent is a lovely cobbled village, which I used to visit with my family as a kid and it’s lost none of its charm. You could be stepping back 150 years if it wasn’t for the occasional car passing.
It was a pretty uneventful night’s sleep until we discovered that our tents were next to a cattle barn full of cows, sheep and lambs which all started to make a racket the moment the sun rose. Thanks to the noisy local livestock we were packed and ready to set off before 8am. A lovely chap in a caravan made us both a cup of tea as we packed up which was very much appreciated. I think he took pity on us having watched us setting up our tents in the pouring rain the previous evening. As we left Dent, the river Dee was looking very swollen as we followed the path alongside it up the valley. We soon reached a ford and thought better of trying to cross it and instead retraced our steps back to a small footbridge we had spotted. Much easier and dry feet too.
At Deepdale, the route climbs to join an ancient drovers route called The Craven Way which would take us over to Ribblehead. The Craven Way made for very enjoyable walking, the surface was largely well packed to start with and the views of Dentdale and the Howgills were stunning. Above us loomed Whernside, the highest summit in Yorkshire with its flat top and large cairns.
There was still a fair bit of snow remaining on the path so I was glad I’d put some snow baskets on my trekking poles before leaving and had my gaiters on to stop my boots from filling with snow. As you walk between the walls of this old drovers route you can imagine shepherds and farmers driving their livestock over to the markets. It would have been a tough life compared to us with our lightweight clothing and equipment making life so much more comfortable. Despite that, our packs felt heavier than when we started though due to how wet everything still was after the previous day.
We made good progress and the distant sight of the Arten Gill Viaduct signalled that the railway line and our final destination were approaching. We hadn’t seen a single soul since leaving Dent that morning but as we approached the path to Whernside there seemed to be a steady line of people walking up from Ribblehead wearing everything from wellies to trainers as the section of trail has been so manicured and sanitised.
The Settle to Carlisle railway is a stunning feat of Victorian engineering. The enormous viaducts still standing as testimony to the hard labour of 1000’s of workers. As we descended to cross the line I was amazed to find that the fast slowing stream we had followed down the hillside actually crossed over the railway on an aqueduct with the line passing underneath. A little further on was the famous Ribblehead viaduct, it’s amazing the sheer quantity of stone and effort involved in creating it.
Soon, we were approaching Ribblehead, ahead of schedule. Unfortunately the tea room at the station doesn’t open until April so we ended up enjoying a quick drink at the pub. The gents toilets at the pub must have one of the best views of any loo in the country!
We sat on the railway platform and ate our rather delicious pies whilst watching the world go by with an hour to wait until our train. The sun was dropping, as was the temperature, when the train came in bang on time and whisked us back to the car through some stunning landscape. We decided we’d head back to explore the area that follows the railway line in the future as it looked wild and perfect for exploring. It had been a fantastic few days travelling through some of the best countryside that the North of England has to offer. I prefer to avoid popular trails and I loved that fact that we barely saw anyone on most of the routes that we followed. If you want to get away from it all you could do a lot worse than head to the Howgills and Dentdale.