THE most interesting thing about the Howgill Fells is that there is nothing interesting about them. I don’t mean this in disparaging way; more in a mathematical way. Two negatives make a positive. So, as Bing Crosby might have put it, had he pulled on his boots one very cold and damp morning somewhere between Tebay and Kirkby Stephen, if you eliminate the negative, you accentuate the positive.
This walk has evolved because there is no beer in the house. My wife has gone to Norwich for the weekend to visit her strange sister, and there is insufficient alcohol to see me through Saturday night. Latching on to the affirmative, I decide that if I’ve to venture out, I might as well buy beer in Kirkby Stephen, and if I’m driving to Kirkby Stephen, I might as well throw my boots in the back of the car and be consumed by that collection of swelling hills called the Howgill Fells. I’ve walked in them only once and that was about 25 years ago. Managed to get lost though, so that must be some sort of achievement.
Actually, the Howgill Fells are not totally lacking interest. They are, after all, composed of graptolitic mudstone of the Wenlockian and Ludlovian (Silurian) lithologies. At one time, information of that nature would have had me and my mates straining at the leash. Those days have passed. Which is probably for the better.
And that’s about where the interest level peaks. Usually, in rolling hills of this nature, the ardent walker can stumble upon some little-known mineworkings in which to poke about. Not the Howgill Fells. This bridge of hills that links the Lake District to the Northern Pennines – and has since Roman times posed a geographical problem to roadmakers, and subsequently railway and motorway makers – was at the end of the queue when the great bestower of mineral wealth was spreading joy to the maximum.
Travel south on the M6 from Tebay, and the Howgills rise immediately and triumphantly to the east. Glance from a window of a West Coast mainline train as it snakes through the Tebay gorge, and ancient tracks can be seen zigzagging to their ridges. South of the Tebay to Kirkby Stephen road, the fells rise familiarly – though seldom-trodden. And really, this is their great charm. This is their secret. Despite towering over one of the busiest transport corridors in the country – that narrow ravine where the M6, the London to Glasgow railway line and the A685 are squeezed together like trapped nerves in a painful neck joint – very few people cast them more than a cursory glance. Even fewer venture into their lonely valleys.
So here’s me brewing up on the petrol stove outside a farmhouse in Bowderdale. There are banks of mist on the tops, patches of blue in the sky, a keen fresh wind, and I’m thinking why the hell have I not been back to these fine-looking fells in the past 25 years?
Off I go up a sloshy track that climbs the ridge of West Fell, with Bowderdale snaking below me into the interior of the Howgills. It’s a fine ridge, and leads me with little trouble to Hazelgill Knott, where I enter the clouds, and onto the summit of The Calf – the highest point of the day.
On then to Bram Rigg and Calders along a track that looks like it has been laid by Sir Alfred McAlpine. I mean, this is a professional job – certainly not what I was expecting. You could wheel a pram along it. I assume this touristy, engineered path leads all the way down to the nearby town of Sedbergh, and I must admit I feel a little embarrassed walking along it in my big boots. Sensible shoes would be more appropriate.
On Calders the mist clears momentarily and allows a glimpse of sun-bright fields and woodlands. But up here it’s still cold and murky. I head back to The Calf, then follow a more traditional type of path (boggy, rocky, and trenches gouged out with years of floodwater – a great relief) to the head of Bowderdale for the long trek back to the car.
Bowderdale is a fine valley, with graceful green fells rising steeply from the winding river. I am very impressed by it – it’s a fine place for wild camping, and possesses the sort of windswept loneliness that stirs the heart and sharpens the senses. Actually, I’ve been very impressed by the whole Howgills experience – which included a few minutes watching fell ponies – and resolve to return in the near future.
Back at the car the sun has gone down and daylight’s failing fast. I boil the traditional can of tea, heat some home-made vegetable soup fortified with home-grown chillies, and soak up the atmosphere. There is a certain romance about brewing tea in the damp air of evening as you pull off your boots and crawl into some warm clothes. Alone in the darkness, with a comforting brew to warm the inner being, there is a sense of detachment, like a tramp might feel as he settles down beneath a hedgerow. The wind sighs in tall trees, the fells rise black in a paler sky, and the only link with humanity is a yellow light burning above the farmhouse door.
In Kirkby Stephen I stop at the Spar store near the traffic lights. They have an offer on – four bottles of beer for the price of three. Wow. Perfect end to a perfect day.