SOMETIMES it’s enough just to walk, to place one foot in front of another and allow the miles to slip by. What’s that old Irish saying . . . ?
May the road rise up to meet you; may the wind be always at your back; may the sun shine warm upon your face . . .
I like that. And the best place in the world just to walk, just to ramble, just to drift, is the Howgill fells – the range of hog-backed hills that forms an upland link between the Lake District and the Pennines.
The Howgills are excellent walking country – long grassy ridges, summits far from demanding, and empty valleys that meander for miles. Nothing exists in the Howgills except sheep, fell ponies, fresh air and the sound of the wind. And that’s just what I need.
I park the car in Tebay, next to a tennis court and the local waste recycling point. I once spent an entire day standing on a building site in Tebay but I can’t remember why. My brother-in-law had something to do with it.
When viewed from the M6 motorway, which passes through the gorge dividing the Lake District from the Howgills, Tebay presents a colourful aspect. The terraced houses are painted in various hues, which is rather attractive.
Tebay is not what you’d call an organic settlement. It hasn’t evolved in the traditional rural fashion. It is very much a product of the railway age – built for railway people at a railway junction. Like the iron mining village I grew up in 48 miles to the west, it’s been forced like rhubarb under a dolly tub. There are old roots but the bits you see are younger and pinker.
I pull on my boots and head south up the Tebay Gill track. The wind is icy – gusting from the snow-capped Lakeland fells – and the weather squally, with slate-grey clouds drifting east. But my spirits are immediately lifted by the discovery of an old railway goods wagon on the hillside above Edge Farm.
Old goods wagons are a developing theme on this website. They can be found in the most unlikely places – sometimes at incredible altitudes and many miles from the nearest railway line.
But this one – another BR 12T Vanfit – has managed to attain only a paltry 781ft above sea level. And taking into account the fact that Tebay is a railway settlement on a very active mainline to Glasgow, this wagon hasn’t put itself out to get very far. It could be described as lacking in ambition. Still, a redeeming feature is a Ford Fiesta with a broken windscreen parked discretely behind it. There’s probably a story as to why it’s there but I don’t feel disposed to pry.
I leave the goods wagon and the mysterious car and continue along the track, passing a herd of fell ponies near Tebaygill Farm before reaching the open moor and its pleasant miles of gently-rising ground.
On the summit of Blease Fell (1,555ft), I crouch in the biting wind and gaze down upon the Tebay Gorge – a narrow breach between the hills where the River Lune, the railway line, the M6 motorway, the A685 and a Roman road are squeezed together like a bunch of nerves in a stiff neck. This is one of those places that man has exploited as a thoroughfare since the first hunter-gatherers moved north behind the retreating ice. It’s packed full of history. At the foot of Blease Fell is a prominence called Gibbet Hill. I bet that has a few stories to tell.
Here’s something vaguely interesting. Since writing about the Bronze Age cup and ring markings on Barningham Moor a couple of months ago, I’ve discovered stones with cup holes everywhere. Most, if not all, are probably natural occurrences. But between Blease Fell and Uldale Head I stumble upon several more. Have these been carved by ancient hands, or do all the stones have holes in them these days?
From Uldale Head (1,745ft) a grassy ridge runs north over the splendidly named Rispa Pike. It’s tempting to tramp the length of this ridge to Gaisgill, in the Lune valley, then return to Tebay along a back road. But instead I cut down from the pike to Ellergill Beck, pass a hilltop farm that’s surrounded by old cars and has more than a touch of Deliverance about it, and enter Tebay by the out-door.
I once lived in digs on a farm at Maulds Meaburn, which is about nine miles north of Tebay. I worked for Cumbria Stone Quarries, at Crosby Ravensworth, at the time, and the quarry fellas used to pronounce Tebay: “Tee-bah”.
“Ista cumman fer a pint in Tee-bah?” they used to say. “Don’t be ga’an ower’t fell till Shap. Cum wi us an’ yer’ll have a gey gud neet. And wu’ll mebbe gethcha fixed up wi a la’al lass.”
Haven’t a clue what that meant. But it sounded inviting.
Tebay. The Howgills. Good walking country that should be revisited time and time again. A place where a bloke can stretch his legs and forget his worries. I’m going back. An’ soon, mebbe.