GIBBET Hill has history. Little more than a slope in the Tebay Gorge – which separates the Howgill Fells from the Lake District – it was the site where, in 1684, local villain William Smurthwaite’s body was left to rot in an iron cage suspended from a gibbet. The authorities knew how to deal with villains in those days. No messing about with rehabilitation schemes or probation orders; they hanged them by the neck then left their corpses to rot on a roadside gallows. This gave the poor a warning and the crows a feast. It also provided entertainment. This is Cumbria, after all . . .
I’m sitting in the van on Gibbet Hill. It’s a fine April morning and the kettle is whistling tunefully. I’m munching a cheese sandwich and planning my route into the hills. William Smurthwaite’s bones have long gone. And so has the gibbet. At least I can’t see them from the van window.
Today I have a problem in the shape of a swollen left knee. It’s the latest in a series of injuries sustained while attempting to increase my running mileage and regain some fitness. I’ve been running several times a week for 38 years and it gets harder all the time. It’s supposed to be the other way round. (Click pictures for high-res versions)
Gibbet Hill is the north-west toe of the 623m (2,043ft) Fell Head. Back in the 17th Century it stood above the main road between Carlisle and Lancaster, but that road is now little more than an extremely narrow and liberally potholed metalled track which cuts across the fellside towards the town of Sedbergh. The modern main road – the M6 motorway – shares the opposite slope of the Tebay Gorge with the West Coast Main Line. You’d be hard pressed to spot a gibbet if you were hurtling past in a car or Virgin express train.
My plan is to scramble along Carlingill Beck into the heart of the Howgill Fells, climb Docker Knott and follow the ridge south to The Calf (676m or 2,217ft), then return over White Fell and drop down to Howgill and the road back to Gibbet Hill. This depends on the knee holding out. I reserve the right to hobble home at any point.
Here’s something interesting. This old road through the gorge is Roman in origin. The section between Gibbet Hill and Howgill is known as Fairmile Road, because in William Smurthwaite’s day it was the location for an annual fair.
Imagine that. At a certain time of year people would flock to this remote place to trade horses, get drunk, sell trinkets, see the bearded lady, watch fire-eaters, find a wife or husband, renew acquaintances, bet on a bare-knuckle fight, bait dogs and enjoy the music. And towering high above the merriment was a grisly gibbet. See what I mean about entertainment in Cumbria? You thought I was being facetious.
Carlin Gill runs eastwards from the foot of Gibbet Hill. It’s a very deep and narrow ravine – one where the paths are indistinct because a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing across the beck is necessary to avoid steep walls where floods have gouged great chunks from the fellside. But it’s a pretty place, especially in the early morning when the April sun illuminates its length.
After a mile-and-a-half of slithering over boulders, sloshing through shallow pools and following sheep trods deeper into the shadows of Carlin Gill, I arrive at The Spout – one of the area’s many waterfalls. I decide that this is a good point for a man with a swollen knee (now burning as well as swollen) to turn back, but not before I’ve scaled the rocks and steep path up The Spout’s northern flank to the top.
Here’s another interesting fact. William Smurthwaite wasn’t your usual low-life rogue or villain. This is what the Old Cumbria Gazetteer has to say about him:
William Smurthwaite was High Constable for Lonsdale, and a juror at the Quarter Sessions at Kendal. But he was also the leader, with his brother George, of a gang who indulged in theft, burglary and clipping coins. They were arrested and tried at the Assizes at Appleby in 1683, but acquitted. A year later they were tried again in the court of Judge Jeffries and sentenced to hanging at Lancaster Castle. William Smurthwaite’s body was hung up in a metal cage at Gibbet Hill as a warning to others.
Nowadays, of course, William Smurthwaite would have been encouraged to accept a severance package and resign from his post, keep his head down while the media storm raged, then take a directorship in the City until it was safe for him to reappear as a political advisor.
I’ll say this for Judge Jeffries (the infamous Hanging Judge), he didn’t mess about or differentiate between rich and poor. If you were guilty you were hanged. And, occasionally, if you were innocent you were hanged.
And that’s Gibbet Hill and Carlin Gill. Docker Knott and The Calf will have to wait for another day. Unlike William Smurthwaite . . . I’ll be back.