It was crossing the Northern Pennines in 1971, on the classic Pennine Way stage from Langdon Beck to Dufton, that I first recognised the power that the high hills of England could hold for the walker. Coming on the great chasm of High Cup, I had two thoughts: were those really the Lake District fells in the far distance; and, could one ascend from the beck far below, through the scars of this great geological wonder?
I pretty soon realised that the first must be true, not least because a couple of days later I had walked there. The second, though, took longer to ascertain. That’s not to say that I set off from Appleby-in-Westmoreland in 2015 without a pretty clear idea of the practicalities – now but not in ’71, OS maps show a right-of-way – but I looked forward nevertheless to resolving one of my oldest questions.
My crossing of the High Pennines had begun that spring, first across the hills above the Ribble and the Eden, then on a pastoral day in the valley of the latter to Appleby, so that the town could later be my springboard for High Cup. The question answered, I continued into Nentdale and the fringe of Northumberland.
Stage 46, Sunday 10 May 2015: Artengill to Kirkby Stephen, 17 miles
In planning, I’d thought of looking for a wild camp, not close to the gill below Great Knoutberry Hill, but on the summit itself. The fell’s reputation for damp ground put me off, but I was surprised to find a number of possible spots on the ascent (though water would have had to be brought), even if not on the summit itself.
From the summit my 1997 map showed a descent track by a fence NNW, which I’d plugged into my compass for the mist on the top, but it didn’t take me long to realise that that particular fence had long gone. So instead I did what everybody else obviously does, and follow the WNW fence that actually does exist. It gave me a bit of a dog-leg to the Coal Road contouring round the fell, but took me close to some of the mysterious stone men that are a feature of the area.
The track soon led me to the road down to Garsdale station. The Settle & Carlisle railway was clearly in view now, and at the station I could see just how it supports the rural economy, the two Sunday morning trains bringing a host of walkers and also linking in with the local bus down to Hawes.
It was from Garsdale that I started following one of the routes in Cicerone’s guide to the Eden Valley, taking me over Swarth Fell and Wild Boar Fell, the latter a hill I’d long been keen to climb solely on account of its name. There was nothing complex in the ascent of Swarth Fell, but I’d intended to deviate from the Cicerone route on Wild Boar, and it didn’t quite work as planned. I was keen to visit its trig point summit rather than simply stick to the eastern edges via more stone men, and followed a wall which seemed to point the right way, but on autopilot realised only late that it swung round to those cairns.
But there was no fog down and it was a simple matter to re-orientate. Care was needed on descent too, as I was nearly tricked into descending too early, towards Ravenstonedale. Disaster averted, I could soon enjoy the descent, Nine Standards Rigg and its Mallerstang partners on the other side of the Eden looking particularly inviting.
Stage 47, Monday 10 May 2015: Kirkby Stephen to Appleby, 15 miles
Another walk from Vivienne Crow’s excellent Cicerone guide, this time far away from the high fells. There is though an early climb onto Smardale Fell, using a part of the Coast-to-Coast Walk, just enough to whet the appetite but no more – it gives a grand view of the Smardale viaduct, which once took heavy freight trains across the Pennines.
From then on there’s a gorgeous beckside stroll beside Scandal Beck, an important Eden tributary, enlivened by the height of the water, still shedding from Friday night’s rain. Two motor roads cross by fords; the first had a closure notice (walkers have a footbridge), and the second (which I did not need to cross, thankfully) showed why, as a little white Nissan was dangling by a rock midstream, the owner having made a possibly nervy escape.
Agricultural land – rich land, with red earth reminiscent of Devon – follows, before the River Eden is joined at Warcop. This village is important for walkers, as the fells behind host a major military live-firing range, and access even to the rights of way is severely restricted. In planning, I had thought about using the Scordale path, but the access calendar made it clear that this was not possible.
Apart from a brief detour at Great Ormside, the river is in clear view all the way to Appleby, if not immediately to one’s right, and a fine body of water it is. The last mile or two is a popular riverside stroll for the town’s residents, and as it’s a narrow path, it’s become abominably muddy throughout. So after nearly 60 miles with cleanish (if not dry) boots, I came home with a cleaning job to do.
Stage 48, Monday 20 October 2015: Appleby to Backside bothy, 14 miles
Way back in 1971, on my first serious fell walk, I came to High Cup unprepared for the majesty of the scene. Far above the Cup’s tiny beck, I wondered: could one walk up to here from the valley below?
Then, the maps showed no hint of a route. Now though, a right-of-way heads confidently up from Harbour Flatt farm, so with some confidence I set out from Appleby station, across pleasant field paths, encountering many of the 400 Appleby Grammar School students (it’s a comprehensive) taking a day off lessons for a charity walk.
A little patch of woodland leads to Harbour Flatt farm. From here, a farm track heads NE towards the valley of High Cup Beck.
Soon, a path veers left into the valley of High Cup (a little below the mapped r-o-w, but this is access land and it’s a much better line than the ‘official’). It contours round to start with, until it meets the beck; ahead, the dolerite walls high up in the valley start to close in, the sun casting sharp shadows from them, the path ahead in clear sight but from this viewpoint alarmingly steep.
The closer one gets to the valley head, though, the fewer the difficulties: a couple of minor boulder fields and the briefest of scrambles, hardly that, as a few yards of steep ground lead to the weakness of High Cup Nick. Forty years of wait accomplished in ninety minutes; but worth every one of them. And a possible new target: what about a move to the right from just below the Nick, to take the boulders to High Cupgill Head – arguably a purer line?
There’s much to enjoy from the remainder of the day. Crossing the Tees / Eden watershed by the southern Pennine Way alternative – far better than the official line by Maizebeck Scar – I deliberately backtracked a few times so that I could relive the first glimpse of the Lake District that had taken me so much by surprise all those years ago. Fording Maize Beck itself was a formality, so low were all the rivers of the north, but I did so anyway for old times’ sake, despite there being a ‘new’ bridge now.
There’s lonely countryside ahead, with just Birkdale Farm for habitation. Its two Sno Cats outside point to the severity of life here.
Caldron Snout did hold rushing water – sad will be the day when it does not – and it was a clear choice to refill water bottles for the night ahead. For I was headed past Cow Green reservoir, the Cross Fell ridge in the haze beyond, to the bothy on Backside Fell.
There was a shooting party on the fell just clearing up by the track, and I had a quick word in case I needed rapport later; they had clearly used the bothy that day, but it was clean and tidy, and I settled in for the long night, waking in the small hours to see all the stars of the heavens.
Stage 49, Tuesday 21 October 2015: Backside bothy to Nentsberry, 13 miles
In contrast to the day before, the target today was the hills – three Hewitts – of this high moorland of the Tees / Tyne / Nent watersheds. Though none of them rose much above the plateau, I was pleased to have an increasingly clear day for them, for they are rough hills with few navigational markers.
First was Viewing Hill, just above the bothy. From here I set off NW before handrailing a stream that took me close to, but not over, the Tees. I met a party who were conducting a fish census in the river; a month ago, they had had to retreat, as the water level was dangerously high.
The track from the environmental centre of Moor House leads up to the Tees / Tyne watershed, and from here I took a beeline to the summit of Round Hill, the best of the bunch, with grass less tussocky, gates in all the right places, and a spectacular view of the Cross Fell ridge from its summit.
Both yesterday and today I had already seen some relics of the former lead mining industry, which was all-but worked out by the end of the nineteenth century; those relics would become more prominent still: the descent from Round Hill took me past a whole collection of workings at Calvert Burn.
Here I joined the River Tyne, close to its source. Strictly, this is the South Tyne; but it, and its North Tyne equivalent, would now be my water-system all the way until high on the Cheviots. For a few miles though I would be the South Tyne Trail, an absolute joy in the afternoon sunshine.
I left the trail at Ashgill Force, where limestone undercut by shales and sandstone has created a small gorge with waterfall, the road-bridge above lending an extra air of claustrophobia. Finding a way up to the road was more complex than up to High Cup Nick! It involved a bit of trial-and-error, eventually solved first by cutting steeply right and then turning sharp left.
Now began the longest climb of the day, albeit to the lowest of the three hills, Flinty Fell. A gate into access land helped me cut a corner to the main path across the moor. There was nothing difficult other than a rough boggy track; the fell itself has a still-working roadstone quarry near the summit, and the high point is NE of the spot height.
From here the natural descent is E then ENE to above Nenthead, which has shop, mining museum and pub – its bunkhouse though was on holiday, so I crossed access land to the north, over Nunnery Hill to the path above the deep slash of Greengill Hush, created to scour the hills for lead, on the way down to Hagg’s Bank bunkhouse at Nentsberry.
Use + and – keys to zoom to toggle between large-scale and 1:50,000 mapping
I used the Pennine View campsite at Kirkby Stephen, well-known as a key stopping-off point on the Coast-to-Coast walk. In Appleby, I stayed at the Midland Hotel, right next to the station – they were very accommodating, given that I’d made my booking for 10 June, not 10 May.
Backside bothy is run by the local estate, not the MBA – there’s only a narrow shelf to sleep on, other than the floor, but that’s enough. Haggs Bank bunkhouse by contrast is centrally-heated, leather-upholstered luxury! There’s a campsite too, but all that warmth for an extra tenner is worth it. (NB – the sign is on the south side of the road, all facilities are to the north; it took me ages to realise.)