On the day of our second meet-up with my cousin Sue and her hubby Steve during their trip “up north”, the weather wasn’t quite as amenable as on day 1. On our previous outing we had really struck it lucky – the skies over Ingleborough hadn’t exactly been a glorious blue, but at least the views were obscured only by haze, rather than clag, cloud or fog…
When they arrived at our caravan site in their lovely motorhome, Sue and Steve found me looking up at the sky with furrowed brow, watching the first falling drops of rain. This may pass… however, I was already concerned about the kind of weather that might await us on the exposed tops of the Howgills. If we got off lightly, it might only be very windy up there. Jen had had to shoot off to Kendal, which meant a delayed start, and I felt anxious… things weren’t exactly starting smoothly and I still didn’t know when we would set off. If the day continued in the same vein, I thought, we might be in for an epic.
The hiking plan was sound (of course!) – Jen and I would take two cars to Cautley Spout, leave mine there and drive back to the site in hers, by which time Sue and Steve would have hooked up their motorhome and with any luck have a coffee brewing! Then we would all pile into Jen’s little car and drive the short distance to Sedbergh Spar, from where our journey would continue on foot…
At long last we were sorted, with Jen back, cars where they needed to be, bags packed and it was only… eeeek, midday?!! Definitely time to go!
Minutes later we were in Sedbergh, clipping rucksacks shut and hoisting them onto our backs. You might say I felt more tense at this point than at any other on the day… I knew that the hike began with a killer climb, and the last thing I wanted was for our guests to suffer and hate it. But hey ho, everybody was eager and smiling, so why spoil a lovely atmosphere, eh? I felt we had hit a need-to-know situation: all Sue and Steve needed to know was that we were heading up Winder. I mean, I hike up it frequently so it can’t be that bad, right?
As we headed off towards Lockbank Farm we discussed what goes on in Sedbergh, the ancient school established back in the 1500s, and a little bit about the day’s planned route (I wonder, did I mention then that it gets a LOT easier after the first climb?). Everything was going swimmingly. And then we reached the boundary wall just beyond Lockbank Farm, closed the gate with its big metal hoop and started on the ascent.
A few hundred metres in, as we all took baby steps, breathing heavily and leaning forward to stay upright, I couldn’t help noticing that conversation had dwindled. Guess I wasn’t the only one feeling the pinch on the calf-burning slope!
I stopped occasionally to “look at the views”, and realised that my knowledge of the surroundings was not exactly top-notch. It’s strange; I can gaze across at the mighty peaks of the Lake District day after day, and stare in awe at their majestic presence… but ask me to tell you which peak is which, and just watch me try and steer the conversation onto anything else! Even wind turbines in the distance, for example… but even that didn’t turn out well.
“So, Steve, what you can see over to the left is the wind farm at Junction 37 of the M6…” and then I realised that even with this pathetic attempt to break the silence I had made an error, and felt obliged to correct myself. Perhaps if I hadn’t, I might have got away with it and he would have been no wiser, but I babbled on “Hey, you know what, I’m wrong!” I sounded almost proud to admit my mistake… “Actually that one is down at Junction 35, the Carnforth one…” and then I was interrupted.
“Simon.” Now, before I go on I should say that ordinarily Steve is an extremely polite individual. He continued, “I don’t give a flying f*ck right now about windfarms or anything else…” (he doesn’t usually swear either) “Don’t talk to me about that or anything else…” (in his defence he had gone a funny shade of red, even by my glowing standards) “…until we get to the top!” It sure was a relief to be instructed not to talk, and a memorable statement from Steve that we would laugh about later, or more likely sooner, once we were breathing normally again at the top of Winder!
Of course, the good news is that once up Winder we had essentially done the hardest climb of the day. So, when I offered Sue and Steve a choice between the wind-free, gentler option of traversing the flank of Arant Haw on the Dales High Way, or climbing to the cairn on Arant Haw summit, I knew they had recovered when they both plumped for the latter.
The next concern, on my small but significant list of concerns, was where to eat lunch. While I knew where I wanted us to be at lunchtime, I simply didn’t know whether we’d make it that far before I was read the riot act again. I’m not a big eater when out on the hills (after all, sticky toffee pudding is best enjoyed in the comfort of home!) but I sensed that my three warrior companions were hungry (Jen is always pretty vocal on that score!). So, from the cairn on top of Arant Haw I pointed out a tiny curve of the hillside below and beyond Rowantree Fold. I assured Steve that we would find a weather void there, possibly the only spot all day where we could eat lunch out of the wind. And I can totally understand how he would struggle to comprehend that, since the wind was almost blowing us over at the time.
“You mean IN the fold?” Steve quizzed.
“Nope, there’s a 5×5 metre patch about 100m beyond it… totally wind-free!” I replied, pointing at a featureless area of rugged ground in the distance.
Had I been a stranger to the area I think I, too, might have doubted those comments… if not dismissed them as utter nonsense. I have often scanned the landscape around the spot in question, trying to fathom why the gusts always seem to skirt the edge of it, no matter which direction the howling wind happens to be coming from. Even in the dozen metres before “the spot” I was still yelling above the noise to Steve – “Just a little bit further!” – and the doubt was clear in his eyes. And then the magic happened. I entered the void, the wind dropped instantly to barely a breath, and suddenly Steve was right behind me, his face a picture of astonishment. We all duly sat down to enjoy a brew and/or lunch in our own sunny, wind-free bubble! I can’t explain… but I sure don’t complain 🙂
Having reached what may have seemed at the time like the dizzy heights of Winder (473m), we had climbed further to Arant Haw (605m), dropped again to the secret weather-free bubble (!) and were now looking up at our second-highest point of the day: Calders at 674 metres. Once refreshed and on our feet again, we ascended the fell swiftly. As we stood at the summit cairn, a glance at my watch told me that we now had a couple of options: a) take a quick detour across to visit the highest point in the Howgills, the Calf at 676 metres, or b) skip the Calf, and veer straight off to Little Dummacks along our planned route, where I had a surprise in store. Ever enthusiastic, and rightly so, Sue and Steve agreed that they’d love to visit the highest point, and within about 20 minutes we were all standing at the trig point of the Calf, taking victory shots.
As we approached Calders again we took a track left that leads across open fell to Little Dummacks and then Great Dummacks. The beauty of the Howgills is that they have a little of everything to offer hikers who know their way around. Whilst we had so far enjoyed a good 10km or so of rolling, rounded, velvety hills (albeit with some steep ascents and descents) we were now heading to a valley that presents a complete contrast. As we walked, our companions became aware that a very different scene was about to be revealed. We were walking towards an actual edge, the top of Cautley Crag, which is so strikingly dramatic it can take one’s breath away (indeed, both Sue and Steve reacted audibly, and we all stopped). The velvety hilltops were gone, replaced by sheer crags and dark scree fields. As we resumed walking, we were all aware that the exposure factor had increased tenfold. Choosing lines with care, we made our way along the thin path that skirts the edge of the crag to Cautley Spout, knowing that just a metre or two away on the right was a 200-metre drop.
The path soon led us away from the edge, and we descended a steep section of fell before reaching Gill Beck and Swere Gill, and hopping across both. We had reached our final descent path, which leads past Cautley Spout Tongue and the famous waterfall of Cautley Spout itself. The steep rocky steps, almost hidden in the hillside to anyone looking up from the valley, are hard going on the knees. However, they took us from 600+ metres down to 170 metres in less than a kilometre – I did say steep! Once on the flatter valley bottom, we walked past the site of an old Iron Age Settlement, which we all agreed was 3700 years old. In fact I think we agreed that everything is 3700 years old!
From here we had a nice, gentle final section to look forward to… but unfortunately, the kind where a failure to pick up tired feet results in many a stumble! During this last kilometre or two Steve again demonstrated his bird-spotting knowledge (doing his now-familiar “emergency stops”) until we reached the footbridge over the Rawthey river and climbed the last dozen steps back to the car. Once back at base (having almost forgotten to collect Jen’s car from Sedbergh) and all suitably refreshed with hot drinks and showers, it was time for Steve to demonstrate his barbecuing skills!
Needless to say they ensured him an open invitation back to ours on their next visit!
Simon Duringer is an award-winning blogger, interviewer and author. His own books can be found on Amazon too by clicking any of the following icons…