I am only human, and sometimes days can pass without me putting one foot in front of the other in any serious fashion. When this takes place, my next hike usually turns out to be a real slog. The fells become unenjoyable and I find myself grumbling a lot, at least until reaching the rolling tops, where things become a little less challenging and the views are far-reaching…
It’s amazing how distance proves to be a healer for me. On the one hand I can curse every step up to 400-500 metres; on the other, breaking through that barrier can often lead to quite epic adventures.
On this day I was aware of the above, and feeling lethargic but knowing that with a fairly big hiking week ahead, I needed to test myself. Jen wanted to go out for a run, which always makes both our goals more interesting, and so between us we decided to do a point-to-point. She would drive to Cautley Spout (about 5 miles by road), leave the car there for me, and run up, over the fells and home. I, on the other hand, would set out from Sedbergh Spar and head up the calf-burning slopes of Winder (473m) from where I had no real plan other than to make a beeline for Cautley (at least three felltops away), the car, home and coffee with a huge slice of celebratory cake!
As we made the short drive to the Spar Jen reminded me that her new student would be coming round for a French lesson in a few hours. A subtle reminder that it might be a good day for my walk to turn into a longer one… which might have been a problem if I was still stuck atop Winder, out of breath or some such. But hey ho, the weather was looking good.
Before saying our temporary goodbyes, Jen probes me to find out where I may get to before retrieving the car. It’s likely that our paths will cross at some stage and so, covering all bases, I boldly reply that I will go to the Howgills’ highest point of the Calf (676m) before cutting back across the fells to Cautley. As I close the car door it dawns on me that I haven’t been hiking for several days, and the fact that I have just signed up to a one-way hike is bad enough; Sedbergh to Cautley in itself is quite a hike. However, I’m embarking on today’s hike in a half-hearted and lacklustre fashion, which is never a good sign! I briefly look around the car park for any cars that may be displaying the ‘TAXI’ sign – no such luck – I head off in the direction of Lockbank Farm.
I do believe I was once cursed by a demon, elf, pixie or imp, call it what you may, but when it comes to all things Simon, my first impressions generally turn out to be correct. On reaching the boundary wall at the foot of Winder my body was already complaining, and things didn’t improve over the subsequent 350 metres of climbing. Ordinarily when climbing I will count out the steps in my head, and on a good day make it to 100 on a near-vertical climb before stopping
for breath *ahem* to look back at the views.
This day was slightly different…
Through the farmyard gate I took the hill square on, like a determined warrior chasing down his enemy… 10 steps up *gasp* stop – looking back I am… ermmm… square on with the boundary wall. 10 steps further, stop – can almost see over the top of the wall now. 8 steps onwards, damnit, stopped again – a view! If you count the farmer’s yard on the other side of the boundary wall to be one of those…
Now, if you happened to be in the Sedbergh area on Tuesday 18 April, you may have been forgiven for feeling a sudden and urgent need to call the police, the army, RAF reconnaissance and Search and Rescue, having heard a piercing, anguished shriek. Something akin to a battle cry, but less fierce, in fact probably more of a resounding and ear-piercing shrill… Ermmm, next time be aware it’s probably just me!
I compose myself and move onwards…
Perhaps I may have mentioned in previous blogs the difference in times it can take me to summit Winder from Spar, ranging from around 25 minutes at the height of my fitness last summer, up to 40 minutes on a slog day. Well, it wasn’t my slowest, but at a modest 39 minutes and 40 seconds it came in at just under my slowest ever.
The beauty of the Howgills is that once up that first calf-burning ascent, things ease off quite substantially. I stopped at the trig point and reached for the coffee. It was a bright day and the views from Winder were as expected – outstanding. I placed my daysack by the trig point and something caught my eye – a book, no less, resting on top of the trig point. I looked around. I could see a couple of kilometres ahead and there was nobody in view. I hadn’t passed anybody – unless they remained hidden from me… the approaching, shrieking, heathenish madman. So, I took a look… It was a Wainwright book of the Howgills! I flicked through the pages whilst slurping down my coffee.
Now, Alfred Wainwright is a complete legend, and I did not own a copy of this particular book. Of course that fact had no bearing on my subsequent actions, which were selfless and heroic to say the least. You see, the weather in these parts is known to change quickly and dramatically, and therefore I surmised that I should wait 15 minutes or so, and if nobody turned up to claim said book I should ‘rescue’ it from being ruined by impending thunder, lightning storms, and flash floods that may ermmm… or may not be about to tear through the Howgills! I put personal safety aside and sat
in the sun *ahem* amidst the dark, gloomy storm-ridden skies, huddled, fearful for my own personal safety… and then the clock struck 15 minutes, the book was packed away and I was on my way again. And lo and behold, the corners of my mouth turned upwards for the first time of the day!
Given my unplanned stop I decided to remain on the Dales High Way, contouring around the side of the next peak Arant Haw (605m) to make up for some lost time. The paths rejoin on the other side of the peak and descend to Rowantree sheepfold, beyond which lies a little “weather void”, a reliably – and inexplicably – wind-free spot, looking out on the one side to the Lakeland Fells and on the other to the Yorkshire Dales. It provides a small respite before I head up another, shorter climb to Calders (674m).
As I took in more much-needed coffee, I saw a head bobbing up and down in the distance. Given that the person was travelling at pace, I guessed it was Jen coming in the other direction. Not wishing to appear too lazy I packed away my flask and stepped out on the gravel path up to Calders. By the time I reached the cairn at the top, there was nobody in sight! I looked across to the next big peak, the Calf. Damnit, I’d said I would head that way, so now I could only assume she had scampered off in that direction to say hello on her way past. Therefore, rather than opting for the easy beeline for Cautley and the car, I started to move along towards the highest point of the day – the Calf (676m).
It’s an undulating path between Calders and the Calf, so it wasn’t long before that unmistakable figure appeared over the brow of a rise, indeed heading towards me at pace. I grabbed for the camera and stood my ground. No, no… I really DIDN’T need a break… Jen finally bounced the last couple of hundred yards, and – like Bo Derek in 10 (but with rather more clothes on!) – reached me with arms wide open for a good old hug… Life is good.
We exchanged brief hellos and goodbyes – her outing was going rather better than mine, for which she sympathised and gave me a jelly baby (in exchange for some coffee!). Within no time at all her silhouette was disappearing into the middle distance and I was left pondering what to do next. It was a given that having come this far I had to reach the Calf, which I did within 10 minutes or so. But what next? From the highest point in the Howgills I glanced at my watch, and it suddenly dawned on me. I didn’t need to be off the fells early. I mean, the days were drawing out and it was only 2pm. I had at least another 6 hours of daylight!
As I looked around it happened… the sun sent a stream of “God rays” down upon Simon’s Seat in the distance. Now, call me old-fashioned, but I have attempted to get to Simon’s Seat from Sedbergh many times in the past. Various combinations of bad weather, lack of light, navigational error, and on some days simply lack of enthusiasm, have prevented me from reaching that goal. In fact, I had resigned myself to doing an overnighter with a tent, one day, in order to get there without the need to hurry… But today I had 6 hours?! How was that NOT possible?!
My earlier pains forgotten, I headed off towards a series of familiar, named peaks and passed them in quick succession: White Fell Head (636m), Bush Howe (623m) and Windscarth Wyke, at which point I was probably at a point of no return. Next I clambered 100 metres down the steep grassy fell before climbing up the other side to Breaks Head and the shoulder, which would lead me onward to my goal of Simon’s Seat.
I passed small remote areas, clumped together over less than 2 kilometres, maybe named by Wainwright himself, which included Stowgill Brow, Breaks, Wind Scarth, Bleagill Head, Taffergill Hill and lastly, down at 551 metres, Wethercalf Moss where a sting lay in the tail of my adventure. There was yet another, previously unseen descent of some 50 metres before an equally steep 80-metre climb up to Simon’s Seat. But I was undeterred, and without so much as a look back I went down to go back up…
At ‘my’ namesake summit I hunted around until I found the small cairn that marks the highest spot on Simon’s Seat. YESSSSS!!! It was hardly a seat… hmm, had I in some subconscious way been expecting a throne? Nor was it overly impressive height-wise, at only 587m. Though as I looked around, something else was mighty impressive: the distance behind me back to the Calf! However, this was a moment not to be hurried, and my flask came out to dispense one last coffee before I set about considering the route home. The view back to the Calf was mighty impressive… Yes, yes, I know, I said that already but I’d just had a look at the time, which pressed the point home a bit!
To walk the highly undulating path back around Cobles and down and up from Breaks Head seemed foolish. I decided that there must be an easier, more direct way! I wonder, is it just me that sets unrealistic goals, and then on the way to achieving one assumes that all maps, planning and past preparation must have been foolish, because I’m sure to have overlooked an easier option?
I decided to look at the map for an easier route over to Cautley, and by golly I found one! Ah. Hmm. Back, straight down the sheer fell from 587m to the valley at 300m and right back up the shoulder, ermmm, straight back up to 676m, thereby knocking out a kilometre of nice horizontal-ish walking in order to opt instead for near on half a kilometre of climb… Makes perfect sense (what WAS I thinking!?).
It was time to employ the use of my hiking poles; the fell was seriously steep and I’d need them to help me remain upright, steady and avoid tumbling down to the valley. The grass on the fells was long, thick and concealed many holes that were trying to trick me. It seemed that Simon’s Seat was encouraging me to stay put, now that I’d managed to visit at last! As I quickly descended I saw a herd of wild fell ponies that also didn’t seem to want my route to be an easy one once back down in the valley. They appeared ‘playful’ and I was mindful that giving them a wide berth meant another unnecessary climb and descent before finally reaching the valley floor at Langdale (it turns out that you don’t necessarily have to be in the Lakes to visit “Langdale”!).
Once down at the valley floor I had to march between Hazelgill Knott and Cobles, following Langdale Beck to the foot of what looked like a tough pull up to Saddle Grain. From there I would climb, for the second time today, right up to the Howgills’ highest point. My legs, whilst not overly appreciative of this unplanned climb, were behaving and I covered ground quite quickly.
I stopped several times to look back down the valley of this beautiful area, previously unexplored and unseen by these eyes! I figured that if ever I decide to explore any further North of here it would be far simpler to attack these hills from the villages/hamlets of Tebay, Cocklake or Bowderdale… noted for “someday”.
I finally saw the trig point of the Calf not too far ahead of me, and once more reached for the map. I reminded myself that I was heading for Cautley and therefore needed to turn before the Calf and onto the Dales High Way, a fairly flat track at around 670 metres. I noted a small tarn on the map, and then saw it up ahead. I could almost taste the celebratory fruit pie which I would purchase on the way home. Pie with cream AND custard. By God, I would have earned it! At the tarn I turned off the Dales High Way onto a rocky path that I would follow alongside Swere Gill as far as the top of Cautley Spout, the waterfall which some consider a climb in its own right.
It was really tough on the old knees, descending those last steep steps from 600 metres down to the Iron Age settlement at about 170m. By the time I was back on level – well, horizontal-ish – ground, my gait had become more of a waddle… but hey, onward I hobbled for the last kilometre or so.
My final few dozen metres of walking took me across the River Rawthey (by footbridge!), and then I saw Jen’s car waiting for me in a familiar spot. By the time I reached it, the last vehicle remaining in the layby, I had ascended over 1150 metres, higher than England’s highest mountain and on a par with many a Scottish munro. In horizontal terms I had travelled a distance of over 20 kilometres… Yes, I was going to enjoy that pie!
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…