The Land of the Lune

Chapter 2:  Shap Fells and Birkbeck Fells

  The Introduction
  The Previous Chapter (Northern Howgills and Orton Fells)
  The Next Chapter (Western Howgills and Firbank Fell)
upper borrowdale

Upper Borrowdale from High House Bank

Birk Beck

wasdale beck near eskew beck Left: Wasdale Beck below Shap Pink Quarry
Right: Sheep and ruin by Eskew Beck

Birk Beck arises in Wasdale, as Wasdale Beck, below Great Yarlside, which at 598m and 14km from the junction with the Lune is only a little lower and nearer than Green Bell. The most prominent feature of this region is the cliff face of Shap Pink Quarry, the existence of which tells us that there are locally rare and valued rocks. There is an exposure of ‘Shap granite’, an igneous rock with, amongst many other minerals, crystals of orthoclase feldspar (potassium aluminium silicate) so large that they may be studied with the naked eye. Large pink boulders can be seen in the surrounding fields and, as we saw, some made their way to the stone circle near Orton.
      The Shap granite is an uprising of the granite that underlies the Lake District. It is seen in the western Lakes around, for example, the more famous Wasdale. This prompts consideration of how our Wasdale relates to the Lake District. The Shap Fells are officially part of the Lake District National Park, the eastern border of which is the A6, but lovers of Lakeland tend to ignore them. For example, Wainwright’s classic seven volumes on Lakeland include a volume on the Eastern Fells and another on the Far Eastern Fells but still do not go far enough east to include the Shap Fells.
      He argued that the Lakeland fells are “romantic in atmosphere, dramatic in appearance, colourful, craggy, with swift-running sparkling streams” but that the Shap Fells have a “quieter and more sombre attractiveness”. But then Wainwright loved a scramble: anywhere where it was possible to settle into a brisk walking rhythm was usually described as dull or tedious. Rather ironically, the fact that the Shap Fells are in the National Park is now being used to try to extend the boundary yet further eastwards to include similar terrain.
      [Update: The 2016 changes to the National Park boundaries did indeed move the eastern border even further east, to the M6 rather than the A6, thus including the Birkbeck Fells, Bretherdale and lower Borrowdale.]

docker force Right: Docker Force (Birk Beck may be only a tributary of the Lune but up to this point the Lune has been tame in comparison)

      South of the granite intrusion, the Shap Fells bedrock is of the Silurian slates and grits that underlie the Howgills. Here, however, deep peat gives blanket bog, with some heather moorland. The variety of upland vegetation supports breeding waders (curlew, lapwing, redshank, snipe) and raptors (peregrine falcon, merlin), although not very many, as far as I have seen. There’s also a herd of red deer.
      The headwaters of Wasdale Beck run off the slopes of Great Yarlside and Wasdale Pike, heading northeast to meet Longfell Gill, which passes the brother quarry, Shap Blue Quarry, which mines darker shades of granite. At the junction is Shap Wells Hotel, built in 1833 for visitors, including royalty, to the nearby Shap Spa.
      The beck, now called Birk Beck, passes Salterwath, a farmstead that lends its name to Salterwath Limestone. This first came from quarries 1km to the east, now beyond the railway and motorway, and more recently from Pickering Quarry 4km north. The limestone, which is blue-grey when quarried and polishes to a brownish shade, is a fine building and paving stone.
      Below the 5m waterfall of Docker Force, Stakeley Beck and Eskew Beck join Birk Beck off Birkbeck Fells, a dull triangle of common land between the A6, M6 and Bretherdale, heathery to the north and grassy to the south. There’s a good path from Ewelock Bank to the highest point, Crag Hill (400m), but the top is disappointing as it is little higher than nearby hillocks, lower than the A6 and surrounded in all directions by higher fells. Still, it provides reasonable views of those fells, especially the Cross Fell range and the Howgills.
      Birk Beck runs past the small, secluded communities of Scout Green and Greenholme. It is hard to imagine now that they once lay on the route of an important drove road. Then, when there was no M6 or railway, it would have been quiet enough to hear the approaching clamour of a thousand cattle and accompanying throng; at the villages, excitement would grow – perhaps the visit coincided with a local market, with a lively exchange of beasts; the drovers would eat and drink (it was thirsty work); maybe the cattle would be penned overnight; and then the whole procession would move on to the next stop a few miles along.
      The drove roads were, of course, not roads as we know them. They were wide tracks, often on high ground, partly for the free grazing there and partly to avoid the risk of ambush. A drover was a person of prestige and responsibility. The annual pilgrimage of cattle from Galloway to the south for sale or for fattening in the milder climate occurred for centuries before the railways made the practice obsolete. The drove roads were not restricted to cattle: they became the standard route of passage for people transporting other essentials of life, such as wool, coal and salt.
      Surviving drove roads are characterised by their wide margins. The routes of the Galloway Gate (the name of the drove roads between Scotland and northwest England) through Loyne can be traced by place names (e.g. Three Mile House, reflecting the typical distance between stops) and inn names (e.g. Black Bull, Drover’s Arms). The Galloway Stone, a large Shap granite boulder north of Salterwath, probably had significance for drovers.
      More recently, Scout Green and Greenholme became known to railway enthusiasts as locations to view trains struggling up from Tebay to Shap. South of Greenholme, at Dorothy Bridge, Birk Beck is joined by Bretherdale Beck.

Bretherdale Beck

Bretherdale Beck runs between the A6 and M6 in the valley of Bretherdale, which was quiet and ignored until it came into the public limelight after a proposal to erect 27 wind turbines, 115m high, in a 6km by 2km area on its southern ridge. The proposal for what came to be called the Whinash Wind Farm was eventually rejected by the Secretary of State in 2006 because “the Whinash site is an important and integral part of a far-reaching landscape which is highly sensitive to change”.

parrocks Left: Derelict Parrocks in upper Bretherdale

      The proposal for what would have become England’s largest land-based set of wind turbines became a test case for the conflict between protecting the landscape and securing renewable energy. Many factors provoked heated debates – too many to summarise here – but one that, judging from the 127-page inspector’s report, seems to have been decisive is that the wind turbines would have impacted on views from the Lakes and Dales National Parks, from Orton Fells, and from locations further north. So, the views of Whinash were apparently more important than the merits of Whinash itself.
      It is difficult to argue for those merits: “People love Bretherdale for its wild, open solitude” … “But nobody ever goes there” … “But if they did they’d love the solitude.” How bleak and empty does a region have to be to be appreciated for that very bleakness and emptiness? How much intrusion can an empty region absorb before losing its emptiness? This is an argument not just for Bretherdale: many parts of Loyne appeal because so few people go there.
      The proposers argued that the wind turbines would increase the number of visitors to the area. The head of onshore wind for the British Wind Energy Association expressed incredulity that anyone should wish to visit other than to see the turbines: “You’re not going to get visitors within earshot of the M6 any other way. It’s barren moorland. Why would people want to walk there otherwise?”
      The debate about Whinash was obfuscated by opinions that the National Park boundaries might or would soon change. In particular, some professed to believe that the Birkbeck Fells, Bretherdale and Borrowdale were about to become part of the Lake District National Park – and of course it is unthinkable to have wind turbines in the Lake District. At the moment, the Lake District is ringed with wind turbines but there are none within its boundaries. On the other hand, the proposal, if approved, might have prevented the Birkbeck Fells joining the Lake District or might have set a precedent for further wind turbines in the Lake District.
      [Update: As said in the update above, the Birkbeck Fells, Bretherdale and lower Borrowdale are now within the National Park.]

bretherdale Right: Lower Bretherdale, looking west

      A further issue was that all but three of the proposed 27 turbines would have been on common land, which raised the question of possible interference with the rights of commoners. Much of the higher land of Loyne remains as traditional common land but its legal position is muddled. All common land belongs to an owner (here the Lowther Estate) not to the commoners. It is the owner’s prerogative to make proposals about the land. While the commoners argued that there would be a loss of grazing rights the inspector did not agree with them. In fact, he considered that the commoners would benefit from easier access along the new tracks.
      Among those who contributed to the debate were long-established groups such as Friends of the Earth and English Nature and newly created ones such as Friends of Bretherdale. Bretherdale never knew it had so many friends. The valley today has many abandoned farmsteads, which visitors, if there are any, might find charmingly derelict. But each of them was the home, perhaps for centuries, of families that were forced, in despair, to abandon their houses and their livelihoods. Where were the friends when these families needed them? Are a few wind turbines so much more important than the ruination of people’s lives? Again, these are questions not just for Bretherdale. Loyne is and always has been predominantly rural and many communities continue to struggle to find a role in the 21st century.
      As far as Bretherdale is concerned, all is far from lost. Although it may be too late for higher Bretherdale, except perhaps some buildings of Bretherdale Head, from Midwath Stead downstream there has been some reinvigoration. For example, Bretherdale Hall has been renovated despite uncertainty about the wind turbines. Midwath Stead itself seems a lively group of homesteads, with, according to its sign, “free range children”.
      Overall, it is a pleasant, sheltered valley, with rocky outcrops on the surrounding hills and an unobtrusive conifer plantation with other natural woodlands. Below Midwath Stead some of the fields are, like those near Raisbeck, traditional unploughed meadows and consequently rich in grasses, herbs and flowers.
      After the Bretherdale Beck junction, Birk Beck proceeds uneventfully for 2km past Low Scales farm and under the three-arched Birkbeck Viaduct to join the Lune.

The Lune from Birk Beck ...

great coum lune's bridge Left: The Lune Gorge from Great Coum, Grayrigg
Right: Lune’s Bridge

At their junction Birk Beck and the Lune are much the same size and if the matter hadn’t been pre-empted by the naming it might have been unclear which was the tributary. They meet head on and as a significant, placid river run south, heading for a narrow gap, extravagantly called the Lune Gorge, between steep hills. This gap is an obvious transport corridor, as the Romans recognised with their road from Carlisle and as the drovers appreciated in the Middle Ages. More recently, the A685, the railway and the M6 motorway have squeezed themselves into the gap but only after it had been widened by blasting away the side of Jeffrey’s Mount.
      The lines of transport jostle the Lune for space. Within 3km, the Lune is crossed nine times: four times by the M6, twice by the railway, once by the A685 and twice by footbridges. This is not the most soothing section of the Lune. Visually, the Lune is pleasant, running over a wide stony bed, bleached white in summer. Aurally, the M6 dominates.
      Sadly, there is no space left for National Cycle Route 68 (the Pennine Cycleway), England’s longest leisure cycle route, which was opened in 2003 and runs for 570km between Derby and Berwick-on-Tweed. Within Loyne it runs from Orton to Sedbergh, through Dentdale, and on to Ingleton and Clapham. Here it is forced to share 1km with the A685. The cycleway is described as 20% traffic-free trails and 80% quiet lanes and minor roads. The A685 is neither.
      The Lune is joined from the west by Roundthwaite Beck, which runs from Roundthwaite Common. The beck passes Roundthwaite Farm, which is the home of the Lunesdale fell ponies, about forty of which browse the fells between Bretherdale and Borrowdale. The Lunesdale ponies have roamed the common since the stud was established in 1958 and have become known as a prize-winning breed. For example, in 2008 Lunesdale Lady Rebecca was Supreme Champion at the Fell Pony Society Breed Show.
      Fell ponies are hardy, strong, active, versatile, stubby, sure-footed horses, usually black but sometimes grey, brown or bay. They are on the fells all year. The fell pony originated on the moors of northwest England and is one of nine native breeds in Britain. It was used as a draught animal and packhorse since Roman times and was the main form of transport during the Border conflicts. The passing of these roles led to a severe decline in numbers, only arrested recently by its popularity for leisure and competitive riding, although it is really a working breed. The fell pony is still listed as endangered by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.
      Tucked between the M6, railway and A685 bridges is the first distinctive bridge across the Lune, Lune’s Bridge. A document of 1379 refers to a “Lonesbrig” here but the present bridge is of the 17th century or later. This attractive bridge is perched across rocks where the Lune narrows. There are two arches, the smaller one so high that the Lune can surely never reach it. Today, the bridge leads to a memorial stone for four rail track workers who were killed near here in 2004 by a runaway trailer from Scout Green.
      The Lune runs through a calm, open section that once was a quiet haven between steep hills, and is joined from the west by the sizable tributary of Borrow Beck.

The M6 motorway in the Lune Gorge cannot be ignored so let us try to make a virtue of necessity: it is, after all, the recipient of a Civic Trust award, the plaque (which was in the A685 lay-by below Grayrigg Pike until removed or stolen in 2008) saying “This award for an outstanding contribution to the appearance of the Westmorland landscape relates to the 36 miles of M6 Motorway between the Lancaster and Penrith bypasses”. This contribution will not be appreciated at the level of the Lune. Distance lends enchantment and you really need to view the M6 from Grayrigg Pike, Blease Fell, Linghaw or even further away.
      The A6 route via Shap, reaching 424m, was notorious for its bad visibility and winter conditions. The 1962 report on the proposed Lancaster-Penrith M6 route whittled the possibilities down to three: the A6, the Lune Valley, and the Killington routes. Of the two Lune Gorge routes, the Killington route was preferred to the Lune Valley (phew!), although a cost-benefit analysis found the A6 route better than both. The Killington route was selected because of the A6 weather problems and because the necessary tunnels would have “placed restrictions on the movement of dangerous goods” (?).
      So Killington it was. The design and engineering problems were immense. The A685 was re-aligned; long constant gradients were designed, reaching a maximum height of 315m; 77 bridges were needed (plus three for the A685) – and all intended to blend into the landscape. Construction began in 1967 and the motorway opened in October 1970. By now millions of travellers on the M6 have admired the Howgills, but how many of the few of us on the Howgills have admired the M6?

below Jeffrey's Mount

The Lune below Jeffrey’s Mount

Walk 3: Roundthwaite Common and Bretherdale

Map: OL19 and OL7 (please read the general note about the walks in the Introduction).
Starting point: Roundthwaite, where the bridleway to Borrowdale swings southwest (609033).
      This is a walk over the area that might have been sacrificed for the Whinash Wind Farm. Follow the bridleway southwest and immediately after the gate, take the path half left directly up the slope to Jeffrey’s Mount. Continue beyond the small pile of stones at the top for a little way in order to rest while watching the busy motorway traffic far below.
      When you are ready, head west along the ridge over half a dozen gentle rises, including Casterfell Hill, Belt Howe, Winterscleugh and the highest point, Whinash (471m). In places there is a path but it doesn’t matter much as there are no fences and it is easy going on grass, with good views into Borrowdale. Almost certainly, Lunesdale fell ponies will be seen on the common.
      When you reach Breasthigh Road, an ancient, deeply grooved track over the ridge, follow it to the right. At Bretherdale Beck you might like to detour north briefly to see the derelict Bretherdale Head. Follow the quiet road to picturesque Midwath Stead, with its small bridge.
      Continue along the road (very little traffic) past Bretherdale Hall, and then take the footpath through Bretherdale Foot and Dyke Farm (where the owner assured me that there will soon be signs to help you locate the path) to Pikestone Lane. Turn right on the lane and walk for 2km to Roundthwaite.

Short walk variation: Between Belt Howe and Breasthigh Road there is no way off the fell to the north and so the only short walk possible is to follow the long walk up Jeffrey’s Mount to Belt Howe and then take the bridleway back to Roundthwaite. If this walk is a little on the short side for you, you could continue on the CRoW land over Roundthwaite Common as far as you wish and perhaps drop down to the bridleway via the Blea Gill waterfalls.

Borrow Beck

Borrowdale Head

Borrowdale Head from High House Bank

bretherdale Right: The wall from Great Yarlside to Little Yarlside

Borrow Beck runs for 10km east from between High House Fell and Bannisdale Fell through Borrowdale, the most beautiful valley in Loyne despite being split in two by the A6. Upper Borrowdale is within the Lake District National Park and has some of the character of Lakeland valleys. Unfortunately, there is no footpath in upper Borrowdale, which therefore can only be appreciated by walking the long, grassy ridges on either side.
      [Update: All of Borrowdale is now within the Lake District National Park.]
      Just below High Borrow Bridge, Crookdale Beck joins Borrow Beck. This junction illustrates the difficulty of determining the source of a watercourse. Upper and lower Borrowdale are aligned so well that it seems obvious that the same beck, Borrow Beck, flows through them both. But Crookdale Beck has a much higher and more distant source, below Harrop Pike (637m), than Borrow Beck and at the junction ought to be regarded as the senior partner.
      Perhaps aesthetics play a part because Crookdale is such a dreary valley that no beck would want to be born there. There are twelve million visits to the Lake District National Park each year and approximately none of them involve an outing to Crookdale. Above Hause Foot, there is little of interest to a visitor not fascinated by varieties of grass and herb, only the modest crags of Great Yarlside breaking the monotonous, peaty slopes.
      Hause Foot is on the turnpike route before the A6 was built in the 1820s. A steep curve up the northern slope can be traced, reaching 440m, with the route continuing north over Packhorse Hill and south to High Borrow Bridge. This route played a key part in the 1745 incursion of Bonnie Prince Charlie. When his army began to retreat, bridges such as High Borrow Bridge were demolished ahead of it to hamper its struggle over the Shap summit, after which the Scottish army was defeated in its last battle on English soil.
      In a lay-by on the A6 there is a memorial to drivers over the A6 Shap summit, but the A6 is far from forgotten and unused today. There is no memorial to the souls who tackled the turnpike route. It too is not unused as it forms part of the 82km Kendal to Carlisle Miller’s Way footpath, opened in 2006.

Walk 4: Upper Borrowdale, Crookdale and Wasdale

Map: OL7 (please read the general note about the walks in the Introduction).
Starting point: A lay-by at the A6 summit (554062).
      As we have Loyne becks from the Lake District, we must have a walk within the Lake District! This is a long, arduous, isolated walk over grassy and sometimes boggy ridges.
      Go west through a gate and under two lines of pylons to reach the old turnpike route. Go south through two gates and at the third follow the wall down to Crookdale Beck. Cross it and head up High House Bank. At a small cairn there’s a good view into Borrowdale.
      Follow the ridge west. A faint path becomes clearer after Robin Hood, where a good cairn marks another viewpoint. Continue to Lord’s Seat. Sadly, there is no sight from here of the fine cairn on Harrop Pike to inspire you, but make your way northwest around crags and peat-mounds (there is no path). Keep well to the left so that you can use the fence to guide you to the top.
      After all this effort, the view of the Lakeland hills is disappointing. Only Black Combe, the Coniston range, and a glimpse of Harter Fell and High Street can be seen beyond the nearer hills. There’s also a view into Mosedale and Sleddale, where you may be lucky to see red deer. No lakes can be seen apart from a bit of Wet Sleddale Reservoir to the northeast. The view eastwards is better: a panorama from Morecambe Bay to Cross Fell, with the Howgills prominent.
      From Harrop Pike, follow the fence east to Great Yarlside (easy walking here). At the junction follow the fence left, not the wall right. Follow the right fence at the next junction. After a short while, a plantation comes into view half right. Make a beeline (no path) across Wasdale, with Shap Pink Quarry to your left, to the right hand corner of the plantation and then across the field to the lay-by.
      The reward for this walk is that you can afterwards boast to Lake District fans that you did Borrowdale and Wasdale in one day.

Short walk variation: It is possible to have a shorter walk but not really a short walk, once you embark on Crookdale. You could forgo the pleasure of reaching Harrop Pike by contouring round from Lord’s Seat to Great Yarlside – but don’t cut directly across Crookdale, as it’s a bog. From Great Yarlside, you could avoid walking in Wasdale by following the wall over Little Yarlside.

Lower Borrowdale

Lower Borrowdale, above the farm of Low Borrowdale

whinfell aerial Right: Whinfell aerial and repeater station

      Below High Borrow Bridge, Borrow Beck enters lower Borrowdale, a serene valley enclosed by steep, grassy slopes, with occasional rocky outcrops, the ridges on both sides undulating over a series of gentle summits reaching almost 500m. The farmstead of High Borrowdale was derelict for many years until bought in 2002 by the Friends of the Lake District, perhaps as a ploy to help prevent the building of wind turbines on Whinash. Many saplings have been planted beside the beck and the barns have been restored but the farmstead itself remains a ruin, now tidy rather than derelict.
      Low Borrowdale continues to farm the lower valley in splendid isolation although it was sold in 2008 to Natural Retreats, a Manchester-based company that aims to build luxury holiday ‘eco-parks’ alongside all fourteen national parks. To nobody’s surprise, a planning application duly followed: to build 29 timber lodges and 7 holiday cottages. This would, of course, disturb the serenity of the dale, although Natural Retreats naturally claims otherwise. The application, which is opposed by the neighbours, the Friends of the Lake District, was rejected by Eden District Council in 2009, which, it is to be hoped, should be the end of the matter.
      It is a merciful mystery that Borrowdale has escaped significant change for so long. The Romans and the drovers did not find use for an east-west path through Borrowdale but it is surprising that a road joining the Lune valley and the A6 was never contemplated. Although the planners’ suggestion that Borrowdale become a reservoir and the recent Whinash Wind Farm proposal were both thwarted, the southern ridge, Whinfell, has been less successful in avoiding modern intrusions. Historically, Whinfell had a beacon to warn of Scottish invasions and it is perhaps to be expected that the ridge should now be adorned with its 21st century equivalents, a repeater station and aerial. I actually rather like them. Not in themselves attractive, they enhance their surroundings (rather like Marilyn Monroe’s beauty spot).

Walk 5: Lower Borrowdale

Map: OL19 and OL7 (please read the general note about the walks in the Introduction).
Starting point: Where a side-road leaves the A685 for Borrowdale (607014).
      Walk west along the road that skirts Borrowdale Wood until it becomes a track and after a further 0.5km (at 594014) take a path leading south up through a sparse, old woodland. Eventually, views into Borrowdale open out and the repeater station, with the aerial to the left, comes into view.
      From the repeater station, walk to Whinfell Beacon (good view over Kendal), Castle Fell, Mabbin Crag and Ashstead Fell. The cairns on the peaks can be seen ahead and the footpath is clear except for a short section in the plantation below Mabbin Crag. From Ashstead Fell, drop down towards the A6 and take the path northeast to Borrow Beck. Walk east on the south bank for 2km and cross the bridge leading to High and Low Borrowdale. Continue back by Borrowdale Wood.
      Those of boundless energy may extend the walk into a ridge horseshoe by walking up Breasthigh Road (by fording Borrow Beck or, if that is not possible, crossing it at Huck’s Bridge) to the ridge above Borrowdale Edge, dropping down the bridleway to Low Borrowdale.
      Walks may equally well start at the A6 end, where there are two lay-bys close by Huck’s Bridge.

Short walk variation: Any walk along the length of the Whinfell ridge cannot be considered a short walk. Shorter walks than the above can be devised by noting carefully the positions of the two bridges, the plantations and the other footpath (from Roundthwaite) into the valley, and the extent of CRoW land. There are crags on the valley slopes but, if necessary, they can be negotiated with care. The best and least risky route is to follow the long walk as far as Whinfell Beacon, to proceed to the wall gate on the way to Castle Fell, and then to turn right to Shooter Howe. A modest scramble will bring you down to Borrow Beck, which you then follow east.

ch2 map
  The Introduction
  The Previous Chapter (Northern Howgills and Orton Fells)
  The Next Chapter (Western Howgills and Firbank Fell)

    © John Self, Drakkar Press