Ash-hining Farm to Burneside
Updated: Jan 17
Dales Way – Day 5 – 13.2 miles
I wake to rain hammering on the velux bathroom window of my farmhouse B&B.
It’s just gone six and it’s pitch black outside.
I’ve asked for an early breakfast so I can make progress ahead of a forecast incoming weather front, but I'm too late. As I listen to the rain – heavy drops on a buffeting wind; it’s fair hossin’ it doon’ out there – the only thing I really want is a day off. Bed, box set, bath, lots of tea. On the world's big trails they call them zero days. Instead feet will go into soggy socks and saturated boots for a day no sensible rambler would contemplate getting out of bed for.
Which is, of course, all part of the fun.
We find ourselves on the topic of Brexit over breakfast.
You can’t escape it; even 60 miles into a walk across some of the loneliest landscapes in England.
Jim’s position is nuanced. An ex-farmer, he remembers the days of the Milk Marketing Board, which controlled milk production in Britain and guaranteed a minimum milk price for farmers.
The EU, he says, ended all that. Now farming subsidies reward the land owners, who can effectively get money for nothing, as long as they own the acres. Before we joined the EU we pretty much fed ourselves as a nation with high-quality foods produced by proud British farmers, he says. Why couldn’t – and shouldn’t – we do that again?
...Which all sounds fantastically reasonable.
But raises a question at the heart of this deeply complex issue.
How much of our current farming woes are the EU’s fault, and how much should we look instead at the wider actions of the market? Because while it's true that farm subsidies under the EU have frequently been imperfect, it wasn't the EU that abolished the Milk Marketing Board (MMB); it was a Tory government, with the passing of the Agriculture Act 1993.
Trying to untangle the actions of the market, the UK government and the EU is time-consuming and complex, both as a practical exercise and as a nostalgia-control check. Conflating neoliberal economics and the excesses of runaway capitalism from ‘the EU’ would make a fascinating PhD or ten. But those discussions are not being had among the population at large. And in Gove's brave new world we must discount the views of experts.
Nor am I convinced that in a post-Brexit landscape a pseudo-MMB would be welcomed. Such a body looks and smells very much like a socialist construct. Will the Mail, Sun or Telegraph, the loudest backers of a hard Brexit, really be championing price regulation for home-grown food? Or will the strong arm of the market win once again, forcing our already marginalised farmers even further to the edge?
We shall see.
Jim's recognition that the hill farmer's days are likely numbered has been one of his reasons for welcoming guests. "I no longer farm Charolais," he tells me, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, "I farm people."
I take my leave of Ash-hining Farm reluctantly. Jim's one of the Way's many characters, embedded in this landscape with a broad, deep knowledge of his valley and its people. A long-distance walk is never just about counting down the miles; it's about people like Jim; a reciting of tales; a sharing of world views.
Then it's out into the grey, clouds shifting fast over the domed Howgills, and back down to the Lune, its topped-up waters a restless sweep of rapids and rills just inches from breaching the bank.
The Lune Valley is a delight. The landscape is a rolling tapestry of hedge-lined meadows, riverside woods and out-of-the-way farms, overtopped right by the western flank of the domed Howgills, and left, the bracken-rimmed slopes of Firbank Fell, where in June 1652 a young George Fox, fresh from his vision on Pendle Hill, preached to a thousand souls in an act that would start the Quaker movement.
Through this wide breach the Way weaves, over smallholding fields of sheep and chickens, through oak woodlands clinging to craggy banks and swampy alder groves with air earthy thick. All the while a heron keeps me company on the Lune's far bank, watching me advance a hundred yards before spreading its wings and finding a new rock perch ahead.
My progress is bouyed by the weather: rain stopped falling the moment I left Ash-hining Farm. And while the skies look ominous, so far I'm walking lucky.
The Dales Way strikes west at Lowgill, leaving the Lune at the enchanting Crook of Lune bridge. The name – like many round here – is derived from the geography; here the river performs two switchbacks in succession; one 180 degrees, the other 90, creating a crook shape as the river runs the gorge. It's a popular tourist spot, not least for its Turner-painted packhorse bridge, thought to date back to Tudor times, maybe earlier.
A quarter mile uphill another fine bridge: this time a viaduct on the Ingleton line – the second in as many days. The Lowgill Viaduct's 11 arches, running a poetic curve, span 45-feet, gables towering 100ft above the walker below.
A mile further on, shortly after traversing the Old Scotch Road, the Dales Way meets another key crossing: that of the M6. A concrete farm-access bridge with metal gates and the roar of traffic below – incongruous in this landscape – makes you feel they don't make 'em quite like they used to.
The crossing is to mark a stark contrast in the walk. As I reach the west side of the M6 the rain that has held off until now starts and the scenery deteriorates. Neither would improve until I reached Burneside.
In Colin Speakman and Tony Grogan's short but sweet commemorative book 50 Years of the Dales Way the first through-walkers of the newly established trail, a group of Venture Scouts from Bradford Grammar School who completed their trailblazing walk in three-and-a-half days, noted that the route was "excellent... but the section before Kendal is not very interesting".
Treading the wet, weary miles from Lambrigg Head to Burneside, it's hard to disagree.
Compared to a walk through arable Lincolnshire it's no particular hardship. But in the context of the previous four days it is, as those Scouts said, not very interesting.
It's an unloved landscape. Dry-stone walls crumble on field boundaries, barbed wire fences supplant layered hedges, and farm outbuildings are no longer honey-limestone, but corrugated iron. The route's fiddly too; endless gates and stiles as you negotiate yet more non-descript fields, with an increased population of cows.
The rain doesn't help. As it drives harder, and each step becomes a fight against either slipping or sinking ankle-deep into waterlogged meadow-swarth I find myself wishing away the miles, which is not something I've done since leaving faraway Ilkley. Nor is the walking particularly gentle: this is rolling countryside, the foothills of the Lakeland peaks, and by the time you've reached the A6 you've done a respectful amount of ascent.
Not that there isn't respite from the trudge. The views – even with a horizon cramped by murk – are airy, the approach to Francis Webster-designed Shaw End, in its landscaped fold in the fells, is fine, and the brief company of the Sprint is welcome. On the approach to Burneside a farm is doing interesting conservation work: small pockets of copsed woodland a haven for wildlife, hand-crafted bridges over mini becks showing someone out here cares. The cradled waters of Black Moss Tarn on a fine summer's evening, meanwhile, might be the perfect place to lose a lazy hour. Not today, though, its waters wild, the name apt; even its resident whooper swans look more wet than a swan should do.
If a bedraggled collapse into not-massively attractive Burneside was the only thing left for the day then it would have ended on a downer.
But the mediocre miles were to be salvaged at Sprint Mill; a true gem on the Dales Way that bought a smile to this weary walker's face.
The diversion through the grounds of Sprint Mill have not always been a part of the Dales Way. Only recently has a path via the Mill and Tenement Farm saved Wayers from the busy B road. But the Mill – three stories of stone and wood, one of the oldest in Cumbria – is a revelation. A home to artists and craftspeople set in 15 acres of carefully maintained orchards, gardens and woodland, the Mill is owned by Edward and Romola Acland, whose passion is arts and crafts in the Ruskin tradition. Not that you know any of this until you step inside.
A sign beside the mill bids walkers to enter for tea and flapjack. Sodden and near-defeated I almost pass up the invite; Burneside's only half-a-mile away, where my sodden clothes can come off.
But refuge against the elements and a pinch of curiosity take me up the wooden steps onto the Mill's first floor...
...And it's like walking into Wonderland.
I'm greeted by a kettle, fresh milk, a variety of tea bags, flapjacks and crates of newly-picked apples. So far, so good.
But step beyond the eccentrically-decked entrance room and an Aladdin's cave of treasures await.
I creep through a wonky doorway, not sure if I'm trespassing or not, and the assault on the senses is visceral. Where to rest the eye? A cavernous room is piled high with cabinets and ladders and boxes and boats and bikes and chairs of all kinds. Pails, buckets and watering cans hang from the rafters. Wall-side dressers are crammed with type blocks and chisels and tools from a bygone age.
Open a dresser drawer and you fall further down the rabbit hole; each containing a new world of intricately displayed paraphernalia: bones, cogs, Christmas tree decorations, keys.
I creep onwards, not wanting to disturb the cloaked silence of this house of cast-off curiosities, through a second room of wood-crafted pieces; oars, scythes, pews, and then up to an attic that would not be out of place in a fairytale; a place where stories start, which, again, is brim full of forgotten things. A flea market of the left-behind.
Best of all is a wall of jars, all meticulously labelled, each with its own collection of stuff both organic and manmade: 'Sycamore Shavings', 'Roast Eggshell', 'Lichen from 70 Yr Old Ash', 'Plastic Toy Ghastliness', 'Random Mix of Not Sure What'. The latter feels an apt description of the Mill itself.
I return to the first floor, to my cup of tea, with a feeling that the world has changed very slightly since I was last here just a few moments back, a touch more magic in it. What a place. If you're in this neck of the woods don't pass it by. And if you're walking the Dales Way, definitely don't pass it by.
It is to become one of my highlights of the whole trail.
Back into the drizzly everyday for the remaining half mile. Past the medieval pele tower at Burneside Hall, a rare example of a fortified homestead from the days when north-of-the-border raiders would scour these parts for cattle, then into the village of Burneside, dominated by the works of James Cropper plc, makers of specialist papers including that used to form Remembrance Sunday poppies, to my end point for the day, Burneside station, where an information board tells me there is 'congestion on the line'. Which takes some doing on a branch line that carries just one train.
Not the finest of endings to a mostly mediocre walk.
But my memories aren't of the marshes, murk or miles of not very much. It's of that museum of wonders perched high above the Sprint.
I will be back.