Brough Sowerby to Garsdale Head
Updated: Jan 21
Pennine Journey – Day 14 – 14.5 miles
I've barely walked a quarter mile from my Brough Sowerby lodgings when I'm forced to stop.
The stile ahead is guarded by cows with calves.
It's not a good start to the day.
To this walker with a more-than-healthy respect for cows' personal space there are few lengths – or extra miles – I won't go to avoid unnecessary interactions.
The first herd of the day is bypassed by cresting an off-path bank, hanging onto roots until the beasts can see me no more.
The second I escape by hurdling a fence into an adjoining field and hoping the farmer in the overlooking farm doesn't see me trespassing.
Approaching a third field with a welcoming 'Bull in field' sign I lose my patience and backtrack into Winton to walk lanes into Kirkby Stephen, cursing cows, farmers and corporate agriculture. I also half consider becoming vegan.
Bloody cows. Bloody bulls. Bloody farmers.
Fortunately the onward journey to the Moorcock Inn in distant Mallerstang ends up being so fine – pretty much every step of the way – that even the most committed sulk stood no chance of sticking around.
The Pitts open their chapter on the Kirkby Stephen–Garsdale Head leg with the promise that it “is one of the most delightful stages of this journey”.
They’re not wrong.
Within minutes of leaving the walkers' metropolis of Kirkby Stephen (it is here that AW's Coast to Coast Walk pauses before scaling Nine Standards Rigg) at evocative Frank’s Bridge I'm in the company of the now-familiar Eden again, slimmer and spritelier as we draw ever-closer to its upland source. A brief woodland interlude – soft plops in brown water the song of unseen trout – leads to a sunken lane shielded each side by coppiced walls of hazel and beech, bedrock worn down by generations of feet and horses' hooves.
It’s quiet in the holloway, still and cool. There are so few of these lanes left now, lost ways from a half-forgotten era. I savour the half mile in its leaf-woven groves, re-entering the world at a cobbled ford where the temperature rises ten degrees.
The next two miles are an antiquarian's delight.
First there's Wharton Hall, seat of the Lords Wharton, a 14th century fortified manor house with curtain walls surrounding a medieval courtyard. A second, more modern, curtain wall comprises barns and farm outbuildings.
Then – as the path meanders through upland meadows (blissfully cow-free) – a second pile appears. Lammerside Castle predates Wharton Hall by at least two centuries, with the addition of a Pele tower in the 14th century to guard against Scots raiders.
But time has not been kind to the castle. The branch of the Wharton family that once called it home abandoned ship in the 17th century, leaving the walls to crumble and vaulted ceilings to fall. After the castles of Appleby and Brough, poor Lannerside – with no road access, no coffee shop, no information boards – feels woefully unloved. But as the sun beats down on this perfect spring day, imagination can still run riot; it is the perfect setting for the Famous Five to discover secret tunnels below hidden trapdoors before laying out a picnic rug for lashings of ginger beer.
Then, with the ground rising sharply on either side I am out of Eden and into Mallerstang, the evocativaly named Westmorland dale in which the river rises.
The mountains again! After three days in the lowlands.
An amiable wander along the flanks of Birkett Common leads past Pendragon Castle.
It's another of Lady Anne’s saved follies, but like Lammerside, it has succumbed to the ravages of age and weather, its falling walls now dressed with wreaths of pink Aubretia.
Legend has it that Uther Pendragon – father of King Arthur – built the keep way back in pre-history, and that 100 of his men died within it when Saxons poisioned the well.
Like many of the castles in these disputed borderlands, it was attacked one more than once; a Scots raiding party set fire to it in 1341 and it was left in ruins by a second torching in 1541. Lady Anne’s mid 17th century restoration (and addition, of a curtain wall and gatehouse) was only to extend its life by a few more years. Her heirs thought little of Anne's more esoteric projects and, like Hadrian’s Wall, much of its stone was permanently borrowed for the construction and repair of local buildings, including, ironically, Lady Anne's castle at Appleby.
It may have lost much of its carefully-hewn stonework, but its commanding location remains, standing proud above the bubbling Eden at this protective chokehold in rising Mallerstang. In Lady Anne's day it must have been quite something.
More fine woods lead to Thrang Bridge and the start of the long climb south.
Here the Way leaves the Eden and joins two other long distance trails – the Pennine Bridleway and Lady Anne's Way – to make a steady ascent to Hell Gill Bridge, the vertiginous packhorse bridge that lies just a few furlongs downstream from the source of the Eden, the great Cumbrian river I’ve been tracing since Appleby.
The track picks its way up the Common, the mighty hanging crags of Mallerstang Edge a two-mile escarpment on the eastern horizon while ahead, on the skyline, the wonderful Water Cut, a fragmented menhir of Salterwath limestone sculpted by Mary Bourne, is a 20-foot waymark. It is the first of ten contemporary scultures set along the course of the Eden.
The ancient greenway beyond is known locally as Lady Anne Clifford Way. The OS names it ‘Old Road’ and ‘The High Way’. Each reference has its truth. Yes, this is the old road Lady Anne walked with her convoy between castles. But this fine terrace on the west shoulder of Abbotside Common was first trod much earlier, when the valley bottoms were mires and tangles of willow and alder; inaccessible swamps in which men would drown, horses sink and carts flounder... if the wolves didn't get them first...
In those distant times travel was over the drier, safer hillsides. The tracks laid onto the ground were than adopted, and improved, by the Romans.
Today The High Way is simply that: the high way along the valley, giving an eagle-eyed view of the valley-bottom tarmacced road that in historic terms is nothing but an upstart.
And it’s a walker’s dream. Soft, springy turf and a level line make for a joyous trek, a fair breeze taking the edge off the heat and winging me on. The terrace offers views in all directions; from the majestic flanks of Wild Boar Fell – Pennine Way-creator Tom Stephenson’s favourite hill – to the lonely stone beacons on Swarth fell a mile south. As the Way continues south the land shifts and, distant blue, Ingleborough rises from the haze, a monolith outline in a fellscape of moorland shapelessness.
There's interest every step of the way.
High Hall, a ruin at the wall-side and a residency for rooks, was once a thriving inn on this busy upland way.
Where the turf ends limestone rises, breaking the earth in acre-wide rockeries through which the path weaves.
At Hell Gill a judicious glance over the bridge parapet is dizzying, stream lost in the slot-canyon far below. It was here, legend says, that Dick Turpin made a five-foot jump into Cumberland to evade Yorkshire justice.
A boyouant decent (too soon) from the High Way leads past the limestone cascades of Ure Force to journey’s end, the Moorcock Inn.
On wild winter nights this pub-in-the-middle-of-nowhere musty be bleak indeed; a retreat in the heart of mountain country, windows portholes on a blizzard sea of snow.
Not today though, with a motley assortment of walkers, bikers, day-trippers and locals sipping beer in the sun. There’s not much of an actual beer garden – there’s probably no call for one – so drinkers pull up outdoors furniture wherever they can, chatting under the eaves of an inn that has served wayfarers for generations
On my journey south I had been told three times to be at Dandrymire Viaduct at 6.15. The first tip came from a walker with a very large lensed camera on the High Way. He was shooting birds and aircraft heading down Mallerstang. But the holy grail, he said, would be the Carlisle–Settle steam train due to cross Dandry Mire at 6.15.
The second tip came from a couple drinking outside the Moorcock Inn, catching the last rays after a day on the moors. “6.15,” they said: “Head up the bridleway, under the viaduct and you’ll find a bank with the perfect view.”
The third was a gent on a cycle tour of the Dales, tent and supplies strapped to a bike that didn’t look like it’d last the distance. “You here for the 6.15?,” he asked.
So it is that at six I make my way up the lane – ruckpack-free walking, as if gravity has been dialled down a few notches, or a few years rolled back – up the bridleway, under the viaduct and onto the bank that apparently has the perfect view of the expected train.
“It’s sometimes a waiting game,” the Moorcock Inn couple had warned.
So I wait, eyes fixed on the line that heads south towards Settle, perch offering a quarter-mile view of straight track before the long curve of the viaduct. The evening's warm – the bar thermometer had settled at 20C – and still, but far from silent. Bees flit between path-side buttercups, unseen birds sing from the thorn, and always – the soundtrack to my whole Pennine Journey – lapwings, tireless of voice, even as the sun sinks.
In the end there's no waiting game. The rest of Britain’s rail network may be falling apart but not the 6.15 service that bang-on-time enters my camera frame, heralded by a whistle that adds a joyful man-made descant to the sounds of nature on my little patch of hillside.
And then… a minute later it's gone, over the viaduct on its way to industrial West Yorkshire.
A visitor from another place and time, here and gone in a matter of moments.
It puts a smile on my face that's still there when I return to the Moorcock Inn a dusky half hour later.