Dales Way – Day 6 – 9 miles
What a difference a day makes.
After yesterday's murky miles, today dawned with a blue-skied spring in its step, and as my train rolled into Burneside to pick up the Way, it felt like fitting weather to enjoy its final miles.
The Kent is the last great river on the Dales Way. First it was the Wharfe, then the Lune, with amiable stretches along smaller feeder streams, including the lovely Dee back in Dentdale. But the first half of this final leg is the Kent's, the great Westmorland river that rises in Hall Cove immediately south of the rimmed crags of Mardale Ill Bell, and flows, 20 miles later, into Morecambe Bay.
Today it's a benign companion – even after yesterday's soaking – but in spate it is fearsome; in December 2015's Storm Desmond 2,150 properties in Kendal were flooded as a result of the highest river levels ever recorded.
That legacy continues to reverberate, with Burneside Bridge only reopening in June this year – four years after the deluge. Kendal folk, meanwhile, are discussing how intrusive new flood measures should be.
History and climate modelling should warn us that whatever is spent is unlikely to be enough. Planners should instead turn their eyes upstream. Why are there so few trees in the watershed? Why not re-raise the level of diminished Kentmere Tarn?
Nature holds more answers than accounting ledger lines, yet still the authorities bang the drum for higher walls, deeper dredging and, ironically, fewer blasted trees.
The four miles from Burneside to fair Staveley are charming: turfed ways beside airy watermeadows; cloistered interludes in autumn lanes, thorns heavy with berries; and a fine promenade opposite Hagg Wood, path picking mossily among oak roots, rocky bluffs and bracken-swathes crisping to gold. The Kent, meanwhile, plays between lazy meanders and frantic rapids; at the huge development of Cowan Head the roar from the weir is heard a quarter-mile distant. Its waterfowl residents are busy too: in the space of half-a-mile I see swans, mallards, a grebe and, perched high up on a skeleton tree, a cormorant eyeing her patch. Leaves crunch underfoot as I continue upstream.
To Staveley, its gently spoken mainstreet dominated by St Margaret's Tower, all that remains of the village's first church.
It may not be the prettiest of Lakeland villages, but it is my favourite. Set back from the A591 bypass, it continues to flourish where so many others do not. On the outskirts of the National Park and on precisely nobody's 'Lakeland Top Ten' bucket list, Staveley has escaped the tourist maelstrom and the second home invasion. If you look hard enough you might just about be able to buy a slab of Kendal Mint Cake, but you'll struggle to find a Peter Rabbit book. The village is all the better for that, a functional, open-minded community with a thriving school, one of the best beer gardens in the District (Eagle & Child), three great cafés and – best of all – the Mill Yard, an industrial estate bang-in-the-heart of the village that hosts dozens of businesses and employs hundreds.
I once took a friend to the Hawkshead Beer Hall, biggest business in the Mill Yard and one of Lakeland's iconic brewers, a few years back. For the first pint he was disappointed; if he was drinking in the Lakes he wanted a whitewashed coaching inn and a view of the fells! Two pints later – and as the Sunday afternoon village singalong kicked off – he agreed there was something rather special about this bar-in-a-car-park. Two pints after that he'd become a Hawkshead Brewery convert.
I wander along the main street then pull into Café Eclec, a bric-a-brac shop cum café that serves the best (Aga-warmed) Dhal in these parts.
When times comes to move on I do so reluctantly.
The way to Hag End is dominated by road walking. But these are roads untroubled by the traffic of the 21st century; the lanes that time forgot, gated byways along which I pass no-one. Striding out – and uphill – the views open on all sides until, standing just down from Brackenthwaite, you can look north to the emerging Lakeland Fells, and the fine three-sister ridge comprising Yoke, Froswick and Ill Bell, and east to the Howgills, the Dales Way route between here and there folded somewhere into the rolling green.
The tarmac is left on a road older still: a rare sunken holloway, underfoot bedrock worn down by the rims of cartwheels. Gnarled hawthorns and elder mark a lost line. The landscape here is hard to pin down, neither Lakeland nor Dales, instead rolling foothills of patchwork meadows punctuated by craggy upthrusts and allotments of woodland, a feeling of nature not-quite-tamed in the spreading yellow-flowered gorse and becks that spring unexpectedly from failing field-drains. With the great fellscapes of Lakeland just across the horizon this countryside has never enjoyed much love; a place for souls seeking the quiet life.
As the Dales Way nears its end, Lakeland proper makes itself known: first its the subtle change in the terrain – mat grass, rush, volcanic boulders promising greater things; then, finally, overtopping School Knott, a grand panorama of Lakeland above the sparkling miles of Windermere.
It's blowy up here, and cold, but the view casts a lingering spell, light shifting in mile-wide beams across the Coniston Fells out west and, slowly, along the wooded far shores of this great lake. Further north the clouds have been building, clarity hazed into far-off Great Langdale and its supreme crown of peaks, from Crinkle Crags to the unmistakable Pikes themselves.
From School Knott – and its equally lovely namesake tarn below – it's downhill all the way. And it is no anticlimax. Too often long distance footpaths spend their last miles weaving tortuously through the urban fringe. But by taking a last-minute switchback south then northwest the Dales Way avoids the sprawl of Windermere to get within a few hundred yards of the jetties at Bowness – all in leafy countryside.
And while this last mile hardly matches the many highlights of the Dales Way, there's enjoyment around every mossy corner: sunlit chestnut leaves and a maple blazing red; a curved beech avenue beside an unnamed tarn in Matson Ground; meadows and farms and woodlands until suddenly there it is... twin of the slate-built bench I sat on six days back in Ilkley, its legend reading: FOR THOSE WHO WALK THE DALES WAY.
Journey's end, the waters of Windermere a silver crescent behind.
As I wander into Bowness and the metropolitan bustle of Costa and Tesco (you don't get them in Hubberholme!), I find time to reflect on the Dales Way.
It is marketed often as a beginners' long-distance walk. And I'd second that. Bar the crossing of Oughtershaw Moss it's a benign wander, and if you walked it in seven days you'd have time not just to stop and stare as you journeyed, but also for more than few pints of the landlord's finest each night. Which is not to diminish the enjoyment that even those with seasoned long distance feet will take from the Way: there's plenty to get stuck into, with a five day schedule balancing challenge with an achievable daily mileage.
The Dales Way is often headlined as a river walk. Again, I agree; the walk's heart and soul are entwined most of all with the River Wharfe. But it's not just a river walk. For however enchanting the Wharfedale miles, or the superlative meander along the Dee, the terraced wander over Grassington Moor is enchanting, and the Cam Fell up-and-over (and subsequent high level route into Dentdale) is mountain walking proper; a taste of Pennine wild country and, coupled with the descent to Dent, surely the finest day of all.
My only bugbear with the Dales Way – voiced 50 years back by those very first venture scout trailblazers – is the day-or-so from Sedbergh onwards. There is a poetry to all that goes before, but the traipse of the unloved miles from Lowgill to Burneside has little to commend it, and the better walk from Burneside to Bowness feels more an afterthought than an introduction to countryside you'd want to return to – final grandstand view of England's highest peaks notwithstanding.
But those last non-descript miles do little to dent the overall quality of the Dales Way, which, threading together riverside magic, backwater hamlets, airy moorland, ancient ways and woods, and two of this country's loveliest valleys, casts an assured spell; it is, in my view, the most consistently fine long distance footpath in the country.
A note to those considering using the Dales Way as part of a Land's End to John o'Groats route. If you want to avoid the northern stretch of the Pennine Way then the connoisseur's way to travel through North Yorkshire and Cumbria would be to leave the PW at Cam Houses, follow the DW to Staveley, then strike north over Garburn via Troutbeck to reach Ambleside from where, a short stroll over Loughrigg Fell later, you can join the Cumbria Way, destination Carlisle. What a fabulous few days that would be.
But such thoughts are for another day. For now, tucking into a well-earned slice of chocolate cake in Booth's café, my thoughts drift back down the miles and along the restless waters of the Wharfe.
Back to Dales Way.