The Howgills form a compact little group north of Sedbergh. They’re grassy hills, and not high – The Calf tops out at 2218ft – but they are steep-sided and harbour England’s highest waterfall, Cautley Spout.
These days, they’re not in Yorkshire, but Cumbria. Yet since 2016, they have been in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
It’s perfectly practical to pick up the five Howgills Hewitts in a day starting from Sedbergh or, a bit further north, the Cross Keys at Cautley. It’s a full day though, and I’m not local, so I settled on a high wild camp somewhere around The Calf. I waited all of June ’23 for a weather window that fitted in with my other plans, and it just about came along.
Thursday 29 and Friday 30 June 2023: the Howgills complete, 12 miles and 4½ miles.
With my younger son Adrian now living in Yorkshire, as I was packing on the Wednesday evening, I thought: why not ask him along?
And after a bit of to-and-fro on WhatsApp, it was agreed. It made my logistics a bit easier, and the company better.
Solo, I would have relied on the twice daily Oxenholme to Sedbergh bus, its early afternoon journey in each direction at least being well timed. Together, I just needed to detrain at Lancaster for the pickup.
It’s nearly five miles along the valley from Sedbergh to Cross Keys, but with excellent field paths all the way it was no hardship on this sunny afternoon. The views all round were enticing, and here are just a couple: the first towards Cautley Spout, the second a little higher, to the Mallerstang hills.
Cautley Home Beck
Wild Boar Fell and Swarth Fell, from the start of the Yarlside climb
Those five miles were a great way to get warmed up, for the climbing of the first hill (Yarlside, 2096ft) is unremitting. It’s a great viewpoint though, prompting reminiscences of my Yorkshire Three Peaks walk of long ago.
The next hill, Randygill Top at 2047ft, is in easy view, but the only way off is straight down Yarlside’s steep NE face. To ease matters we went along the ridge for a bit before cutting across the slope. It’s better to go not quite as far as we, for we came across a deep gulch that wasn’t easy to cross. But go not far enough and you could find yourself at the top of some dodgy scree.
There’s an intermediate height to be crossed too, Kensgriff, just below the 1900ft mark, but thankfully little height is lost thereafter. Indeed the hardest ascents are now over. From Randygill Top, I could point out the Cross Fell ridge of the northern Pennines; more memories.
The summit of Yarlside, looking across to the Three Peaks
Kensgriff and the NE face of Yarlside,the gulch in view
There is now another long and unavoidable descent, into Bowderdale. This valley slices deep into the Howgills from the north, and it’s a popular through route to transit the range – we saw a couple of MTB riders on the track. For us though, Bowderdale was the essential water point for our high camp.
There now follows a long steady two-mile and 1000ft drag along a clear path to the high point of The Calf. It’s a good path, and never that steep, but late in the day – it was 7ish – and with camp still to be made, the hour that I took (Adrian waited at the trig point six minutes; oh to be 30) seemed a long one.
But from another perspective, we were at the summit with two hours still left before sunset. In planning, my first thought had been to camp on the plateau of The Calf, but I had to give thought to the one awkward bit of this round, reaching the fourth Hewitt, Fell Head (2099ft). It’s the far end of the flattish ridge running NW, and has to be bagged on an out-and-back.
In my head then, I’d allowed for a wild camp maybe at Fell Head itself, or somewhere along the ridge. A quick conflab, and we settled on the latter. The wind wasn’t a major issue today, but the ridge might have been a bit exposed, and the weather wouldn’t get any better. Maybe we could find a more sheltered spot around the saddle between the hills.
And indeed we did. Defer food; just put up tents, scamper to Fell Head and back again. As it happens, we met a fellow wild camper on the ridge, but at least we weren’t crowding him. The three of us also admired a few shafts of rogue late sunshine over towards the Shap Fells.
Our tents, plus Adrian
Rogue late sunshine
I always knew my ‘weather window’ was just the Thursday. Rain was coming on Friday, but from when and how much? The excellent MWIS, late Wednesday, predicted a chance of getting down before the worst, so we made an early start. This would not have been possible, of course, if we’d lazed around on The Calf all evening and journeyed to Fell Head and back first thing Friday.
There is one more Hewitt on the way down to Sedbergh, barely qualifying with miniscule re-ascent, Calders (2216ft). The track beyond was good and clear (or as clear as it could be with a 1600ft cloud base), and just the right angle for sustained pace.
One conundrum. The OS Explorer map shows the Dales High Way taking the direct line to Sedbergh, diverging from the bridleway about half way down, so we took it (once we’d worked out which little path, unmarked by cairn or post, it was). It takes an attractive route high above the Settlebeck Gill. But low down on its course, what seems to be the bridleway comes back in.
It can’t be the bridleway, for that would be a right-of-way, conscientiously marked by the OS. Google Earth doesn’t seem to help much either.
No matter to us. The three miles from Calders took only an hour, and MWIS had been right about the rain; just two showers, one on The Calf, another as we neared the end. Soon, we sped off to Lancaster for brunch, with memories of these fine hills and, in my case at least, a likely farewell to them.
The Mallerstang Hills
Mallerstang Common is the name given to the upper Eden valley, the route chosen by the Settle & Carlisle railway for its descent from the summit at Dent to the north. Three Hewitts rise to the east, and two to the west.
The two to the west, Swarth Fell (2234ft) and Wild Boar Fell (2323ft), featured on my cross-England walk in May 2015. The three to the east, Little Fell, High Seat and Nine Standards Rigg, await another day. (The last is not strictly a ‘Dales’ hill at all as it’s outside the National Park boundary, but it would be perverse to consider it a ‘Northern Pennine’, that group clearly rising north of Stainmore Common and the Bowes-to-Brough gap taken by the A66.)
Swaledale is the most northerly of the major dales in the National Park. It hosts three Hewitts, two to the north and one to the south.
The Pennine Way runs across Swaledale, crossing the river at the village of Keld. It traverses Great Shunner Fell (2349ft) on its way to the river, which therefore I crossed both in April 1973 (hail on the descent, messy underfoot, stamina tested) and August 1976 (then-record heat, dry as a bone, yomped over like it was never there). More details on my Pennine Way pages.
Rogans Seat to the north of the river, and Lovely Seat to the south, both featured on my 2019 Dales excursion.
Friday 18 October 2019: Rogan’s Seat from Ivelet, ten miles; Lovely Seat from Buttertubs Pass, 1½ miles
Rogan’s Seat (2205ft) would be an absolute monster of a hill, heather bashing for five miles there and five miles back, if the estate had not carved out landrover tracks that take you all the way there and all the way back.
So though I’m not a fan of LRTs – rather the reverse, they can grotesquely scar landscapes – they are no bad thing in this case.
The summit itself is 80 metres off-track but there is a bagger’s path to ease matters.
The bothy near Rogans Seat
But I’ve made this walk seem less than it is. There’s even a bothy to explore, not far from the summit. And the technical ease of the walking means that one can enjoy the scenery better; it’s very good, looking down to Gunnerside Gill on the way up, with its abandoned mine workings now reverting to nature, and over to Keld and across the Swale on the way back.
Part of the route carries Wainwright’s Coast to Coast walk, on which I saw my only other walkers of the day, just about to drop down to the gill.
Looking across Gunnerside Gill on the ascent
The summit of Rogans Seat, looking west to the Mallerstang hills
The cairns on Lovely Seat
Lovely Seat (2214ft) is just a simple little romp from the 1725ft summit of the Thwaite to Hawes road.
Forty-five minutes there and back.
It was rather grey, but there are a couple of interesting cairns on the summit.
The outlier, between the Howgills and Mallerstang. It can be traversed from Sedbergh to Garsdale, if you’ve got transport at each end, but I’ll probably do it as an out-and-back from the latter.