This 11 mile walk explores the westernmost section of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and includes an ascent and crossing of the the Howgill Fells, much loved by the Lakeland walker, A Wainwright, who recommended "their soaring and sweeping lines, not interrupted by walls or fences, giving a splendid example of 'free range' walking". It is essential to choose a day with clear skies and good visibility - you'll be rewarded with some of the most glorious views in the north of England.
Distance: 11 miles (shortened to 7 if the bus is used)
Time: 6 hours, but worth a full day
Grade: strenuous up the side of Cautley Spout, otherwise moderate
Conditions: virtually no signposts clutter the Howgills which are open access land. The paths used on the walk are either definitive rights of way or have been established by common usage. They are all well defined and easy to follow.
Refreshments: Cross Keys, Sedbergh
OS Explorer Map OL19
Originally published: 12 September 2014
We start from the Cross Keys Temperance Inn (GR 698969) 4 miles north of Sedbergh on the A 683 to Kirkby Stephen. Above the inn's front door are the initials of John and Agnes Howgill 1732, though much of the building dates from the previous century when it was built as a farmhouse. Now owned by the National Trust, it's open Wed-Sun throughout the year.
From the adjacent layby go through a little gate across the River Rawthey and follow the path across the valley towards Cautley Spout, one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the national park, visible half a mile away to the right of the forbidding Cautley Crags. The Spout cascades 700ft off the fells. The roar from its longest leap of some 90ft is soon audible as you begin the climb.
Head directly to the foot of the Spout and then take the steep, roughly stepped path up the side. It's a strenuous climb but a well used and easy to follow route which keeps a safe distance from the torrent before returning to follow the edge of the more placid waters at the top.
The path then passes Andy Goldsworthy's harmonious artwork of a sheepfold with an obelisk before forking right along the Force Gill Beck from its junction with the Red Gill Beck. In another 250 yards the path reaches the headwaters of the beck. Beyond, we climb a gentle rise to a wide col and a metalled track. There are stunning views ahead to the west as a reward for all the exertion.
The vistas are even better and all encompassing if you turn right for some 200 yards up the track to the trig point on The Calf, the Howgills' highest peak at 2,220ft. The Lake District mountains, Yorkshire's Three Peaks, Morecambe Bay and a score of other features are easily recognisable.
From The Calf we now return down our col, continuing up the track to Calders, a few feet lower. Here the attraction of the smoothly rounded, grass covered Howgills, their long connecting shoulders and deep steep-sided valleys can best be appreciated. The track then zigzags down on to the saddle of Rowantree Grains before continuing around the eastern side of Arant Haw, the next peak. Views now appear of Sedbergh's houses and of Garsdale and Dentdale to the left and the valley of the Lune on the right.
The track continues more steeply down towards Winder, the next prominent peak. In some 400 yards from where it came into view look out for a distinct path which branches off left. It descends across the moor into the valley of Settlebeck Gill which plunges down the western flank of Crook towards Sedbergh.
At the foot of the gill are welcome seats and an opportunity to readjust from the grandeur of the fells to the attractions of Sedbergh.It was once in the West Riding but is now in Cumbria. The largest town in the national park, it still has only 3,000 inhabitants. Its Norman castle is a good example of the type known as motte and bailey. Probably constructed in the late 11th century it was once held by the Mowbrays and is visible ahead on a little ridge. To visit go through two gates beyond the seats before bearing left through a rusty blue metal gate and across one field. Then follow the lane from Castleshaw Farm down into the town. A more direct route into Sedbergh passes the blue gate to join Joss Lane.
Sedbergh's other attractions include its 17th and 18th century buildings and its many bookshops. If you decide to curtail your walk here then there are 4 buses per day (not Sundays) to Kirkby Stephen via the Cross Keys.
The last 4 miles of the walk is a complete contrast with the route over the fells. There are no steep inclines and for much of the route the delightful River Rawthey is close by. There are lots of opportunities to appreciate the grandeur of the fells from the valley floor.
Take the main A 683 (also A 684) towards Hawes and Kirkby Stephen. On the edge of the town go right down the A 684 to Hawes for 200 yards, to reach New Bridge over the Rawthey (built in 1825). Do not cross the bridge but bear left upstream on a pretty riverside path to Straight Bridge (1765) where the river is crossed by the A 683. Both bridges were built for the new 18th century turnpike roads which radiated from Sedbergh..
Continue upstream to Buck Bank Farm where you pass to the right of a large stone barn to reach the farm's access lane. Go right following the lane with its tantalising glimpses of the river below, to Thursgill farm.
A rougher track now leads on to Fawcett Bank from which a bridleway leads across fields. In the second field it becomes a sunken green lane, bordered by stunted trees, evidence of its venerable origin. It then rises gradually to becomes a path high on the flank of the hillside with views down to the well spaced farms on the narrow valley floor. Though little frequented it's always easy to follow and about a mile from the Cross Keys takes to the bracken infested lower slopes of the moor.
There are now views ahead to the heights of Yarlside in the northern Howgills before the path crosses Cautley Holme Beck to rejoin the outward path.