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The Cowtons

In the middle of the rolling grasslands of the Vale of Mowbray and about half way between Northallerton and Darlington is Pepper Arden Bottoms, a natural lake, formed in the last Ice Age. Named as Cowton Skells in Thomas Jefferys' atlas of Yorkshire of 1771, it is surrounded by the three parishes of East, North and South Cowton.

Distance: 5 miles

Time: 3 hours

Grade: moderate

Conditions: little used footpaths and bridleways

Refreshments: East Cowton, North Cowton, Arden Arms at Atley Hill a quarter of a mile along the B 1263 towards Richmond

OS Explorer Map 304

Originally published: 10 March 2017

This 5 mile walk links the three parishes and completes a circuit of the lake. It is best tackled on a bright, sunny day when the subtle changes of the pastoral landscape can best be appreciated.

We start in East Cowton, the largest of the villages. From the Beeswing pub (GR 307032), walk along to the nearby post office and turn left just before the the early 20th century brick built parish church. In 100 yards the lane enters the Pepper Arden estate between impressive gateposts. In a few yards on the right is Temple House, the site of a grant of land made in 1240 to the Knights Templars.

It's easy going for the next mile and there are views of the lake on the right through the trees. At the foot of a slight climb to Home Farm our bridleway turns sharp right for some 30 yards to a parallel track. From here I've mapped a couple of paths which continue around the western edge of the lake to St. Mary's church of South Cowton. There are also lakeside bird spotting opportunities along the track to the right.

The main walk however turns sharp left between the farm's outbuildings and along the access track where there are glimpses left through the trees of the Italianate water tower built in the 1870s for Pepper Arden Hall. Originally Pepper Hall the unusual name was created by the marriage in the 18th century of the local heiress Sarah Pepper to John Arden, owner of estates in Cheshire.

Some 250 yards from the farm turn right on a tarred road and then almost immediately right on an (unsigned) path across the middle of the first field. You will soon notice evidence of even earlier history for this is the site of the village of South Cowton, abandoned in the late 15th century when the landlord Sir Richard Conyers converted the land to sheep pastures. Building platforms or tofts are discernible as are a network of tracks, the boundaries of crofts or smallholdings and ridge and furrow cultivation.

On a little hill above the village is the battlemented Cowton Castle, a fortified tower built by Conyers at the time he was evicting the villagers.

Our path crosses the castle's access track and continues to a footbridge over one of the streams feeding the lake. Go left up to St. Mary's, also built by Conyers. It contains three alabaster effigies, one probably Sir Richard. The church is protected by the Churches Conservation Trust and is open daily to the public. It is worth visiting also for its late medieval woodwork, glass and original wall paintings. The Conyers and Boynton families are well represented too by rather pompous heraldry and inscriptions carved on the exterior walls.

From the far end of the churchyard a track leads past Atley Fields farm to the B 1263 (the Richmond to Yarm road). Turn right and almost immediately left on a field path. It's well signed and blazed across the crop in the first field but there is one awkward stile which requires more than the usual agility, followed by stepping stones over a narrow stream. It brings you into North Cowton. Turn left past the Blacksmiths pub to the village green. (If you are in doubt about this path, especially after heavy rain, then walk another quarter of a mile, right, along the B 1263 and turn left into North Cowton.)

Here there are buses every two hours (not Sundays) from Darlington to Northallerton which will take you back to East Cowton.

The main walk however follows little used field paths which link a series of four farms each set on a little eminence on the northern side of the lake. From the school on the green walk up Hill Top Court to the right and take the path signed in the right hand corner of this small estate. The path descends over one field to the B 1263.

Cross straight over via a stile and continue around the right side of Springfield Farm. The broad, grassy right of way is well marked and takes you by a sturdy footbridge over a stream and on to Cockleberry Farm. Continue on the track to the house at the far end of the buildings. From there the path passes through a hedge and is signed again as a grassy trail which finishes at a track to the left of the large buildings of Corn Hill farm.

Turn right and in some 25 paces go left, to the left of a large green barn and then through a gate where there may be mud. The path then heads for Bowlturner House, the last of the farms. After crossing a tarred lane aim for a prominent tree to the left of the farm buildings. Then turn right on a farm track, keep the buildings to your right and pass through the right hand one of two large metal gates.

East Cowton's houses are visible a mile ahead and whilst you might not be able to match the trains on the nearby East Coast line for speed, the right of way is direct and easy to follow. The only stile on the path, however has lost its step, but is still manageable. After crossing the middle of one field the path joins a farm track and emerges in East Cowton at the green close to the 18th century Whitehead Farm.


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