Western Howgills

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Saunterings:  Walking in North-West England

Saunterings is a set of reflections based upon walks around the counties of Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire in North-West England (as defined in the Preamble). Here is a list of all Saunterings so far.
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166.  Bretherdale Then and Now

The appeal of a place does not depend only on the properties of that place. It depends also on the person to whom the place may appeal and on whatever associations and memories the person may bring to bear.
orton mists

The last of the morning mist over Orton

The autumn mists had not yet cleared from the Howgill valleys as I set off from my oft-used parking spot south of Roundthwaite. Roundthwaite is a hamlet of a dozen or so houses, one of which in the past has borne a sign saying “Roundthwaite Fell Ponies”. I didn’t see such a sign this time but I don’t know if that means that the house in question is no longer the base for the fell ponies that roam the nearby fells (or used to). I understand that Natural England is attempting to encourage, by means of 'subsidies', fell pony owners to remove their ponies from the fells, with the aim of 're-wilding' them (the fells, that is). This is a complex issue, relating to the legal status of common land, questions about what exactly is the 'wild' state of these moors, the fact that fell ponies are 'semi-wild' themselves, and the desire to preserve this distinctive northern breed of horse. But this wasn't my focus for today.

I was heading for Bretherdale, one of the lesser-known dales of the Lake District National Park. In fact, it wasn’t even in the National Park until the recent boundary changes. It lies tucked away in the triangle of land between the M6 and A6 west of Tebay. Very few visitors to the Lake District will have heard of Bretherdale and even fewer will make a point of visiting it. I, however, am particularly fond of Bretherdale.


Many years ago, when I was in a state of Olympian fitness through mercilessly pounding the local roads, I began to find road-running monotonous and masochistic. Rather than let this fitness go to waste, I decided to use it to run around the hills and dales of the region that I was fortunate to live in. Bretherdale was the first such outing, in February 1988. A very cold wind brought flurries of snow. I didn’t expect, in February, to see lambs frolicking in the fields or any other activity. Even so, it was an invigorating outing and one which helped motivate me to stay fit enough to be able to go out-running from time to time. Without Bretherdale perhaps these Saunterings wouldn't exist.

In 1988 I did not really notice the emptiness of the dale, since I had expected it. So I was somewhat surprised to read in Hayes (2004) that “Bretherdale not only lives in the past, it is the past. Derelict farmhouses litter the valley as if a plague has run through forcing human kind to drop everything and go.” That was not my memory. Yes, there were abandoned farmhouses and barns but then so there are in most dales of the north-west. However, there was still evidence of human kind.

So in April 2006 I went, walking this time, to have another look at Bretherdale. At that time, Bretherdale was breathing a sigh of relief because a controversial proposal to build 27 wind turbines on its southern slopes had, at last, been rejected. A high profile campaign had enlisted various environmental luminaries to argue for the landscape of Bretherdale, even if they had never heard of Bretherdale before. In the end, the clinching factor seems to have been not the merits of the Bretherdale region itself but the fact that windmills here would spoil the view from the National Parks of the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales. Now that Bretherdale is within the former it is presumably better protected against such proposals. Anyway, in 2006 I felt that, if Bretherdale had been moribund, it was at that time reviving. For example, Bretherdale Hall, which in 1988 had been, I think, rather neglected, was in 2006 being ambitiously rebuilt.

So today I was again visiting to see how Bretherdale was getting on. At the entrance to the dale there was a sign saying that Breasthigh Road was “closed to all traffic”. I supposed that when people see “Road” on the map they picture something like a dual carriageway. Breasthigh Road is a steep, rough track that rises from Bretherdale over the ridge to its southern neighbour, Borrowdale.

I crossed a cattle grid to enter the domain of sheep, who looked quizzically at this intruder. Then I reached Bretherdale Hall, now fully renovated and serving as a “luxury holiday home for up to 18 guests” according to its website. Here there was a view up to the head of Bretherdale and, to the right, traditional meadows that form a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The sound of the M6 had now disappeared and the silence of the valley was broken only by the mewing of a buzzard. I couldn’t see it but it was getting alarmingly closer as I walked along. And then suddenly it rose from its perch, just feet away, by Corkham Beck.

midwath stead Right: Midwath Stead.

Midwath Stead was much as I remembered. It still had the “free-range children” sign – but presumably for a new generation of children. The few houses seemed active enough to me, with no sign of dereliction here, although I know that Ings House, just up the hillside, has been abandoned. I noticed that a “Midwath Stead” sign was attached to one of the houses, which makes me wonder if the name is that of the house or the hamlet.

I walked on along the south bank of Bretherdale Beck, reaching the side-track to Breasthigh Road, where there was a multitude of signs explaining that the track was closed for repairs. Reading the small print, where it pointed out that there isn’t space for two vehicles to pass, I deduced that vehicles are indeed expected to use this track, which, from what I remember of it, must be quite a challenge. Why do we indulge recreational off-road drivers?  This presumably ancient track should be used only by feet.

greendale Left: The ruins of Greendale.

The farm of Bretherdale Head seemed to be still active but not the long-abandoned adjacent Greendale. Beyond Greendale the path – marked as a bridleway although there is no sign that horses use it – deteriorated. Another abandoned farm, Parrocks, on the opposite bank, was passed, although it is more of a surprise that anyone ever attempted to farm in this isolated, difficult-to-access location than that it was abandoned.

parrocks Right: The ruins of Parrocks.

The traverse around the head of Bretherdale to the Birkbeck Fells to the north was more difficult than I remembered or hoped. Bretherdale Beck itself was too full, with slippery stones that it was easy to fall off and in. Also, there were high fences to keep deer out from the newly-planted saplings. The fences didn’t keep me out – or, once I was in, in. My recent outings seem, unfortunately, to have generated a series of don’t-do-as-I-did narratives.

birkbeck fells Left: Birkbeck Fells.

I was eventually able to clamber up to the top (at about 400 metres) of Birkbeck Fells, which is also now part of the Lake District National Park, although I don’t know what merits it has to deserve this. To me, it seems a featureless moor of little interest or character. A number of hill names are given on the map but it is hard to relate them to particular humps on the ground. I followed sheep tracks eastward, pausing at a sunny spot by one of the large pink granite erratics that are scattered about the moor. Here I could try to dry out, whilst having a snack and watching the two lanes of M6 traffic gliding silently across the distant hills.

eskew head Right: The ruins of Eskew Head.

Walking on, I passed the ruins of Eskew Head which were particularly poignant, as although the roof and much else had collapsed, it was possible to see what was once the garden and imagine a family trying to make a living here. But it must have been an impossible challenge in this isolated spot, delightful though it may appear.

Walking back through the hamlets of Greenholme and Roundthwaite it is easy to reflect upon the timelessness of this region. Nothing much has changed since my previous visits. Bretherdale is, more or less, as it was. And yet there is a perpetual flux, with sometimes major disruptions. The lane that I was on was once the major north-south route in the region, long before the M6 and railway appeared just to the east. It was a drove road for cattle from Galloway, and Greenholme and Roundthwaite were important staging posts. Today, all is quiet – apart from the noise of the M6 and railway.

    Date: October 13th 2022
    Start: NY611029, layby on the road to Roundthwaite, overlooking the M6  (Maps: OL19, OL7)
    Route: N – Roundthwaite – NW on Pikestone Lane – Low Greenholme – SW – Bretherdale Hall – SW, NW – Midwath Stead – W – Bretherdale Head – NW for about a mile, N – Round Hills – E – Eskew Head, Ewelock Bank – E, S – Greenholme – SW, S – layby
    Distance: 9 miles;   Ascent: 210 metres

The two following items:
     168.   To Lancashire’s Highest Point, Wherever It Is
     167.   The Yealand Woods, Leighton Hall and the Pheasants
The two preceding items:
     165.   In Gisburn Forest in the Forest of Bowland
     164.   A Walk in the Kentmere Park
Two nearby items:
       38.   Reflections from Jeffrey's Mount
     100.   Crookdale and Horseshoes
A list of all items so far:

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    © John Self, Drakkar Press, 2018-


Top photo: The western Howgills from Dillicar; Bottom photo: Blencathra from Great Mell Fell