Dales Superhighway – a four day wild walk

Whilst out on a family amble I discovered that our route formed part of the Dales Highway. The section we were walking from Stainforth to Faizor was very attractive, so I looked into details for the whole route. It runs for 90 miles from Saltaire to Appleby-in-Westmoorland. The low level section at the Southern end was not of interest to me, but the route it took through the Yorkshire Dales and over the Howgills looked inspired so I planned a four day section from Settle to Appleby which had the practical benefit of a train station at both ends making this a logistically easy linear walk. Having completed this I would suggest that if you are interested in the ‘hill section’ as I was then a better option still would be to terminate your walk at Newbiggin-on-Lune where you can get a regular bus to the train station at Kirby Lonsdale and from there, the train back to Settle. Read on to find out why…

Day 1 – Settle to Simon Fell (12.2 miles, 740 m)

One reason why I prefer the Dales for my winter walks is that the underlying geology means it is mostly free of much mud underfoot irrespective of recent rainfall. The first section along the Ribble was an exception to this. It seems to be a very popular route for local dog walkers. However I was soon at Stainforth Force and I was blessed with sunshine, the prospect of a dry path and excellent views just minutes ahead of me.

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I love the limestone formations of Smearsett and Pot Scar which you see on the path to Faizor.

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I ate my lunch overlooking Austwick Brook Dub, a pool in the brook which used to be used to wash sheep free of parasites in Spring and Autumn. Those farmers wresting sheep in chest deep cold water must have been hardy men indeed!

After lunch I came to another lovely section walking next to limestone pavement with Pen-Y-Ghent as the backdrop.

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I enjoyed the solitude whilst I could as 90 minutes later I was on the eroded motorway which is the ‘Three Peaks’ route up to Ingleborough. Whilst I find this the least attractive approach to this hill, it was a price worth paying for the route thus far, and the prospect of camping on Simon Fell, a satellite peak to Ingleborough itself. The cloud started to close in as I approached the top and whist I enjoyed views on arrival, I was enrobed in cloud by the time I got the tent pitched so have no pictures of the pitch on night one. Had it been the summer I would have headed to Park Fell to be undisturbed.

Day 2 – Simon Fell to Dent (12.9 miles, 500 m)

Whilst I awoke in the cloud, after striking camp I did not have to descend too far to be free of the cloud and to find that it was Ingleborough alone in wearing a flat cap of cumulous. The rest of the area was in bright sunshine. This afforded a wonderful view of Whernside.

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The official route does not take you over the top, but it was too good a day to skip the summit. At the top the remnants of the previous week’s snow where still in evidence.  It was very windy on high ground so I simply kept walking on and skipped lunch. The route through the Whernside Tarns was attractive but then it was  a slog along the stony track that leads down into Dent Dale. However, the walk along the river into the village was very pleasant once again. I arrived unfashionably early so opted for shelter, warmth and a liquid lunch in my favourite of Dent’s two pubs.

The morning had been a mixture of bright sun and total cloud cover, but the late afternoon was wholly warm and glorious when out of the wind. I pitched myself in the campsite (hands up! I didn’t wild camp every night) and enjoyed my book until an hour before dinner when I once again retreated to the Sun Inn. They had Tiffin Gold from Kirkby Stephen brewery which was tasty, moorish and nicely session-able at 3.6% ABV. I was back in the tent and asleep by just after 8pm, such is winter backpacking. Today had really felt like a holiday.

It was too!

Day 3 – Dent to West Fell : Howgills (12.6 miles, 740 m)

This was to be the best day. I started walking at 0830 and was greeted by warm sunshine.

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My route would take me via Sedbergh. You might imagine that the path would follow the same route as The Pennine Journey, which I completed in 2019, but this is not the case. I was soon walking new ground with the Highway living up to it’s name and leaving the river earlier and heading over the ridge between Dentdale and Garsdale at a higher point. I loved leaving tarmac and rocky tracks behind and also the early panorama of the Howgills.

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One major highlight over my overall route was that I would be crossing the whole of the Howgill ‘range’ from South to North and seeing them set out before me whetted my appetite.

DSC_2557I had thought that the climb up to Calders would be hard work, but in my minds eye the peak seemed far closer to Sedbergh that it is in truth. The reality is that it is a steady walk which is not over steep. There was not a cloud in the sky which was wonderful, but don’t be mistaken into thinking it was warm.  The wind was a steady 30-35 mph and finding any shelter for lunch was a challenge. Thankfully, just before the final climb to Calders I was able to sit in the lea of a small hummock to eat my lunch. I rued the lack of drystone walls which are myriad in the Dales. Once fed I needed to press on to keep warm given the windchill. My route took me over the Calf, shortly after which I was able to collect water, but I had to break the ice at the edge of the tarn to access it.

The hills of the Howgills are not dramatic like those of Western Cumbria, nor do they have the limestone features of the Dales but something about them appeals to me, perhaps it is simply because they are different. One thing for sure is that they offer very little by way of shelter from the wind.

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The Calf (676 m)

After passing the Calf I had the fells to myself and I enjoyed romping along and drinking in the views as I headed for the most northerly top, called West Fell, which my research suggested would be a good place to camp. The wind remained strong and steady, the forecast told me it was not expected to rise overnight and it was evidently free of gusts. I know from my first test camp in the Soulo  that it was easily capable of handling this wind speed (Force 7) , but I was glad of the quality of the mountain forecast which I reviewed before choosing which tent to bring. When I got to my planned pitching point the ground was level but once again there was no hint of shelter. Looking further down the path towards Bowderdale suggested the ground was mostly soft and uneven for the next section. Soft ground is no good if you want your pegs to hold. (I found out the next day that my judgement was sound, there were no good camping spots further down on West Fell.)

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All the guys out and double pegged – Hilleberg Soulo

It was a really lovely evening if you discount the wind. Using what I had learned over the past four years of wild camping made what could have been a difficult tent pitch something controlled and reasonable. My top tip is to always double peg / back stake your first two peg placements. I had a great view over the smaller North Eastern Howgills but was not blessed with an ‘Instagram Ready’ sunset on this occasion. I knew I had to be setting off at 0730 the following morning so after dinner and finishing my book it was soon time for sleep. The buffeting of the wind must have been what woke me every two hours, but in between I slept soundly enjoying the juxtaposition of the strength of the wind and the warmth and security of my shelter.

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Day 4 – West Fell to Great Asby (11 miles, 140 m)

Whilst it proved a wet day, the intensity and frequency of the showers were far lighter than the forecast suggested. Sunbiggin Tarn is beautiful in the sunshine, less so in the clag. Day four was a massive anticlimax after days 1-3. Should you be following in my footsteps I would suggest finishing this route at Newbiggin and on a high. There is a regular bus from there to the train at Kirby Stephen.

But I don’t want to end this report on a low point…

Final thoughts.

The route which the Dales Highway takes through the Dales and the Howgills is really attractive and I enjoyed these days immensely. I’ve wanted the opportunity to camp on Simon or Park Fell for a couple of years, and starting from Settle makes either of these an ideal endpoint. Water can be gathered high up on the route to this ridge meaning you don’t have to carry it very far. I didn’t get a prolonged view but it was super whilst it lasted. It was fun to put my five season tent to good use and take advantage of elevated camp spots, especial night three in the Howgills. Having the map open whilst I write this has given me ideas to enhance this route still further for those who are happy to wild camp to take advantage of route options unfettered by having to reach fixed accommodation. I now have in mind an amended route, a ‘Superhighway’ if you like.  Once it’s complete I’ll publish here for comment.

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