Most walkers staying in Sedbergh will trek up the hill behind the town, Winder, the southernmost tip of the Howgills and standing at around 1,500ft, and most footpaths leaving the streets on the northern side are simply marked “To the fell” – that’s Winder.
Taking at most around two hours, all the usual routes have fine views, and although they are about as busy as moderately strenuous walks around this area get, you are unlikely to meet more than a couple of dozen people.
And then there’s this way, a bit longer at just over five miles, with a bit of historical interest, a bit more sense of solitude in open country, some entry level navigation meaning you’re best taking a map like OS Pathfinder 617 and a compass, and for my money, the views are better too.
The town’s main car park is Joss Lane, and you leave there turning right up the hill, following the road to a gate at the top, along a track into a field, through a stile onto a path, and on up alongside the ravine of Settlebeck.
As you walk up, look uphill and to your right and you’ll see a fell called Crook, Winder’s neighbour on the east side of Settlebeck Gill. Across its front runs a striking scar, known as the pipeline track, which marks a key part of Sedbergh’s first modern water supply, and this walk follows that system to its source.
Eventually you reach the fell or intake wall, which separates the fields from the open hillside, and once through a kissing gate you should take the path to the right, descending to cross the Settlebeck.
But don’t rush it, keep an eye out to your left for an old small quarry exposing a strikingly unusual slab of rock.
The face is marked with a regular pattern of bulges, looking like the ripples on a sandy beach after the tide has fallen.
This is the solidified track of a sort of undersea avalanche of mud about 400 million years ago, hardened by millennia into rock and contorted from a gentle slope into a steep overhang by the huge forces of continental drift. Local geologist Jim Fisher, who was kind enough to explain it to me, tells me it’s one of the finest he knows of in the country.
Spend a moment or two admiring this rare sight and then turn down towards to cross Settlebeck Gill.
It’s a stream that most of the time looks benign, but tends to flash-flooding that regularly carves new gashes in the side of the gill and you’ll see sections of broken old cast-iron piping sticking out of the mud and gravel. These are more relics of a water supply system, installed in the 1880s and used until the final years of the last century.
Cross the beck and scramble up, there’s no obvious path but you are aiming for the point where the fell wall turns towards the right and when you get there, keep walking on up the hill until you reach the pipeline track and turn along it to the east.
It’s not an easy path to spot, especially in summer, but if you find the steel gate in the fell wall and go uphill and a little to the right from there, you’ll reach the edge of the bracken close to where the path starts, and once on the pipeline track, there’s no mistaking it.
In the 1880s, about the time Karl Benz patented what is now regarded as the first motor car, a big concrete tank was built on the side of Winder above the town, fed by cast iron pipes gathering water from Settlebeck Gill. If you noticed the mobile phone mast on the way up, that’s where the tank was.
Before then, Sedbergh’s inhabitants mostly relied on three “spouts”, pipes leading from the hillside to troughs where a resident or their servant might have to fill buckets several times a day at least, with a flow that apparently could not always be relied on.
Only the larger houses had their own pumps or piped supply, and even then, often only to a single tap, so getting water must have been a huge part of the lives of almost everyone.
The reservoir allowed a proper network of water mains to develop, but the Settlebeck pipes were still vulnerable to being blocked by floods, and barely adequate for the town and the needs of the growing public school. Locals noticed that they sometimes lost supply in term time.
In 1923 the new pipeline, to the less destructive stream in Ashbeck Gill, was added and a survey less than ten years later showed almost every house in the town had a water supply.
The track takes you across the face of Crook, with striking views to the south and east, and then into the winding curves of Ashbeck Gill.
Look back after a few hundred yards and you’ll see almost no signs of civilisation, and if you meet anyone else they are probably one of the locals drawn to this less busy way up Winder. Often your only company will be a few grazing sheep and maybe the fell ponies that spend their lives on these hillsides.
About half a mile up the valley you will find the point where the pipeline began, a low dam now marked on Ordnance Survey maps as a weir. The reservoir behind it is now filled with gravel, rock and soil, but well within living memory this provided water to Sedbergh’s residents and the 400 or more pupils at the large public school.
If you turn to the west side of the beck and look carefully at the bank, you’ll see what looks like steps climbing steeply across it, back almost the way you’ve just come but then heading off to the south west to go across the northern side of Crook.
This is where the map and compass may come in, as you traverse the rising ground and end up walking almost due west, with the knobbly summit of Crook to your left (or south), and Winder ahead on a path that could rarely be described as obvious.
Ignore the paths you cross that head from Crook up towards the Howgills, and eventually you’ll find a well-marked trod to cross Settlebeck just where it starts to descend steeply into the deep gill. Shortly afterwards you’ll be on the main track that goes along the summits of the Howgills.
Follow it to the relatively well-populated summit of Winder, its white-painted trig point and a solidly-constructed cairn with a brass plaque describing the surrounding views.
Several paths leave this point, and the one you want heads on west again, a clearly marked bridleway winding gently down the grassy slopes to a wall, where you turn right for a few hundred yards before a gate onto a track that takes you to Howgill Lane where a left turn takes you back to Sedbergh.
The views down into the Lune Valley are very fine all the way down, and if you look closely, you can follow the line of the old railway that once served the area, with embankments and viaducts still standing.
And as you walk down the lane you will also pass the final chapter so far in Sedbergh’s relationship with water – an underground modern concrete tank, plumbed like most of the rest of north-west England into the huge Haweswater and Thirlmere system, completed in about 1999. It’s reliable, but unromantic!
- My thanks to Elspeth Griffiths and Diane Elphick, of the Sedbergh History Society room, whose knowledge made this possible.