Every time I’ve paused at Banks Turret to admire the view, it’s involved looking at Cold Fell directly in front of me, the Lake District fells a shadowy silhouette on the horizon. Whilst the Lake District fells look misty and a little dreamy, Cold Fell looms there barrenly.
It really does look cold, this most northerly slope of the Pennines, facing northwards like a giant sentry wanting to stop anyone who is thinking of travelling south. In the winter when snow has fallen it’s always the last of the local hills to lose its white covering; running up Talkin Fell and Simmerson Hill there was Cold Fell in the background, intriguing and yet not welcoming.
David, my ex-husband, used to run up there sometimes. He’d tell me how there weren’t any real tracks up there; the first time he’d thought about going up there we’d driven to Forest Head and he hadn’t been able to find his way up past the old abandoned mine workings (and I was rather relieved as I had visions of the ground suddenly opening beneath his feet, there are so many old mines and quarries and shake holes up there). I’d run or walked up Talkin Fell many times, and along the track which winds along the bottom of Cold Fell and then heads off to Newbiggin. But the opportunity to get up on to Cold Fell itself had eluded me.
Then I saw a route map for it in Trail Running magazine (and, on the back of the page, a route near Cautley Spout in the Howgills, which is another run I’d like to do) and waited for my chance. It came sooner than I thought: Penny and I want to run High Street from one end to the other but we want good weather for it. A running group party on a Saturday night meant she and her husband were in this area anyway: they stayed the night at my house, said husband headed home to do some work on the Sunday, and we went off to explore Cold Fell and see if we could find the route indicated in the magazine. I hasten to add that I took an OS map and a compass.
Funnily enough none of the others from the running group wanted to join us, so it was just the two of us who parked up at Jockey’s Shield and made our way up the steep initial incline in the direction of Gairs (a disused house which has been re-roofed in the past few years, but which still sits there empty, its windows blinded and characterless with stone infill). It was wet, even on the relatively stony track. However the sun was out, we both had goretex trainers, and we were filled with that optimism and sense of adventure you always have at the beginning of a run or walk when you’re off to explore somewhere new.
Running (as much as we could on the boggy track) past Gairs, we rounded a corner and headed towards some cute cottages at Howgill, industrial heritage on our left – the old railway line is now used as part of the public footpath network – and a view of Tindale Tarn ahead of us. Around here the RSPB is planting a lot of new trees – you only need to look at a map to see from the names that once upon a time these fells would have been tree-covered, and that presumably the mining and quarrying activity denuded the slopes. It will be really interesting to come back in, say, 10 years’ time, to see how well the trees have become established.
From the row of cottages (the usual internal debate: would I want to live here – it’s beautiful but remote and the cottages look the perfect size, but I’d have to drive everywhere, so no) we turned up towards the Bruthwaite Forest viewpoint, eventually getting to a moss-covered wooden sign signalling that we had arrived. There wasn’t much forest to see (see previous comment). It was quite steep and the ground was very rough, so we weren’t running much. Also the weather was changing and drifts of clouds were beginning to come in from the west, with a big bank of pale grey cloud looking a little threatening to the north-west (it was getting windy as well, so I was hoping it was going to pass straight over us).
We continued up the hill, stopping at one fence line to debate where we were (not as high as we thought) and aiming for a cairn on the skyline. As we got higher the ground got firmer and the frost still on the moss was making some of them look like pretty white flowers and some like white seaweed. The soil up here was black and peaty; the stream water crystal clear.
We could see another cairn on the skyline above us, which was more or less due south and therefore should be the top of Cold Fell. We stumbled across the peaty land which was criss-crossed with streams and ‘cliffs’ of peat – but probably a lot easier to cross today when the ground was hard with frost than when it was wetter. If you look on a map you can see that a lot of streams seem to spring up on Cold Fell – some running down from the area we were walking in, to run north – some from the area we were due to walk back through to run south. I felt a bit bad stamping across the heather and the moss, but there was no clear track and I guess if not many people go up there (which they don’t seem to), then it will spring back quickly enough.
The cairn on the top is great – not only is there a trig point but also a stone shelter and then a large beehive shaped stone cairn, carefully constructed. We didn’t hang around however – there was a lone walker in the shelter already and we both got the impression that he was enjoying his solitary cup of coffee (or maybe soup), so we had a quick snack and rejoined the path back down the hill.
This time we were heading in a westerly direction back towards the track which leads more or less north-south past Gairs. Unfortunately I missed a right-hand turn in the fence and we ended up coming down the side of Tarnmonath Fell, slightly further south than we’d intended. It didn’t matter – we joined up with the same track – and as we carefully descended through the heather down a steep hillside, about 6 roe deer scattered to the winds below us. On the track we met a solitary walker/runner near the Gairs viewpoint sign. As we ran past him we said ‘hello’ cheerily but he didn’t seem particularly happy.
I was beginning to want just to be at the bottom of all the hills by now, as running/walking across the bumpy, boggy terrain had been quite energy sapping. Coming down from Cold Fell we had been following a track which would seem OK, and then suddenly a foot would disappear in a couple of inches of water. Somehow my shoes seem to keep my feet warm even when my socks are wet, but Penny was getting cold feet. As we turned to go down the final bit of track we bumped into a friend of mine and a friend of hers, and it was a relief to have an excuse to stop to have a chat and a breather. However we were soon off down the final slope – fortunately no longer icy – and before long were back at the River Gelt, which is gorgeous whatever the weather. I wish photos could just give you a couple of seconds of the atmosphere, with the water splashing and the birds singing (I guess a video would be better).
It had taken us about 3 and a half hours to do just over 16 km; as we discussed it on the way back to my house we thought we’d probably actually run about 50% of the route. However it was worth doing: it would make a great walk with the right footwear and clothing, but in terms of a run route it got a bit of a thumbs down!