Secret Walks in North-West England

Although little known as a walking destination, the Eden valley is no untouched wilderness - it has been inhabited for thousands of years.

Travel to north-west England for a walking break, however short, and the chances are that you will be heading to the Lake District, and if not, then the Yorkshire Dales, with its delightful stone villages, and long deep dales carving through the limestone of the region. But there’s also a charming river valley here, where we love to go walking, that carves a course between these two great national parks.


It begins high in the western dales, and, in its infancy, flows north, while on the other side of the watershed, the river Ure heads south and east towards Wensleydale. Together these two rivers create an important route between the Yorkshire Dales and the sea, recognised and used by our ancient ancestors. Today this valley still has a road, and a railway, but don’t let that put you off, for the road is narrow and carries little traffic, and the Settle to Carlisle railway – the most scenic railway in Britain ­–­ is a far cry from the west coast mainline.

The River Eden is a glorious 145km (75 miles) long. Near its source in the Mallerstang valley, you can explore castles, caves and cascades of the Upper Eden Valley, while the landscape changes near Kirkby Stephen, the broad valley floor bounded to the north and east by parts of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and to the south and west, the Howgill Fells and glorious limestone of the Orton Fells and escarpment. With so much fantastic walking to do here you can spend many weeks exploring at any time of year and the terrain, although hilly, is never likely to cause difficulties, even under snow or in icy weather. The routes described here were all walked during winter – and can all be found, along with many others, in Vivienne Crow’s excellent guidebook, Walking in the Eden Valley.

Many fine walks set off from the ‘Walkers are welcome’ town of Kirkby Stephen, exploring the hills and dales of the Eden Valley to the west of the Pennine watershed, as well as the four unique nature reserves in the area. The ever-popular ‘Coast to Coast’ route also passes through the town, before climbing to Nine Standards Rigg, then on over wide open moorland on its long, boggy descent into upper Swaledale.

Nine Standards Rigg offers 360 degree views across north-west England

The first walk we tackled in Vivienne’s guidebook described a 17-mile (27.2km) walk to Nine Standards Rigg, accessed from the Settle to Carlisle railway, starting at Garsdale station and finishing at Kirkby Stephen station. It’s also possible to visit Nine Standards Rigg on a shorter circular walk from Kirkby Stephen, variations of which we have walked on a number of occasions. One such walk was with our friends Kev Reynolds and his wife one time in February. The winter snows had mostly cleared. There were a few icy patches, but the cold was a positive bonus as the mud and boggier ground was mainly frozen solid. The way up to Nine Standards follows the Coast to Coast route, directly out of the town, and steadily climbs up onto the moorland, taking around an hour or two at most to reach the summit cairns. The age and origin of this amazing collection of giant cairns isn’t known, but we always like to imagine that they are the result of a cairn-building competition many hundreds of years ago. Go and decide for yourself – the 360 degree views are superb.

On another occasion a route exploring the Upper Eden Valley and Pendragon Castle caught our eye one winter weekend. Following the river out of the town, we passed the weird and wonderful ‘steps’ carved by the water into the bedrock, before heading out onto more open gentle hillside towards the upper Eden. There are two castles on this walk. The first one we encountered was Lannerside Castle, standing on a small rise above a bend in the river. The second was Pendaragon Castle, again on a small hill, a little further up the valley.

Gentle gradients for walking in the upper Eden valley above Kirkby Stephen

Now ruined, early legends link this castle to Uther Pendragon, father of King Arthur. Remains of the surviving building date from the 12th century, and the castle was once owned by Sir Hugh de Morville, Lord of Westmorland, who was one of four knights who murdered Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170. The castle was attacked and burned to the ground by the Scots in 1341, rebuilt in 1360 and then in 1541, fire once again left the castle in ruins. Ownership of the castle eventually passed to Lady Anne Clifford who rebuilt it in 1660. If you have a week to spare you can follow a 100-mile (160km) trail, Lady Anne’s Way, between Penrith and Skipton, passing through much of the Eden Valley.

The valley forms part of the Dent Fault, and our return route that day took us higher onto the steeper hills to the east of the river, the harder Millstone Grit now exposed is riddled with fossils including corals, bivalves and sponges. Well-signed paths across meadows and through woodland provided us with tremendous views across the valley towards the distant Pennines – until the sleet and snow started to fall. It was time to return to Kirkby Stephen, and a warm cup of tea.

Walkers approach Kirkby Stephen

By the next occasion, snow had fallen for several days, so that our approach to the start of another walk, over Crosby Garrett Fell and Smardale Gill, was a bit of a challenge. The instruction was to park on the verge of the road just one mile north of the A685 (Shap to Brough road). The road climbs a little, to around 275 metres, but the exposed unenclosed fell road was blasted with snow and ice, so after slithering, sliding and at one point getting stuck, we managed to turn the car around, and parked lower down the hill in the hamlet of Brownber.

We walked the route described in the guidebook in reverse, preferring to get the higher exposed fell section done first. With the wind buffeting us relentlessly, the vast monotone landscape stretched out ahead. It should have felt bleak and depressing, but instead the exhilarating walking led us quickly over the fell with a long easy descent into Crosby Garrett. Our return walk was at a lower level, using the disused ‘South Durham and Lancashire Union’ railway line that had once carried limestone to the steel works of Darlington and Barrow.

In spring and summer months, the Smardale Gill National Nature Reserve, found in a deep valley parallel to the railway bed, is home to several types of orchid, the rare Bird’s-foot Sedge, and rare butterfly species, including the Northern Brown Argus and the Scotch Argus, and is well worth a visit.

Winter landscape on Crosby Garrett Fell, with the distant Howgills to the south

Further beyond Kirkby Stephen the Eden valley broadens considerably, the valley filled with glacial and river deposits. To the north and east the Pennine Fault separates the Eden Valley from the Pennines... and more walks await.

High Cup Nick, the 'cliff' is harder Dolerite rock, part of the Whin Sill intrusion

Perhaps one of the more dramatic routes on the edge of the Pennines is from Dufton to High Cup Nick

The Pennine Way visits both High Cup Nick and Dufton, and there are various circular walks taking in this amazing gash in the escarpment. The route in the Eden Valley guidebook threads a way past Dufton Pike, then high onto the Pennine moors reaching around 600 metres, before curving east and then south to approach the apex of the Nick. The weather had threatened to make this a disappointing walk, as cloud had filled the valleys with cold damp air for much of the morning but Fortune favoured the few brave souls who came out that day. By the time we reached the Nick, the weather had brightened and a fantastic far-reaching view was revealed, framed by the vertical cliffs of the Whin Sill intrusion. Once again we had chosen a slight variation of the route in the book, walking up the western edge of the Nick, then returning along a wonderful path above the eastern rim, with a final walk back along a quiet road into Dufton.

The Slopes of High Cup Nick

High Cup Nick

If you only have an hour or two to spare, then Dufton Pike is also great fun. From Dufton village it’s just 300 metres of ascent. When we did it we, for once, followed the route in the book, which took us through farmland and fellside to meet Great Rundale Beck, all the time gently rising to 238 metres. Then the final steeper section of the ascent begins and rises to 481 metres in just over half a kilometre. It’s a lovely conical fell, an outlier from the main escarpment, and the views from its grassy top across the vast Eden Valley towards the Lake District were truly wonderful in the cold clear winter air. A short steep grassy descent brought us to a track, and back down into the village and a delicious pub lunch in a warm and welcoming pub.

So now you know the secret, or some of the secrets of the beautiful Eden Valley. As Vivienne Crow, the author of the guidebook says, ‘If Cumbria’s beautiful Eden Valley were anywhere but right next to the Lake District, it would be full of tourists. In reality, few venture this far from the National Park, leaving locals to delight in the fact that they have this wonderful area – with its rich natural and human heritage and its beautiful and diverse landscapes – all to themselves.’

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