The Howgill Fells &
Westmorland Limestone Plateau
The Howgill Fells are a compact group of hills approximately 40 square miles in extent to the north west of the Yorkshire Dales. This area can be conveniently seen on a map by drawing a triangle between the town of Sedbergh at the southern tip of the range and the villages of Tebay and Ravenstonedale at the north west and north east corners respectively.
The southern half of the Howgills are actually a part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. It is sometimes pointed out that the southern Howgill Fells are the only part of the National Park to be outside the county of North Yorkshire, being just over the Cumbrian border. While technically true this is somewhat misleading as the section of the Howgills in the Dales National Park was historically part of the West Riding of Yorkshire and so was actually part of that county when the park was formed.
The northern Howgills, today in Cumbria, but originally in the county of Westmorland are not covered by any existing National Park or AONB. This is a major oversight as the northern Howgills contain some of the most beautiful walking country in England and there are ongoing consultations looking into expanding the Yorkshire Dales National Park to cover the entire Howgills.
The Howgills are separated from other high ground by the River Rawthey to the east and River Lune to the north and west. As the Rawthey later flows into the Lune south of Sedbergh all of the water draining from the Howgills finds its way into the Lune meaning the Howgills are to the west of the main Pennine watershed. Unlike the predominantly Carboniferous limestone country to the east the underlying rock of the Howgills is the much older Ordovician and Silurian slates and gritstone.
The effects of glaciation have created an area almost unique in the UK and is characterised by steep sided valleys bounded by smooth grassy slopes and rounded summits. The underlying rock makes very few appearances on the surface, the main exceptions being on Cautley Crag and in the vicinity of Black Force in Carlin Gill. Another is Cautley Spout, perhaps the finest natural feature of the Howgills and often said to be the highest waterfall in England above ground.
There are a number of other aspects to the Howgills that give it a unique feel. Firstly there are the lack of walls and fences. Other than a fence that crosses the range on Calders there are virtually no man made boundaries on the fell tops. This fact combined with open access means the Howgills provide a real sense of freedom. One disadvantage though is that there are also very few landmarks and in poor visibility route finding can be quite tricky especially as many of the valleys and summits have little obvious features to identify them from each other.
This lack of man made features is also noticeable on the summits. Elsewhere in the Pennines windfarms, radar stations, TV masts, monuments, cairns, curricks and trig points can all be found adorning the tops. There are just four trig points in the Howgills (on The Calf, Winder, Middleton and Green Bell). The lack of exposed rock is perhaps responsible for the rather undeveloped state of cairn building. With a few exceptions many summit cairns consist of two or three stones at the most. Indeed locating these stones among the grass can sometimes be something of a challenge.
It is not just walkers who can enjoy the unbounded freedom of the Howgills. These hills are also the home to wild fell ponies. These magnificent animals roam around at will in groups of varying sizes (the largest group I've come across contained at least 25 ponies). While mostly seen at a distance they are so common that it is exceptionally rare to go for a walk in the Howgills without seeing them at all.
North of the Howgills, beyond the River Lune is another upland area that has also somehow not acquired the status of National Park or AONB. Fairly small in extent and without an official title it is sometimes referred to as the Westmorland Limestone Plateau. Despite the name the area now belongs wholly to the modern county of Cumbria.
Bounded by the Lune to the south, the M6 motorway to the west and the Eden valley to the east and north the plateau is, as its name suggests, an isolated pocket of limestone country. In fact it features some of the most substantial examples of limestone pavement outside of the Malham area of the Yorkshire Dales.
The Howgills are without doubt one of my favourite upland areas not just in the Pennines but in the whole of the UK. Walks can be as easy or as hard as you wish to make them and even on an easy route it is possible to visit numerous summits. Positioned as it is between the Lake District to the west and the Yorkshire Dales to the east the Howgills provides excellent views of both in addition to the Cross Fell and Mickle Fell ranges in the North Pennines. I have so far only visited Westmorland's limestone country once but it made a favourable impression on me and I expect to return there in the not too distant future.