Howgill Heatwave

The Howgill Fells have been on my personal list of Rides I Want To Do for ages now, the rolling grassy hills abutting the M6 just before Tebay have always looked inviting to me as I drove past en route to some more northerly destination. I had however always held off visiting on the grounds that anything that verdantly green was likely to be waterlogged and unpleasant for much of the year. In light of the current spell of warm, dry weather, I thought now might finally be a good time to explore this corner of the north, and gathered a couple of friends to join me on a day off following the classic Howgills circuit from Sedbergh. The route follows bridleways up onto the main ridge right to the top of The Calf, then descends Bowderdale before looping back along the eastern edge of the fells via Ravenstonedale; plenty of .gpx traces of variations on this theme are available online, here’s the route we followed, wrong turns and all.As you can see from this and subsequent pictures, the ride was rather puncture-prone. We had four of the damn things. Our first happened before we even left the car park, and a good half-hour was spent trying to get a tubeless repair to hold, liberally coating the tarmac with sealant before we gave up and stuck a tube in there. Any reader thinking “Aaah, serves you right, you’d never have that problem with good old fashioned inner tubes” should note that the failed repair was of a very old tyre, and of the three subsequent punctures two were replacement tubes, the other an inch long slash that would have killed pretty much any setup. My tubeless kit held its air perfectly all day long despite clattering into numerous big pointy rocks with my usual inelegant hold-on-and-try-not-to-die riding style. I think my companions were just unlucky, as sometimes happens, no matter what you’re running.The sun was blazing down when we arrived in Sedbergh at 11AM, and as a result of our start-line mechanical we were already lightly toasted before even turning a pedal. The first climb up to the top of Winder (…is it pronounced “winder” or “winder”? We may never know…) was a brute: steep, grassy, baking hot and sheltered from any breeze. I was developing a headache by the time we reached this first summit of the day, so I necked my emergency paracetamol and stopped to admire the view, which already stretched out beyond the Scafells away over the far side of the Lake District, and out to the Yorkshire Three Peaks in the other direction.After regrouping and rehydrating as well as we were able we continued our ascent up more moderate gradients, with the exception of the sharp kick up to Calders, and (via a brief pause courtesy of puncture number two) finally topped out on The Calf. This was the high-point of the day, and the Howgills, at 676m. The small tarn marked on the map near the summit was completely dry, and in the distance we could just see the smoke plume from the massive fires raging far away on the moors in Saddleworth. Everything was bone dry and beginning to take on the warm tones normally associated with more arid climes. I could have stayed up here for hours, but we had many more miles to cover, and a pub stop scheduled, so after a quick point at the view and a bag of sweets we pressed on to the main event of the day, Bowderdale.The Bowderdale descent is one of those routes that frequently pops up in the mountain bike media’s Top Ten UK Trails You Must Ride articles, so I was very interested to see what it was like and how it compares to my own personal favourites. Nearly ten kilometers of unbroken singletrack, it starts off with a gentle roll from the trig point on The Calf, before turning into a frayed ribbon of rock-infested ruts curving around the shoulder of the fell, dropping into the top of the Bowderdale itself. You lose over 250m of height just in this one relatively technical kilometre down to Ram’s Gill, and I definitely needed a bit of a breather before carrying on into the longer, more sedate second movement. For the remaining seven or eight kilometres the path clings to the side of the valley, contouring round numerous streams and gullies, many of which have collapsed to provide an interesting off-camber exercise in traction management. The path between these little challenges is mostly a narrow rut, just wide enough for pedalling; you need to watch your line carefully all the way down or risk being ejected down some fairly steep slopes. Even after two months of solid good weather, there was still a surprising amount of water about the place, and bikes and riders alike picked up a light coating of mud before we reached the road and rolled under the A685 at Wath.

After a spin along some quiet back lanes to a leisurely refreshment stop at The Black Swan in Ravenstonedale we set about the tarmac climb to Adamthwaite, and what we thought would be a quick and straightforward ride back to the start. Two punctures, a wrong turn, several scuffles with uncooperative vegetation and farm-furniture, and varying levels of heat-related exhaustion put paid to that notion, so it was a very tired party who rolled into Sedbergh at well past 6PM. The first thing I did when I unlocked the van was hunt down more painkillers for the splitting headache that had manifested in the final hour, before hurling my kit in the back and leaving my companions in a cloud of dust as I set off for home, much later than intended.Even with this slightly trying ending, I had an excellent day out in splendid surroundings with great company. The loop round the Howgills is a proper Big Day Out, well worth saving up for a sunny opportunity just like this one. Even with copious mechanical problems and the odd route-finding mishap we had a marvellous time, and I’ll definitely be back in the future to revisit these lovely fells.

The main set piece of the Bowderdale descent is very good, although its finest attractions are all blown through in the first third, from the top of The Calf to Ram’s Gill. The subsequent thread of riding down the last two thirds of the valley, whilst charming, is overlong, and by the look of it very wet and muddy for most of the year. In terms of absolutely ride quality it doesn’t quite compare to the various Torridon descents I have done, or even more accessible routes like Cut Gate or Nan Bield, but it is worth noting that we saw absolutely nobody else, even on a gloriously sunny day, and from the very top to almost the very bottom there are no gates, stiles, bridges, or ridiculous waterbars. You can ride this huge valley end to end without touching the ground (in theory; you’re doing very well if you do, it’s a good solid challenge even for a fit, technically competent rider). It is very definitely worth a visit, and the surroundings and approach are unique and beautiful.