After recovering from my foggy adventure in the Peaks I headed back ‘home’ to the Yorkshire Dales for my next walk. Teaming up once again with my co-conspirator Graham, we decided to take on Great Shunner Fell, this time with his Dad joining us.
I was looking forward to this walk for many reasons, firstly because it is always good to catch up with my old friend Graham and with the added bonus that his father Mike was coming too. Mike was our history teacher at school and was pretty much responsible for my interest the history of these isles (and Jimi Hendrix but that’s another story). With Mike coming along I would be sure to learn a thing or two as well as enjoy a pleasant walk. Secondly, I’d fancied climbing Shunner Fell for sometime as it is the third highest point (716 Metres above sea level) of the Yorkshire Dales and borders Swaledale and Wensleydale, so hopefully there would be plenty of spectacular views. As an added bonus the route we decided upon would also take in the Butter Tubs pass, another amazing limestone feature of the Yorkshire Dales.
We arrived in the hamlet of Thwaite, a picturesque but tiny settlement about a mile from Muker. The weather was clear, the sun was shining and the wind gave an icy bite as we headed out of Thwaite and joined up with the Pennine Way. The lane gave a gentle ascent along a well worn farm track bordered by the dry stone walls so iconic and synonymous with the Yorkshire Dales.
The walk was steady and pleasant and gave opportunity for some lovely views and photographs down Swaledale. Just after a mile or so the farm lane ends and the lane gives way to a muddy and well worn track that is soon replaced with a stone paved path.
Given the time of year and current chilly weather, there are still many pockets of snow and ice across the fell. The stone path is well kept and does well to combat the erosion present on the earth footpaths, it’s also helps us avoid the ever present deep peat bogs (but more of those later). After a mile or so the stone path becomes earth and grass trail again and we descend a little as our goal approaches.
Graham notes that it is a nice walk where you can see the summit from virtually every point of the trail. Graham’s Dad Mike remains sceptical and notes most of Graham’s walks involve getting lost and some sort of vertical ascent before the summit is reached. Luckily, I have chosen the route and thus far it seems to be going quite well (unlike my last outing in the Peaks). As we begin the final ascent, the views North West towards Mallestang Edge and Hangingstone Scar are stunning and despite the bitterly cold wind we agree this is a fine day to be walking. Further round to the North we can view Birkdale Tarn and then to the East a spectacular view down Swaledale all the way to the Cleveland Hills the other side of the A19.
We come across a curious stone with IP 1839 chiselled on to it. I’ve done some Google searches since but am still none-the-wiser as to what it may be for. If any readers do, please get in touch and enlighten me.
We hit the beacon marker, around a quarter of a mile from the summit and stop for some coffee, lunch and photographs before heading on to reach our goal.
Great Shunner Fell is a notable feature of Swaledale as it effectively marks its point of it’s origin. Great Sleddale Beck has its sources on the northern banks of the Fell; flowing north its confluence with Birkdale Beck becomes the River Swale itself. At 716 metres, Shunner Fell qualifies as a Marylin, Nuttall and a Hewitt in fell walker’s parlance. I suppose it’s an unofficial Wainwright too as Alfred himself walked the Pennine Way and detailed it in his excellent book: A Pennine Journey – The Story of a Long Walk in 1938. Though not being a Lakeland Fell it cannot officially qualify for this illustrious title.
The views from the top are incredible, with Wild Boar Fell to the immediate West, Ravenseat to the North, Kisdon Hill stood over Thwaite (our start point) to the East and the beginning of Wensleydale to the South. A fine vantage point for all points of the compass, which is likely why it was look-out point for the early Norse settlers of the area. The word Shunner is derived from the Old-Norse word of ‘Sjon’ which means ‘Look-out’ and of course fell (from fell, fjeld,or fjäll) is an Old-Norse word for ‘high and barren hill/mountain’, so Look-Out Hill.
The summit is marked with a large cross-cairn complete with benches, offering some shelter while we have a rest. In the north facing part of the cross, there is sunk a lead-plaque bearing the details of the old OS Trig Point, atop of the stone is the metal North marker.
[In another part of North Yorkshire there is a Shunner Howe, also a former Norse look out post (Howe is derived from Old-Norse for haugr which also means hill.)]
After taking in the spectacular views, taking some pictures and refreshing with a coffee, the biting cold wind got the better of us and we decided to move on. Indeed as we started to pack up, it became overcast and the beginnings of a light snowfall hit us, definitely time to progress.
We left the well-worn and signposted Pennine Way for a path marked as ‘other access route’ on my OS map, which followed a fence down the fell towards Little Shunner and across the top of Thwaite Common. This is where the path became one definitely less-travelled and often hard to pick out of the sea of scrub grass and peat bogs. In a way, the sub-zero temperatures keeping the ground frozen was a blessing, otherwise at times I think we would have been knee deep in peat. We followed the boundary as best we could; eventually realising we were on the wrong side. We hopped over and got our bearings as we (literally) stumbled across the ‘Grimy Gutter Hags’. Peat Hags are quite a quirky and interesting landscape feature to walk amongst, combined with the frozen solid dark black peat bogs, they make for an almost other-worldly landscape. Our continuing trek across Graint Gill Moss and Hood Rigg reminded me of a quote I once read from author Garth Nix:
‘Does the walker choose the path? Or does the path choose the walker?’
By the time we had reached the edge of Hood Rigg and had definitely lost the trail, picking our way down the steep outcrop of Howgate Edge felt like the natural thing to do. Mike commented that this almost vertical descent was more inline with what he had come to expect of Graham’s usual walks, Graham soon quipped back that at least it was downhill and not a climb. Either way, I felt the latter part of Nix’s quote was definitely at work here. Only slightly off the trail we were soon on the level tarmac of Buttertubs Pass and back on track. Though not exactly planned, it was fun scaling down the rocks and moss mounds of Howgate Edge as you could clearly hear all the underground streams coursing through the limestone bed, the same streams that caused the incredible buttertubs.
The Buttertubs are one of the more popular features of the Yorkshire Dales, attracting thousands of visitors every year. Last year saw the popular B-Road stage of the prestigious Tour-de-France cycle race, well-received along this route. The ‘buttertubs’ themselves are around 20 metre deep geological features formed by water erosion of limestone seams. As water flows across the surface of limestone it can sometimes erode away hollows called ‘Shakeholes’, caused when drift material falls into joints/gaps chemically widened by water/rainfall. The water then begins to erode the limestone seam vertically forming a pothole or swallow hole. Over the course of a geological timescale these features can be enlarged by glaciations and/or rainfall.
The result is a series of spectacular formations along the road from Hawes towards Thwaite. Legend would have it that the name originated when farmers would stop to rest on their way to market, they would lower their butter into the potholes to keep it cool.
We stopped to admire these quirks of geology before heading along the road back towards Thwaite. I’m generally no fan of walking along roads and avoid where possible, so I felt it was a shame the final leg of this journey was on tarmac. By decent way of compensation though the views across the valley towards Lovely Seat and Long Scar over Cliff Beck we very enjoyable, especially as the sun lowered and cast its yellowy glow across the fells from behind us. We also took in great views of the old lead mine at Providence Hush, a location Graham and I decided we would very much like to explore in the future.
Eventually the road winds its way back down the hill towards Thwaite and we note the sheds located along the wall are old converted railway trucks (Graham has an enthusiastic fondness for sheds, barns and huts. A fondness I’ve never understood but come to accept). As we reach the final stretch, seemingly from out of nowhere a dark-grey, unmarked Hercules C5 (Lockheed C-130J) thunders from the valley between Kisdon and Stock Dale, banks hard left and speeds down Swaledale until out of sight. This enormous yet graceful aircraft must have only been 400-500 feet above the ground (if that), adding to the spectacle and surprise. Growing up near the Dales and RAF Leeming; low flying aircraft are not a surprise to me, but seeing this huge ‘workhorse’ of the Royal Air Force swooping so low is still quite an exciting sight. A little research once home reveals that it is not uncommon for the C4/C5 aircraft to fly low-altitude sorties over the Dales from their Brize-Norton home for training missions.
We wander down the final stretch of road back into Thwaite and despite there being a tearooms-cum-pub-cum-hotel that serves Black Sheep Bitter; we don’t have time to enjoy one as Graham is soon due at work. All-in-all though, a most enjoyable walk with some spectacular views and interesting scenery. It certainly has whet my appetite for future walks further into the Dales, Wild Boar Fell is definitely on the horizon now, although I think Pen-y-ghent is next on our list!
Hopefully I should be back in the Peaks sometime soon as Higger Tor and I have unfinished business, until then happy rambling.
References and Further Reading: