Coast to Coast Day 6 – Orton to Kirkby Stephen

Published 3 September 2010

“You put your waterproofs on and five minutes later it stops raining! Ridiculous!”

“Did you hear on the local news about those four teenagers at Ennerdale Bridge? They got stuck in the rain – one of them tried to cross a swollen stream and got trapped. Another had to get in and try to get her out. Had to get Mountain Rescue out in the end to rescue them all.”

Such cheery news was the conversation with two fellow walkers over breakfast. They were fellow Coast to Coasters, finishing off their trip at Kirkby Stephen later that day. They told us they hadn’t decided if they were going to come back and finish it off, although if you ask me, they were pretty much a shoe in.

The rain in the Lakes would be the subject of many a discussion over the next few days with walkers we met, whilst newspaper headlines would loudly decry the fact that despite the heavy rain, North West Water had no intention of lifting the hosepipe ban. It was during one of those conversations that we found out that a whole months rain had fallen in those two wet and soggy days.

Climbing over a stile in Orton

And as we left Orton, popping once more into the most excellent village shop (with its amazing cheese selection) there was a slight dampness in the air, although nothing too serious as we clambered once more over stiles and headed over fields to Ravenstonedale Moor.

Whilst there was occasional drizzle, we mostly had a dry morning until we arrived at Stony Head Farm when the heavens opened. Sheltering under some handy trees, we dutifully struggled into waterproofs. But no sooner had we done so and set off and the rain abruptly stopped. Serenity was restored.

Given the effort we’d gone to, forcing on rucksack covers and fighting to get into waterproofs, we felt almost compelled to keep the confounded things on but the sun was trying to come out, and barely a mile across Tarn Moor we were getting far too hot. Stripping off again was the only option.

Sunbiggin Tarn in the distance

Back in Wainwright’s day this particular section required a hefty trek up north-east, round a hairpin bend before doubling back on an unrewarding tarmac road, but thankfully the modern day walker can take a far more civilised and direct path towards Sunbiggin Tarn instead, where swans and waterfowl rest. Apparently. We never got close enough to see any of them.

Ravenstonedale Moor was hardly wild moorland; just gentle greenery watched over (and munched) by sheep and cows. Bar them and ourselves, there was no one around, at least until a couple of RAF fighters stormed overhead at such a low height that their bullseyes and serial numbers were alarmingly visible!

Bents Hill on the Coast to Coast

One of the best picnic spots in the area – a raised hump above an underground reservoir – was taken, however a rocky crag not too far on also rewarded us with fine views of the local neighbourhood including the nearby Howgill Fells, and the Severals Village Settlement; a complex of prehistoric villages of which all that can be seen now is a series of grassy mounds. If you didn’t know already it was the site of an ancient habitation, well you’d walk on by and be none the wiser. The site itself has never been the subject of an archaeological dig and its secrets remain untouched and underground.

More noticeable history came not long after in the tell tale cutting of a dismantled railway and as we took a U-shaped tour of the area, the mighty Smardale Gill Viaduct crossed a ravine in the distance.

Smardale Gill Viaduct in the distance

Some would say such a viaduct was a scar on the landscape but for me the old Victorian arched railway bridges seem to show man’s dominance of the landscape in a highly pleasing way, and provide a fitting tribute to the blood, sweat and tears that built them in the first place, to say nothing of the lives that were lost in the process.

If the views of Smardale Gill Viaduct weren’t enough to enjoy then the sight at the top of Smardale Fell was even better. A truly wonderful view of the relatively unknown Eden Valley, and the North Pennines behind it.

Cows in a field on Smardale Fell

So much attention is paid to the undeniable beauty of the Lakes that the Eden Valley often gets overlooked. But it shouldn’t, and it deserves to be equally as famous. Nestling between two mighty ranges of fells it has amazing scenery all around and is a fine place to walk through. Yet our guide book seemed almost completely oblivious to it, even if we did linger gladly before making the gentle descent in to Kirkby Stephen.

On our approach, down near an alleyway, a mother sat picking wild raspberries with her young daughter.

“Are they allowed to pick them too?” the daughter asked as we popped a few into our mouths, and it was hard not to smile as her mother explained the laws of wild growing fruit before Catherine gently replied “We’ve only had two!”

She was lying and it was a lie that would hurt the child and challenge their faith in society for evermore. For in reality we’d not had two, but three. The anguish we must have caused would result in sleepless nights for weeks to come.

Apparently Kirkby Stephen has a “Welcome to Walkers” accreditation for, well, its welcome to walkers and we got a fine welcome from Denise who owns and runs the local hostel.

Kirkby Stephen Hostel

Sited in an old Methodist chapel in the heart of the high street it was opened in 1981 yet just 26 years later the YHA had tried to close it down.

Thankfully its future was secured by new owners taking it on so it remains a hostel and whilst independent, it remains affiliated to the YHA who continue to provide roughly 50% of its customers.

It was an amazing conversion with the old organ and pulpit remaining, and the balcony area converted into a lounge. Our room – part of the old warden’s quarters presumably, given the wooden “Warden” sign on the door – featured a segment of a stained-glass window.

For a weekday night it was pretty busy and like many of hostels the YHA tried to close in 2006, you couldn’t help but wonder why they had ever wanted to sell it off. The new owner seemed happy with her lot, proclaiming it was a job for life and she loved meeting people who were on their holidays. Given its near perfect location for cyclists and Coast to Coast walkers, it’s hard to imagine her not having a steady stream of customers for years to come.

Kirkby Stephen was by far the largest place we’d passed through so far on our trip and had the added luxury of an Indian restaurant. After several days of pub food we both longed for something completely different and given how many familiar Coast to Coast faces we saw inside, we were not the only ones. The Mango Tree offered a fine curry too. Often rural curry houses aren’t up to much but this was a cracker and no mistake.

Well fed, we retired back to the hostel to consult maps and discuss options for the next day before falling into yet another long, deep sleep… Why, anyone would think we’d done some exercise or something.


Stuart Forster

14 October 2015 at 12:32 pm

I’ve had some great days out walking in the Lake District but, increasingly, people have been telling me to try the Coast to Coast route. Thanks for sharing your experiences along it.

Mal and Shar Donald (Australia)

28 July 2019 at 7:58 pm

We recently did the C2C and enjoyed an excellent meal at the Mango Tree also. Fortunately for us, the weather was fantastic, with only a couple of damp days.

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