A Walk Along the Tracks

Smardale Hall

Smardale Hall.

With an opportunity to get out for a day’s  walking and a very promising forecast too boot, I decided to make a virtue of a necessity and tackle an easy, level route which I’ve been wanting to try for a while. Actually, when planning my jaunt, I’d first turned to the internet for inspiration – looking for walks along, or at least mostly along, disused railway lines. I came across the website of the Northern Viaduct Trust, which has details of two railway walks in the Kirkby Stephen area. One of those, over Podgill viaduct, I walked a few years ago when we were staying in Kirkby Stephen Youth Hostel for one of our annual pre-Christmas get-togethers. The other was one which I hadn’t walked before, but which I’ve been aware of for awhile. Where did I first read about it? I’m not sure – I’ve certainly looked it up on the Cumbria Wildlife Trust website before, and Mike Knipe posted about the same route early last year. It’s also mentioned by Patrick Barkham in his ‘The Butterfly Isles’ – he made a mad dash there from London to find Scotch Argus butterflies at the southern extreme of their range. He saw Dark Green Fritillaries and Small Skippers too.

So it was that just after eight thirty on a perfect sunny morning I pulled into a small car-park in the tiny hamlet of Smardale. I wondered whether Smardale Hall, with it’s smart symmetrical towers might be faux and Victorian, but apparently it’s 15th and 16th Century in construction, with evidence of older medieval buildings on the site.

A walk along the tracks. 

Just as I’d hoped, the track gave very gentle walking.

The birds in the trees on either side were enjoying the sunshine and singing enthusiastically. Mainly cheerful sounding chaffinches, but sadly they were a moody bunch, with a habit of turning away just as you lined-up a shot…

Churlish chaffinch 

Robin’s, on the other-hand, can usually be relied upon to cooperate…

Robin 

I’m most pleased with this one however: at least, if my assumption is correct and this is a wren. Whenever I’ve tried to photograph wrens before, they’ve never sat still long enough for me to get even a huffy, cold-shoulder photo.

Wren? 

It seems that a Forth-bridge-painting style rolling programme of coppicing and scrub clearance is carried out in the nature reserve which runs along the valley here. One newly cleared embankment was sunny with primroses…

As I passed the primroses, three roe deer bounced across the track ahead. In the strong sunlight, their white rump patches were startlingly bright.

Primroses 

Not far beyond the car-park, the old line passes beneath the Smardale Viaduct on the Settle-Carlisle line.

Smardale viaduct 

The next section of the line took me into the shade of Demesne Wood. I’d been intending to stop for some late breakfast, but decided to defer until I was out into the sunshine again.

A chorus of harsh caws and soft-quacking alerted me to the nests of a rookery in the tree-tops overhead. Rooks nest early I believe, and I thought that perhaps there would already be eggs in the nests, but I saw one rook carrying a substantial twig towards the rookery, so maybe I was wrong.

Across the valley I watched two large, dark birds wheeling and flirting. They were a way off, but when one perched prominently on a dry-stone wall, the super-zoom Olympus produced pictures with enough definition to confirm that they were ravens. A little further down I watched a raven which was being mobbed by jackdaws. The raven would alight in the top-most branches of a hawthorn tree, but then, apparently exasperated by their attentions, would half-heartedly swoop at the jackdaws. This taunting and chasing continued for some time. Ravens will take eggs from nests – perhaps the jackdaws were defending theirs?

When I did emerge into sunshine again, it was on the day’s second viaduct: the Smardalegill viaduct. From which there was a lovely view along Scandal Beck (I know – it ought to be Smardale Gill surely?) to Green Bell and Knoutberry on the north-western edge of the Howgills.

Scandal Beck, Green Bell in the distance. 

Just beyond the viaduct I stopped for that breakfast and the first of several brews.

The shadow of the viaduct. 

The shadow of the viaduct.

Smardale Lime Kilns 

A little farther still down the line and there are limestone quarries and these large lime-kilns.

Railwayman's cottage 

My first thought when I saw the railwayman’s cottage was that it would make a great bothy. (A reflection on my recent blog-reading) It’s all boarded up however, but with careful small entrances with perches let into the boards over the upstairs windows. For jackdaws?

Cutting 

Where the line entered this cutting, I noticed that the shaded wall on the left was covered in verdant shaggy mosses, whereas the right-hand wall was much clearer, with the odd neat pin-cushion…

P3181342 

As I got close to Newbiggin-on-Lune I started to meet other walkers. Mike mentioned that Newbiggin has a cafe, but with the sun still shining I decided that I was content with outdoor refreshments. On the outskirts of Newbiggin there are a number of impressive old houses, but none of the others caught my imagination to the same extent as the Tower House…

Tower House

..with it’s castellated gable-ends and it’s, erm, tower…

The Tower House - tower.

I followed a little bridleway now which took me past a small barn…

A charming barn 

…past Friar’s Bottom Farm…

Green Bell again 

Northern Howgills. Green Bell left of centre.

and over Sandy Bank, where I stopped for another brew.

View from a brew-stop. 

Brew with a view.

I didn’t do as well as Patrick Barkham, but I did see a single solitary butterfly here. It was some distance away, but I would guess that it was a small tortoiseshell.

Dropping down into the valley I crossed Smardale bridge and realised that I was fulfilling a promise I made myself over 20 years ago, when I walked the Coast to Coast, to come back to explore this valley.

The eastern side of the valley has old sandstone quarries and the wall here was an engaging mixture of red sandstone and grey limestone. The bright green lichen on some of the stones in the wall added to the colourful pageant. (Although the camera doesn’t seem to have captured the intensity of the green.)

Lichen 

Now that I had begun to inspect the wall a little closer, I noticed that some of the stones…

Fossils? 

…had fossils embedded in them.

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More fossils…

More fossils? 

..and a close-up…

P3181387 

Gateway 

Scandal beck 

Scandal Beck and Smardalegill viaduct.

Railwayman's cottage again 

The railwayman’s cottage again.

Smardalegill viaduct 

I stopped for lunch (and another brew of course) with a view of Smardalegill viaduct. Whilst I ate, I watched a raven swooping through the arches of the viaduct. Then it settled in a small tree below the viaduct. I tried, without success, to get a clear photo. When the raven finally flew out of sight, I gave up and began to ready myself to move on – it was then that I noticed that a raven was making repeated low, fast passes across the hillside above me. They are breathtaking fliers.

Raven

From there it was a short stroll back along the tracks…

Back along the tracks 

..towards the car.

Hazel catkins

Hazel Catkins again.

I did incorporate a short diversion down to the banks of the beck, where I watched the antics of a pair of pied-wagtails.

Scandal beck, smardale viaduct. 

Scandal Beck.

Smardale viaduct

Smardale Viaduct again.

P3181485 

Nuthatch

On the last section, amongst the trees, where the chaffinches had played hard to get earlier, there was less bird-song than before. This time it was a nuthatch which led me on a tantalisingly elusive chase from tree to tree.

Cloud

Cloud.

A Walk Along the Tracks