This isn’t the first time I’ve taken ponies over the Howgills, 5 or 6 years ago some friends and I set off from Murthwaite on the Eastern side of the Howgills with 5 Fell ponies, through Orton and Shap to Bampton where we camped on the common before going over High Street to Troutbeck.
I remember thinking as we crossed into Borrowdale (I’m told it’s the longest uninhabited valley in England) that I would like to spend more time in these lost valleys. So despite the bad weather warning for Sunday, I am moving ponies up the M6 to Low Borrowdale Farm, 2 miles up a rough farm track on the West side of Tebay Gorge where our friends Freddy and Tor have let use make base camp before our 3 day trek over the Howgills.
This time I have a goal… to find out how many people I can take with how many ponies.
I’ve spent the last few weeks getting together all the kit and building some wooden arch packsaddles based on a traditional Pennine packsaddle used 100 years ago (and also across Europe) and I’m taking my old faithful mare Hades Hill Fairmile (who was on the last trip) and my two 5 year old mares Fay and Pansy who have already had their fair share of adventures this year (Fay pulled a bow top waggon to Appleby Fair and Pansy trekked around the Western Lakes with Clare Dyson). That makes on black, one grey and one brown fell pony. To complete the set our friends from Wanderlusts Horse drawn Holidays Barny and Katus have have a bay 5 year old gelding Ted (by Heltondale Ted out of Barny’s unregistered mare Abs) and Jet a plucky little Shetland who will be carrying their sons Maddog and Melinki.
As I arrive, Tor is cooking and the kitchen is filled with the taste of the most amazing veggie Lasagne. We spend the evening looking at possible routes over The Calf at 676 m the highest top in the Howgill Fells and working out the best way to distribute the weight between the ponies. We decide its best to keep each pony with its own tether chain. Each pony will also carry a 2 man tent, 2 sleeping bags, spare set of clothes for 2 people and either food, cooking gear or fuel (I decided to carry charcoal assist light to carry and also gives us a fire to keep warm around). We also have a small petrol stove for quick brews, and what seems like a mountain of food to carry for 3 days ad 9 people (7 adults and 2 kids and Clare’s Collie Finn ).
It’s a cold night and I’m awake early in the morning. Barny is already up and fettling his packsaddle. I have 3 turnouts to get ready and need to add a second girth to each of my saddles but its not long before everyone is up and loaded and we get away by 11 am.
Before we’ve got 200 metres we have to stop and rearrange one of the packs. Balance and distribution of weight is critical. Then its about 5 miles from the bottom of Borrowdale Valley down the old Roman road Fairmile to Four Lane Ends where we join the first bridleway. I had hoped to go little further down the Roman Road and take a different route over the Calf past Burka Farm as I’d done some filming there with Edmund Capstick a few years ago for a short film called Hefted, but I have also arranged to meet my friend Richard Berry who’s going to film some shots with his drone and we’re running behind schedule, so we turn go for the nearer option.
After 10 minutes we leave the farm track at a walled bridleway and then we’re past the fell gate. It feels like we are free now and can relax. It’s been a long stretch from base camp so we stop to rest the ponies and get some lunch of cheese and baguettes. White Fell Head and The Calf look impressive and we have to decide whether to go up today or camp at the foot and take it fresh in the morning.
Once we‘re up and running again we’ve only gone 10 minutes before we find a seat little spot to camp so the decision is made… don’t push too far on the first day and we make camp. The backdrop is stunning.
It takes us nearly an hour to get ponies tethered, tents up and the fire lit. Ross has brought a water filter and is setting it up with beck water. on the menu tonight is Cumberland sausage, potato and broccoli. We’re glad of the fire. Its getting cold.
It’s early. Barny is already up and the fire is lit. We comment what a beautiful spot this has been while making coffee and porridge. Its 10 am now and we’re all packed up. The bridleway leads up over White Fell Head and it’s a fairly steep ascent.
We have climbed up White Fell Head from 200 metres to 630 metres and it has taken almost 2 hours to get over the ridge.
The views are immense. We’re heading for a packhorse bridge at the bottom of Langdale valley to camp tonight so we don’t get to see Borrowdale tis time but turn west before the summit of The Calf and look for a sheltered spot for some lunch. There’s a convenient watering hole and the ponies all take advantage.
Up in the Howgills the fells all seem to roll into one and I’m having to check our location against the map fequently. There’s a steep climb up Taffergill Hill then we tack north and traverse Hand Lake fell.
Its a couple of hours before we can see the packhorse bridge in the distance. We find the tree first in my binoculars which Barny has remembered from the last trip (trees are few and far between up here). It’s another hour before we get to the bottom of the valley where we have to cross a beck and we’re glad to make camp for the night - the night is drawing in fast.
Before we go to bed we agree to try and get away by 9 am in the morning but it’s nearly 9;30 when by the time we’ve packed and made adjustments. The sun is just hitting the packhorse bridge as we cross. We’re heading west to pick up a track that will take us off the fell and into Tebay but we have a wide beck to cross so we get the ponies across one at a time on a long rope (to try and save us getting wet feet).
We get the compass out and pick a route that traverses Rispa fell to a sheepfold on the east of Tebay fell. There are hardly any features on this side of the Howgills to use as reference points but a bit of micro navigation with the map compass keeps us on track.
Although there are ponies running out (Colin Robert’s Bybeck herd) we haven’t seen any ponies since we’ve been on the fells. But as we near the fell gate a couple of ponies with long manes trot up to have a look at us.
When you’re travelling with ponies, whether thats on the road in a bow-top caravan or on foot with packsaddles you’re always really conscious of weight. As we have eaten through our supplies and burned our charcoal the load has been getting lighter but we also have to redistribute some of the weight between ponies as we’re going along. By lunchtime of day 3 all we have is bread and cheese, salami and chocolate for lunch so we stop at the Cross Keys for a pint and some chips.
It’s about 3 miles now to get back to base camp Borrowdale farm. An hour later we have made it up the track. We have had an amazing few days. We only met 2 other people out on the fells. We stayed at and walked through some of the most bleak and beautiful places in England - almost forgotten valleys where time stands still. The nights have been cold but we managed to stay warm and dry.
I have learned a lot… How to pack saddles; how much a group needs and how many ponies and handlers it takes get the show on the road; how I would make it easier next time.
More than anything I have confirmed what I already knew - that travelling on foot with ponies through the mountains is one of the very best things I have ever done. This is just the start of Fell Pony Adventures!