Want to see pretty much the entire Howgills in one day? Well, the Harvey Howgill Tops round will lead you to just that. This route involves visiting all the tops of more than 400 metres marked on the Harvey’s map of the Howgills plus one other to make a round number of 40. Yes, it is that silly. I had spotted this some months ago on the gofar website and thought I might have a go … one day. And that day came around sooner than I had expected as by coincidence Nigel was planning a club weekend in the Howgills. My first thought was who else could I rope into such a ridiculous outing and Tom Reeves immediately sprung to mind. Alas, he was not available. I had briefly mentioned potentially doing this run to Nigel, who had taken it as confirmed and from there it began to build a momentum all of its own so that I could not back out without losing considerable face. I had some concerns – firstly, it comes in at about 40 miles perhaps a bit less depending on navigation, secondly it also soaks up 10,000 feet of ascent, and thirdly most of the territory would be new to me and I would have no time to recce. As the date approached other concerns emerged; a persistent cold, the return of a long standing knee injury, general lack of fitness and training for the event, and the weather. I then had a late change of date imposed upon me by Mrs H but this proved most fortuitous as Saturday 18th February proved to be pretty awful even by Howgill standards, and Sunday 19th February, my new date, delivered brilliant weather by anyone’s standards.
After a terrible night’s sleep and a pretty dodgy breakfast I departed Fell End Bunk House at 8am for Cross Keys on the Cautley Road. After an inadvertent detour I set off from my car for Wandale, top #1, at 08:20:00 exactly. I was following the suggested route and direction, which was anticlockwise. Was aiming to complete in 8 to 10 hours, but felt it would be nearer 10. Felt crap even on the first hill and it wasn’t until the third top, Knott (1 – the last top is also called Knott), that I began to get some decent momentum going. I was having GPS problems right from the start and this was a concern as I was counting on this as my primary means of navigation, to verify I was on the right ‘top’ and to record my route and times. I had to give up on the damned thing entirely after Green Bell (top #5) and it now appears dead. So, it was down to me to navigate using an OS 1:50K map print-out.
Fortunately there was not a single cloud in the sky and it was so cold and clear that I could navigate the entire thing by sight. A couple of times I did get my compass out just to check I had the map the right way up. The cold held another advantage; large tracts which would normally be boggy were frozen solid and I could glance across them swiftly and keep my feet dry. Towards the end of the day I did hit a bit more bog, on lower and more sheltered sections, but by then I was beyond caring. Slight cock-up with top #8, Hocksey, after hitting #9 first, Randygill, but reckon that only cost me a few minutes in total. Got to Simon’s Seat, top #16, in 3h30, so I was 30 mins up on my imaginary schedule. One of the problems with OS 1:50K is that useful detail is missing, such as whether a blue line is a stream or a river. A few turned out to be rivers. It’s also not as easy to judge how steep something is; the descent off Langdale Knott, top #14, was very steep. Many of the ascents were also a lot steeper than I had thought. The section out to Rispa Pike and Hare Shaw, tops 19 and 21, was a drag but I consoled myself knowing that I had already taken in my most easterly, northerly and westerly tops now. Blease Fell, top #22, actually the most westerly, was by far the least inspiring place. The top was unmarked so I picked the highest bit of bog around and claimed that. In fact, several of the tops were unmarked, most were marked by pathetic little piles of stones sometimes only four or five in number, but around the Calf, top #31, things got a bit more impressive with trig points, cairns and monuments. On to Uldale Head, #23, was pleasant going and I had done that section quicker than expected, so was feeling confident. Round to Lingshaw, #24, came up nicely but I was now exposed into the stiff and very cold breeze. At Brown Moor, #25, I had to remove a sock (was wearing two pairs) as it had disintegrated and was beginning to cause a blister. Glad I didn’t leave it any longer. The next climb up to Fell Head, #26, was by far the hardest of the day being very cold, steep and on rough ground. I had to pause a few times but I knew that once on the top I would only have one proper hard climb left (Crook, #38, to Sickers Fell, #39). Cobles, #28, was an unwelcome detour off the obvious line and a loss of 100m which promptly had to be regained. Much colder and stronger winds on the hilltop ridge so I changed to a proper waterproof which did the trick (had previously been wearing a pertex windproof). Clouds forming overhead now too but they didn’t look threatening. The hilltop highway from The Calf, #31, to Sedbergh was a welcome relief from tussocks but most of the tops required diversion off this to find yet another small pile of pebbles to claim as a top. Spirits were really high now and I hit Bram Rigg, #32, bang on 7h. Great Dummacks, #33, was also quite a detour, but was onto good paths again and could smell the finish line. The Nab, #36, round to Winder, #37, was tough as it involved a long and steep traverse and the aforementioned injured knee was getting very sore. Crook, #38, which I hit just before 5pm, to Sickers Fell, #39, was much harder than it appeared on the map with the dissecting stream further set in a steep sided gully. Had to head back up the gulley quite some way before I found a good crossing point but the top came up easy. Now it was all downhill via Knott (2), #40, to a bridleway to carry me home. But this was to be the most frustrating part of the day. Firstly, getting onto the bridleway itself was a challenge worthy of Bear Grylls and then once on it I had to contend with an undulating mud-fest churned up by mountain bikers and repeatedly interrupted with gates. Not what you want at the end of a run like this. Progress was slow, jog 10 – walk 10, and that blasted Cross Keys Inn just didn’t seem to be getting any closer. ‘Oh how sweet that beer will taste’. [As it happens, Will, the beer would have been entirely absent! The place is a ‘Temperance Inn’. Ed. ] Got to car at 17:44:50, total time of 09:24:50 (so we’ll call it 9h25 then). Phew. Changed, topped up with full sugar coke and the remaining uneaten bun (still tasted awful), and off to pub … to find it was closed! The ultimate insult after all of that. Oh well, £5 saved. Back in car, James Brown on the stereo, and ‘Hello, what’s this?’ A KitKat and a cereal bar under my wiper blades. Nice touch.
Best climb of the day was Yarlside, #11, which delivered quite unexpected drama from reading the map. I consumed six energy gels, a handful of Kendle Mint cake and one and a half small cheese-spread rolls during the whole thing. That’s less than I would normally have for lunch just sitting at a computer all day and perhaps I could work on food consumption if I do another ultra run in the future. I do wonder what these sorts of challenges do to the body; the joints (my knee is very sore), the heart and the kidneys. I only hope the mental benefit outweighs the physical damage.
Although I am an active member of Northumberland Fell Runners, and it is through them I usually end up doing daft things like this, I claim this run for my other club, Elvet Striders, as they are the team which gave me the opportunity and support for this particular challenge. Thanks Elvet!