The saying “Good things come to those who wait” could not be more apt for our running of the Swaledale Watershed. With very rough moorland and endless bogs to cross, we were waiting for an extended dry spell to ease our passage. We had kept our eye on conditions for several years, waiting for a hot, dry summer and finally one arrived this year.
The Swaledale Watershed route had first caught my eye in Richard Gilbert’s book, ‘Wild Walks’. At just under 30 miles long, this circular route follows the highest ground that drains into Great Sleddale Beck, Birkdale Beck, Whitsundale Beck, Stonesdale Beck and a myriad of other moorland streams which eventually form the River Swale. With 1160m of ascent and difficult terrain, it promised to be an adventure.
At 07.00 on 5th July 2018 Neil and I left Muker, jogging along the road to Thwaite. We could have taken the footpath through the meadows but thought we would enjoy some easy running whilst it was available. Conditions were perfect as we set off up the Pennine Way to Great Shunner Fell. The sky was blue, the sun was out and there was a lovely cooling breeze. The summit of Great Shunner Fell (716m) was deserted and we would have liked to linger, but a quick check of the map and it was off on the next section across to Hugh Seat.
Although there was a fence to follow, this was the start of the challenging terrain. Despite being bone dry, it made for energetic running, even downhill, as we dropped into and climbed out of the peat hags. With it being the height of summer, the grass was also very long, which meant that high footsteps were required to get through it, sapping even more energy. After approximately 4km we came to the fence corner that marked the summit of Hugh Seat (689m). After more strenuous work we finally reached Archy Styrigg (695m) which came as a relief, as this top sits on Mallerstang Edge and has a vague path. Those that have run the Yomp will recognise this next section, one of the finest of the race.
The views from Mallerstang Edge into the Eden Valley were stunning. The running was much easier and we made good time along to High Seat, arriving in 2 ½ hours. At 709m, it is the highest point on the ridge and was a good spot to have something to eat as we admired the view. High Pike Hill (642m) then marks the end of the fine ridge running and we dropped down Careless Bank to cross the road at Tailbridge.
Very little navigating is needed for the slog up Nine Standards Rigg, the path is clear at all times. The day was heating up and I was feeling a little worn by the time we reached the summit at 10.30. In the distance we could see other walkers approaching, the first of the day, but we immediately turned off the beaten track and headed out over the wild moorland. The destination was Brownber Hill, which I admit I had never heard of before researching this route.
It was quite tricky to decide on what would be the easiest route to Brownber as there were lots of peat hags to negotiate, but once on its flanks things eased a little. There was a very faint trod to follow along the top to the unremarkable summit. Its relatively lowly height of 597m belied the amount of effort we had put in to get there, but we had always known that the section between Nine Standards Rigg to the Tan Hill Inn would be the most difficult of the route.
Getting away from it wasn’t any easier either, as we had to negotiate a way into and out of some steep sided streams and Kettlepot Gill. Tan Hill was glinting in the sunshine, over a mile away and I was looking forward to refilling my water bottle and having a break. Originally, we had intended following one of the streams down to the road, to pick up some easier running, but Neil suggested a short cut, heading straight across the wild moorland. After all, when else would we get the opportunity to do this without wading through bogs?
Within half an hour we were sat outside the Tan Hill, with a pint of lime and lemonade each. Unfortunately, the anticipated rest was short lived as the thunder flies attacked my hi-viz shirt with a vengeance. So, we pressed on towards Water Crag after too short a rest. Navigation, however was simple as we followed the fence most of the way, and although rough, conditions underfoot were much improved from the previous section. Thankfully it had clouded over too, which helped. We had been on the move for nearly 7 hours and I was definitely feeling the effects of heat, distance and ascent.
At the summit of Water Crag (668m) we met a friendly walker who took a photo for us, then we pressed on to pick up the land rover track which skirts Rogan’s Seat. A tiny trod took us to the unimpressive pile of stones that mark the summit (672m). It was a relief to know it was virtually all down hill from here and we made steady progress down the track to pick up the Coast to Coast route into Swinner Gill. The view from the gill down to the meadows of Muker must be one of the finest in Yorkshire and it lifted my flagging spirits for the final push back to the village.
Unsurprisingly, an extended visit to the tea shop was made as we rested aching legs and reflected on what had been a superb trip around the Swaledale Watershed. It took us 8 ½ hours in total to cover approximately 29 miles with 1160m ascent. I know there are plenty of runners out there that could improve on this, but I wonder if we will see better conditions again for a few years?
Or, perhaps there is appetite for a much bigger watershed route? It transpires that our route is only the ‘baby’ route, the real challenge is the 60+ mile Swale Watershed which the SOC oversee. Devised by John Deighton as an unsupported winter walk, the first completion was made in November 1970 by John, Mike Stephenson, Gary Shears and John Edwards in 37 ½ hours (with an overnight bivvy). The route starts in Richmond then heads out as far as Birkdale Tarn before returning over Great Shunner Fell and all the way back to Richmond. The route has been modified over the years but it is believed that the current record is 11hrs 40 mins, by Martin Luxmoore in 1990. Anyone?
All of Ros and Neil's photos can now be seen in 'galleries'.