Monk Coniston, Tarn Hows, Bluebells and Arthur Ransome

In about 1908, Arthur Ransome, future author of the Swallows and Amazons novels, was wont to stay at Low Yewdale Farm in the valley above Coniston, sometimes camping out in a bell tent by the Yewdale Beck or further up by Raven Crag. He was a fledgling author at this point, with just a few small contributions to the world of literature. His involvement in reporting the Russian Revolution – he married Trotsky’s secretary – and his grand series of novels were yet to come.

Tarn Hows Cottage

He spent some time in that tent learning Romany, from George Borrow’s classic book Romano Lavo-Lil and the writings of John Leland, for this was the period of the great Borrovian revival. Ransome even befriended some Romany folk – a pal was Arthur Stanborough, who was a bit out of favour for marrying outside the blood. Ransome also befriended other folk of the road – tinkers and showmen, and heard tales of the Romany wintering place up at Millom.

A glimpse of Coniston

As an admirer of the writings of both Ransome and Borrow, it wasn’t hard to picture Ransome in his tent or strolling up by the beck to Lower Yewdale on similar fine days to the ones we enjoyed yesterday. And even in the changed Lake District of this rather unpleasant century, it isn’t hard to picture the world Ransome portrayed so vividly in his books.

Gazebo at Monk Coniston

I learned my first words of Romani in Gypsy camps in the Black Country of the English Midlands sixty years ago, and – like Ransome – I learned more in the pages of Romano Lavo-Lil. (If you want to make a study of Romanes, it’s still well worth reading Borrow, but I’d particularly recommend James Hayward’s more recent Gypsy Jib.)

Monk Coniston

All that is by the by, for we went out to walk from Coniston to Monk Coniston, up through the woods of Hill Fell to Tarn Hows and then back down the Cumbria Way through Tarn Hows Wood mostly in search of bluebells.

The Marshalls and their friend Tennyson

We started from the Coniston Sports and Social Club (£4 to park all day), walking round the head of the Lake to Monk Coniston. The grounds are in the hands of the National Trust and there’s a path through, though I’m always baffled as to why the National Trust can’t dedicate much of its land under CRoW (the Countryside and Rights of Way Act). Surely that would be in line with the intentions of its founders?

The Dog’s Home

There was a house here called Waterhead from the 1600s, but the Monk Coniston of today (the house isn’t open) was very much the construction of the Leeds Flax Mill owner James Garth Marshall – a reforming politician who favoured extending the franchise, votes for women, education for the poor, allotments etc. All the more baffling, then, that the National Trust should misleadingly try and portray him as a typical ‘trouble at mill’ landowner on one of their information boards! Marshall had a keen interest in geology and was a pal of John Stuart Mill, Alfred Tennyson and John Ruskin.

The view towards Coniston Old Man, Wetherlam and the Yewdale Fells is quite superb as you climb up through the park. There was a dash of colour from the rhododendrons along the way.

By the Yewdale Beck

A good track leads up through the woods to Tarn Hows. Once three separate tarns, but transformed into one great tarn by Marshall. A place designed so he could walk up his visitors and have something to show them. I’m never quite convinced by Tarn Hows. It always has an artificial look to me and perhaps it might have been nicer if Marshall left the place alone. But then most people adore it, and it regularly features in those irritating Ten Best Landscapes lists that lazy journalists hack together to feed the pages of the broadsheets on days when news is in short supply.

I think the lane down towards Tarn Hows Wood offers one of the best views in the Lake District, and surely the very best view of Wetherlam. We passed a young lady strolling up the lane, her horse trotting behind her. A sight that both Borrow and Ransome must often have seen.

As we descended Tarn Hows Wood, the bluebells got better and better as we walked lower. Every year I long to see the bluebells and there’s a sadness as they go over. Each year you cross your fingers and hope you’ll last another twelve months to see them again.

Monk Coniston

By the Yewdale Beck, looking up at the Yewdale Fells, we came near to where Arthur Ransome stayed at Low Yewdale. I mentally spoke a few words of Romani as we went past.

Following the Cumbria Way, we came to the Dog’s Home (not the same one that Ransome writes about in his book The Picts and the Martyrs – that’s further down the eastern bank of Coniston, near the Heald, where Ransome lived later in life.) The one here was a place were the foxhounds were kept. It was here that the misleading comments about James Gath Marshall were posted.

A Walk Through the Woods

Another field path brought us back to Coniston. A lovely walk, one of the best rounds for views in the Lake District. I’m fond of Coniston, not least because the Coniston Fells were the first I ever walked, so many years ago in ancient sunlight.

Bluebells from Sedbergh

A few years ago, when we were walking the Quaker Trail from Sedbergh, we came across a little wood that was clearly going to be grand for bluebells. We were there at the wrong time of the year, but always promised ourselves that we’d come back to see the bluebells. So the other day we did.

The first part of our walk was a reprise of the Quaker Trail (you can get a leaflet from the Sedbergh Tourist Information Centre, or online). Down through Sedbergh School to the pretty hamlet of Birks, then along field paths to the hamlet of Brigflatts.

The Quaker meeting house at Brigflatts dates back to 1675 and is situated in a most peaceful garden. It features is a lovely poem by the modernist poet Basil Bunting, who is buried in the nearby Quaker burial ground.

Quaker Meeting House at Brigflatts

It is still in use for Quaker meetings on Sunday mornings. The area around the Howgills has a strong Quaker tradition. George Fox, the founder of Quakerism held a packed meeting not far away on the slopes of Master Knott, using the rocks now known as Fox’s Pulpit – see the Quaker Trail information if you want to extend this walk to get there.

Mounting Block at Brigflatts

Brigflatts is certainly a place where you can sit quietly and contemplate.

Up to the road then, to Ingmire Back Lane, one of the most picturesque paths in the district, especially last week with bluebells and fresh green leaves on the beeches. Here there are two paths, The public Back Lane and the private way to Ingmire Hall. The private way looking almost as delightful as the right of way.

We then faced a stretch of road walking to St Gregory’s Church in the valley of the River Lune. What you see today is mostly from the 1860s, and was used for scripture readings for the navvies who were building the Ingleton Branch railway line. It is redundant now and maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust. The glorious stained glass windows show local scenes of nature.

Ingmire Back Lane
Private Path to Ingmire

But what a pity that you have to walk along the road to get there, without making a lengthy rights of way detour right around the policies of Ingmire Hall. Could not the landowner create a footpath inside their boundary from the top of Ingmire Back Lane? There isn’t continuous traffic, but it is bendy and narrow for pedestrians and vehicles.

On then to Lincoln’s Inn Bridge, which dates to the 17th century, crossing the River Lune at a place which was once the boundary between Westmorland and Yorkshire. The nearby building was once an inn but is now a farm. Cross the bridge carefully, avoiding cars – it’s very narrow.

St Gregory’s Church

Just past the old inn a footpath heads steeply uphill through the fields and over a rise, crossing another minor road. A further path leads up to Hawkrigg Wood – and this is where we found our bluebells.And glorious they were, the camera lens doesn’t do them justice. A very narrow path leads up through the wood – please do stick to it and don’t trample the bluebells. Every bit as good as we anticipated.

We returned the same way, past Lincoln’s Inn Bridge and St Gregory’s, just into Slacks Lane, taking the footpath up through Underwinder and then down Howgill Lane back into Sedbergh. A quiet lane, well worth walking because of the wonderful view you get across the district.

And there was a bonus in the second-hand bookshop at the tourist information centre. We found two lovely walking guides (to the Peak District and South-East England) dating from the 1930s at bargain prices. I collect walking and trespassing memorabilia and these were very welcome and readable additions to my collection.

The bookshops of Sedbergh are well worth a browse.