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A day out discovering nature and conservation in the Westmoreland Dales
If you’ve visited the Lake District, you’ll be familiar with the essentially rocky nature of the place. Soaring peaks, dark crags, and a rough look that reveals its violent past. You don’t have to be a geologist to look at the mountains of Lakeland and see that they are made of volcanic rock. Cumbria, the county that the Lake District lies within, stretches far beyond these peaks, and it surprises many people to find out about the huge semi-ring of §limestone that runs round the edge of the county.
We’re familiar with limestone from Yorkshire, especially those of you who have walked the Yorkshire Three Peaks, but there’s plenty of limestone in Cumbria, and earlier this week I went on a Friends of the Lake District training day to find out more about it.
We met at Sunbiggin Tarn, named because the sun always shines there (apparently)! The tarn itself is a nature reserve, holding rumours of otters and rare snails. Today a few waterbirds made their relaxed way across the surface, the reeds bobbed in the gentle breeze, and at the northern side a swan preened its feathers.
Sunbiggin Tarn is unusual as there aren’t normally lakes in limestone – they tend to drain away into the porous rock. A geological survey is currently underway to find out why it’s there, but the current thinking is that glacial till, the clayey detritus left over after the Ice Age, underlies the lake and stops it draining.
Our small group walked up to the summit of Little Asby Scar and looked out over the rolling hills of what are known as the Westmoreland Dales, sandwiched between the Lake District to the West, the dark wall of the North Pennines to the East, and the coiled hills of the Howgill Fells visible close in the South. To the North the sky was clear, the view opening up towards Scotland and the Solway First. Summer grass bent and swayed, cows wandered up to hear what was being said, and the light played on the Eden Valley.
Although we were in Cumbria, we were actually in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, which increased in size by 25% last year so it can look after this previously forgotten landscape. Across on the nearby hillside we were shown the old marks from a medieval field system, just as a local mastercraftsman was building a drystone wall nearby, the hammer blows ringing around the valley.
This whole area is common land, which means that alongside the efforts Friends of the Lake District go to conserve it, there is a complex assembly of grazing rights. It’s a collaborative process to find the best way forward for everyone, and the cows, who had now wandered off, were an example of where the commoners had changed practice, introducing a species that breaks up the landscape so wildflowers can get established. And provide some relief from all the sheep.
After lunch we wandered up to the Little Asby Hawthorn, Cumbria’s 3rd favorite tree. It holds a precarious but firm grip onto and into the limestone scar, its canopy at this time of year leafy and bold. It looks as though it has seen a hundred storms and come off better.
The highest point of the Westmoreland Dales barely breaks 400m. I doubt they are on many hillwalkers lists. But they are exactly where to come to find the space and peace we search for so often in the hills. They are the places in-between, literally in this case between the Lake District and the popular parts of the Yorkshire Dales. But you should go there; you may see rock millions of years old and field systems from people long gone. But you will also see a changing landscape, with drystone walls going up, and grazing systems changing with the times.
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