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Social Distancing: Avoid the Honeypot Hills

© Dan Bailey

With the easing of lockdown restrictions on travel and the outdoors in England (and, separately, Northern Ireland), keen walkers have been returning to the countryside with relief. If you take the appropriate precautions then surely there's nowhere better to escape the virus than a windy peak or a wide open moor?

But of course it's not so simple, and serious safety concerns remain. From the choice of venue, to the journey you take to get there, all our current decisions are made against the backdrop of Coronavirus. We've been cooped up for so long that the urge to run to the hills is only natural, but potential issues arise should people act on that impulse en masse, and head in the same direction. In bustling car parks, on popular summits, and at 'pinch points' on well-used trails, the freedom of the hills might easily degenerate into a social distancing stress. If daytrippers congregate in just a few key locations, there's also a risk that local communities come to feel under siege. Helvellyn heaving under holiday hordes; proximity pressures on Scafell Pike: who needs the aggro?

Striding on Striding edge  © johnhenderson
Striding on Striding edge
© johnhenderson, Mar 2015

Luckily, for every well-known hill there's a little-publicised alternative. Stepping away from the usual suspects to find peace and quiet elsewhere should help to spread the load, easing the impact of numbers in the heavily used honeypots. You'll probably also end up having a more peaceful, relaxing day.

With rights come responsibilities

Mountain Rescue Teams in England have been equivocal about the prospect of a mass return to the hills. Some have asked walkers to consider staying off the high summits altogether, while others are promoting a safety first message.

Mike France, Senior Executive Officer of Mountain Rescue England and Wales, said: "On call outs, our volunteers will still need to take precautions with every casualty, assuming them to be positive with COVID-19. They need to do this to stay safe and well themselves and to ensure that teams are available when needed through the summer."

"Any surge in visitors and call outs is going to put a huge additional pressure on mountain rescue volunteers, in addition to the extra work of using PPE and stringent cleaning of kit and vehicles. Our National Parks are sending out clear messages about staying safe and being respectful of rural communities - we would reinforce those. It is essential that everyone heading for the hills takes responsibility for their own safety, and should be aware that mountain rescue response times will be longer because of the additional preparations needed."

"Ideally, just because the government says you can go out, it doesn't mean you should".

To bring home the message, Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association have produced this infographic:

The BMC have released a list of practical measures on how best to manage hillwalking during the COVID-19 outbreak:

  • Note: Under the eased lockdown restrictions in England and Northern Ireland residents can now travel in order to take outdoors exercise. However walkers in Wales and Scotland are still obliged to stay local, so here only a small minority of people will be able to enjoy proper hillwalking.

Back o' Skiddaw, Cumbria

As the most northerly major peaks in the Lake District, and among the easiest to access, Skiddaw and its near neighbour Blencathra need little introduction.

Skiddaw from the northeast  © Dan Bailey
Skiddaw from the northeast
© Dan Bailey

Forming an alluring backdrop to the teeming streets of Keswick, these dramatic hills are a natural crowd magnet, and even in these times of Covid concern the chances are slim that you'll find solitude up there. But look beyond their ramparts and a world of peace unfolds. Circling the lonely headwaters of the River Caldew, the northern uplands of the Skiddaw Forest offer an antidote to the tourist bustle. Rolling and heathery, these far northern hills may lack the knobbly attraction of core Lakeland, but make up for it with spacious peace and quiet. Head north to enjoy the freedom of the hills... but do bear in mind the remoteness of the area at a time when mountain rescue teams are likely to be stretched.

Take a long walk to Great Calva in the dead centre of the range, stride over the sprawling mass of Knott or go for a quickie on the interesting eastern outpost of Carrock Fell... better yet, do all three.

Shropshire's Hope Bowdler Hills - John Gillham

Most of the hills in Shropshire are relatively quiet, but on a sunny weekend or bank holidays, or indeed lockdown, places like the Cardingmill Valley, the Wrekin, the Stiperstones and the Long Mynd can become crowded. However the Hope Bowdler Hills, which lie to the east of Caer Caradoc and Church Stretton, offer a commendable substitute.

Striding forth along the main Hope Bowdler ridge  © John Gillham
Striding forth along the main Hope Bowdler ridge
© John Gillham

Like the more famous Caer Caradoc Hill they have a smattering of basalt crags breaking through grassy, free-striding ridges. The highest summit (at SO 479940) is marked on OS Explorer maps by a 426m spot height. The airy place offers wonderful views of Caer Caradoc, rising from the fields of the Cwms valley and the Long Mynd, peeping from behind the wooded Helmeth Hill.

Looking west across Cwms Valley to the Long Mynd, with the wooded Helmeth Hill to the left and Caer Caradoc to the right  © John Gillham
Looking west across Cwms Valley to the Long Mynd, with the wooded Helmeth Hill to the left and Caer Caradoc to the right
© John Gillham

The Hope Bowdler Hills can be climbed from the B4371 Church Stretton to Much Wenlock road beneath the Gaer Stone (there is a lay-by at SO 468932), which gives direct and quick access to the main ridge; also from Hope Bowdler village and Cardington a few miles east. The last-mentioned is a more complex route taking in pastures and lower ridges before reaching Willstone Hill. The bridleway east of Hope Bowdler village and climbing northwards by Hope Batch makes a splendid approach through wild country. It reaches the ridge between Willstone Hill and the main summit. The return would be along the main ridge, past the great dark crag of Gaer Stone and down to a little stream, where a well-defined track leads back to the village.

Coming to the top of the bridleway climbing from east of Hope Bowdler village with Caer Caradoc on the horizon  © John Gillham
Coming to the top of the bridleway climbing from east of Hope Bowdler village with Caer Caradoc on the horizon
© John Gillham

Wild Boar Fell, Cumbria

Latterly incorporated into the Yorkshire Dales National Park, this big peak between Mallerstang and the lush green valley of the River Rawthey fully deserves its new protected status. With a lofty summit plateau, and an interestingly craggy eastern flank, Wild Boar Fell feels very much like a mountain.

Wild Boar Fell casts a shadow towards Mallerstang  © Dan Bailey
Wild Boar Fell casts a shadow towards Mallerstang
© Dan Bailey

But its tucked-away location in the unfashionable folds between the popular heartlands of the Dales proper and the ever-busy Lake District has kept this high hill well off most walkers' radars. It's all the better for its obscurity. Crowds should be thin on the ground here, particularly if you take an exploratory approach from the Uldale side.

Right now English walkers are limited to day trips only, but for some future backpacking inspiration check out this two-day circuit of the Howgills and Wild Boar Fell:

Only a hill in Kent - Kev Reynolds

Only a hill, that's all it is. As far as I know it has no name, but is part of the Wye Downs escarpment east of Ashford in Kent.

The Devil's Kneading Trough  © Kev Reynolds
The Devil's Kneading Trough
© Kev Reynolds

Just a hill, that's all, about 160 metres high on the route of the North Downs Way, its summit marked by a memorial crown with seats nearby on which to relax and enjoy the view. Only a hill, it's easy to reach from most directions; a high point with a chalk foundation, it's covered with cropped turf and a sea of cowslips in springtime. But it's a high point with a panorama as good as you'll wish for if, like me, you refuse to compare a hill with a mountain. Both the North Downs and the Himalaya have their value. My high point above Wye is reward enough for the walk to get there.

The Wye Downs - small hills with big views  © Kev Reynolds
The Wye Downs - small hills with big views
© Kev Reynolds

For the most popular route of approach, simply follow NDW signs heading east out of Wye. If you want something a little more demanding, aim for the steep and narrow dry valley known as the Devil's Kneading Trough which brings you onto Broad Downs. This is a Nature Reserve, with orchids on the south face by which you made your ascent. And views whichever way you turn. But it's only a hill, and I'm thankful for that.

Abney Moor, a quiet backwater in the heart of the Peak ... really? - Alan James

The Peak District is not known for its quiet backwaters. In fact, it is one of the busiest national parks in the country in normal times. As lockdown lifts it is likely to become so once again as people flock back to the outdoors from the big conurbations that surround it. Thankfully for those of us looking for a walk away from the crowds, there are still plenty of options.

Stanage viewed from Abney Moor  © Alan James
Stanage viewed from Abney Moor
© Alan James, May 2018

One such walk is on Abney Moor. Where, you say? Well, the curious fact about Abney Moor is that most people have stared at it for years from the popular eastern edges and hills above Castleton. That is its strength. From afar it is a little innocuous, and usually your eye drifts past in search of more striking geography like Mam Tor or the view south down the Derwent. The big plus Abney Moor offers is that it may not feature in people's outwards views from the popular spots, but the popular spots are clearly visible from it.

The eastern edges and River Derwent viewed from the descent of the back of Abney Moor  © Alan James - UKC and UKH
The eastern edges and River Derwent viewed from the descent of the back of Abney Moor
© Alan James - UKC and UKH, Jan 2020

Once on the high point of the walk, you are presented with a magnificent vista from Mam Tor to the west, past Lose and Win Hills and most of Stanage, then down towards Owler Tor Millstone and the view down the Derwent. There is no actual summit on this walk, although you can do a little detour up to the top of Burton Bole End at 417m if you are a peak bagger.

Devoke Water and Whit Fell, Cumbria - Drew Whitworth

Between Black Combe and Eskdale, on the south-western fringe of the Lake District, is an underrated area of land containing over a dozen of Wainwright's "Outlying Fells". You can spend all day exploring these summits, and the tarn of Devoke Water, without seeing another soul.

The summit of Buck Barrow, with the Duddon estuary behind  © Drew Whitworth
The summit of Buck Barrow, with the Duddon estuary behind
© Drew Whitworth

Many of the tops, including Buck Barrow, Yoadcastle, White Pike and Seat How, are crowned with distinctive rocky tors, and Whit Fell is capped by a giant tumulus. The views are first class: the outlook is north to the Scafells and south to the grand estuary of the Duddon, with the Irish Sea a vast backdrop to it all.

Devoke Water and Seat How, with Scafell in the background  © Drew Whitworth
Devoke Water and Seat How, with Scafell in the background
© Drew Whitworth

Access routes from the west and, unfortunately, from Black Combe to the south are marred by vile swamps, and north of Devoke Water, bracken will be a problem in the summer. Come up, therefore, either from the Duddon valley or the Birker Fell road. It's not a place to visit in poor weather, but on a fine day there is glorious walking to be had here.

Windy Gyle and the border ridge from Coquetdale, Cheviots - Alan James

Of all the national parks in the country the one where you have probably never needed to avoid the crowds is the Cheviots. This stunning area has scenery to match the Lake District in places but simply doesn't have the catchment area to have ever drawn the crowds.

The summit of Cheviot in the background on the section along the Scottish border.  © Alan James
The summit of Cheviot in the background on the section along the Scottish border.
© Alan James, Dec 2018

The highest point of The Cheviot itself at 815m may be the closest thing to a big name draw but even that is probably perfectly okay for self-isolation. Most of the crowds from the northeastern cities seldom get further than Simonside and Tosson Hill near Rothbury - all worth avoiding at this time.

The Pennine Way section is flagged-stoned.  © Alan James
The Pennine Way section is flagged-stoned.
© Alan James, Dec 2018

If you want something really breathtaking in splendid isolation then look no further than Upper Coquetdale. The drive up the valley is striking enough to the parking at the far end. Then a beautiful long walk enables you to reach the border ridge and a short section on the Pennine Way over the high top of Windy Gyle. You may meet other people here, but this section is much less busy than stretches of the trail to the south.

Great Knoutberry Hill, Yorkshire Dales - Peter Ellwood

Standing at 672m, Great Knoutberry Hill is a readily accessible dome shaped mountain in the South West Yorkshire Dales. And as it sits surrounded by more popular peaks, most of the time you will probably have it all to yourself - ideal at a time when we're trying to avoid each other!

It's a great place to enjoy the wide open spaces of the Dales in peace  © Peter Ellwood
It's a great place to enjoy the wide open spaces of the Dales in peace
© Peter Ellwood

If nothing else, the views from the top, on a clear day, are outstanding: to the north lies the mountainous outline of the Lake District and the rounded, grassy peaks of the Howgills. Looking south and east, you get spectacular views of the central Dales, the 'three peaks' in particular.

The iconic Settle to Carlisle railway runs along the foot of the fell  © Peter Ellwood
The iconic Settle to Carlisle railway runs along the foot of the fell
© Peter Ellwood

Good stone and grassy tracks from all directions take you to within a grassy mile of the summit. The easiest approach is from the south via the Pennine Bridleway from Newby Head. The steadily sloping track leads you along the edge of Wold Fell, to the col between Dentdale and Widdale. From here you can follow the faint grassy path alongside either side of a stone wall to the summit trig point, a mere 150m higher. Alternatively, taking the route from Stone House, leads you beneath the impressive Arten Gill viaduct up to the col. If you have time, Widdale Tarns, which lie a short distance to the north, are also well worth a visit.

In essence, Great Knoutberry is a straightforward but impressive mountain, where you can appreciate a quiet moment in the hills.

Cold Fell, North Pennines - Mark Richards

A great mass of fell emphatically marking the northernmost point of the Pennine chain, Cold Fell carries a chilling name, though is it more exposed than many another great upland hereabouts? Well perhaps for people living in its shadow this might have been the perception.

Cold Fell's fascinating summit tumulus  © Mark Richards
Cold Fell's fascinating summit tumulus
© Mark Richards

First recorded in a charter of 1603 as Caldfellpike, a century later it's noted as Colliery Fell, just to add an air of confusion. But this is not without good reason as the fine seams of coal that line is lower slopes were prized by the people of Carlisle. Indeed, until 1938 the Gairs Colliery was part of a great industrial operation including limestone quarrying for which there is much lingering evidence. Apparently Stephenson's 'Rocket' ended its working life shunting trucks down to Kirkhouse from the pithead.

Cold Fell tends to be loved and climbed by locals, and I've never met anyone from afar. The summit is special as it features a tumulus that in all probability was established several thousand years ago, long before even the Romans forged their frontier across the near country immediately north of this mountain.

You can see a lot of Lakeland from here...  © Mark Richards
You can see a lot of Lakeland from here...
© Mark Richards

Locals climb from parking at Clesketts, but to get the best from the experience I recommend you start from Castle Carrock at the parking at Jockey Shield. Pass through Hynam Wood, then visit the cairn-rimmed edge of Talkin Fell, reminiscent of Nine Standards Rigg. The view is fabulous, from Scafell Pike to Galloway, north to the Langholm Hills and northeast to Cheviot. Keep company with the fence over the northern shoulder of Simmerson Fell to cross the old bridleway and railway track of Gairs Collery to climb onto Brown Fell, duly reaching the summit of Cold Fell amid peat groughs. You'll see Cross Fell and much of Lakeland, but most attention will be reserved for the massive view north into Scotland.



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