Tales from England's official book town Sedbergh
Walking near Sedbergh, England’s official book town
Maybe it’s the clomp of my walking boots thumping along the footpath. It could just as easily be my heavy panting as I trudge up the steep hillside leading towards the summit of Arant Haw. Either way, the lone sheep grazing near the footpath stops chewing, looks me up and down disapprovingly, then bolts away bleating.
A stinging mixture of sweat and sun cream trickles into my eyes, prompting me to reflect on my choice of circular walks from Sedbergh. A 5.5-kilometre route skirting the cairn at the summit of Winder, one of the Howgill Fells’ many rolling hills, would have taken just a couple of hours. Seeking a longer day of walking in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, I opted for a more challenging route. My thighs and calf muscles are burning and I’m now questioning the wisdom of that decision, though the beauty of the bucolic landscape prompts frequent and very welcome photography pauses. After months of walks on flat terrain close to my home and no gym visits — because of measures to hinder transmission of the coronavirus — I realise I’ve lost my fitness.
There’s simply no way I’d be able to keep up with pupils of Sedbergh School, founded way back in 1525, as they participate in the Wilson Run over the Howgill Fells. The gruelling annual race has been described as Britain’s toughest school run. Named in honour of Bernard Wilson, the schoolmaster who initiated the feat of endurance in 1881, it is held over an undulating course measuring 10 miles and 385 yards (16.44 kilometres). Running 385 yards would be beyond me on this terrain.
The honours board on the stone wall surrounding the school’s impressively maintained cricket field — with a slate-roofed pavilion and hilly backdrop, surely one of the country’s prettiest grounds — lists some of the best times clocked by participants. In 2016 J.R.D. Campbell completed the Wilson Run in just one hour eight minutes and two seconds.
Reflecting on that impressive piece of athleticism helps spur me to the broad summit of Arant Haw. At 605 metres above sea-level, the hilltop provides views westward towards valleys, ridges and shimmering water in the nearby Lake District and the coastal sweep of Morecambe Bay. Turning, I view the Yorkshire Dales’ undulating farmland. Like snaking 3-D puzzles crafted from local rock, dry stone walls demarcate the fields.
Taking half a step left, my gaze falls on The Calf which peaks at 676 metres. Renowned fell walker and author Alfred Wainwright commented about the fells here resembling “a herd of sleeping elephants”. Looking out, I see how trickling streams carve one of the resting creatures’ chunky legs. Centuries of wind erosion has sculpted the sweep of an outstretched trunk and rounded head.
The Sleepy Elephant is also the name of an outdoor clothing and bookstore midway along Sedbergh’s narrow Main Street. Occupying an old weaver’s cottage, it is one of several shops stocking reading material in England’s official book town. The attractive town’s Tourist Information (72 Main Street) doubles as a bookshop. Yesterday, I popped in to acquire details about local attractions and walked out with a bundle of second-hand novels, blowing my budget before even browsing both floors of Westwood Books — a shop whose shelves hold more than 70,000 used books.
Sedbergh is on the Lakes and Dales Bookshop Trail. It became part of Cumbria when the county was created during boundary changes in 1974. Prior to that it was in the West Riding of Yorkshire, which explains why it falls within the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
Consequently, hikers and cyclists count among Sedbergh’s visitors as well as bibliophiles. The biodiverse surrounding countryside provides habitat to more than 20 mammal species, including badgers and red squirrels, but day trippers are far more likely to spot a MAMIL — a middle-aged man in Lycra — dismounted and enjoying a cup of tea in one of the town’s peppering of cafés. Rides along the Lune Gorge and down to Kirkby Lonsdale are popular. Serious walkers may be tempted by the Dales Way long-distance trail. I opted for a local footpath that enabled me to see kingfishers dipping into the River Rawthey and a lighthouse-like structure known as the Pepperpot, where long ago a wealthy local family dined with rural views.
Despite my heavy legs and breathlessness, today’s uphill hike has been worth the effort to see more of the countryside around Sedbergh.