Stainmore is one of England’s highest parishes. Sited at the south east corner of Cumbria it stretches from the last few arable fields of the Eden Valley towards the uplands of the North Pennines. It’s a sparsely populated place – just a couple of hundred people reside within it – and it’s spread across a large and diverse geographical area. The boundary of the parish extends for around 25 miles, along the beds of becks, across fields, through woodlands and across heather covered fells.
‘Beating the bounds’ is a tradition followed in many parishes across the country, but it is no easy feat here. The boundary was last ‘beaten’ by Stainmore parishioners in 2000, to celebrate the new millennium. It was a long arduous day with few proper paths to allow for easy walking. Three or four heroic individuals managed the whole circuit. One poor participant twisted her ankle in the stream bed in the ravine immediately below our own house and had to be retrieved by the mountain rescue team. In the end a couple of dozen of us rounded off the route as night fell, tramping the last eight miles or so through thick heather and climbing in and out of peat bogs, following an indistinct fenceline across a barren moor. Since this last great effort no-one has suggested doing it again.
The parish of Stainmore has long been split into two, separated by a river valley running down to the nearest small market town, Brough (once Brough-under-Stainmore), into North and South Stainmore. That traditional watery division has been cemented by the A66, the busy trans-Pennine route from Cumbria to Durham, its dual-carriageway descending to Brough along one side of the valley. The A66 can be a treacherous road and is regularly closed to high sided vehicles in strong winds. There are snow gates at Brough and at Bowes, on the Durham side of the Pennines, so it can be closed completely when it snows heavily, as it does quite often in winter. North Stainmore takes in the segment of the parish from the A66 up towards the North Pennines, while South Stainmore encompasses the uplands that, while still part of the Pennines, are really the northern flank of the Yorkshire Dales.
Today most roads within Stainmore radiate from Brough, with a couple more from the nearby market town of Kirkby Stephen. They make their way steadily uphill, gradually narrowing and forking to join up the scattered farmsteads of the community and forking again, like capillaries, into rough tracks to reach the most isolated properties. Few roads and tracks cross laterally, along the contours of the hillside, to link farmsteads and hamlets at the same altitude, the main necessity having always been to have a connection down to the valley and the town. But a quick glance at an OS map shows dozens of footpaths, for going on foot to visit your neighbours or to get to the chapel or church. These small paths, most seldom trodden today, create a whole web of connections and must survive from hundreds of years ago.
Just three routes transit Stainmore completely: the A66 trans-Pennine crossing into Durham; a second minor road through North Stainmore that crosses the Pennines to Middleton-in-Teesdale; and the road through South Stainmore that passes Tan Hill Inn (the highest pub in England) on its way to Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales.
As a place for studying the evolution of paths, tracks and roads, Stainmore presents intriguing possibilities and significant challenges. The parish sits right on the boundary between the Upper Eden Valley itself, where there are nucleated towns and villages, and the series of scattered farmsteads and tiny settlements reaching right up to open moorland.
It’s possible to see a rationale for many of the paths and tracks remaining today, but written evidence is hard to find and most older maps show the entire parish as nothing more than empty space. Daniel Defoe, passing through what was then the county of Westmorland, wrote in 1724 that the landscape was “the wildest, most barren and frightful of any that I have passed over in England, or even Wales itself; the west side, which borders on Cumberland, is indeed bounded by a chain of almost unpassable mountains which, in the language of the country, are called fells”. It was not a place that many writers went exploring.
But there is evidence, some of it written and some of it to be found on the ground. The modern A66 runs along the line of a well-documented Roman Road and the remains of Roman forts can be visited, as can some of the mines on the higher hillsides. Some of the stories about the parish pathways can be extrapolated from other aspects of local history, such as court records, monuments records, transactions from the local manor and Acts of Parliament giving permission for new toll roads. Folk tales – there are a handful pertaining to Stainmore, most of them involving ghosts – may not add much to the historical record but give an insight into the character of the place. Since the Second World War there have been aerial surveys too, showing the routes of paths and tracks and how they have been altered in the last few decades.
It may seem like thin pickings but that’s part of the fun. Piecing together a patchwork of the history of a place, the way in which people travelled within it and for what reasons, tells you something not just about that small community but also about how it fits into the wider scheme of things. Stainmore has always been incredibly remote and mostly forgotten, but its story is interwoven with the big events in our history – with the Roman invasion and its decline, immigration and settlement by Norse folk and others, the fractious relations between England and Scotland, the transition from feudal to modern society, the industrial revolution, and so much more. It’s that story that we’ll be digging out, as best we can, over the coming year.
If you are conducting your own exploration of local paths and tracks and would like to share them with Walkingworld members, please get in touch.