Explore the Westmorland Dales

Map of Westmorland Dales


The Westmorland Dales has a rich and varied geological heritage. At its heart are the limestone scarps, crags and dramatic pavements of the Carboniferous Great Scar Limestone, giving the area its distinctive character. To the south the steep-sided Howgill Fells, made of older Silurian slaty rocks, rise up from the floodplain of the upper Lune Valley. Rolling green farmland in the north is underlain by limestone, sandstone and mudstone, part of a younger sequence of Carboniferous rocks known as the Yoredale Group. In the north-east there are small areas of the distinctive red rocks of the Eden Valley, which date from the Permian and Triassic periods. Glacial deposits and landforms, a legacy of the last major glaciation, mantle the area and tell of past ice sheets and meltwater.

Moving on in time from the end of the last Ice Age, 12,000 years ago, during the Mesolithic period (from 10,000 BC ) the landscape would have been substantially wooded. The first people would have been hunter gatherers who started to clear the trees through slash and burn, hunting grazing animals in the area.

The first evidence of arable farming is in the Neolithic period (from 4,000 BC), when cereal pollen first becomes present in pollen analysis . Farming develops through the Bronze Age (from 2,600 BC), along with continued episodes of clearance, of both trees and stone into cairnfields. On Little Asby Common there is surviving evidence of widespread organised farming in the form of a co-axial field system (dating from the mid to late Bronze Age) which supported both arable and pastoral farming across this upland region. These type of field systems are rare survivors in north-west England. Gamelands stone circle near Orton is a further example of prehistoric activity in the area, likely to date from the Late Neolithic to the Middle Bronze Age.

In our uplands and lowlands there is evidence of settlements dating to the Iron Age and Romano-British period. Castle Folds, surrounded by formidable limestone pavement on Great Asby Scar National Nature Reserve, is an unusually heavily defended example. Later, shielings were found in the upland areas. These typically date from the 7th to 17th centuries, and were for the summer pasturing of livestock. There are a number of manorial halls dating to the period following the Norman Conquest. This is most evident in Mallerstang, where three manorial halls can be found within a few miles of one another, one of which is Pendragon Castle. Defensive structures were important against the raids of the Scots.

Most of the villages in the Westmorland Dales have their origins in the medieval period, with foundations predating the Normans, as testified by the village churches, for example the Church of All Saints in Orton. Evidence of the medieval origins of these villages also survives in enclosure patterns and earthworks, for example as at Maulds Meaburn. Their plan forms are typically two-rows on opposite sides of a beck, often emerging from limestone springs, such as St Helen’s Well, Great Asby. In the centre of the village were the tofts and crofts, behind which are the back lanes, and then the open ploughland for arable.

There have been many different phases of rebuilding, but in this region the ‘Great Rebuilding’ took place in the late 17th and 18th centuries, and this is when many of the tofts were rebuilt in stone, and a variety of farmsteads developed. The most common type being the linear farmstead. These were a natural progression from the older longhouse form, from having one door used by both humans and animals to them having separate parts (and separate doors) for the domestic and agricultural ends.

The enclosure of the landscape took place over many centuries. Piecemeal enclosure took place alongside open ploughlands. The earliest methods of enclosing land are constructed banks, which would have been topped with a live/dead hedge or a fence. Some of the medieval walls were built as part of monastic granges, for instance Asby Grange that was part of Byland Abbey in the North York Moors. The remains of Shap Abbey can be seen north of Shap village, and the partially exposed ruins of a Gilbertine monastic cell or dwelling for a small community of canons from the Gilbertine order in the churchyard of St Oswald’s, Ravenstonedale. After the Dissolution, a number of enclosed parks were built by prominent landowners as deer parks or as their own cattle farms, for example Ravenstonedale Park, built at the behest of Lord Wharton. The landscape was increasingly enclosed during the post-medieval period.

Resistance to the established Church also sprouted after the Civil War and there are many early examples of Non-Conformist Churches and Chapels, for example High Chapel in Ravenstonedale.

Commons are an important part of the Westmorland Dales and the region more generally and their enclosure by tyrannical landlords was often resisted. From about 1750 to 1850 Acts of Parliament enclosed many of the commons, however a significant number of unenclosed commons remain, for example as at Little Asby Common. Although their agricultural futures are uncertain.

As more land was enclosed and the landscape became increasingly dominated by pastoral farming, the number of field barns increased. These are linked to an annual cycle of farming, where cattle were overwintered and hay was stored. Masonry lime kilns start appearing from the 1670s. Some of these lime kilns would be for the production of lime for building works, but many situated in the landscape would be for the improvement of agricultural land. Farmers invested in schools for their children, often called ‘Dame schools’, where a ‘Dame’ took charge of the children’s basic learning and bible reading. There is a good example of a Dame School on Raisbeck green.

Travel through the Westmorland Dales has developed over many millennia. Ancient routeways were trading routes that used natural ways through the landscape, such as the Tebay Gorge – Shap Avenue illustrates the importance of this strategic north-south routeway in the prehistoric period. Roman, Viking and Norman war bands, as well as traders, routinely came through the area. For example, Black Dub monument on Crosby Ravensworth Fell records the lonely spot where Charles II rested his army on the march south from Scotland in 1651. Packhorse routes, often marked by surviving packhorse bridges such as Artlegarth Beck packhorse bridge in Ravenstonedale, carried essential supplies like salt and wool across the area throughout the medieval age. Drovers moved huge numbers of cattle and other livestock to markets and fairs at Brough and further south, and in the 18th century turnpike roads arrived in the area, alongside new roads starting to come in with the Enclosure Acts.

In the 19th century the arrival of the railways changed the landscape and the prospects of local people irrevocably. The village of Tebay was transformed into a bustling railway village on a busy railway junction, marked by the construction of a new church: St James’ Railway Church. Many formerly remote Westmorland villages benefitted from a nearby station, such as Crosby Garrett and Ravenstonedale. Feats of railway engineering in the area included embankments and lofty viaducts, such as Smardalegill viaduct near Newbiggin-on-Lune, with its neighbouring double lime kiln. The construction of the M6 motorway, following the same north-south path through the Lune Gorge as the railway, and before that the Roman Road, brought the Westmorland Dales into the motor age.

In more recent times, the area became part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park following its extension in 2016. The area has been part of Westmorland since 1133, until the creation of Cumbria (along with Cumberland) in 1974. However, from 2023 it is again Westmorland and Furness.

From 2019 to 2024, the Westmorland Dales Landscape Partnership Scheme put a new spotlight on the area. The scheme was primarily funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and through a partnership of organisations 22 projects were delivered. These have increased our understanding of this landscape and enabled more people to appreciate and help conserve its wide-ranging cultural and natural capital assets.



Self-guided walk in the Westmorland Dales

This half-day walk is a good example of the variety of cultural heritage to be found in the Westmorland Dales.
Starting near the village of Newbiggin-on-Lune, the first part of the walk is mostly along a former railway track. After crossing the impressive Smardale Gill Viaduct, the return route gradually descends to cross Scandal Beck on an ancient packhorse bridge, then follows paths and bridleways through rolling countryside back to the start.

Much of the route is within Smardale Nature Reserve, home to a rich and diverse array of flora and fauna.
The route is mainly easy walking on gravel tracks and paths, with just a few uneven sections. It is generally dry underfoot. There are a few timber step stiles to cross. Keep dogs under control and on a short leash at all times please.
Distance: 5 miles
Time: around 3 hours
Map: OS 1:25000 Explorer OL19 Howgill Fells and Upper Eden Valley

Starting point for driving: Leave the A685 near Newbiggin and take the minor road signed Great Asby. Cross a cattle grid after 500m and park alongside the road in the vicinity of a farm entrance near NY 701 056, taking care not to cause obstruction.


1. From the parking area walk 350m downhill back towards the main road.
The village of Newbiggin-on-Lune is named for the source of the river Lune which springs from the meeting of three little becks here, including St Helen’s Well. In common with many Westmorland Dales villages, its medieval foundations can still be traced today.
The remains of a medieval chapel and associated settlement lie next to a spring, St Helen’s Well, north east of today’s village. Gilbertine canons from nearby Ravenstonedale designated the spring a holy well when they were granted lands in the parish. Travellers would have stopped here to ‘take the waters’. A small number of long narrow plots called crofts were laid out across the Town beck, possibly in the early 12th century.

2. Turn left through the entrance gates to Brownber Hall at NY 703 054. The sign says “Private Road Access Only” but there is a permissive path along the drive.

3. After about 200m follow the road around a left hand bend and immediately turn right to pass through metal gates into the nature reserve and the start of the walk on the former railway line. Keep to the gravel track all the way to Smardale Gill viaduct, passing through a number of wooden gates on the way.

The South Durham and Lancashire Union railway opened in 1861, connecting the Durham coalfields to Tebay and from there supplying the iron and steel furnaces in the Furness peninsula. The railway age saw Newbiggin-on-Lune connected to the main transport network of the time and brought huge change and prosperity to the village. Produce from local farms could be exported to large urban populations in the northwest of England.

Newbiggin-on-Lune’s former station can still be seen from the A685, which follows part of the railway route between here and Tebay.

Look out for the remains of a brick-built signal box, pass through a 300m long stone-lined cutting (4), an abandoned house (6) and an immense pair of limekilns (7)

There are numerous lime kilns across the Westmorland Dales area, associated with the central limestone plateau that Smardale dissects, but these lime kilns are on a different scale. As a large, double lime kiln construction, they were built to produce lime mortar for the construction of the adjacent viaduct. This would have been a major commercial lime-producing operation when working. The kilns are constructed from limestone blocks (likely from the nearby quarry) to a height of about 30ft. To the rear is an extensive quarry containing numerous spoil heaps, which is believed to have been exploited for building stone as well as lime burning.

In 2023 the lime kilns were conserved as part of the Monuments at Risk project (delivered by the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority as part of the Westmorland Dales Landscape Partnership Scheme).

8. After a few hundred metres you will come to Smardale Gill Viaduct, which has a gate at either end.
Smardalegill viaduct was completed in 1861 and carried the railway 90 feet high above the valley. It was constructed of locally quarried sandstone – there are several quarries evident in the nearby valley. The viaduct has 14 arches of a 30 feet span, and a total length of 553 feet. The line was closed in 1962.

9. Pass through the gate at the far end of the viaduct and turn immediately right over a timber stile along a permissive path going gently downhill on the south side of the gill.
The surrounding fells show signs of farming and occupation since prehistoric times. This includes prehistoric burial cairn sites from the late Neolithic/ Bronze Age and Severals Romano British settlement, across the valley to the west, is an example of an enclosed settlement or farmstead with roundhouses and livestock enclosures. Accompanying traces of field systems linked to nearby similar farmsteads show that the landscape has been extensively inhabited and farmed for thousands of years.

10. Continue along this path, across another timber stile and follow the waymarks to a final stile.

11. At this point turn right and head downhill along a wide track between two walls which leads down to Smardale Bridge.
Smardale Bridge over the Scandal beck just south of the viaduct is a packhorse bridge; probably dating from the 18th century. Packhorses were the main mode of heavy goods transportation in the medieval age. Packhorses, or ponies, maintained a slow but steady pace, carrying essential goods such as wool or salt, often in ‘trains’ of many heavily-laden ponies led by a packman or woman. Water crossings could be problematic, so bridges were often built to enable them have a more straightforward journey.
Packhorse trains crossing this bridge would have been heading towards Kirkby Stephen from Kendal.

12. Cross the bridge and continue up the stone track on the other side.
You are now walking through Ravenstonedale Park, a late medieval park once encircled by over three miles of immense limestone walls, which still survive in places. The first Lord Wharton enclosed the park in the 1560s probably for grazing his cattle, after purchasing the land in the wake of the dissolution of the monasteries.

The land, formerly the Manor of Ravenstonedale, had been granted to the Gilbertine Priory of Watton in Yorkshire some three centuries before. Evidence survives in the landscape of their fish ponds and ‘pillow mounds’, thought to have been rabbit warrens. The remains of the canon’s former dwellings can be viewed in St Oswald’s churchyard in Ravenstonedale.
Apparently Wharton’s enclosure of the ‘park’ was controversial – tenants were unhappy at being thrown off the land, although they were given other land outside the emparked area as compensation.

This wide track passes a sheepfold (13) and continues all the way to Friars’s Bottom Farm (14). Here pass through a metal gate, turn left past the front of the house and immediately right through a gate for a gentle ascent of Badger Hill, before crossing over the railway track (15) which you traversed near the beginning of the walk.

From here follow the track back towards Brownber, which turns into a metalled road before a junction by Tower House (16).
Tower House at Brownber Hall was once home to Elizabeth Gaunt, a member of the local Fothergill family. She was burnt to death at the stake in Tyburn in 1685, having helped a participant in a plot to assassinate the King, who then betrayed her. Elizabeth’s trial has been dubbed a ‘show trial’. She became a legend in her home village and there is a stained glass window depicting her in St Oswalds Church, Ravenstonedale.

17. Near Brownber Farm leave the metalled road at a fingerpost signed ‘Public Bridleway High Lane 1/4 mile’ and carry straight on a wide track which brings you back to the parking place.


Westmorland Dales walk map

Westmorland Dales walk map