I shall start by saying that this is an excellent place to go with a camera. It needs a bit of thought, but the potential is enormous. The ‘why’ of that follows…
The Howgill Fells: Wainwright’s favourite group of hills, or so I keep hearing. ‘Hearing’ is the key word there; I’ve not yet found anything written by Alfred Wainwright which makes a sufficiently categorical assertion. I’m thinking the statement that “the Howgill Fells are my favourite group of hills”, or something similar. Anyone who can point me to written evidence of this view, from the man himself, please do so in the comments section. In the meantime, I’ll happily go with the idea that he was a fan of them, if only due to the startling absence of the ‘other people’ who are so notable in the nearby Lake District, and even, albeit to a lesser extent, in the equally nearby Yorkshire Dales.
That last is a point worth clearing up too. Whilst most emphatically in the county of Cumbria, the Howgills are, equally clearly, within the Yorkshire Dales national park. At least the southern third of them is; that part which is immediately north of the lovely little town of Sedbergh and whose ridges form such a dramatic and prominent view from what many people consider ‘the best bit of the M6’, when travelling northwards. Admittedly, the competition for that accolade could be argued to be weak but, then again, there are certainly several other pleasant views from the motorway, though none as dramatic as that just beyond junction thirty seven as the Howgills appear. It’s probably obvious from this anomaly that, prior to the 1974 changes in counties, this area was part of the West Riding of Yorkshire.
To return to Wainwright’s alleged advocacy: if he thought highly of them then, clearly, they must be good – at least for walking on. It’s reasonable to assume, however – he being famously not a fan of ‘other people’ – that their quietude and isolation were big selling points for him, whereas those features are not entirely critical for photography. Of course, those are not bad things, as such, for a photographer (I’d argue that they’re rather fine bonuses in fact), and even if the hills’ primary features are the remarkable paucity of people and the stunning views to both the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, that’s still a strong, albeit partial, argument for considering them as a good location to make landscape photographs.
I think, however, that they have considerably more to offer than that. In particular, they feature an unusual lack of walls, trees and bushes, combined with an equally noteworthy shape: steeply rounded, folded and generally ‘well weathered’. There are virtually no sharp edges here; everything is smooth, water-eroded curves, as if the land is a thick towel folded to form the shapes. The surface lends itself to the idea of a folded fabric too; perhaps velvet. Close-cropped grass and heather gives everything a marvellous, soft sheen in the right conditions, and further smooths the outline of the fells from a distance.
All these distinctions stem from the fact that the geomorphology is different from that of the Dales or Lakes. These are very old, seriously-worn hills formed of hard gritstone and slate, and barely shaped by ice ages – though they would have had their own ice cap through being isolated and rising to a height of 676 metres. The distinctive, rounded ridges and steep-sided valleys are consequently quite different from the glacially-produced landscape of the Dales or the complex, rocky character of the Lake District hills.
The following Google Map shows the southern end of the range, with Sedbergh at the bottom; you can move the viewed area around without the need to enlarge it. This detail level clearly shows the ridges and illustrates the possibilities offered for series of these slanting across a frame, either clear and graphic, or softened by the atmosphere. (If the map’s not showing, please refresh the page; sometimes it seems to load only partially.)
So, why are they photographically interesting?
I think partly it’s because they’re thoroughly different from everything else in the area. The sensuous curves provide a wide range of possibilities for images which are both graphical and multi-layered. As yet, I’ve not been there in mist – more precisely, I’ve not been there in mist since I started taking photographs ‘with intent’ – but I’m certain that there are opportunities to capture sinuous lines of moist air creeping up or down the v-shaped valleys, perhaps combined with fading ranks of smooth ridges in the middle distance.
The image below was originally to have featured fog; it doesn’t, but I was not too unhappy with the met. office as the result is still very much what I’d pre-visualised when passing this spot, camera-free and at midday on a cloudless weekend, a few weeks earlier. This is looking west from a kilometre or so south of the highest top, The Calf. Taken shortly after dawn, the frost is still sharp and the indirect light gives the rounded shapes of the interlocking ridges what I thought of as a velvet texture.
Another photographically interesting feature of this small massif is the close-cropped mixture of heather and grasses. Whilst it can look predominantly ‘just green’ from a distance, the surface has considerable variegation, and the colours can be remarkable at the right time of day and the right part of the year. I don’t see the Howgills as ever producing what might be thought of as real drama – they’re too gentle – but the potential for subtle images relying on shape, texture and swathes of mottled colour is excellent.
I should also mention that, on a clear day, the major peaks of the Dales are clearly visible, and could form part of a composition, and the same is true of at least the eastern Lake District – those are Lakeland hills at the top of the image above. Such photographs are not what will draw me back to the range, but they’re certainly ‘there’ and offer some good options for sunset and sunrise images, in particular.
: these excellent fells feature few people, no walls, no trees, just strong, graphic shapes and textures. As I said at the beginning of this piece: they’re different!
Oh! – and they’re very easy to access. This short item isn’t intended as a guide (that’s probably fairly obvious by now….), it’s more an evocation of potential, but there are several easy paths from various directions, including several from Sedbergh, which take you to the height of the main ridges in an hour or so. Don’t be put off by many of the images on Flickr, which make the hills look a little bland; quick snaps in sunny weather really do this landscape no justice at all; worthwhile images here require a bit of thought but can be, I firmly believe, very rewarding.
And lastly, in case anyone’s interested, the name Howgill derives from the Old Norse word haugr, meaning a hill or barrow, plus gil, meaning a narrow valley – another one of those cunning ‘it says what it is‘ type of names.