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Firth Fell and Birk Fell – a walk with big views from Kettlewell

I recently bought a book – The Dales 30, by Jonathan Smith who runs the wonderful “Where 2 Walk” website. In the book it lists the mountains in the Yorkshire and Cumbrian Dales (defined by the new National Park Boundary) which are over 2000ft.

I’d walked the 3 Peaks and some of the higher fells such as Great Shunner Fell and Wild Boar Fell, but there were a number of the locations lower down the list which I had never walked before. So I decided that it would be my mission to gradually tick them off. No timescale to do it, but a bit of a project for the next 6 months whilst socialising with more than my family, or one other pal and my dog was going to prove difficult.

In at number 29 on the list was Birk Fell in Upper Wharfedale. My old friend McFet from my rugby playing days at Leodiensian Rugby Club who is also a keen walker was looking to climb some of the top 30 as well and had planned a route for us ticking off not just Birk Fell, but the smaller Firth Fell.

We parked up in the little car park across the road from the garage just over the first bridge into Kettlewell coming from Grassington. There is an honesty box or you can pay £3 at the garage during quieter times of year.

We arrived at 9am and set off with grey skies and a slight drizzle, keeping our fingers crossed that the blue skies forecast later would appear.

The first stretch headed out of Kettlewell for a short distance along the road until picking up a path through a gate with steps partly cut into the limestone. The path climbed steeply up onto the ridge but it was worth stopping briefly while part of the way up to take in some of the great views back into Kettlewell with its dry stone walls and ancient field systems.

The climb continued until we reached a wall with a stile. There was a herd of belted galloways over the wall who gave us the once over, but rather than heading over the stile into their field, we turned right and followed a rough path along the wall.

Navigating the route was relatively easy as the path follows the wall along the top of the ridge, gradually ascending.

After about an hour of walking, we passed a trig point. It wasn’t signifying the peak of a fell but was worth a photo stop.

We continued our journey along the wall, climbing over various stiles before meeting a gate with a long dry stone wall heading down the fell side into Wharfedale.

As we climbed higher, the ridge narrowed and there were views to the left over Littondale and to the right back into Wharfedale. At one point we met a track going off to our left down into Littondale with stunning views out over the other side of the road which climbs out to Malham and Settle.

The ground became more boggy over this stretch, but as well as the water retaining mosses the biodiversity of plants was great to see and the number of lichen species on the rocks were a testament to how clean the air was in this part of the Dales.

As we had climbed up onto the top of the ridge, the limestone had given way to the millstone grit cap. The change from the lighter limestone where it had been exposed into small areas of limestone pavement earlier, gave way to the darker, more granular gritstone which was really finely bedded where it was exposed.

This impervious rock was the cause of the bogs as water couldn’t soak away and the exposed landscape had led to peat building up across the fell top.

The dry stone wall across the fell top changed too, the larger limestone blocks we had seen earlier on the walk gave way to smaller gritstone blocks which were more intricate and made me wonder about the time, effort and workmanship that had gone onto build them. Some of the wall had fallen into disrepair having been exposed to the elements for 300 years or more.

The weather improved and the grey skies gave way to blue, but the cold created very interesting cloud formations.

At this point we spotted another Trig Point, marked on the map as the summit of Firth Fell.

With the Firth Fell ticked off, we followed the path back along the ridge. Sections of this had been improved by the Yorkshire Dales National Parks Authority with large flagstones. If you look carefully, you can see holes or bits of metal from their past use as the floor stones of many of the long gone textile mills in the Dales and cities such as Bradford. A nod to Yorkshire’s past industrial heritage.

Looking over past Littondale it was possible to see the outline of one of Yorkshire’s famous Three peaks – that of Penyghent, visible against a clear blue sky.

It was only about another mile onto the summit of Birk Fell. We passed Birk Tarn on our right, but knew our return route passed the Tarn on the other side so we cracked on.

There is no Trig Point on the top of Birk Fell, but a cairn of stones. At 2001ft, it just sneaked into the Dales 30. It was actually officially named a Marilyn in 2006 after being re-surveyed as it had previously been listed as a mere 1998ft!

The name Birk Fell comes from the Norse word for birch and at the time the lower slopes of Wharfedale were heavily wooded with birch trees.

Not far from the summit there was an old ruined building from when lead mining was active in the area.

There we stunning views from the summit, with great vistas back down into Wharfedale where we could make out both the villages of Buckden and Starbottom in the valley bottom.

From the summit we walked over to the edge of the ridge over-looking Wharfedale and started heading back the way we had come.

We arrived at the edge of Birk Tarn, held in place by a dip in the impervious gritstone and one of the largest tarns in the Yorkshire Dales. My black lab Bronte enjoyed having a quick dip, not that she needed cooling off but it did get rid of some of the mud!

Just after Birk Tarn we met an obvious pathway on our left which steeply descended down into the valley bottom. I was very grateful to have my walking poles for this part of the walk as it was not just steep but very slippy. Even though there were some paving stone slabs, being wet we had to be very careful with our footing.

We eventually reached a farm and followed the path to the right through the farm to pick up the Dalesway path. The Dalesway is an 80 mile trail from Ilkley through to The Lake District at Bowness on Windermere and was devised by the West Riding Ramblers Association and one of its leading lights my good friend Colin Speakman.

We picked up the path was just outside Buckden and the next stretch was fairly easy compared to the walking so far.

We walked along a riverside path along the edge of the River Wharfe and at a small bridge across a beck stopped for a late lunch. I’d brought along a couple of veggie samosas from the Pakeeza in Bradford, which seemed to go down well with my pal McFet!

The light at this point in the afternoon created a golden shimmer on the meandering River Wharfe and we felt blessed to be out walking in such beautiful countryside.

The path continued past Starbottom on the other side of the river and through fields of sheep and along dry stone walled paths to Kettlewell.

On arrival in Kettlewell, the pubs were obviously shut but McFet had kindly bought a couple bottles of Saltaire Brewery Cascade Pale Ale, which we sat savouring from the boots of our car. The perfect end to a great days walking.

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