The summit of Grey Nag

Grey Nag, Black Fell & Gilderdale

Walk Summary

A long walk from Gilderdale Bridge visiting the lonely summits of Little Heaplaw, Grey Nag, Tom Smith’s Stone Top and Black Fell before returning via the desolate valley of Gilderdale.

Distance: 11.5 miles
Total ascent: 2400ft
Walk Rating: ****
Parking: Layby, Gilderdale Bridge
Route: Download Route [GPX]

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Walk Report

It is almost exactly eight years since a friend and I did an epic 14 mile walk in the fog, ice and snow on the hills above Gilderdale. In terms of views we got very little reward for our efforts. Whilst I have since been back to Black Fell I’ve long wanted to return to Grey Nag. Another incentive to do this walk was to also include the shapely summit of Little Heaplaw, situated at the end of one of Grey Nag’s long ridges.

This time I decided against doing the ridge on the southern side of the Gilderdale and include the valley itself. This is the route included in John and Anne Nuttall’s chapter on Black Fell and Grey Nag in the ‘Mountains of England and Wales: England’. The walk started from a handy layby immediately north of Gilderdale Bridge by a Northumberland county sign.

“Turning south alongside the fence the going underfoot soon deteriorated into a series of peaty bogs. The only notable feature on the map was Woldgill Tarn. Sadly this is now just a green bog.”

The forecast for the day was one of frequent showers interspersed with brighter spells and strong gusts. It was supposed to improve as the day went on so my initial plan was to do the walk in reverse and head up Gilderdale initially and then on to Black Fell. However, when I arrived the skies were quite bright so I decided to head uphill straight away. It proved to be a good decision.

From the layby I walked north on the roadside. Turning a corner I got my first view of Little Heaplaw rising neatly above the farm at Castle Nook. Before reaching the farm I came to a small car park for Epiacum. The remains of a Roman fort it is called Whitley Castle on the map. Passing through a gate I walked up a track to then take a gate on the right to visit the remains of the fort. The shape of the fort can clearly be made out but apart from a few stones very little remains of the buildings. For more information on the site it is worth checking out Epiacum Heritage, a small local charity that has done a lot to make Epiacum more accessible to visitors.

Heading south-west I passed through another gate to an information board for the fort. I then climbed up to the right to a gate at about the 390m contour line. I then followed this contour north to come to a stile-like crossing of another fence at the saddle between Great Heaplaw and Little Heaplaw. Climbing over I then walked up the short steep slope of Little Heaplaw to visit a collection of three curricks overlooking South Tynedale. I then headed west along the neat summit area to the highest point marked by a small pile of stones.

Although Little Heaplaw was very much an apperetif to the main ridge it was a fine summit. The views of South Tynedale stretched north all the way to Hadrian’s Wall country. My next objective, Grey Nag, looked impressively big whilst to the east the vast Whitfield Moor and its highest point Pike Rigg dominated the view.

Returning to the fence corner I then climbed up on to Great Heaplaw on the northern side of the fence. Initially steep, the gradient soon eased. Indeed the climb up on to Grey Nag, though pathless, was fairly easy underfoot. After following the fence all the way to Black Hill (not to be confused with Black Fell) I left it to head more directly for the summit. Crossing another fence I visited the remains of a currick before soon arriving at the summit.

The top of Grey Nag is unmistakeable. A series of small sheep pens are built into a wall as is a large currick. Sat immediately below the currick is an Ordnance Survey trig point. Although the skies were beginning to cloud over the views were still magnificent, to the west it included the full range of hills from Cross Fell to Cold Fell. To the south-east I could see the likes of Burnhope Seat, Killhope Law and The Dodd. It certainly made up for the lack of visibility on my last visit!

After sheltering from the wind in one of the sheep pens for my lunch I continued on to my next destination, Tom Smith’s Stone Top. To do this I followed the wall, and then a fence, south-west across the moor. A faint quad track made this section fairly easy and I soon arrived at the undistinguished summit of this moorland bump. The highest point was marked by a stake surrounded by a few small stones just north of the fence.

Continuing along the fence I next came to Tom Smith’s Stone at a junction of fences. An old boundary stone which marks the Northumberland / Cumbria border as well the junction of three parishes. On each side of the stone is inscribed a letter whilst at the foot of one side is an Ordnance Survey benchmark.

Turning south alongside the fence the going underfoot soon deteriorated into a series of peaty bogs. The only notable feature on the map was Woldgill Tarn. Sadly this is now just a green bog. Trying to safely negotiate the hags and groughs whilst at the same time walking directly into a strong wind was quite tiring but I eventually made it to the summit of Black Fell.

So far I’d been lucky and none of the forecast showers had materialised. However, as I reached the trig point it began to rain and indeed it carried on doing so for much of the rest of the walk. The Nuttalls only devote a few lines in their book to the return along Gilderdale. Such brevity makes it sound quite easy but as I was about to discover that was not to be the case.

Descending east I walked around the upper reaches of Backstone Burn to descend gradually towards a fence. I then continued to descend gradually to eventually reach the ruined building at Watcher’s Hill. From there I continued down to a fence corner just near a crossing of Gilderdale Burn. Following the instructions to stay on the north side of the burn I then followed it north-east passing some sheepfolds and a large shake hole.

My next objective were a pair of waterfalls, one on Gilderdale Burn and another, Woldgill Force on the stream to the north. The former was a pretty little drop. Woldgill Force was however nowhere to be seen. Indeed I followed Woldgill Burn from its confluence with Gilderdale Burn a good way upstream, scrambling around a slippery little ravine for about ten minutes. I somewhat glumly came to the conclusion that Woldgill Force is an error of the Ordnance Survey. The largest drop I’d come across was only about 18 inches!

Returning to the confluence of the two burns I forded Woldgill Burn to carry along the north bank of Gilderdale Burn. Soon I left designated open access land. The Nuttalls are very specific about staying on the north side of the burn. However, the next mile to where the Pennine Way is not on open access land nor is there a public right of way. This made me feel a bit uneasy and nor was it particularly straightforward. There were a few ups and downs as I tried to find the easiest way through intervening walls and fences. At one point I dropped down to the stream itself so that I could pass below a high fence strung across the burn.

Eventually I reached the Pennine Way. From there I passed through a gate and followed a barbed wire fence on my right to finally return to Gilderdale Bridge.

Overall I enjoyed the walk. Little Heaplaw is a little gem. It was also great to finally have views from Grey Nag and the long moorland ridge dividing it from Black Fell. While it is a shame the weather deteriorated, in some ways it did make the descent along Gilderdale more atmospheric. That said my failure to find Woldgill Force did put me in a bit of a bad mood for a while. I was also uneasy about that mile or so which isn’t in open access land. I’m pleased to report therefore that I’ve since had contact from the landowner who told me that they don’t mind responsible walkers. How I wish more landowners took that enlightened view!

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