Trial by Water

Grisedale Pike and Force Crag Mine from Braithwaite

The fate of osprey chicks born on Bassenthwaite Lake this summer, the last days of Force Crag mine, an innovative ecological solution to deal with its legacy and what the legend of Long Meg can teach us all feature in this account of a cracking fell walk up Grisedale Pike.

Walking Around With Your Head in the Clouds

I was descending Skiddaw when I first really noticed Grisedale Pike. A gloomy ascent dogged with fog was compounded by a viewfinder at the top taunting me with hints of what lay beyond the all-enveloping cloud. Resigned, I picked my way back along the summit ridge, squinting to discern each cairn through the murk, humming Husker Du’s “Walking Around With Your Head in the Clouds Makes No Sense At All” and cursing the Met Office to a solitary Herdwick, my only companion.

Then fortune smiled and the forecast came good – a sudden flash of blue sky and the cloud broke revealing a striking vista down to Derwent Water, looking cool and inviting where it lapped Keswick but dark and Arthurian on its southern shore where the clouds still rolled above.

My journey down over the subsidiary peak of Little Man and the heartlessly named Lesser Man was bathed in glorious sunshine. Across the lake, the slopes of Catbells were lush and green; but to their right a narrow U shaped valley, ringed with fells caught my attention. At its forefront a mountain rose steeply from the valley floor to a needle sharp pyramidal peak high above the village of Braithwaite. A path ran unbroken from base to summit, appearing almost impossibly steep at the pinnacle.

A quick study of the OS map revealed the valley to be Coledale and the mountain, Grisedale Pike. I vowed then to return and climb it. Today I’m making good that resolution.

As I approach Braithwaite along the A66, Grisedale Pike rears above and I wonder why it has never stood out to me like this before. I drive through the village to the informal roadside parking area opposite Hope Memorial Park, at the foot of the Whinlatter Pass. From here, steps lead up above the road, through a thinly wooded area and out on to the open hill side.

Skiddaw from Grisedale Pike

The stiff initial gradient means the views reward early. To the east, Skiddaw looks magnificent as the October sun illuminates its plunging western slopes. To its right, Derwent Water shimmers as wisps of cloud drift low over its silver waters. To the north, the edge of Bassenthwaite Lake glistens under a clear blue patch of sky.

It was Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s fancy that Sir Bedivere returned Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake in Cumbrian waters and a stay at Mirehouse, overlooking Bassenthwaite provided him with the inspiration for his Morte d’Arthur.

Bassenthwaite – The Return of a Raptor

In summer, visitors to Dodd Wood on the lake’s shore may be lucky enough to spot an osprey diving to snatch a trout or perch from the water. These fish-eating raptors with a five foot wingspan were once common in Scotland and probably in England too, but persecution saw their numbers fall during the 18th and 19th centuries until the last nesting pair were destroyed in 1916, leaving them extinct as a breeding species in Britain.  Happily they returned in 1954 when a visiting pair nested in Strathspey. An intensive wardening programme was established to safeguard breeding and Scottish numbers have gradually increased to around 160 pairs.

During the 1990’s the Forestry Commission and Lake District National Park Authority in partnership with the RSPB worked hard to encourage visiting ospreys to stay at Bassenthwaite, even constructing a purpose-built nesting platform. In 2001, their efforts paid off and the first eggs were laid. Since then, over 150 chicks have hatched here. A dedicated team keeps watch during the summer months to document developments and deter egg thieves. They have installed a webcam over the nest. They ring the chicks and fit transmitters so they can track the birds through their autumn migrations and their overwintering in Africa.

Three chicks hatched this year but tragically two were taken by Magpies while only a day or two old. Magpies had been observed stealing fish tails and leftovers from the nest in the absence of the parents but had never been known to take a chick. Naturally fears were high that the third chick would meet the same fate. Against the odds, she survived and was ringed and named Bega in June. She made her first fledgling flight in July.

Bega migrated to Senegal in September but has since moved on to Guinea and sadly the team has lost contact with her transmitter. It’s possible the transmitter is damaged or detached but first migrations are fraught with danger; only 20-30% of young ospreys make it to full adulthood and go on to breed themselves. There will be some anxious days in April at the Whinlatter Visitors’ Centre as the team wait to see if Bega returns to her place of birth. You can follow developments at

Peaks and Pies

The initial slopes give way to a grassy depression, beyond which a broad bank climbs seriously to a thin ridge below the sharp rise of the summit. When I spied Grisedale Pike from Skiddaw its flanks were green. Now autumn has turned the dying bracken brown and the sun adds a hue of red to the steeper reaches in splendid contrast to the bright blue sky. The green line of the grass path dissects the ruddy expanse like a Richard Long artwork and the peak towers slate-grey above. Nature saves its most flamboyant finery for its dying days.

Grisedale Pike
Grisedale Pike

The unexpected clemency of the weather means walkers pause here to stuff fleeces into rucksacks and steel themselves for the tough pull ahead. On finally attaining the ridge, layers are rapidly retrieved as the breeze picks up and begins to bite. It’s been a long pull up but the steepest and most exposed section still lies ahead. Ominously, across Coledale, Causey Pike is veiled in low-lying cloud and it’s only a matter of time before it reaches here. Happily the sky is still clear as I haul myself up the final rock steps to the summit where the ground drops away precipitously on both sides and the wind again ups its game.

I find shelter on the north side just below the summit and hunker down to enjoy the view while I can. It’s a view that stretches all the way to the Solway Firth. Whinlatter forest is a rich canvas below, broad swards of evergreen jut against a dappled palette of deciduous decay. And in my bag I have a Toppings pork and chilli pie so right now there is no finer place to be. Oh I know lard is not necessarily the fell walkers friend – energy bars and bananas are a far more effective quick-burn fuel  – but the unrelenting pursuit of health and efficiency is a soulless exercise and perching in the lee of a mountain peak with the northernmost part of England stretched out before you demands a pie!

View Hobcarton Crag
View from the ridge

To my left the ridge drops away to Hobcarton Crag then veers round and climbs again to Hopegill Head. I gaze at it to pick out the next section of my route then all of a sudden it disappears, lost as the mist rolls in.

Just then I hear voices. I get up and hoist my rucksack on to my bag as a Geordie couple appear on the summit. “I could see the Solway Firth five minutes ago!” the woman exclaims. “I know it was lovely till you arrived” I joke, “did you have to bring this with you?” They laugh and tell me this always happens to them up here. They are planning to do the Coledale Horseshoe taking in Hopegill Head then following the high level route back to Braithwaite via Eel Crag, Sale and Causey Pike. They are worried they might get all the way round and not see anything, but the cloud is already thinning so I think their concerns are premature. Within minutes it is almost clear over Hobcarton Crag. We make our way down together as the last low lying wisps blow across the path like smoke, then lose each other as we variously stop to take pictures en route to Hopegill Head. By the time we all reach the next summit, the cloud has lifted considerably and we can see the north shore of Crummock Water to the west. A mountain rescue helicopter flies past and we hope it’s a training exercise.

Hobcarton Crag
Hobcarton Crag

We part company and I make my way over the grassy top of Sand Hill and down the steep scree to Coledale Hawse. Eel Crag lies ahead but the horseshoe will have to wait for another day. Today there’s something I want to see in the valley below.

Coledale Hawse
Coledale from Coledale Hawse
Heavy Metal Plunder – Force Crag Mine

From the hawse the path zig zags down toward the head of Coledale. As I near the bottom the sheer dark face of Force Crag comes into view on the left. Force Crag was mined from 1860, initially for lead then later for zinc and barytes. Barytes are used in oil drilling, car production, medical imaging but also in the manufacture of munitions. During the Second World War, this tiny corner of the Lake District was a hive of activity with trucks carrying ore from adits high on the fell side down a precarious track known as the Burma Road.


Force Crag outlived all other mines in Lakeland but conditions were harsh and with large quantities of water flowing through, it was a constant battle to keep the mountain from caving in on it. One of those battling to keep the levels open through their final days was Alen McFadean. In his blog post, The Black Abyss, he gives a fascinating account of “sloshing about in knee-deep water” to “shore up rotten timber work then spending Saturday night curled up in the back of a freezing Land-Rover and waking the next morning with a thick head and in an impenetrable mountain mist.” Harsh working conditions by anyone’s standard but to Alen it was a labour of love. You can find his full account (and his recollection of this same walk) at:

Ultimately it was a battle the mountain won.  In 1990 a collapse occurred in level zero from which there could be no recovery. Today nature is slowly reclaiming the ground, the corrugated iron of the buildings rusting to resemble the autumn bracken of the slopes that surround. In its death throes the mine dealt a wounding blow however. The water that has built up in the disused levels leaches metals from the exposed rock, contaminating Coledale Beck and pouring up to a tonne of zinc, cadmium and lead into Bassenthwaite Lake each year. A study for the Environment Agency identified the environmental impact as one of the worst in the UK. Metals like zinc are toxic to fish. If fish populations decline, the ospreys will go too.

Force Crag Mine
Force Crag Mine Buildings

It’s a problem common to disused mines. Elsewhere large, costly water treatment works have been built to fight the problem with chemicals. At Force Crag however, an innovative ecological solution, devised by The Coal Board in partnership with Newcastle University, is underway. The water is diverted into two vertical flow ponds, created from recycled parts of the old mill workings. These ponds are lined with a geomembrane and filled with a compost treatment mix, which filters out the metals. From there the water flows through reed beds that trap more of the solids before it finally discharges into Coledale Beck. The scheme is performing even better than expected, removing between 94% and 98% of the contaminants. The fish and the ospreys can rest easy.

Why Are We Still Hanging Witches?

Coledale Beck babbles beneath the old mine track that I follow all the way back through the valley to the parking area – and it gets me thinking. Drive east to Little Salkeld, just beyond Penrith, and you come to one of Britain’s largest stone circles, Long Meg and Her Daughters. Legend has it they were a coven of witches turned to stone by the thirteenth century wizard, Michael Scot for profaning the Sabbath. It is said that no-one can count the stones twice and come up with the same number. If anyone ever succeeds, the spell will be broken and bad luck will rain down upon them. If Long Meg herself is fractured she will shed real blood.

Long Meg
Long Meg and Her Daughters

It’s all delicious hokum of course – the circle dates from the late Neolithic / early Bronze Age era while the name itself is thought to derive from a 17th century witch, Meg of Meldon. As Simon Sharma points out in The History of Britain, history often reveals more about the time it was written than the time it describes and the same is true of folklore. The fact that people in the 17th or 18th centuries invented supernatural stories about the origin of the stones reflects the widespread fear of witchcraft in Britain at the time. In those days, if a stream was poisoned and the fish died or the crops failed or villagers fell ill for reasons no-one could readily explain, people were likely to blame black magic and look for a scapegoat to punish. Hundreds of women were hung for no crime other than being poor or different; barbarism born of ignorance and superstition.

Today we’d like to think we live in more rational times. Yet when the failings of our political and economic systems leave large numbers homeless or without secure jobs, or with falling wages or reliant on food banks, or feeling the pinch, we are quick to lay all the blame at the door of “benefit scroungers” and immigrants – the poor and the different. Populist politicians ignore the evidence of experts and fight elections by fanning these fears and exploiting such prejudice.

That we can devise brilliant ecological schemes to strip pollutants from our natural water courses and undo the damage of our industrial past, or encourage an endangered species back from the brink of extinction bears witness to a new era of enlightenment. In certain respects however, we’re not quite out of the Dark Ages.


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King of the Copper Mountains

Dow Crag via the South Rake, The Old Man of Coniston, Swirl How and Levers Water

Dow Crag is one of the finest rock faces in the Lake District. It is usually thought to be the preserve of climbers, but a hidden gully known as the South Rake affords the adventurous walker  an ascent that doesn’t require ropes.  In this post, I recount an exhilarating scramble to the top via this route and delve into the rich history of the Coniston area and the nearby port of Whitehaven, which was once so strategically important that it was invaded by the US navy during the war of independence.

Coniston, Copper and the Birth of a Sausage

When I was little I had a favourite book called The King of the Copper Mountains. The story hailed from Holland but the title could easily apply to Coniston. The Cumbrian village enjoys a commanding position at the foot of the copper-rich Furness fells, overseeing the lake that shares its name – a name that derives from the Norse for king.

Coniston Water
Coniston Water

Coniston Water has a history of aquatic adventure. It is the setting for Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons and it’s where Donald Campbell set four world water speed records between 1955 and 1964 in his boat, Bluebird. It was here too that he made his final, fatal attempt to reach 300mph in 1967.

Brantwood, on its eastern shore was home to John Ruskin, the leading Victorian art critic, philanthropist and social reformer. Ruskin declared the view from his house to be the “the best in all England”, although, to be fair, he said the same of Church Brow in Kirkby Lonsdale and described a vista on Friar Crag as the finest in Europe. In fact, when it came to lavishing his affections on superlative views, Ruskin was a bit of a brassy tart, but such was his love of Brantwood, that shortly before his death in 1900 he declined the opportunity to be buried in Westminster Abbey, preferring to be laid to rest in the peace of the Coniston churchyard.

Today Coniston thrives on tourism but its past prosperity owed much to slate and copper.  Its copper mines reached their zenith in the early 19th century when the ore produced here was used to make coins and weaponry and even to clad the hulls of the naval fleet. The original shafts were dug two centuries earlier under the patronage of Elizabeth I who licensed German engineers to spearhead the effort.  The Germans brought more than mining expertise however. They also bore a recipe for a coarse, spicy, unlinked sausage which proved popular with the locals and evolved into a regional delicacy.  Copper mining may be long gone but every Cumbrian butcher worth his salt can boast an award winning Cumberland sausage.

American Invasion

Spices were in steady supply due to Coniston’s relative proximity to Whitehaven. In its heyday, Whitehaven was a major port. Indeed, so great was its strategic importance that in 1778, at the height of the War of Independence, the town was subject to a hostile American invasion.  The assault was the brain-child of John Paul Jones, a US naval commander of Scottish descent who had spent his early working life in Whitehaven.  Jones planned a raid to burn the boats in the harbour and inflict significant damage on British ships and supplies. But his enthusiasm was not shared widely among his crew and by the time the USS Ranger dropped anchor on the evening of April 22nd, they were close to mutiny, a situation that can’t have been helped by the arduous three hour row to the harbour.

The raiding party was divided between two boats. Jones himself took charge of one, which was to storm the Lunette battery and disable the guns, thus securing a safe passage back to the ship. Meanwhile, the other boat, led by Lieutenant Wallingford, was to make for the quay and torch the ships that were docked there.  His crew must have rowed the final furlong steeling themselves for a bloody skirmish only to find that on a cold night in Whitehaven, with no prior warning of their arrival, there was no-one around to fight. Furthermore, their primary mission of burning the boats faltered when they realised they had no matches and the candles they’d brought had long since blown out.  Faced with such compromising circumstances, Wallingford’s men did the only reasonable thing. They went to the pub, where they were soundly defeated by the strength of the local ale.

By the time Jones arrived back from the battery, half his men were three sheets to the wind. Undeterred, he improvised matches from strips of canvas dipped in sulphur and managed to start fires in a couple of the cargo holds.  The invaders then beat a hasty retreat, hoping to watch the town go up in flames from the safety of their ship.  Fortunately, the townspeople were one step ahead. With the Great Fire of London a recent memory, Whitehaven had invested in fire engines, which were swiftly deployed, successfully extinguishing the flames before they reached the rigging.

In the meantime, the guards that Jones had overpowered at the fort had freed themselves and got the guns back in operation.  The resulting canon fire failed to hit the retreating rowing boats but the loud bangs can’t have done much for the burgeoning hangovers that must have been kicking in among the crew.  As the people of Whitehaven returned to their beds, Jones and his men sailed back to America with their tails between their sea legs, their bungled raid destined to become a footnote in the history books; everywhere but Whitehaven that is, where it is still a cause for celebration.

A Coward’s Route up Dow Crag

The Coniston Coppermines Valley is flanked on three sides by majestic mountains: Wetherlam, Swirl How, Brim Fell and the Old Man of Coniston. Beyond the Old Man lies Dow Crag which Wainwright described as one the grandest rock faces in the Lake District.  Its cliffs and gullies are a big draw for rock climbers and it has a particular attraction for me as I can see it from my house.

Dow Crag
Dow Crag

The Crag is usually ascended along the ridge from the Walna Scar Pass or from Goat Hawse, which links Dow Crag to the Old Man.  Its imposing cliffs, with the deep clefts of Great and Easy Gully, look unassailable to walkers although climbers class the latter as a scramble.  In his Pictorial Guides to the Lake District, Wainwright pours gentle scorn on this classification, concluding that climbers have no concept of “easy” and suggesting that, while a walker might manage to get up that way if he were being chased by a particularly ferocious bull, it is best avoided on all other occasions.  He does reveal, however, that there is a “coward’s way up”. It should be stressed here that Wainwright is using “coward” in an ironic sense to mimic the climber mindset that named Easy Gully, “Easy”, but nevertheless, he goes on to describe a steep and loose scramble that will take those unaverse to putting hand to rock all the way to the top of the crags without the need for ropes. At the time, it was unnamed – Wainwright proposed “the South Rake” and the moniker stuck.

My friend, Tim, is an ardent hiker with a taste for adventure, so what better challenge for the pair of us than to tackle the South Rake and walk the ridge to Swirl How? We set out with a little trepidation at the prospect, not least because I’d climbed the Old Man two weeks earlier and fancied I‘d spied the Rake, which looked well nigh vertical from there.  But reserving the right to declare discretion the better part of valour and take the soft option if necessary, we set off up the steep tarmac lane from Coniston to the start of the Walna Scar road, a stony track leading to the Walna Scar Pass.

Dow Crag
Dow Crag from Goats Water

About a mile down the track, a wooden sign directs us right along the footpath leading to the Cove. With the southern slopes of the Old Man on one side and imposing face of Dow Crag towering ahead, we climb steadily to the copper-green tarn of Goats Water.  On the far shore, scree slopes rise sharply to the foot of the Crag.  A quick peek through the binoculars reveals a group of climbers perched below the main buttress and other tiny figures, further to the left, ascending diagonally up a gully that must surely be the Rake. Reassuring ourselves that we’re not the only ones daft enough to attempt this, we pick our way around the foot of the tarn and follow a faint path up the steep scree. As we reach the bottom of the Crag near the dark gash of Great Gully, the mountain rescue stretcher box comes into view imparting a frisson of foreboding.  After a short pause to catch our breath and admire the view – Goats Water already seems a long way below – we tread around the base of the buttress to the start of the South Rake.

South Rake Ascent
Ascending the South Rake

Tim opts to go first, making his way gingerly up the steep incline.  I follow at a safe distance knowing the rocks are loose and easy to dislodge. To his credit, Tim does this only once. Patience and concentration are required at all times as solid holds are never guaranteed and it’s imperative to test the steadfastness of each step before putting your weight on it. It’s unnerving when successive stones give way under your grip but a little careful investigation eventually yields a firm ascent. We pass the entrance to Easy Gully which reminds us we’re on the “coward’s route” but it certainly doesn’t feel like it when, about half way up, the gradient steepens further and it all seems more than a little exposed. Tim later confesses to have glanced down at this point and experienced a momentary wobble. It was only that I was concentrating so hard on where to tread that I kept my eyes ahead and was spared the same misgiving. Nearing the top, the gully forks and we opt for different routes, arriving on the flatter ground of the summit several yards apart.  This is when the elation kicks in and for a few minutes we feel every bit the Kings of the Copper Mountain.  The euphoria is only slightly dampened when we spy the climbers ascending the vertical cliff!

Top of South Rake
Top of South Rake

We walk on over Dow Crag and drop down to Goats Hawse where we bear right to ascend the Old Man.  Compared with the handful of walkers on the former peak, ramblers are arriving here by the coach load. We forgo the overcrowded summit platform and break for a picnic overlooking Low Water before pressing on over Brim Fell and climbing to the summit of Swirl How.

Along the ridge the views south west to Seathwaite Tarn are striking and across the Duddon Valley, Harter Fell honours its geological ancestry by looking every inch the volcano, a plume of cloud erupting from its peak. To its right, Sca Fell and Scafell Pike loom like great brutal rock giants locked in an eternal standoff across the ridge of Mickledore.  On top of Swirl How, Crinkle Crags, Bow Fell, the Pike O’ Blisco and the Langdale Pikes hone into view and we take our time drinking in the aspect. To the south lies Morecambe Bay and to the east are Windermere and Coniston. Below is Levers Water, our next destination, which we reach by clambering down the rocky path of the Prison Band and turning right at Levers Hawse to reach the water’s edge.

Seathwaite Tarn
Seathwaite Tarn from Goat Hawse
Panic at Levers Water

Levers Water is a natural tarn that was dammed in 1717 to create a reservoir for the copper mines. It now acts as the water supply for Coniston itself.  In order to raise the water level, the entrances to the neighbouring mine shafts had to be sealed to prevent the tarn from flooding the tunnels and turning the becks descending to Coniston into raging torrents.  Rumour had it that, in one case, the builders had used a giant wooden plug – a story confirmed in the 1980’s when a group of cavers managed to locate the timber stopper.

Another caving party visited the plug in the early nineties and were shocked to discover an improvised explosive device wedged against it.  The Bomb Squad was dispatched and managed to render the device safe, removing it to the nearby fell side where they carried out a controlled detonation.  The Sunday Times postulated it was a weapon of terror, placed there by the IRA in an attempt to assassinate John Major, then Prime Minister, who was due to visit the area.  The story was dismissed by the police who believed the makeshift bomb to have been the work of cavers hoping to blast through to the next level, unaware of weight of water behind. The fuse had been lit but good fortune had intervened and thankfully it had petered out.

Low Water and Levers Water
Low Water and Levers Water
Best Defence

From Levers Water we make our way down through the Coppermines Valley to the Sun Hotel in Coniston for revitalising pints of Loweswater Gold.  The bar and terrace are packed – proof that while his mines are consigned to history, the King of the Copper Mountains remains in rude health.  Sadly, the years have treated Whitehaven less favourably. Its prominence as a port declined as the greater capacities of Bristol and Liverpool took over and today it is a modest coastal town, its glory years marooned in its nautical past.

These days the American invasion is commercial and cultural, with nearly all British cities sporting identikit chains like the ubiquitous Starbucks and MacDonalds. Ruskin would have hated this homogenization of the high street and the revival of the Laissez Faire Capitalism he railed so ardently against. But as a champion of the artisan, I think he’d approve of the Sun Hotel with its impressive array of locally sourced ales.  Round the corner at the Black Bull, they even brew their own Bluebird Bitter.  No corporate conformity here then, and if it’s true that history repeats, pubs well stocked with potent local brews might just prove our best defence.

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