Blencathra via Halls Fell Ridge
Blencathra is a mountain steeped in Arthurian legend. Wainwright describes its ascent via Halls Fell Ridge as “the finest way to any mountain top in the district”. Tim Taylor and I embark on a scramble up this knife edge arête to find out why. We keep a firm grip on the rocks but lose our hearts to a spaniel called Bella.
Back in the 12th century, Glastonbury Abbey was in trouble – badly damaged by fire and buckling under the cost of the repairs. Yet, by the end of the Middle Ages it was the richest Abbey in Britain. What was responsible for this dramatic upturn in fortune? The discovery of two graves that were conveniently attributed to King Arthur and Guinevere.
Some suspect it was nothing more than a canny monastic marketing coup, cashing in on one of our most enduring legends. But according to the legend, Arthur didn’t die at all. He went into an extended hibernation in Avalon – the Once and Future King, lying in wait with a band of his most loyal knights, ready to return when his country needs him most; and in one version of the story at least, Avalon lies under a mountain in Cumbria.
Affalach was a Celtic god of the underworld. In Cumbrian folklore, Avalon and Affalach’s subterranean kingdom are one and the same. They dwell beneath a hill whose ancient name has been variously interpreted as “Devil’s Peak”, “High Seat” or “High Throne” – all thought to be references to Affalach. Some even argue the name means “Throne of Arthur”. The Victorians renamed it “Saddleback” for the shape of its skyline, but in his Pictorial Guides to The Lake District, Alfred Wainwright made a plea to reinstate its ancient, darker, Arthurian name of Blencathra.
Wainwright loved Blencathra, describing it as “one of the grandest objects in Lakeland”. He spent an entire winter exploring its slopes and ridges and devoted more pages to these than to any other fell.
The mountain comprises six distinct hills, the southern five joined by the summit ridge and separated by their respective ghylls. If you imagine its south face as a left hand, its fingers outstretched and pointing forward, a little apart, then Blease Fell is the thumb and Scales Fell the little finger. The index, middle and ring fingers are Gategill Fell, Halls Fell and Doddick Fell, each a distinct ridge, rising to its own knuckle.
Halls Fell Top is Blencathra’s summit and its ridge (the middle finger) is an exhilarating scramble, rising from the valley to the highest point. Wainwright declares it, “positively the finest way to any mountain top in the district”. “For active walkers and scramblers”, that is. The ever helpful WalkLakes website maps the route and describes the technical difficulty as “scrambling skills required. Steep, significant exposure with sheer drops, knife edge ridge”. Just to emphasize the point, they state in bold type, “People have slipped from this ridge and died”.
I make some enquiries on Facebook and I’m assured the scramble is slightly easier than Helvellyn’s Striding Edge. Having found few real difficulties on Striding Edge, I’m confident that Halls Fells is achievable. Indeed, it provides an exciting prospect for Saturday when my friend and frequent walking buddy, Tim Taylor, will be staying.
Then it snows – hard. Investing in winter boots, crampons, an ice axe and learning how to use them is high on my agenda but it’s now Wednesday evening and accomplishing all of those (not least the last) by Saturday seems a little ambitious. “People have slipped from this ridge and died”. OK, OK, perhaps a contingency plan is order.
Then something unusual happens. The Met Office forecasts sunshine and heat from noon on Thursday and, almost to the minute, it arrives. From harsh winter to high summer in twenty four hours and what’s more, this July-like spell is set to last through the weekend. By the time Tim arrives on Friday night we’re feeling quietly confident.
On Saturday morning, social media reports the snow on summit is soft and melting fast. As we drive past the south face on the A66, we can see the ridges are clear.
As we step out of the car in the attractive village of Threlkeld, we look up to see a mighty ridge rising above, steep and imposing.
“Blimey” says Tim, “is that Sharp Edge?”. Sharp Edge is the hardest way up Blencathra, a shorter arête than Halls Fell but by some degree narrower, its drops more sheer and its pinnacles more exposed. It’s on our tentative to-do list, but its mention in association with any vague plan to actually tackle it engenders a certain amount of trepidation. One veteran described it to me as “the most fun you can have with your clothes on”, while another admitted to being the most scared he’s been anywhere in Lakeland.
I look at Tim and from the expression on his face, I can see he’s already answered his own question. There’s no way that can be Sharp Edge from this angle, that has to be Halls Fell – where we’re going.
A frisson of nervous anticipation invigorates our steps as we follow the stream of Kilnhow Beck along its prettily wooded banks, crossing a wooden bridge and ascending some stone pitched steps that climb above its ravine. Through a gate, we emerge into the open between Blease and Gategill Fells. We follow the wall to our right past the fell foot, fording Gate Gill Beck as it babbles down from the mountain side; Halls Fell lies ahead.
Bright sunshine reveals the distinct layers that delineate the hill sides: green lowland grass gives way to a russet cloak of dead bracken; chocolate brown blankets of dry heather clad the higher slopes. Above, rising imperiously to pierce the pure blue sky, are slate grey turrets of exposed rock, their shoulders shrouded in modest mantles of snow. It looks challenging but not quite as daunting as it did from the village where its higher reaches were hidden, leaving imagination free reign to invent.
We climb the path that snakes steeply up the lower slopes, soon cutting through the carpets of chocolate heather. The gradient is unforgiving but the rapid height gain gives frequent excuses to stop and feast on the unfurling view.
To our backs, across the lush green, criss-cross fields of St John’s In The Vale, looms Clough Head, its snow streaked summit a mirror image of the cloud wisps and vapour trails that fan out across the ocean of sky.
Ahead, the vegetation recedes before the craggy ramparts of the upper ridge – gunmetal battlements that rise like organic fortifications toward the Devil’s Peak.
We reach the first rock tower and a choice presents itself: skirt round it on a narrow ledge or climb over the top. Snow still blankets sections of the ledge so in some respects the scramble seems safer – better the devil you can see; and of course, a sense of adventure dictates we climb.
Hand and footholds are in plentiful supply and we negotiate the first few pinnacles with little difficulty. Tim has to remind himself he’s not in the Peak District, his home turf, where I have seen him spring from rock to rock with what I mistook for reckless abandon. Not so, the rocky outcrops in the Peaks are gritstone, which grips your feet and allows such shenanigans with safety. The stone here is Skiddaw Slate, a sedimentary rock, formed under the sea some 500 million years ago, 50 million years before the volcanic eruptions that formed the main body of Lakeland fells. It wears to a smooth polished surface, which is slippery enough when dry like now, but lethal when wet.
The upper part of the ridge is known as Narrow Edge and with good reason. At one point the rock tapers to a slender knife edge beyond which is a deep fissure. At first I think I’ll have to turn back and follow the lower ledge, but the path is some way below and not at all distinct. The fissure is a small step but the edge is too thin to balance on.
I stop and ponder my options and realise if I straddle the ridge there are slim but decent footholds either side. Tentatively I extend my left foot and find a sure platform, then, in a crouch and holding on to the crest with both hands, move my right foot the other side. Finding another sturdy base, I rise up slowly to straddle the ridge. The step across the fissure is now simple and I think I may have made a meal of it, but slow and safe wins over haste up here.
With height, the sun loses none of its heat and our warm and waterproof layers remain stowed in our rucksacks. The light is fantastic and renders the surrounding slopes in sharp relief. To our right, Doddick Fell is an intricate action painting of green lines and splashes on a coffee-coloured ground with slithers of blue slate and dustings of snow.
Just then an excited spaniel rounds a rock tower and comes bounding over to meet us. Her owners emerge moments later and we learn her names is Bella. With younger and fitter legs they reach the peak a little before us. No sooner have they disappeared from view than Bella’s head re-emerges over the parapet, looking for us. When she spies us, her shepherding instinct kicks in and she runs back down the ridge to round us up, charging on ahead to show us the way to the top. If only I could tackle the intervening ground with that much ease!
We arrive a few minutes later to find the broad summit ridge still smothered in snow, knee-deep in places where it has drifted. The remains of a snow man, head melted to a long slim finger pointing skyward, crowns the highest point. The sky is clear and free of the haziness that often renders summer horizons in soft focus. The views in all directions are staggering.
Rising to the east are the highest peaks of the Pennines. To the south, Helvellyn and the Dodds. A crowded skyline of western crests backdrops the silver shimmer of Derwent Water. To the north-west the Solway Firth marks the Scottish border, which can only mean the snow-capped hills to the north-east are a little short of Glasgow. A high throne that surveys two countries – for now at least a united kingdom.
We plan to descend via Blease Fell, but can’t resist a short detour to peek at Sharp Edge. It certainly looks formidable from up here: sheer walls of blue-tinged slate rising steeply to a razor’s edge (its former name). We can just make out little stick men boldly negotiating its crenellations and defying its deadly drops, reaching the ridge’s end only to face a seemingly vertical scramble up Foule Crag – a perilous quest worthy of an Arthurian knight surely!
Beyond Foule Crags lies the foothill of Souter Fell, where on Midsummer’s Eve, 1745, twenty six men and women witnessed a ghost army march in a procession five men deep and half a mile long, supplemented by horses and carriages that could never have managed the slope. All twenty six swore the truth of their story under oath before a magistrate. Officials feared a gathering of Jacobite rebels, but when the ground was checked no evidence of mortal presence could be found. Perhaps it was simply the Knights of the Round Table on nocturnal manoeuvres.
We return to the summit and walk over Gategill Fell Top to Knowe Crags, where we perch on a rock and picnic. We’re in T-shirts wondering whether we’ve applied enough sun cream as it’s not just mild, it’s hot. We’re being bitten by midges, yet all around is snow. There’s something magically inconsistent about the scene.
Lofty Skiddaw hones into view as we continue on to Blease Fell and begin our descent down its snowy then grassy slopes. Reaching the bottom, I glance back at Blencathra, a truly bewitching mountain – dramatic, beguiling, mysterious and magnificent.
When so much in the daily news serves to highlight our divisions, our bitter disagreements, our ideological incompatibilities, our burning sense of personal and political injustice, it’s easy to see us as a fractured nation. But Westminster take heed: here endures a legend – that one day a Once and Future King will rise again to unite us. Only Arthur, if you’re listening, timing is everything. Please don’t burst forth from Blencathra just as I’m gingerly stepping across the perilous serrations of Sharp Edge.
To find a map and directions for this route, visit WalkLakes.co.uk