Haystacks and Wainwright.
As a teenager, my overriding aspiration was to move to the city and form a band. It was the start of a journey that would take me from the clubs of Newcastle to the pages of the NME and the very cusp of success, only to change direction and drop me in the wilds of Cumbria. En route, Jimi Hendrix would make room for a Borough Treasurer from Blackburn who disliked music, didn’t much like people, but loved the hills and whose writing opened my eyes to a whole new world. I pay tribute to this unlikeliest of heroes on top of Haystacks, the heather-clad hill where his ashes are scattered.
From Hendrix to the Hills
My heroes were all musicians: Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Gram Parsons, Paul Weller, Black Francis… I could go on. I grew up in the country among the gentle hills of Wiltshire, but when I was 18, it wasn’t higher fells I craved, it was the city. Somewhere with nightlife and a thriving alternative music scene; somewhere I could join a band and play loud electric guitar in dark, sweaty, smoky clubs.
I secured a place at Newcastle University but my studies came second to my musical aspirations. After some false starts and a few years learning how to make noises other people might deign to listen to, I found friends with the right collective chemistry and we formed a band that was half decent. We were called Hug, and together we achieved most of our teenage ambitions. We toured the country in a transit van; played support to some of our heroes; we secured a record contract and released three e.p.’s and an album. We recorded sessions for Radio 1; and, at the start of 1991, the New Musical Express named us, alongside the Manic Street Preachers and Ocean Colour Scene, as one of their top tips for the coming year.
Unfortunately, we were the exception that proved the rule. While others on the list shot into the arena of international stardom, our journey stalled at the perimeter, performed a three-point turn and deposited us back at the Gateshead DHSS, where our hopes of evading more traditional employment were unceremoniously quashed.
I signed up for a course at Newcastle Poly or Northumbria University, as it had just become (supposedly an eleventh-hour name change, after some bright spark on the committee realised that rebranding it, “The City University of Newcastle upon Tyne” wouldn’t abbreviate well). I was to learn about IT, a far cry from my original vision of a career, but one that might, at least, earn me a living.
I hadn’t long qualified when my wife, Sandy was offered a dream job in Cumbria. I urged her to take it and set about seeking opportunities for myself, eventually securing a role with a small company developing medical software for managing people on dangerous drugs (the prescribed, not the proscribed kind). It seemed an interesting and worthwhile use of my new skills and we settled in the South Lakes.
Our first house was on the edge of a wood, right out in the sticks. It took a few weeks to adjust. I’d never really understood the term, “the roaring silence” until then. When you live in a city for any length of time you stop hearing the constant hum of traffic, but it becomes a vaguely hypnotic backdrop; a subliminal reassurance that the buzz of human activity continues as normal. To have it suddenly removed was disconcerting. I remember lying awake, acutely aware that I could hear absolutely nothing. Then a barn owl screeched outside the open window and I nearly shot through the ceiling. A few months later, I heard the bark of a stag for the first time and thought the Hound of the Baskervilles was coming through the wood.
But the countryside had started to work its magic and, before long, I felt the draw of the mountains. I invested in a set of OS maps and some walking guides, including a set of laminated cards, which I still use, although their age is now apparent from the supporting notes, which advise the intrepid explorer to “invest in a pair of walking stockings and a spare pullover”.
An Unlikely Hero
As my interest grew, I become acquainted with a name that seemed almost synonymous with the Lakeland fells. In the Carnforth Bookshop, I chanced upon a second-hand copy of one of his books, “The Southern Fells” and snapped it up to see what the fuss was about. The pocket-sized tome was a little dog-eared and it had obviously witnessed, first-hand, the summits it described; but it was all the more special for it. Its content, however, was a revelation: a series of pen and ink drawings, part map, part sketch that ingeniously captured the essence of a mountain and rendered it on a 2D page in such a way that the reader instantly understood its character and topography. I had always admired the way artist, David Hockney could convey so much with such an economy of line. Here too, the author accomplished a similar feat; and the accompanying text was pure, heartfelt poetry. It spoke volumes in a few simple paragraphs shot-through with warmth, humour, passion and practical advice.
Suddenly, Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend had to shuffle along to make room for a pipe-smoking, whiskered, staunchly conservative old curmudgeon, who went by the name of Alfred Wainwright. An unlikely coalition to say the least – Wainwright once assured a bemused Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs that, “music has never played an important part in my life. It’s never been an inspiration to me. Rather an irritation, very often.”
Born in Blackburn, Alfred Wainwright grew up in relative poverty. His father was an alcoholic, who drank much of what little he earned as a stonemason. The young Alfred was bright and a model pupil at school, where he consistently scored top marks, but he was forced to leave at thirteen in order to support his mother.
He got a job as an office boy with the Blackburn Borough Engineer’s department, but continued his studies at night school and eventually qualified as an accountant, which enabled him to climb the career ladder and become Borough Treasurer.
If the young Wainwright’s diligent attempts to better his lot were an attempt to escape the hardships of his upbringing, poverty was not the only thing he wanted to flee. From an early age, he had shown a keen interest in walking and cartography. He produced his own maps and frequently eschewed the industrial urban environment for long days in the tranquility of the countryside.
At the age of twenty three, Alfred, or AW as he preferred to be known, came to the Lakes for a walking holiday with his cousin, Eric. They climbed Orrest Head, above Windermere, where they witnessed the Lakeland fells for the first time. He described the experience as “magic; a revelation so unexpected that I stood transfixed, unable to believe my eyes”.
A year later, AW entered into a disastrous marriage with Ruth Holden. Throughout their courtship, Wainwright kept his cap on. When he finally removed it on their wedding night, the sight of his red hair revolted her and both parties rapidly came to regret their decision. Despite the birth of their son, Peter in 1933, domestic relations did not improve and the lure of the Lakes as an escape grew ever stronger.
Wainwright’s biographer, Hunter Davies is convinced that had AW found happiness in his first marriage, he would have “walked far less and written nothing”. As it was, his trips to the fells became a weekly pilgrimage and he eventually took a pay cut to move to Kendal in 1941. Eleven years later, he started writing his Pictorial Guides as a “love letter” to the landscape that held him in such rapture.
That AW sought solace among the summits is abundantly obvious throughout his books. He describes finding “a balm for jangled nerves in the silence and solitude of the peaks” and of “man’s search for beauty, growing keener as so much in the world grows uglier”.
An intensely private man, he disliked crowds and disapproved of group excursions as evidenced in his mournful description of the popular route up the Old Man of Coniston: “This is the way the crowds go: the day trippers, the courting couples, babies and grandmothers, the lot. On this stony parade, fancy handbags and painted toenails are as likely to be seen as rucksacks and boots.” This is accompanied by a sketch of a lone walker looking to the fells while a crowd stares in the opposite direction, trying to spot Blackpool Tower.
By his own admission, Wainwright was a shy child who grew up to be anti-social, but the popular perception of an old curmudgeon is a little unfair. Bonhomie toward like-minded explorers runs right through his writing and his dry humour is everywhere.
In a personal note at the conclusion of his final Pictorial Guide, “The Western Fells”, AW lists his six best Lakeland mountains as “Scafell Pike, Bowfell, Pillar, Great Gable, Blencathra and Crinkle Crags”, then quickly qualifies the list, explaining, “These are not necessarily the six fells I like the best. It grieves me to have to omit Haystacks (most of all)”.
Haystacks is not technically a mountain, being just short of the requisite 2000 ft, and AW is being objective in omitting it on these grounds; but this relatively diminutive hill captured his heart more than any other. He describes it as standing “unabashed and unashamed amid a circle of higher fells, like a shaggy terrier in the company of foxhounds”… “For a man trying to get a persistent worry out of his mind, the top of Haystacks is a wonderful cure.”
The “persistent worry” of his home life continued until, in his own words, “my wife left me, took the dog and I never saw her again”. AW eventually found matrimonial happiness when he married an old friend, Betty McNally. She became not only his spouse but his walking companion. After his death in 1991, Betty carried out AW’s long-held wish and scattered his ashes by Innominate Tarn on top of his beloved Haystacks.
Haystacks and Fleetwith Pike
It’s been years since I climbed Haystacks and when I did, the top was shrouded in mist. It’s high time I return. I leave the house at 6:00 am for a glorious drive that runs the full lengths of Windermere, Rydal Water, Grasmere, Thirlmere and Derwent Water. From the high level drama of the Honister Pass, I descend to Gatesgarth with Buttermere stretched out before me, sparkling in the September sun.
I park the car and follow the stream through the farmyard and out toward High Crag, towering ahead. To my left, Fleetwith Edge soars up over Low and High Raven Crags to the top of Fleetwith Pike. This is my intended descent. It looks a little daunting from below, but the views will be outstanding. Between these two loftier neighbours lies Haystacks, a dwarf in comparison but no grassy hillock, its craggy rock-face hints at the interest on top.
I must have slept at an odd angle as I have a stiff neck which the drive has turned into a dull headache. Wainwright famously declared, “one can forget even a raging toothache on Haystacks”, so I’m sure it won’t bother me for long, but as I round a little coppice of trees, I find a sealed tray of paracetamol in the path. I don’t really believe in fate but can’t deny the serendipity and it feeds a strange feeling that I’m somehow supposed to be here today.
I start the climb up to Scarth Gap between Haystacks and High Crag, pausing occasionally to cast an eye back over Buttermere and Crummock Water. On reaching Scarth Gap, I’m greeted with fine views over Ennerdale to two of Lakeland’s heavyweights, Pillar and Great Gable. Pillar’s precipitous northern slopes are bathed in green shadow, sheer and formidable. I try to trace the High Level Traverse between the crags to the magnificent column of Pillar Rock, from which the mountain takes its name. I lose the line of the path (apparently it’s not much easier to follow when you’re on it).
A cloud floats across the face of Gable, a huge dark turret rising from the valley head. Over Buttermere, the bulky mass of Grassmoor dominates, while here, across the saddle, the path climbs steeply to the rocky heights of High Crag. These are the “foxhounds” in whose company the “shaggy terrier” behind me stands “unabashed and unashamed”. I turn around and continue the climb to discover why.
The question is quickly answered as the ascent turns into a scramble; nothing technically difficult, but challenging enough to establish this as mountain terrain, good and proper, and the rival of any of its neighbours. On reaching the parapet, Haystacks’ treasures are revealed in full – a heather-clad castle of rocky towers and tiny tarns, leading eyes and feet in a merry dance of intrigue. Two excrescences of stone vie for the distinction of summit, although the honour is usually bestowed on the farther one, which boasts a cairn as its crown.
Cloud shadows dapple the flanks of High Crag as I look back across a small blue pond that glistens like an overture to the watery expanse of Buttermere beyond. I’m almost entirely alone, but for two distant figures perched precariously atop the turret of Big Stack, framed against the plunging crags of Fleetwith Pike. Everywhere I turn is magical and somehow otherworldly. Haystacks has all the rugged drama of its neighbours but here, in place of a desolate wilderness of boulder, is a wild beauty and a pervading sense of tranquillity.
I cross a depression and clamber to the true summit for another breathtaking panorama; then meander down through the heather, where herdwicks graze happily, to the peaceful shore of Innominate Tarn. AW’s wish to be scattered here is expressed more than once in his writings, but never as fully and eloquently as in Memoirs of a Fellwanderer, where he says this:
“All I ask for, at the end, is a last long resting place by the side of Innominate Tarn, on Haystacks, where the water gently laps the gravelly shore and the heather blooms and Pillar and Gable keep unfailing watch. A quiet place, a lonely place.
“I shall go to it, for the last time, and be carried – someone who knew me in life will take me and empty me out of a little box and leave me there alone. And if you, dear reader, should get a bit of grit in your boot as you are crossing Haystacks in the years to come, please treat it with respect. It might be me”.
I’m transfixed by the gently rippling waters and could easily linger all day. AW was not a religious man. He knew heaven was right here and to mingle with this soil and feed the heather was his hope for an afterlife. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…
To Wainwright, true music was here – in birdsong, or the tinkling of a mountain stream, or the sound of the wind among the peaks. I can’t argue with that. It’s perfect.
Eventually, I wrestle myself away and follow the path as it wends down through some remarkable rock scenery to Dubs Bottom, from where I start the ascent of Fleetwith Pike.
The contrast could not be more striking. The intoxicating spell of a natural Shangri-La is broken by the harsh scars of industry in the spoil heaps and engineered gullies of Dubs quarry. From here, the path follows the line of an old works tramway to the head of Honister Crag, known as Black Star. Wainwright describes Black Star as “a place without beauty. A place to daunt they eye and creep the flesh”. The crag itself is not in view, but on the horizon a spoil heap rises, battleship grey, like a dark and sinister tower. If Haystacks was a fairy tale fortress, the vision ahead is the Castle of the Dolorous Guard, straight from the page of Arthurian legend. “Dub” is a Celtic word for black and right on cue, the sky darkens. It’s enough to send a slight shiver down the spine.
It would be remiss to imply the old quarry workings are a lamentable eyesore, however. Industrial heritage holds its own fascination, especially as it is slowly reclaimed by nature. AW understood that Lakeland isn’t a true wilderness. The hand of man is everywhere, from the intricate pattern of dry stone walls enclosing lush green grazing pastures in the valley bottoms to the shafts and tunnels of old mines that pierce the fell sides. As he put it (in describing Honister), “there is no beauty in despoliation and devastation but there can be dramatic effect and interest and so it is here”.
But the desolate outcrop of Black Star is not my destination and I turn left after Dubs Hut (maintained as a bothy by the Mountain Bothies Association) and climb beside a slate-filled gully to two spoil heaps where I pick up a path left, which meanders over open moorland to the summit of Fleetwith Pike. Here, one of the finest views in Lakeland awaits, looking straight down the valley over Buttermere and Crummock Water with distant Loweswater curving off to the left.
I sit and stare at this majestic scene as I eat my lunch, then begin the plunging descent of Fleetwith Edge. It’s not nearly as daunting as it appeared from below. There are some steep rock steps to negotiate and some minor scrambling, but nothing too difficult if due care is taken. The path follows well chosen zigzags and is impossible to rush, not only because you need to watch your footing, but also because it’s absolutely necessary to pause frequently and marvel at the improving vista.
At the bottom, I join the road and I’m suddenly struck by the hope that my gaitors have done their job. What if I find a bit of grit in my boot? I can’t leave AW in the car park, he hated cars.
I look back and notice the white wooden cross low on the fell side. This marks the spot where Fanny Mercer, a servant girl from Rugby, fell from Fleetwith Edge in September 1887 (130 years ago, this month). Her simple memorial is a sobering reminder that the fells can be treacherous as well as beautiful. It’s heartbreaking to think one so young was robbed of her life on what should have been a joyful excursion.
Tragic accidents occur daily, some of much greater magnitude than the sad story of a servant girl from over a hundred years ago. And yet this simple cross remains affecting because there’s no objective yardstick for pain. That whole communities are devastated by fire, flood, disease or famine doesn’t negate the suffering of someone bruised by a failed relationship or grieving the loss of a loved one. We all have our crosses to bear, however big or small, but ironically, it’s often hardship that sharpens our senses to the beauty in the world. The most affecting songs are rooted in heartbreak and it was perhaps the pain of a loveless marriage that led Wainwright to find hope, inspiration and validation among these hills. I hope Fanny experienced a little of that wonder too, before her life was cut so abruptly short.
“The fleeting hour of life of those who love the hills is quickly spent, but the hills are eternal. Always there will be the lonely ridge, the dancing beck, the silent forest; always there will be the exhilaration of the summits. These are for the seeking, and those who seek and find while there is still time will be blessed both in mind and body” – A Wainwright.