Category Archives: General

A Walk on the Wild Side

The Mosedale Horseshoe and a Night at Black Sail

A tough but beautiful walk around the Mosedale Horseshoe takes in some of England’s finest mountain scenery and ends with a night at the country’s remotest youth hostel, deep in the wilds of Ennerdale. It begins by the shore of Wastwater, where the sight of divers kitting up in the car park, stirs memories of a notorious 80’s murder enquiry.

The Lady in the Lake

There’s something utterly wild about Wastwater.  Forget the pastoral prettiness of Windermere or Coniston, England’s deepest lake is a feral beast; savagely beautiful but ever poised to bare its teeth. On this July morning, the sky is overcast and there’s a distinct chill in the breeze. The choppy waters are gun-metal grey, rippled with white-crested waves; dark and inscrutable, daring you to guess what secrets lie beneath.

Wastwater from Yewbarrow
Wastwater from Yewbarrow

In the wooded parking area beside Overbeck Bridge, two men are preparing to find out. As they don dry suits and all manner of sophisticated diving gear, Tim remarks that they must be expecting it to be very cold. One of the divers looks up and smiles, “yeah, at 40 metres down, the temperature stays pretty much the same all year round”.

40 metres is the limit for diving with compressed air. Below that, special suits and gas mixtures are needed to survive. For all the lake’s imagined mystery, what most divers find is an endless expanse of mud; or perhaps, if they’re lucky, the gnome garden, introduced by an enterprising soul to add a bit of novelty to the view.

On occasion, though, Wastwater has yielded darker secrets. In 1984, Neil Pritt was diving at a depth of 34 metres when he spied a rolled-up carpet tied to a concrete block. At first, he thought nothing of it, but aware that police had recently searched the lake, looking for missing French fell-walker, Veronique Mireille Marre, Neil took a closer look. His suspicions were confirmed – the carpet concealed the body of a woman.

But it wasn’t Veronique. Whoever she was, she’d been down there some time. The cold had preserved her so well, it was only a matter of days before police made a positive ID. In the meantime, the press dubbed her “The Lady of the Lake”.

When investigators removed her wedding ring, it bore the inscription, “Margaret 15-11-63 Peter”. Detectives made the connection with the case of Margaret Hogg from Guildford, reported missing by her husband, Peter in 1976. Peter was arrested and confessed to killing his wife but claimed extreme provocation. He told the Old Bailey how Margaret had been having an affair, which she made little effort to conceal. On the night in question, not content with taunting her husband, Margaret physically attacked him. Peter retaliated by grabbing her by the throat and squeezing hard. When the life went out of her eyes, he stopped. When she slumped to the floor, he realised she was dead and coolly hatched a plan that very nearly proved the perfect crime.

After wrapping Margaret’s body in an old carpet, Peter put her in the boot of the car with a rubber dingy and a concrete block. Then he drove through the night to Wastwater. Had Peter rowed out a few metres further, Margaret’s body would have sunk to the very bottom, nearly twice the depth a diver could reach. As it was, she came to rest on a shelf just under half way down, where she would remain for the next eight years.

I’m not sure what a modern jury would have made of Peter’s defence, but in 1984, a woman’s infidelity was enough to hand the moral high ground to the man. Peter was acquitted of murder and given three years for manslaughter, plus an extra year for obstructing the coroner and perjury in divorce proceedings.

Veronique’s body was later found at the bottom of Broken Rib Crag. The coroner returned an open verdict, but there was nothing to suggest that this was anything other than a tragic accident.

The Mosedale Horseshoe

For all its brooding solitude, Wastwater is magnificently beautiful. The vista over lake to the fells at its head has been voted Britain’s favourite view. Great Gable takes centre stage, while in the foreground, resembling the hull of an upturned boat, stands Yewbarrow. Yewbarrow is the start of the Mosedale Horseshoe, an airy circuit that boasts some of the finest mountain scenery in Lakeland. Tim and I are going to walk the ridge to its highest point on Pillar. From there, we’ll descend into the wilds of neighbouring Ennerdale for a night at England’s remotest youth hostel – the Black Sail hut.

We leave the car park following the stream, cross a stile, and turn right on to a steep and unrelenting grass slope. Ahead is the formidable face of Bell Rib. There doesn’t appear to be a way up for mere mortals. Indeed, Wainwright declares it “unclimbable except by experts”, adding, “maps showing paths going straight over it are telling fibs”. Fortunately, the Ordnance Survey is less aspirational. Their route skirts left and climbs between Bell Rib and Dropping Crag. Such is the gradient, we’re looking for the fork long before we reach it.

The path ends abruptly at a steep, stone-filled gully. We put hand to rock and start to scramble. At just over 2000 ft., Yewbarrow is the baby of the group, but it’s no mean mountain and refuses to surrender its summit without some considerable effort in return.

Wastwater over Bell Rib
Wastwater over Bell Rib

At the top, a grass slope leads to a narrow ridge beyond Bell Rib. The view behind is wonderful – Wastwater, a shimmer of silver beneath the whitening cloud – but it’s a mere taster of what’s to come. When we reach the crest, a dramatic cleft in the crags, known as The Great Door, frames a breathtaking vista over the lake. The Screes opposite are patterned purple with heather and we can see beyond to Burnmoor Tarn.

Tim at the Great Door
Tim at the Great Door
Wastwater and Burnmoor Tarn
Wastwater and Burnmoor Tarn

A few easy rock steps are the only obstacles that remain between here and the summit. When we reach it, the panorama is remarkable; Pillar rises like barnacled leviathan from the mossy sea of Mosedale; sunlight gilds the green skirts of Kirk Fell and, to the east, the Roof of England is swathed in cloud, Mickledore just visible through the mist like a gateway to Middle Earth.

Pillar rising above Mosedale
Pillar rising above Mosedale

Across a depression, we climb to the top of Stirrup Crag and glimpse our onward path. Thin wisps of cloud float like smoke around the top of Red Pike. A faint path snakes through charcoal crags to a carpet of olive green above.

The way lies across Dore Head, some 300 feet below. If we’d studied the contours we’d have known the path that veered off left a little way back was the easier proposition. As it is, we stick with the one we’re on and climb down the crag itself; descending abruptly through a maze of chimneys; lowering ourselves down rock steps; turning back from the odd dead-end which culminates in a sheer drop. It’s slow and unnerving at times, but there’s only one genuine difficulty: a drop I think I can make in two gentle steps but misjudge and have to jump a little too far for comfort. Thankfully, I land well, with all extremities intact, and manage not to career over the next edge.

Once down, we’re slightly shocked at how severe Stirrup Crag looks from below and wonder if we’d have attempted it had we known.  I later read that Wainwright left a trail of blood over these rocks and feel relieved they weren’t craving a fresh sacrifice. For some reason, Tim chooses now to mention that the Black Sail Youth Hostel cancellation policy includes a plea to the effect – “let us know if you are not coming. If we’re expecting you and you don’t show, we’ll send out Mountain Rescue.” I’m not sure whether it’s a comfort or a concern.

A party of around 15 fresh faced teenagers has arrived at Dore Head ahead of us. They took the sensible path. In fact, they may have bypassed Yewbarrow altogether. They’re now comfortably settled in for an extended rest and refreshment stop. If they’re going to tackle the full round at this rate, it could prove a very long day! I hope they’re not descending from here, though. The traditional way down to Mosedale is a notorious scree slope. Once the delight of scree runners, it’s now so dangerously eroded it looks concave from below. A grass rake offers an alternative but even that looks severe. I think of Veronique Marre and conclude some risks just aren’t worth taking; then try not to think about that as I look back over Stirrup Crag on the way up Red Pike.

Kirk fell from Red Pike
Kirk fell from Red Pike

Once on top, isolated shafts of sunlight penetrate cracks in the cloud and Scoat Tarn sparkles to the south. Haycock is now in sight, while in the opposite direction Great Gable rises over Kirk Fell, no longer a pyramid but a mighty dome. Beyond the summit, we perch on crags above Black Combe and eat pies, looking across to Pillar and the col of Wind Gap.

Out of the breeze, it’s warm. Certainly, warm enough for midges to swarm around Tim. Apparently, he only had space in his rucksack for one bottle so it was a toss-up between sun cream and midge repellent. He went with sun cream, which is probably why the sun has so far failed to break through. Tim swears by a midge repellent that’s marketed by Avon as a moisturiser. It’s called Skin So Soft and whenever he produces a bottle, he feels compelled to tell me “it’s what the SAS use”. He retreats into the breeze and the midges turn on me so I’m compelled to join him.

We climb the saddle to Scoat Fell and catch our first sight of Ennerdale Water, a pale shimmer against the dense green of the pine plantations on its banks. The summit lies a little to our left and a fine ridge runs out to Steeple, which looks as inspiring as its name suggests. It’s all too tempting, but we still have a some way to go before we reach Black Sail. Supper is served at seven, so to arrive ravenous and find we’d missed it would be miserable. There’s also that thing in the cancellation clause that convinces us to press on to Black Crags without detour. From there, we descend to Wind Gap and begin the tough pull up to Pillar. With the exertion, any residual disappointment at skipping Steeple turns to quiet relief.

Ennerdale Water
Ennerdale Water
Steeple
Steeple

Few labours reward so richly, however. As we reach the summit, the sun breaks through, illuminating the landscape in way that is nothing short of magical. Pillar Rock rises majestically above a sward of conifer; Great Gable is a tower of rugged glory; Broad Stand, finally free of cloud, a brutal bastion on the ramparts of Sca Fell. But as shafts of sunlight dance across the slopes, this terrain of intransigent rock manages to evoke a swirling Turner seascape: the white splashes of exposed rock are surf and spray; dark crags, the welling eddies; the wave upon wave of rolling peaks, a surging ocean, every shade of green.

Pillar Rock
Pillar Rock
Great Gable from Pillar
Great Gable from Pillar
Broad Stand, Sca Fell
Broad Stand, Sca Fell
High Crag, Robinson and Hindscarth from Pillar
High Crag, Robinson and Hindscarth from Pillar
Ennerdale from Pillar
Ennerdale from Pillar
Robinson and Hindscarth
Robinson and Hindscarth

All the way down to Looking Stead, I linger, attempting to capture this on camera. It’s beyond my skills and if I lavish words, it’s only to try and convey what the pictures fail to tell.

Descending to Black Sails Pass
Descending to Black Sails Pass

At the top of Black Sail Pass, we meet a man who asks us if we’ve seen a party of 15 teenagers. They’re not late, he’s just bored of waiting. Something tells me he’s in for a long day.

Black Sail Hut

We descend into Ennerdale, where, in the remotest corner of this wild valley, lies an old shepherd’s bothy: The Black Sail Hut, now a Youth Hostel and our home for the night. A warm welcome and cold beers await. We sit outside on wooden benches in the golden light of evening and watch the Galloway cattle that roam free like big black bison, old as the hills.

 

Ennerdale
Ennerdale

Tim disappears for a shower and I watch a small figure wend her way down the long path from Windy Gap between Great and Green Gable. When she arrives, she unshoulders her pack, grabs a beer and joins me outside.  We compare notes on our routes. As we chat, I suddenly realise why she looks familiar.  It’s Yvonne, a friend of my wife’s from about ten years ago. Yvonne is a high-powered consultant to head gardeners. I’ve only met her once, when she led a tour of the grounds in a Lakeland stately home, dispensing invaluable tricks and tips, some of which I wrote down and perpetually promise to put into practice. She asks about Sandy and we laugh out loud at the odds of meeting like this.  Tim reappears around the corner, and the midges make a bee-line for him. Yvonne proffers a bottle of repellent.  “Skin So Soft” he beams delightedly, then drops his voice an octave and adds “the SAS use it, you know”.

Great Gable from Black Sails Hut
Great Gable from Black Sail Hut
Relaxing at Black Sails Hut
Relaxing at Black Sail Hut

After supper, we sip beers and swap stories with two guys sharing our dorm.  They’re old friends from London, who have moved out of the capital in different directions, but meet up once or twice a year for walking holidays. They’ve been in the Lakes all week, tramping the hills and staying in hostels. There are three of them but the third has turned in for an early night.  Unsurprisingly, he’s the first up in the morning. I join him for a coffee while we wait for breakfast.  He tells me how they got a light soaking on top of Haystacks late yesterday afternoon.

“That’s odd” I say, “we were on Pillar around that time, looking down on Haystacks. It looked as if it was in sunshine.”

He looks puzzled, then shrugs, “perhaps it was earlier – three-ish possibly”. Very localised showers are possible in the hills but it still doesn’t quite add up.

“We stayed at Honister Youth Hostel, last night”, he continues.

“No, you didn’t”, I shout (silently), “you stayed here. I’ve just seen you get out of bed”.

“We’ve been lucky today though”, he goes on, “it’s been dry all day”.

Incredulous, I want to scream, “It’s quarter to eight in the morning. You’ve not been anywhere yet and besides, it’s bucketing it down”… but then I realise, he’s just a day out.  By “today”, he means “yesterday”, “yesterday” means the day before.  Suddenly, everything makes sense. It’s pretty much the same account we got from his mates – you just have to subtract a day.

It’s an odd idiosyncrasy, but I can think of two possible explanations: he’s either a timelord or after several consecutive days on the fells, the days begin to blur.  I’ve been out for one night and I can already understand that.

Everything that seems so integral to our existence – the bustle of the working week, its routines, schedules, deadlines – simply dwindles in importance out here; it all seems like so much “sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Our own inflated sense of self-importance, seems equally ridiculous. Set against the timeless scale of this primal landscape, our hive and industry seems no more significant than the swarming of midges.

Sunset over Ennerdale
Sunset over Ennerdale

I scratch the bites and the simile suddenly seems poignant – we too do disproportionate damage. Wainwright called Ennerdale’s pine plantations an act of vandalism – a defacing of the indigenous landscape – but we do much worse than this. And with a climate change denier in the White House, efforts to curb our excesses are under threat.

In the 60’s, a NASA scientist called James Lovelock wrote a book called GAIA, in which he argues the Earth acts like a single living organism. Its ecosystems adapt and evolve to marginalise or eliminate threats. If he’s right, even now, the planet could be developing a natural strain of Skin So Soft to send us blighters packing.

My mind wanders back to the here and now where my new acquaintance is finishing his account. I conclude he’s a timelord and we refer to him thereafter as the Doctor.

With the cloud down and heavy rain set in, we abandon plans to climb Great Gable and head back over the Black Sail Pass. It’s an opportunity postponed, not lost, as one thing is certain. We’re coming back here.

Black Sails Hut
Black Sails Hut

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All That Glitters…

The Newlands Horseshoe

The wild scenery of the Newlands valley is spectacularly beautiful and surprisingly famous, prized by both Beatrix Potter and Queen Elizabeth I for very different reasons. On this inspiring high-level circuit, I learn why the Earl of Northumberland lost his head and how a hedgehog may hold the key to happiness.

The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-winkle

“Once upon a time there was a little girl called Lucie, who lived at a farm called Little-town. She was a good little girl – only she was always losing her pocket handkerchiefs.”

So begins Beatrix Potter’s The Tale Of Mrs Tiggy-winkle, in which an absentminded little girl goes in search of her pocket handkerchiefs and pinafore. As she scrambles up a hill called Cat Bells, she discovers a door in the hillside. She knocks and is invited into the tiny kitchen of Mrs Tiggy-winkle, a washer-woman who launders clothes for the local animals. Not only has Mrs Tiggy-winkle found Lucie’s lost linen, she’s washed and pressed it all for her.

Out of gratitude, Lucie helps Mrs Tiggy-winkle deliver the animals’ clean clothes. Once back at the stile, she watches Mrs Tiggy-winkle scamper home and notices how, all of a sudden, her new friend looks smaller and appears to have swapped her clothes for a coat of prickles. Only then does Lucie realise that Mrs. Tiggy-winkle is a hedgehog.

Some think Lucie fell asleep at the stile and dreamt the whole escapade but they can’t explain how she returned home with her freshly laundered pinafore and missing handkerchiefs.

The tale was Potter’s sixth book and a departure in so far as the setting was real. Cat Bells is a well-known Lakeland landmark, familiar to those visiting Keswick as the distinctive hill rising over the far bank of Derwent Water. Its western slopes run down to the altogether wilder Newlands valley, at the heart of which, lies Littletown, a tiny hamlet comprising a farm and a few cottages.

Cat Bells and Derwent Water
Cat Bells and Derwent Water

In the summer of 1904, Potter took a holiday at Lingholm, just outside Portinscale, and spent much of the time sketching Newlands, Littletown, Cat Bells and the mighty Skiddaw, whose summits dominate the skyline to the north-east. Even the door in the hillside had a basis in reality – it probably shuttered an old mine level. These pen and ink drawings were reproduced in the finished book virtually unchanged. With its publication, what is often considered one of the quietest and most secluded of Lakeland valleys became known to millions of children around the world.

The Rising of the North

But Newlands found fame long before Potter’s time. Goldscope, on the lower slopes of Hindscarth, was the most renowned of the Cumbrian mines, yielding rich seams of copper, lead and even small quantities of gold and silver. The German engineers, who spearheaded the works, named it Gottesgab, or God’s Gift (eventually corrupted to Goldscope). Elizabeth I considered the mine so strategically important that she requisitioned it from its owner, Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland and refused to pay him royalties. The case went to court and unsurprisingly Percy lost. A catholic and supporter of Mary Queen of Scots, the earl was already ill-disposed to the protestant Elizabeth and the loss of revenue from his land proved the last straw. In 1569, Percy joined forces with The Earl of Westmorland and several other Catholic nobles in the Rising of the North, an armed insurrection against the Queen. The rebellion was quashed and Elizabeth deprived Percy of not only his mine but also his head.

The Newlands Horseshoe

Newlands is ringed by an impressive horseshoe of fells. The eastern wall comprises Cat Bells, Maiden Moor and High Spy. At its head looms the centrepiece, the rather prosaically named, Dale Head, and two ridges line the western side. The outer wall is formed by Robinson, dropping to the ridge of High Snab Bank, while the similar inner wall is formed by Hindscarth dropping to the ridge of Scope End, under which, runs the Goldscope mine.

The Newlands Valley
The Newlands Valley

It’s a beautiful June morning when I park up in Littletown and take the track opposite the farm, signposted Hause Gate and Cat Bells. I stop briefly to admire Scope End, which rises majestically across the valley. Wainwright advises walkers to “make a special note of the Scope End ridge: this route on an enchanting track along the heathery crest, is really splendid… In descent, the route earns full marks because of the lovely views of Newlands directly ahead.”

Scope End
Scope End

I’m here to tackle the horseshoe, but heeding Wainwright’s advice, I leave Scope End for last and follow the track eastwards up the fellside, bearing right on to a grassy bridleway. The path crosses a stream then zigzags up to the col of Hause Gate between Cat Bells and Maiden Moor. Here, I’m rewarded with magnificent views over Derwent Water to Bassenthwaite Lake and Skiddaw beyond. It’s just gone 9am and there’s already strength in the sun. The Newlands slopes are shades of green so vivid they assault the senses; but a summer haze paints the distant shores in watercolour.

Cat Bells lies to my left, the opposite direction to the rest of the horseshoe, so I forego a chance encounter with a hedgehog and turn right for Maiden Moor instead. Maiden Moor’s summit is a featureless plateau, but from here on the horseshoe is an airy, high level circuit that is never short of spectacular. The drama increases as soon as the crags of High Spy North Top appear, its rocky outcrops affording the last sparkling views over Derwentwater.

Derwent Water from High Spy North Top
Derwent Water from High Spy North Top

The true summit lies a little further on. At its western edge, the precipitous cliffs of Eel Crag plunge to Newlands’ floor. In counterpoint, across the valley, the rocky face of Hindscarth rises like a dark, grooved pyramid from an upward sweep of green. The spires of Coledale loom beyond. On the eastern side, a striking vista unfurls down the length of Borrowdale, while straight ahead, beyond High Spy’s summit, a massive cloud inversion rolls over Great Gable like breaking waves, the surf disappearing below the skyline. It looks every bit like the top of the world. Such a scene would have inspired the Great Masters to paint lavish depictions of God.

Hindscarth from High Spy
Hindscarth from High Spy

No sooner does this thought occur than I notice a solitary figure sitting on the horizon, looking down on creation; and I realise the Great Masters got it all wrong. There’s no long white beard or flowing robes; no muscle-bound Adonis hurling thunderbolts; no Bacchanalian feast; just an old chap in plaid shirt and battered fishing cap, legs outstretched, eating corned-beef sandwiches from a Tupperware tucker box. As a portrait of the Almighty, it’s perfect. I note how High Spy’s summit cairn is a work of art – a perfect stone cone worthy of sculptor, Andy Goldsworthy. Perhaps it was a divine commission. As I pass, I shout a greeting to God. He responds with a brief salute and returns to his sandwiches.

Top of the World - High Spy
Top of the World – High Spy

The seasoned mountaineer, Bill Birkett describes the pull up Dale Head as “strenuous”, so I’m ready for a stiff climb up its eastern face; but only once I’m over the crest of High Spy, do I discover quite how far the path first drops to Dale Head Tarn. On the way down, the cloud inversion is ever more striking. It makes the loss of altitude worthwhile, so I feast my eyes in the certain knowledge my quads will pick up the tab shortly when I have it all to regain. A large stone shelter sits above the tarn. I rest a few minutes, staring straight down the valley to Skiddaw, then wander down to the waterline. The surface is an oasis of calm cool blue, glittering among the reed beds. A lovely spot to while away a sunny day. But I must put these thoughts from my mind, I have another mountain to climb.

Dale Head Tarn
Dale Head Tarn
Dale Head from High Spy
Dale Head from High Spy

The ascent is steep but mercifully short and the effort is gratuitously rewarded. Dale Head’s sculptural cairn makes High Spy’s look like a preliminary sketch. The real show-stopper, though, is the magnificent view down the entire length of the Newlands valley – a perfect, glacial, U-shaped example. In geological terms, Dale Head is the junction between two major Lakeland rock formations: sedimentary Skiddaw Slate to the north and Borrowdale Volcanic to the south; systems of stone separated by fifty million years of planetary evolution.

Dale Head Summit Cairn
Dale Head Summit Cairn

The view south over Fleetwith Pike to Great Gable, Kirk Fell and Pillar is equally arresting. I walk west along the long flat top, pausing frequently to savour it all. Just as the path begins to drop to the depression between Dale Head and Hindscarth, a magnificent aspect opens over Buttermere to the High Stile range. A few yards further down, a photographer is mounting an impressive looking camera on a tripod. It’s the perfect spot to sit and have some lunch.

Buttermere from Dale Head
Buttermere from Dale Head

A crunch of scree below: two fell-runners are jogging up the significant gradient. When they reach me, they pause for breath and we chat. They’re attempting a section of the Bob Graham Round, a leisurely little leg-stretcher in which contestants conquer 44 peaks in under 24 hours! They’ve run over Robinson and they’re heading for Great Gable. After the briefest of respites, they resume and I watch in bewilderment. Apparently by pushing your body to that kind of physical extreme, you experience an endorphin-induced euphoria. I’m perched on a rock, eating a pie – it’s euphoria enough for me!

Redemption

After a leisurely lunch, I stroll down to the depression and follow the path that veers off right to the summit of Hindscarth. Across Little Dale, Robinson drops sharply to the ridge of High Snab Bank as I descend to Scope End. Wainwright was right about Scope End. The ridge is utterly enchanting. As I walk amongst the Bilberry and Bell Heather, I realise I’m smiling. This is hardly remarkable: I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy, it’s a beautiful day and I’m walking the fells; but I’ve been out of sorts all week. Sometimes, it seems as if the current is against you and you expend all your energy just treading water. On top of that, a friend is seriously ill in hospital and the prognosis is not good. If the worst happens, people I care a great deal about face a very painful time ahead.

Being out here doesn’t change that, but somehow it makes it easier to accept. We spend much of our lives so divorced from the natural order of things that we are easily shocked and outraged, even terrified by its realities. Immersing ourselves in the natural world for a short while, helps put things in context. Out here it’s easy to see how precarious our lives are. This landscape is hundreds of millions of years old, the whole of human existence, but a few thousand. Our tiny sparks of life are the briefest of candles, but to have been lit at all we’ve beaten overwhelming odds. Our time is short, but the fact we are here is astonishing. The only possible response is to seize life firmly with both hands and wring out every last drop of value. What that actually means is different for each of us, but what it definitely doesn’t mean is dwelling too long on the past or fretting so much about the future that we fail to embrace the present. My friend has never been guilty of that. Neither should I be.

As for all that other stuff – well it seems to have shrunk drastically in significance. Spend too long staring at your shoes and the obstacles in front can seem like mountains. Climb a real mountain and you see them for what they are – trifling impediments, easily overcome with the smallest of steps.

The Wild Majesty of the Newlands Valley
The Wild Majesty of the Newlands Valley

Beatrix Potter understood. Some literary critics, such as Ruth MacDonald, felt the plot of Mrs Tiggy-winkle was “thin”, perhaps dated because of its apparent concern with the domestic chores traditionally associated with girls; perhaps also, because Lucie appears to learn nothing of herself as a consequence of the story. But Hugh Carpenter suggests the book explores the theme of nature-as-redemption. In this respect, the linen may be allegorical. Something is missing from Lucie’s life; her world is disordered. In Mrs Tiggy-winkle’s kitchen, Lucie immerses herself in an older, slower, natural Arcadia where she finds a temporary refuge. When she returns to home, what was missing has been restored.

Potter was not just an author but a hill farmer and a firm believer in the value of conserving the landscape and its traditional ways of life. The existence of the Lake District National Park owes much to her bequest and she would undoubtedly be delighted to learn her legacy has just been granted UNESCO world heritage site status. Given Potter’s beliefs, I feel Carpenter’s interpretation is right. It can be no coincidence, that Mrs Tiggy-winkle is the first of Potter’s books to be set (explicitly anyway) in a real-life location she cared so much about.

I reach the valley floor and look back at its sweeping green majesty. To my left, the beck glitters like a bed of jewels. Scope End’s eastern flank bears a small scar, however. Two spoil heaps mark the entrance to Goldscope mine. It looks far too tiny to have such a turbulent and far-reaching history; feuds fought and lives lost over the small seams of metal encased in its rocks.

Church Beck
Church Beck

The quantities of gold and silver extracted here were negligible, but Elizabeth I used its copper to debase the national currency – swapping silver coinage for copper and keeping the silver for herself. I ponder how much of human history has centred on the ruthless pursuit of metal we deem “precious” by dint of its being glittery and rare. Homo Sapiens: “wise man” in Latin; on the vast timeline of evolution, we’ve only been around for about five minutes; perhaps we’re not quite as evolved as we think we are.

As I walk down toward the footbridge, I pass a wooden bench. It bears a commemorative plaque:

“Brian Gudgeon Machin

1924-2000

He drew strength from the fells”

You and me both Brian – and a little girl called Lucie who was always losing her pocket handkerchiefs.

Brian's Bench
Brian’s Bench

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Ghosts of Canadian Airmen

Wetherlam, Swirl How & Great Carrs via Steel Edge

An Andy Goldsworthy sheepfold and the wreck of a wartime bomber bookend a thought-provoking walk over the Coniston fells, ascending Wetherlam by a route that evaded Wainwright.

Sheep Folds

Good art transforms a space. It introduces something new, often forged from foreign materials like canvas, paint, bronze or stone and worked into a form that redefines and enriches its setting. It can bring the outdoors in, or life to a sterile cityscape.

But placing artworks in natural settings can be problematic. The Countryside Code compels us to leave no trace of our presence, so the notion of introducing something man-made is counter-intuitive. Even given an artist’s skill in complementing their surroundings, it seems somehow arrogant to assume we can improve on nature.

And yet we do this all the time. Agriculture and horticulture are both attempts to instil an artificial order on the natural world, editing out the bits we don’t want and cultivating the bits we do. Why should a well-tended flower bed be somehow less of an aberration than a sculpture made from concrete and steel? Perhaps because the garden showcases our stewardship of nature while the sculpture is an attempt to impose something alien upon it. A wheat field and a quarry are both examples of harvesting natural resources, yet one appeals to our sense of aesthetics while the other offends it. For all their artifice, the garden and the wheat field are part of nature; born of the wild, their order is ephemeral – if left untended, they will quickly revert.

We may embrace art in the landscape, but we often find it less controversial when in the ordered environment of a garden or sculpture park; or perhaps, like Gormley’s figures on Formby beach, where we expect human activity.

Placing artworks in wilder settings takes a special skill and sensitivity. It’s these qualities that have enabled Andy Goldsworthy to succeed. Goldsworthy seldom imposes foreign objects on the landscape. Instead he works with materials that are already there, like pebbles, petals, twigs and ice. His sculptures are designed to be washed away by waves, melted by sunlight, scattered by the wind. He simply reorganises parts of the environment so they assume a fleeting new identity then lets the natural order reassert itself. Usually, the only enduring evidence is photographic.

Some of his works persist a little longer however. In 1987, he was commissioned by Grizedale Forest to produce “Taking a wall for a walk”, a dry-stone wall that snakes in and out of the trees as if the pull of nature had compelled it to abandon its straight, utilitarian function and revert to a more organic form.

Andy Goldsworthy Touchstone Fold, Tilberthwaite
Andy Goldsworthy Touchstone Fold, Tilberthwaite

Goldsworthy’s initial thought was to source the stone from a quarry but as he started to work with wallers he learned that, where possible, they try to reuse existing stones. The significance of this was not lost on Andy, “Originally I felt that I shouldn’t even touch a mossy old wall, but then this idea of an old wall becoming a new one is very important to the nature of the way walls are made… What looks like randomly placed stone has been selected, touched, worked, and when one waller touches a stone worked by another waller he knows that. There’s a wonderful connection there.”

Again, it was intended that slowly the work should be reclaimed by nature – clad in moss, dislodged by wind, toppled by the spreading roots of trees – until it returned to the tumble-down disarray in which it started. Ironically, its popularity is such that it has been repaired several times.

1996 was The Year of The Visual Arts and Goldsworthy was commissioned to create an ambitious series of works in Cumbria. His proposal was to rebuild a large number of old sheepfolds turning each into a sculpture or using it to enclose a sculpture.

Goldsworthy Sheepfold, Tilberthwaite
Goldsworthy Sheepfold, Tilberthwaite

In some cases, the only evidence of the original sheepfold was its mark on an old map, but by the end of the project in 2003, Goldsworthy and his team had restored and transformed nearly fifty of them. Some enclose perfectly formed stone cones; others surround boulders carefully selected for their shape and form.

Before the emergence of the railways Cumbria was a major highway for the movement of sheep and cattle from Scotland to Yorkshire and Lancashire. Using old maps, Goldsworthy carefully traced these old “drove” routes and constructed sixteen sheepfolds as way markers, temporarily enhancing each in turn with a small red sandstone arch that he transported all along this ancient thoroughfare, assembling and dismantling it at every stage.

Elsewhere Goldsworthy worked in other features that define the landscape. A striking example is the large square Touchstone fold at Tilberthwaite.  The four stone walls are inset with rectangles of local slate. Each rectangle encloses a circle. The slates in each circle are set at a unique angle, so each deflects light differently and collectively they suggest the cycles of the sun and the seasons.

Andy Goldsworthy Sheepfold, Tilberthwaite
Andy Goldsworthy Sheepfold, Tilberthwaite

Goldsworthy has a fascination with slate and its inherent layering. He describes it as “an extraordinary book of stone… as you lift one piece off another, you’re looking back in time really”.

As an artwork, The Touchstone Fold possesses the perfect geometric beauty of a Barbara Hepworth, while the way the sloping slate plays with sunlight makes your eyes dance in the way a Bridget Riley painting does. But Goldsworthy’s work has an even stronger sense of place. Tilberthwaite and Wetherlam (the mountain above) have been quarried for slate for centuries. In Thomas West’s 1779 Guide to The Lakes, he wrote of the Coniston houses, “all are neatly covered with blue slate, the product of the mountains”. Goldsworthy conceived his sheepfolds as a monument to agriculture, but The Touchstone Fold is much more than that. It is monument to the industry wrought from these slopes; indeed; a monument to the mountain itself.

Touchstone Fold. Tilberthwaite
Touchstone Fold. Tilberthwaite
Steel Edge

Steps lead up from the parking area opposite the sheepfold to a path that skirts the eastern bank of Tilberthwaite Gill. The first thing you encounter is a disused quarry. It’s easy to imagine quarries as ugly grey scars, but here rivers of colour run through the mineral rich rock; veins of red, yellow, green, blue and purple marbling its milky face.

Disused quarry, Tilberthwaite
Disused quarry, Tilberthwaite

From Elizabethan times, deep levels were driven into the sides of Tilberthwaite Gill to extract copper. Cheaper imports eventually killed the domestic industry, but the Victorians, who had just begun to revere the Lakeland landscape as a place of beauty, re-purposed the remaining wooden bridges as platforms for viewing the waterfalls. Along the path, the sound of the falls is ever present but sightings are confined to an occasional sparkle through the foliage.

The path crosses the head of the gill and fords Crook Beck. A little further along I come to a wooden footbridge. Crossing here would join the route that leads over Birks Fell to Wetherlam Edge. This is the ascent that Wainwright describes from Tilberthwaite, but I’m going to leave that for the way down. Up to my left lies a route that evaded Wainwright – the short, steep ridge of Steel Edge.

Steel Edge is named on the OS map but there is no indication of a path. A sketchy semblance of one does exist, however, and climbs beside an old mine level to the crest of the ridge.

Here rocky outcrops give way to a grass ramp. The ground drops steeply on either side but the back is broad, so doesn’t feel overly exposed. It’s a glorious May morning and the wintry landscapes of past months have transformed into a palette of new growth: the olive and umber of the lower fell side giving the way to the vibrant green of the lowland fields, dappled with darker clusters of forest as they roll east to Coniston Water. To the north, beneath a clear blue sky, blankets of cloud smother the hill tops like snow.

View from Steel Edge
View from Steel Edge
Steel Edge, Wetherlam
Steel Edge, Wetherlam

After a short while, the grassy slope terminates in a tower of rock and an easy but exhilarating scramble ensues. I climb through a gully of white stone, streaked with rust and patterned with intricate black lines like a Jackson Pollock painting. A rudimentary lesson in local geology at Coniston’s Ruskin museum suggests this might be Paddy End rhyolite, a glassy rock formed when fine particles of ash fused together in the intense cauldron of volcanic eruption some 450 million years ago.

Rhyolite, Steel Edge
Rhyolite, Steel Edge

Steel Edge delivers me to the largest of three tarns that skirt the Lad Stones route up from Coniston. I turn right to cover the remaining ground to the summit, pausing more than once to admire the magnificent views across Levers Water to The Old Man. On reaching the top, a jaw-dropping vista opens over Great Langdale to the Pike O’ Stickle. Wetherlam Edge drops away to Tilberthwaite below, but the day is young and I’m not done with the peaks just yet. I decide to press on over Swirl How to Great Carrs in search of a mountain top memorial to a tragic misjudgement.

Tarn at the top of Steel Edge
Tarn at the top of Steel Edge
Pike O'Stickle from Wetherlam
Pike O’Stickle from Wetherlam
LL505 S for Sugar

At 02:05 pm on October 22nd, 1944, Halifax bomber LL505, named “S for Sugar”, left RAF Topcliffe in Yorkshire on a navigational exercise. With the exception of one Scotsman, the crew were all Canadian. At 33 years old, navigator Francis Bell was by some stretch the eldest. Pilot John Johnson was 27 and the rest were aged between 19 and 21. By 6pm they had become disoriented in fog. Topcliffe dispatched a Mosquito, equipped with the latest night navigation gear, to guide the bomber home, but unaware of its proximity, Johnson took a fateful gamble. He decided to descend so Bell could get a visual fix on the ground. The Mosquito arrived just in time to see “S for Sugar” crash into the top of Great Carrs.

Cross for the Crashed Bomber
Cross for the Crashed Bomber

Locals rallied to reach survivors. It was an effort that would lead in time to the formation of Coniston Mountain Rescue Team. Sadly, on this occasion it ended in failure – all the crew had been killed.

The RAF posted sentries to guard the wreck until the munitions could be recovered. It was impractical to remove the plane itself, so it was broken into pieces and pushed down the steep cliff into Broad Slack where bits of it remain. Some items have since been salvaged and one of the Merlin engines is now on display at the museum in Coniston.

The undercarriage still lies on top of the mountain where a large cairn has been constructed and topped with a wooden cross as a memorial. A stone plaque bears the names the dead.

LL2505 Memorial, Great Carrs
LL2505 Memorial, Great Carrs
Memorial to the Crew, Great Carrs
Memorial to the Crew

I descend to Levers Hawse and climb the steep path of the Prison Band to Swirl How. From here a sickle shaped ridge curves round to the right over the plunging crags of Broad Slack to the top of Great Carrs. A little shy of the summit, the wreckage comes into view.

The cross stands proud against a dramatic skyline of Sca Fell and Scafell Pike. As I approach, a patch of red catches my eye. People have laid wreaths of poppies and placed little wooden crosses in amongst the stones. Some of the crosses have words scratched into them – people’s personal messages to their own departed loved ones: “Pete – gone but not forgotten”, “Dad, love Mick”. Others have photographs attached. It’s incredibly moving. I read the names and tender ages of the airmen and wonder if their families know this simple mountain memorial has become a shrine where strangers come to share their loss.

Mountain Top Memorial, Great Carrs
Mountain Top Memorial
Haunted

John “Jack” Johnson’s widow probably did, thanks to a curious tale involving a retired electrical engineer from Bath. Ken Hill was described as “level headed” and not hitherto someone likely to have given much truck to the supernatural, but after visiting the Great Carrs memorial and pocketing a small fragment of metal as a memento, he became convinced he was being stalked by the ghost of the dead pilot.

On the journey home, Ken felt a distinct presence in the car with him. Over time, the impression faded. Then on the day the Merlin engine was recovered from the fell side, Ken’s bedside radio started switching itself on and off at random. Hill was convinced that it was Johnson making his presence felt. Later the airman appeared, clear as day, leaving Ken with the conviction he was supposed to contact the pilot’s family. It wasn’t an easy task but after some years of trying, Hill finally tracked down Johnson’s widow, Nita, in Canada.

What Nita made of it, I don’t know. But whether or not you believe in the supernatural, love and loss are the deepest and rawest of human emotions and here, beside this hill top shrine, the strength of feeling is palpable.

Monuments

As I retrace my steps over Swirl How and Wetherlam the sun catches the slopes of Bow Fell and the Langdale Pikes, bathing them in a haunting light, and I think (with apologies to Rupert Brook) that if there must be a corner of a foreign fell that is forever Canada, there can be no finer spot.

Bow Fell from Swirl How
Bow Fell from Swirl How
Levers Water from Swirl Hawse
Levers Water from Swirl Hawse

Like many scrambles, Wetherlam Edge is probably easier to ascend than descend. I spend time weighing options, lowering myself gingerly down rock steps and scouting around for the path. Things improve as I near Birks Fell from where an obvious route leads down to Dry Cove Bottom (named with irony) and along the near side of Tilberthwaite Gill.

Back at the start, the shifting sun has affected a subtle transformation in the sheepfold, lighting slates that lay in shadow before. I recall Goldsworthy’s words about looking back in time – I’ve been doing that all day. It’s been a poignant, thought-provoking journey, punctuated by two monuments: one to a way of life; one to life extinguished; and both inextricably bound to the mountain.

For a route map and directions for this ascent and descent of Wetherlam, visit Walk Lakes. Please note, these directions do not include the detour over Swirl How to Great Carrs.


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Axis: Bold As Love

Bow Fell via Whorneyside Force and the Climbers’ Traverse

Bow Fell feels like the centre of the world with valleys radiating out like the spokes of a wheel and panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. The ascent via Whorneyside Force and Hell Gill is one of striking contrasts and the final section along The Climbers’ Traverse and up the side of The Great Slab is simply breathtaking. The descent via Rossett Gill is steeped in smuggling history.

Centre of the World

As anyone who has stood on its summit in sunshine knows, Bow Fell is the axis on which the world converges. The broad shoulder of The Band plunges east to Great Langdale while the fine ridge of Crinkle Crags runs south to Red Tarn and the Furness Fells. At contiguous points of the clock, the green valleys of Duddon and Eskdale sweep in to lay their heads at Bow Fell’s foot; and the soaring Scafell massif circles over Esk Pike to meet its western flank. Gaze north and Grassmoor looms while the valley of Langstrath rolls in from the north-east and the distant peaks of Skiddaw and Blencathra. Turn full circle and see the full length of Helvellyn unfurl, linking arms with Fairfield over Grisedale Tarn, while the high ground of The Langdale Pikes swings over Stakes Pass to meet the mountain’s northern bounds.

Wetherlam across Red Tarn
Wetherlam across Red Tarn
Sca Fell and Mickledore
Sca Fell and Mickledore
Grassmoor and Coledale Fells
Grassmoor and Coledale Fells
Fairfield and St Sunday Crag
Fairfield and St Sunday Crag

Of course a wider world exists, but that’s a place of tarmac and traffic; of hubbub, hassle, frayed nerves and short tempers. If you’ve climbed the 2962ft to get here, you’re probably inclined to forget all that for a while. Scafell Pike is about 250ft higher, but that’s splitting hairs; on Bow Fell, you are Zeus looking down from Olympus – at the centre of the world and on top of it. Forgive my flights of fancy, but I defy anyone to stand here on a clear day and not experience a soaring rush of exhilaration.

The axis notion is not entirely fanciful. Geographers have compared the Lake District to a wheel, the valleys and lakes radiating out like spokes. The real hub is about 14 miles away near Dunmail Raise. But Dunmail Raise is a cairn in the middle of a dual carriageway; on top of Bow Fell, you don’t need a map to get the picture.

By the looks on their faces, the small group of fellow walkers sharing the summit feel similarly elated. Some have come directly up the Band. A couple have climbed over Crinkle Crags. One has come via The Langdale Pikes and plans to return over Crinkle Crags. He’ll sleep like a baby tonight. I took a lesser trodden route that offers some striking and secluded scenery.

Old Dungeon Ghyll

George Macaulay Trevelyan believed that common people have a more positive effect on shaping history than royalty. His historical writings were passionate, poetic and partisan celebrations of his liberal beliefs. During his lifetime he was lauded as “the most widely read historian in the world; perhaps in the history of the world.” Subjective historical narrative fell out of fashion however, and Trevelyan was later dismissed as “a pontificating old windbag”.

Fortunately, his other legacies have fared better. He was the first president of the Youth Hostel Association and a dedicated conservationist. In the early 1900’s he bought Middlefell farm in Great Langdale and donated it to The National Trust. It became The Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel. The stables were converted into a dining room and the shippon into The Climber’s Bar, which still sports the cow stalls.

British climbing clubs used the bar for their gala dinners and after conquering the north face of the Eiger, Chris Bonnington and Ian Clough gave a trial run of their lecture here before delivering the real thing in Keswick. What better starting point for a mountain expedition, albeit a slightly less ambitious one than Bonnington and Clough’s.

Whorneyside Force and Hell Gill

I follow the road down to Stool End Farm and, once through the farmyard, ignore the usual route up The Band, keeping straight on through a field and some stock pens heading for Oxendale. Off to the left, a footbridge crosses Oxendale Beck to ascend Crinkle Crags. I ignore this too and follow the stream.

Great Langdale
Great Langdale

The sketchy path starts to climb over wilder and rockier terrain, gaining height and fording the feeder streams that flow down from the fell-side. The views back along the length of Great Langdale are already impressive. After about two thirds of a mile, I cross a bridge and follow the bank on the other side. Soon the crash and hiss of cascading water grows louder with every step. The path turns left to climb the fell but I stick with the stream, rounding an outcrop to come face to face with Whorneyside Force.

Here the beck plunges 40ft into a deep green, bowl-shaped pool; the foaming jets forming two white legs that cross at the bottom like some giant reclining stick figure. Below a sky of pure blue and in sharp relief against the dark exposed rock, it’s utterly hypnotic, beautifully offset by the winter yellow of the surrounding scrub.

Whorneyside Force
Whorneyside Force

A steep scramble up a mud and scree bank makes for a fun if inelegant way to rejoin the main path, which climbs above the waterfall then descends to cross the beck a little further on. A few hundred yards later, I’m staring into the mouth of deep ravine.

White winter skeletons of stunted rowan trees jut from jagged rock at unnatural angles. The spindly lattice of branch and twig fragments the view. Glaring sunlight casts black shadows that disorient further. Steep slabs of bare rock are intercut with patches of impossibly sloped grass. White water cascades down sheer steps. Everything is angular and irregular. In contrast to the tranquillity of Whorneyside Force, the ravine is topsy-turvey; chaotic, confusing, striking but inhospitable. Perhaps this is why it has earned the formidable name, Hell Gill.

Hell Gill
Hell Gill

Stepping stones afford a way across the water. A stone pitched path climbs the bank on the far side to the grassy moorland above, basking in the shadow of Crinkle Crags with the rocky summit of Bow Fell ahead.

From above, where the winter grass is a uniform blanket of yellow decay, Hell Gill is an oasis of vibrant green, but no less disorientating. Indeed, I hesitate to get too close, not only because the ground is slippery, but because staring down its sheer side is dizzying. Its walls descend through a series of steep stone trellises, like an Inca temple, bedecked with grass and spindly white trees. Its presence seems wholly out of context with the rugged mountain scenery, as if a chasm has opened up into another world.

Hell Gill
Hell Gill
The Climbers’ Traverse and The Great Slab

Eventually what remains of a path turns away from the ravine to follow the stream of Busco Sike. When it’s narrow enough, I step across and make toward the towering summit. In the foreground are the first people I’ve seen since Stool End. They’re following the path from The Band which crosses to the col of Three Tarns and a well-trodden route to the peak.

But there’s a more dramatic way to reach the summit and it lies over the ridge in front. I cross the Three Tarns path and climb the open fell-side. After a short scramble, I join a higher, narrower path that takes me over the crest to the start of the Climbers’ Traverse.

The east face of Bow Fell comprises three sheer rock faces:  Flat Crag, Cambridge Crag and Bowfell Buttress. The cliffs are precipitous and the slopes below drop steeply to the valley floor. Not a place to wander without ropes and climbing equipment you might think, but a narrow path leads across the foot of the crags, allowing the walker to venture where they otherwise might not. You need a reasonable head for heights as it does feel exposed but in dry conditions the going is easy and presents no real problems. I venture out on to the Climbers’ Traverse and the views take my breath away.

To my right, the Langdale Pikes are revealed in all their top-to-bottom glory; the conical peak of the Pike O’Stickle to the fore. Looking behind, the Pike O’Blisco rises over the ridge. Ahead, beyond the valley of Langstrath, distant Blencathra pierces the horizon. Everywhere, the sunlit winter landscape is a palette of warm ochre and purple shadow.

Langdale Pikes
Langdale Pikes
Pike O'Stickle
Pike O’Blisco
Blencathra across Langstrath
Blencathra across Langstrath

As I approach Flat Crag I have an eerie feeling I’m being watched. I look up to discover a striking rock formation striped with blue, red and purple quartz; above, the crags have eroded to resemble a giant pair of eyes and a long flat nose. Rock face indeed! If Hell Gill had put me in mind of an Inca temple, then Flat Crag is Easter Island. I start to wonder what it was I poured on my cereal this morning.

Rock Face - Flat Crags
Rock Face – Flat Crag

I later share some photos on Facebook and Fred James recounts how he fed a mouse some malt loaf on the Climbers’ Traverse when it was covered in deep snow. A place of magical encounters it seems.

Spring at the foot of Cambridge Crag
Spring at the foot of Cambridge Crag

The spring that perpetually gushes from the foot of Cambridge Crag feeds a small oasis of green. It also marks the exit. There’s no way up Bowfell Buttress without ropes, but a scrambly path leads up beside Cambridge Crag over a “river of boulders”. I start to climb. When I draw level with the top of Flat Crag, another striking feature unfurls: the huge slope of polished stone known as The Great Slab. It’s a magnificent sight and the views across it to the Langdale Pikes are staggering. Wandering away from the boulders and out into the middle could be a short lived pleasure, however. One slip and you might find yourself in Mickleden, earlier than planned and in a great many more pieces.

Langdale Pikes across the Great Slab
Langdale Pikes across the Great Slab
Summit

Reaching the top I look back over the Slab to Windermere glistening in the distance; then climb the remaining boulders to the summit.

“Is that Scafell Pike?”

“Yes”,

“And that’s Sca Fell?”

“Yes, it is”. I’ve been joined by a beaming young man in combat fatigues.

“And that’s Great Gable?”

“No I think that’s Great End”, (I’m wrong, it’s Esk Pike but I haven’t had a chance to check the map and it looks like the end of the Scafell massif).

“Is this Great Gable?”

“This that we’re standing on?”

“Aye.”

“No, this is Bow Fell.”

“Ah right, Bow Fell. I’ve come from ‘Cisco”,

“Do you mean The Pike O’Blisco?”

“Aye right enough”,

“Over Crinkle Crags”,

“Aye probably”.

My new companion tells how he drove from Dumfries and slept in his car to be on these hills at first light. He might be muddling names but I get the impression he knows roughly where he’s going; besides, he exudes such a boundless energy and enthusiasm that, even if he doesn’t, I feel sure he’ll get there.

Windermere from the top of the Great Slab
Windermere from the top of the Great Slab

Over a few more boulders to the summit cairn and the world converges. I’m almost grateful for the breeze that starts to chill – without it I might have sat here all day. Eventually I pull on my rucksack and head north toward Esk Pike. My new Scottish friend emerges from over the crags to my right where, thanks to my mis-identification, he’s been searching for that very fell. He laughs when I apologise and we chat as far as Ore Gap, where he heads on up the real Esk Pike and I turn right for Rossett Gill.

Bow Fell summit
Bow Fell summit
Smugglers’ Footsteps

When Bow Fell’s northern ridge falls away, Rossett Pike is revealed to my right over the blue waters of Angle Tarn. I follow the path down to the water’s edge. It looks so inviting I’m tempted to dive in, but these hills were under snow last week and I doubt the water’s warmed. Besides, there are people picnicking; the sight of me skinny dipping would put them off their sandwiches. Instead, I walk up to Rossett Pass and climb to the Pike’s summit, which affords a fascinating retrospective on my route.

Angle Tarn
Angle Tarn

Back at the pass, I follow the good, stone pitched path that zigzags down beside Rossett Gill, a welcome replacement for the steep stony slog that Wainwright describes in “The Southern Fells”. Intriguingly, Wainwright also mentions an old pony-route, believed to have been used to smuggle illicit goods from the port of Ravenglass.

Lanty Slee was a legendary Langdale smuggler. Officially, a farmer and quarryman during the early 1800’s, Slee’s main source of income came from the stills he had secreted around Little Langdale: one in Moss Bank Quarry; another beneath Low Arnside Farm. To divert attention, Slee connected the latter to a long underground pipe, doubtless prompting passers-by to puzzle why steam was rising from a hedge in the middle of a field.

Lanty sold his moonshine for 10 shillings a gallon, transporting the excess to Ravenglass and returning with contraband tobacco. He was convicted twice and kept the Ambleside courtroom well entertained with the wittiness of his defences. The excise men routinely failed to seize his whisky however, and some may even remain stashed in the caves around these crags.

Rossett Pike from Mickleden
Rossett Pike from Mickleden

When Chris Jesty revised Wainwright’s works, he insisted no trace of the old pony-route remained, but in an excellent blog that describes another way up Bow Fell, Martin Crookall gives some canny pointers on how to follow its course:

https://mbc1955.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/great-walks-crinkle-crags-bowfell-esk-pike/

With tired legs and the tempting prospect of a pint in the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, I leave archaeology for another day and follow the stone steps to the valley floor. The final stretch through Mickleden leads beneath the Langdale Pikes and the steep southern scree slope of the Pike O’Stickle. A couple of indefatigable souls are attempting a direct ascent. My thoughts turn from a notional axis to Neolithic axes – but that’s another tale.

Pike O'Stickle
Pike O’Stickle

 

For a map of this route and detailed directions, visit Walk Lakes 


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Sympathy For The Devil

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.

Halls Fell Ridge, Blencathra
The Devil’s Peak

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”.

Halls Fell Ridge, Blencathra
Halls Fell Ridge

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.

Blease Fell and Gategill Fell
Blease Fell and Gategill Fell

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.

Tim in front of Halls Fell Ridge, Blencathra
Tim in front of Halls Fell Ridge

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.

Clough Head from Halls Fell Ridge
Clough Head from Halls Fell Ridge

Ahead, the vegetation recedes before the slate grey ramparts of the craggy 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.

Clough Head from Halls Fell Ridge
Clough Head from Halls Fell Ridge

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.

Narrow Edge, Blencathra
Narrow Edge, Blencathra

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.

Doddick Fell from Halls Fell Ridge
Doddick Fell from Halls Fell Ridge

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.

Bella on Blencathra Summit
Bella on Blencathra Summit

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 view that spans two countries – for now at least a united kingdom; a High Throne indeed.

Blencathra Summit
Taking in the views
Blease Fell Top, Blencathra
Western crests over Derwent Water

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!

Sharp Edge, Blencathra
Sharp Edge, Blencathra
Steep scramble up Foule Crag, Sharp Edge
Steep scramble up Foule Crag, Sharp Edge

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.

Blencathra Summit from Knowe Crags
Blencathra Summit from Knowe Crags

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.

Toward Blease Fell, Blencathra
Toward Blease Fell, Blencathra

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


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