After days wrapped in a Christmas cocoon of lethargy and overeating, the sun returns and I head up the Old Man to savour the snow-capped splendour of the Coniston fells. On Raven Tor, I find my inner pagan.
Long before a star shone over a stable in Bethlehem, December 25th was the pagan festival of Midwinter – the winter solstice or the shortest day. It celebrated the rebirth of the sun god and an end to his lingering death, manifest in the ever-declining daylight. From here on, the days would lengthen, and warmth and fertility would return.
A deity who dies and rises again. That sounds somewhat familiar.
In our secular world, Christmas still bears the trappings of a Christian festival, albeit one at sea in a mass consumer bonanza. But we’re a nation of many faiths, and most of us are agnostic. That’s not to say that Christmas doesn’t mean anything. Even us unbelievers can get behind a season of peace and goodwill, and of course, we enjoy the bank holidays. But it resonates in a profounder way, which has everything to do with its pagan roots. However much our high-tech global reach divorces us from natural cycles, we can’t escape the seasons. We are of the planet and respond to its rhythms in a primal way that daylight bulbs, and strawberries in December, and 24-hour TV can do little to dissipate. Indeed, the December telly guides are full of retrospectives, celebrating the dying year: top 50 news stories, films, records, books, celebrity gaffes, you name it. We look back, take stock, make resolutions for the year to come; let go the stresses of the preceding months; make merry and recharge. Death and rebirth: a spiritual impulse as old as man.
In our Gregorian calendar, the winter solstice falls on December 21st, but let’s not split hairs. Christmas Day, 2017, is so overcast, it feels like the shortest day. Wrapped in a warm cocoon of family, lethargy and overeating, it’s full of good cheer and comfort and a welcome retreat from the dank, dark drizzle outside.
The sun god sleeps on through Boxing Day but makes an appearance the day after, when the temperature plummets and the snow falls, causing widespread traffic chaos. Unfortunately, we’re driving home to Cumbria. The roads on our route are clear, but it seems everyone in the country has picked this day to travel. With diversions and roadworks, we spend nine hours in a nationwide traffic jam.
We arrive back on Wednesday night, unpack, light the fire and put our feet up. I’m due in work on Friday but have tomorrow free. The forecast is clear, cold and sunny. It’s time to break out of the cocoon.
I wake later than intended, stuff warm layers into a rucksack and head for Coniston. I park in the village and head up the track beside the Sun Inn, a fitting temple to the god who’s very much in evidence today. I make a mental note to pop in later and offer my devotions.
The path climbs beside the waterfalls of Church Beck, passes Miners’ Bridge, and emerges from the trees into dazzling light at the foot of the Coppermines valley. Straight ahead, beyond the spoil heaps of the slate quarry, stands Raven Tor, the spur that juts out from Brim Fell and separates the two mountain corrie tarns of Low Water and Levers Water. Low Water lies to its left, enclosed by Brim Fell and the Old Man; Levers Water to its right, enclosed by Swirl How and Wetherlam. The mountains are cloaked in snow. It’s enough to make your spirit soar.
I follow the path to Crowberry Haws and join the quarry track up the Old Man. This is the tourist route. The “back way”, by Goats Water, under the imperial cliffs of Dow Crag, boasts the greater natural splendour. By contrast, this route reveals the scars of industry. Even so, it holds interest. Only the fallen tower of the aerial tramway and its rusting cables, slumped across the path like slain iron snakes, are foreign bodies. Everywhere else, human intervention has simply shaped and rearranged what is naturally here. A neat wall of slate encloses the track on the approach to the old quarry, where stone buildings lie in tumbledown ruin. Slowly the Old Man reclaims what is his, erasing our imprint, and reasserting his natural form. His scars are healing. In a thousand years, there will be little trace of us. For now, there is heritage, softened by the elements and slowly integrating back. This was once a thriving industry that supported the village below; testimony, if you like, to the Old Man’s benevolence to those at his feet.
Beyond the quarry, a stream has turned the steps to ice. A few of the ill-equipped soldier on, seeking out the snowy edges. Others turn back. The rest of us sit down and pull Microspikes over our boots. Once attached, the going is easy. There is a satisfying crunch as the little teeth bite into the ice and hold firm.
By the time I reach Low Water, the hand of man has withdrawn and the landscape is altogether wilder. Today, it is a realm of shadows, where dark waters ripple in vivid contrast to the snowy slopes that surround. Here and there, the sun god penetrates and turns the water bronze. I walk along the shore and stare up at Raven Tor, a bright and regal perch, swathed in a thick cloak of virgin snow.
I return to the main path and climb the steep zig zags that lead to the Old Man’s summit. In places, the path is a uniform sheet of ice and I watch a spike-less man opt instead for the snowy slopes. We meet where he re-joins the stone pitching. He bemoans the fact the mountain is steeper now than five years ago. I smile, and he recounts his last walk in here in snow. He didn’t have spikes then either, so to avoid coming back down this icy section, he made a round of Brim Fell to Raven Tor, then found a way down its flanks to Low Water. I trace his route with my eyes and a vague notion hatches into a plan.
With height, the lower reaches of Levers Water appear beyond the Tor; a second dark pool to balance Low Water; two black eyes to the Raven’s nose. Beyond, the snow-kissed summit of Wetherlam rises from an umber midriff.
The sun god reigns supreme on top. Out from under the Old Man’s shoulder, the light is magical; the god himself, a white star in an expanse of azure. Below the blue, a fluffy blanket of cloud is trimmed in soft yellow. Golden rays sparkle in the crystalline snow. The summit’s beehive cairn is an altar where hooded figures bow to Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, a deity reborn in youthful vigour.
Beyond the trig point, the snow-capped ridge sweeps on over Brim Fell. A few well-wrapped wanderers are hastening this way. I’m the only one striding outward. Its soon becomes apparent why. A different elemental force takes charge on Brim Fell. A bitter wind sweeps over the Duddon valley from the Irish Sea, blowing stinging snowflakes in horizontal sheets. Despite a hood, a hat and a tightly wound woollen scarf, my face takes a lashing and I’m buffeted by gusts. It’s brutal but exhilarating. Past the summit cairn, I hurry toward the edge. Once over the parapet and on to the Raven’s outstretched wing, I’m protected, and I pause to drink in the scene.
I’m entirely alone. A few small silhouettes of people are visible on the Old Man’s summit, but here is virgin territory. Well almost. I find one set of footprints and follow them for a short way. For a brief minute, I glimpse a hooded figure on the slopes below, just above the shore of Low Water. But in a blink, he’s gone, and soon after, so are his tracks. The sun dances over the untouched snow, knee-deep now. I imagine I’m exploring uncharted ground as I descend the Raven’s wing to her shoulder, following the line of rocks and grassy tufts that just protrude, in the hope of avoiding unseen fissures. I climb the Raven’s neck to the cairn perched on her head. Across Levers Water, Black Sails ridge stands proud, a muscular right arm to the head of Wetherlam. The amber rocks of the Raven’s cairn crown her white mantel. There’s about two hours of daylight left but the light is already softening, assuming the warm glow of afternoon. I’m toasty from the exertion, but after five minutes of taking photos, I’m blowing into my gloves to warm my frozen hands.
The snow has drifted into soft deep blankets on the slopes that fall away to Low Water. I follow a tinkling stream for most of the way down, then veer left for a gentler descent. At the bottom, I leap a beck at its narrowest point and climb to the shore path, where I stood earlier. Cold, dark and tranquil, Low Water is a pool of primeval mystery, snugly enclosed in the arms of the Old Man and the Raven.
I cast a last reverential glance at these snow-clad Titans then return, past the quarry, to the world of mortals. In the Sun Inn, a fire crackles in an old, black, cast-iron range; a tiny Sol Invictus bestowing light and warmth as the sky outside darkens. I sup a welcome pint of Loweswater Gold and watch the flames dance around the logs. I’ve never thought of myself as religious, but today I’m in touch with my inner pagan.
Wainwright called the Jaws of Borrowdale, “the loveliest square mile in Lakeland”. In the first half of the twentieth century, a cave on the slopes of Castle Crag was home to Millican Dalton, who quit his job in a London office to become a self-styled “Professor of Adventure”. On this walk up Castle Crag, I consider his life, visit his cave and recall a WWI Christmas story that seems to echo his essential message.
In David Guterson’s novel, The Other, Neil Countryman is an English teacher and an aspiring writer – his desk drawers are full of unpublished novels. Despite being the first Countryman to go to college, he identifies himself as someone “familiar with the middle of the pack”.
Countryman formed a deep and enduring friendship with John William Barry; “The Hermit of the Hoh”, as the newspapers dub him when his body is discovered in the riverside cave that had become his home. Barry was a rich boy, privately educated and heir to a fortune. He met Neil running track and the two bonded over a slightly rebellious outlook and a love of the outdoors. Rebellion to Countryman meant cutting classes and smoking the odd joint. To Barry, ultimately, it meant rejecting civilised society and adopting a life of primitive isolation, deep in the woods of Washington state.
The novel is Neil’s retrospective examination of their friendship and a search, perhaps, for understanding. John William was undoubtedly troubled and, as the pieces of the jigsaw fit into place, an impression is formed of a tormented young man, driven to an ascetic life by personal demons.
On a mundane Monday morning, which of us hasn’t dreamed of escaping the rat race and living a life of adventure closer to nature? For most of us, though, the perfect outdoor expedition ends with a cold pint and a hot bath. If we hear of someone who really has gone feral, we suspect a Barry figure, replete with deep emotional scars. But John William is a fiction. The reality can be surprisingly different…
The Professor of Adventure
“Meet Mr Millican Dalton. He is one of the creatures of the wild. He lives in a cave up in one of the wooded crags that are the glory of Borrowdale… Mr Dalton is 73½ years of age, is tall, spare, hard as a fell toad and if you were to meet him you would agree that in his Tyrolese hat, decorated with a heron’s plume, his plaid drawn over a brown tweed coat, his green corduroy shorts, sinewy legs, sometimes encased in puttees and climbing boots, he looks a fine figure of a man.”
Thus, began an article in the Whitehaven News on January 30th, 1941. It went on to quote a gloriously upbeat Millican. ‘I was a clerk in a London office. The life stifled me. I longed to be free. I gave up my job and ever since I have camped out. Today I live rent free, rate free, tax free. It’s the only kind of life worth living.’ ”
Dalton was born in 1867, in Nenthead, Cumbria, near the borders of Northumberland and Durham. His family moved south when he was seven and he spent many of his formative years in Chingford, Essex, close to Epping Forest, where he and his brothers embarked on endless adventures, camping and tree-climbing. Holidays in the Lake District saw Millican graduate from tree climbing to rock-climbing and experiment with raft-building. When he left school, he found the working week dull by comparison. He spoke of feeling “constricted, like a caged animal” and longed for the outdoor pursuits, which afforded him full self-expression. A vegetarian and ardent socialist, Millican placed little value on material things (apart from Woodbines, which he smoked with a passion). In 1904, he decided to treat his life like a “chemical experiment” and jack in the humdrum in favour of a life of adventure and romance.
Dalton spent his winters in the south, initially in Essex and later in Buckinghamshire, where he swapped bricks and mortar for a wooden cabin. His summers, he spent in the Lake District, and from around 1914, moved into the cave on the slopes of Castle Crag. Dalton became an accomplished mountain guide, building a loyal following, keen to experience his advertised “Camping Holidays, Mountain Rapid Shooting. Rafting. Hairbreadth Escapes.” He made his own clothes and pioneered lightweight camping equipment. He was an early member of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club, documenting trail-blazing ascents, such as Dove Crag, in their journals. Unconventional through and through, Millican had little truck with the prevailing notion that rock climbing was an exclusively male pursuit. He introduced several women to the sport, most notably Mabel Barker, whose initiation took her to the top of Napes Needle. Barker went on to become something of a figurehead for women’s climbing and remained a lifelong friend of Dalton’s.
In 1940, the Blitzkrieg wrought destruction on London. With his Buckinghamshire home, a little close to comfort, Dalton opted to over-winter in Cumbria. By now, he was something of a national celebrity. The Daily Mirror declared, “Today this seventy-three year old hermit is less affected by the war than any man in Britain”. This was wrong on two counts.
Living in a cave was about the only thing Dalton had in common with Guterson’s “hermit of the Hoh”. Millican hadn’t taken to the woods to escape from people. Indeed, his campfire played host to a constant stream of visitors, coming to sample his home-baked bread, home-grown vegetables and engage in lively conversation with this most convivial, gentlemanly and strongly opinionated of characters. Mabel Barker recalled, “in long association, I never knew him charge anything for his services beyond a trifle for camping expenses”. What he would readily accept in lieu of money, were Woodbines and newspapers (specifically, the Daily Herald). This was not a man, hiding from society. Quite the contrary, he had a keen interest in politics and current affairs. Had he stuck with insurance, he might have become a middle manager. As it was, he became a self-styled “Professor of Adventure”.
The Daily Mirror was also wrong to suggest Millican was untroubled by the war. At the behest of blackout wardens, he had to put out his campfire and brave the winter nights in an unheated cave. He obliged, but was far from happy with the arrangement, and wrote to Winston Churchill several times, demanding that he stop the war as it was impinging on his personal liberty.
Dalton’s opposition went deeper than a dispute over a campfire, however. He had been in his forties when the First World War broke out, so was too old to serve in either. Had he been younger, as a committed pacifist, he would almost certainly have been a conscientious objector.
Despite his gargantuan appetite for Woodbines, Millican remained fit as a fiddle all his life. Every spring, he climbed Napes Needle, with the promise that as soon as it proved too much for him, he would retire from climbing. He never did, but his outdoor existence did finally catch up with him. On returning to Buckinghamshire, he inadvertently burnt down his cabin. Millican survived the fire, but attempted to see out the rest of the winter under canvas. January 1947 was particularly harsh, and this proved too much for his seventy-nine-year-old body. A month later, he died in Amersham hospital of acute heart failure, pulmonary bronchitis and bronchopneumonia.
Today, Millican Dalton’s cave is something of a shrine for those who love the outdoors, but his appeal is broader. Like Neil Countryman, many of us find we are familiar with the middle of the pack. Hopefully, few turn out as troubled as the hermit of the Hoh; but perhaps, a little part of the Professor of Adventure lives in all of us (even if its expression has nothing to do with caves and mountains). Dalton’s story inspires because it says, “to hell with convention”, “be who are you are and live the way that makes you happy”.
Into the Jaws of Borrowdale
It’s early November, when I decide to pay the cave a visit. Between the flanks of High Spy and Kings How, Borrowdale is squeezed to a narrow passage, barely wide enough for the road and the river Derwent to co-exist. This dramatic opening is aptly named “The Jaws of Borrowdale”. Castle Crag is the impressive incisor, rising from the river on the western side. At just under 1000 feet, Bill Birkett considered it too small to include in his Complete Lakeland Fells. Wainwright took a different view, however: “Castle Crag is so magnificently independent, so ruggedly individual, so aggressively unashamed of its lack of inches, that less than justice would be done by relegating it to a paragraph in the High Spy chapter.” He goes on to describe the Jaws of Borrowdale as “the loveliest square mile in Lakeland”.
I climbed High Spy in June when the slopes were as green as a Granny Smith. Now, deep into autumn, they resemble a Russet or a Cox’s Orange Pippin. I park in Rosthwaite and take the track beside the Flock Inn Tearoom that leads through a farmyard to the river. The trees are already sparsely leaved, allowing golden sunlight to gild the waters and do ample justice to Wainwright’s eulogy. I cross the pretty stone arch of New Bridge and bear right along the bank. Castle Crag rises ahead, and I can pick out the direct path to the summit. This will be my way down.
By the water, a herd of Galloway cattle grazes lazily on hay. I stick on the path that skirts the slope and follows the river into the trees.
Where Guterson depicts the forests of Washington State as a savage wilderness, High How Woods are a sylvan idyll. They would be a harsh home in winter, mind. The Daily Mirror piece had photo of Dalton in his cave, standing before a curtain of giant icicles. To camp out here in January, with no campfire, would take a hide considerably thicker than mine.
The path snakes away from the river and, before long, a cave appears on the left. This was not Millican’s, but according to my directions, his lies above. I follow a sketchy path that climbs behind it, turning into a semi-scramble over rock and a spoil heap. On reaching the top, a cavern lies ahead, but it is shallow and dripping with water – by no means inhabitable. I notice a better path rising from the right, which continues upwards to a more likely cave. Someone has chalked a heart and “MD” on a slate by the entrance, so I know this is the place.
It’s roomy and the opening provides just enough light that my head torch isn’t really needed. I switch it on anyway and the beam reveals the unexpected grandeur of the rock. I’d imagined uniform walls of slate-grey, but here, dark charcoal gives way to sparkling white crystal and strata of red, ochre and terra cotta.
I climb the loose stone staircase to the upper level, which Dalton called “the attic”. This was where he slept; someone has bestowed his bed with a fresh mattress of bracken. The Whitehaven News gave a vivid insight into how this looked in Millican’s time: “Everything within is ‘wondrous neat and clean.’ Cleverly packed is the cave-dweller’s camp equipment and cooking utensils, which have all been picked out of village dumps. There was a place for everything and everything was in its place. In one corner was Millican Dalton’s lying-up place. Bracken for a bed and a plaid and an eiderdown for covering. And on this deadly cold night Millican had, as is his wont, taken off his day clothes before he stretched himself out to sleep. Which of us accustomed to the luxury of a bed in a well warmed house would not have been frozen stiff?”
By the entrance, just beyond his bed, a motto is carved into the rock: “DON’T!! WASTE WORRDS Jump to conclusions”. The inscription may not be Dalton’s, but that of a Scottish friend, whom he frequently chided for doing just that – chiselled, no doubt, as a joke after an infuriating debate.
Below the cave, I follow the river through the woods, then turn left along the bridleway to Honister. As I climb beside Broadslack Gill, Castle Crag rises in a sheer cliff to my left, while behind, the valley is a patchwork of autumnal pigment as it bows to Derwent Water and the imperious summits of Skiddaw. Just past the cliff face, a path forks sharply left, climbs a stile and zig zags up the steep gradient toward the summit. On the way, it passes a bench and stone plaque to Sir William Hamer, the former landowner, in whose memory, his wife Agnes, bequeathed this land to the National Trust. Agnes made this bequest in 1939, at the onset of the Second World War. Several years earlier, the couple had bequeathed the summit, in memory of their son, John, who died in World War One.
The path winds through spoil heaps to the summit quarry, where successions of walkers have arranged slates into a makeshift sculpture park. Many stand on end like tombstones to by-gone industry and the many millions of boots that have marked this passage. Others are more ambitious in their arrangement. One resembles a creature with the back of a stegosaurus and the toothy jaw of a shark. A large beehive cairn crowns the southern extent and marks a spectacular view, over the neat, green meadows of Borrowdale, to the wild, precipitous face of Eagle Crag. A red squirrel hops among the trees and for a while I’m undisturbed. It’s deeply peaceful and a strange, beautiful equanimity settles; a profound ease; a quiet, unruffled calm; a serene, sense of belonging.
No Man’s Land
A grassy path leads up, above the quarry, to the summit proper. Set into the rock is the memorial, not just to John Hamer but to all the men of Borrowdale who died in the trenches. A poppy wreath from the Association of the Royal Engineers has been placed below. My Dad was a Royal Engineer. Perhaps that’s why the plaque holds my attention; or perhaps it’s the backdrop of Derwent Water; or the little wooden cross with the ballpoint inscription, “Danny Glynn”; but as I read the roll of names, I’m very moved by these young lives, cut so cruelly short.
Simple hilltop memorials, like this, speak louder to me than the televised parades and pageantry that accompany Remembrance Sunday. I think of Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth:
“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.”
These men of Borrowdale were barely out of boyhood. Had they returned, they might have spent summers trading Woodbines for hairbreadth escapes with Millican Dalton. In years to come, they could have climbed Castle Crag with their grandchildren; and told tales of the eccentric old man in a Tyrolean hat, who lived in the woods and taught them all they knew about the fells.
That journey across the Channel may well have been their first outside the county. If they left seeking glory, it wasn’t what they found. Across the fields of Flanders, they faced men just like themselves. Farm workers, colliers, shopkeepers, railwaymen, butchers and miners. Ordinary blokes with simple aspirations and little sway or interest in world affairs. The kind who care for family and friends and a beer or two on a Friday night; all sent to the slaughter for the blind folly of oligarchs.
Deep down, they knew it too: on Christmas Eve, 1914, men on both sides put down their rifles and climbed over the barricades to trade jokes, swap cigarettes and play football. Bloke-ish things that ordinary fellers do. For a few fleeting hours, a bunch of soldiers at the centre of a brutal conflict, did what Millican Dalton had done all his life. They defied the expectations of others and stayed true to themselves. In the dark heart of No Man’s Land, a brief candle of humanity shone very brightly. And that, forever, is a Christmas message worth repeating.
For detailed direction for this walk, visit Walk Lakes
The Kentmere valley is a slice of heaven. It was gifted to Richard De Gilpin in 1206 as a reward for slaying the Wild Boar of Westmorland, and it remains one of Lakeland’s most remote and most beautiful spots. The river Kent begins life high in the fells that ring the valley head. A circuit of these peaks is a long and exhilarating hill walk, known as the Kentmere Round. As I follow the route on a glorious late summer day, I discover the valley is home to a vanishing lake, and also, it seems, a vanishing mountain.
The Wild Boar of Westmorland
Drive along the Crook Road from Plumgarths to Bowness and you’ll pass high-end hotels with names like The Wild Boar Inn and the Gilpin Lodge. Their billboards tempt the well-heeled traveller with warm hospitality and fine cuisine, but their names recall a time when this journey risked much more than a waxing waistline and damage to your wallet.
At the start of the 13th Century, a holy cross stood at Plumgarths and a chantry chapel on St Mary’s Isle, Windermere. Both sites were stops on the pilgrim trail, but it took a righteous faith to make the journey between them for the woods around Crook were inhabited by a ferocious boar with a fearsome reputation for attacking unfortunates who happened across its path.
Mercifully, deliverance was at hand. Richard De Gilpin, known as “Richard the Rider”, had accompanied the Baron of Kendal to Runnymede for the signing of the Magna Carta. His assistance was invaluable as the baron could neither read nor write. However, for De Gilpin, the sword would prove mightier than the pen. On his return to Westmorland, he tracked the boar through the forest to its lair near Scout Scar and engaged it in a fierce battle, eventually slaying the beast and emerging as a hero. The Baron of Kendal was so grateful, he rewarded Richard with the lordship of the manor of Kentmere.
De Gilpin had been gifted a slice of heaven. Kentmere is one of Lakeland’s most beautiful and remote valleys. Both the valley and the town of Kendal take their names from the river Kent, which has its source high in the fells at the valley head.
Say the words “Lake Windermere” to any good pedant and they’ll tell you that the prefix is redundant as “mere” means “lake”. A hundred years ago, you’d have been forgiven for thinking Kentmere was a misnomer – its mere had vanished. Curiously, industrial interests have been responsible for its reappearance.
Kentmere Tarn lies on private land near the foot of the valley. Its shallow waters provide an ideal habitat for algae known as diatoms. When diatoms die, their organic matter decomposes leaving their hard silica skeletons, called frustules to sink to the bottom and form a layer known as diatomite. Over the centuries, the tarn silted up with diatomite, turning it into a boggy marsh. In the 1840’s, it was drained to improve the surrounding farmland, but the exercise was largely unsuccessful, and the land reverted to marsh.
Diatomite has significant heat-insulating properties and in the 1930’s, commercial operations began to extract the substance for use in insulating boards. Extraction ceased in the 1970’s, when it became cheaper to import, but forty years of dredging had restored the mere. Well stocked with trout, it is now the preserve of angling clubs.
The Kentmere Fells
A fine mountain ridge runs from the Garburn Pass, which links Kentmere and Troutbeck, to the Nan Bield Pass, which once linked Kentmere and the lost village of Mardale Green. Defined by the conical peak of Ill Bell and its smaller mirror-image in Froswick, the skyline is iconic; equally recognisable from the West Coast Mainline or the beach at Bardsea.
Beyond the Nan Bield Pass, the ridge swings around over Harter Fell and Kentmere Pike to Shipman Knotts to form a horseshoe. The full circuit is a long but exhilarating hill walk, known as the Kentmere Round; and it’s my mission for the day.
A single-track road runs out of Staveley, crossing over the River Kent and roughly tracking its bank for about four miles until it reaches the picturesque village of Kentmere. Parking is limited, but it’s only 06:30 am and there are a couple of free spaces by the village hall. Twenty years ago, I might have considered it a “result” to be crawling into bed at the time I crawled out of it this morning. These days, I can imagine no finer time to be out.
It’s August – high summer – a time of dusty tracks and straw-coloured grass, wilting and yellowing as long warm days edge lazily toward autumn…
Only that doesn’t really happen anymore. Such notions are wistful nostalgia for halcyon summers, long-since lost to the vagaries of climate change. In recent years, August has become the rainy season. But today is a rare exception. The sky is a clear expanse of cobalt, streaked with slender strands of cirrus, and thanks to all the rain, the meadows are green and vibrant, retaining something of their spring vitality.
From a paddock, a huddle of herdwicks eye me with idle curiosity; birdsong fills my ears and the day feels pregnant with possibility. Faint wisps of mist cling to the valley’s pockets as I start up the Garburn track, passing the monumental Badger Rock: a prodigious rhyolite boulder and a popular challenge for rock climbers. I pass old gnarled trees, with twisted roots protruding, and craggy outcrops, dressed in purple heather. The stony track climbs steadily at first, then more steeply after Crabtree Brow. After about a mile and a quarter, it reaches the crest and I turn right on to the grassy path that climbs to the summit of Yoke.
Beyond the walled green meadows and dark woods of the Troutbeck valley, the long blue ribbon of Windermere snakes south toward Morecambe Bay; the sea, a silver haze, dissolving into the horizon. Across the valley, Red Screes rise above the Kirkstone Pass. Yoke’s eastern face is the formidable cliff of Rainsborough Crag, but on top it is a grassy hill, remarkable mostly for its views. From the summit on though, the ridge assumes a mountain countenance. The path makes a small dip then ascends to the imperious peak of Ill Bell.
A trinity of well-built cairns stands guard; little stone towers that bookend the vista over Windermere. This is a majestic grandstand. Ahead, the ridge sweeps on over Froswick to the wide grassy plateau of Thornthwaite Crag, then curves east over High Street’s shoulder to Mardale Ill Bell – Ill Bell’s namesake – which thrusts out a grassy spur in greeting.
The spur is Lingmell End and it splits the valley head in two. Beyond, lies the Nan Bield Pass, but on this side, Gavel Crag and Bleathwaite Crag enclose the deep bowl of Hall Cove, where the river Kent springs into life. You can trace the nascent stream as it cascades down the fell side to feed the Kentmere Reservoir.
Imagine for a moment, that you’re standing near an old stone bridge in Kendal watching the river gently lap its arches. Games of bowls play out before the Georgian opulence of the Abbott Hall Art Gallery. The scene is one of civic order and serenity; the river a benign presence, whispering an ambient lullaby. Out here though, you realise the Kent is born a wilder beast. When engorged and enraged by a storm like Desmond, it’s not hard to imagine how it could burst its banks and wreak violence on a trusting community that had mistakenly considered it tame… And how it would take a lot more than De Gilpin’s sword to stop it.
Beyond the summit, the stony path drops steeply to the saddle. A fell-runner stops to say hello, breaking her arduous jog up the slope. She’s the first person I’ve seen.
Froswick’s summit stands ever so slightly west of Ill Bell and gives an even grander view down Windermere. Ill Bell itself presents a steep green flank and the Kentmere Reservoir nestles at its foot. The reservoir is not a natural lake but was built in 1848 to provide a controlled water supply to a gunpowder mill, a wood mill, a snuff mill and the James Cropper paper mill, now the sole owner.
It looks half-drained. Perhaps the paper mill is conducting repairs. The water supply is no longer required for paper making, but James Cropper dutifully maintains it with an environmental focus.
Beyond Froswick, the path splits. The right fork leads on to High Street. I take the left and climb to the summit of Thornthwaite Crag, its fourteen foot cairn, known as The Beacon, a stately slate tower commanding attention. A drystone wall runs out to meet it then crumbles into a straight line of stones, stretching out into the distance like a Richard Long artwork.
Perception is easily tricked. You would swear Ill Bell is the highest of these fells – steep sides tapering to a point suggest elevation – but the flatter top of Thornthwaite Crag is higher. Higher still is High Street, the parent peak, rising in a whale-back between Hayeswater and Haweswater. Thornthwaite Crag is part of the High Street ridge, but it has its own ridge too, running out over Grey Crag to encircle the head of Hayeswater.
Gazing back, I spot the second person of the day. He’s carrying a mountain bike up the long slope from Froswick. He must have hauled it all the way from the Garburn Pass. He waves when he reaches the top, then mounts and heads off towards Mardale Ill Bell to ride the Nan Bield Pass. Providing he doesn’t catch a pedal and catapult himself into the reservoir, it’ll be an exhilarating experience. I hope so – it’s a long way to hike with a bike on your back for a thrill that will be over in minutes. Wraparound shades and a helmet can’t hide the look on his face, however. I know it instantly. It’s freedom.
The Missing Peak
After a while, I set off along the ridge towards High Street. I was up there a fortnight ago, so I’ll skip the summit and make straight for Mardale Ill Bell. Before I do, my attention is distracted by the vision to the west. Hayeswater is an azure reflection of the sky, glistening at the foot of sun-gilded slopes. Beyond, wispy clouds part to unveil the brutal bulk of Fairfield and its northern turret, Cofa Pike, dropping to Deepdale Hause to rub shoulders with St Sunday Crag. Behind them, stands the entire rank of the Helvellyn range. Blencathra commandeers the northern sky, while further west, Great Gable rises, an almighty, rough-hewn rotunda, like a prodigious, primeval St Paul’s.
I’m transfixed. With the changing light, the scene is transforming, coming into ever sharper focus. I stop every few yards to take photos in the vain hope I might capture something of its splendour. I’m aware I need to bear right soon, but the sun catches Striding Edge and I’m fumbling for my camera again. I just can’t tear my gaze away.
When I do, I have a disorienting realisation – High Street has disappeared. It should be straight ahead. I wonder if I’ve missed a turn and come too far west. The summit must be further over, but I can’t work out why I can’t see it.
I cross a wall to the east side of the ridge, expecting to see the Kentmere Reservoir. And there, indeed, is water. Only it’s significantly bigger; and it’s gained an island.
There is a fell where Mardale Ill Bell should be, but it’s an entirely different shape. Everything is somehow familiar and yet completely wrong. It’s as if I’m drinking tea but expecting coffee and can’t make sense of it.
I look behind – I can see Thornthwaite Crag, but Froswick and Ill Bell are obscured by a large summit that wasn’t there before. On the left, a long ridge leads up to it, at once alien and familiar, like someone you know, but bump into out of context and can’t place. I reach for the map.
“Are you heading for High Raise?”, a cheery voice asks from behind.
I turn to see a white-haired man with a big smile and bags of enthusiasm. He sees the map and can’t help himself, he’s straight over to compare routes. “We’re missing out High Raise this time and heading straight for Kidsty Pike”, he says and nods at the shape-shifting Mardale Ill Bell.
With those words, I know exactly where I am, I’m just at a loss as to how I got here. I look back at the large fell behind me. The wall runs up over the top with a scraggy path in tow, but a better path traverses the western side, a little below the summit. This is the route I followed, so entranced by the view, that I managed to walk all the way over the top of High Street without noticing.
My new companion is scratching his head. “I can’t make out where we are on here”, he says, puzzling over the contours.
“You won’t”, I reply. “It’s the wrong map”. High Street spans the divide between two. I dig out the one that covers the northern region and fess up about my half-wittery. He chuckles and I bid him farewell as he heads for Kidsty Pike. I look down at the lake where I thought the Kentmere Reservoir should be. It’s a reservoir right enough. It serves Manchester; the remains of Mardale Green lie below its surface. It’s Haweswater.
Across the valley, the ridge has every right to look familiar. It’s Riggindale Edge – the finest way up High Street and a route I’ve taken many times – most recently, just two weeks ago. And yet then, as on every previous occasion, I turned left at the summit and returned over Mardale Ill Bell and Harter Fell. Why have I never come this way to visit Rampsgill Head, High Raise and Kidsty Pike? They look magnificent and I resolve to return.
It’s a promise I’ll keep twice in the weeks to come. The first time, I’ll meet a man from Lincolnshire in the gloom as the cloud descends. Together we’ll seek out these summits in fog. A month later, I’ll retrace our steps in the golden light of autumn. This time, the fells will echo with the bark of rutting stags…
I follow the wall back to the top of High Street.
It starts to cloud over as I reach the summit of Mardale Ill Bell, adding drama to the vistas over Haweswater and Small Water.
The rocky path to the top of Harter Fell looks tough as I descend to the Nan Bield Pass but its bark turns out to be worse than its bite. The path zig zags up through the crags and doesn’t test tired legs as much as I feared. Before long, I’m standing by its strange summit cairn, wrought from old iron fence posts.
From here, I follow the fence south over increasingly boggy ground. The sun retreats behind the building cloud. It’s an unwelcome reminder that summer’s almost gone. As if to reinforce the darkening mood, the top of Kentmere Pike is drab and featureless. The perfect pyramid of Ill Bell rises opposite across a plain of russet grass, but it feels autumnal now – the late summer sunshine I enjoyed on its summit seems an age ago. The wind whips up and starts to nip. I plod on through black mud, trying not to sink.
But like a feisty boar, summer’s not so easily defeated. Ahead, shafts of light pierce the gloom and hit the Kentmere valley, conjuring a vivid green oasis beyond the sombre brown of the fell. As I reach a ladder stile and start the climb to Shipman Knotts, the clouds roll back, and summer’s reign is gloriously reinstated.
Where Kentmere Pike lacked interest, Shipman Knotts is a beguiling maze of tumble-down walls and rocky outcrops. Heather sprouts from the crags and bracken-clad slopes roll away to Longsleddale. All is lit with the warm ember glow of afternoon sun and a sense of deep contentment kicks in.
At Wray Crag, a steep descent down rocky steps brings me to the Sadgill to Kentmere track. I follow the track towards Kentmere, relishing the soft afternoon light. Shortly after joining the road, I climb a stile into the first of two bracken-filled enclosures. They lead gently down to a small wooden footbridge over the Kent. It’s pretty beyond compare – a leafy parade of dappled sunlight, sparkling waters and foliage in every shade of green. I’m still smiling as I walk through Kentmere churchyard and back to the car.
Some days are simply perfect. This has been one of them. A tremendous ridge walk and a late rallying of summer. With the coming autumn, the days will shorten, the green will fade, the leaves will wither, and a damp chill will invade. But today will stay with me and its memory will bring warmth.
Many of our finest poets have extolled the restorative powers of the countryside, but it’s the Foo Fighters who are playing in my head, “Times like these, you learn to live again. Times like these – time and time again”.
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.
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-barrel grey, rippled with white-crested waves; dark and inscrutable, daring you to guess at the secrets beneath.
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 they must reckon it’ll be seriously 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 dismissed it as the efforts of an ambitious fly-tipper, 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. Under interrogation, he capitulated 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. According to his testimony, on the night in question, Margaret tired of merely taunting her husband and 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, a roll of carpet, 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 fallen into the “abyss” and sunk all the way to the bottom, at 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 committing 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 climb. At just over 2000 ft., Yewbarrow is the baby of the group, but it’s no mean mountain and won’t surrender its summit without a struggle.
At the top, a grass slope leads to a narrow ridge beyond Bell Rib. Behind us, Wastwater is a shimmer of silver beneath the whitening cloud. When we reach the crest, a dramatic cleft in the crags, known as The Great Door, frames a canvas of rich but sombre tones: the shadowed lake a dark sash of royal satin, deep and vivid blue; hemmed by the solemn Screes, their slopes mottled with daubs of gold and green, and deftly flecked with feathered brushstrokes, like copper flames that flicker up to kiss a scarf of purple heather.
Poised above the water’s edge, a dark vestigial verge of coppice, a lone patch of fur on an else clean-shaven pelt.
Cupped high among bottle-green spires, Burnmoor Tarn is a glint, a duck-egg glimmer, a hint of hidden brightness, cajoling the bashful sun to break cover.
A few easy rock steps remain between here and the summit. When we arrive, 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 cloaked in cloud, Mickledore just visible through the mist like a gateway to Middle Earth.
Across a depression, we stride up Stirrup Crag and glimpse our onward path. Thin wisps of cloud float like wood 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 swung 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; easing down bulwarks on jagged ledges; stepping back from dead-ends that stop in sudden drops. It’s slow and a touch unnerving, but there’s only one sticky moment: a parapet I think I can shimmy down in two small stretches. But I misjudge. Now, over-committed, I’m obliged 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 ensconced in a rest and refreshment break that looks set to extend indefinitely. 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.
Once on top, isolated shafts of sunlight steal through cracks in the cloud. Scoat Tarn sparkles to the south, the adamantine lustre of lost treasure, scattered in the bracken. Haycock is now in sight, while, northward, Great Gable rises over Kirk Fell, a pyramid no more, but a mighty dome, surged from the earth in an ancient eruption of volcanic violence. Beyond the summit, we perch on crags above Black Combe and eat pies, looking across to Pillar and the stiff stream of scree tapering to 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, been so coy. 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 assure 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 sheen 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. It’s all too tempting for anyone with fire in their blood. But we’ll have fire in our bellies too and we still have 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.
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 nothing so much as 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.
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 pictures fail to tell.
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 wildest of valleys, 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.
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”.
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’s all fluster, all folly, all “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 seem no more significant than the swarming of midges.
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.
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 a little girl goes looking for her lost pinafore and pocket handkerchiefs. As she scrambles up a hill called Cat Bells, she discovers a door in the hillside. She knocks. The door opens, and she’s 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 clean clothes to the animals. 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 seems 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 the first to use a real-life setting. 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 Newlands valley. At the valley’s wild heart, is Littletown, a tiny hamlet comprising a farm and a few cottages.
In the summer of 1904, Potter took a holiday at Lingholm, just outside Portinscale, at the foot of the valley. She spent her 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, one of the quietest and most secluded of Lakeland valleys became well 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. Percy took the Queen to court and, unsurprisingly, he 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, he 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 parted Percy from a lot more than his mine. She cut off his head.
The Newlands Horseshoe
Newlands is ringed by a mighty horseshoe of fells. The eastern prong comprises Cat Bells, Maiden Moor and High Spy, while the western side splits into horseshoe of its own, with an outer wall of Robinson and High Snab Bank, and an inner curtain of Hindscarth and Scope End (Goldscope lies beneath). Dale Head stands exactly where you’d expect – a grand centrepiece.
On a beautiful June morning, I park up in Littletown and take the track opposite the farm, signposted Hause Gate and Cat Bells. Scope End rises invitingly across the valley. Wainwright says we should “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.”
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. The eye-watering aspect, over Derwent Water and Bassenthwaite to Skiddaw, would quicken the pulse if it wasn’t already racing from the ascent. It’s 9 o’clock and, even now, there’s 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, but it’s the opposite way to the rest of the horseshoe, so I forego coffee with a hedgehog and turn right for Maiden Moor. 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 afford the last sparkling mirage of Derwentwater.
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 beyond. A striking vista opens over Borrowdale, and further round, a massive cloud inversion washes over Great Gable like waves breaking on a volcanic shore, the surf plunging below the skyline. It looks every bit like the top of the world. Such a scene would have undoubtedly inspired the Great Masters to paint lavish depictions of God.
As I stare in wonder, I notice a solitary figure sitting on the horizon, gazing down on creation. Could this be the Almighty on a tea break, taking five to rest his legs and review his work?
As I draw nearer, I can see 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.
I notice how the summit cairn is a work of art – a perfect cone, worthy of 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.
The seasoned mountaineer, Bill Birkett describes the pull up Dale Head as “strenuous”, so I’m ready for a stiff climb; but I have to say, it doesn’t look all that much higher. Only once I’m over the crest of High Spy, do I realise quite how far the path drops to Dale Head Tarn first. On the way down, the cloud inversion is ever more striking. It makes the loss of altitude worthwhile. I feast my eyes in the certain knowledge my quads will pick up the tab shortly.
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.
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.
The view south over Fleetwith Pike to Great Gable, Kirk Fell and Pillar is every bit as arresting. I walk west along the long flat top, pausing frequently to savour it all. Just as the path drops to the depression before Hindscarth, a magnificent aspect opens over Buttermere, to the High Stile range. A few yards further down, a photographer is mounting a massive lens on a tripod. It’s the perfect spot to pause and have some lunch.
A crunch of scree below. Two fell-runners are jogging up the stiff 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!
After lunch, I stroll down to the depression and follow the path right, to the summit of Hindscarth. Across Little Dale, Robinson is a mirror image, dropping abruptly to High Snab Bank, as I drop down 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 will 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.
Beatrix Potter understood. Some literary critics, like 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. Others, like Humphrey Carpenter, think the book explores the theme of nature-as-redemption. In this respect, the linen is 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 home, what was missing has been restored.
Potter was not just an author but a hill farmer; a firm believer in 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 achieved UNESCO world heritage site status. Given Potter’s beliefs, I feel Carpenter’s interpretation must be right. It’s surely no coincidence that Mrs Tiggy-winkle is the first of Potter’s books to be set 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.
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. 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”. 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
He drew strength from the fells”
You and me both Brian – and a little girl called Lucie who was always losing her pocket handkerchiefs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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?”
“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”,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
For a map of this route and detailed directions, visit Walk Lakes
Blencathra is a mountain steeped in Arthurian legend. Wainwright describes its ascent via Halls Fell Ridge as “the finest way to any mountain top in the district”. Tim Taylor and I embark on a scramble up this knife edge arête to find out why. We keep a firm grip on the rocks but lose our hearts to a spaniel called Bella.
Back in the 12th century, Glastonbury Abbey was in trouble – badly damaged by fire and buckling under the cost of the repairs. Yet, by the end of the Middle Ages it was the richest Abbey in Britain. What was responsible for this dramatic upturn in fortune? The discovery of two graves that were conveniently attributed to King Arthur and Guinevere.
Some suspect it was nothing more than a canny monastic marketing coup, cashing in on one of our most enduring legends. But according to the legend, Arthur didn’t die at all. He went into an extended hibernation in Avalon – the Once and Future King, lying in wait with a band of his most loyal knights, ready to return when his country needs him most; and in one version of the story at least, Avalon lies under a mountain in Cumbria.
Affalach was a Celtic god of the underworld. In Cumbrian folklore, Avalon and Affalach’s subterranean kingdom are one and the same. They dwell beneath a hill whose ancient name has been variously interpreted as “Devil’s Peak”, “High Seat” or “High Throne” – all thought to be references to Affalach. Some even argue the name means “Throne of Arthur”. The Victorians renamed it “Saddleback” for the shape of its skyline, but in his Pictorial Guides to The Lake District, Alfred Wainwright made a plea to reinstate its ancient, darker, Arthurian name of Blencathra.
Wainwright loved Blencathra, describing it as “one of the grandest objects in Lakeland”. He spent an entire winter exploring its slopes and ridges and devoted more pages to these than to any other fell.
The mountain comprises six distinct hills, the southern five joined by the summit ridge and separated by their respective ghylls. If you imagine its south face as a left hand, its fingers outstretched and pointing forward, a little apart, then Blease Fell is the thumb and Scales Fell the little finger. The index, middle and ring fingers are Gategill Fell, Halls Fell and Doddick Fell, each a distinct ridge, rising to its own knuckle.
Halls Fell Top is Blencathra’s summit and its ridge (the middle finger) is an exhilarating scramble, rising from the valley to the highest point. Wainwright declares it, “positively the finest way to any mountain top in the district”. “For active walkers and scramblers”, that is. The ever helpful WalkLakes website maps the route and describes the technical difficulty as “scrambling skills required. Steep, significant exposure with sheer drops, knife edge ridge”. Just to emphasize the point, they state in bold type, “People have slipped from this ridge and died”.
I make some enquiries on Facebook and I’m assured the scramble is slightly easier than Helvellyn’s Striding Edge. Having found few real difficulties on Striding Edge, I’m confident that Halls Fells is achievable. Indeed, it provides an exciting prospect for Saturday when my friend and frequent walking buddy, Tim Taylor, will be staying.
Then it snows – hard. Investing in winter boots, crampons, an ice axe and learning how to use them is high on my agenda but it’s now Wednesday evening and accomplishing all of those (not least the last) by Saturday seems a little ambitious. “People have slipped from this ridge and died”. OK, OK, perhaps a contingency plan is order.
Then something unusual happens. The Met Office forecasts sunshine and heat from noon on Thursday and, almost to the minute, it arrives. From harsh winter to high summer in twenty four hours and what’s more, this July-like spell is set to last through the weekend. By the time Tim arrives on Friday night we’re feeling quietly confident.
On Saturday morning, social media reports the snow on summit is soft and melting fast. As we drive past the south face on the A66, we can see the ridges are clear.
As we step out of the car in the attractive village of Threlkeld, we look up to see a mighty ridge rising above, steep and imposing.
“Blimey” says Tim, “is that Sharp Edge?”. Sharp Edge is the hardest way up Blencathra, a shorter arête than Halls Fell but by some degree narrower, its drops more sheer and its pinnacles more exposed. It’s on our tentative to-do list, but its mention in association with any vague plan to actually tackle it engenders a certain amount of trepidation. One veteran described it to me as “the most fun you can have with your clothes on”, while another admitted to being the most scared he’s been anywhere in Lakeland.
I look at Tim and from the expression on his face, I can see he’s already answered his own question. There’s no way that can be Sharp Edge from this angle, that has to be Halls Fell – where we’re going.
A frisson of nervous anticipation invigorates our steps as we follow the stream of Kilnhow Beck along its prettily wooded banks, crossing a wooden bridge and ascending some stone pitched steps that climb above its ravine. Through a gate, we emerge into the open between Blease and Gategill Fells. We follow the wall to our right past the fell foot, fording Gate Gill Beck as it babbles down from the mountain side; Halls Fell lies ahead.
Bright sunshine reveals the distinct layers that delineate the hill sides: green lowland grass gives way to a russet cloak of dead bracken; chocolate brown blankets of dry heather clad the higher slopes. Above, rising imperiously to pierce the pure blue sky, are slate grey turrets of exposed rock, their shoulders shrouded in modest mantles of snow. It looks challenging but not quite as daunting as it did from the village where its higher reaches were hidden, leaving imagination free reign to invent.
We climb the path that snakes steeply up the lower slopes, soon cutting through the carpets of chocolate heather. The gradient is unforgiving but the rapid height gain gives frequent excuses to stop and feast on the unfurling view.
To our backs, across the lush green, criss-cross fields of St John’s In The Vale, looms Clough Head, its snow streaked summit a mirror image of the cloud wisps and vapour trails that fan out across the ocean of sky.
Ahead, the vegetation recedes before the craggy ramparts of the upper ridge – gunmetal battlements that rise like organic fortifications toward the Devil’s Peak.
We reach the first rock tower and a choice presents itself: skirt round it on a narrow ledge or climb over the top. Snow still blankets sections of the ledge so in some respects the scramble seems safer – better the devil you can see; and of course, a sense of adventure dictates we climb.
Hand and footholds are in plentiful supply and we negotiate the first few pinnacles with little difficulty. Tim has to remind himself he’s not in the Peak District, his home turf, where I have seen him spring from rock to rock with what I mistook for reckless abandon. Not so, the rocky outcrops in the Peaks are gritstone, which grips your feet and allows such shenanigans with safety. The stone here is Skiddaw Slate, a sedimentary rock, formed under the sea some 500 million years ago, 50 million years before the volcanic eruptions that formed the main body of Lakeland fells. It wears to a smooth polished surface, which is slippery enough when dry like now, but lethal when wet.
The upper part of the ridge is known as Narrow Edge and with good reason. At one point the rock tapers to a slender knife edge beyond which is a deep fissure. At first I think I’ll have to turn back and follow the lower ledge, but the path is some way below and not at all distinct. The fissure is a small step but the edge is too thin to balance on.
I stop and ponder my options and realise if I straddle the ridge there are slim but decent footholds either side. Tentatively I extend my left foot and find a sure platform, then, in a crouch and holding on to the crest with both hands, move my right foot the other side. Finding another sturdy base, I rise up slowly to straddle the ridge. The step across the fissure is now simple and I think I may have made a meal of it, but slow and safe wins over haste up here.
With height, the sun loses none of its heat and our warm and waterproof layers remain stowed in our rucksacks. The light is fantastic and renders the surrounding slopes in sharp relief. To our right, Doddick Fell is an intricate action painting of green lines and splashes on a coffee-coloured ground with slithers of blue slate and dustings of snow.
Just then an excited spaniel rounds a rock tower and comes bounding over to meet us. Her owners emerge moments later and we learn her names is Bella. With younger and fitter legs they reach the peak a little before us. No sooner have they disappeared from view than Bella’s head re-emerges over the parapet, looking for us. When she spies us, her shepherding instinct kicks in and she runs back down the ridge to round us up, charging on ahead to show us the way to the top. If only I could tackle the intervening ground with that much ease!
We arrive a few minutes later to find the broad summit ridge still smothered in snow, knee-deep in places where it has drifted. The remains of a snow man, head melted to a long slim finger pointing skyward, crowns the highest point. The sky is clear and free of the haziness that often renders summer horizons in soft focus. The views in all directions are staggering.
Rising to the east are the highest peaks of the Pennines. To the south, Helvellyn and the Dodds. A crowded skyline of western crests backdrops the silver shimmer of Derwent Water. To the north-west the Solway Firth marks the Scottish border, which can only mean the snow-capped hills to the north-east are a little short of Glasgow. A high throne that surveys two countries – for now at least a united kingdom.
We plan to descend via Blease Fell, but can’t resist a short detour to peek at Sharp Edge. It certainly looks formidable from up here: sheer walls of blue-tinged slate rising steeply to a razor’s edge (its former name). We can just make out little stick men boldly negotiating its crenellations and defying its deadly drops, reaching the ridge’s end only to face a seemingly vertical scramble up Foule Crag – a perilous quest worthy of an Arthurian knight surely!
Beyond Foule Crags lies the foothill of Souter Fell, where on Midsummer’s Eve, 1745, twenty six men and women witnessed a ghost army march in a procession five men deep and half a mile long, supplemented by horses and carriages that could never have managed the slope. All twenty six swore the truth of their story under oath before a magistrate. Officials feared a gathering of Jacobite rebels, but when the ground was checked no evidence of mortal presence could be found. Perhaps it was simply the Knights of the Round Table on nocturnal manoeuvres.
We return to the summit and walk over Gategill Fell Top to Knowe Crags, where we perch on a rock and picnic. We’re in T-shirts wondering whether we’ve applied enough sun cream as it’s not just mild, it’s hot. We’re being bitten by midges, yet all around is snow. There’s something magically inconsistent about the scene.
Lofty Skiddaw hones into view as we continue on to Blease Fell and begin our descent down its snowy then grassy slopes. Reaching the bottom, I glance back at Blencathra, a truly bewitching mountain – dramatic, beguiling, mysterious and magnificent.
When so much in the daily news serves to highlight our divisions, our bitter disagreements, our ideological incompatibilities, our burning sense of personal and political injustice, it’s easy to see us as a fractured nation. But Westminster take heed: here endures a legend – that one day a Once and Future King will rise again to unite us. Only Arthur, if you’re listening, timing is everything. Please don’t burst forth from Blencathra just as I’m gingerly stepping across the perilous serrations of Sharp Edge.