The Newlands Horseshoe
The wild scenery of the Newlands valley is spectacularly beautiful and surprisingly famous, prized by both Beatrix Potter and Queen Elizabeth I for very different reasons. On this inspiring high-level circuit, I learn why the Earl of Northumberland lost his head and how a hedgehog may hold the key to happiness.
The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-winkle
“Once upon a time there was a little girl called Lucie, who lived at a farm called Little-town. She was a good little girl – only she was always losing her pocket handkerchiefs.”
So begins Beatrix Potter’s The Tale Of Mrs Tiggy-winkle, in which an absentminded little girl goes in search of her pocket handkerchiefs and pinafore. As she scrambles up a hill called Cat Bells, she discovers a door in the hillside. She knocks and is invited into the tiny kitchen of Mrs Tiggy-winkle, a washer-woman who launders clothes for the local animals. Not only has Mrs Tiggy-winkle found Lucie’s lost linen, she’s washed and pressed it all for her.
Out of gratitude, Lucie helps Mrs Tiggy-winkle deliver the animals’ clean clothes. Once back at the stile, she watches Mrs Tiggy-winkle scamper home and notices how, all of a sudden, her new friend looks smaller and appears to have swapped her clothes for a coat of prickles. Only then does Lucie realise that Mrs. Tiggy-winkle is a hedgehog.
Some think Lucie fell asleep at the stile and dreamt the whole escapade but they can’t explain how she returned home with her freshly laundered pinafore and missing handkerchiefs.
The tale was Potter’s sixth book and a departure in so far as the setting was real. Cat Bells is a well-known Lakeland landmark, familiar to those visiting Keswick as the distinctive hill rising over the far bank of Derwent Water. Its western slopes run down to the altogether wilder Newlands valley, at the heart of which, lies Littletown, a tiny hamlet comprising a farm and a few cottages.
In the summer of 1904, Potter took a holiday at Lingholm, just outside Portinscale, and spent much of the time sketching Newlands, Littletown, Cat Bells and the mighty Skiddaw, whose summits dominate the skyline to the north-east. Even the door in the hillside had a basis in reality – it probably shuttered an old mine level. These pen and ink drawings were reproduced in the finished book virtually unchanged. With its publication, what is often considered one of the quietest and most secluded of Lakeland valleys became known to millions of children around the world.
The Rising of the North
But Newlands found fame long before Potter’s time. Goldscope, on the lower slopes of Hindscarth, was the most renowned of the Cumbrian mines, yielding rich seams of copper, lead and even small quantities of gold and silver. The German engineers, who spearheaded the works, named it Gottesgab, or God’s Gift (eventually corrupted to Goldscope). Elizabeth I considered the mine so strategically important that she requisitioned it from its owner, Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland and refused to pay him royalties. The case went to court and unsurprisingly Percy lost. A catholic and supporter of Mary Queen of Scots, the earl was already ill-disposed to the protestant Elizabeth and the loss of revenue from his land proved the last straw. In 1569, Percy joined forces with The Earl of Westmorland and several other Catholic nobles in the Rising of the North, an armed insurrection against the Queen. The rebellion was quashed and Elizabeth deprived Percy of not only his mine but also his head.
The Newlands Horseshoe
Newlands is ringed by an impressive horseshoe of fells. The eastern wall comprises Cat Bells, Maiden Moor and High Spy. At its head looms the centrepiece, the rather prosaically named, Dale Head, and two ridges line the western side. The outer wall is formed by Robinson, dropping to the ridge of High Snab Bank, while the similar inner wall is formed by Hindscarth dropping to the ridge of Scope End, under which, runs the Goldscope mine.
It’s a beautiful June morning when I park up in Littletown and take the track opposite the farm, signposted Hause Gate and Cat Bells. I stop briefly to admire Scope End, which rises majestically across the valley. Wainwright advises walkers to “make a special note of the Scope End ridge: this route on an enchanting track along the heathery crest, is really splendid… In descent, the route earns full marks because of the lovely views of Newlands directly ahead.”
I’m here to tackle the horseshoe, but heeding Wainwright’s advice, I leave Scope End for last and follow the track eastwards up the fellside, bearing right on to a grassy bridleway. The path crosses a stream then zigzags up to the col of Hause Gate between Cat Bells and Maiden Moor. Here, I’m rewarded with magnificent views over Derwent Water to Bassenthwaite Lake and Skiddaw beyond. It’s just gone 9am and there’s already strength in the sun. The Newlands slopes are shades of green so vivid they assault the senses; but a summer haze paints the distant shores in watercolour.
Cat Bells lies to my left, the opposite direction to the rest of the horseshoe, so I forego a chance encounter with a hedgehog and turn right for Maiden Moor instead. Maiden Moor’s summit is a featureless plateau, but from here on the horseshoe is an airy, high level circuit that is never short of spectacular. The drama increases as soon as the crags of High Spy North Top appear, its rocky outcrops affording the last sparkling views over Derwentwater.
The true summit lies a little further on. At its western edge, the precipitous cliffs of Eel Crag plunge to Newlands’ floor. In counterpoint, across the valley, the rocky face of Hindscarth rises like a dark, grooved pyramid from an upward sweep of green. The spires of Coledale loom beyond. On the eastern side, a striking vista unfurls down the length of Borrowdale, while straight ahead, beyond High Spy’s summit, a massive cloud inversion rolls over Great Gable like breaking waves, the surf disappearing below the skyline. It looks every bit like the top of the world. Such a scene would have inspired the Great Masters to paint lavish depictions of God.
No sooner does this thought occur than I notice a solitary figure sitting on the horizon, looking down on creation; and I realise the Great Masters got it all wrong. There’s no long white beard or flowing robes; no muscle-bound Adonis hurling thunderbolts; no Bacchanalian feast; just an old chap in plaid shirt and battered fishing cap, legs outstretched, eating corned-beef sandwiches from a Tupperware tucker box. As a portrait of the Almighty, it’s perfect. I note how High Spy’s summit cairn is a work of art – a perfect stone cone worthy of sculptor, Andy Goldsworthy. Perhaps it was a divine commission. As I pass, I shout a greeting to God. He responds with a brief salute and returns to his sandwiches.
The seasoned mountaineer, Bill Birkett describes the pull up Dale Head as “strenuous”, so I’m ready for a stiff climb up its eastern face; but only once I’m over the crest of High Spy, do I discover quite how far the path first drops to Dale Head Tarn. On the way down, the cloud inversion is ever more striking. It makes the loss of altitude worthwhile, so I feast my eyes in the certain knowledge my quads will pick up the tab shortly when I have it all to regain. A large stone shelter sits above the tarn. I rest a few minutes, staring straight down the valley to Skiddaw, then wander down to the waterline. The surface is an oasis of calm cool blue, glittering among the reed beds. A lovely spot to while away a sunny day. But I must put these thoughts from my mind, I have another mountain to climb.
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 equally arresting. I walk west along the long flat top, pausing frequently to savour it all. Just as the path begins to drop to the depression between Dale Head and Hindscarth, a magnificent aspect opens over Buttermere to the High Stile range. A few yards further down, a photographer is mounting an impressive looking camera on a tripod. It’s the perfect spot to sit and have some lunch.
A crunch of scree below: two fell-runners are jogging up the significant gradient. When they reach me, they pause for breath and we chat. They’re attempting a section of the Bob Graham Round, a leisurely little leg-stretcher in which contestants conquer 44 peaks in under 24 hours! They’ve run over Robinson and they’re heading for Great Gable. After the briefest of respites, they resume and I watch in bewilderment. Apparently by pushing your body to that kind of physical extreme, you experience an endorphin-induced euphoria. I’m perched on a rock, eating a pie – it’s euphoria enough for me!
After a leisurely lunch, I stroll down to the depression and follow the path that veers off right to the summit of Hindscarth. Across Little Dale, Robinson drops sharply to the ridge of High Snab Bank as I descend to Scope End. Wainwright was right about Scope End. The ridge is utterly enchanting. As I walk amongst the Bilberry and Bell Heather, I realise I’m smiling. This is hardly remarkable: I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy, it’s a beautiful day and I’m walking the fells; but I’ve been out of sorts all week. Sometimes, it seems as if the current is against you and you expend all your energy just treading water. On top of that, a friend is seriously ill in hospital and the prognosis is not good. If the worst happens, people I care a great deal about face a very painful time ahead.
Being out here doesn’t change that, but somehow it makes it easier to accept. We spend much of our lives so divorced from the natural order of things that we are easily shocked and outraged, even terrified by its realities. Immersing ourselves in the natural world for a short while, helps put things in context. Out here it’s easy to see how precarious our lives are. This landscape is hundreds of millions of years old, the whole of human existence, but a few thousand. Our tiny sparks of life are the briefest of candles, but to have been lit at all we’ve beaten overwhelming odds. Our time is short, but the fact we are here is astonishing. The only possible response is to seize life firmly with both hands and wring out every last drop of value. What that actually means is different for each of us, but what it definitely doesn’t mean is dwelling too long on the past or fretting so much about the future that we fail to embrace the present. My friend has never been guilty of that. Neither should I be.
As for all that other stuff – well it seems to have shrunk drastically in significance. Spend too long staring at your shoes and the obstacles in front can seem like mountains. Climb a real mountain and you see them for what they are – trifling impediments, easily overcome with the smallest of steps.
Beatrix Potter understood. Some literary critics, such as Ruth MacDonald, felt the plot of Mrs Tiggy-winkle was “thin”, perhaps dated because of its apparent concern with the domestic chores traditionally associated with girls; perhaps also, because Lucie appears to learn nothing of herself as a consequence of the story. But Hugh Carpenter suggests the book explores the theme of nature-as-redemption. In this respect, the linen may be allegorical. Something is missing from Lucie’s life; her world is disordered. In Mrs Tiggy-winkle’s kitchen, Lucie immerses herself in an older, slower, natural Arcadia where she finds a temporary refuge. When she returns to home, what was missing has been restored.
Potter was not just an author but a hill farmer and a firm believer in the value of conserving the landscape and its traditional ways of life. The existence of the Lake District National Park owes much to her bequest and she would undoubtedly be delighted to learn her legacy has just been granted UNESCO world heritage site status. Given Potter’s beliefs, I feel Carpenter’s interpretation is right. It can be no coincidence, that Mrs Tiggy-winkle is the first of Potter’s books to be set (explicitly anyway) in a real-life location she cared so much about.
I reach the valley floor and look back at its sweeping green majesty. To my left, the beck glitters like a bed of jewels. Scope End’s eastern flank bears a small scar, however. Two spoil heaps mark the entrance to Goldscope mine. It looks far too tiny to have such a turbulent and far-reaching history; feuds fought and lives lost over the small seams of metal encased in its rocks.
The quantities of gold and silver extracted here were negligible, but Elizabeth I used its copper to debase the national currency – swapping silver coinage for copper and keeping the silver for herself. I ponder how much of human history has centred on the ruthless pursuit of metal we deem “precious” by dint of its being glittery and rare. Homo Sapiens: “wise man” in Latin; on the vast timeline of evolution, we’ve only been around for about five minutes; perhaps we’re not quite as evolved as we think we are.
As I walk down toward the footbridge, I pass a wooden bench. It bears a commemorative plaque:
“Brian Gudgeon Machin
He drew strength from the fells”
You and me both Brian – and a little girl called Lucie who was always losing her pocket handkerchiefs.