Scafell Pike and Sca Fell via Foxes Tarn
A homicidal jester, the world’s greatest liar and a notorious whisky smuggler are all part of the history that surrounds this spectacular hill walk to the top of England’s two highest peaks, Sca Fell and Scafell Pike. The wild majesty of the summits provokes a meditation on why we climb mountains and the true meaning of the word sublime.
It was a risky business asking directions in Muncaster around 1600. If the seemingly amiable chap sitting beneath the chestnut tree turned out to be Thomas Skelton, you’d better hope you made a good impression. If he liked you, he’d help you find a safe passage over the river Esk. If he took exception, he’d direct you to the quicksands. Not everyone lived to tell the tale.
Skelton was the jester at Muncaster castle and was well known as a charismatic entertainer. Indeed sufficiently large was his reputation that he is thought to have been the original “Tom Fool” and Shakespeare’s inspiration for the joker in King Lear.
But he was a malevolent soul whose notoriety rocketed when his master’s daughter, Helwise took a shine to a local carpenter. This didn’t sit well with Sir Ferdinand, a knight with designs upon the girl, so he turned to Skelton for help. Tom put it about that the carpenter had stolen money from him while simultaneously affecting friendship with the lad and promising to help him elope with Helwise. Skelton got the young joiner drunk on cider then carried him back to his workshop, where he murdered him with his own carpentry tools, cutting off his head and hiding it under a pile of wood shavings. Arriving back at the castle, Skelton bragged to his fellow servants that the carpenter would not so easily find his head when he awoke as he had done Skelton’s coins.
The river Esk meets the sea at nearby Ravenglass and shares an estuary with the river Irt, which begins its short passage a few miles away in Wastwater. Described by Wordsworth as “long, stern and desolate”, Wastwater is England’s deepest lake, framed by its highest mountains with the perfect pyramid of Great Gable centre stage at its head. So ruggedly beautiful is this panorama that it was voted Britain’s Favourite View in 2007.
The Wastwater Hotel (now the Wasdale Head Inn) had its own court jester in the 1800’s. Landlord, Will Ritson was famed for his tall tales and his motivation, if not his methods, may have been similar to Skelton’s. Mountain climbing gained popularity during the Victorian era and the hotel enjoyed an influx of visitors. Some city folk considered themselves superior to country bumpkins but those affecting such airs would likely fall victim to Ritson’s yarns. There was no malice in Ritson’s antics though, just good natured leg-pulling; he’d see how far he could string along his sap before they realised they were being had, at which point he’d push his story to its preposterous conclusion to the amusement of all.
One tale involved a huge turnip his father had grown that took a whole year to hollow out. He used the carcass as a shed. Another told of an injured eagle Ritson had rescued and nursed back to health in his chicken coop. Panic ensued one night when a bitch escaped her master and raided the pen. The hound was caught and returned home and to Will’s immense relief the eagle was unharmed. A couple of months later though, the dog gave birth to winged puppies.
The Roof Of England
Even taller than Will’s stories are the mountains that ring the valley. Known as the Roof of England, the summit of Scafell Pike stands at 3208 ft and is the nation’s highest point. Despite this distinction, it takes its name from its neighbour, Sca Fell. From certain angles the pair look like giant stone beasts squaring up to each other. Sca Fell’s bulky shoulder appears to roll forward making it look the aggressor while Scafell Pike’s peak is set back giving the impression of retreat. Perhaps this is why the original namers considered Sca Fell the superior mountain – Wainwright, in his famous Pictorial Guides to the Lake District, was inclined to agree.
Today, if my fitness levels permit, I intend to ascend both. I’ve climbed the Pike twice this year only to find the summit shrouded in cloud. Today the sun is shining, the sky is blue and I hope my luck will change.
From the National Trust car park at Wasdale Head, I take the permitted path past the Brackenclose Climbing Club hut, over the wooden bridge and out on to the open fell. The first obstacle is to ford Lingmell Gill, which can be an impassable torrent when it’s in spate. It rained heavily last night so I’m little concerned my adventure may be thwarted before it’s even started. Happily, the water levels are normal and I can pick my way across the stones with relative ease.
A little further up, the path forks and I’m faced with a choice that could have been scripted by J. K. Rowling: turn right for Mickledore or carry on through the Hollow Stones. Mickledore is the narrow ridge that separates the two stone giants. Its ascent from here is dramatic but I’ll be crossing Mickledore later, so I push on through the Hollow Stones and zigzag up the steep grassy slope to Lingmell Col. Here the slog is rewarded with a spectacular view down to Sty Head Tarn at the start of the famous Corridor Route from Borrowdale, with Great Gable looking magnificent on the left.
Wadd and Whisky
The high level path that skirts the base of Great Gable and links Wasdale to Honister is known as Moses Trod after a shadowy slate worker called Moses Rigg. Moses was an accomplished smuggler of wadd (graphite), then a hugely valuable and highly guarded natural resource. He is said to have used the path to move his contraband through Wasdale and on to the coast at Ravenglass.
But wadd was not his only line of business. It is rumoured that Rigg built a hideout high up in the crags of Great Gable, well out of the way of the excise men, where he distilled illicit whisky from bog water. As far back as 1966, Wainwright claimed that no trace of this mythical building remained and given that the only historical accounts of Moses Rigg stem from Will Ritson, you’d be forgiven for thinking this local legend is simply that. However, in 1983 an expedition by Jeremy Ashcroft and Guy Proctor from Trail magazine discovered four stone walls and a stone floor on a small and obscured plateau below central gully about 200m from Great Gable’s summit. In the middle of the floor was a lump of wadd.
Lingmell’s summit is in easy reach and offers even better views of Great Gable, but with two higher mountains to conquer, I forego the temptation and bear right to start the stony ascent to the Roof of England, picking my way across a significant boulder field to attain the country’s pinnacle. The sky is clear and the views are breathtaking. My luck is in today.
The top of Scafell Pike does not meet any conventional notion of beauty. It is a wasteland of rock where little or no vegetation grows, but on a clear day you can see for miles and there is no denying the special feeling you get here. Even on a weekend, when it’s overrun by flocks of sponsored fund raisers and three peak challengers (who aspire to climb Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis in 24 hours), there is still a strange, desolate magic to this place. You are literally on top of the country and it tends to put into stark perspective the small stuff you spend most days sweating.
Indeed, this summit inspired Wainwright to write a soliloquy questioning why men climb mountains. He concludes that “they find something in these wild places that can be found nowhere else. It may be solace for some, satisfaction for others: the joy of exercising muscles that modern ways of living have cramped, perhaps; or a balm for jangled nerves in the solitude and silence of the peaks; or escape from the clamour and tumult of everyday existence. It may have something to do with man’s subconscious search for beauty, growing keener as so much in the world grows uglier. It may be a need to re-adjust his sights, to get out of his narrow groove and climb above it to see wider horizons and truer perspectives.” It’s a passage that speaks volumes to me and one I muse on as I sit at the summit platform and reach into my rucksack for a snack.
Twenty minutes later, as I’m readying to set off for Sca Fell, the cloud comes down, cutting visibility to almost nothing and causing the temperature to plummet. All of a sudden what seemed rugged and inspiring seems hostile and intimidating. Scafell Pike’s summit is notoriously disorientating in mist. Comprised entirely of boulders, there are no paths so you have to follow the cairns and it is all too easy to pick the wrong line. Mountain Rescue are frequently called to the aid of walkers who have descended to the wrong valley; a humbling reminder of human frailty in the face of elemental forces.
This counsels caution and I consider abandoning my plan to ascend the sibling peak. However, given the speed at which the cloud is racing, it seems likely this will clear. I resolve to head on for Mickledore. If the mist sets in, I can return to Wasdale from there. Fortunately, it starts to lift and the outline of Sca Fell slowly emerges through the gloom. Bit by bit its imposing bulk is unveiled until only the very summit is lost in mist.
I hear footsteps and I’m joined by a fellow explorer heading for the ridge. He’s in running gear and beaming with pride at having achieved the summit of the Pike in an hour (it took me two). He’s planning to go back down, change into his walking gear and trek up Moses Trod to have a look at Napes Needle, a slender, sheer-sided rock pinnacle on Great Gable. Suddenly my plan to conquer the twin peaks doesn’t seem quite so ambitious. His utter passion for being out here is infectious and we chat warmly about our plans. He’s a taxi driver from Lancaster but spends all his free time on the fells. His ambition is to become an outdoor instructor so he can do this full time.
Shock and Awe
We part ways on the ridge of Mickledore. By now the sky is completely free of cloud and Sca Fell looms before me in sunlit glory, but a direct ascent in barred by the towering rock face of Broad Stand. Broad Stand is a haven for climbers but beyond the capabilities of walkers lacking highly specialised scrambling skills and a casual indifference to continued living.
The only alternative is to descend about 800ft and circumnavigate the cliff by scrambling up one of two gullies. On the Wasdale side is famous Lord’s Rake, but recent rock falls have made that a dangerous proposition. I opt instead for the Eskdale side and the Foxes Tarn outlet gully.
This gully can be dry at certain times of the year but today a sparkling stream cascades down its rocky steps. Where Scafell Pike draws crowds, here feels wonderfully secluded and remote. I’m not entirely alone however, ahead of me, half-way up the scramble is a solitary figure – he looks back, spies me and waves – the brotherhood of track-less-beaten.
I put hand to rock and begin to climb. Some of the stones are large but they are firm and relatively easy to clamber up. The trick is to stay where it’s dry, the limestone being precariously slippery when wet. This means keeping right until about a third of the way up where the route crosses the stream and ascends on the left. Above, the sky is bright blue and the large natural amphitheatre that surrounds the top looks spectacularly inviting. When I finally stand in its midst, it doesn’t disappoint. It is wild and strikingly beautiful. By contrast, Foxes Tarn itself is no more than a puddle and you wonder where all the water running down the gully is coming from. From here, a steep climb up a sketchy path through a bank of scree brings me to the saddle below Symonds Knott with its curious cross of stones. Bearing left, I reach Sca Fell’s summit.
If Scafell Pike invokes feelings of awe and reverence for its sheer size and desolate majesty, those emotions intensify amid the wild grandeur of its neighbour. The panoramic vistas are staggering. The blue expanses of Wastwater and Burnmoor Tarn lie side by side as you look down on the high Screes that separate them (those same slopes that look so steep from the water’s edge).
In his book, The Art of Travel, Alain De Botton devotes a chapter to the sublime. In its rightful sense sublime does not mean merely beautiful. To qualify as sublime, landscapes must overwhelm, intimidate, shock and awe, strike fear as well as wonder. Ultimately they must make you acutely aware of your own weakness and insignificance in the face of something so vast, noble and infinitely more powerful.
These wild terrains were forged 450 million years ago by colossal volcanic explosions that surely must exceed any vision of Armageddon the human imagination can conjure. They will remain long after our flesh and bone is gone. Up here, larger than life characters like Skelton, Ritson and Rigg are mere pinpricks in the fabric of time; indeed the whole of human history is a tiny blip on an unfathomably large axis. It makes you feel very, very small and it’s the most uplifting thing imaginable.
De Botton suggests that because we spend our lives imagining we’re powerful and feeling frustrated when we can’t make little things happen, it is hugely liberating to be reminded we’re a tiny, insignificant part of something so overwhelmingly vast. I think he’s right. In the inscrutable context of the universe, what is truly remarkable is that you’re here at all, so being right here, right now, experiencing all this is, to some, proof of the divine; to the rest of us it’s the most astonishing accident.
Eventually I retrace my steps to the saddle, turn left then bear right to follow a path that skirts the top of the cliffs above Wasdale Head before descending the bed of a dried up stream back to Brackenclose.
In the car park, I chat with a woman who’s just ascended the Pike via Mickledore. She’s an outdoor instructor and it’s her day off so naturally she’s spent it climbing a mountain. She says her services don’t include challenges like the Three Peaks as she objects to these on ethical grounds. I’m curious but I don’t push. Somehow that seems a topic for another day – too mired in the politics of human hubbub. Right now we’re basking in something grander. We swap cursory accounts of our different routes and marvel at how striking the views were. Our conversation is punctuated by long pauses and much looking back and up. There’s nothing awkward in our silences however – we’re sharing something not easily expressed in words: the beatific, humble elation that comes from standing on the shoulders of giants.