Tag Archives: Coniston

Ghosts of Canadian Airmen

Wetherlam, Swirl How & Great Carrs via Steel Edge

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

Sheep Folds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goldsworthy Sheepfold, Tilberthwaite
Goldsworthy Sheepfold, Tilberthwaite

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

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

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

Andy Goldsworthy Sheepfold, Tilberthwaite
Andy Goldsworthy Sheepfold, Tilberthwaite

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

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

Touchstone Fold. Tilberthwaite
Touchstone Fold. Tilberthwaite
Steel Edge

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

Disused quarry, Tilberthwaite
Disused quarry, Tilberthwaite

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhyolite, Steel Edge
Rhyolite, Steel Edge

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

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

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

Cross for the Crashed Bomber
Cross for the Crashed Bomber

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mountain Top Memorial, Great Carrs
Mountain Top Memorial
Haunted

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

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

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

Monuments

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

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

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

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

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


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King of the Copper Mountains

Dow Crag via the South Rake, The Old Man of Coniston, Swirl How and Levers Water

Dow Crag is one of the finest rock faces in the Lake District. It is usually thought to be the preserve of climbers, but a hidden gully known as the South Rake affords the adventurous walker  an ascent that doesn’t require ropes.  In this post, I recount an exhilarating scramble to the top via this route and delve into the rich history of the Coniston area and the nearby port of Whitehaven, which was once so strategically important that it was invaded by the US navy during the war of independence.

Coniston, Copper and the Birth of a Sausage

When I was little I had a favourite book called The King of the Copper Mountains. The story hailed from Holland but the title could easily apply to Coniston. The Cumbrian village enjoys a commanding position at the foot of the copper-rich Furness fells, overseeing the lake that shares its name – a name that derives from the Norse for king.

Coniston Water
Coniston Water

Coniston Water has a history of aquatic adventure. It is the setting for Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons and it’s where Donald Campbell set four world water speed records between 1955 and 1964 in his boat, Bluebird. It was here too that he made his final, fatal attempt to reach 300mph in 1967.

Brantwood, on its eastern shore was home to John Ruskin, the leading Victorian art critic, philanthropist and social reformer. Ruskin declared the view from his house to be the “the best in all England”, although, to be fair, he said the same of Church Brow in Kirkby Lonsdale and described a vista on Friar Crag as the finest in Europe. In fact, when it came to lavishing his affections on superlative views, Ruskin was a bit of a brassy tart, but such was his love of Brantwood, that shortly before his death in 1900 he declined the opportunity to be buried in Westminster Abbey, preferring to be laid to rest in the peace of the Coniston churchyard.

Today Coniston thrives on tourism but its past prosperity owed much to slate and copper.  Its copper mines reached their zenith in the early 19th century when the ore produced here was used to make coins and weaponry and even to clad the hulls of the naval fleet. The original shafts were dug two centuries earlier under the patronage of Elizabeth I who licensed German engineers to spearhead the effort.  The Germans brought more than mining expertise however. They also bore a recipe for a coarse, spicy, unlinked sausage which proved popular with the locals and evolved into a regional delicacy.  Copper mining may be long gone but every Cumbrian butcher worth his salt can boast an award winning Cumberland sausage.

American Invasion

Spices were in steady supply due to Coniston’s relative proximity to Whitehaven. In its heyday, Whitehaven was a major port. Indeed, so great was its strategic importance that in 1778, at the height of the War of Independence, the town was subject to a hostile American invasion.  The assault was the brain-child of John Paul Jones, a US naval commander of Scottish descent who had spent his early working life in Whitehaven.  Jones planned a raid to burn the boats in the harbour and inflict significant damage on British ships and supplies. But his enthusiasm was not shared widely among his crew and by the time the USS Ranger dropped anchor on the evening of April 22nd, they were close to mutiny, a situation that can’t have been helped by the arduous three hour row to the harbour.

The raiding party was divided between two boats. Jones himself took charge of one, which was to storm the Lunette battery and disable the guns, thus securing a safe passage back to the ship. Meanwhile, the other boat, led by Lieutenant Wallingford, was to make for the quay and torch the ships that were docked there.  His crew must have rowed the final furlong steeling themselves for a bloody skirmish only to find that on a cold night in Whitehaven, with no prior warning of their arrival, there was no-one around to fight. Furthermore, their primary mission of burning the boats faltered when they realised they had no matches and the candles they’d brought had long since blown out.  Faced with such compromising circumstances, Wallingford’s men did the only reasonable thing. They went to the pub, where they were soundly defeated by the strength of the local ale.

By the time Jones arrived back from the battery, half his men were three sheets to the wind. Undeterred, he improvised matches from strips of canvas dipped in sulphur and managed to start fires in a couple of the cargo holds.  The invaders then beat a hasty retreat, hoping to watch the town go up in flames from the safety of their ship.  Fortunately, the townspeople were one step ahead. With the Great Fire of London a recent memory, Whitehaven had invested in fire engines, which were swiftly deployed, successfully extinguishing the flames before they reached the rigging.

In the meantime, the guards that Jones had overpowered at the fort had freed themselves and got the guns back in operation.  The resulting canon fire failed to hit the retreating rowing boats but the loud bangs can’t have done much for the burgeoning hangovers that must have been kicking in among the crew.  As the people of Whitehaven returned to their beds, Jones and his men sailed back to America with their tails between their sea legs, their bungled raid destined to become a footnote in the history books; everywhere but Whitehaven that is, where it is still a cause for celebration.

A Coward’s Route up Dow Crag

The Coniston Coppermines Valley is flanked on three sides by majestic mountains: Wetherlam, Swirl How, Brim Fell and the Old Man of Coniston. Beyond the Old Man lies Dow Crag which Wainwright described as one the grandest rock faces in the Lake District.  Its cliffs and gullies are a big draw for rock climbers and it has a particular attraction for me as I can see it from my house.

Dow Crag
Dow Crag

The Crag is usually ascended along the ridge from the Walna Scar Pass or from Goat Hawse, which links Dow Crag to the Old Man.  Its imposing cliffs, with the deep clefts of Great and Easy Gully, look unassailable to walkers although climbers class the latter as a scramble.  In his Pictorial Guides to the Lake District, Wainwright pours gentle scorn on this classification, concluding that climbers have no concept of “easy” and suggesting that, while a walker might manage to get up that way if he were being chased by a particularly ferocious bull, it is best avoided on all other occasions.  He does reveal, however, that there is a “coward’s way up”. It should be stressed here that Wainwright is using “coward” in an ironic sense to mimic the climber mindset that named Easy Gully, “Easy”, but nevertheless, he goes on to describe a steep and loose scramble that will take those unaverse to putting hand to rock all the way to the top of the crags without the need for ropes. At the time, it was unnamed – Wainwright proposed “the South Rake” and the moniker stuck.

My friend, Tim, is an ardent hiker with a taste for adventure, so what better challenge for the pair of us than to tackle the South Rake and walk the ridge to Swirl How? We set out with a little trepidation at the prospect, not least because I’d climbed the Old Man two weeks earlier and fancied I‘d spied the Rake, which looked well nigh vertical from there.  But reserving the right to declare discretion the better part of valour and take the soft option if necessary, we set off up the steep tarmac lane from Coniston to the start of the Walna Scar road, a stony track leading to the Walna Scar Pass.

Dow Crag
Dow Crag from Goats Water

About a mile down the track, a wooden sign directs us right along the footpath leading to the Cove. With the southern slopes of the Old Man on one side and imposing face of Dow Crag towering ahead, we climb steadily to the copper-green tarn of Goats Water.  On the far shore, scree slopes rise sharply to the foot of the Crag.  A quick peek through the binoculars reveals a group of climbers perched below the main buttress and other tiny figures, further to the left, ascending diagonally up a gully that must surely be the Rake. Reassuring ourselves that we’re not the only ones daft enough to attempt this, we pick our way around the foot of the tarn and follow a faint path up the steep scree. As we reach the bottom of the Crag near the dark gash of Great Gully, the mountain rescue stretcher box comes into view imparting a frisson of foreboding.  After a short pause to catch our breath and admire the view – Goats Water already seems a long way below – we tread around the base of the buttress to the start of the South Rake.

South Rake Ascent
Ascending the South Rake

Tim opts to go first, making his way gingerly up the steep incline.  I follow at a safe distance knowing the rocks are loose and easy to dislodge. To his credit, Tim does this only once. Patience and concentration are required at all times as solid holds are never guaranteed and it’s imperative to test the steadfastness of each step before putting your weight on it. It’s unnerving when successive stones give way under your grip but a little careful investigation eventually yields a firm ascent. We pass the entrance to Easy Gully which reminds us we’re on the “coward’s route” but it certainly doesn’t feel like it when, about half way up, the gradient steepens further and it all seems more than a little exposed. Tim later confesses to have glanced down at this point and experienced a momentary wobble. It was only that I was concentrating so hard on where to tread that I kept my eyes ahead and was spared the same misgiving. Nearing the top, the gully forks and we opt for different routes, arriving on the flatter ground of the summit several yards apart.  This is when the elation kicks in and for a few minutes we feel every bit the Kings of the Copper Mountain.  The euphoria is only slightly dampened when we spy the climbers ascending the vertical cliff!

Top of South Rake
Top of South Rake

We walk on over Dow Crag and drop down to Goats Hawse where we bear right to ascend the Old Man.  Compared with the handful of walkers on the former peak, ramblers are arriving here by the coach load. We forgo the overcrowded summit platform and break for a picnic overlooking Low Water before pressing on over Brim Fell and climbing to the summit of Swirl How.

Along the ridge the views south west to Seathwaite Tarn are striking and across the Duddon Valley, Harter Fell honours its geological ancestry by looking every inch the volcano, a plume of cloud erupting from its peak. To its right, Sca Fell and Scafell Pike loom like great brutal rock giants locked in an eternal standoff across the ridge of Mickledore.  On top of Swirl How, Crinkle Crags, Bow Fell, the Pike O’ Blisco and the Langdale Pikes hone into view and we take our time drinking in the aspect. To the south lies Morecambe Bay and to the east are Windermere and Coniston. Below is Levers Water, our next destination, which we reach by clambering down the rocky path of the Prison Band and turning right at Levers Hawse to reach the water’s edge.

Seathwaite Tarn
Seathwaite Tarn from Goat Hawse
Panic at Levers Water

Levers Water is a natural tarn that was dammed in 1717 to create a reservoir for the copper mines. It now acts as the water supply for Coniston itself.  In order to raise the water level, the entrances to the neighbouring mine shafts had to be sealed to prevent the tarn from flooding the tunnels and turning the becks descending to Coniston into raging torrents.  Rumour had it that, in one case, the builders had used a giant wooden plug – a story confirmed in the 1980’s when a group of cavers managed to locate the timber stopper.

Another caving party visited the plug in the early nineties and were shocked to discover an improvised explosive device wedged against it.  The Bomb Squad was dispatched and managed to render the device safe, removing it to the nearby fell side where they carried out a controlled detonation.  The Sunday Times postulated it was a weapon of terror, placed there by the IRA in an attempt to assassinate John Major, then Prime Minister, who was due to visit the area.  The story was dismissed by the police who believed the makeshift bomb to have been the work of cavers hoping to blast through to the next level, unaware of weight of water behind. The fuse had been lit but good fortune had intervened and thankfully it had petered out.

Low Water and Levers Water
Low Water and Levers Water
Best Defence

From Levers Water we make our way down through the Coppermines Valley to the Sun Hotel in Coniston for revitalising pints of Loweswater Gold.  The bar and terrace are packed – proof that while his mines are consigned to history, the King of the Copper Mountains remains in rude health.  Sadly, the years have treated Whitehaven less favourably. Its prominence as a port declined as the greater capacities of Bristol and Liverpool took over and today it is a modest coastal town, its glory years marooned in its nautical past.

These days the American invasion is commercial and cultural, with nearly all British cities sporting identikit chains like the ubiquitous Starbucks and MacDonalds. Ruskin would have hated this homogenization of the high street and the revival of the Laissez Faire Capitalism he railed so ardently against. But as a champion of the artisan, I think he’d approve of the Sun Hotel with its impressive array of locally sourced ales.  Round the corner at the Black Bull, they even brew their own Bluebird Bitter.  No corporate conformity here then, and if it’s true that history repeats, pubs well stocked with potent local brews might just prove our best defence.


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