Tag Archives: fell walking

In My Time Of Dying

Haystacks and Wainwright.

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.

Hug 1990
Hug 1990. Photo by Sandy Kitching
Hug 1990
Hug 1991. Photo by Sandy Kitching

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.”

Haystacks from Fleetwith Pike
Haystacks from Fleetwith Pike
Innominate Tarn
Innominate Tarn

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.

Buttermere and High Snockrigg
Buttermere and High Snockrigg

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).

Pillar from Scarth Gap
Pillar from Scarth Gap

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.

Great Gable at the head of Ennerdale
Great Gable at the head of Ennerdale

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.

Summit cairn, Haystacks
Summit cairn, Haystacks

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.

Walker perched on Big Stack with Fleetwith Pike behind
Walkers perched on Big Stack with Fleetwith Pike behind
High Stile over Haystacks summit tarn
High Stile over Haystacks summit tarn
High Stile over summit cairn, Haystacks
High Stile over a summit tarn on Haystacks
Buttermere from Haystacks summit cairn
Buttermere from Haystacks summit cairn

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”.

Innominate Tarn
Innominate Tarn
Herdwick grazing among the heather
Herdwick grazing among the heather

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…

Innominate Tarn
Innominate Tarn

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.

Innominate Tarn
Innominate Tarn with Gable keeping watch

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.

Rock scenery on route to Dubs Bottom
Rock scenery on route to Dubs Bottom
Rock scenery on route to Dubs Bottom
Rock scenery on route to Dubs Bottom

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.

Buttermere from Fleetwith summit
Buttermere from Fleetwith summit

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.

Buttermere from Fleetwith Edge
Buttermere from Fleetwith Edge
Descending Fleetwith Edge
Descending Fleetwith Edge

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.

Fanny Mercer's cross
Fanny Mercer’s cross

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.


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A Walk on the Wild Side

The Mosedale Horseshoe and a Night at Black Sail

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

The Lady in the Lake

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

Wastwater from Yewbarrow
Wastwater from Yewbarrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mosedale Horseshoe

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

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

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

Wastwater over Bell Rib
Wastwater over Bell Rib

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

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

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

Pillar rising above Mosedale
Pillar rising above Mosedale

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

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

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

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

Kirk fell from Red Pike
Kirk fell from Red Pike

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

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

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

Ennerdale Water
Ennerdale Water
Steeple
Steeple

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

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

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

Descending to Black Sails Pass
Descending to Black Sails Pass

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

Black Sail Hut

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

 

Ennerdale
Ennerdale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset over Ennerdale
Sunset over Ennerdale

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

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

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

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

Black Sails Hut
Black Sails Hut

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All That Glitters…

The Newlands Horseshoe

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

The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-winkle

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

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

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

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

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

Cat Bells and Derwent Water
Cat Bells and Derwent Water

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

The Rising of the North

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

The Newlands Horseshoe

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

The Newlands Valley
The Newlands Valley

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

Scope End
Scope End

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

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

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

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

Hindscarth from High Spy
Hindscarth from High Spy

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

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

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

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

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

Dale Head Summit Cairn
Dale Head Summit Cairn

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

Buttermere from Dale Head
Buttermere from Dale Head

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

Redemption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Church Beck
Church Beck

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

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

“Brian Gudgeon Machin

1924-2000

He drew strength from the fells”

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

Brian's Bench
Brian’s Bench

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Ghosts of Canadian Airmen

Wetherlam, Swirl How & Great Carrs via Steel Edge

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

Sheep Folds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goldsworthy Sheepfold, Tilberthwaite
Goldsworthy Sheepfold, Tilberthwaite

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

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

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

Andy Goldsworthy Sheepfold, Tilberthwaite
Andy Goldsworthy Sheepfold, Tilberthwaite

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

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

Touchstone Fold. Tilberthwaite
Touchstone Fold. Tilberthwaite
Steel Edge

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

Disused quarry, Tilberthwaite
Disused quarry, Tilberthwaite

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhyolite, Steel Edge
Rhyolite, Steel Edge

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

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

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

Cross for the Crashed Bomber
Cross for the Crashed Bomber

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mountain Top Memorial, Great Carrs
Mountain Top Memorial
Haunted

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

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

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

Monuments

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

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

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

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

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


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Redemption Song

The Herdwicks of Harter Fell

From Eskdale, a walk up the heather-clad flanks of Harter Fell sets in motion a train of thought about the herdwick sheep and how they were nearly wiped out by foot and mouth disease. Recollections of those dark days in 2001 turn into a tribute to the remarkable men and women who brought this iconic breed back from the brink.

Epidemic

I’d lived in Cumbria for three years when foot and mouth disease struck. In early 2001, it was easy to tap into the collective anxiety as the news reports rolled in, but at first it felt like something that was happening somewhere else.

Then one day, I drove home from work to find the sky thick with black smoke. I didn’t put two and two together until I stepped out of the car and the smell hit my nostrils. I knew it at once and it evoked classrooms – familiar, faintly nostalgic, sickening it its current context – it smelt of glue.

Several animals on one of the nearby farms had tested positive for the disease. The panicked government policy at the time wouldn’t allow for isolating the infected and protecting the healthy; instead, slaughter-men were summoned to dispatch the whole herd. Now, they were burning the carcasses and the air was thick with the smell of gelatin from the rendered hides and hooves. Animal gelatin is ingredient in the sort of glue I must  have used at school.

Several other neighbouring farms followed suit. These were just over the county border in Lancashire, where things were bad, but the toll in Cumbria itself would become the worst in Britain. In a desperate effort to contain the disease, the government introduced a policy of “contiguous cull”, which meant all animals within 3km of an infected site were slaughtered. Farmers would sit with OS maps sprawled out on their kitchen tables, anxiously awaiting the news bulletins and plotting the distance from the latest outbreaks to their own fields, breathing sighs of reprieve or collapsing into despair depending on the report.

Children in infected areas were not allowed to out to go to school as the virus can survive for up to two weeks on contaminated clothing. Teenagers studying for A levels were sent to stay with friends and not permitted to return for the duration of the epidemic. Yet, in the distant halls of Westminster, Margaret Beckett announced that “farmers aren’t in quarantine”.

Large areas of the Lake District National Park were closed to prevent visitors spreading the disease. Businesses built on tourism were hit hard and farmers who’d diversified by building holiday lets on their land suffered a double-whammy.

Every day heart-breaking stories were recounted, not only of the slaughter itself, but of its bungled government-directed execution: calves discovered alive under the carcasses of their mothers; ill-briefed slaughtermen killing the sheep dogs along with the flock; dead animals left to bloat and rot for days before their burial or cremation could be arranged; and, almost inevitably, given the depth of despair among those who had lost everything, there were suicides.

The exact number of animals culled has never been admitted, but the Visit Cumbria website, that worked hard to make information available during crisis, estimates the national toll to be in the region of 20 million. Visit Cumbria’s Foot and Mouth pages are now closed, but they have left in place four poignant reports from those dark times, which you can find at: Visit Cumbria – Foot and Mouth Disease

They all warrant reading, but perhaps the most harrowingly evocative is Annie Mawson’s Open Letter to the People of Cumbria:

An open letter to the people of Cumbria

As an “offcomer” with no root in the local farming community, Foot and Mouth was something I glimpsed from over the wall, but Annie was right in the heart of it. At one point in the letter she says this, “I have always compared the herdwick sheep to men like my dear Dad, who once farmed the Wasdale fells: just like them he was wise and hardy, strong and sensitive, gruff and gentle, and for the first time in 10 years, I am glad he is not alive to witness this hell on earth.”

Herdies

Nothing is perhaps more iconic of the Lake District than the herdwick. These hardy mountain sheep are remarkable. I recently watched one on a rocky outcrop on Dow Crag caught between two sheer gullies and apparently in some distress. I feared the worst and could hardly bear to watch, convinced she was about to fall. Ten minutes later, the reason for her agitation became clear – she wasn’t distraught about how to get down, she was trying to find a way up to sparse patch of grass on a little plateau above. When she figured it out, she stood grazing triumphantly on the most precarious pasture imaginable. Half an hour later, she had found her way back down to the bottom of the crags with no bother at all.

Year old Herdwick
Year old Herdwick

Herdies, as they are affectionately known, are born black but turn a chocolate brown within a year. After their first shearing, their fleece lightens to a grey which whitens with age. They are hardy enough to withstand the harsh conditions on the high Cumbrian fells. Each flock knows it’s own territory or “heaf” and stays within these invisible boundaries. This knowledge is passed down from ewe to lamb. Cumbrian farms traditionally have small amounts of privately owned “in bye” land in the valleys,but hold common grazing rights to the fell sides. As the turf knowledge of each heaf rests with the sheep, the animals change hands with the land, meaning some flocks have been in residence for centuries longer than their current owners’ families.

For those of us who love to walk the Lakeland hills, these ovine custodians are an inextricable part of the landscape, but that nearly changed forever with Foot and Mouth. The majority of herdwicks are farmed within 14 miles of Coniston, a concentration that made them very vulnerable to such an outbreak. As the virus spread and the culling escalated there were real fears that this rare breed, so emblematic of the Lakes, might be wiped out completely.

But Cumbrians of both the two-legged and four-legged varieties are made of sterner stuff. In 2015, after Storm Desmond wreaked havoc in the county, artist Andy Watson produced a variation on the standard flood road sign. It’s image, snapped in situ on the approach to a Carlisle bridge, went viral. It said simply:


Welcome to Carlisle
Weak Bridge
Strong People

It’s an epithet that’s been earned time and again, but never more so than in the wake of Foot and Mouth when farmers and shepherds began the painful and painstaking process of rebuilding their flocks, herds and lives. With herdies, there were added complications as the territorial knowledge that resided with the animals had been largely lost and shepherds had to re-“heaf” newcomers, spending long hours out on the hills teaching the sheep to recognise their invisible boundaries.

It wasn’t the first time herdies had been threatened. In the early twentieth century, farmers were largely turning to other more commercial breeds. Children’s author, Beatrix Potter bought a farm with the profits from her first book and together with her shepherd, Tom Storey, began breeding herdwicks. During the 1930’s, she won several awards at county shows and even became president of the breed association for a period. By the time of her death, Potter owned 15 farms spanning some 4,000 acres, which she bequeathed to the National Trust on the understanding they continue to breed herdwicks. As such, herdies owe their persistence, in part, to a carrot-pinching, blue-jacket-wearing rabbit called Peter.

This wasn’t a train of thought I was expecting to follow when I bagged the last roadside parking place at the foot of the Hardknott pass, just beyond Boot and Jubilee Bridge. As I crossed the stream and turned right up a path to the grassy slopes of Harter Fell, nothing but the joys of a Saturday morning hill walk in the south western Lake District were drifting through my mind.

Looking west from Harter Fell
Looking west from Harter Fell
Harter Fell

I veered left at Spothow Gill to follow the cairned path that winds up to the summit through the swathes of purple heather. Half way up, I paused and gazed west over the wild expanse of Birker Fell toward the Irish Sea, shimmering in the distance. As I turned my eyes back to the slopes before me, I recalled Wainwright’s perfect description, “not many fells can be described as beautiful, but the word fits Harter Fell, especially when viewed from Eskdale. The lower slopes on this flank climb steeply from the tree-lined curves of the river Esk in a luxurious covering of bracken, higher is a wider belt of heather, and finally spring grey turrets and ramparts of rock to a neat and shapely pyramid”.

Looking out to sea from Harter Fell
Looking out to sea from Harter Fell

But, as I sit here on the highest of the three rocky outcrops that comprise the peak, looking out over this timeless terrain, and I watch two herdwick ewes with their young lambs, jet black apart from the white rings around their eyes and mouths that make you think they’re wearing balaclavas; and two more, playfully vying for the pre-eminent position atop a lofty boulder; I appreciate how easily this might not have been. It’s daunting to think how bereft these slopes would be without the herdwicks that define them. And I acknowledge, not for the first time, that this county I have made my home, and which I have come to love so deeply, is not just about spectacular landscapes, it’s also about some pretty remarkable people and some very resilient animals.

Herdie ewes and lambs on Harter Fell
Herdie ewes and lambs on Harter Fell
Herdies vye for position on Harter Fell
Herdies vye for position on Harter Fell

It also has the most bloody fickle weather imaginable. The Met Office promised sunny spells and excellent visibility and on the way up that looked a likely prospect. My planned descent to the crest of Hardknott Pass is famed for its spectacular views of Scafell Pike, but just as I’m leaving the summit, a bank of low lying cloud rolls in and obscures the Scafell Massif completely. I have one of those disconcerting moments where the path forks and my instinct is to keep right, but, with the key landmarks hidden, I check the compass. It is unequivocal in directing me left. This feels completely wrong, but experience has taught me to distrust instinct and, in the event, the compass doesn’t let me down. The descent is boggy and the path sketchy. In the end, I lose it completely and decide to follow the line of a fence, knowing I must cross it at some point lower down. Progress is painstakingly slow as the grass is long and covers a quagmire, so I have to test every step to ensure I don’t sink.

Clouds roll in on Harter Fell summit
Clouds roll in on Harter Fell summit
Hard Knott Roman Fort

It’s with some relief that I attain the road that runs over the pass. This is surely England’s most scenic white-knuckle drive. The gradient is 1 in 4, even 1 in 3 in places and the hairpin bends are ridiculously tight. You might question the wisdom of stepping out on foot on to such a treacherous-sounding thoroughfare, but, at walking pace, you’re not going much slower than the traffic.

I walk down to the first hairpin where a girl is cycling up the impossible gradient with all the steely determination of a herdwick. When she reaches me, she stops for a breather. I express my admiration and she tells me she fell off lower down and shows me the grazes to prove it. I leave her to tackle the next section and turn right away from the road on to a footpath, then promptly sink, almost knee-deep, in black bog water. Cursing myself for taking my eye off the ball, I extricate myself and tread more carefully over the intervening ground to the Hardknott Roman fort.

Encountering the well-preserved remains of a Roman fort, high on a Cumbrian fell, is an impressive experience, but you’re left in no doubt as to why they built it here. It commands panoramic views over Eskdale, breathtaking for the leisure walker, but no doubt of more strategic significance to its original inhabitants. It would have been harsh in winter, mind, and there must have been many a young auxiliary, used to gentler Mediterranean climes, who stood shivering on guard duty, cursing that flirtatious dalliance with the captain’s daughter, or whatever indiscretion earned him this remote posting.

Hard Knott fort
Hard Knott fort

I read an information board that tells me I’m standing in front of the Commandant’s house. It would have been quite a residence in it’s time, befitting of status and rank, with a central courtyard and easy access to the communal bath house. Today a herdwick ewe grazes within its walls. It’s on her heaf. She’s the commandant now; and who am I to argue?

Post Script

In 2012, Lakeland Herdwick meat was awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, putting it on a par with Stilton cheese and Melton Mowbray pork pies. This means that only animals that were born, reared and slaughtered in Cumbria can be sold as “Lakeland Herdwick”. It’s a vital step to safeguarding the authenticity and quality of the breed and provides a justly deserved protection for the farmers. With Herdwick lamb and mutton finding its way on to the menus of top London restaurants, Cumbrian farmers can now enjoy a measure of financial security in reward for their commitment.


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Standing on the Shoulders Of Giants

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.

Tom Foolery

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.

Wastwater
Wastwater

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.

Scafell Pike
Scafell Pike

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.

Great Gable and Styhead from Lingmell Col
Great Gable and Styhead Tarn from Lingmell Col
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.

Styhead from Scafell Pike summit
Styhead from Scafell Pike summit
Perspective

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.

Great Gable from Scafell Pike
Great Gable from Scafell Pike summit

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.

Broad Stand from Scafell Pike
Broad Stand from Scafell Pike

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.

Foxes Tarn Gully
Foxes Tarn Gully

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.

Burnmoor Tarn from Sca Fell summit
Burnmoor Tarn from Sca Fell 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).

Burmoor Tarn and Wastwater from Sca Fell summit
Burmoor Tarn and Wastwater from Sca Fell summit

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.

Mosedale from Scafell Summit
Mosedale from Scafell Summit

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.

Click here for a map and detailed directions for this walk at walklakes.co.uk


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Trial by Water

Grisedale Pike and Force Crag Mine from Braithwaite

The fate of osprey chicks born on Bassenthwaite Lake this summer, the last days of Force Crag mine, an innovative ecological solution to deal with its legacy and what the legend of Long Meg can teach us all feature in this account of a cracking fell walk up Grisedale Pike.

Walking Around With Your Head in the Clouds

I was descending Skiddaw when I first really noticed Grisedale Pike. A gloomy ascent, dogged with fog, was compounded by a viewfinder at the top taunting me with hints of what lay beyond the cloud. Resigned, I picked my way back along the summit ridge, squinting to discern each cairn through the murk, humming Husker Du’s “Walking Around With Your Head in the Clouds Makes No Sense At All” and cursing the Met Office to a solitary herdwick, my only companion.

Then, a sudden flash of blue sky and the cloud broke, revealing a riveting vista over Derwent Water; cool and inviting where it lapped Keswick; dark and Arthurian on its southern shore, where the clouds still rolled above.

My journey down over the subsidiary peak of Little Man and the heartlessly named, Lesser Man was bathed in glorious sunshine. Across the lake, the slopes of Catbells were lush and green; but to their right, a narrow U shaped valley, ringed with fells, caught my attention. At its forefront, a mountain rose steeply from the valley floor to a needle sharp peak, high above the village of Braithwaite. A path ran unbroken from base to summit, appearing almost impossibly steep at the pinnacle.

A quick study of the OS map revealed the valley to be Coledale and the mountain, Grisedale Pike. I vowed then to return and climb it. Today I’m making good that resolution.

As I approach Braithwaite on the A66, Grisedale Pike soars and I wonder why it has never stood out to me like this before. I drive through the village to the informal roadside parking area opposite Hope Memorial Park. From here, steps lead up above the road, through a thinly wooded area and out on to the open hill side.

Skiddaw
Skiddaw from Grisedale Pike

The stiff initial gradient means the views reward early. To the east, Skiddaw looks magnificent as the October sun lights its plunging western slopes. To its right, shimmers Derwent Water; wisps of cloud drifting low over its silver waters. To the north, Bassenthwaite Lake glistens under a clear blue patch of sky.

It was Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s fancy that Sir Bedivere returned Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake in Cumbrian waters; and a stay at Mirehouse, overlooking Bassenthwaite, inspired his Morte d’Arthur.

Bassenthwaite – The Return of a Raptor

In summer, visitors to Dodd Wood, on the lake’s shore, may be lucky enough to spot an osprey diving to snatch a trout or perch. These fish-eating raptors, with a five foot wingspan, were once common in Scotland and probably in England too. But during the 18th and 19th centuries, persecution saw numbers dwindle. The last nesting pair were destroyed in 1916, leaving ospreys extinct as a breeding species in Britain.  Happily they returned in 1954, when a visiting pair nested in Strathspey. An intensive wardening programme was established to safeguard breeding and Scottish numbers have gradually increased to around 160 pairs.

During the 1990’s, the Forestry Commission and Lake District National Park Authority, in partnership with the RSPB, worked hard to encourage visiting ospreys to stay at Bassenthwaite, even constructing a purpose-built nesting platform. In 2001, their efforts paid off and the first eggs were laid. Since then, over 150 chicks have hatched here. A dedicated team keeps watch during the summer months to document developments and deter egg thieves. They have installed a webcam over the nest. They ring the chicks and fit transmitters so they can track the birds through their autumn migrations and their overwintering in Africa.

Three chicks hatched this year, but tragically two were taken by Magpies while only a day or two old. Magpies had been observed stealing fish tails and leftovers from the nest while the parents are away fishing, but they had never been known to take a chick. Naturally fears were high that the third chick would meet the same fate. Against the odds, she survived and was ringed and named Bega in June. She made her first fledgling flight in July.

Bega migrated to Senegal in September, but has since moved on to Guinea and sadly the team has lost contact with her transmitter. It’s possible the transmitter is damaged or detached, but first migrations are fraught with danger; only 20-30% of young ospreys make it to full adulthood and go on to breed themselves. There will be some anxious days in April at the Whinlatter Visitors’ Centre as the team wait to see if Bega returns to her place of birth. You can follow developments at http://www.ospreywatch.co.uk

Peaks and Pies

The initial slopes give way to a grassy depression. Beyond, a broad bank climbs seriously to a thin ridge below the sharp rise of the summit. When I spied Grisedale Pike from Skiddaw, its flanks were green. Now, autumn has turned the dying bracken brown and the sun adds a red hue to the steeper reaches, in splendid contrast to the bright blue sky. The green line of the path dissects the ruddy expanse like a Richard Long artwork. The peak towers slate-grey above. Nature dons its most flamboyant finery for its dying days, like an ageing diva, railing extravagantly against the dimming of the light.

Grisedale Pike
Grisedale Pike

The unexpected clemency of the weather means walkers pause here to stuff fleeces into rucksacks and steel themselves for the tough pull ahead. On attaining the ridge, layers are rapidly retrieved as the breeze picks up and begins to bite. It’s been a long pull up but the steepest and most exposed section still lies ahead. Ominously, across Coledale, Causey Pike is veiled in cloud, and it’s only a matter of time before it reaches here. Happily the sky is still clear as I haul myself up the final rock steps to the summit. The ground drops away precipitously on both sides and the wind again ups its game.

I find shelter on the north side just below the summit and hunker down to enjoy the view while I can. It stretches all the way to the Solway Firth. Whinlatter forest is a rich canvas below; broad swards of evergreen jut against a dappled palette of deciduous decay. In my bag I have a Toppings pork and chilli pie, so right now there is no finer place to be. Oh I know lard is not necessarily the fell walkers friend – energy bars and bananas are a far more effective quick-burn fuel – but the unrelenting pursuit of health and efficiency is a soulless exercise and perching in the lee of a mountain peak, with the northernmost part of England stretched out before you, demands a pie!

View Hobcarton Crag
View from the ridge

To my left, the ridge drops to Hobcarton Crag then veers round and climbs again to Hopegill Head. As I study the line to to pick out the next section of my route, it disappears, lost as the mist rolls in.

Just then, I hear voices. I get up and hoist my rucksack on to my back as a Geordie couple appear on the summit. “I could see the Solway Firth five minutes ago!” the woman exclaims. “I know it was lovely till you arrived”, I joke, “did you have to bring this with you?” They laugh and tell me this always happens to them up here. They are planning to do the Coledale Horseshoe taking in Hopegill Head then following the high level route back to Braithwaite via Eel Crag, Sale and Causey Pike. They are worried they might get all the way round and not see anything, but the cloud is already thinning so I think their concerns are premature. Within minutes, it is almost clear over Hobcarton Crag. We make our way down together as the last low lying wisps blow across the path like smoke, then lose each other as we variously stop to take pictures en route to Hopegill Head. By the time we all reach the summit, the cloud has lifted considerably and we can see the north shore of Crummock Water. A mountain rescue helicopter flies past and we hope it’s a training exercise.

Hobcarton Crag
Hobcarton Crag

We part company and I make my way over the grassy top of Sand Hill and down the steep scree to Coledale Hawse. Eel Crag lies ahead but the horseshoe will have to wait for another day. Today, there’s something I want to see in the valley below.

Coledale Hawse
Coledale from Coledale Hawse
Heavy Metal Plunder – Force Crag Mine

From the hawse, the path zig zags down toward the head of Coledale. As I near the bottom, the sheer dark face of Force Crag comes into view. Force Crag was mined from 1860, initially for lead, then later for zinc and barytes. Barytes are used in oil drilling, car production and medical imaging, but also in the manufacture of munitions. During the Second World War, this tiny corner of the Lake District was a hive of activity, with trucks carrying ore from adits high on the fell side down a precarious track known as the Burma Road.

grisedale-pike-and-hope-gill-head-110

Force Crag outlived all other mines in Lakeland but conditions were harsh and, with large quantities of water flowing through, it was a constant battle to keep the mountain from caving in on it. One of those battling to keep the levels open through their final days was Alen McFadean. In his blog post, The Black Abyss, he gives a fascinating account of “sloshing about in knee-deep water” to “shore up rotten timber work then, spending Saturday night curled up in the back of a freezing Land-Rover and waking the next morning with a thick head and in an impenetrable mountain mist.” Harsh working conditions by anyone’s standard, but to Alen it was a labour of love. You can find his full account (and his recollection of this same walk) at: https://becausetheyrethere.com/2010/01/06/the-black-abyss-grisedale-pike-and-force-crag-mine

Ultimately, it was a battle the mountain won.  In 1990, a collapse occurred in level zero, from which there could be no recovery. Today, nature is slowly reclaiming the ground; the corrugated iron of the buildings, rusting to resemble the autumn bracken of the slopes that surround.

In its death throes, the mine dealt a wounding blow, however. The water that has built up in the disused levels leaches metals from the exposed rock, contaminating Coledale Beck and pouring up to a tonne of zinc, cadmium and lead into Bassenthwaite Lake each year. A study for the Environment Agency identified the environmental impact as one of the worst in the UK. Metals like zinc are toxic to fish. If fish populations decline, the ospreys will go too.

Force Crag Mine
Force Crag Mine Buildings

It’s a problem common to disused mines. Elsewhere large, costly water treatment works have been built to fight the problem with chemicals. At Force Crag however, an innovative ecological solution, devised by The Coal Board in partnership with Newcastle University, is underway. The water is diverted into two vertical flow ponds, created from recycled parts of the old mill workings. These ponds are lined with a geomembrane and filled with a compost treatment mix, which filters out the metals. From there, the water flows through reed beds that trap more of the solids, before it finally discharges into Coledale Beck. The scheme is performing even better than expected, removing between 94% and 98% of the contaminants. The fish and the ospreys can rest easy.

Why Are We Still Hanging Witches?

Coledale Beck babbles beneath the old mine track, which I follow, all the way back through the valley, to the parking area. And it gets me thinking…

Drive east to Little Salkeld, just beyond Penrith, and you come to one of Britain’s largest stone circles, Long Meg and Her Daughters. Legend has it they were a coven of witches, turned to stone by the thirteenth century wizard, Michael Scot, for profaning the Sabbath. It is said that no-one can count the stones twice and come up with the same number. If anyone succeeds, the spell will be broken and bad luck will rain down upon them. If Long Meg herself is fractured, she will shed real blood.

Long Meg
Long Meg and Her Daughters

It’s all delicious hokum of course – the circle dates from the late Neolithic / early Bronze Age era while the name itself is thought to derive from a 17th century witch, Meg of Meldon. As Simon Sharma points out in The History of Britain, history often reveals more about the time it was written than the time it describes and the same is true of folklore. The fact that people in the 17th or 18th centuries invented supernatural stories about the origin of the stones reflects the widespread fear of witchcraft in Britain at the time. In those days, if a stream was poisoned and the fish died, or the crops failed, or villagers fell ill for reasons no-one could readily explain, people were likely to blame black magic and look for a scapegoat to punish. Hundreds of women were hung for no crime other than being poor or different; barbarism born of ignorance and superstition.

Today, we like to think we live in more rational times. Yet when the failings of our political and economic systems leave large numbers homeless, or without secure jobs, or with falling wages, or reliant on food banks, or simply feeling the pinch, we are quick to lay the blame at the door of “benefit scroungers” and immigrants – the poor and the different. Populist politicians ignore the evidence of experts and fight elections by fanning these fears and exploiting such prejudice.

That we can devise brilliant ecological schemes to strip pollutants from our natural water courses and undo the damage of our industrial past, or encourage an endangered species back from the brink of extinction, bears witness to a new era of enlightenment. In certain respects however, we’re not quite out of the Dark Ages.

 

Click here for detailed directions at WalkLakes.co.uk


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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 brought a recipe for a coarse, spicy, unlinked sausage which proved so popular with the locals that it 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, 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 spied the Rake, which looked well nigh vertical from there.  Reserving the right to declare discretion the better part of valour and take the soft option if necessary, we started 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.  In contrast to the handful of walkers on the previous 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 t 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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The Stuff of Legend

Helvellyn via Grisedale Tarn from Thirlmere

On a stunning hill walk over the Helvellyn range, I discover a teddy bear with a tragic tale to tell and delve into history and folklore to encounter a lost Celtic crown, a ghost army, a reckless romantic artist eulogised for the manner of his death and a dog’s devotion that endured beyond the grave.

Nestled between the mighty flanks of Fairfield and the hefty Helvellyn massif, Grisedale Tarn has an eerie, other-worldly majesty. As the cloud hangs low over its silent waters, you can almost imagine a hand emerging from its depths and holding aloft Excalibur. But it’s another Celtic ruler whose legend pervades here.

Dunmail was the last of the Cumbrian kings, slain in a bloody battle with massed Scottish and Saxon forces. His men were routed, mutilated and forced to build a large cairn, Dunmail Raise, on the spot where their chieftain fell; but not before they’d saved his crown from Saxon mitts and cast it into the depths of Grisedale Tarn where it is rumoured to remain. Local legend has it that every year his ghostly army returns to the tarn, retrieves the crown and carries it back to Dunmail Raise to urge their monarch to rise again and reclaim his kingdom.

Grisedale Tarn
Grisedale Tarn

Today, the cairn sits on the central reservation of a short stretch of dual carriageway between Grasmere and Keswick, just before the A591 skirts the shore of Thirlmere. Turn away from the tarmac however, and climb the path alongside the cascading waters of Raise Beck and the modern world quickly fades.  By the time the tarn is reached the stuff of legend feels more tangible.

Some fine ridge walks converge here. Starting from Patterdale, walkers with lofty ambitions and matching energy levels can conquer St Sunday Crag and ascend Fairfield by the rocky pinnacle of Cofa Pike. Today though, I’ve come up from Thirlmere and I’m heading for Helvellyn, which means climbing the stepped path that zigzags up the southern slope of Dollywagon Pike.

Grisedale Tarn
Grisedale Tarn

As if in sympathy with Dunmail’s demise, the sky darkens and the cloud comes down. By the time I reach the top it’s enveloped in a thick mist.  The path to Helvellyn is wide and easily followed, but Dollywagon’s summit requires a brief detour. I follow the sketchy path along the line of the crags with the distant silhouettes of fellow walkers and some jubilant whoops to reassure me I’m heading in the right direction.  It’s not long before the summit cairn comes into view and the reason for their felicity is revealed.  A party of charity fundraisers is preparing for a group photo, unfurling their “24 peak challenge” banner in triumph at attaining their target. The celebrations are cut short though, when a navigationally diligent member realises this isn’t Helvellyn after all and the banner is duly packed away.

Angel Cassie Teddy
Angel Cassie Teddy on Dollywagon Pike

As they dissolve into the murk in search of the right mountain, I’m left alone on a slender promontory descending all around into cloud.  Just then I notice a small teddy bear, tucked carefully behind a rock. It clearly hasn’t been dropped by accident, but what is it doing here? It has a laminated card tagged to its ear bearing the web address, https://www.facebook.com/angelbabycassie. I later learn it’s been placed by a grieving father in memory of his stillborn daughter, Cassie Elizabeth.  To raise awareness and fund help for other parents going through this harrowing experience, Nicky Bloor has set himself the challenge of climbing the 100 highest peaks in England and Wales, leaving on each a teddy like the one he’d bought for Cassie – the one she never got to hug.

Just then a flash of blue sky is revealed and I get a tantalising glance of the verdant valley below.  The cloud shrouds round again, but the wind has whipped up a pace and is blowing it clear. As I pick my way back to the main path, the vista to the west opens up revealing a stunning panorama of Lakeland fells with the sun breaking through, illuminating their eastern slopes like a Heaton Cooper painting.

Dollywagon Pike
Looking west from Dollywagon Pike

I press on for the wonderfully named Nethermost Pike, with another quick aside to visit the top of High Crag.  By now the sky has cleared to the east. rewarding those of us who have braved the gloom with breathtaking views over Ullswater and Striding Edge.  Striding Edge is the jagged Helvellyn ridge which affords adventurers with a head for heights an exhilarating way to scramble to the summit.  From Nethermost Pike, its intrepid walkers look like ants or stick men.  We appear to have swapped Heaton Cooper for LS Lowry.

Striding Edge
Stick men on Striding Edge

Spurning the main path, I track round the edge of the crags to get a closer look at Striding Edge and Red Tarn beyond. As you join the route coming up from the ridge, you encounter a monument to Charles Gough, a romantic artist who attracted little attention during his lifetime but was later immortalised by the likes of Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott, who saw the free-spirited or perhaps plain reckless nature of his death in 1805 as the ultimate expression of the romantic ideal. A tourist in the Lake District, Gough set out to climb Helvellyn with no experience and only his faithful dog, Foxie for company.  His body was found three months later beside Red Tarn by a shepherd who supposed he must have fallen from Striding Edge. Foxie was still guarding his body.

This image of canine fidelity was irresistible to the Romantics who pictured a devoted spaniel lovingly defending her master’s body from the scavenging ravens that picked at his bones.  A Carlisle newspaper had a more prosaic interpretation, “The bitch had pupped in a furze near the body of her master, and, shocking to relate, had torn the cloaths from his body and eaten him to a perfect skeleton.”

Red Tarn
Red Tarn and Striding Edge

With the clouds parted, the views from the top of Helvellyn are spectacular and continue to reward all the way down over the subsidiary peak of Little Man and the steep descent to Thirlmere. On the way I pass a man who can climb no further due to his crippling fear of heights but whose overriding ambition is to make it to the top one day; and a lovely couple, ascending via this route, who ask me earnestly if they are nearly there yet – a hundred yards above the car park!

All human experience is here then – the history, the comedy and the tragedy; the poetic and prosaic; the noble and foolhardy; and all somehow diminished in significance by these wild, beautiful, remote peaks with their rocky outcrops and sweeping vistas, formed from catastrophic eruptions 450 million years ago.

As the country argues angrily over Brexit, devolution and independence, the legend of Dunmail feels like a timeless reminder that it was always thus; but these magnificent hills were here long before there were human feet to tread them and they will remain long after the last walking boot has crumbled into the dust; a realisation at once humbling, liberating and exhilarating.  Perhaps this is why one man is so desperate to conquer his fear while another seeks solace here from the pain of losing his child. To borrow a line from a time when I actually used to like U2, “kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, but you go on and on”.

 

Click here for detailed directions at WalkLakes.co.uk


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