Tag Archives: fell walking

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 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 and – in line with the panicked government policy at the time – rather than isolate the infected animals and protect the healthy, the slaughtermen were summoned to dispatch the whole herd. Now they were burning the carcasses and the air was thick with the smell of animal gelatin from the rendered hides and hooves, an 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 deep 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 wracking her brains 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 and I 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 and 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, however, 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 and she’s the commandant now. 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 all-enveloping 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 fortune smiled and the forecast came good – a sudden flash of blue sky and the cloud broke revealing a striking vista down to Derwent Water, looking cool and inviting where it lapped Keswick but 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 pyramidal 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 along the A66, Grisedale Pike rears above 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, at the foot of the Whinlatter Pass. 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 illuminates its plunging western slopes. To its right, Derwent Water shimmers as wisps of cloud drift low over its silver waters. To the north, the edge of 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 provided him with the inspiration for 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 from the water. These fish-eating raptors with a five foot wingspan were once common in Scotland and probably in England too, but persecution saw their numbers fall during the 18th and 19th centuries until the last nesting pair were destroyed in 1916, leaving them 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 in the absence of the parents but 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 which 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 hue of red to the steeper reaches in splendid contrast to the bright blue sky. The green line of the grass path dissects the ruddy expanse like a Richard Long artwork and the peak towers slate-grey above. Nature saves its most flamboyant finery for its dying days.

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 finally 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 low-lying 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 where 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’s a view that 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. And 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 away to Hobcarton Crag then veers round and climbs again to Hopegill Head. I gaze at it to pick out the next section of my route then all of a sudden it disappears, lost as the mist rolls in.

Just then I hear voices. I get up and hoist my rucksack on to my bag 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 next summit, the cloud has lifted considerably and we can see the north shore of Crummock Water to the west. 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 on the left. Force Crag was mined from 1860, initially for lead then later for zinc and barytes. Barytes are used in oil drilling, car production, 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 that 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 ever 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’d 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 feeling the pinch, we are quick to lay all 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 bore a recipe for a coarse, spicy, unlinked sausage which proved popular with the locals and evolved into a regional delicacy.  Copper mining may be long gone but every Cumbrian butcher worth his salt can boast an award winning Cumberland sausage.

American Invasion

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

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

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

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

A Coward’s Route up Dow Crag

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

Dow Crag
Dow Crag

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

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

Dow Crag
Dow Crag from Goats Water

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

South Rake Ascent
Ascending the South Rake

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

Top of South Rake
Top of South Rake

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

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

Seathwaite Tarn
Seathwaite Tarn from Goat Hawse
Panic at Levers Water

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

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

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

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

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


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The Stuff of Legend

Helvellyn via Grisdale Tarn from Thirlmere

 

On a stunning hill walk over the Helvellyn mountain range in the English Lake District, 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 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 beside a stretch of dual carriageway on the A591 between Grasmere and Keswick, just before the road 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 the impressive bulk of Fairfield by the rocky pinnacle of Cofa Pike. Today though, ascending from Thirlmere, 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 top 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 here 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, in good weather, 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 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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