Tag Archives: Hill walking

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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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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Axis: Bold As Love

Bow Fell via Whorneyside Force and the Climbers’ Traverse

Bow Fell feels like the centre of the world with valleys radiating out like the spokes of a wheel and panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. The ascent via Whorneyside Force and Hell Gill is one of striking contrasts and the final section along The Climbers’ Traverse and up the side of The Great Slab is simply breathtaking. The descent via Rossett Gill is steeped in smuggling history.

Centre of the World

As anyone who has stood on its summit in sunshine knows, Bow Fell is the axis on which the world converges. The broad shoulder of The Band plunges east to Great Langdale while the fine ridge of Crinkle Crags runs south to Red Tarn and the Furness Fells. At contiguous points of the clock, the green valleys of Duddon and Eskdale sweep in to lay their heads at Bow Fell’s foot; and the soaring Scafell massif circles over Esk Pike to meet its western flank. Gaze north and Grassmoor looms while the valley of Langstrath rolls in from the north-east and the distant peaks of Skiddaw and Blencathra. Turn full circle and see the full length of Helvellyn unfurl, linking arms with Fairfield over Grisedale Tarn, while the high ground of The Langdale Pikes swings over Stakes Pass to meet the mountain’s northern bounds.

Wetherlam across Red Tarn
Wetherlam across Red Tarn
Sca Fell and Mickledore
Sca Fell and Mickledore
Grassmoor and Coledale Fells
Grassmoor and Coledale Fells
Fairfield and St Sunday Crag
Fairfield and St Sunday Crag

Of course a wider world exists, but that’s a place of tarmac and traffic; of hubbub, hassle, frayed nerves and short tempers. If you’ve climbed the 2962ft to get here, you’re probably inclined to forget all that for a while. Scafell Pike is about 250ft higher, but that’s splitting hairs; on Bow Fell, you are Zeus looking down from Olympus – at the centre of the world and on top of it. Forgive my flights of fancy, but I defy anyone to stand here on a clear day and not experience a soaring rush of exhilaration.

The axis notion is not entirely fanciful. Geographers have compared the Lake District to a wheel, the valleys and lakes radiating out like spokes. The real hub is about 14 miles away near Dunmail Raise. But Dunmail Raise is a cairn in the middle of a dual carriageway; on top of Bow Fell, you don’t need a map to get the picture.

By the looks on their faces, the small group of fellow walkers sharing the summit feel similarly elated. Some have come directly up the Band. A couple have climbed over Crinkle Crags. One has come via The Langdale Pikes and plans to return over Crinkle Crags. He’ll sleep like a baby tonight. I took a lesser trodden route that offers some striking and secluded scenery.

Old Dungeon Ghyll

George Macaulay Trevelyan believed that common people have a more positive effect on shaping history than royalty. His historical writings were passionate, poetic and partisan celebrations of his liberal beliefs. During his lifetime he was lauded as “the most widely read historian in the world; perhaps in the history of the world.” Subjective historical narrative fell out of fashion however, and Trevelyan was later dismissed as “a pontificating old windbag”.

Fortunately, his other legacies have fared better. He was the first president of the Youth Hostel Association and a dedicated conservationist. In the early 1900’s he bought Middlefell farm in Great Langdale and donated it to The National Trust. It became The Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel. The stables were converted into a dining room and the shippon into The Climber’s Bar, which still sports the cow stalls.

British climbing clubs used the bar for their gala dinners and after conquering the north face of the Eiger, Chris Bonnington and Ian Clough gave a trial run of their lecture here before delivering the real thing in Keswick. What better starting point for a mountain expedition, albeit a slightly less ambitious one than Bonnington and Clough’s.

Whorneyside Force and Hell Gill

I follow the road down to Stool End Farm and, once through the farmyard, ignore the usual route up The Band, keeping straight on through a field and some stock pens heading for Oxendale. Off to the left, a footbridge crosses Oxendale Beck to ascend Crinkle Crags. I ignore this too and follow the stream.

Great Langdale
Great Langdale

The sketchy path starts to climb over wilder and rockier terrain, gaining height and fording the feeder streams that flow down from the fell-side. The views back along the length of Great Langdale are already impressive. After about two thirds of a mile, I cross a bridge and follow the bank on the other side. Soon the crash and hiss of cascading water grows louder with every step. The path turns left to climb the fell but I stick with the stream, rounding an outcrop to come face to face with Whorneyside Force.

Here the beck plunges 40ft into a deep green, bowl-shaped pool; the foaming jets forming two white legs that cross at the bottom like some giant reclining stick figure. Below a sky of pure blue and in sharp relief against the dark exposed rock, it’s utterly hypnotic, beautifully offset by the winter yellow of the surrounding scrub.

Whorneyside Force
Whorneyside Force

A steep scramble up a mud and scree bank makes for a fun if inelegant way to rejoin the main path, which climbs above the waterfall then descends to cross the beck a little further on. A few hundred yards later, I’m staring into the mouth of deep ravine.

White winter skeletons of stunted rowan trees jut from jagged rock at unnatural angles. The spindly lattice of branch and twig fragments the view. Glaring sunlight casts black shadows that disorient further. Steep slabs of bare rock are intercut with patches of impossibly sloped grass. White water cascades down sheer steps. Everything is angular and irregular. In contrast to the tranquillity of Whorneyside Force, the ravine is topsy-turvey; chaotic, confusing, striking but inhospitable. Perhaps this is why it has earned the formidable name, Hell Gill.

Hell Gill
Hell Gill

Stepping stones afford a way across the water. A stone pitched path climbs the bank on the far side to the grassy moorland above, basking in the shadow of Crinkle Crags with the rocky summit of Bow Fell ahead.

From above, where the winter grass is a uniform blanket of yellow decay, Hell Gill is an oasis of vibrant green, but no less disorientating. Indeed, I hesitate to get too close, not only because the ground is slippery, but because staring down its sheer side is dizzying. Its walls descend through a series of steep stone trellises, like an Inca temple, bedecked with grass and spindly white trees. Its presence seems wholly out of context with the rugged mountain scenery, as if a chasm has opened up into another world.

Hell Gill
Hell Gill
The Climbers’ Traverse and The Great Slab

Eventually what remains of a path turns away from the ravine to follow the stream of Busco Sike. When it’s narrow enough, I step across and make toward the towering summit. In the foreground are the first people I’ve seen since Stool End. They’re following the path from The Band which crosses to the col of Three Tarns and a well-trodden route to the peak.

But there’s a more dramatic way to reach the summit and it lies over the ridge in front. I cross the Three Tarns path and climb the open fell-side. After a short scramble, I join a higher, narrower path that takes me over the crest to the start of the Climbers’ Traverse.

The east face of Bow Fell comprises three sheer rock faces:  Flat Crag, Cambridge Crag and Bowfell Buttress. The cliffs are precipitous and the slopes below drop steeply to the valley floor. Not a place to wander without ropes and climbing equipment you might think, but a narrow path leads across the foot of the crags, allowing the walker to venture where they otherwise might not. You need a reasonable head for heights as it does feel exposed but in dry conditions the going is easy and presents no real problems. I venture out on to the Climbers’ Traverse and the views take my breath away.

To my right, the Langdale Pikes are revealed in all their top-to-bottom glory; the conical peak of the Pike O’Stickle to the fore. Looking behind, the Pike O’Blisco rises over the ridge. Ahead, beyond the valley of Langstrath, distant Blencathra pierces the horizon. Everywhere, the sunlit winter landscape is a palette of warm ochre and purple shadow.

Langdale Pikes
Langdale Pikes
Pike O'Stickle
Pike O’Blisco
Blencathra across Langstrath
Blencathra across Langstrath

As I approach Flat Crag I have an eerie feeling I’m being watched. I look up to discover a striking rock formation striped with blue, red and purple quartz; above, the crags have eroded to resemble a giant pair of eyes and a long flat nose. Rock face indeed! If Hell Gill had put me in mind of an Inca temple, then Flat Crag is Easter Island. I start to wonder what it was I poured on my cereal this morning.

Rock Face - Flat Crags
Rock Face – Flat Crag

I later share some photos on Facebook and Fred James recounts how he fed a mouse some malt loaf on the Climbers’ Traverse when it was covered in deep snow. A place of magical encounters it seems.

Spring at the foot of Cambridge Crag
Spring at the foot of Cambridge Crag

The spring that perpetually gushes from the foot of Cambridge Crag feeds a small oasis of green. It also marks the exit. There’s no way up Bowfell Buttress without ropes, but a scrambly path leads up beside Cambridge Crag over a “river of boulders”. I start to climb. When I draw level with the top of Flat Crag, another striking feature unfurls: the huge slope of polished stone known as The Great Slab. It’s a magnificent sight and the views across it to the Langdale Pikes are staggering. Wandering away from the boulders and out into the middle could be a short lived pleasure, however. One slip and you might find yourself in Mickleden, earlier than planned and in a great many more pieces.

Langdale Pikes across the Great Slab
Langdale Pikes across the Great Slab
Summit

Reaching the top I look back over the Slab to Windermere glistening in the distance; then climb the remaining boulders to the summit.

“Is that Scafell Pike?”

“Yes”,

“And that’s Sca Fell?”

“Yes, it is”. I’ve been joined by a beaming young man in combat fatigues.

“And that’s Great Gable?”

“No I think that’s Great End”, (I’m wrong, it’s Esk Pike but I haven’t had a chance to check the map and it looks like the end of the Scafell massif).

“Is this Great Gable?”

“This that we’re standing on?”

“Aye.”

“No, this is Bow Fell.”

“Ah right, Bow Fell. I’ve come from ‘Cisco”,

“Do you mean The Pike O’Blisco?”

“Aye right enough”,

“Over Crinkle Crags”,

“Aye probably”.

My new companion tells how he drove from Dumfries and slept in his car to be on these hills at first light. He might be muddling names but I get the impression he knows roughly where he’s going; besides, he exudes such a boundless energy and enthusiasm that, even if he doesn’t, I feel sure he’ll get there.

Windermere from the top of the Great Slab
Windermere from the top of the Great Slab

Over a few more boulders to the summit cairn and the world converges. I’m almost grateful for the breeze that starts to chill – without it I might have sat here all day. Eventually I pull on my rucksack and head north toward Esk Pike. My new Scottish friend emerges from over the crags to my right where, thanks to my mis-identification, he’s been searching for that very fell. He laughs when I apologise and we chat as far as Ore Gap, where he heads on up the real Esk Pike and I turn right for Rossett Gill.

Bow Fell summit
Bow Fell summit
Smugglers’ Footsteps

When Bow Fell’s northern ridge falls away, Rossett Pike is revealed to my right over the blue waters of Angle Tarn. I follow the path down to the water’s edge. It looks so inviting I’m tempted to dive in, but these hills were under snow last week and I doubt the water’s warmed. Besides, there are people picnicking; the sight of me skinny dipping would put them off their sandwiches. Instead, I walk up to Rossett Pass and climb to the Pike’s summit, which affords a fascinating retrospective on my route.

Angle Tarn
Angle Tarn

Back at the pass, I follow the good, stone pitched path that zigzags down beside Rossett Gill, a welcome replacement for the steep stony slog that Wainwright describes in “The Southern Fells”. Intriguingly, Wainwright also mentions an old pony-route, believed to have been used to smuggle illicit goods from the port of Ravenglass.

Lanty Slee was a legendary Langdale smuggler. Officially, a farmer and quarryman during the early 1800’s, Slee’s main source of income came from the stills he had secreted around Little Langdale: one in Moss Bank Quarry; another beneath Low Arnside Farm. To divert attention, Slee connected the latter to a long underground pipe, doubtless prompting passers-by to puzzle why steam was rising from a hedge in the middle of a field.

Lanty sold his moonshine for 10 shillings a gallon, transporting the excess to Ravenglass and returning with contraband tobacco. He was convicted twice and kept the Ambleside courtroom well entertained with the wittiness of his defences. The excise men routinely failed to seize his whisky however, and some may even remain stashed in the caves around these crags.

Rossett Pike from Mickleden
Rossett Pike from Mickleden

When Chris Jesty revised Wainwright’s works, he insisted no trace of the old pony-route remained, but in an excellent blog that describes another way up Bow Fell, Martin Crookall gives some canny pointers on how to follow its course:

https://mbc1955.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/great-walks-crinkle-crags-bowfell-esk-pike/

With tired legs and the tempting prospect of a pint in the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, I leave archaeology for another day and follow the stone steps to the valley floor. The final stretch through Mickleden leads beneath the Langdale Pikes and the steep southern scree slope of the Pike O’Stickle. A couple of indefatigable souls are attempting a direct ascent. My thoughts turn from a notional axis to Neolithic axes – but that’s another tale.

Pike O'Stickle
Pike O’Stickle

 

For a map of this route and detailed directions, visit Walk Lakes 


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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 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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The Boatman’s Call

Claife Heights and Sawrey

The western shore of Windermere in the English Lake District was home to children’s author Beatrix Potter. Its wild uplands are also said to be haunted by the tortured spirit of a Cistercian monk, whose blood-curdling cries lured ferrymen to their doom.  On this walk through these atmospheric woods, I recount the ghostly legend and consider how Potter’s legacy stretches way beyond her enchanting books.

The Crier of Claife

The first rays of sun blaze blood orange through the dark skeletons of December trees, casting flame-yellow auras around their stark reflections in the pewter pool of Windermere. As the lake becomes the River Leven under the old stone parapets of Newby Bridge, these shafts of warmth conjure a mist from the tranquil surface to shroud the shores in secrecy. Eerie and arcane, the scene evokes a primeval power that the uninhabited boats and empty tables of the hotel terrace can do little to dispel. Fitting then, that my thoughts should turn to the supernatural.

Newby Bridge First Light
Newby Bridge First Light

On Windermere’s eastern shore a long line of grand lakeside residences gives way to the honey pots of Bowness and Ambleside. By contrast, the western shore is wild and remote; and supposedly, haunted.

It is said that the wooded uplands of Claife Heights imprison the troubled ghost of a Cistercian monk from Furness Abbey. His quest was to save the souls of immoral women but the temptations of the flesh overthrew the aspirations of the spirit and he fell madly in love with one of his charges, abandoning his vows and pursuing her to Claife. She shunned his advances and the rejection destroyed him. He spent the rest of his days wandering the Heights wailing in anguish. When his weakening body gave up the ghost, it proved to be one the grave could not contain, and his tortured soul continued to haunt the woods with riven wails.

Newby Bridge
Newby Bridge

Fearing no good could come from a meeting with the spectral Crier of Claife, the ferrymen of Bowness chose to ignore his blood-chilling summons whenever they came echoing across the lake after dark. But eventually, a young recruit arrived who laughed at their superstition. Whether out of bravado or a noble concern that the plaintive cries might belong to the living, the fearless newcomer heeded the call and set out across the choppy waters.

When he returned, his boat held no passenger – at least none the mortal eye could see. But he was fatally deranged: his eyes wide in terror, his brain apparently fried and his powers of speech utterly lost – all he could manage was to shake and sob in abject fear. He died two days later without ever regaining the power to describe what he saw.

Naturally this raised considerable alarm among the locals and another monk was summoned from Lady Holme island to perform an exorcism. As darkness fell and the howls once more sent shivers down the spines of the ferrymen, the monk rowed out with a bible and a bell. The demented spirit proved a powerful adversary and, despite his best efforts, the monk was unable to exorcise the ghoul completely, but he did succeed in confining it to an old quarry where he compelled it to stay until such a day “as men walk dry shod across Windermere”.

Furness Abbey and Bekan’s Revenge

The fate of the Crier’s monastic brethren was equally dark. According to the history books, Henry VIII laid waste to Furness Abbey and seized its lands during the dissolution of the monasteries. In John Pagen White’s 1853 poem – The Rooks of Furness – however, the seeds of monks’ doom were sown centuries before.

Furness Abbey
Furness Abbey

The abbey was built in the dale of Bekan’s Ghyll, so called for a Norse sorcerer, whose bones lie buried in the earth and whose name was originally given to the herb with which the valley abounds. The herb, better known as Deadly Nightshade, is a toxic hallucinogen associated with both witchcraft and medicine. According to the poem, it was once sweet-tasting and benign, but its roots and fibre were entwined with Bekan himself. When the monks began to harvest the plant, they disturbed the sleeping sorcerer. He wrought his revenge by turning its taste bitter and endowing it with poisonous qualities:


“Witchery walked where all had been well:
Well with Monk, and well with maid
That sought the Abbey for solace and  aid.
But the lethal juices wrought their spell:
One by one was rung their knell:
One by one from choir and cell
They floated up with a hoarse farewell;
And the altars fell, and the Abbey bell
Was hush’d in the Deadly Nightshade Dell.”

Furness Abbey built over Bekan's Ghyll
Furness Abbey built over Bekan’s Ghyll

The souls of the monks are said to inhabit the rooks that caw continually from the trees that surround their ruined monastery.

Beatrix Potter

By the time I reach Ash Landing beside the Claife ferry terminal, the sun has risen and the western woods have lost their menace. Now the trees are bathed in dappled sunlight and the forest floor is a carpet of red and ochre leaves. The lake is a cool expanse of blue.

Ash Landing Windermere
Ash Landing Windermere

As I cross the fields by St Peter’s church, the ground is crisp and white with frost. Dark and troubling images recede before the winter sun and make way for the kind of enchanting whimsy associated with the parish’s most famous past resident, Beatrix Potter. As I enter Near Sawrey, her house, Hilltop, is on the left, its garden straight from the pages of Peter Rabbit.

Across the fields to Sawrey
Across the fields to Sawrey

Just past the pub I turn right down a lane between cottages and on to the bridleway to Claife. After a gentle ascent the idyllic expanse of Moss Eccles Tarn appears. This was one of Beatrix Potter’s favourite spots; in fact she loved it so much, she bought the land. An information board displays her memoir of a romantic summer evening spent in a boat on its calm waters with her husband, William.

Beatrix Potter's House, Hill Top at Near Sawrey
Beatrix Potter’s House, Hill Top at Near Sawrey

It would be easy to imagine Potter leading a charmed life of privilege, spending her days sketching animals and writing children’s stories. In reality she fought hard for her independence. As a gifted natural historian, she battled a scientific establishment that would give her no platform because she was a woman. She weathered the disapproval of her family and devoted herself to farming and conservation. Her stewardship of the Lakeland landscape and its indigenous Herdwick sheep won her much respect.

When she died she left nearly all her land to the National Trust and it was her bequest that made it possible to preserve much of the area that now constitutes the Lake District National Park.

A little further up the track, the magnitude of her legacy unfolds as the gentle countryside gives way to sweeping Lakeland grandeur, the mighty Wetherlam rising dramatically  across Wise Een Tarn with Crinkle Crags, Bow Fell and the Langdales arcing round to its right.

Claife Heights

I follow the track up into the woods, past a tarn and out into the open once more. As the track bends round to the left, I turn right to follow the way-marked footpath that leads all the way back through the wooded slopes to Ash Landing on the lake shore.

I miss the sign pointing uphill to the trig point (apparently it’s a little overgrown), but find a track that runs beneath the summit instead. This route at least allows short detours through the trees to glimpse beautiful vistas of Belle Isle and the lake with its flotillas of moored yachts. Soon enough, I pick up the signposts to the ferry which confirm I’m back on track.

Windermere from Claife Heights
Windermere from Claife Heights

Eventually, a steep descent leads down through the trees to a ruined tower. Imagination fires and I wonder if this is where the ferryman faced the Crier. Alas, the notion is a fanciful one; this is the Claife Viewing Station, built in 1790 to provide the first wave of Lakeland tourists with a purpose-built platform from which to marvel at the magnificence of Windermere. It fell into disrepair in the 1900’s but has been rescued and recently reopened by the National Trust who have restored its coloured glass window panes, which give filtered views of the lake suggesting how its appearance might vary with the seasons.

Claife Viewing Station
Claife Viewing Station

But the tower may have something in common with the spook after all. In her fine blog on Cumbrian history, Diane McIlmoyle makes a strong case for the story of the Claife Crier being a 19th century concoction, perhaps, like the viewing station, intended to attract tourists. Read Diane’s full post here:

The Claife Crier: Windermere’s famous spook

However, even Diane concedes the tale was probably stitched together from fragments of older stories. If this is true, the question still remains: did something sinister happen here centuries ago that terrified the locals and could not be easily explained away?

Claife Viewing Station
Claife Viewing Station

In the midday sunshine, these woods look pretty and inviting, but in a few hours time as the light dies and the colours drain; and the temperature plummets and wind picks up a pace, whipping through the hidden hollows and around the stark silhouettes of trees, making all manner of ungodly noises, you’d be forgiven for experiencing a quickening of the pulse and a shiver down the spine. And should the mist roll in, you might just find yourself glancing anxiously lakewards, hoping to catch a glint or a shimmer or some reassurance that a  great body of water is still out there as a barrier to men walking dry shod across Windermere.

 

 

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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