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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.