Tag Archives: mountain

In My Time Of Dying

Haystacks and Wainwright.

As a teenager, my overriding aspiration was to move to the city and form a band. It was the start of a journey that would take me from the clubs of Newcastle to the pages of the NME and the very cusp of success, only to change direction and drop me in the wilds of Cumbria. En route, Jimi Hendrix would make room for a Borough Treasurer from Blackburn who disliked music, didn’t much like people, but loved the hills and whose writing opened my eyes to a whole new world. I pay tribute to this unlikeliest of heroes on top of Haystacks, the heather-clad hill where his ashes are scattered.

From Hendrix to the Hills

My heroes were all musicians: Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Gram Parsons, Paul Weller, Black Francis… I could go on.  I grew up in the country among the gentle hills of Wiltshire, but when I was 18, it wasn’t higher fells I craved, it was the city. Somewhere with nightlife and a thriving alternative music scene; somewhere I could join a band and play loud electric guitar in dark, sweaty, smoky clubs.

I secured a place at Newcastle University but my studies came second to my musical aspirations. After some false starts and a few years learning how to make noises other people might deign to listen to, I found friends with the right collective chemistry and we formed a band that was half decent.  We were called Hug, and together we achieved most of our teenage ambitions.  We toured the country in a transit van; played support to some of our heroes; we secured a record contract and released three e.p.’s and an album. We recorded sessions for Radio 1; and, at the start of 1991, the New Musical Express named us, alongside the Manic Street Preachers and Ocean Colour Scene, as one of their top tips for the coming year.

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

Unfortunately, we were the exception that proved the rule. While others on the list shot into the arena of international stardom, our journey stalled at the perimeter, performed a three-point turn and deposited us back at the Gateshead DHSS, where our hopes of evading more traditional employment were unceremoniously quashed.

I signed up for a course at Newcastle Poly or Northumbria University, as it had just become (supposedly an eleventh-hour name change, after some bright spark on the committee realised that rebranding it, “The City University of Newcastle upon Tyne” wouldn’t abbreviate well). I was to learn about IT, a far cry from my original vision of a career, but one that might, at least, earn me a living.

I hadn’t long qualified when my wife, Sandy was offered a dream job in Cumbria. I urged her to take it and set about seeking opportunities for myself, eventually securing a role with a small company developing medical software for managing people on dangerous drugs (the prescribed, not the proscribed kind). It seemed an interesting and worthwhile use of my new skills and we settled in the South Lakes.

Our first house was on the edge of a wood, right out in the sticks. It took a few weeks to adjust.  I’d never really understood the term, “the roaring silence” until then.  When you live in a city for any length of time you stop hearing the constant hum of traffic, but it becomes a vaguely hypnotic backdrop; a subliminal reassurance that the buzz of human activity continues as normal. To have it suddenly removed was disconcerting.  I remember lying awake, acutely aware that I could hear absolutely nothing. Then a barn owl screeched outside the open window and I nearly shot through the ceiling.  A few months later, I heard the bark of a stag for the first time and thought the Hound of the Baskervilles was coming through the wood.

But the countryside had started to work its magic and, before long, I felt the draw of the mountains. I invested in a set of OS maps and some walking guides, including a set of laminated cards, which I still use, although their age is now apparent from the supporting notes, which advise the intrepid explorer to “invest in a pair of walking stockings and a spare pullover”.

An Unlikely Hero

As my interest grew, I become acquainted with a name that seemed almost synonymous with the Lakeland fells.  In the Carnforth Bookshop, I chanced upon a second-hand copy of one of his books, “The Southern Fells” and snapped it up to see what the fuss was about.  The pocket-sized tome was a little dog-eared and it had obviously witnessed, first-hand, the summits it described; but it was all the more special for it. Its content, however, was a revelation: a series of pen and ink drawings, part map, part sketch that ingeniously captured the essence of a mountain and rendered it on a 2D page in such a way that the reader instantly understood its character and topography. I had always admired the way artist, David Hockney could convey so much with such an economy of line. Here too, the author accomplished a similar feat; and the accompanying text was pure, heartfelt poetry. It spoke volumes in a few simple paragraphs shot-through with warmth, humour, passion and practical advice.

Suddenly, Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend had to shuffle along to make room for a pipe-smoking, whiskered, staunchly conservative old curmudgeon, who went by the name of Alfred Wainwright. An unlikely coalition to say the least – Wainwright once assured a bemused Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs that, “music has never played an important part in my life. It’s never been an inspiration to me. Rather an irritation, very often.”

Born in Blackburn, Alfred Wainwright grew up in relative poverty. His father was an alcoholic, who drank much of what little he earned as a stonemason. The young Alfred was bright and a model pupil at school, where he consistently scored top marks, but he was forced to leave at thirteen in order to support his mother.

He got a job as an office boy with the Blackburn Borough Engineer’s department, but continued his studies at night school and eventually qualified as an accountant, which enabled him to climb the career ladder and become Borough Treasurer.

If the young Wainwright’s diligent attempts to better his lot were an attempt to escape the hardships of his upbringing, poverty was not the only thing he wanted to flee. From an early age, he had shown a keen interest in walking and cartography. He produced his own maps and frequently eschewed the industrial urban environment for long days in the tranquility of the countryside.

At the age of twenty three, Alfred, or AW as he preferred to be known, came to the Lakes for a walking holiday with his cousin, Eric. They climbed Orrest Head, above Windermere, where they witnessed the Lakeland fells for the first time. He described the experience as “magic; a revelation so unexpected that I stood transfixed, unable to believe my eyes”.

A year later, AW entered into a disastrous marriage with Ruth Holden. Throughout their courtship, Wainwright kept his cap on. When he finally removed it on their wedding night, the sight of his red hair revolted her and both parties rapidly came to regret their decision. Despite the birth of their son, Peter in 1933, domestic relations did not improve and the lure of the Lakes as an escape grew ever stronger.

Wainwright’s biographer, Hunter Davies is convinced that had AW found happiness in his first marriage, he would have “walked far less and written nothing”. As it was, his trips to  the fells became a weekly pilgrimage and he eventually took a pay cut to move to Kendal in 1941. Eleven years later, he started writing his Pictorial Guides as a “love letter” to the landscape that held him in such rapture.

That AW sought solace among the summits is abundantly obvious throughout his books. He describes finding “a balm for jangled nerves in the silence and solitude of the peaks” and of “man’s search for beauty, growing keener as so much in the world grows uglier”.

An intensely private man, he disliked crowds and disapproved of group excursions as evidenced in his mournful description of the popular route up the Old Man of Coniston: “This is the way the crowds go: the day trippers, the courting couples, babies and grandmothers, the lot. On this stony parade, fancy handbags and painted toenails are as likely to be seen as rucksacks and boots.”  This is accompanied by a sketch of a lone walker looking to the fells while a crowd stares in the opposite direction, trying to spot Blackpool Tower.

By his own admission, Wainwright was a shy child who grew up to be anti-social, but the popular perception of an old curmudgeon is a little unfair. Bonhomie toward like-minded explorers runs right through his writing and his dry humour is everywhere.

In a personal note at the conclusion of his final Pictorial Guide, “The Western Fells”, AW lists his six best Lakeland mountains as “Scafell Pike, Bowfell, Pillar, Great Gable, Blencathra and Crinkle Crags”, then quickly qualifies the list, explaining, “These are not necessarily the six fells I like the best. It grieves me to have to omit Haystacks (most of all)”.

Haystacks is not technically a mountain, being just short of the requisite 2000 ft, and AW is being objective in omitting it on these grounds; but this relatively diminutive hill captured his heart more than any other. He describes it as standing “unabashed and unashamed amid a circle of higher fells, like a shaggy terrier in the company of foxhounds”… “For a man trying to get a persistent worry out of his mind, the top of Haystacks is a wonderful cure.”

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

The “persistent worry” of his home life continued until, in his own words, “my wife left me, took the dog and I never saw her again”. AW eventually found matrimonial happiness when he married an old friend, Betty McNally. She became not only his spouse but his walking companion. After his death in 1991, Betty carried out AW’s long-held wish and scattered his ashes by Innominate Tarn on top of his beloved Haystacks.

Haystacks and Fleetwith Pike

It’s been years since I climbed Haystacks and when I did, the top was shrouded in mist. It’s high time I return. I leave the house at 6:00 am for a glorious drive that runs the full lengths of Windermere, Rydal Water, Grasmere, Thirlmere and Derwent Water. From the high level drama of the Honister Pass, I descend to Gatesgarth with Buttermere stretched out before me, sparkling in the September sun.

I park the car and follow the stream through the farmyard and out toward High Crag, towering ahead. To my left, Fleetwith Edge soars up over Low and High Raven Crags to the top of Fleetwith Pike. This is my intended descent. It looks a little daunting from below, but the views will be outstanding. Between these two loftier neighbours lies Haystacks, a dwarf in comparison but no grassy hillock, its craggy rock-face hints at the interest on top.

I must have slept at an odd angle as I have a stiff neck which the drive has turned into a dull headache. Wainwright famously declared, “one can forget even a raging toothache on Haystacks”, so I’m sure it won’t bother me for long, but as I round a little coppice of trees, I find a sealed tray of paracetamol in the path. I don’t really believe in fate but can’t deny the serendipity and it feeds a strange feeling that I’m somehow supposed to be here today.

Buttermere and High Snockrigg
Buttermere and High Snockrigg

I start the climb up to Scarth Gap between Haystacks and High Crag, pausing occasionally to cast an eye back  over Buttermere and Crummock Water. On reaching Scarth Gap, I’m greeted with fine views over Ennerdale to two of Lakeland’s heavyweights, Pillar and Great Gable. Pillar’s precipitous northern slopes are bathed in green shadow, sheer and formidable. I try to trace the High Level Traverse between the crags to the magnificent column of Pillar Rock, from which the mountain takes its name. I lose the line of the path (apparently it’s not much easier to follow when you’re on it).

Pillar from Scarth Gap
Pillar from Scarth Gap

A cloud floats across the face of Gable, a huge dark turret rising from the valley head. Over Buttermere, the bulky mass of Grassmoor dominates, while here, across the saddle, the path climbs steeply to the rocky heights of High Crag. These are the “foxhounds” in whose company the “shaggy terrier” behind me stands “unabashed and unashamed”. I turn around and continue the climb to discover why.

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

The question is quickly answered as the ascent turns into a scramble; nothing technically difficult, but challenging enough to establish this as mountain terrain, good and proper, and the rival of any of its neighbours. On reaching the parapet, Haystacks’ treasures are revealed in full – a heather-clad castle of rocky towers and tiny tarns, leading eyes and feet in a merry dance of intrigue. Two excrescences of stone vie for the distinction of summit, although the honour is usually bestowed on the farther one, which boasts a cairn as its crown.

Summit cairn, Haystacks
Summit cairn, Haystacks

Cloud shadows dapple the flanks of High Crag as I look back across a small blue pond that glistens like an overture to the watery expanse of Buttermere beyond. I’m almost entirely alone, but for two distant figures perched precariously atop the turret of Big Stack, framed against the plunging crags of Fleetwith Pike. Everywhere I turn is magical and somehow otherworldly. Haystacks has all the rugged drama of its neighbours but here, in place of a desolate wilderness of boulder, is a wild beauty and a pervading sense of tranquillity.

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

I cross a depression and clamber to the true summit for another breathtaking panorama; then meander down through the heather, where herdwicks graze happily, to the peaceful shore of Innominate Tarn. AW’s wish to be scattered here is expressed more than once in his writings, but never as fully and eloquently as in Memoirs of a Fellwanderer, where he says this:

“All I ask for, at the end, is a last long resting place by the side of Innominate Tarn, on Haystacks, where the water gently laps the gravelly shore and the heather blooms and Pillar and Gable keep unfailing watch. A quiet place, a lonely place.

“I shall go to it, for the last time, and be carried – someone who knew me in life will take me and empty me out of a little box and leave me there alone. And if you, dear reader, should get a bit of grit in your boot as you are crossing Haystacks in the years to come, please treat it with respect. It might be me”.

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

I’m transfixed by the gently rippling waters and could easily linger all day. AW was not a religious man. He knew heaven was right here and to mingle with this soil and feed the heather was his hope for an afterlife. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…

Innominate Tarn
Innominate Tarn

To Wainwright, true music was here – in birdsong, or the tinkling of a mountain stream, or the sound of the wind among the peaks. I can’t argue with that. It’s perfect.

Innominate Tarn
Innominate Tarn with Gable keeping watch

Eventually, I wrestle myself away and follow the path as it wends down through some remarkable rock scenery to Dubs Bottom, from where I start the ascent of Fleetwith Pike.

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

The contrast could not be more striking. The intoxicating spell of a natural Shangri-La is broken by the harsh scars of industry in the spoil heaps and engineered gullies of Dubs quarry. From here, the path follows the line of an old works tramway to the head of Honister Crag, known as Black Star. Wainwright describes Black Star as “a place without beauty. A place to daunt they eye and creep the flesh”. The crag itself is not in view, but on the horizon a spoil heap rises, battleship grey, like a dark and sinister tower. If Haystacks was a fairy tale fortress, the vision ahead is the Castle of the Dolorous Guard, straight from the page of Arthurian legend. “Dub” is a Celtic word for black and right on cue, the sky darkens. It’s enough to send a slight shiver down the spine.

It would be remiss to imply the old quarry workings are a lamentable eyesore, however. Industrial heritage holds its own fascination, especially as it is slowly reclaimed by nature. AW understood that Lakeland isn’t a true wilderness. The hand of man is everywhere, from the intricate pattern of dry stone walls enclosing lush green grazing pastures in the valley bottoms to the shafts and tunnels of old mines that pierce the fell sides. As he put it (in describing Honister), “there is no beauty in despoliation and devastation but there can be dramatic effect and interest and so it is here”.

But the desolate outcrop of Black Star is not my destination and I turn left after Dubs Hut (maintained as a bothy by the Mountain Bothies Association) and climb beside a slate-filled gully to two spoil heaps where I pick up a path left, which meanders over open moorland to the summit of Fleetwith Pike. Here, one of the finest views in Lakeland awaits, looking straight down the valley over Buttermere and Crummock Water with distant Loweswater curving off to the left.

Buttermere from Fleetwith summit
Buttermere from Fleetwith summit

I sit and stare at this majestic scene as I eat my lunch, then begin the plunging descent of Fleetwith Edge. It’s not nearly as daunting as it appeared from below. There are some steep rock steps to negotiate and some minor scrambling, but nothing too difficult if due care is taken. The path follows well chosen zigzags and is impossible to rush, not only because you need to watch your footing, but also because it’s absolutely necessary to pause frequently and marvel at the improving vista.

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

At the bottom, I join the road and I’m suddenly struck by the hope that my gaitors have done their job. What if I find a bit of grit in my boot? I can’t leave AW in the car park, he hated cars.

I look back and notice the white wooden cross low on the fell side. This marks the spot where Fanny Mercer, a servant girl from Rugby, fell from Fleetwith Edge in September 1887 (130 years ago, this month). Her simple memorial is a sobering reminder that the fells can be treacherous as well as beautiful. It’s heartbreaking to think one so young was robbed of her life on what should have been a joyful excursion.

Fanny Mercer's cross
Fanny Mercer’s cross

Tragic accidents occur daily, some of much greater magnitude than the sad story of a servant girl from over a hundred years ago. And yet this simple cross remains affecting because there’s no objective yardstick for pain. That whole communities are devastated by fire, flood, disease or famine doesn’t negate the suffering of someone bruised by a failed relationship or grieving the loss of a loved one. We all have our crosses to bear, however big or small, but ironically, it’s often hardship that sharpens our senses to the beauty in the world. The most affecting songs are rooted in heartbreak and it was perhaps the pain of a loveless marriage that led Wainwright to find hope, inspiration and validation among these hills. I hope Fanny experienced a little of that wonder too, before her life was cut so abruptly short.

“The fleeting hour of life of those who love the hills is quickly spent, but the hills are eternal. Always there will be the lonely ridge, the dancing beck, the silent forest; always there will be the exhilaration of the summits. These are for the seeking, and those who seek and find while there is still time will be blessed both in mind and body” – A Wainwright.


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A Walk on the Wild Side

The Mosedale Horseshoe and a Night at Black Sail

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

The Lady in the Lake

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

Wastwater from Yewbarrow
Wastwater from Yewbarrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mosedale Horseshoe

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

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

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

Wastwater over Bell Rib
Wastwater over Bell Rib

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

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

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

Pillar rising above Mosedale
Pillar rising above Mosedale

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

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

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

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

Kirk fell from Red Pike
Kirk fell from Red Pike

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

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

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

Ennerdale Water
Ennerdale Water
Steeple
Steeple

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

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

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

Descending to Black Sails Pass
Descending to Black Sails Pass

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

Black Sail Hut

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

 

Ennerdale
Ennerdale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset over Ennerdale
Sunset over Ennerdale

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

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

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

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

Black Sails Hut
Black Sails Hut

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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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Sympathy For The Devil

Blencathra via Halls Fell Ridge

Blencathra is a mountain steeped in Arthurian legend. Wainwright describes its ascent via Halls Fell Ridge as “the finest way to any mountain top in the district”. Tim Taylor and I embark on a scramble up this knife edge arête to find out why. We keep a firm grip on the rocks but lose our hearts to a spaniel called Bella.

Back in the 12th century, Glastonbury Abbey was in trouble – badly damaged by fire and buckling under the cost of the repairs. Yet, by the end of the Middle Ages it was the richest Abbey in Britain. What was responsible for this dramatic upturn in fortune? The discovery of two graves that were conveniently attributed to King Arthur and Guinevere.

Some suspect it was nothing more than a canny monastic marketing coup, cashing in on one of our most enduring legends. But according to the legend, Arthur didn’t die at all. He went into an extended hibernation in Avalon – the Once and Future King, lying in wait with a band of his most loyal knights, ready to return when his country needs him most; and in one version of the story at least, Avalon lies under a mountain in Cumbria.

Affalach was a Celtic god of the underworld. In Cumbrian folklore, Avalon and Affalach’s subterranean kingdom are one and the same. They dwell beneath a hill whose ancient name has been variously interpreted as “Devil’s Peak”, “High Seat” or “High Throne” – all thought to be references to Affalach. Some even argue the name means “Throne of Arthur”. The Victorians renamed it “Saddleback” for the shape of its skyline, but in his Pictorial Guides to The Lake District, Alfred Wainwright made a plea to reinstate its ancient, darker, Arthurian name of Blencathra.

Halls Fell Ridge, Blencathra
The Devil’s Peak

Wainwright loved Blencathra, describing it as “one of the grandest objects in Lakeland”. He spent an entire winter exploring its slopes and ridges and devoted more pages to these than to any other fell.

The mountain comprises six distinct hills, the southern five joined by the summit ridge and separated by their respective ghylls. If you imagine its south face as a left hand, its fingers outstretched and pointing forward, a little apart, then Blease Fell is the thumb and Scales Fell the little finger. The index, middle and ring fingers are Gategill Fell, Halls Fell and Doddick Fell, each a distinct ridge, rising to its own knuckle.

Halls Fell Top is Blencathra’s summit and its ridge (the middle finger) is an exhilarating scramble, rising from the valley to the highest point. Wainwright declares it, “positively the finest way to any mountain top in the district”. “For active walkers and scramblers”, that is. The ever helpful WalkLakes website maps the route and describes the technical difficulty as “scrambling skills required. Steep, significant exposure with sheer drops, knife edge ridge”. Just to emphasize the point, they state in bold type, “People have slipped from this ridge and died”.

Halls Fell Ridge, Blencathra
Halls Fell Ridge

I make some enquiries on Facebook and I’m assured the scramble is slightly easier than Helvellyn’s Striding Edge. Having found few real difficulties on Striding Edge, I’m confident that Halls Fells is achievable. Indeed, it provides an exciting prospect for Saturday when my friend and frequent walking buddy, Tim Taylor, will be staying.

Then it snows – hard. Investing in winter boots, crampons, an ice axe and learning how to use them is high on my agenda but it’s now Wednesday evening and accomplishing all of those (not least the last) by Saturday seems a little ambitious. “People have slipped from this ridge and died”. OK, OK, perhaps a contingency plan is order.

Then something unusual happens. The Met Office forecasts sunshine and heat from noon on Thursday and, almost to the minute, it arrives. From harsh winter to high summer in twenty four hours and what’s more, this July-like spell is set to last through the weekend. By the time Tim arrives on Friday night we’re feeling quietly confident.

On Saturday morning, social media reports the snow on summit is soft and melting fast. As we drive past the south face on the A66, we can see the ridges are clear.

As we step out of the car in the attractive village of Threlkeld, we look up to see a mighty ridge rising above, steep and imposing.

“Blimey” says Tim, “is that Sharp Edge?”. Sharp Edge is the hardest way up Blencathra, a shorter arête than Halls Fell but by some degree narrower, its drops more sheer and its pinnacles more exposed. It’s on our tentative to-do list, but its mention in association with any vague plan to actually tackle it engenders a certain amount of trepidation. One veteran described it to me as “the most fun you can have with your clothes on”, while another admitted to being the most scared he’s been anywhere in Lakeland.

I look at Tim and from the expression on his face, I can see he’s already answered his own question. There’s no way that can be Sharp Edge from this angle, that has to be Halls Fell – where we’re going.

A frisson of nervous anticipation invigorates our steps as we follow the stream of Kilnhow Beck along its prettily wooded banks, crossing a wooden bridge and ascending some stone pitched steps that climb above its ravine. Through a gate, we emerge into the open between Blease and Gategill Fells. We follow the wall to our right past the fell foot, fording Gate Gill Beck as it babbles down from the mountain side; Halls Fell lies ahead.

Blease Fell and Gategill Fell
Blease Fell and Gategill Fell

Bright sunshine reveals the distinct layers that delineate the hill sides: green lowland grass gives way to a russet cloak of dead bracken; chocolate brown blankets of dry heather clad the higher slopes. Above, rising imperiously to pierce the pure blue sky, are slate grey turrets of exposed rock, their shoulders shrouded in modest mantles of snow. It looks challenging but not quite as daunting as it did from the village where its higher reaches were hidden, leaving imagination free reign to invent.

Tim in front of Halls Fell Ridge, Blencathra
Tim in front of Halls Fell Ridge

We climb the path that snakes steeply up the lower slopes, soon cutting through the carpets of chocolate heather. The gradient is unforgiving but the rapid height gain gives frequent excuses to stop and feast on the unfurling view.

To our backs, across the lush green, criss-cross fields of St John’s In The Vale, looms Clough Head, its snow streaked summit a mirror image of the cloud wisps and vapour trails that fan out across the ocean of sky.

Clough Head from Halls Fell Ridge
Clough Head from Halls Fell Ridge

Ahead, the vegetation recedes before the slate grey ramparts of the craggy upper ridge – gunmetal battlements that rise like organic fortifications toward the Devil’s Peak.

We reach the first rock tower and a choice presents itself: skirt round it on a narrow ledge or climb over the top. Snow still blankets sections of the ledge so in some respects the scramble seems safer – better the devil you can see; and of course, a sense of adventure dictates we climb.

Clough Head from Halls Fell Ridge
Clough Head from Halls Fell Ridge

Hand and footholds are in plentiful supply and we negotiate the first few pinnacles with little difficulty. Tim has to remind himself he’s not in the Peak District, his home turf, where I have seen him spring from rock to rock with what I mistook for reckless abandon. Not so, the rocky outcrops in the Peaks are gritstone, which grips your feet and allows such shenanigans with safety. The stone here is Skiddaw Slate, a sedimentary rock, formed under the sea some 500 million years ago, 50 million years before the volcanic eruptions that formed the main body of Lakeland fells. It wears to a smooth polished surface, which is slippery enough when dry like now, but lethal when wet.

The upper part of the ridge is known as Narrow Edge and with good reason. At one point the rock tapers to a slender knife edge beyond which is a deep fissure. At first I think I’ll have to turn back and follow the lower ledge, but the path is some way below and not at all distinct. The fissure is a small step but the edge is too thin to balance on.

Narrow Edge, Blencathra
Narrow Edge, Blencathra

I stop and ponder my options and realise if I straddle the ridge there are slim but decent footholds either side. Tentatively I extend my left foot and find a sure platform, then, in a crouch and holding on to the crest with both hands, move my right foot the other side. Finding another sturdy base, I rise up slowly to straddle the ridge. The step across the fissure is now simple and I think I may have made a meal of it, but slow and safe wins over haste up here.

With height, the sun loses none of its heat and our warm and waterproof layers remain stowed in our rucksacks. The light is fantastic and renders the surrounding slopes in sharp relief. To our right, Doddick Fell is an intricate action painting of green lines and splashes on a coffee-coloured ground with slithers of blue slate and dustings of snow.

Doddick Fell from Halls Fell Ridge
Doddick Fell from Halls Fell Ridge

Just then an excited spaniel rounds a rock tower and comes bounding over to meet us. Her owners emerge moments later and we learn her names is Bella. With younger and fitter legs they reach the peak a little before us. No sooner have they disappeared from view than Bella’s head re-emerges over the parapet, looking for us. When she spies us, her shepherding instinct kicks in and she runs back down the ridge to round us up, charging on ahead to show us the way to the top. If only I could tackle the intervening ground with that much ease!

We arrive a few minutes later to find the broad summit ridge still smothered in snow, knee-deep in places where it has drifted. The remains of a snow man, head melted to a long slim finger pointing skyward, crowns the highest point. The sky is clear and free of the haziness that often renders summer horizons in soft focus. The views in all directions are staggering.

Bella on Blencathra Summit
Bella on Blencathra Summit

Rising to the east are the highest peaks of the Pennines. To the south, Helvellyn and the Dodds. A crowded skyline of western crests backdrops the silver shimmer of Derwent Water. To the north-west the Solway Firth marks the Scottish border, which can only mean the snow-capped hills to the north-east are a little short of Glasgow. A view that spans two countries – for now at least a united kingdom; a High Throne indeed.

Blencathra Summit
Taking in the views
Blease Fell Top, Blencathra
Western crests over Derwent Water

We plan to descend via Blease Fell, but can’t resist a short detour to peek at Sharp Edge. It certainly looks formidable from up here: sheer walls of blue-tinged slate rising steeply to a razor’s edge (its former name). We can just make out little stick men boldly negotiating its crenellations and defying its deadly drops, reaching the ridge’s end only to face a seemingly vertical scramble up Foule Crag – a perilous quest worthy of an Arthurian knight surely!

Sharp Edge, Blencathra
Sharp Edge, Blencathra
Steep scramble up Foule Crag, Sharp Edge
Steep scramble up Foule Crag, Sharp Edge

Beyond Foule Crags lies the foothill of Souter Fell, where on Midsummer’s Eve, 1745, twenty six men and women witnessed a ghost army march in a procession five men deep and half a mile long, supplemented by horses and carriages that could never have managed the slope. All twenty six swore the truth of their story under oath before a magistrate. Officials feared a gathering of Jacobite rebels, but when the ground was checked no evidence of mortal presence could be found. Perhaps it was simply the Knights of the Round Table on nocturnal manoeuvres.

We return to the summit and walk over Gategill Fell Top to Knowe Crags, where we perch on a rock and picnic. We’re in T-shirts wondering whether we’ve applied enough sun cream as it’s not just mild, it’s hot. We’re being bitten by midges, yet all around is snow. There’s something magically inconsistent about the scene.

Blencathra Summit from Knowe Crags
Blencathra Summit from Knowe Crags

Lofty Skiddaw hones into view as we continue on to Blease Fell and begin our descent down its snowy then grassy slopes. Reaching the bottom, I glance back at Blencathra, a truly bewitching mountain – dramatic, beguiling, mysterious and magnificent.

Toward Blease Fell, Blencathra
Toward Blease Fell, Blencathra

When so much in the daily news serves to highlight our divisions, our bitter disagreements, our ideological incompatibilities, our burning sense of personal and political injustice, it’s easy to see us as a fractured nation. But Westminster take heed: here endures a legend – that one day a Once and Future King will rise again to unite us. Only Arthur, if you’re listening, timing is everything. Please don’t burst forth from Blencathra just as I’m gingerly stepping across the perilous serrations of Sharp Edge.

To find a map and directions for this route, visit WalkLakes.co.uk


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Hard Rock

Castlerigg Stone Circle and the Langdale Pikes

Castlerigg is a six thousand year old stone circle set in a stunning amphitheatre of high fells. Wainwright described the Pike O’ Stickle as a “steep ladder to heaven” and declared, “no mountain profile in Lakeland arrests and excites the attention more than that of the Langdale Pikes”. The two are linked by an ancient Stone Age axe industry. In this article, I visit Castlerigg at sunrise and climb the Pike O’ Stickle via Stickle Tarn and the magnificent cliff of Pavey Ark.

Castlerigg

“Scarce images of life, one here, one there, lay vast and edgeways; like a dismal cirque of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor”. We must grant John Keats a measure of poetic license – as a simile for battlefield desolation these lines from Hyperion are hauntingly evocative; but if, as widely supposed, he drew on the Cumbrian stone circle of Castlerigg for his inspiration, I can only assume he visited in mist and poor light; and quite possibly at night.

Castlerigg and Blencathra
Castlerigg and Blencathra

For shame Mr Keats, if you were alive today anyone would think you aspire to grace billboards – your portrait superimposed on a panorama of these spectacular stones with foot-high letters spelling out the strap line, “should have gone to Specsavers”. For if there is one thing Castlerigg is not, it’s dismal.

Castlerigg
Castlerigg

In the first light of a frosty morning these monoliths bask in blue tinged shadow, the sun still hidden behind the rocky heights of Helvellyn; while all around looms a magnificent parade of mountains – Blencathra, Skiddaw, Grisedale Pike, Crag Hill, Causey Pike, Sail – already licked by the first rays and illuminated fire-glow red.

This ancient stone circle was erected here, on this grassy plateau above Keswick, some six thousand years ago – four millennia before the birth of British history; three millennia even before the Iron Age Druids Keats credits with its construction.

Castlerigg Stone Circle
Castlerigg Stone Circle

No-one really knows its purpose. Some argue the stones exhibit an astronomical aspect and unusually for a British stone circle they appear to have a lunar rather than a solar alignment. When the sun finally breaks over the eastern hills it’s as if someone has turned on the floodlights; whatever this place’s original intention there’s no denying its architects’ sense of theatre.

Castlerigg and Blencathra
Castlerigg and Blencathra

The discovery here of Neolithic axe heads suggests Castlerigg played a role in a lucrative prehistoric export trade. Examples of ancient Cumbrian axes have been found all over Britain, especially along the east coast with a particular concentration in Lincolnshire.

Shaped from hard volcanic rock they would have proved robust alternatives to their flint counterparts, but archaeologists believe they held a symbolic value too – revered perhaps as signs of rank or status. They may even have had a mystical significance. If this is true, trading at Castlerigg would surely have been cloaked in ceremony.

Imagine the sense of wonder when at the end of a hard and seemingly endless journey from the flatlands of Lincolnshire you find yourself amid these sacred stones in an exalted amphitheatre of rugged hills to take ownership of a rare and precious artefact at the climax of an esoteric ritual. Beats Amazon Prime any day.

The Langdale Pikes

The axes themselves hail from Great Langdale, fashioned from rough stones found among the scree slopes of the Pike O’Stickle. In his Pictorial Guides to the Lake District Wainwright declares “No mountain profile in Lakeland arrests and excites the attention more than that of the Langdale Pikes”. While not actually the highest of the Lakeland fells they impart an air of imposing grandeur by sweeping up in a steep unbroken line from the valley floor to their lofty summits, the Pike O’Stickle tapering to a perfect conical peak from which its southern scree slope sweeps down dramatically to form what Wainwright calls “that steep ladder to heaven”.

Pike O' Stickle
Pike O’ Stickle

No wonder our ancient forbears attached such reverence to the hardy blades they found half-formed in this mountain scree. They must have believed these stones a gift from the gods. Old beliefs endure it seems – as recently as a hundred years ago, farmers finding axe heads on their land were known place them in their water troughs to ensure the health of their herds.

A stairway to heaven lined with axes sounds about as Led Zep as you can get but a direct climb would be to experience hard rock of the steep and unremitting kind. Indeed Wainwright notes helpfully, “In a buttoned-up plastic mac, the ascent is purgatory”. I choose instead a more scenic route that starts beside the New Dungeon Ghyll hotel.

Somewhere above, the sun has started to vaporise the night’s damp, veiling Great Langdale in fog and hiding the last few vestiges of the modern world. Beside the misty solitude of Stickle Ghyll it’s easy to feel the millennia melt away.

Langdale inversion
Langdale inversion

The footpath climbs by the left bank of the stream and the gradient soon becomes severe. Gaining height quickly, it’s not long before I emerge into sunlight. A little further up I pause to catch my breath and look back on that most eye-catching of mountain experiences – an inversion – where the cloud lies below. It’s a spectacular sight: the black summit of the Pike O’Blisco honouring its swashbuckling name by floating like a pirate ship on a sea of cotton wool. With the valley hidden, the view defies its modest height and, with a fanciful leap of the imagination, these peaks emerging from a blanket of white could be the Himalayas.

Langdale Inversion
Langdale Inversion

The path climbs steeply for about a mile before reaching a striking Lakeland treasure – the magnificent cliff of Pavey Ark mirrored in the glistening expanse of Stickle Tarn. With the inversion below, it’s simply breathtaking.

Stickle Tarn
Stickle Tarn

I follow the wall along the water’s edge and ford Stickle Ghyll at its outlet. This is easy enough but there’s another stream ahead. Recent snow melts have swollen its waters, submerging stepping stones and leaving the remainder a bit of a stretch. I try to take it at pace but slip and step backward into the stream, filling my left boot with icy water. A peel of laughter from behind and a voice shouts “good call mate”. I turn to see three lads waving as they walk further on in search of a simpler crossing.

Stickle Tarn
Stickle Tarn

I round the edge of the tarn toward Pavey Ark. To my left lies Jack’s Rake, a long and challenging scramble up the cliff face. Classed as easy in climbers’ terms, it is supposed to push the limits of ordinary walkers and has claimed fatalities. According to Wainwright, “Walkers who can still put their toes in their mouths and bring their knees up to their chins may embark on the ascent confidently”. Given my inability to cross stepping stones, I make a silent vow of “next time” and follow the path that leads right to the much easier North Rake.

At the top, a thin covering of snow obscures the path and slows progress by concealing the boggy ground beneath – no longer sufficiently frozen to prevent another bootful should I take a wrong step. Painstakingly, I cross to a wall and reach the summit cairn.

The mist has cleared from the valley revealing jaw-dropping vistas across Great Langdale to the Coniston fells and Windermere. As a viewpoint for northern England, the top of Pavey Ark takes some beating. I tarry a while to drink it all in.

Harrison Stickle from Pavey Ark
Harrison Stickle from Pavey Ark

Eventually the cold starts to bite and I follow the cairns that lead to the Langdales’ highest point – the summit of Harrison Stickle. Here the western aspect opens up with Crinkle Crags looking particularly crinkled and craggy and the high, snow-flecked peaks of Bow Fell and the Scafells shrouded in cloud. In the foreground, across a hanging valley, rises that object of reverence and source of industry for our prehistoric ancestors – the perfect conical peak of the Pike O’ Stickle.

Pike O Stickle
Pike O’ Stickle

I make the steep descent to the depression where I meet a man and his dog emerging from the stepped path that leads up from Dungeon Ghyll. He pauses to get his bearings and reveals he’s basically doing my walk in reverse so we set off together toward the Pike O’Stickle. The final assault on the summit requires hands and feet (or paws in our canine companion’s case). After a short scramble we’re here on top of this most iconic of peaks, an unmistakable landmark on numerous Lakeland expeditions and still capable of inspiring awe in generations many millenia removed from the original axe-makers.

I bid farewell to my companion as he sets off to conquer Harrison Stickle and make my way along the ridge towards Loft Crag before descending the path he climbed to get here.

At the bottom, the prospect of a pint at the Stickle Barn is too good to miss. Despite the time of year, the bright sun and the presence of terrace braziers make an outside seat irresistible so I sit and sup and look out across the green expanse of valley.

When Stone Age man made the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer, these dales would have been thick with trees. That evolutionary transition led our ancestors to forge farmland from forest; on the mountain slopes above, they found the tools to do the job.

On the table is a paper, its headlines full of Westminster bluster on growth and deficit. The political direction of travel these last forty years has been to sacrifice British manufacturing in favour of financial services, yet outside of the City of London it’s not obvious who that has benefited. Dwelling on today’s economic injustice is enough to make you pine for a simpler time when industry in these isles was making axes not falling under them.

 


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Redemption Song

The Herdwicks of Harter Fell

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

Epidemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An open letter to the people of Cumbria

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

Herdies

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

Year old Herdwick
Year old Herdwick

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

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

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


Welcome to Carlisle
Weak Bridge
Strong People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard Knott fort
Hard Knott fort

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

Post Script

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


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Standing on the Shoulders Of Giants

Scafell Pike and Sca Fell via Foxes Tarn

A homicidal jester, the world’s greatest liar and a notorious whisky smuggler are all part of the history that surrounds this spectacular hill walk to the top of England’s two highest peaks, Sca Fell and Scafell Pike. The wild majesty of the summits provokes a meditation on why we climb mountains and the true meaning of the word sublime.

Tom Foolery

It was a risky business asking directions in Muncaster around 1600. If the seemingly amiable chap sitting beneath the chestnut tree turned out to be Thomas Skelton, you’d better hope you made a good impression. If he liked you, he’d help you find a safe passage over the river Esk. If he took exception, he’d direct you to the quicksands. Not everyone lived to tell the tale.

Skelton was the jester at Muncaster castle and was well known as a charismatic entertainer. Indeed sufficiently large was his reputation that he is thought to have been the original “Tom Fool” and Shakespeare’s inspiration for the joker in King Lear.

But he was a malevolent soul whose notoriety rocketed when his master’s daughter, Helwise took a shine to a local carpenter. This didn’t sit well with Sir Ferdinand, a knight with designs upon the girl, so he turned to Skelton for help. Tom put it about that the carpenter had stolen money from him while simultaneously affecting friendship with the lad and promising to help him elope with Helwise. Skelton got the young joiner drunk on cider then carried him back to his workshop, where he murdered him with his own carpentry tools, cutting off his head and hiding it under a pile of wood shavings. Arriving back at the castle, Skelton bragged to his fellow servants that the carpenter would not so easily find his head when he awoke as he had done Skelton’s coins.

The river Esk meets the sea at nearby Ravenglass and shares an estuary with the river Irt, which begins its short passage a few miles away in Wastwater. Described by Wordsworth as “long, stern and desolate”, Wastwater is England’s deepest lake, framed by its highest mountains with the perfect pyramid of Great Gable centre stage at its head. So ruggedly beautiful is this panorama that it was voted Britain’s Favourite View in 2007.

Wastwater
Wastwater

The Wastwater Hotel (now the Wasdale Head Inn) had its own court jester in the 1800’s. Landlord, Will Ritson was famed for his tall tales and his motivation, if not his methods, may have been similar to Skelton’s. Mountain climbing gained popularity during the Victorian era and the hotel enjoyed an influx of visitors. Some city folk considered themselves superior to country bumpkins but those affecting such airs would likely fall victim to Ritson’s yarns. There was no malice in Ritson’s antics though, just good natured leg-pulling; he’d see how far he could string along his sap before they realised they were being had, at which point he’d push his story to its preposterous conclusion to the amusement of all.

One tale involved a huge turnip his father had grown that took a whole year to hollow out. He used the carcass as a shed. Another told of an injured eagle Ritson had rescued and nursed back to health in his chicken coop. Panic ensued one night when a bitch escaped her master and raided the pen. The hound was caught and returned home and to Will’s immense relief the eagle was unharmed. A couple of months later though, the dog gave birth to winged puppies.

The Roof Of England

Even taller than Will’s stories are the mountains that ring the valley. Known as the Roof of England, the summit of Scafell Pike stands at 3208 ft and is the nation’s highest point. Despite this distinction, it takes its name from its neighbour, Sca Fell. From certain angles the pair look like giant stone beasts squaring up to each other. Sca Fell’s bulky shoulder appears to roll forward making it look the aggressor while Scafell Pike’s peak is set back giving the impression of retreat. Perhaps this is why the original namers considered Sca Fell the superior mountain – Wainwright, in his famous Pictorial Guides to the Lake District, was inclined to agree.

Scafell Pike
Scafell Pike

Today, if my fitness levels permit, I intend to ascend both. I’ve climbed the Pike twice this year only to find the summit shrouded in cloud. Today the sun is shining, the sky is blue and I hope my luck will change.

From the National Trust car park at Wasdale Head, I take the permitted path past the Brackenclose Climbing Club hut, over the wooden bridge and out on to the open fell.  The first obstacle is to ford Lingmell Gill, which can be an impassable torrent when it’s in spate.  It rained heavily last night so I’m little concerned my adventure may be thwarted before it’s even started. Happily, the water levels are normal and I can pick my way across the stones with relative ease.

A little further up, the path forks and I’m faced with a choice that could have been scripted by J. K. Rowling: turn right for Mickledore or carry on through the Hollow Stones. Mickledore is the narrow ridge that separates the two stone giants. Its ascent from here is dramatic but I’ll be crossing Mickledore later, so I push on through the Hollow Stones and zigzag up the steep grassy slope to Lingmell Col.  Here the slog is rewarded with a spectacular view down to Sty Head Tarn at the start of the famous Corridor Route from Borrowdale, with Great Gable looking magnificent on the left.

Great Gable and Styhead from Lingmell Col
Great Gable and Styhead Tarn from Lingmell Col
Wadd and Whisky

The high level path that skirts the base of Great Gable and links Wasdale to Honister is known as Moses Trod after a shadowy slate worker called Moses Rigg. Moses was an accomplished smuggler of wadd (graphite), then a hugely valuable and highly guarded natural resource. He is said to have used the path to move his contraband through Wasdale and on to the coast at Ravenglass.

But wadd was not his only line of business. It is rumoured that Rigg built a hideout high up in the crags of Great Gable, well out of the way of the excise men, where he distilled illicit whisky from bog water. As far back as 1966, Wainwright claimed that no trace of this mythical building remained and given that the only historical accounts of Moses Rigg stem from Will Ritson, you’d be forgiven for thinking this local legend is simply that. However, in 1983 an expedition by Jeremy Ashcroft and Guy Proctor from Trail magazine discovered four stone walls and a stone floor on a small and obscured plateau below central gully about 200m from Great Gable’s summit. In the middle of the floor was a lump of wadd.

Lingmell’s summit is in easy reach and offers even better views of Great Gable, but with two higher mountains to conquer, I forego the temptation and bear right to start the stony ascent to the Roof of England, picking my way across a significant boulder field to attain the country’s pinnacle. The sky is clear and the views are breathtaking. My luck is in today.

Styhead from Scafell Pike summit
Styhead from Scafell Pike summit
Perspective

The top of Scafell Pike does not meet any conventional notion of beauty. It is a wasteland of rock where little or no vegetation grows, but on a clear day you can see for miles and there is no denying the special feeling you get here. Even on a weekend, when it’s overrun by flocks of sponsored fund raisers and three peak challengers (who aspire to climb Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis in 24 hours), there is still a strange, desolate magic to this place.  You are literally on top of the country and it tends to put into stark perspective the small stuff you spend most days sweating.

Indeed, this summit inspired Wainwright to write a soliloquy questioning why men climb mountains. He concludes that “they find something in these wild places that can be found nowhere else. It may be solace for some, satisfaction for others: the joy of exercising muscles that modern ways of living have cramped, perhaps; or a balm for jangled nerves in the solitude and silence of the peaks; or escape from the clamour and tumult of everyday existence. It may have something to do with man’s subconscious search for beauty, growing keener as so much in the world grows uglier. It may be a need to re-adjust his sights, to get out of his narrow groove and climb above it to see wider horizons and truer perspectives.” It’s a passage that speaks volumes to me and one I muse on as I sit at the summit platform and reach into my rucksack for a snack.

Great Gable from Scafell Pike
Great Gable from Scafell Pike summit

Twenty minutes later, as I’m readying to set off for Sca Fell, the cloud comes down, cutting visibility to almost nothing and causing the temperature to plummet. All of a sudden what seemed rugged and inspiring seems hostile and intimidating. Scafell Pike’s summit is notoriously disorientating in mist. Comprised entirely of boulders, there are no paths so you have to follow the cairns and it is all too easy to pick the wrong line. Mountain Rescue are frequently called to the aid of walkers who have descended to the wrong valley; a humbling reminder of human frailty in the face of elemental forces.

This counsels caution and I consider abandoning my plan to ascend the sibling peak. However, given the speed at which the cloud is racing, it seems likely this will clear. I resolve to head on for Mickledore. If the mist sets in, I can return to Wasdale from there. Fortunately, it starts to lift and the outline of Sca Fell slowly emerges through the gloom. Bit by bit its imposing bulk is unveiled until only the very summit is lost in mist.

Broad Stand from Scafell Pike
Broad Stand from Scafell Pike

I hear footsteps and I’m joined by a fellow explorer heading for the ridge. He’s in running gear and beaming with pride at having achieved the summit of the Pike in an hour (it took me two). He’s planning to go back down, change into his walking gear and trek up Moses Trod to have a look at Napes Needle, a slender, sheer-sided rock pinnacle on Great Gable. Suddenly my plan to conquer the twin peaks doesn’t seem quite so ambitious. His utter passion for being out here is infectious and we chat warmly about our plans. He’s a taxi driver from Lancaster but spends all his free time on the fells. His ambition is to become an outdoor instructor so he can do this full time.

Shock and Awe

We part ways on the ridge of Mickledore. By now the sky is completely free of cloud and Sca Fell looms before me in sunlit glory, but a direct ascent in barred by the towering rock face of Broad Stand. Broad Stand is a haven for climbers but beyond the capabilities of walkers lacking highly specialised scrambling skills and a casual indifference to continued living.

The only alternative is to descend about 800ft and circumnavigate the cliff by scrambling up one of two gullies. On the Wasdale side is famous Lord’s Rake, but recent rock falls have made that a dangerous proposition. I opt instead for the Eskdale side and the Foxes Tarn outlet gully.

This gully can be dry at certain times of the year but today a sparkling stream cascades down its rocky steps. Where Scafell Pike draws crowds, here feels wonderfully secluded and remote. I’m not entirely alone however, ahead of me, half-way up the scramble is a solitary figure – he looks back, spies me and waves – the brotherhood of track-less-beaten.

Foxes Tarn Gully
Foxes Tarn Gully

I put hand to rock and begin to climb. Some of the stones are large but they are firm and relatively easy to clamber up. The trick is to stay where it’s dry, the limestone being precariously slippery when wet. This means keeping right until about a third of the way up where the route crosses the stream and ascends on the left. Above, the sky is bright blue and the large natural amphitheatre that surrounds the top looks spectacularly inviting. When I finally stand in its midst, it doesn’t disappoint. It is wild and strikingly beautiful. By contrast, Foxes Tarn itself is no more than a puddle and you wonder where all the water running down the gully is coming from. From here, a steep climb up a sketchy path through a bank of scree brings me to the saddle below Symonds Knott with its curious cross of stones. Bearing left, I reach Sca Fell’s summit.

Burnmoor Tarn from Sca Fell summit
Burnmoor Tarn from Sca Fell summit

If Scafell Pike invokes feelings of awe and reverence for its sheer size and desolate majesty, those emotions intensify amid the wild grandeur of its neighbour. The panoramic vistas are staggering. The blue expanses of Wastwater and Burnmoor Tarn lie side by side as you look down on the high Screes that separate them (those same slopes that look so steep from the water’s edge).

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

In his book, The Art of Travel, Alain De Botton devotes a chapter to the sublime. In its rightful sense sublime does not mean merely beautiful. To qualify as sublime, landscapes must overwhelm, intimidate, shock and awe, strike fear as well as wonder. Ultimately they must make you acutely aware of your own weakness and insignificance in the face of something so vast, noble and infinitely more powerful.

These wild terrains were forged 450 million years ago by colossal volcanic explosions that surely must exceed any vision of Armageddon the human imagination can conjure. They will remain long after our flesh and bone is gone. Up here, larger than life characters like Skelton, Ritson and Rigg are mere pinpricks in the fabric of time; indeed the whole of human history is a tiny blip on an unfathomably large axis. It makes you feel very, very small and it’s the most uplifting thing imaginable.

De Botton suggests that because we spend our lives imagining we’re powerful and feeling frustrated when we can’t make little things happen, it is hugely liberating to be reminded we’re a tiny, insignificant part of something so overwhelmingly vast. I think he’s right. In the inscrutable context of the universe, what is truly remarkable is that you’re here at all, so being right here, right now, experiencing all this is, to some, proof of the divine; to the rest of us it’s the most astonishing accident.

Eventually I retrace my steps to the saddle, turn left then bear right to follow a path that skirts the top of the cliffs above Wasdale Head before descending the bed of a dried up stream back to Brackenclose.

Mosedale from Scafell Summit
Mosedale from Scafell Summit

In the car park, I chat with a woman who’s just ascended the Pike via Mickledore. She’s an outdoor instructor and it’s her day off so naturally she’s spent it climbing a mountain. She says her services don’t include challenges like the Three Peaks as she objects to these on ethical grounds. I’m curious but I don’t push. Somehow that seems a topic for another day – too mired in the politics of human hubbub. Right now we’re basking in something grander. We swap cursory accounts of our different routes and marvel at how striking the views were. Our conversation is punctuated by long pauses and much looking back and up. There’s nothing awkward in our silences however – we’re sharing something not easily expressed in words: the beatific, humble elation that comes from standing on the shoulders of giants.

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


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The Stuff of Legend

Helvellyn via Grisedale Tarn from Thirlmere

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

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

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

Grisedale Tarn
Grisedale Tarn

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

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

Grisedale Tarn
Grisedale Tarn

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

Angel Cassie Teddy
Angel Cassie Teddy on Dollywagon Pike

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

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

Dollywagon Pike
Looking west from Dollywagon Pike

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

Striding Edge
Stick men on Striding Edge

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

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

Red Tarn
Red Tarn and Striding Edge

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

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

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

 

Click here for detailed directions at WalkLakes.co.uk


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