Grisedale Pike and Force Crag Mine from Braithwaite
The fate of osprey chicks born on Bassenthwaite Lake this summer, the last days of Force Crag mine, an innovative ecological solution to deal with its legacy and what the legend of Long Meg can teach us all feature in this account of a cracking fell walk up Grisedale Pike.
Walking Around With Your Head in the Clouds
I was descending Skiddaw when I first really noticed Grisedale Pike. A gloomy ascent, dogged with fog, was compounded by a viewfinder at the top taunting me with hints of what lay beyond the cloud. Resigned, I picked my way back along the summit ridge, squinting to discern each cairn through the murk, humming Husker Du’s “Walking Around With Your Head in the Clouds Makes No Sense At All” and cursing the Met Office to a solitary herdwick, my only companion.
Then, a sudden flash of blue sky and the cloud broke, revealing a riveting vista over Derwent Water; cool and inviting where it lapped Keswick; dark and Arthurian on its southern shore, where the clouds still rolled above.
My journey down over the subsidiary peak of Little Man and the heartlessly named, Lesser Man was bathed in glorious sunshine. Across the lake, the slopes of Catbells were lush and green; but to their right, a narrow U shaped valley, ringed with fells, caught my attention. At its forefront, a mountain rose steeply from the valley floor to a needle sharp peak, high above the village of Braithwaite. A path ran unbroken from base to summit, appearing almost impossibly steep at the pinnacle.
A quick study of the OS map revealed the valley to be Coledale and the mountain, Grisedale Pike. I vowed then to return and climb it. Today I’m making good that resolution.
As I approach Braithwaite on the A66, Grisedale Pike soars and I wonder why it has never stood out to me like this before. I drive through the village to the informal roadside parking area opposite Hope Memorial Park. From here, steps lead up above the road, through a thinly wooded area and out on to the open hill side.
The stiff initial gradient means the views reward early. To the east, Skiddaw looks magnificent as the October sun lights its plunging western slopes. To its right, shimmers Derwent Water; wisps of cloud drifting low over its silver waters. To the north, Bassenthwaite Lake glistens under a clear blue patch of sky.
It was Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s fancy that Sir Bedivere returned Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake in Cumbrian waters; and a stay at Mirehouse, overlooking Bassenthwaite, inspired his Morte d’Arthur.
Bassenthwaite – The Return of a Raptor
In summer, visitors to Dodd Wood, on the lake’s shore, may be lucky enough to spot an osprey diving to snatch a trout or perch. These fish-eating raptors, with a five foot wingspan, were once common in Scotland and probably in England too. But during the 18th and 19th centuries, persecution saw numbers dwindle. The last nesting pair were destroyed in 1916, leaving ospreys extinct as a breeding species in Britain. Happily they returned in 1954, when a visiting pair nested in Strathspey. An intensive wardening programme was established to safeguard breeding and Scottish numbers have gradually increased to around 160 pairs.
During the 1990’s, the Forestry Commission and Lake District National Park Authority, in partnership with the RSPB, worked hard to encourage visiting ospreys to stay at Bassenthwaite, even constructing a purpose-built nesting platform. In 2001, their efforts paid off and the first eggs were laid. Since then, over 150 chicks have hatched here. A dedicated team keeps watch during the summer months to document developments and deter egg thieves. They have installed a webcam over the nest. They ring the chicks and fit transmitters so they can track the birds through their autumn migrations and their overwintering in Africa.
Three chicks hatched this year, but tragically two were taken by Magpies while only a day or two old. Magpies had been observed stealing fish tails and leftovers from the nest while the parents are away fishing, but they had never been known to take a chick. Naturally fears were high that the third chick would meet the same fate. Against the odds, she survived and was ringed and named Bega in June. She made her first fledgling flight in July.
Bega migrated to Senegal in September, but has since moved on to Guinea and sadly the team has lost contact with her transmitter. It’s possible the transmitter is damaged or detached, but first migrations are fraught with danger; only 20-30% of young ospreys make it to full adulthood and go on to breed themselves. There will be some anxious days in April at the Whinlatter Visitors’ Centre as the team wait to see if Bega returns to her place of birth. You can follow developments at http://www.ospreywatch.co.uk
Peaks and Pies
The initial slopes give way to a grassy depression. Beyond, a broad bank climbs seriously to a thin ridge below the sharp rise of the summit. When I spied Grisedale Pike from Skiddaw, its flanks were green. Now, autumn has turned the dying bracken brown and the sun adds a red hue to the steeper reaches, in splendid contrast to the bright blue sky. The green line of the path dissects the ruddy expanse like a Richard Long artwork. The peak towers slate-grey above. Nature dons its most flamboyant finery for its dying days, like an ageing diva, railing extravagantly against the dimming of the light.
The unexpected clemency of the weather means walkers pause here to stuff fleeces into rucksacks and steel themselves for the tough pull ahead. On attaining the ridge, layers are rapidly retrieved as the breeze picks up and begins to bite. It’s been a long pull up but the steepest and most exposed section still lies ahead. Ominously, across Coledale, Causey Pike is veiled in cloud, and it’s only a matter of time before it reaches here. Happily the sky is still clear as I haul myself up the final rock steps to the summit. The ground drops away precipitously on both sides and the wind again ups its game.
I find shelter on the north side just below the summit and hunker down to enjoy the view while I can. It stretches all the way to the Solway Firth. Whinlatter forest is a rich canvas below; broad swards of evergreen jut against a dappled palette of deciduous decay. In my bag I have a Toppings pork and chilli pie, so right now there is no finer place to be. Oh I know lard is not necessarily the fell walkers friend – energy bars and bananas are a far more effective quick-burn fuel – but the unrelenting pursuit of health and efficiency is a soulless exercise and perching in the lee of a mountain peak, with the northernmost part of England stretched out before you, demands a pie!
To my left, the ridge drops to Hobcarton Crag then veers round and climbs again to Hopegill Head. As I study the line to to pick out the next section of my route, it disappears, lost as the mist rolls in.
Just then, I hear voices. I get up and hoist my rucksack on to my back as a Geordie couple appear on the summit. “I could see the Solway Firth five minutes ago!” the woman exclaims. “I know it was lovely till you arrived”, I joke, “did you have to bring this with you?” They laugh and tell me this always happens to them up here. They are planning to do the Coledale Horseshoe taking in Hopegill Head then following the high level route back to Braithwaite via Eel Crag, Sale and Causey Pike. They are worried they might get all the way round and not see anything, but the cloud is already thinning so I think their concerns are premature. Within minutes, it is almost clear over Hobcarton Crag. We make our way down together as the last low lying wisps blow across the path like smoke, then lose each other as we variously stop to take pictures en route to Hopegill Head. By the time we all reach the summit, the cloud has lifted considerably and we can see the north shore of Crummock Water. A mountain rescue helicopter flies past and we hope it’s a training exercise.
We part company and I make my way over the grassy top of Sand Hill and down the steep scree to Coledale Hawse. Eel Crag lies ahead but the horseshoe will have to wait for another day. Today, there’s something I want to see in the valley below.
Heavy Metal Plunder – Force Crag Mine
From the hawse, the path zig zags down toward the head of Coledale. As I near the bottom, the sheer dark face of Force Crag comes into view. Force Crag was mined from 1860, initially for lead, then later for zinc and barytes. Barytes are used in oil drilling, car production and medical imaging, but also in the manufacture of munitions. During the Second World War, this tiny corner of the Lake District was a hive of activity, with trucks carrying ore from adits high on the fell side down a precarious track known as the Burma Road.
Force Crag outlived all other mines in Lakeland but conditions were harsh and, with large quantities of water flowing through, it was a constant battle to keep the mountain from caving in on it. One of those battling to keep the levels open through their final days was Alen McFadean. In his blog post, The Black Abyss, he gives a fascinating account of “sloshing about in knee-deep water” to “shore up rotten timber work then, spending Saturday night curled up in the back of a freezing Land-Rover and waking the next morning with a thick head and in an impenetrable mountain mist.” Harsh working conditions by anyone’s standard, but to Alen it was a labour of love. You can find his full account (and his recollection of this same walk) at: https://becausetheyrethere.com/2010/01/06/the-black-abyss-grisedale-pike-and-force-crag-mine
Ultimately, it was a battle the mountain won. In 1990, a collapse occurred in level zero, from which there could be no recovery. Today, nature is slowly reclaiming the ground; the corrugated iron of the buildings, rusting to resemble the autumn bracken of the slopes that surround.
In its death throes, the mine dealt a wounding blow, however. The water that has built up in the disused levels leaches metals from the exposed rock, contaminating Coledale Beck and pouring up to a tonne of zinc, cadmium and lead into Bassenthwaite Lake each year. A study for the Environment Agency identified the environmental impact as one of the worst in the UK. Metals like zinc are toxic to fish. If fish populations decline, the ospreys will go too.
It’s a problem common to disused mines. Elsewhere large, costly water treatment works have been built to fight the problem with chemicals. At Force Crag however, an innovative ecological solution, devised by The Coal Board in partnership with Newcastle University, is underway. The water is diverted into two vertical flow ponds, created from recycled parts of the old mill workings. These ponds are lined with a geomembrane and filled with a compost treatment mix, which filters out the metals. From there, the water flows through reed beds that trap more of the solids, before it finally discharges into Coledale Beck. The scheme is performing even better than expected, removing between 94% and 98% of the contaminants. The fish and the ospreys can rest easy.
Why Are We Still Hanging Witches?
Coledale Beck babbles beneath the old mine track, which I follow, all the way back through the valley, to the parking area. And it gets me thinking…
Drive east to Little Salkeld, just beyond Penrith, and you come to one of Britain’s largest stone circles, Long Meg and Her Daughters. Legend has it they were a coven of witches, turned to stone by the thirteenth century wizard, Michael Scot, for profaning the Sabbath. It is said that no-one can count the stones twice and come up with the same number. If anyone succeeds, the spell will be broken and bad luck will rain down upon them. If Long Meg herself is fractured, she will shed real blood.
It’s all delicious hokum of course – the circle dates from the late Neolithic / early Bronze Age era while the name itself is thought to derive from a 17th century witch, Meg of Meldon. As Simon Sharma points out in The History of Britain, history often reveals more about the time it was written than the time it describes and the same is true of folklore. The fact that people in the 17th or 18th centuries invented supernatural stories about the origin of the stones reflects the widespread fear of witchcraft in Britain at the time. In those days, if a stream was poisoned and the fish died, or the crops failed, or villagers fell ill for reasons no-one could readily explain, people were likely to blame black magic and look for a scapegoat to punish. Hundreds of women were hung for no crime other than being poor or different; barbarism born of ignorance and superstition.
Today, we like to think we live in more rational times. Yet when the failings of our political and economic systems leave large numbers homeless, or without secure jobs, or with falling wages, or reliant on food banks, or simply feeling the pinch, we are quick to lay the blame at the door of “benefit scroungers” and immigrants – the poor and the different. Populist politicians ignore the evidence of experts and fight elections by fanning these fears and exploiting such prejudice.
That we can devise brilliant ecological schemes to strip pollutants from our natural water courses and undo the damage of our industrial past, or encourage an endangered species back from the brink of extinction, bears witness to a new era of enlightenment. In certain respects however, we’re not quite out of the Dark Ages.