The Old Man and the Raven
After days wrapped in a Christmas cocoon of lethargy and overeating, the sun returns and I head up the Old Man to savour the snow-capped splendour of the Coniston fells. On Raven Tor, I find my inner pagan.
Long before a star shone over a stable in Bethlehem, December 25th was the pagan festival of Midwinter – the winter solstice or the shortest day. It celebrated the rebirth of the sun god and an end to his lingering death, manifest in the ever-declining daylight. From here on, the days would lengthen, and warmth and fertility would return.
A deity who dies and rises again. That sounds somewhat familiar.
In our secular world, Christmas still bears the trappings of a Christian festival, albeit one at sea in a mass consumer bonanza. But we’re a nation of many faiths, and most of us are agnostic. That’s not to say that Christmas doesn’t mean anything. Even us unbelievers can get behind a season of peace and goodwill, and of course, we enjoy the bank holidays. But it resonates in a profounder way, which has everything to do with its pagan roots. However much our high-tech global reach divorces us from natural cycles, we can’t escape the seasons. We are of the planet and respond to its rhythms in a primal way that daylight bulbs, and strawberries in December, and 24-hour TV can do little to dissipate. Indeed, the December telly guides are full of retrospectives, celebrating the dying year: top 50 news stories, films, records, books, celebrity gaffes, you name it. We look back, take stock, make resolutions for the year to come; let go the stresses of the preceding months; make merry and recharge. Death and rebirth: a spiritual impulse as old as man.
In our Gregorian calendar, the winter solstice falls on December 21st, but let’s not split hairs. Christmas Day, 2017, is so overcast, it feels like the shortest day. Wrapped in a warm cocoon of family, lethargy and overeating, it’s full of good cheer and comfort and a welcome retreat from the dank, dark drizzle outside.
The sun god sleeps on through Boxing Day but makes an appearance the day after, when the temperature plummets and the snow falls, causing widespread traffic chaos. Unfortunately, we’re driving home to Cumbria. The roads on our route are clear, but it seems everyone in the country has picked this day to travel. With diversions and roadworks, we spend nine hours in a nationwide traffic jam.
We arrive back on Wednesday night, unpack, light the fire and put our feet up. I’m due in work on Friday but have tomorrow free. The forecast is clear, cold and sunny. It’s time to break out of the cocoon.
I wake later than intended, stuff warm layers into a rucksack and head for Coniston. I park in the village and head up the track beside the Sun Inn, a fitting temple to the god who’s very much in evidence today. I make a mental note to pop in later and offer my devotions.
The path climbs beside the waterfalls of Church Beck, passes Miners’ Bridge, and emerges from the trees into dazzling light at the foot of the Coppermines valley. Straight ahead, beyond the spoil heaps of the slate quarry, stands Raven Tor, the spur that juts out from Brim Fell and separates the two mountain corrie tarns of Low Water and Levers Water. Low Water lies to its left, enclosed by Brim Fell and the Old Man; Levers Water to its right, enclosed by Swirl How and Wetherlam. The mountains are cloaked in snow. It’s enough to make your spirit soar.
I follow the path to Crowberry Haws and join the quarry track up the Old Man. This is the tourist route. The “back way”, by Goats Water, under the imperial cliffs of Dow Crag, boasts the greater natural splendour. By contrast, this route reveals the scars of industry. Even so, it holds interest. Only the fallen tower of the aerial tramway and its rusting cables, slumped across the path like slain iron snakes, are foreign bodies. Everywhere else, human intervention has simply shaped and rearranged what is naturally here. A neat wall of slate encloses the track on the approach to the old quarry, where stone buildings lie in tumbledown ruin. Slowly the Old Man reclaims what is his, erasing our imprint, and reasserting his natural form. His scars are healing. In a thousand years, there will be little trace of us. For now, there is heritage, softened by the elements and slowly integrating back. This was once a thriving industry that supported the village below; testimony, if you like, to the Old Man’s benevolence to those at his feet.
Beyond the quarry, a stream has turned the steps to ice. A few of the ill-equipped soldier on, seeking out the snowy edges. Others turn back. The rest of us sit down and pull Microspikes over our boots. Once attached, the going is easy. There is a satisfying crunch as the little teeth bite into the ice and hold firm.
By the time I reach Low Water, the hand of man has withdrawn and the landscape is altogether wilder. Today, it is a realm of shadows, where dark waters ripple in vivid contrast to the snowy slopes that surround. Here and there, the sun god penetrates and turns the water bronze. I walk along the shore and stare up at Raven Tor, a bright and regal perch, swathed in a thick cloak of virgin snow.
I return to the main path and climb the steep zig zags that lead to the Old Man’s summit. In places, the path is a uniform sheet of ice and I watch a spike-less man opt instead for the snowy slopes. We meet where he re-joins the stone pitching. He bemoans the fact the mountain is steeper now than five years ago. I smile, and he recounts his last walk in here in snow. He didn’t have spikes then either, so to avoid coming back down this icy section, he made a round of Brim Fell to Raven Tor, then found a way down its flanks to Low Water. I trace his route with my eyes and a vague notion hatches into a plan.
With height, the lower reaches of Levers Water appear beyond the Tor; a second dark pool to balance Low Water; two black eyes to the Raven’s nose. Beyond, the snow-kissed summit of Wetherlam rises from an umber midriff.
The sun god reigns supreme on top. Out from under the Old Man’s shoulder, the light is magical; the god himself, a white star in an expanse of azure. Below the blue, a fluffy blanket of cloud is trimmed in soft yellow. Golden rays sparkle in the crystalline snow. The summit’s beehive cairn is an altar where hooded figures bow to Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, a deity reborn in youthful vigour.
Beyond the trig point, the snow-capped ridge sweeps on over Brim Fell. A few well-wrapped wanderers are hastening this way. I’m the only one striding outward. Its soon becomes apparent why. A different elemental force takes charge on Brim Fell. A bitter wind sweeps over the Duddon valley from the Irish Sea, blowing stinging snowflakes in horizontal sheets. Despite a hood, a hat and a tightly wound woollen scarf, my face takes a lashing and I’m buffeted by gusts. It’s brutal but exhilarating. Past the summit cairn, I hurry toward the edge. Once over the parapet and on to the Raven’s outstretched wing, I’m protected, and I pause to drink in the scene.
I’m entirely alone. A few small silhouettes of people are visible on the Old Man’s summit, but here is virgin territory. Well almost. I find one set of footprints and follow them for a short way. For a brief minute, I glimpse a hooded figure on the slopes below, just above the shore of Low Water. But in a blink, he’s gone, and soon after, so are his tracks. The sun dances over the untouched snow, knee-deep now. I imagine I’m exploring uncharted ground as I descend the Raven’s wing to her shoulder, following the line of rocks and grassy tufts that just protrude, in the hope of avoiding unseen fissures. I climb the Raven’s neck to the cairn perched on her head. Across Levers Water, Black Sails ridge stands proud, a muscular right arm to the head of Wetherlam. The amber rocks of the Raven’s cairn crown her white mantel. There’s about two hours of daylight left but the light is already softening, assuming the warm glow of afternoon. I’m toasty from the exertion, but after five minutes of taking photos, I’m blowing into my gloves to warm my frozen hands.
The snow has drifted into soft deep blankets on the slopes that fall away to Low Water. I follow a tinkling stream for most of the way down, then veer left for a gentler descent. At the bottom, I leap a beck at its narrowest point and climb to the shore path, where I stood earlier. Cold, dark and tranquil, Low Water is a pool of primeval mystery, snugly enclosed in the arms of the Old Man and the Raven.
I cast a last reverential glance at these snow-clad Titans then return, past the quarry, to the world of mortals. In the Sun Inn, a fire crackles in an old, black, cast-iron range; a tiny Sol Invictus bestowing light and warmth as the sky outside darkens. I sup a welcome pint of Loweswater Gold and watch the flames dance around the logs. I’ve never thought of myself as religious, but today I’m in touch with my inner pagan.