Tag Archives: walking

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 arĂȘte 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 arĂȘte 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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