This book comes with many antecedents. Like many others, the author has walked the fells of the Lake District and come back with the desire to share his experiences with others, to repay in some small part the wealth garnered from the fells by paying testament to them. One very famous example of this need hardly be named, since he has made the Lakes almost his own property.
One distinction this book may be have, rightly or wrongly, is that other writers have seemed to be professional walkers, whose life revolves around the fells. The author, who resides in Manchester, is not lucky enough to come within that category. For years he has been a strict two weeks away each year, leavened recently by the acquisition of a car that made weekend walking both practical and easy.
In fact, the author is a perfect example of practice making not so much perfect as customary, and of propinquity being the best source for love to grow. At the age of 10, he was laced into his first pair of walking boots and dragged, almost literally kicking and screaming, to the top of Hard Knott Pass, overland from Eskdale. This early reluctance, based on the proposition that wherever we were going it was too far, too steep, too hot, too cold and besides, these boots hurt, eventually gave way to enthusiasm when it was realised that there are certain things that can only be seen by walking out there and finding them.
Almost thirty years later, the author joined the ranks of those who have completed the Wainwrights.
Most walkers who start out along the well-beaten paths of Lakeland discover Wainwright’s beautiful series of Guides, and many decide at some point or other that they want to climb all of them. They are not alone. Tourists of all sizes and shapes flood the Lakes each year, and many of them notice the presence of fells of all sizes and shapes around. Having noticed, a substantial proportion of them conceive the notion of climbing at least one. The majority lack the strength and stamina even for the idea to cross their minds, but that still leaves the vast numbers to be found stretched out on Helvellyn, Skiddaw and Scafell Pike every summer Saturday and Sunday.
The author finally reached his first summit in 1969, three years after that first walk, and achieved another eight summits before retiring from family holidays six years later. He resumed his walking career eight years later, with a shamefacedly strained ascent of Helm Crag, and has never looked back since then.
Family tradition was inimical to forward planning. Many a time the author would enquire “Where shall we go tomorrow?” only to be told that he hadn’t finished with today yet. Parents across the land will approve of this response, though as the author was usually asking long after tea-time, it’s not as if he was being unreasonable. So his own holidays were characterised by a carefully calculated programme of intent, calculated to start with a Sunday afternoon stroll up something low and easy (to get the legs working again) and build up to a Big Walk – such as Gable from Honister, the Fairfield Horseshoe or Skiddaw from the Long Side ridge – for the last day. In between, it was a point of honour not to use the same volume of the Illustrated Guides more than once.
The upshot of this was that the author entered 1994 with 28 tops to go, and the recognition that based upon his own capabilities, it would take at least 18 expeditions to collect all these summits.
Which provides the theme to his book. In these modern times, when the rigour of the market and the dictates of private enterprise are the hallmark of our forward thinking and progressive society, there is a crying need for proper preparation. The need to position ourselves in relation to international markets demands a business plan that will enable diligent walkers to wrap up the Wainwrights with the minimum fuss and bother.
The author has written a book that will enable the thrusting young fellwalker to complete within the shortest possible time what usually ends up being a mildly obsessive programme. By following the walks described, a new walker can round off the 214 Wainwrights with the minimum amount of time and trodden ground.
It is anticipated that there will be objections. The author foresees complaints and horrified denunciations from purists and traditionalists, who will castigate this attitude as the antithesis of what true fellwalking should be. There will be appeals to sentimental images, suggesting that walking is about beauty, delight and glory, about the experience of the day, the serendipity of the walk.
But though fellwalking is the perfect example of it being better to travel than to arrive, does the existence of a destination deprive the journey of its pleasure? Rather let us think of this, in the words of the current Home Secretary, as merely “walking with a purpose”.
6. THE HIGHEST WALK OF ALL
Lingmell, Scafell Pike and Great End
This is the big one, the road to the highest mountain in England.
The author has long held the opinion that the finest sight in the Lakes, and therefore in all of England, is of Scafell Pike and Ill Crag soaring above Upper Eskdale. He also believes the southern approach, from Eskdale via Cam Spout, ascending by the Cowcove zigzags and descending by Throstlegarth, to be the purest approach to the Pike.
But he also believes the approach from Borrowdale, ascending by Sty Head and returning by Esk Hause and Grains Gill, is the finest approach, and therefore one of the very best walks of them all.
This time make ultra certain you are at Seathwaite early. A full day will be needed for this walk, and fine conditions are helpful too. The ascent of Scafell Pike is another walk that should be compulsory on days of preternatural clearness.
Having said how he regrets not being able to conduct his audience up Grains Gill, it will be thought strange that the author, having the very opportunity, proposes to save it for descent. Walkers with a healthy appetite will come back and ascend that route and may be pleased to argue the point, but the author holds to the opinion that Sty Head and the Corridor Route is far better in ascent than descent.
Instead of the highway to Stockley Bridge and the NT zigzags, turn through the square arch in the farmyard, cross the fields to the bridge and turn left along the beck. Surprisingly, the path is intermittent at first, over wet ground; make the most of grass underfoot whilst you’ve got it, there’ll be precious little of it further on.
The path rises slowly, and quicker when it reaches the lip of the ravine of Taylorgill Force, climbing to a gate on top of a rock. Beyond lies the ravine, a desolate place of littered rock, through which the cascade tumbles.
The way ahead scrambles across rock. A tree projects from the rock in front and the route, not exactly obvious, passes directly under the branch: larger scale walkers bearing larger scale rucksacks may wish to remove the latter first. On the far side, the path emerges, curving around the ravine to join the wall above the falls. The valley narrows and the gradient eases as Seathwaite Fell looms above.
When the path disappears on rock, the main drag is nearby across the beck, offering easy walking on gravel, a summers day stroll to the top of the Pass. There’s nothing to stop you plunging ahead, for the path will reappear, and the main drag comes back over a footbridge below the outflow of Styhead Tarn. Great End dominates the broad hause ahead.
The accepted summit of the Pass is at a walkers crossroads by the stretcher box, though the highest point is another ten yards further on, on the edge of the long downfall to Wasdale Head. This is a good point for an early sandwich, the effort involved to date having been enough to work up a decent appetite. Whilst the author was eating, England removed two South African wickets at Trent Bridge.
Start for Esk Hause but, after the first bluff, turn right to the lip of the downfall. The Corridor Route starts downhill, on scree, to cross the bottom of Skew Gill.
The next hour, spent traversing the fellside, is a passage into eternity: most walkers could spend several hours following this craggy trail, with its sequences of rock and scree, twists and turns. Throughout, Great Gable lies over the right shoulder, a seemingly vertical wall. Lingmell’s shattered face lies ahead, with the startling sickle curve of Piers Gill hung below it.
The Corridor Route ends above Lingmell col, on the Scafell Pike slope. On the approach across the fellside, it looks as if the path turns up towards Broad Crag col, but the wide grey streak is a line of scree and the path itself, suddenly narrower, bears right. To arrive at the lowest point of the col, look below on the right for a path in a dell, coming round from the head of Piers Gill, to arrive by a broken wall. Aim for the path visible fifty yards up the slope and follow this quickly uphill onto the summit.
Like Pike O’Blisco, Lingmell once bore an, elegant, noble column. A tolerable facsimile of this still adorned the summit in 1969, when the author and his family reached their second top, but this too has gone, replaced by a substantial but simple cone. Could not this also be reconstructed in Wainwright’s name?
Scafell Pike, an ocean of stone, lies across the col. The path is unmistakable, a riot of colour. The grey is the stone, the rest are the millions, climbing. It may not look as thickly crowded or processional as Striding Edge, but this is because the final slopes of the Pike are considerably broader. The way is stony, and tiring, but of all the final approaches this demands the least effort. A cairn seen on the skyline is not the summit, but beyond it is the flat top, leading to the final platform on which stands the most massive of cairns, constructed on a substantial shelter. This is the highest point in England.
If you have been foolish enough to climb up here on a sunny Saturday in summer, you will find this place littered with bodies. Whilst humanity en masse is somehow acceptable on Helvellyn or Skiddaw where it is only to be expected, transistor radios and kite-flying here is an offence. The people who have flocked up here have flocked up here because it is higher than anywhere else, and those who are standing on the wall shelter are standing there because that makes them even higher than the other people there, and should you wish, for some amazingly selfish reason of your own to visit the cairn, you will find them less than willing to make way; after all, that would put you higher than them.
After the ritual step up to the cairn (and the equally ritual oath never to come here again on a weekend), abandon the top to the hordes and cross the two hundred peaceful yards to isolation at the south peak. From here, superb close-up views may be had of Scafell Crag, Mickledore and Upper Eskdale. If the wind is in the right direction, everyone 200 yards away will be inaudible, and you can pretend to be alone.
Here is Scafell Pike, the highest fell in England. As may be expected, the views are superb, broad and wide-ranging. From this top, Scotland, Wales, and even Ireland may be glimpsed, should atmospheric conditions be favourable. Most amusing of all is Bowfell: from nowhere else can you look down on this mountain, which half turns and shrugs its shoulders, embarrassed at being exposed this way.
Nowhere after this will be as high. This is the middle of the book and the middle of our walk. There are still many miles to go before you may return to this lofted peak, this rough, stone-clad mountain. And you can be sure all those bloody trippers won’t be here then!
On leaving, pass the summit on its right and head for the path to the rim of the top above Broad Crag col. A steep, badly eroded track, requiring careful placing of feet, descends sharply to the narrow hause, where Little Narrowcove, dropping sharply away on the right, is a frightening scene of devastation.
The path to Esk Hause crosses both Broad Crag and Ill Crag, dropping into and climbing out of successive deep and stony cols without visiting the summit of either of the two subsidiary Pikes. Ill Crag, now fixed in place of Broad Crag as the second highest of the group, is easy to reach; simply walk along the grass backed shoulder to a perched rocky summit looking out over Eskdale. Broad Crag is different meat. The path across its shoulder is hard enough, a scratch across a minefield of tumbled boulders. Compared to Broad Crag, the Pike is a smooth, polished top. Broad Crag’s cairn is little more than fifty feet higher than the path, but to reach it, walkers have to be able to balance on needles, and move confidently across glass.
Assuming you return with two intact legs (broken arms don’t count), descend from the shoulder of Ill Crag into Calf Cove col, where the path swings right towards Esk Hause. First, leave the highway for a track across the col and up a band of light coloured scree onto the top of Great End. There are two summit cairns; the rightmost and nearer is the highest point, so aim for the leftmost and further for its views over Borrowdale, and follow the lip of the cliffs – carefully – back. Return to the main path and follow it down to Esk Hause and the by-now familiar cairn.
This is our last visit. Take the short cut half left, the Gables peering over the near horizon, to gain the big path towards Sty Head. Leave this at Grains Gill where a stream begins in an earthy ravine alongside the path, before turning right into a deeper ravine. A path descends the gill, which is narrow, and long. After the miles travelled, anyone is entitled to feel sore-footed, but the descent will be made with satisfaction. Weariness too, but a good weariness.
The path shifts across the beck when the valley opens out, and descends easily to Stockley Bridge. From here, it’s a flat half-mile to Seathwaite, where there is a farm shop, selling good, wholesome, natural products, like Mars Bars and Diet Coke (the author is open to sponsorship for his next book). From there, it’s a flat whatever to wherever the car was left.
And if you want to feel proud, go ahead.