Cumbria Scenes – 21.5.12


The link from recent entries to here is subtle and personal.
After the successful introduction of River Mite to the Ratty, talk turned, in due course, to further extension of the fleet, and to the name that might be used now all three rivers of the Ravenglass Estuary had been taken. It was suggested that, in keeping with the tradition thus far, a fourth locomotive might be called the River Bleng.
I’d never heard of this river before, but its relevance appeared to be that it ran into the River Irt not too far above the Estuary, thus fitting it for consideration. But where the Esk ran the length of noble Eskdale, the Mite from shy, beautiful Miterdale and the Irt from England’s deepest Lake, Wastwater, the Bleng drained the unheard of Blengdale.
This valley lies between Wasdale, to the south and Ennerdale to the north, ringed by high fells that turn their back on it. It’s wild, unvisited, difficult to access, empty and, dare I say it? unattractive, except to those who count upon silence and solitude, who will hardly find themselves bothered by conversation – or prospect of assistance in the event of an accident – on a day out here.
To a minor extent, Blengdale fascinated me, though never to the point of an expedition to it, or to the fells that surround it.
In the end, as I closed in on the final summits I needed to complete the Wainwrights, those fells became inevitable. An expedition out of Wasdale, along the valley of Nether Beck, took me a long, arcing way round onto the ridge bearing westwards from Pillar. In wisps of cloud, I reached Haycock, an overlooked fell whose high dome is built on the shoulders of other fells and has no roots in the valleys.
Haycock lies at the head of Blengdale, and so I got to see this valley, as in the picture above. My immediate reaction, which you may share, was that, when this barren, featureless, useless valley was sitting around doing nothing, what idiot decided to set the Forestry Commission loose on Ennerdale?
The rest of my walk took me further along the declining ridge to the summit of the remote Caw Fell, before returning over Haycock and descending onto a marshy plateau between the latter and Seatallan, whose grassy ridge forms the southern flank of Blengdale, and which had originally been part of the expedition. However, from Pots of Ashness, I descended to Nether Beck and followed the valley back to my car, reserving Seatallan to another, more considered day.
Ironically, the Forestry Commission now have plans for a Blengdale Forest, though it appears this will occupy the lower valley, the upper valley being probably unsuited to growing anything useful. I’ve still been no nearer Blengdale, though I’ll concede that, from Caw Fell,Haycock displays a magnificently structured architecture above the valley.
But it is oh so unworthy of being a Ratty train, and the notion has never been resurrected.

Cumbria Scenes – 20.5.12

Stanley Ghyll Force

Lakeland is blessed with not only Lakes, Fells and Tarns, but also with its share of Waterfalls.
The deepest of them, Scale Force, lies in a ravine, tucked around a muddy corner on Red Pike. The most popular, Aira Force, is a favourite scene for wedding day photographs, close to the shores of Ullswater’s middle reach. The shyest, Spout Force by Aiken Beck, was saved from permanent obscurity behind screens of Forestry Commission spruce by Wainwright’s protests in the North Western Fells. But my favourite amongst these features is one of the easiest to reach but most overlooked in all the Lakes, Stanley Ghyll Force, in Middle Eskdale.
They started calling it call it Dalegarth Force for a time, but it’s Stanley Ghyll – or, less romantically, Stanley Gill – again, and it’s signposted in that name.
Expeditions on the Ratty, to Dalegarth Station in Eskdale, were almost a mandatory feature of a family holiday. Once at Dalegarth, the number of destinations we could feasibly reach on foot, before the optimum return train, were limited. Boot, and the rushing waters of the Whillan Beck, were handy in one direction, but if we turned back upon ourselves, a quarter mile down the road a lane led left, towards Dalegarth Hall.
Follow this – in good boots, not sandals, open-toe shoes, or even trainers – to a signposted path bearing left, a track across the fields to the stream debouching from the Gill. The path heads for a miniature ravine that rapidly encloses you.
Having realised what I meant about the boots, you will find yourself plunged into a dank, damp, overgrown world, where vegetation and wet rock on all sides shut out whatever sun there may be ahead, and an uneven path borders the rushing Gill. A narrow wooden bridge conveys you to the opposite bank, and some twenty yards or so further, a second bridge brings you back.
The sound of the Force rises, but it is still invisible in these shaded confines. A third bridge looms ahead: from it the Force can be glimpsed. It can be crossed in safety, but to progress, the path, narrower than ever, slithers up a steep slope above the Gill,and down its far side into a tiny viewing area from where the Force, in its glory, can be seen at leisure, as in the photo above.
To go this far requires steadiness and proper footwear: walking boots only.
Return by the same route. Nowadays the return may be varied by a side-path that scrambles up above the ravine – offering at one point what is described as a magnificent view into it – and crossing the Gill by a wooden footbridge above the Force. We didn’t have this alternative in my day, but it sounds like one we would have taken with great interest – provided there was time before the train back to Ravenglass.

Cumbria Scenes – 19.5.12

“Laal Ratty”

If you’re not immediately familiar with Cumbrian dialect, you might not quite understand today’s title. “Laal” simply means Little, and no-one seems to know where “Ratty” came from, but you don’t need to be a narrowgauge railway enthusiast to recognise it as the nickname of the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway, a tourist phenomenon known worldwide.
Every day of the tourist season, the Ratty runs over a dozen times a day along the seven mile 15” wheelbase track between Ravenglass on the Cumbrian cost and Dalegarth, in Middle Eskdale, in beautiful country and within reach of the highest fells of all.
Indeed Scafell is the premier sight to be seen ahead on the journey alongside the Mite Estuary, under the flanks of Muncaster Fell and into the rich green surroundings of Eskdale.
The railway began as an industrial proposition, transporting iron ore from Eskdale to the mainline railway at Ravenglass, where my Great-Grandad was Stationmaster. “Owd Ratty” operated on a 30” wheelbase and carried passengers into and out of the valley,about their business.
Though the owners went bankrupt in 1897, the line kept running until 1912 before its closure. It was then re-opened, three years later, on its narrowgauge, providing a passenger service to the dalefolk, and carrying granite from the quarries at Beckfoot to the crushing plants at Murthwaite.
In the end, this venture was killed by the closure of the quarries in 1953 and, seven years later, the owners put the line up for sale, expecting its assets to be bought for scrap. Instead, a hastily formed Preservation Society (of which my Dad was an early, though not founding member) led by the remarkable Douglas Ferreira, who would be General Manager until retirement in 1994, saved the Ratty and began its transformation into the success it has become over the last half century.
This picture shows the Ratty’s third train, the River Mite, built by subscription raised by the Preservation Society and brought into service in 1967, after much anticipation. Until then, the service had depended upon the two steam trains acquired with the line: River Esk, built in 1927 and River Irt, built substantially in its present form in 1923 but originating as Muriel, dating back to 1984, the year my Grandad was born.
A third train, to honour the third river of the Ravenglass Estuary, was a must, but there was also the question of livery: Irt and Esk were both bright green and the announcement that Mite would be painted magenta was, in its way, progressive. So much so that, in the Seventies, the decision was taken to give each train its own livery, since when Esk has turned out in shiny black.
As the years have passed, the line has grown in popularity, and yet more trains have been commissioned, diesel as well as steam (the timetables helpfully identify which services are run by diesel trains, for the benefit of steam enthusiasts). The greater part of that success is due to the late Douglas Ferreira, a man who combined vision and practicality to the advantage not just of Ratty, but of the Heritage Railway movement across the country.
His memorial is the newest of Ratty’s trains, named in his honour.
Trips on the Ratty were almost mandatory on family holidays when I was young, but its years since I last treated myself to the pleasure of that slow ride towards the fells, in the wake of a chuffing, hooting narrowgauge engine. A return is long overdue, and given that it’s apparently possible to leave Manchester and have two hours in Eskdale to drink in family memories, a summer expedition ought to be taken.
In an open carriage, of course.


Wainwright Panoramas

I’ve added a new link to the Blogroll and I really must urge you to follow it.

The link leads to a page on Ann Bowker’s website, Mad About Mountains. It consists of 360 degree photographic panoramas from every single one of Wainwright’s 214 summits, arranged by volume of the Pictorial Guides.

Treat yourself to every possible view, some of them in multiple versions, and explore the rest of the website. It’s literally breathtaking, and I can’t think of an enterprise of which I’m more jealous!

Cumbria Scenes – 18.5.12

Black Combe

Black Combe is one of the most visible fells in all Cumbria, and one of the best known, but its summit does not count towards the collection of the Wainwrights, and it is far from the centre of things: as far as it is possible to get without falling into the Irish Sea.
Black Combe rears its head in the far south west, the end of Lakeland, the end of all the high ground stretching beyond Birker Moor, bounded by the sea to the west and the wide-openness of the Duddon Estuary to the south. Travellers from the south, from Manchester, know it from that first moment on the M6 when, approaching Lancaster, the line of the hills rises into sight, stretched out along the forward horizon, beyond Morecambe Bay. Black Combe lies at the furthest end.
I’ve seen it more times than I could begin to count, from my earliest visits to the Lakes. Not only is it there, ancient and unchanged, on every journey, but for the coastbound motorist unwilling to trust his or her suspension to the fell roads, every visit takes them down to the sea through the Whicham Valley, then north along the foot of the fell, between mountain and sea.
It’s the parent town of Millom, once industrious through its Ironworks, which were closed one Friday in August 1968. By coincidence, my family visited the town that early evening, on the last day of a self-catering holiday, seeking fish’n’chips for our tea: we were unaware of the closure, but the town was deserted: dead.
Black Combe falls thirty feet short of 2,000′ in height, but it is the highest point south of Birker Moor and, on a clear day, it commands the largest all-round view of any feel in Cumbria. Northwest, across a hinterland of rounded, grassy hills, offering lonely pathless walking, lies the heights of the Scafell Range and the noble mountains around it. To the east, the Coniston Range.
Westwards lies an unequalled expanse of coastline, from Barrow in Furness and Walney Island in the south, to the Ravenglass Estuary in the north. The Isle of Man is visible most days. Photos have been taken that show, clearly, both of the Cathedrals in Liverpool, and Snowdon itself, a mere eighty miles away, is no stranger. To the southeast are the Three Peaks and the Chain of the Pennines.
There was no such luck for us on a visit many years ago, a day of haze and stuffiness. Later on, travelling without my family, my eyes were turned too much to the main fells, and the business of completing the Wainwrights. But the path, beginning in the schoolyard of a disused church in the lower Whicham Valley (whose toilets were still functional!) was an easy, uphill walk, lacking difficulties or hesitation all the way to that great grassy upland of a top. Even in my current state of unfitness, I think I could get up there. Given a day of clarity, I’d do it without hesitation.

Cumbria Scenes – 17.5.12

Devoke Water

And after being mentioned yesterday, here is Devoke Water (locally pronounced Duvvock), the largest Tarn, and yet a Tarn that lies far from the mass of land that is thought of as the Lake District: at least as defined by Wainwright.
Wainwright defined the area of his interest by drawing lines linking the outermost points of the outlying Lakes, extending the area produced unashamedly to the north and east. In terms of the numbers of summits it would have encompassed, he could well have done something similar to the southwest, as far as the highly visible Black Combe, Lakeland’s furthest flung fell seawards.
Had he done so, he would have brought Devoke Water and the circle of minor summits that ring its lonely shores within the compass of the Pictorial Guides. Not that it would have brought floods of enthusiastic visitors to it remote, cold shores.
Devoke Water is easy enough to visit. Behind the Traveller’s Rest at Ulpha in the Duddon Valley, a steeply zig-zagging road climbs onto the wide Birker Moor, offering a substantial short-cut alternative to the coast road. Birker Moor is wild and lonely, a long, desolate landcape that truly defines the edge of Lakeland. Two-thirds of the way to Middle Eskdale, a cart track heads off to the low horizon on the left: a half-mile along it lies the Boathouse on the edge of Devoke Water.
Whatever the weather, one thing is certain: it will be windy. Penetratingly so: do not ever expect to dispense with the anorak here. The Tarn is ringed by foothills, but it rests on a shelf where the high lands reach the Cumbrian coast. The far end of the Tarn spills down grass slopes to join the Esk and its estuary, and the proximity of the sea keeps the air from any risk of stagnancy.
But though it’s easy to reach, and can be visited without even the need to don decent walking boots, Devoke Water is safe from mass invasion. Though too far removed from the true fells to even be assured of a decent place in the views, Devoke is not so far out of sight of the Scafell range, the fells that dominate the head of Eskdale, even such minor but attractive fells as Green Crag and Harter Fell, beyond the expanse of Birker Moor.
Even Great Gable shows itself over the saddle of Burnmoor, drawing the eye and the attention away. And Devoke lies under the wild skies, visited by those for whom solitude is the absolute demand, and those others whose limbs will never again get them up Lord’s Rake, or even Sty Head, but who can recall past glories on the little outcrops that ring this bowl of grey water.
It is, after all, the largest of the Tarns. And proud of it.

Cumbria Scenes – 16.5.12

Crummock Water

Traditionally, there are Sixteen Lakes in the Lake District, although there is some uncertainty as to which is the sixteenth and smallest of them. I don’t mean to suggest that, in these days of GPS measurement, and an accuracy not seen for many millennia, that there is doubt as to the exact length, breadth or surface area of any of the Lakes, but rather that there are differing schools of thought as to whether that last place should be granted to Elterwater (in Langdale) or Brothers Water (in Patterdale).
The situation is further complicated by the fact that the adherents of neither tradition go on to suggest that the excluded body is not a Lake, but a Tarn. Nor is the dichotomy further illuminated by the fact that both bodies of water are plainly smaller than Devoke Water, the largest Tarn.
Having grown up on M J B Baddeley’s Thorough Guide to the English Lake District, I hold with those who favour Elterwater. None of this argument is directly germane to today’s picture, except in that Crummock Water is the sixteenth (and last) Lake that I have featured in this series: the set is complete.
The lake is seen here from Red Pike, looking northwest across and along the lake, towards the spacious Vale of Lorton, which conducts the River Cocker north, and beyond to the West Cumberland plain and, distantly, the Solway Firth. Crummock Water is hemmed in to the south by Mellbreak, which guards its shores for the whole length of the lake, and on the north by the tiny outthrust of Rannerdale Knotts and the bulk of Grasmoor behind.
What isn’t seen here is the valley’s other lake, sweet little Buttermere. And this, I think, is why Crummock Water is so little regarded in its own light. Buttermere, though little more than half Crummock’s length, occupies the valley’s head, gives its name to the valley, and surrounds itself with drama.
Not only is Crummock pushed back to the middle of the valley, little more than a quarter mile of green fields separates Buttermere’s foot from the head of Crummock. No qualifications in geography are needed to see that once the two lakes were joined and that, despite it being the larger, Crummock is the lower and the lesser.
But, nonetheless, it is a delight in itself, sparking under light, and placed to offer walks equal to those of Buttermere. And web-footed pedestrians can follow the old, marshy paths from the head of Crummock to Lakeland’s tallest waterfall, Scale Force, on Red Pike. Crummock Water isn’t only the preface to the jewel of Buttermere.

Cumbria Scenes – 15.5.12


This is a picture of Barf. (And, yes, you try Google Imaging THAT word!)
I mentioned the fell only yesterday, in relation to Lord’s Seat, and it featured last year, when I wrote about the whitewashed pillar of stone known as the Bishop.
Geographically, Barf is nothing more than a shoulder of Lord’s Seat, but its aggressive, rufty-tufty appearance, so at odds with the parent fell’s sweeping grass slopes entitles it to be treated as a summit and an ascent in itself. Especially the direct route, up the face of the fell seen here.
In my family, we had a saying: if Wainwright says it’s easy, it’s hard, and if he says it’s hard it’s bloody difficult! Well, Wainwright’s words about the direct ascent of Barf is that “Not a walk. A very stiff scramble, suitable only for people overflowing with animal strength and vigour.” Much as I loathe to differ with our Blessed Patron, but it’s not that hard. It’s one of those walks you need to do, for the challenge, for the hell of it, for the knowledge you’re up to it.
The direct route starts from the foot of the slope, near the former Swan Hotel, that used free beer to tempt volunteers to get up to the Bishop with buckets of whitewash and plaster the old boy’s front, rendering him visible across the whole of the Vale of Keswick.
The route has five stages, which grow progressively easier. Stage One is a very steep uphill scramble on scree, to the Bishop. Those not carrying whitewash are advantaged by having both hands available to stabilise themselves against the unremitting slope. There are different lines: that ascending to the right of the Bishop seemed easier to me. Just place your boots carefully, and remember it’s not a race: there are no prizes for being on top in under an our.
Stage Two commences a few paces beyond the Bishop, a twisting rock gully, less steep, loose underfoot, the rock to either side unreliable as handholds. The gully twists first one way, then another, and there is an awkward step midway, but it is less exposed than the scree below.
Stage Three is almost a relief: a steep uphill walk, through grass, gorse and rock, a gentler gradient with sections almost like hollows to cross. By now you are committed: no-one in their right mind would like to go back the way they’ve come!
This stage ends at Slape Crag, lying across the direct line, and a visible destination throughout this part of the ascent. A short traverse on rock escapes across the bottom left section of the Crag, but in ascent it is easy to be seduced into believing that the way continues to the very base of the rock, then across a grassy split. Until, that is,you are required to step over and around a rib of rock with no knowledge of what lies beyond.
No: go back and to the left hand side bottom of the Crag, where the real Stage Four crosses the rock onto a narrow, level path across the fellside, heading towards the flank of Lord’s Seat. It’s a wide deflection, but when the path crosses a narrow band of scree, a higher path, angling back and up, is visible: join it and follow up to a rounded grassy platform: Barf’s third summit and the first place to offer views back and down in perfect comfort.
The true summit is now a mere uphill walk, on picnic grass, Stage Five concluding with hands in pockets.
Of course you’ll carry on to Lord’s Seat: the walk is too short not to be extended, and then return towards the forest roads and the steep, safe scramble beside Beckstones Gill, on the fringe of the plantations, until the miserable Clerk appears, with the Bishop standing proudly above. Maybe you’ll feel like doing it all over again. But I doubt it. Another day will be a certainty, though.

Cumbria Scenes – 14.5.12

Lord’s Seat

Wainwright’s North Western Fells are conveniently divided into three sections by the two motor passes that cross the group. The dominant fell north of Whinlatter Pass is Lord’s Seat, an 1,800′ summit at the head of the Forestry Commission dominated side valley of Aiken Beck, and overlooking Bassenthwaite Lake and the Vale of Keswick.
Lord’s Seat is also parent to the irascible and exciting Barf, a one-side outcrop that is geographically just a feature of the higher fell, but which Wainwright treats as a separate fell, for good reason.
I first visited Lord’s Seat in 1984, in a pre-Easter week of late snow that proscribed a great deal of walking. I walked the Forest Road up Aiken Beck, gaining the ridge at the summit at its top, and returning along the northern ridge of the valley, over Broom Fell and Graystones.
For some reason I can no longer recall, I cannibalised this walk, and a couple of other incidents that week, into the opening of a story. Whether it was any good I can’t say: the manuscript was lost decades ago. But t never went further because, apart from one feeble and unconvincing idea, I didn’t have a story to put on the end of it.
The piece of paper may have been lost, but not the story. For some inexplicable reason, it stuck in my mind, in some mental filing cabinet from where, once or twice a year, I could take it out and recite it, always unchanged.
Jump to Easter Monday 1997. I’d been back to Lord’s Seat from Barf in the meantime, but this was a celebration day. Glorious sun, first walk of the year, escape from a hated job contract that had been a prison contract: I felt good. I was doing the Aiken Back circuit again, this time traversing Whinlatter fell on the south side of the valley, before crossing to Lord’s Seat.
On the summit, a cheerful mental voice cried “Research!”. Out came that old story, on the literal spot. But it was, for the first time, possible to change it. I didn’t take it seriously, the language became more florid, expansive, ironic. And within a few paragraphs, a ‘professional’ voice said “Tangent!”, and I immediately spun off into a long, winding, flourish of invention and circled round to a joke that had me laughing out loud.
It was at least two hours before I’d be back at the car, where pen and paper rested, so I recited this start several times over, to fix it in my head. But it didn’t stop there: by the time I was at Graystones, I had an entire 1,500 word chapter held in my head.
Descending, I was still pondering what to do. Fun as this may be, it was still a beginning without a story. However, maybe that feeble idea of ages ago might work in this fashion – detached, ironic, unserious: a comedy chase thriller. I foresaw guns (wrongly) and of course there had to be a scene overnight on the fells with one hero, one heroine and one sleeping bag.
Relieved of my boots, I wrote everything up and went on my way to Keswick, Bank Holiday overpopulated. Wandering the Market Place, I found myself idly vamping the scene in the tent. Suddenly,I realised this wasn’t vamping: it was the actual scene – uncontexted, between two strangers – writing itself.
Back to the car to commit everything to print. Off to my next destination, Kendal, via Patterdale and Kirkstone Pass, for an evening football match. Only it wouldn’t stop, which meant two desperate searches for places to pull off busy, narrow roads to scribble out more instalments (she’s had an orgasm, and now, oh God, she wants to talk!) until finally it was all done.
2,200 words out of nowhere, on a Lake District summit. Unplanned, unplotted: but 52 days and 70,000 more words later I had a complete novel written. And, magically, the tent scene, when I finally found out when, where and why it happened, dropped into place without a sword from the Keswick streets or the Patterdale passing spaces unchanged.
That’s how I wrote my first novel, Even in Peoria. For which I owe the delight of Lord’s Seat on a sunny Monday lunchtime.

Cumbria Scenes – 12.5.12


To accompany yesterday’s piece, another scene from the summit of Hallin Fell, this time looking south for a full length shot of the valley of Boardale. Keen-eyed regulars with a good memory may also recognise a link with a December 2011 instalment, on CiF Underground, featuring my valley of Martindale. That shot was taken from the same vantage point as today’s, and the two photos sit side by side.
Boardale is accessible only from beyond the Hause, where cars park for St Martin’s Church, and to gain access to the open fellside. It lies at the back of Place Fell, a noble, multi-topped fell that forms the eastern boundary of Ullswater’s middle and upper reaches.
To the east lies Beda Fell, prominent in the photo, and at the far end of the valley, the paths rise to the wide Boardale Hause, lying on the main ridge and equally accessible from Patterdale.
Boardale Hause can be used to gain access to the ridge, and as a way to higher ground and paths leading towards the High Street range. My only use of it was as a satisfying route home, after an unexpectedly extended day’s walking: I had driven upon a Sunday for a first-of-the-year walk to Beda Fell, along the ridge seen here, and had found it easy enough to give me time to continue on to revisit Angletarn Pikes – the wedge of land beyond Beda Fell. In traditional manner, rather than retrace my steps over trodden ground, I descended to Boardale Hause, for a long, solitary stroll down the peaceful valley.
There’s a superb lakeside path from Howtown back to Patterdale, which dovetails beautifully with the Ullswater steamer route: sail the lake there, walk back. Those whose aversion to hordes of other walkers is sufficiently developed as to drive them into solitude at all costs can divert themselves into Boardale, ascend the Hause and drop down into Patterdale that way.
But sweet and peaceful as Boardale may be, and suited to a gentle stroll, it’s no match for the lakeshore. And you can always walk faster than most herds of grazing pedestrians.