Series 2 – 35: Barf


It’s only a little fell, geographically not even a separate entity, a mere extension of Lord’s Seat, but Barf is recognised, indeed demanding of recognition, as a fell in its own right, and the direct ascent is worth relishing.
Things change. A year and a week before, I’d been up for an unexpected weekend with my lady love: a fortnight before we’d been on very friendly terms. Today, it was her 41st birthday, we weren’t on speaking terms and I was on my own, with her on my mind.
Another thing had changed: for the first time in twenty-six years, United were the Champions again. There might be so many things wrong in my life, but in that respect at least, something new had started: it was only six years to my first flight out of the country, to Barcelona, and another kind of mountain top.
But all that lay ahead, and besides was irrelevant. It was hot: not the best conditions for the steepness ahead, all of it under a broiling sun.
I’ve already described Barf, with its five-stage ascent and the whitewashed figure of the Bishop, in the first series. I’d favoured The North Western Fells so much that this rough little beast and one other were all that remained to me. The direct ascent, stiff and unnerving as it sounded, had always attracted me, and it was inevitable that I would want to go up by the most stringent route.
You could call it a compulsion. I was always eager to test myself against the harder routes, rather than settle for those that were safe, but bland. I’d been a walker for ten years now, always travelling within my limitations, but I was beginning to think that maybe I’d been too conservative in my thinking as to limitations.
So Barf direct it would be: park at the Swan, follow the little tarmaced lane into the woods, almost miss the Clerk, hidden in the tall grass, then the immediate steepness of the first stage. All that was ahead was steepness, enough to make a sliding fall a serious thing if I failed to make sure of my step. Little splashes of white reminded me of the volunteers who would lug a bucket of whitewash up here to keep the Bishop’s raiments fresh and pure: it was useful proof that others had made it in harder conditions than I was facing. What must it have been like before the scree was scraped away?
The Bishop came as an achievement, a breathing space and a surprise. Thirty years had gone by since Wainwright had prepared  The North Western Fells and cheekily commented on the pillar’s naked hindquarters, but the volunteers of 1993 had been round the back, and the Bishop gleamed white from all angles.
Next was the scree gully, also spoken of in warning terms by the Blessed, for its loose, treacherous slate. I trod it with caution, favouring the right hand side, but nothing pulled out on my hands when I grasped it and the worst moment was clambering over a raised bar to reach the higher level.
Of course, I was long-since committed. If anything impassable happened to me, I was firmly touring the headwaters of Excrement Creek because, if I could get back down the gully, I I wasn’t going back down the fist stage: not on my own two feet.
Ahead, the ground was easier. I was onto the open fellside, with scrub and bracken underfoot, the easiest gradient to date, making quick progress through a series of mini-dells, eyes fixed on Slape Crag, looming ahead: clearly impassable.
I’d memorised the route so the book could be stuck in my rucksack and I might have both hands free. Therefore I knew that I had to climb to the base of Slape Crag and escape left, along a rock groove like a miniature Jack’s Rake, not that this filled me with comfort. No matter how elastic my limitations might be, there was no way I could stretch them to Jack’s Rake – not before I’d climed all the Wainwrights.
The route was obvious from below: a green slash across the Crag. So I worked my way up to the very base of the Crag, angled left, and set my foot upon it. With yet more trepidation. Because, after about five steps, the next one went over, and round, a rib in the rock, into territory I couldn’t see: into the unknown.
Try as I might, I couldn’t make that step. I couldn’t see where my foot was going to land, so I couldn’t see if there really was anything for it to light on, and what was most terrifying was if I got there and found I couldn’t go any further, and that I really really couldn’t get back over that rib.
I backed off, eyeing the descent glumly, and did what you should always do at times like this (remember the descent off Brim Fell?): read Wainwright.
Which told me that the groove across Slape Crag that I needed was much lower and much lefter. And considerably less unnerving.
The fourth stage took me off the direct vertical ascent. A narrow path stepped smartly away leftish, with steep slopes below for the misstep. I went about a hundred yards, wondering where this was leading to, before a short rake gave me the opportunity to scramble up onto a similar trod heading rightish and upwards, back to the true line.
And to the third summit, from which I could properly look down at last, at Bassenthwaite Lake lying at Barf’s foot, across to Skiddaw’s western flanks, south to the Vale of Keswick. It was all easy slopes, short, sweet, springy turf, and an east final stroll across the second top, to the highest point.
It was still only early afternoon, so I indulged myself with the detour round Lord’s Seat’s top, with Aiken Beck below. I came and went from a different direction to that valley, so there was not to be any memories triggered of a lost piece of writing on that occasion: I had four more years to endure before that moment occurred.
For the descent I chose the easy route, the safe route: into the Forests and tracing the right roads to lead me to the steep but simple path down alongside Beckstones Gill. The profile of the Bishop attracted my camera, but the woods were too thick to permit a shot in which it was proud and visible, so I reached the Clerk without removing my lenscap, but with an added sense of accomplishment that would lead me on to other paths.
The photo is, naturally, of Barf. You can see all of the route up to and including Slape Crag. Would you do that?

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