Series 2 – 37: 1994 – To Begin With

Mardale Waters 2

It was a momentous year in the making. Having broken the long duck in 1993, United would go onto to win Back-to-Back Premierships, the second by being top of the table for all but 28 hours of the season. My lowest moment – learning from a former contemporary of mine in Altrincham that, had his very respected and well-established firm known I was unsettled, vacancy or no vacancy they’d have made room to get me – was followed by the possibility of escape, when my firm agreed to let me out of my contract if they could get an acceptable replacement for me.
Most of all, it was the year I was going to realise my goal. I was going to accomplish something that had taken strength, skill and commitment. Only not at first.
I had no chance of getting to the Lakes before my April holiday, and when I did it turned into something of a bitty week. Having failed to plan for the closing stages in anything like a professional manner, the remaining fells did not lend themselves to easy collection. There had been insufficient Sunday afternoon walks down the years, and too many isolated tops.
At least I had good weather over the first couple of days. Bakestall, more properly a summit than a fell, behind Skiddaw, brought me fully into the Dash Valley, along a narrow road of four gates, a long walk towards Skiddaw House, climbing beside Whitewater Dash, the falls, and then a stiff uphill pull on grass, struggling with the first serious walk of the year.
I remember thinking of the less obnoxious of my two Senior Partners and the complete horror he would have at the thought of this being a holiday activity: a thought I could easily understand just at that moment and a memory I would draw on three years later when my first novel came to life unexpectedly on a felltop not that far away. And I remember a descent on steepening grass as hang-gliders floated silently in the air, not much above me.
The next day took me into Borrowdale, to Rosthwaite Fell, another isolated top that provided me with a none-too-exciting experience: so little so that my memory of the day is mainly of getting back to the car in early afternoon and sitting there for over an hour. The cricket commentary was on from Antigua: Brian Lara was batting, was approaching the highest ever score in Test Cricket, against England, and I sat there willing him on, at every delivery afraid of the disappointment.
But Lara made it, and I roared him on, as all true cricket fans will do: unlike football, a great feat is no less great for being accomplished by an opponent, or against your own team.
The sun persisted into the next day, when I introduced myself to a kind of walk with which I would become familiar that year. Some lone fells were not isolated, but lay in the heart of magnificent territory, left behind by earlier, shorter walks. So I was back on the road to Hayeswater again, not for the Round I’d devised for myself, but for a direct ascent onto Rest Dodd again, and a return – headache free – down Brock Crags.
The point of the walk was, however, to tick off The Nab: a narrow, steep-sided green fell enclosed within my personal valley, Martindale. But, by being so, it lay wholly within the Martindale Deer Forest, and to ascend it was trespass.
Like all such walkers who put their personal needs before their conscience, I came in from the rear: a descent from the tedious Rest Dodd onto the Nab’s long back, picking my way past punitive peat-bogs to its lowly summit and retiring to safety without being seen by keeper or deer. The irony of it was that the deer are unaware of boundaries, and the only ones I saw all day were on the far side of Brock Crag, in public territory.
Since that time, The Nab has become publicly available, but still the only accepted route is from the back, and Rest Dodd. Unlike the trespass, the peat hags have not obliged anyone by disappearing.
Three days, three fells, but once I transferred to Ambleside, the weather turned foul on me. Walking was impossible and there was no Big Walk conclusion, but I couldn’t confine myself to the car for two days, so I chose Seat Sandal, the eastern sentinel of Dunmail Raise, whose summit might be invisible, but which had a wall reaching almost to the cairn.
It was a nostalgic expedition. Twenty years earlier, the family had ascended to the top of Grisedale Pass, ascending by the shorter, easier Tongue Gill, returning by Great Tongue. I came down full of beans, feeling fully capable of turning round and doing it all again, not a feeling shared. I took the same approach today.
The narrow confines of the gill were shrouded by the cloud above. Much of the path was reconstructed by the National Trust, a necessity that I hate. The wild is the wild and that’s why we go there, not to walk garden paths. But the necessity was demonstrated when I reached the limit of the constructed path, which immediately became a trench, almost a foot deep.
From the top of the Pass I climbed roughly beside a prominent wall, following it in thick, grey cloud until it levelled off. I correctly judged where to cross it, and walk some twenty yards to the large cairn, marking the highest point of nothing: I might as well have been indoors. But I had refused to let the elements get the best of me, and I could always return when day was brighter.
So it was back to my car, following in old footsteps down Great Tongue. Trodden Ground is acceptable when the difference is twenty years.
But, despite the meagre returns of my holiday, I was eager to improve. Once the football season was over, once I had had my first FA Cup Final – all those years of Cup Final Day on TV and now I was actually there – once United had demolished Chelsea and it wasn’t until we were 3-0 up and had won the Cup that I remembered we were the Champions, and we’d won the Double as well, then Saturdays were free for great weather and more tops.
Great Walks abounded. I ascended Skiddaw for a second time by the Tourist Route, and once more crossed Lonscale Pike as a descent, but these were to accommodate a first visit to Skiddaw Little Man between. Wainwright praised the magnificent sweeping view from its summit, and the approach from behind that saved it for the last second, and I dutifully followed instructions, and it was everything he promised it to be. I am usually a restless walker, eager to hurry on to the next top, rarely staying above ten minutes even when eating. But on Little Man, I sat a half hour, just turning my head to sweep backwards and forwards across that panorama. Amazing.
Though Wasdale belongs to Great Gable, its true patron fell is Kirk Fell, a bulky, grassy, solid chunk of mountain that saves its photogenic crags for the hidden Ennerdale flank. It can be walked as an energetic start to the Mosedale Horseshoe (and it featured prominently in an ITV play of many years ago, entitled ‘The Mosedale Horseshoe Club’) but that would entail the steep, straight, unremitting direct ascent that I wasn’t going to tackle under any circumstances.
Instead, I set myself towards Gable, and the steep prow of Gavel Neese, as if aiming for the Napes Ridges and the Hellgate screes. At the right moment, I veered off towards Beck Head, and the rocky scramble onto Kirk Fell’s broad top, with little tendrils of cloud threatening to spoil the day at the wrong moment.
Having crossed the fell, I descended circumspectly to Black Sail Pass and the steady return to Wasdale Head.
And, to make it three Sundays out of three, a week later I was back, back to Mardale, to Haweswater and the heights at its head. Again, a long walk was the key to sweeping up an overlooked summit, but though Mardale Ill Bell was the summit going in the book, the highlight of the day was the ascent of High Street by its most exhilarating route, via the Long Stile/Rough Crag ridge.
Not a step of that climb was without delight, in the ground underfoot, in the changing views of Haweswater from full length to a panorama, as the ridge curved across ninety degrees, in the intimate views of Blea Water and Small Water in their respective bays, collectively known as Mardale Waters. A magnificent ascent.
My plan was to traverse Mardale Ill Bell to Nan Bield Pass and descend, but I was still too fresh, and the day not too far advanced, so I threw away my plans and ascended Harter Fell again, crossing its summit to the third cairn for the most spectacular view possible of the lake. And I descended that path to Gatescarth Pass, the one that I’d seen from the slopes of Branstree only five years earlier, but which had seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Less than twenty years before I had climbed this way on trackless grass: descending, the path was in bad repair. It would not be long before the National Trust would have to become involved again.
I’d begun.
The picture is of Mardale Waters, with Small Water in the foreground, and Blea Water below High Street and the Rough Crag ridge backing it. You should go there: the day will live in your memories for ever.


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