Series 2 – 39: 1994 – The Final Run-in

Esk Pike

The glorious summer gave way to my September holiday, six precious days towards completing a course that had come down to only ten fells remaining. I drove up on a grey Sunday, ensconced myself in Keswick with greater ease than I’d had in June, and set out immediately for Clough Head, the lowly yet prominent, bluff northern terminus of the Helvellyn range.
There was little need to ‘walk myself in’ for this week, but it was still an awkward ascent, initial steepness and a need to get through a ring of crags succeeded by an interminable convex slope, chasing an ever-retreating skyline under clouds grey enough to threaten rain. Which duly came on the descent northwards, via the rocky White Pike and down to the Coach Road, a long trek back to St John’s in the Vale and the car. Thus I closed the Eastern Fells.
I was impatient to return to Keswick: United were live on Sky that afternoon, and whilst I was against this dumbing down that BSkyB were starting to spread, it was hypocritically frustrating to find that culture had not been sufficiently debased in Keswick to find a pub open at 4.00pm on a Saturday.
Nor did the weather co-operate the following day, keeping me off the fells and threatening to derail my planned ascent of Blencathra. This was the infamous day of travelling via Sharp Edge: sun at first and bright skies gradually being filled by grey cloud: the wind taut on the Edge in a darkening world, and then that moment when I found myself having to shuffle off a shelf to drop – yes, drop – onto a knife-edge arête, before taking an unsupported step on this narrow edge of rock, drops on both sides, before clinging to the far side and dragging myself onto and around another shelf.
If it were to be done, it had to be done quickly, and decisively, and I got across unscathed, though my heart thumped wildly for five minutes. Only, having got across, and not having the remotest prospect of going back (not twice. Not the same day), I was quickly stopped as I reached the cloud-line at the base of a scramble that, at that time, I couldn’t face. I’d lost my nerve.
Out of sheer luck, there was a professional Guide on that same route that day – the only Guide I have ever encountered on the fells – who caught up with me, recognised my funk, took me under his wing and got me up the rough section, leaving me to recover on an easy, closed-in rise to the summit.
I crossed to Blencathra’s other peak, Foule Crag, passing the massive white quartz cross that has lain so many decades in the saddle between, and then, having ascended the Northern Fells‘ most sublime summit, I closed that book with its most ridiculous: Mungrisedale Common, an unsightly, shapeless pudding of a ‘fell’, a sheep pasture that, even so, has a thin line in the grass leading to its apology for a summit, a parasite on Blencathra’s back. But a Wainwright, nonetheless.
Two books completed in two walks, and the same again a day later as I headed out to shy Swindale, the furthest east one can go and still be in Lakeland.
I’d visited it one day previously, thinking to collect its sole fell, Selside Pike. I’d been charmed at its sylvan beauty and otherworldliness, but I’d gotten my geography horribly wrong and climbed onto the ridge at the wrong place, very far from the Pike. Now this was the one Far Eastern Fell left to me, and I had chosen it for today for a specific purpose.
There’s no public parking in Swindale past Truss Gap, two miles before the valley head, but I drove to the road end and, with politeness and hope, asked permission to park in the farmer’s yard until about 3.00pm. Provided I wasn’t still there after tea, he was willing to give it, so I climbed out of Swindale via the old Mardale Corpse Road, giving me easy access to Selside Pike, And, courtesy of the Outlying Fells, I made a roundabout return over two foothills, to the falls tumbling out of Mosedale and through the moraines in the valley floor.
By 3.00pm, as I’d promised, I was out of the farmer’s way and heading across the Lowther Valley to the M6 and Manchester. You see, I had booked my week off before United knew their draw in the first ever Champions League group stage, and there was a home game against FC Gothenburg on the Wednesday night: had to go back for that, hadn’t I? (We won it, 4-2)
I had always intended to belt straight back to the Lakes on Thursday but the teeming rain made haste unnecessary and I headed for Ambleside in my own time – which did not preclude me from leaving my ‘time’ behind. I had taken off my watch downstairs after returning from the match the previous night, and had left it on the couch. It was there still.
It didn’t matter much if I was killing time in my car and various villages, but the week ended in splendid sun and September clarity and I had another Big Walk, another to be added to that splendid pantheon of that Glorious Summer, and I had nothing by which I could tell the passage of time whilst I was on the fells.
Or did I? I did, though: my Test Match Special Cap Radio. This led to the unusual, and unrepeatable experience of a grand long day’s walking timed to a day’s broadcast of Radio 4.
For the fourth time that week,I was en route to closing up a book, this time the Southern Fells: the most used, most cracked and battered of the family’s set. Oh yes, they may have been mine now, but they were still the family Wainwrights, and they always would be.
For the last time that year I had a walk that took me over a captured peak to gain missing summits, but then I hadn’t seen a thing from Bowfell first time round. Through Oxendale and climbing to the flatlands below Pike O’Blisco, the vast moorlands rising with ever-growing anticipation to the spiny top of Crinkle Crags, with the justly famous Bad Step and the succession of summits, and the views immense all round.
The long descent to Three Tarns, with Bowfell Links in clear view, and that river of stones down which me and those two guys from Trafford Ramblers had descended out of the unseeing cloud. Somehow I got talking to this bubbly blonde in blue cycle shorts who was staying in Ambleside, and me so concentrating on my beloved tops I didn’t recognise the chat-up possibilities until I was halfway to Bowfell’s top.
Down to Ore Gap again, and this time across it and ascending to Esk Pike, the last fell, and on again as far as Esk Hause once more, only a few weeks since the day I’d climbed the Pike. This time I was arriving and departing by two more of the different routes that make this the most dangerous place in all Lakeland to be caught in cloud.
I started the long tramp down to Angle Tarn, and the truly painful additional 300′ climb to the top of Rossett Gill beyond, listening to a fascinating magazine programme item about a professional biographer who would write ordinary folks’ biographies, telling their life-stories to their heirs.
And this too was the day I set out to trace the old pony route down Rossett Gill, quietly finding all the landmarks, all the remains of long-disused paths that, a little over a decade later, would have vanished completely. I traced the pony route in solitude down to Mickleden, convincing myself of my own credentials as an experienced walker, before sinking my right boot into soft sedge to the ankle and half-marching, half-squelching down Mickleden and going home.
The vagaries of the weather left me with four fells to go: two final books, two walks, and plenty of time to fit them in in this final year of achievement.
I got away in mid-October, a cold, grey Sunday, climbing out of Stonethwaite to Greenup Edge Pass, insisting on doing things ‘right’ by reaching the top of the Pass and not taking shortcuts that would enable me to escape its gruesome wetness. From there it was an easy, steady climb to the top of Ullscarf, geographically Lakeland’s most ‘central’ fell, and after that a long descent over fairly indeterminate ground, hunting out the half-hidden top of Great Crag, before a steep zigzag back to Stonethwaite.
I had fallen short. There was one more walk required, one that would not take place in 1994 after all, that would not give me a neat, decimal, quarter century from first to last. Last, instead, would have to be first, in a new year for which no other plans existed or could be made, for, much as I’d half-dreamed of being able to return to favourite places, old haunts long unseen, I’d steadfastly refused to plan beyond that final day.
The picture is of Esk Pike, Bowfell and the Crinkles, seen from outside the circuit, from Great End. This year saw me undertaking four of my ten favourite walks in the space of little more than two months. I’d relive this year again, any time, work or no work.

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