Obscure Corners: The Head of Swindale


swindale 2

Swindale is a lovely, lonely valley on the eastern side of Lakeland, the kind of place for which the word ‘unspoiled’ is usually coined.
That’s not entirely the case: sixty years ago, when Wainwright was working on the Far Eastern Fells, plans were well in hand to construct a dam and flood the valley to provide another reservoir for the benefit of Manchester. Though there was a change of heart, enough things had been done in preparation for sending Swindale after Mardale to leave render ‘unspoiled’ as forever inappropriate.
Yet sixty years or so have gone since the threat to drown Swindale receded, and the valley has been all but untouched since: an oasis of quiet beauty, a window upon an older world, a living memory.
And this effect has been enhanced in recent years by the decision to ban all cars from the valley, except for those of its few residents. Parking used to be restricted to the grassy banks around Truss Gap, in the middle of the valley, but even this is now forbidden. Those who want to walk in Swindale must needs rely on their feet from the valley mouth onwards. Needless to say, this has cut down on the already few visitors to begin with.
For Swindale’s is a rural beauty, of low ridges and silence. It shares but two Wainwrights, only one of which truly belongs to the valley, this being Selside Pike, the reasons for both the visits I paid to Swindale.
My first visit was a geographic disaster. I completely misread my maps and Wainwright and, parking at Truss Gap, took to the western flank of the dale, gaining a wide, low ridge on an afternoon of cold wind and clarity, a very long way uphill to my target. On my second visit, I was extremely cheeky: I ignored the Truss Gap sign about there being no parking after that point, drove the extremely narrow road to its end at Swindale Head, and sought permission to leave my car there until about 3.00pm (I planned an early end to the afternoon as I was going to interrupt my week away by driving back to Manchester to see United play in the Champions League and, as Swindale was decently handy for Shap and the M6, as well as Selside Pike being among the few remaining Wainwrights on my list, it was convenient all ways round). The farmer (?) was happy for me to stay as long as I was gone by 5.00pm, which I assured him was not a concern. Walkers in the twenty-First Century have miles to go before reaching this isolated farmstead.
A more adventurous walker can make a longer day of it by ascending to the ridge from Truss Gap, as if planning to creep up on the Naddle Horseshoe from behind. Neither the Outlying Fells nor the bog standard Far Eastern Fells cover the country between the Naddle valley and Selside Pike – a blank behind the name Swindale Common – but though pathless, it looked to be innocuous from afar.
But if the walk is also to experience a slice of history, there is no alternative to Swindale Head and ascending the Mardale Corpse Road. This leaves virtually from the farmyard, ascending alongside a wall before breaking off on a gently graded straight angle across the fellside that provides little excuse for stopping and looking back into Swindale, but do that often anyway.
There are no difficulties in the walk, as is to be expected. The Corpse Road has not been used for its original purpose in over 275 years, since the consecration of a burial ground in Mardale relieved the farmers of that dale from the need to transport their dead across the fells for burial at Shap, but the way was made for men carrying a coffin shoulder high, and was made with (relative) ease and comfort in mind.
From the ridge, there are no difficult gradients to Selside Pike’s summit, which can be reached with an overall ease. The best of the views are those to the west, over Mardale and the lower reaches of Haweswater. Selside Pike is neither high enough nor prominently sited to see beyond the western flank of Mardale, but Swindale lies behind, and on a clear day, the Pennines fill the eastern horizon, across the Eden Valley.
The obvious ridge route from here is to the undistinguished Branstree, a mile and a half of grass and a broadening ridge, but the return from here, without retracing trodden ground, is very roundabout: down Selside Brow to Gatescarth Pass and the long, empty walk through Mosedale. Unless ultimate loneliness, and a brew in the Mosedale bothy is utterly compelling, a better option is to turn to the afore-mentioned Outlying Fells.
This will provide directions for a circuitous return to Swindale by keeping to the high ground above Hobgrumble Gill to the subsidiary top of Howes, an indefinite shoulder of Branstree, and descending to Nabs Moor before working down to the indistinct path emerging from Mosedale, where the beck begins to break into cascades on a surprisingly steep fall back into Swindale.
This section offers the best views of the day, though the gill is not seen to any real advantage from this side of the cascades.
Eventually, the path descends into the valley head, which is strangely lower than the moraines that guard it. Presumably, Swindale had its own body of water in some past time.
The path ambles round the valley back to Swindale Head, where – at 3.00pm as I predicted – I reclaimed my car and headed for Manchester and a 4-2 victory. Those who want to partake of this remote and quiet place will have a long walk along the road to return to their transport, but they will walk in quiet pleasure at their experience of the Lakes as it once was and never will be again.

2 thoughts on “Obscure Corners: The Head of Swindale

  1. I enjoyed that. Swindale is one of my favourite places. A couple of years ago I hiked from Wet Sleddale over the hills to Mardale, camped at the head of Haweswater, then next day walked the corpse road all the way to the church at Shap. Swindale was the highlight of the walk because of its timelessness.
    Cheers, Alen

    1. You’re welcome. I read your own Swindale piece, which inspired me to add this blog entry.
      I’ve written and (self) published a trilogy of comic SF novels involving such things as time travel and parallel worlds, and whilst I don’t yet have even the bare bones of a plot, I intend at some point to start a sequel trilogy, one volume of which will rest heavily on the notion of using the time machine to go back to the old, unspoiled Lakes and fells: to Leathes Water and Armboth Water, to undrowned Mardale and unforested Ennerdale.The thought of Swindale is part of the inspiration for that.
      Thanks, Martin

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