Tarns are bodies of water, but a tarn is more than just the water. It is its surroundings, its background, where it is and how it is shaped. This is what makes a tarn delightful to the sight, or not.
Far back in the Sixties, when we still lived in Brigham Street, my parents had a set of four Heaton Cooper prints of paintings of various tarns, identically framed by my Dad and hung one above another on the wall. Fifty years later, more or less, I have these prints still.
The four tarns were, in no particular order, Sprinkling Tarn, Stickle Tarn, Goatswater and Blackbeck Tarn.
Two of these were obvious choices: we had already visited Stickle Tarn and Goatswater, and would return almost regularly. And Sprinkling Tarn was also obvious, given how attractive the Tarn is, with its curving shores, its little peninsula and the massive backdrop of Great End: it’s so wonderfully photogenic, even for those who have never been to it. I myself would not do so for many years yet.
But Blackbeck Tarn? I don’t think I even knew where it was for several years, not until the day we climbed Wainwright’s favourite fell, Haystacks, for it’s the lower of the two tarns on the sprawling back of that terrier fell. Even then, we didn’t see it: we were limited in time for exploring, and only made it far enough from the cairn to see the more famous Innominate Tarn, where Wainwright’s ashes were to be sprinkled.
It’s not as if the print was in any way attractive. It was painted from no great height above the tarn, close by its shores, looking across a flat and indefinable spread of narrow water to an undistinguished background. Why ever did they choose that? By the time I wanted to ask, they had gone.
It was years before I saw Blackbeck Tarn for myself, and then only from a distance. It is visible from behind and above from the Brandreth plateau, rising from Honister Pass towards Great Gable, crossing the back of the Buttermere and Ennerdale valleys.
From up there, it’s a detail, a blue pool in a wide vista, whose greatest significance is the way in which it looks as if it pours directly into Crummock Water.
Finally, in the early Nineties, closing in on the decreasing number of outstanding Wainwrights, I spent a splendid sunny Buttermere Tuesday on the direct ascent of Fleetwith Pike from Gatesgarth. A sweaty ascent in conditions of great beauty, especially the view directly behind of Buttermere and Crummock Water. To complete the day, I planned a wide circuit of Warnscale, descending Fleetwith’s back, via Black Star (the summit of Honister Crag), all the way down to the Old Drum House, which i’d previously approached from Honister itself.
From there, I circuited back towards the old quarries, all of it easy walking high under the sun, winding in and out of derelict buildings, and making my way towards the back of Haystacks.
It was a fascinating walk already, and even more so once I got onto the crags and the path began to slide into and out of the rocks, until it descended to cross the outfow of an enclosed hollow in the rocks, and there was Blackbeck Tarn.
I fell in love with it instantly: the narrowing of the Tarn between the encroaching rock walls, the wider, rounder, gentler section beyond it, swelling into this hidden bay, with reedy shores at the far end, the whole surrounded by green lawns. It looked like a magical hidden place in the world and I, who have never camped out in the fells nor had any serious inclination to do so, immediately felt the urge to wake up in this little kingdom, in the glowing rays of dawn, alone and silent.
It was late in the afternoon, I still had Haystacks’ by no means smooth summit to negotiate, and then the descent to and by Scarth Gap Pass. So my time in that spot was limited but the image is still in my mind.
So I walked on, past Innominate Tarn, scrambled over the summit, Dad’s last, and down, carrying with me the lovely scene. The print is still nondescript, but now I’ve seen Blackbeck Tarn for myself, I can discern the curve of the far shore, understand where the painter stood and imagine myself into that scene.
I still don’t understand why Mam and Dad bought the print, though.