Stickle Tarn as I’ve never seen it – from the top of Jack’s Rake
I’ve visited Stickle Tarn more often than most, both in the early days when it was a perennial target for family walks (even after we had graduated to summits), and in later times when the route to the Tarn was the opening of a day spent on the felltops.
The Tarn is one of the best places to visit in the Lakes, even if the objective is to go no further than it’s tiny weir, perched above the early trickles of Stickle Ghyll, that used to be Mill Gill when I was first getting used to walking boots. And it’s obvious why, for Stickle Tarn sits beneath the immense cliff face of Pavey Ark, an awesome sight.
Like Goatswater, the prospect of a close-up of Pavey Ark’s face was the attraction from my Dad and his brother, that and a destination that would keep we children attracted. And the extra effort required to ascend to Stickle Tarn made it doubly tempting.
Even in later years, I’ve made numerous visits to Stickle Tarn as part of my own, fell-bound wanderings. A foiled attempt on Pavey Ark that petered out in snow far closer to the summit than I had known at the time, a summer sunshine return that started my first round of the Langdale Pikes, an ascent of Bright Beck (the Tarn’s feeder) en route to High Raise and Sergeant’s Man.
So many ascents of that long, steep, stony channel alongside Mill Gill, its cascades open to the air, white and airy, a magnet for the eyes from the road below. Of course, the famous waterfalls of the Langdale Pikes are those of Dungeon Ghyll, which lies a little further east.
But Dungeon Ghyll zig-zags in deep ravines in the fellside, its cascades all but invisible from outside. Not a recommended route for a young family, and besides, Dad preferred the openness of Mill Gill, its cheerful honesty and lack of pretention.
Our first ascent was made so long ago, we climbed via the left bank, the west bank. I remember nothing of it, except that we went that way, but it was only a very short time before it became too eroded for safety. By our next visit, a broiling hot day in 1971, when we were still all getting used to being without Dad, the National Trust had fenced it off, firmly, and we took to the east bank, then and forever.
And the land healed and the scars slowly went away, and now there is nothing to show that anyone ever went up that side of the Gill.
We didn’t reach the tarn that day, didn’t feel the coolness of the breeze fan across our face, the scent of the water fill our nostrils, the prodgious sight of Pavey Ark loom, because I was sick. It was my O-level year, and the results were due on the Thursday of the week we were away. I’d left a stamped postcard at the school, my subjects written in a column: someone would fill in my grades and post it for me to get on Saturday evening when we arrived home.
The adults decided to head up to Stickle Tarn. We hadn’t even got halfway up the first section when I started to feel ill: headachey, nauseous, wobbly. They waited half an hour for me, my mother dampening my forehead with a hankie soaked in the gill, trying to keep me in the shade, but it didn’t go away and we had to turn back, frustrated, and no walking the final day either, as I still felt bad.
I put it down to the tension, of the results and the not-knowing, though my pragmatic mother dismissed that. I was the only one of us drinking cold water from the tap: that was why I was ill. And it so neatly made the ruination of the end of their holiday my fault, which was to become something of a recurring theme in later years.
As for the results, I passed all eight, with grades at evey level from 1 to 6.
I wouldn’t bring this up if not for what happened two years later. This was my A-level year, the gateway to University. The results came out on the Wednesday and I passed all four – with three As!. The next week, we were in the Lakes where, by sheer coincidence, on the Thursday – the day the O-level results came out, the adults decided to head up to Stickle Tarn. We hadn’t even got halfway up the first section when I started to feel ill: headachey, nauseous, wobbly.
It was the same as two years ago, and no issues about drinking potentially contaminated water this time. These were the only two times I ever fell ill when out walking in the Lakes, forcing us to return.
I still love Stickle Tarn as an end in itself, even though the east bank route has down the years grown ragged and rough, and much of it rebuilt as National Trust spiral crazy paving. It’s a toil, though, a panting, breath-shortening steep scramble, leaping out of the valley in stony conditions, in a narrowing channel whose upper section becomes closed off.
The last time I came this way, down at the foot of the fell I happened to see a narrow path ascending to the right. Eager to see where it lead, I discovered a fresh, new route, paralleling the main drag, about ten to fifteen feet higher throughout: unspoiled, and empty. I followed it with lightened heart and delight, free of stone and procession.
However, though I was bound for the eastern end of Stickle Tarn, and could cut off a large corner, I still picked my way down to join the hordes on that final, stony channel. I could not miss that glorious sight of Pavey Ark, ascending above the skyline, flexing its muscles into the blue horizon, until I stood on that tiny weir at the shore of the Tarn, a sight that can never go stale if a man or woman still has life in them.