Special Places – Burntod Gill

Ever since I broke free from the confines of the family, fellwalking for me has revolved around summits. The long years of collecting the Wainwrights came with an emphasis on always having a felltop as a destination, and on those few occasions when I have set out with no more than the exercise as the point have always seemed to me to be lacking in something, no matter how enjoyable they have been.
Sometimes, though, the best part of a walk, it’s most enjoyable experience, has had nothing to do with any of the summits reached during the course of the expedition, has indeed been far superior to the tops collected en route.
I’m almost inclined to say that about the Corridor Route, on Scafell Pike, but even the exhilaration of that walk across the flank of the massif can’t override the fact that this is Scafell Pike we’re talking about. On the other hand, Lord’s Rake, on Scafell, was my true destination the day I went by that route, having already climbed the fell,
But one day does stand out in memory for having as it’s most enjoyable time an unplanned, and very low-level spell of walking that came unpredictably soon in the day.
My wanderings in the Northern Fells had left me with just a handful of tops in that book. Blencathra would be an expedition in itself, and Mungrisedale Common an unlovely outlier tacked on, just to say that I had been there. But this left Knott and Great Calva: two contrasting fells, linked by a common ridge, but hardly what you’d choose for a walk that has to find its way back to where the car is parked in the morning. But it can be done.
The most convenient base for the walk was the Orthwaite road, verge parking beyond the gate for the farm road into the Dash valley. A path doubles back into the valley on its northern side, offering a choice of routes, high and low, depending whether or not you want to see Brockle Crag on the way. This is not as spectacular as it may be, being more a steep bank of quartz outcrops than a crag in its own right, but my preference for this path led directly to the highlight of the walk.
The lower route is supposed to be difficult to trace now, though there were no such issue the day I came this way. Whilst the Dash bears rightwards towards its spectacular falls, the path wound away left towards the foot of Burn Tod, the immense shoulder of Knott directly ahead.
It opened into an empty, impressive amphitheatre, a place where, if scaled up sufficiently and laden with CGI, it would not be difficult to imagine an army of Orcs marching to lay siege to the Hornburg.
My Wainwright route lay to the right of Burn Tod, closing off this empty bowl, scaling beside Hause Gill to reach the saddle between Knott and Great Calva, but there was an intriguing path not actually marked in the Northern Fells, heading distinctly half-left to where another gill emerged from a narrow defile lying between the bare, steep sides of Burn Tod and Great Cockup. Curiosity drew me along until I reached the bank of the gill, and could see the path snaking along the western bank, into the winding ravine through which the gill bubbled fiercely. A path not noted by Wainwright? I couldn’t resist.
There followed one of those wonderfully absorbing spells where time disappeared out of the window. The path clung to the bank, within the spray of the water at certain points, twisting and turning. There was no crossing the gill, and no escape up either side of this steep-sided course but to follow the gill, upstream or down. And there was no risk that I would turn round and start downstream, not now I had started on this route.
The way twisted and turned, back and forth, allowing me to see no more than ten to fifteen yards ahead at any one time. I was lost without knowledge of how far or short the walk in this gill would be, stepping lively and eagerly all the way. I was enclosed, but felt nothing of that faint claustrophobia from which I sometimes suffer. For the duration, time and the outside world were suspended.
Having not previously connected the dots of the geography between various chapters of the Northern Fells, I had no idea where I might emerge, so it came as a pleasant surprise when the gates of the gill opened out onto broad, wide lawns, directly below the mouth of Trusmadoor, for this was Burntod Gill, and this was a spot I had visited before, when strolling round the Uldale Fells.
I had only to change pages in the chapter on Knott to continue my walk to a summit that could not hope to live up to that exhilarating passage, but there would be no further difficulties in the day, save perhaps a certain dullness.
Across the gill, and onto a long, rising series of well-graded zig-zag sweeps, eating up height on the flank of Burn Tod, until these abruptly levelled out and disappeared underfoot when nearly at the level of the flat top. Knott lay half left, a broad, rounded dome across a sea of thick, tussocky grass, pathless and dragging at your feet as you wade onwards and upwards. There’s an unusual little parapet midway which provides easier walking if you make for it, the grass growing a little less thick and cloying, until beyond, all there is is an uphill walk onto Knott’s broad and flat summit.

Knott (furthest away)

All about is level, sheep-shorn grass. Wainwright suggests that if someone happens to be carrying stumps, bat and ball, the surface would be suited to an impromptu game of cricket, but that suggests he had little feeling for the game, as opposed to his beloved Blackburn Rovers, as any firmly struck shot would have overshot some tightly drawn boundaries and sent the ball unacceptably downhill to allow for the over to be completed.
Ironically, his other suggestion for beguiling the time, for mixed parties only, was also called to mind a few moments later, by the arrival from the north of a young couple. Given that my presence constituted something of a gooseberry, I ought to have packed up and moved on, to allow them their privacy – on a flat, open top a hundred yards wide? – but this was lunch and I wasn’t shifting until I had fed and watered.
There are plenty of ways off Knott, which is rather the hub of the Northern Fells, and it’s a fair stretch to Great Calva, and an ascent of almost 500′ to the latter summit. That kind of height loss is never recommended on a ridge route, where anything much above 350′ of additional climbing becomes more like a new ascent to me. But the ground in grassy and easy, with no undue gradients, and on a walk taking in only two fells, not too burdensome.
The col lies a long way west, requiring a roundabout approach. Knott’s thick grass is easier to tread downhill and I was able to stride out. My memory is a bit hazy on the subject of the weather, for I remember it being dry and exposed on Knott, but I have the distinct impression of thin, enveloping cloud as I reached the boggy bit, just below the summit, suggesting a change in weather on the crossing.
This would account for my lack of memories of the view from Great Calva, a neater top by far, and its unique view along the great Central Rift of Lakeland over which Wainwright enthuses.
I was, by now, some distance from the car, with no obvious or direct route back that did not require retracing my steps over trodden ground. Long and roundabout though it may be, there was a straightforward solution, which was to follow the summit ridge over the south cairn, descend below the cloud-line, and make for Skiddaw Forest below.
The direct line aimed more or less for Skiddaw House, but this would bring me down unnecessarily  far from the head of the Dash valley, so as soon as the slope permitted I angled away to my right, fixing upon a point on the Skiddaw House road just this side of Dead Beck, and picking my best way through the thick, purple, grasping heather that decorates this side of the fell. It made for slow-going, which tends to frustrate me, but the slope was steady, the Road wasn’t going anywhere, and this was the last of the serious walking of the day.

Heather and Great Calva

I’ve always maintain that the worst part of any walk is coming back down the road at the end, and any walk that demands more than a mile of tarmac is a badly-planned walk, but there is no tarmac up here in the hills, just the remarkable emptiness of Skiddaw Forest, broken only by the wind and the scrunch of your boots. The road rose to the lip of the Dash valley before descending in tight zig-zags beside Whitewater Dash, levelling out beneath Dead Crags.
In the bottom of the valley, a convenient farm road enabled me to cross to the north side of the valley and regain my route back to the car.
Not a particularly exciting day, and perhaps best thought of as a perfect example of a contrived pairing of two fells that had not fitted into other, more natural expeditions. Two more of the increasingly shorter lists of Wainwrights. But the day had been made for me by that impromptu diversion into Burntod Gill, by that near-scramble along its bank, the twisting and turning, rising and falling, the gushing waters frantic at my side throughout. Good, hard walking in conditions that others may have shied away from, but for which I was fully prepared, a test to pass with flying colours, a half hour – if it was that – of sheer delight.

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