Rambling about Passes


Hard Knott

On a wet January Friday afternoon, when work is not actually overwhelming, a man’s thoughts naturally turn to the Lake District, to the fells and mountains, and lakes and tarns of the most lovely corner of this Earth. This is even more so when memory is the only means by which I can access the vast majority of Cumbria. The increasingly grey sky of Stockport is rightly displaced by all the varied colours of a Lakeland day’s walking.
Ever since the funeral I attended last week, my late father’s been in my mind an awful lot. Nor can I think of Dad without thinking of the fells: after all, it was he who introduced me to walking in the first place, very much against my will and comfort. Nor was I the kind of child to keep such a thing as discomfort to myself, in stoic fashion.
We only got a couple of years fellwalking in together, before the pains in his shoulder led him to the Doctor, and to the long illness that ended in his death from cancer. At least I have the satisfaction of knowing that he’d seen me come round to fellwalking without complaint before he lost his own access to the high country.
Because our first walk, indeed several of our first walks, took us to the tops of various of the Lakes’ official Passes, I’ve always had an affinity with Passes as an acceptable destination for a day’s walking. Not in the same class as summits, of course, but any ascent that included a trip to the top of one of the recognised Passes had the extra cachet of following directly in my Dad’s footsteps.
Over the years, I’ve managed to ascend all the Official Passes, and in the case of those that carry roads, this hasn’t always been behind the wheel either.
Obviously, if we’re going to be technical about it, the first Pass I reached the top of was Dunmail Raise, and I have crossed it dozens upon dozens of times, as passenger and driver and, most recently on a double-decker bus (lower storey) in pitch black conditions, to the point where not only did I not see a single glitter of Thirlmere, I did not know we’d even set wheel on the Raise until we were roaring past Dunmail’s cairn.
But really Hard Knott was the first, and it was our first walk. It’s a motor pass, true, and one with which my parents had been familiar in their courting days, when my Dad’s method of transport was a motor-bike, and the actual condition and gradients of Hard Knott weren’t a concern. Neither he nor his brother, my Uncle, would ever take a car over Hard Knott, no matter how improved the surface.
It seems an odd choice, but it should also be borne in mind that it was not just I who was a fellwalking virgin, but also my sister, then aged five, albeit a very sturdy example of the five year old girl. Distance was an issue, and height.
We ascended from the Eskdale end of the Pass. It would be a few years yet, and beyond Dad’s time before I was able to exert what little influence I ever had to get my Uncle to drive through the very narrow bit of the Duddon Valley road, by Wallowborough Gorge, and enter the massively flat and empty bowl of the upper Valley. Cars would zip up and down the road, but Dad wanted grass under his boots, and so we took a line, or rather a series of lines, from the foot of the pass in Eskdale, and walked uphill, the tarmac and its manifold bends well to our left.
Dad would use a compass to take a bearing on a landmark ahead of us, a prominent rock, a bit of a bluff, and keeping to the bearing, would guide us to that mark, whereupon he would repeat the procedure. Although Hard Knott was a motor pass, the tarmac replacing the rough routes that pony (            ) had followed over the centuries, it was unusual geographically in not standing at the head of the valley, but crossing at an angle a low saddle on its southern flank. This left ample opportunity to make a gentle scramble over grassy fellside, slowly angling towards the col that completed the climb.
For the route home, we simply walked down the road. I was in a thoroughly petulant mood by then and when they proposed a detour to the Roman Fort, I refused to join the family and sat by the roadside, until I got bored sitting on my own and went in search of them. I couldn’t find them anywhere, but instead they found me, creeping up from behind and surprising me with a shout when I was stood in the middle of the bathhouse or something similar.
We did climb the Pass from the Duddon, though this time it was via the tarmac, and it wasn’t with the Pass as our destination, but rather as an approach to Hard Knott fell: the first summit we reached after Dad died. There was no alternative to the road on the east side of Hard Knott.
Despite the older generation’s reluctance, I have driven the Pass once, from east to west, as part of a very short cut from Ambleside to Wasdale: it felt very strange to enter Eskdale from that direction and have such a long drive down the valley so early in the day.
The last time I was at Hard Knott was in the relaxed circumstances of being Mr 214, and no longer seeking out Wainwrights. I parked at the foot of the Pass, in Eskdale, took a new line of approach to Harter Fell, then trudged the long, unfamiliar and, yes, rather dull ridge down to the Pass, crossing the tarmac and ascending the fell, before making my way home down the Pass.
From Hard Knott, we turned to Wrynose Pass, where the object of the walk, at least as far as I was concerned, was to see the fabled Three Shires Stone, marking the point where three counties – Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire – met. Wrynose was another of those Passes with which my Dad and Uncle were well-acquainted, from past days of the bike, and the convenience with which Hard Knott and Wrynose could be combined for a quick return from the coast.
Indeed, Dad told a wry story of returning over Wrynose one Sunday, out of the Duddon Valley, and finding a motorist pulled up short of the top, his radiator drained, and unable to move. Having assisted in getting him water, Dad leant a shoulder to push the car up to the top. Whereupon the driver took one look at the descent into Little Langdale and insisted on turning round and going back to the Duddon.
Unlike Hard Knott, there was no option for us to leave the tarmac and make our own idiosyncratic way to the top. So there we were, a family of five, all dressed up in proper walking gear, walking up the road to Wrynose. I sometimes wonder what the drivers who passed us, ascending and descending, thought of us, for of course just as there was nothing but the tarmac up, we had only the road for our retreat.
My only other visit to Wrynose came many years later, by car. From Ambleside, I used both Passes as a quick way through to Wasdale. Admittedly, the car I was driving was better than any my Dad or Uncle had access to, but whilst the roads are narrow, and some of those hairpin bends on the Eskdale side of Hard Knott, coupled with 1 in 3 gradients, are a bit dodgy, I found them nothing like the fearsome experiences they were made out to be.

Sty Head, leading down to Wasdale Head

With two successful walks under our belt, we set out to conquer our third Pass, this time a ‘proper’ Pass, being one that you could only reach with your boots on. Of course, it had to be Sty Head, and that gave me the objective of getting far enough around Great Gable to see something of its shyer neighbour, Green Gable.
We were without my Uncle on this occasion, just the nuclear family, and we set off from Wasdale Head, as we would do time and again, angling for that narrow valley below the long fall from the Napes ridges, leaving the level path along the valley, rising across those slopes, and reaching the edge of the scree field that the path has to manage at a constantly rising angle.
Here, my mother, not for the last time, took one look and decreed that my little sister wasn’t going across that. But the men of the family, a boy and his Dad, were entitled to continue alone, whilst the memsahibs retreated to the valley, and an extended spell of paddling their feet in the beck. Dad and I went on alone.
There’s nothing a small boy loves more, especially if he only has a sister/sisters, than to be alone with his Dad. There aren’t that many opportunities to be in a purely masculine atmosphere, and it’s an important part of your life to be tested only against Dad’s expectations, and to live up to that. It was especially so with my Dad, who never gave quarter, never played down in any game, always made sure that if I won, it was because I had deserved it, not had it handed to me, and that I knew the game hadn’t been thrown.
I wish I remembered more of that day, but that upper stage of Sty Head on the Wasdale side is simply an extended walk, often with little to see beyond the immediate horizon on a convex slope. I remember dozens of little cairns, at intervals, and Dad encouraging me to add a stone to them along the way: little markers for walkers caught in cloud that they were still on the correct path, though even then Sty Head’s slopes were as good as unloseable.
We got to the summit of the Pass, overlooking the Tarn, even advanced far enough for me to see a sliver of green fellside, peeking around Great Gable’s bulk, that was all I was going to see of Green Gable today. Dad was concerned about not leaving Mam and my sister on their own for any longer than was necessary, so we hustled back down to find them at the beck, their feet not too cold yet to stand more immersion whilst we had our turn.
I’ve returned to Sty Head on several occasions, though I’ve never again taken that slanting path across the scree. There was a later occasion when the four of us set off to trace the Valley Route to Sty Head, as revealed by Wainwright, only to give up when we ran out of flat valley, and another when we started that way only for Dad to divert us up alongside Piers Gill, an unplanned expedition that turned into an impromptu ascent of Lingmell: our second summit, and Dad’s highest point.
On my own, I’ve twice ascended Sty Head from Seathwaite, each time using the much more exciting Taylorgill Force variation. The one time I travelled by the true Sty Head route, from Stockley Beck Bridge, it was for the purpose of ascending Seathwaite Fell, in the company of a maybe girlfriend, and we broke off the path before reaching the point where the Taylorgill variation ends. We did return by that variation that day, the only time I’ve descended that side of the Pass.
There was one more example of father and son exploration that was Pass related, though I can’t really count this as a success. One of our regular, relaxed expeditions was into Mickleden, although we would rarely go further than the weir on the beck, just after the accompanying wall from the Hotels had ended. This once, we had wandered on, through that vast flatness, to the foot of Stake Pass. Dad, feeling energetic, proposed a fast ascent with me, whilst Mam and my sister strolled back towards the weir.
And it was indeed a fast ascent, faster than my liking, especially as Dad insisted on using the proper zig-zags whilst I would have headed for the shortcuts that still littered the slope, on the grounds that they were, well, shorter.
But Stake Pass is an exception to the rule that Passes cross ridges at low points. Once we hit the end of the climb out of Great Langdale, we were faced with an undulating moorland, not noticeably lower than the indefinite lands to either side. How far it was to the highest point was impossible to guess and, just like Sty Head, Dad was determined not to abandon the ladies any longer than it needed, so we shot back down again.
It would be many years until I finally reached Stake Pass’s top, when it would be the last Pass summit I hadn’t previously reached. I’d completed all the Wainwrights and was in that comfortably relaxed state of being able to choose my walks just for the fun of it, so I decided to take a long way round circuit of the Langdale Pikes, gaining the heights by Mickleden and Stake Pass, and it’s not that far distant after all high point, before turning west towards the Pikes.
There would be few other occasions when we would set out to reach the top of a Pass as the objective of our day, and this would not be until after Dad was gone. But he did lead us up one further Pass, in an unexpected corner of the Lakes, as a means of ascending our third fell, and his last: his last walk in the Lakes.
I never understood why my family insisted on confining themselves to so small a part of the Lakes. Almost without exception, our walking was done in the arc between Langdale and Wasdale. In the car, we’d go as far as Grasmere and Keswick, and there was that rainy day when, just to appease my desire to see some of the more remote lakes, we did that tour of the western side of the District.
And on our last holiday with Dad, we wound up at Buttermere, intent on climbing Wainwright’s favourite fell, Haystacks, for which we would first ascend Scarth Gap Pass.
Scarth Gap’s reputed to be one of the easiest Passes to ascend, and it must be on the Ennerdale side, since there’s only about four hundred feet drop to the Black Sail Youth Hostel. I’m bound to say that I didn’t think, in 1968, that it was as easy as it was cracked up to be, but then the general family consensus those days was always that if Wainwright said it was easy, it was hard, and if he said it was hard it was bloody difficult!
Like Hard Knott, the Pass doesn’t lie at the head of the valley, but crosses the southern ridge, between the irascibility of Haystacks and the prestigious High Stile range. By my later standards, it isn’t a difficult ascent, though I’ve only ever after used the Buttermere side of the Pass for descents, coming down off the ridge on either side after great walking days.
Back in 1968, my Uncle was unwell, so he went no further than Scarth Gap, but we went on to the summit. It didn’t impress Dad as much as he hoped: for him, Lingmell was a far better summit, but he never had the chance to explore further. I would have to do all that for him.

Honister – photos cannot do justice

Of course, there was one other Pass in that sector of the Lakes with which I was by now familiar, and this was Honister Pass. I had heard some horror stories about it from Dad and his brother, so it came as a massive surprise, that day of the rains and the tour of the Western Lakes, that when we reached the dark and damp end of Buttermere, my Uncle should so blithely follow the road half left, into Honister bottom.
My memories of that first visit colour all my experiences of Honister, even the ones in good weather. There was the long, slow, almost interminable approach along the valley, with little or no gain in height until the road leaps across the bridge and starts to furiously ascend, among narrowing cliffs, the winding line laid out above, the clouds drifting in between the crags, the gradient worsening at every twist, until it’s a struggle just to keep going long enough to get to the top.
The first time I tried Honister in my own car, I failed. I was driving a Datsun Cherry that had problems and it simply couldn’t take the first slope beyond the bridge, and the traffic kindly waited whilst I turned round and retreated. I’ve never had problems since, but I have also never been able to reach the top without dropping down into first gear for that final rise.
I haven’t tackled the Borrowdale side of the Pass, which is where the steepest gradients lie, just above Seatoller. I’m fine driving down them, but in this instance, I have always adhered to familiy advice and never tried to get up there.
The one time I have had to ascend Honister out of Borrowdale, I had to do it on foot. I was climbing Great Gable, from the Pass, working my way up over Grey Knotts, Brandreth and Green Gable, but in order to sweep round and include Base Brown, I parked at Seathwaite, and walked back to the main Borrowdale road, on a lovely September morning of golden delight.
My original intention was to catch the Mountain Goat bus service to Honister, except that such a service did not then exist. I then proposed to hitch a lift to the Pass, except that the only drivers who did not studiously ignore my existence were the ones with full cars, who could afford to pretend regret. So I ended up walking it, just like Wrynose. It wasn’t too painful, especially once we had cleared the steep bit, through the trees, and I was wandering almost at leisure through the hanging glacial valley above, but it made for a long and wearying prelude to a long, strenuous walk on a hot day, and was not to be recommended, and certainly not repeated.
I break my walking career down into three unbalanced phases. The first of these are those brief, initial years with my Dad, who I remember being the one who took most of the initiative, even though his brother was six years older than him (though that might be the boy in me speaking: at that age, your Dad is always the one in charge). These were the years of being just a boy: your parents decide and you go along with it without complaint (ahem), because that is what life is. You don’t get an opinion, and you don’t expect to.
His falling ill put an end to the Lakes and walking for the next couple of years. We did manage a week away in September of 1970, four of us now, not five, with my mother and Uncle as collaborative powers in charge: a necessary break after the stresses of a horrendous summer in which Dad’s condition deteriorated badly and the last week was nothing but chaos. It meant a chance to put on boots again (and anoraks and waterproofs, for it was cold and very very wet).
The second phase began in earnest the following year. It was business as usual, only with Dad no longer part of us. I was growing into my middle teens, and I was starting to have opinions and wishes of my own. I had read and re-read the Wainwrights so often that it no longer surprised any of my family when I recognised photos of places in the Lakes we had never seen. And after my high-speed sponsored walk for school, I was starting to feel confined by the slow pace and limited ambitions of the older generation.
In short, I was becoming a teenager.
But to be honest, the family’s ambitions were extremely limited. We had proven ourselves capable of reaching the summit of fells over 2,000′ in height, and there were ample below that level, but somehow or other, we could never manage the energy to climb more than one top in a week’s holiday.
I wanted to do more, I wanted to go further afield. There was three-quarters of the Lakes out there that we were deliberately ignoring. Indeed, we were not even getting the most out of our regular haunts. It would take until 11.30 most mornings to even get out of the cottage, and there was an obstinate refusal to even consider where we might then want to go before that point.
And I was slowly growing tired of being treated as if I were still ten, instead of closing in on the end of my teens. I left school, I went to University, I was still being told what to do, where to go and where to stand. We set out to climb Coniston Old Man one day, by the Quarry Path, but the clouds closed in below the summit. I was sent ahead to see whether we were near the top: we were no more than one hundred yards away so I dutifully returned to say how close we were, only to find everyone packing up to go down.
A few times, we reverted to our old type and set off to climb a Pass. One of these was Grisedale Pass, which we approached from the Grasmere end (naturally: Patterdale, no matter how beautiful, was beyond our bounds). It was a greyish day, and I remember some rain and cloud in the upper stages, as we worked our way up by Little Tongue Beck. Technically, we didn’t even reach the top of the Pass, going no further than the col overlooking Grisedale Tarn, where the highest point of the Pass lay beyond it, at the head of Grisedale itself.
We crossed over the top of Great Tongue to return, an extremely rare instance of our not simply turning round and going back the same way we have climbed. For some reason, I took myself out in front, leading the way, letting the other three tramp on behind me, ten yards to the rear. I enjoyed the descent, indeed I came down with so much spare energy to burn that I could seriously have turned round and gone back up again.
Since then, I’ve enjoyed better times with Grisedale Pass, on my own. The only other time I’ve climbed it from Grasmere was in identical conditions to that long-removed family expedition,, and by the same ascent and descent, but in between I scrambled up the cloud-shrouded slopes of Seat Sandal, aware I wasn’t going to get any view, but still getting some enjoyable walking in on a day when views were never going to be part of the parcel.
But I’ve both descended and ascended the Pass, to its true summit, on the Patterdale side, which is much more lovely and, in its views of the Hellvellyn range, and the chance to visit the Brother’s parting, more exciting approach. I do wonder about my family at times. There was a long, slow descent after walking in the Hellvellyns, the day I met Harry Griffin, a day when I took the long stroll to the south side of the valley back home, under a burning sun, glad of the frequent patches of shade from the clumps of trees down that flank, and a Saturday morning ascent, aiming for Fairfield and St Sunday Crag: this was the day of the Manchester Bomb, about which I knew nothing until the 4.00pm radio news, driving towards Shap and the M1 home.

                                       Ennerdale from Black Sail
We were in more familiar territory in Wasdale when, probably as a result of the little influence I could bring to bear, we foresook Sty Head one day for Black Sail. I was allowed to lead the way for most of that: the little climb over the lip of Mosedale, the zig-zags to pass the moraines at the bottom of the upper valley, the long, smooth ascent between grassy flanks and the gate in the ruined fence on the top that I insisted on using, because, of course, I was that kind of person.
I went back twice on my own, both times with the same purpose, of using Black Sail as a starting point for the ascent of Pillar, and some limited form of the Mosedale Horseshoe. The first was a breathless, airless day, hot and stuffy, guaranteed to drain energy like pouring out a bucket. I was already having serious doubts about my ability to progress when, in the upper stages of the Pass, I twisted my ankle, the weak one, the left one, which put paid to it. I just about got to the top of the Pass, and its lonely gate, and after a good rest limped on as far as the top of Looking Stead, though the view of Ennerdale was small consolation. But it was only getting hotter: I remember the slow, dismal return with Yewbarrow, directly ahead, looking like a cardboard cut-out in the flat air.
I had better luck next time, going on to a magnificent day visiting Scoat Fell, Steeple and Red Pike, although I lacked confidence when it came to descending Dore Head and ended up circuiting Yewbarrow to get back to Wasdale Head. One thing that amazed was that, despite seeing a few people on Black Sail, I had the entirety of Pillar’s magnificent east ridge to myself, not a soul in sight on that long ascent, until I reached the sturdy summit.
Given my family’s natural gravitation towards Coniston, it’s both unsurprising and surprising that we should find ourselves setting off to the top of Walna Scar Pass, the surprising element being that we left it as late as we did.
We were very familiar with that side of the Old Man, Torver to Goatswater being one of our regular repeated walks, and we had once used the first part of the Walna Scar Road, from the gate above the lane descending into Coniston Village, to reach Cove Moor and find the tarn that way. But one time we simply crossed our old route, and continued onwards, passing Cove Bridge and gradually approaching the towering wall of the ridge descending from Dow Crag. The final, sweeping pull up onto the col was steep and eroding, though much firmer underfoot than it would subsequently become. I was eager to go on, head up the ridge towards Dow Crag, or at least one of its subsidiaries, but no go: back to the car and the Village.
I would make my way back to Walna Scar for one of my earliest walks once I began to visit the Lakes alone, this time eagerly pursuing that ridge, and rounding Goatswater for the Old Man at last. This was the early part of the infamous day when I found myself very carefully descending that very steep slope into Boulder Valley.
And when I summoned up all my energies and did a complete round of the Coniston range, starting with Wetherlam and ending with Dow Crag, I came down onto Walna Scar and turned for Coniston with relief that had to be tempered by the badly eroded, loose state of the upper slopes of the Pass. Sadly, I have never experienced the Duddon side of Walna Scar.
In the end, family holidays came to an end the moment a concession was made to me. In August 1975, for the first, and only time, we moved our base of operations to the north east of the Lakes, taking a cottage between Penrith and Ullswater. This was specifically to indulge me, by taking us into regions I had never been before, but had been asking to see for, literally, years. I was nineteen, about to go into my final year at University, and I had been away, only two weeks previously, on my first holiday with ‘the lads’: a week in Blackpool, making decisions for myself.
On our first day after arriving, we climbed sweet little Hallin Fell, overlooking Howtown, and returned via a bustling Pooley Bridge. My mother, who I think was resentful at not seeing the same old familiar places, acted horribly towards me, in public, treating me as if I were younger even than my sister, only just turned twelve the previous month. Later that day, having been in the Lakes for little more than twenty-four hours, I took her on one side and told her that I would not be going on any family holidays in future.
Yet even with that undercurrent bubbling away, we had our most successful week ever, at least with me in tow. It would end up on Helvellyn, at the far end of Striding Edge, with Mam deciding that my sister was not going to be risked climbing down the ten foot chimney that gets you off the Edge. I was thunderstruck at the walk ending so limply, but Mam surprised me by releasing me to go on alone, to reach the summit and return on my own recognizance, and I swarmed up the face to the edge of Helvellyn’s top in ten minutes without even breathing hard.
But even by then, we had collectively climbed another fell, and what’s more we had ascended and descended by different routes, both of which involved recognised Passes: the first time we had climbed two fells in the same week, and I had finally added the last Lake to my list of sights.

Nan Bield

On the Wednesday, we went to Haweswater, at long last no excuses about it being too far to drive. To justify the drive, we actually set off to climb Harter Fell, from the car park at the head of the valley. To ascend, we used Gatescarth Pass, ascending through grassy valleys, angling around the bulk of Harter. Disappointingly, Longsleddale was not visible behind its gates, and we used the now-abandoned trackless route following the fence over Adam-a-Seat to reach the third cairn and that spectacular view of the lake. It was blowing a howling gale by then, and the summit was so far along the ridge to the south that I think Mam and my Uncle decided it was easier and quicker not to retrace our steps, but to descend onto Nan Bield Pass, and follow the lovely, winding route down by Small Water.
I certainly had no inkling until the summit of Harter that we were not just going to turn round and go back, so this was an added bonus.
I have, of course, been back to both passes on my own, funnily enough to the blander Gatescarth more often. Once I had a car, and the freedom to drive anywhere I chose, I paid that visit to lonely, sweet Longsleddale, wandering along its eastern ridge, the very edges of Lakeland, and coming down to Gatescarth Pass off Branstree, to return to Sadgill.
That was the day I’ve previously spoken of, when the path direct from Gatescarth to Harter Fell’s third cairn appeared out of nowhere, when the eternity of the fells presented itself to me in a new and unconsidered sense. And one of my best days ever, when I ascended High Street by Long Ridge and Rough Crag saw me swing round by Mardale Ill Bell to the top of Nan Bield, but instead of descending there as I’d planned, time and energy combined to carry me on over Harter, to Gatescarth, and a return to Mardale Head by the way I’d only before climbed.
The only other time I’ve walked Nan Bield was, in a sense, a failure. I had planned to walk the Kentmere Horseshoe, but found myself with only the energy for the eastern ridge, and had to descend Nan Bield into the long, empty valley. Yes, I have descended both sides of Nan Bield, without ever ascending it once.
After the end of the family holidays, I didn’t return to the Lakes for six years, paying a brief, October visit in my first car, getting used to negotiating Cumbrian roads whilst they were quiet, and not getting into my boots until 1983, and even then for just a couple of short, individual walks.
But being master of my own motor meant that I could explore the motor passes that Dad and my Uncle had refused to go near. The main one that this left me was Kirkstone Pass, which I tackled impromptu one week, when I had booked out of my Keswick room on the last day. I drove leisurely down Patterdale, seeking one last visual feast, and sort of seduced myself into tackling Kirkstone, from its steepest side, in a fully-laden car. There’s been a couple of times when I’ve needed first gear just to cover the final slopes, especially when the car’s packed, but I’ve crossed the Pass multiple times by now, from either side, without difficulty. Indeed, there’s absolutely no reason to worry at all about the Troutbeck side, where the gradient isn’t steep in even one place. But my family…
On the other hand, there were Whinlatter and Newlands Passes, in the North Western Fells, routes from Keswick (more or less) to Lorton in the one case, and Buttermere in the other. Whinlatter is a pussy cat, and I have criss-crossed it over and again, and stopped at the Visitor Centre at the top on several such visits (and been through the human-sized artificial Badger Sett twice, which played merry hobb with my mild tendency to claustrophobia).
Newlands is a different kettle of fish, though it has a lovely approach through the low, wooded mouth of the Newlands Valley, before the road itself takes off along the valley of Keskadale Beck. It’s a bit of a bugger to drive from the Newlands end, thanks to a ninety degree right hand bend just below the final pull up to the Hause. A car with a decent engine that is not following a driver scared out of their mind can get up a good deal of useful momentum for that final slope, every bit of it it has to relinquish in order to get round that bend without overturning his car. I have yet to be able to get back into Second Gear to reach the Hause, and have always taken this as a signal to pull in to let the engine have a breather.
I have never attempted to cross Newlands from Buttermere. It’s bad enough going down something so unremittingly steep as that, with brakes fully locked at every moment in order to stay in control: I do not need to force my car up that.
Once I settled into being a lone walker, going where I chose, when and at what pace, I grew ever more ambitious in my walking, and set out to visit all of the Wainwrights. In due course, this would involve visiting the very small number of official Passes that I had yet to experience.

Esk Hause

The doyen of them all is, naturally, Esk Hause. It’s not just that it’s the highest of them all, though it’s very rarely walked as a pass from Eskdale to Borrowdale (so little so that, after centuries, there is still no actual path from the cairn at its highest point into the fastness of Upper Eskdale itself). Esk Hause is a walker’s Mecca, the hub for so many adventures on the highest of highest ground in this country, the rough and wild heart of the Lakes
I have never climbed the pass from Eskdale, though I’ve frequently trodden its first section, on family expeditions to Throstlegarth, and once beyond, above Esk Gorge, to within sight of the Scafell massif. The Borrowdale arm of the Pass is much more familiar, though I’ve only ever climbed Grains Gill from Seathwaite, on the day I nearly got heat stroke on Glaramara, and descended by that route once, after visiting all three of the Pikes.
It’s a magnificent route, either way, appropriately rough underfoot, in classic rock conditions, a narrowing, straight-edged valley aimed at the heart of Great End.
The highest path in regular use as a Pass in Sticks Pass, between Legburthwaite, near Thirlmere Dam, and poor unfortunate Glenridding in Patterdale. Oddly, unless you allow the Taylorgill Force variation on Sty Head, Sticks is the only Pass I have climbed from both directions, ironically within less than six weeks of each other in the late Summer, early Autumn of 1993.
The first of these was a frustrating day. I was planning to end my regular September holiday with a Big Walk: the Helvellyn Range from Sticks Pass to Grisedale pass, from Glenridding. The day started sunnily, though the cloud was blowing briskly across Raise as I approached: long, straight, airless walk to Glenridding Lead Mine, the zig-zag scramble up the slag heap behind, the eerie emptiness of the still-damp basin that once housed Sticks Reservoir, and the overlong winding in the confines of Sticks Gill East until reaching the long, open top.
But the cloud never blew off the tops, Helvellyn was in deep cloud, but nonetheless receiving a continuous stream of visitors, so I had to retreat. And a month or so later, planning a Sunday on the Dodds, I used the other side of Sticks – which is frankly bland and featureless – as a stepping stone to Stybarrow Dodd. I remember virtually nothing of the ascent.
Long before that, and in a back-handed way, I had introduced myself to Coledale Pass, the fourth of those Passes to cross my beloved North-Western Fells. Though it’s a brilliant access to the highest fells in that smooth, clean-lined area, I’ve never ascended either side of Coledale, though I’ve used it  as a means of descent from the fells after glorious days.
The first of these was decidedly unintended. I had planned for a full Coledale Horseshoe, one August Saturday when I planned to weekend in the Lakes, but low cloud interrupted me on Hopegill Head after a stunning climb of Grisedale Pike and, with droplets clinging to my beard, I was forced to abandon my plans and drop down to the Hause.
I was sufficiently far beneath the cloud to get an idea of the geography, though it was not until I could descend in sunlight that I began to properly understand it. Instead of the usual single path from one end to the other, the ascent out of Coledale turns out of the Hause and into the shallow upper valley that leads to the plateau between Eel Crag and Grasmoor, whilst the continuation of the Pass is a turn-off, towards and into the confines of Gasgale Gill.
The Coledale descent involved two wide swings round the twin Force Crags before crossing the beck and following the old miner’s road to the diggings. It at least gave me the most perfect circular walk, since the mine road ends at the little roadside quarry turned car park, and I even ended up arriving at the other side of my car from whence I started.
In contrast to the spaciousness of Coledale, Gasgale Gill is a place of confinement, winding, quiet, in places almost ravine-like. I’ve returned along it twice, on the second occasion managing, on level grass a hundred yards from my car, to turn over my left ankle so painfully that it took two years to clear up fully, and effectively put an end to my squash playing career in the process.

Approaching Greenup Edge

I didn’t go anywhere near Greenup Edge until the last but one walk at the end of the Wainwrights. With Ullscarf as the destination, I set off from Stonethwaite. This is not the most exciting of approaches, although Standing Crag is a bit of a fun scramble en route.
Above it, Greenup’s most infamous characteristic starts to make its presence known and just gets worse. It is wet underfoot, and stays so. There would seem to be absolutely no drainage of surface water, in defiance of everything known about geography. A short cut can be made, cutting out a substantial corner and the actual top of the Pass, which is as close as it comes to walking on water without being the head of a major international religion, but given my family background, that option was never tenable. I did not stay long at Greenup’s top, in fact I didn’t stop moving, and neither would you. Nor have I returned.
I’ve saved Scandale Head until last because it was the last Pass, even though I had visited its top as long ago as the late Eighties. Scandale Head – which is also known as Caiston Pass, after the steep beck that guides the path on the Patterdale side – is pretty much an unnecessary pass, especially for the walker. It runs parallel to Kirkstone, separated only by the bulk of Red Screes/Middle Dodd. And it took unusual circumstances for me to find the need to use it.
I did collect the little group of fells around that side of Kirkstone, making a horseshoe out of Caiston Beck. Up by High Hartsop Dodd and Little Hart Crag, a traverse across the top of the pass to Red Screes, and down by Middle Dodd. So, in counterpart to Sticks where I’d ascended the pass from both ends, I had been at Scandale/Caiston’s summit without ascending – or descending – it from either direction!
An impromptu chance to rectify that came up in 1997 when I’d driven up to the Lakes for a day’s walking, with Blencathra and Narrow Edge as my goal. Unfortunately, it was too cloudy at that end of the District, so I pounded south over Dunmail Raise, in search of better weather.
I’d not long since completed the first draft of my Even in Peoria, which climaxed with a fight in cloud on Red Screes, so this seemed a chance to do some research for the Second Draft. I checked a few things about Grasmere and the road to Ambleside, and then set off for Red Screes via Scandale Head.
I was familiar with the lower section, having used it a couple of times previously to access the Fairfield Horseshoe, but this time I avoided the temptation to cross the High Sweden Bridge and continued up the increasingly drab and featureless valley to its top. From Hard Knott to Scandale Head had taken just over thirty years.
The ascent to Red Screes from the pass was interrupted by a descent of the cloud onto the top 2 – 300′ of the fell, but then I was probably the only walker on Red Screes that day who not merely didn’t mind having no view but who was positively delighted. My summit fight scene took place in low cloud: the scene was perfect.
My eventual trip to the moorland top of Stake Pass came a year or so later. Walking Passes had begun as a stopgap activity, an easy breaking in to none-too-strenuous routes suitable for two young children (not that one of those children agreed). Collecting the Passes was never an end in itself, yet my instinct towards completism, that has never left me throughout my life, demanded that one day I should visit all of them.
And now I have.

2 thoughts on “Rambling about Passes

  1. That is a good read, Martin. You have some magnificent memories there, made all the more colourful and valuable because they involve your family. I had some similar experiences with my father and various family members, though not as extensive as yours.
    You’ve got me thinking about Lakeland passes now, and the only one I’m not familiar with is Newlands Pass. I’ve walked across the summit from fell to fell, but never walked or driven up and over the pass itself. Or if I have, the experience has erased itself from memory.
    Cheers, Alen

  2. Thank you, Alen. I wish I had more memories of fellwalking with my family, especially my Dad but our walking years amounted, all told, to less than a decade, at the end of which I’d reached nine summits, a total I passed in 1983alone, once I started walking where I chose.

    I’m sure you must have missed out on the ‘pleasure’ of driving Newlands, especially the Buttermere end. No driver could forget that: not without trauma therapy…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.