I have been very lucky.
That doesn’t apply to everything in my life, and I’m frequently guilty on dwelling too long and too often on those things that have not gone, or are not going as I would wish them. But I have been very lucky to have been introduced, at a suitably early age, to the Lake District: to its Lakes and Fells and Mountains and Tarns, and to the incalculable joy of wandering among them.
I was lucky to be born of parents who knew and loved the Lakes, to have a grandfather who was born in Cumberland, who provided me with a foothold in that county, and to have been introduced to the fell country by those parents. I was given the chance to learn to love the open country and the high skylines, and to be affected by the urge to explore and see everything that could be seen.
I have also been lucky to have had the time, the freedom and the fitness to have dedicated myself to completing the round of the 214 Wainwrights, and the luck, ability and skill to have avoided injury in doing so.
It wasn’t so at the beginning. You’re read this litany before: It’s too hard, it’s too far, it’s too steep, my boots hurt. I said all those things, and more, the very first time I was asked to walk uphill, and I was not an instant convert to walking. But the day we set out to climb Sty Head from Wasdale was the day that changed things: I had a target, to see Green Gable at last, and when my mother and sister turned back, I had my Dad’s expectations to live up to.
The men went ahead. I measured myself against what my Dad expected of me now that it was just the men, and I was not found wanting. It’s an old-fashioned attitude, and a chauvinistic one that I’m glad has not persisted into later life, but it was the attitude of an eleven year old boy in the middle-Sixties: I was, and to some extent still am, of my time.
As I grew, far from being reluctant to don boots and climb, I became the opposite, wanting, almost demanding to be out walking, increasingly frustrated and resentful of the obstacles to that, to the delays. My Dad was gone, I was into my middle teens, slimmer than I’ve ever been. I wanted to walk. Unconsciously, I think that to some extent I was living up to my Dad’s expectations of me, following in his footsteps, or rather the footsteps he was no longer able to take.
It took a long time. My teenage energy, my urge to look outwards to sights unseen, was confined by holidays with an ageing mother and an Uncle who was, after all, my Dad’s elder brother. A long gap ensued when family holidays became just too constrictive: I never regretted dropping out, even when they climbed Scafell Pike without me.
And once I could afford a car, could free myself to be my own master on the fells, there seemed to be nothing else that I wanted to do than to get back to the Lakes, to the beauty, to all the places I could go because I chose to, without being held by my family to where they were content to return, year after year.
At some point, I said to myself, why not? Why not climb all the Wainwrights? I’m only in my mid-twenties, I have the years ahead of me. Again, I look back from all those years later, and I can see the unconscious element driving me. Dad would have done it, had he been allowed the years cancer denied him. We were alike in more ways than I properly learned, never having had the chance to have adult conversations with him. In the back of my mind, very rarely aware of it, I knew that when I climbed Eagle Crag direct, crossed Sharp Edge, ascended Lord’s Rake, traced the old pony route down Rossett Gill, that he would have relished these days as much as I did. He couldn’t do it, so I did it for more than just me.
But it would never have been in me to do it without his spur to begin with. His father, his aunts and uncles drawing him to Cumberland, his love of the fells, his desire to get among them. I inherited his intelligence, I inherited his dry wit, I inherited the Lake District and the high fells, and I am proud of all these things.
And my health and fitness and freedom lasted long enough to complete that journey, to conquer my own insecurity with pride that I have done this, that despite all my fears and self-doubt, there is one thing that would have made my Dad proud of me in the way any small boy wants (for I never got to be anything but a small boy with my Dad: there wasn’t enough time).
Completing all the Wainwrights like that was an achievement, but it was a personal one. It wasn’t done for credibility or kudos in any way, but simply because I wanted to see everything and go everywhere. It surprised me, once I had finally completed the round, that open, hot, hazy, viewless March Saturday morning on the broad summit of Seatallan, to learn just how few people seem to have done what I did.
Not that we’ll ever know, because not everybody has recorded it somewhere where it can be seen and acknowledged. It’s estimated that there’s not much more than a thousand of us, though I find it hard to believe that I am in a group that is that exclusive.
It doesn’t get me anywhere to have done this, I haven’t established a reputation. I have brought it up on occasions, because, hell, I haven’t that much that I can boast about, and it sounds good, even to people who don’t know or understand what it’s about. The only person to whom I would offer it as any kind of self-validation died forty-six years ago this August coming.
But it is an integral part of the luck in my life that I have been able to do this, that I can look at myself and say that I did it, that I have all these wonders and glories and memories. There isn’t a single fell in any of that 214 that I cannot bring to mind, some image that instantly replays, that is in my mind because I got off my far arse, and I put in the hard yards, and I did the things that millions, yes, millions of people haven’t done, couldn’t do, would never be able to do, would be too scared to try.
But this piece is entitled Regrets. Even with everything I’ve done, there are regrets.
The first and biggest of these is that I am now effectively exiled from the fells, from the Lake District. I have no car, I can only go where public transport will take me. Only certain areas can be seen. And I am older, less fit, a long way from being in the condition to tackle the open fells.
These are not insuperable barriers. Circumstances may change: I may once again be able to afford a car, to take me to Wasdale, Ennerdale, Mardale, to Seathwaite: to all the places beyond Ambleside, Grasmere and Keswick.
To restore my condition will be a harder, less certain job. There are things that cannot be reversed, such as my painful knees, and at sixty I am never going to recapture the agility and flexibility I had when I was thirty. Perhaps the stamina that enabled me to cover up to 14 miles and 4,500 foot of climbing in a day isn’t going to be achievable again. But given the access, given the time, I would make it my business to get back everything humanly possible.
Because although I stood at every summit, there were tops from which I didn’t see views, and there were walks that I didn’t get to do, and anyway, with very few exceptions throughout the whole of the Lakes, I would want to do each and every one of those fells all over again: in sun instead of under cloud, or just to go back and re-experience the fun another time.
After all, I’ve done the ascent of Grisedale Pike from Braithwaite four times and I’d hop out of the car in that little quarry/car park en route to Whinlatter Pass any time, and just because I’ve climbed Scafell Pike four times, from different directions, doesn’t mean that I don’t feel wronged that I might never stand there again, on the rooftop of England.
There are four fells, four tops out of the 214, that I have to climb again, because my ascent was incomplete. In ascending order, there is Dodd, the outlier of Skiddaw, the fell in the forest, there is Sale Fell, one of the sentinels of Wythop, there is Seat Sandal, that I walked in cloud, fine-guessing my way directly to its cairn, choosing to walk without seeing rather than waste a day to idleness, and, high above them all, High Stile, crossed in cloud, just the most fleeting swirl of clarity looking down upon the lakes and valleys opposite.
To me, the Wainwrights aren’t completely closed until I’ve been back to each of these, until I’ve seen that view, unobstructed by cloud or rain or, in the case of Dodd as it is now, tree.
I climbed that on a day of rain and low cloud, wandering the forests roads, a fell without a view being ideal for a day without views. It was dark and dank, especially under the trees, and then I marched all the way down from the col below Long Doors and along the road in the rain, taking pleasure in the steady, even pace. It was one of the few occasions Wainwright’s routes let me down: I ascended from Dancing Gate by a path that was much less visible that Wainwright identified, and which Chris Jesty acknowledged was difficult to follow: I am sure I lost it.
Access to the top was no longer by the somewhat dodgy firebreak of Wainwright’s days: there was a road, and a path onto the top, which had been fitfully cleared, but the last time I was in that area, Dodd had been shaved of trees, to its head, and its views were open for all to see. It would make an ideal start to a resumed walking career: not quite ready for the Outlying Fells yet!
And then there’s Sale Fell, lying between Wythop and Basenthwaite. This was another fell where I was denied the view by rain, but, unlike Dodd, it was not a day when I expected no views. It was a Sunday afternoon, after driving up in the morning, with the two Wythop sentinels as my target for the traditional leg-stretcher walk in the afternoon.
There’s no actual ridges between the two – there are no ridges of any kind on Ling Fell – so I planned to ascend this first, walk up the valley to Sale Fell, and add this. Conditions seemed fine, and I enjoyed what view Ling Fell offered and descended to Wythop with Sale Fell, smooth and serene under a bright sun.
I made the approach easy, following the road all the way up the valley and cutting back on a gently graded diagonal path, instead of the direct route up by the wall. From there I was onto the saddle and setting off along the grassy ridge, but the weather was suddenly gray, the cloud was closing in, and it soon began to rain.
And by rain, I mean a cloudburst, and within moments visibility was down to about five to ten yards. On a higher fell, without so broad a green path up an easy, well-defined ridge, I might have turned back. Instead, determined not to let such a little fell beat me, I removed my glasses and ploughed on. Five yards visibility was of no moment to someone whose natural vision deteriorated before it got that far.
The summit was a handful of stones on a rounded, grassy dome. I walked up to it, circuited it and set off back down without breaking stride. Nothing to see, and it was still battering it down, so nothing to stop for. The rain had passed by the time I reached the little saddle at the bottom of the ridge, and the sun came out again, but I have yet to go back and see what it is I missed. I shalln’t bother with Ling Fell next time.
Seat Sandal I chose for a day that was dark and wet, when there were going to be no views. It wasn’t raining so hard as to be a persistent nuisance, but the cloud was down on that broad whaleback, to the east of Dunmail. And there were no difficulties about route-finding, with clear paths all the way.
So rather than spin my wheels in the valleys, or hole up somewhere, read and waste the day, I got into my boots and set off up Grisedale Pass, to that lower col, just before the basin holding the Tarn itself. The cloud was that low, drifting in the rocks above. The Tarn was invisible, as were the Dollywaggon Zigzags, but the wall to the top was plain and clear, and I scrambled up beside it, glad to be doing something rather than nothing.
I knew the wall didn’t visit the actual top and that I’d have to cross the wall at some point and cast about a bit. When I crossed the wall, I found I’d done it at exactly the right place, and the summit cairn was just about visible: it was an easy crossing to it, and back to the wall, and descent, without the slightest risk of losing my way, but there was nothing to see.
So I owe myself a return, in clear conditions. I’d ascend the same way as before, but I might descend the south-west ridge, pathless and broad as it is, for the variation, and the views over Grasmere that it carries.
But I would definitely need remedial, retraining walking for High Stile. It’s one of the high fells, the serious and austere fells, and I would happily, eagerly repeat the original expedition, which crossed the full range.
Which means basing myself at Buttermere, climbing through the woods on that astonishingly straight, diagonal route, leading to that long, level terrace back to the entrance to Bleaberry Comb, and the route to Red Pike.
Then the rising ridge to High Stile, only this time without the lowering cloud that consumed the top 200′ of the fell, cancelling out those views. An onwards, along that narrow but flat ridge to High Crag, by which time the sun was out, the sky was clear, the cloud had evaporated, and I could descend to and by Scarth Gap and the stroll along the shore of Buttermere. There’s a day I would repeat any time, for the fun of it, but I want the middle fell on that ridge to be in the clear.
But more than the places I need to return to to make that first round of Wainwrights unimpeachably complete, more than the return to places I want to see again, is the list of those things I’ve not done, and that I want to do before it’s impossible for me to go into the high places ever again.
Leaving aside such fanciful things as wanting to tackle Caw Fell from the Cold Fell road, simply because it’s six miles each way and I want to experience the loneliness and silence, there are three walks that would complete my Lake district experience for me.
Taking these in order of severity, the first would be an ascent of Pen, the rocky little peak on the Eskdale flank of Scafell Pike that is hailed by practically everyone who has had an encounter with it, but which is curiously ignored completely by Wainwright.
Though there are no paths or routes plotted in either of the first two editions – Clive Bratby’s (grit teeth) ‘Walker’s Edition’ of The Southern Fells will probably repair this omission – the approach is clear. I would approach from Taw House, via the Cowcove Zigzags and that lonely, empty, shallow valley in the sky, towards the horizon over which the Pike and Ill Crag rise, my favourite sight in the whole of the Lakes.
Then I would descend into the uppermost part of Upper Eskdale, that great, wide, flat-bottomed bowl in among the hills. But instead of turning aside at Cam Spout, scrambling up alongside the falls, bound for that upper valley leading to Mickledore, I would walk on, towards Esk Hause, some part of that final section of the Pass that I have never walked.
Until I was beneath the mouth of Little Narrowcove, into which I would turn, working my way upwards in this still, narrow valley (whether it is any thing like as still as it was when Wainwright first drew attention to it is yet to be discovered, but Wainwright’s depiction of the old pony route to Rossett Gill didn’t save that path from disappearing, according to Chris Jesty). I would then study the ground to my left, relying on my years of expertise to determine the right place to scramble up above Pen’s isolated outcrop and make my way down from above.
And back to Little Narrowcove, through the valley’s head onto Broadcrag Col, and an approach to the Pike I’ve never used in ascent before, only descent.
I doubt that adrenalin can carry me as far as it did the day I scaled Lord’s Rake, so it would be down by Mickledore, and Cam Spout, and the long reverse of the approach, one walk I don’t mind repeating in the same day.
Speaking of Lord’s Rake: the second of my walks is the West Wall Traverse. When I ascended Lord’s Rake itself, I was so busy concentrating on the steep scramble up to the first col that I didn’t even see the track to the left. Back then, literally all I knew of the West Wall Traverse was Wainwright’s page, but since then I have seen photos of the Traverse that thrilled me to the sight on the spot.
Had I known it was like that, I would have done the Traverse a long time ago.
So that day would be a day like the one on which I ascended Lord’s Rake: Brown Tongue and Hollow Stones, that slow, slithery ascent of that great scree fan, and the bottom of the Rake. No concerns about whether I can squeeze my bulk beneath the fallen rock, for about ten yards below the col, I would be concentrating on identifying the path onto the Traverse, and then the steep scramble up Deep Gill onto Scafell’s summit again.
Of course, I’d have to return via Foxes Tarn, but whether I’d still be able to divert to the Pike again is very much a question to be determined once there. It would be great. But it would probably be a bit much, unless I have really regained my stamina.
By now, you’ve probably worked out which is the ultimate walk, the one I never tackled when I was young and vital, the ultimate walk that would crown my entire walking career, that would make my Dad go green with envy. I speak of course of Jack’s Rake, on Pavey Ark.
And to tackle this now, I would need to regain a peak of fitness and agility corresponding to my peak of performance. It’s probably beyond me now.
I’ve studied that page in Wainwright a hundred times, in all three editions. I’ve watched a half dozen YouTube videos depicting the ascent (it’s always bloody windy up there, isn’t it?), and noted that not one of these is a continuous record of the ascent, so there are places where it isn’t safe to film, where you have to concentrate on life and limb. I think, looking at it coldly and calmly, I could once have got up it: Stickle (Mill) Ghyll to the tarn, round its shores, work up to the base. It’s only 225 yards in length, and 225 yards is less than an eighth of a mile. That was about a quarter of the way from our house in Burnage to the bus stop at Lane End: I used to need no more than ten minutes to catch the bus, but then that was flat all the way.
But I do look at the book, and I listen to the comments, and I take particular note of the one that says there’s a point where you have to basically take hold and swing yourself up and around, relying on momentum, and whilst I’ve body enough to create momentum, I’m not too certain about whether the arms can hold up that bulk long enough for me to swing up as opposed to out and down.
To be truthful, I think this is going to be beyond me, even assuming I get the chance to restore my old strength. Since dealing myself out of family holidays, I have in all but a handful of cases walked alone, gladly. Nearly all of those few exceptions have been easy, non-strenuous expeditions with girlfriends/wives who were inexperienced and less strong than I. But given my age, I would now only think of tackling Jack’s Rake as part of a group, with people to go ahead and demonstrate safety, and, if it became necessary, to reach back and help if we hit a stretch that I simply cannot face on my own.
Stickle (Mill) Ghyll, the tarn, the walk around its shores, the scramble up to the foot of the Rake. Perhaps a return by the North Rake, and Bright Beck and Stickle Tarn again.
Or maybe I should just hope to get back to Stickle Tarn, and gaze on Pavey Ark’s face as of old, tracing that thin diagonal line and the spots of colour moving along it, doing something that once I might well have been capable of doing but which is beyond my capacity.
A supreme regret to forever cast a shadow over a lifetime doing what I loved.