Cloud and Isolation in the Western Margins


Some places in the Lakes are simply not easy to get to. Most of the main valleys have roads of some kind or another in which the walker who doesn’t want to spend hours tramping the roads can get to within reach of the fells, the major example of which being Ennerdale, which has been out of bounds to non-Forestry Commission traffic for decades.

In more recent times, lovely, remote Swindale has been made access only, thankfully after I had enjoyed the ascent of the only Wainwright that can only be directly approached from its distant valley head.

Grisedale is another valley that has long been denied access for the tourist driver, but the road only extended a mile into the valley before the ways took to the fellsides, and if you can’t manage a walk of a mile on the way to the fells, you should hang up your boots in shame.

Some fells, however, are just a long way away, even in such a compact area as the Lakes. But if you consider the geography in the west, in that green and grassy domain I call the Western Margins, the valleys spread particularly widely towards the sea, and there are silent and empty hinterlands that make access from the coastal side a long and slow business. And don’t forget Blengdale.

Working towards the end of the Wainwrights, I had to find a way of getting to Haycock and Caw Fell.

Their relative inaccessibility had been obvious to me for years, having been reading the books since the early Seventies, long before the mad ambition to climb them all had ever come into my head. Wainwright himself had picked out Caw Fell as a long distance trod, six miles there from the Cold Fell Road, and six miles back. This still came over as intimidating, even when I had demonstrated the ability to cover longer distances, over rougher and much more interesting ground without collapsing in my tracks.

I’d even walked the first part of that approach, on another day n the Western Margins, Grike round to Lank Rigg, and it didn’t looked remotely difficult underfoot, and yet Wainwright made it feel like a major expedition into extremely lonely and isolated country, just waiting to trip you up.

And it wasn’t as if the ‘shorter’ approach, from Ennerdale, looked in the least bit appealing.

If it were to be done, it looked as if it would have to be done from Haycock and back. And that looked as if it would be best done from Wasdale, via Nether Beck.

This was something of an unusual walk for me. I was unfamiliar with Nether Beck, except for the fact that it and Over Beck debouched into Wastwater in a very short space. Most expeditions involved a fairly immediate climb into the hills, up some sort of ridge aimed for my first fell of the day, but Nether Beck, as emphasised in the long, thin map extension in the Haycock chapter, had little to do with Haycock. I would be starting along a narrow, confined beck valley, with a long way to walk before I even came near to, let alone saw my first target of the day.

Nevertheless, this made the early walking quite easy. The path was distinct, the valley mostly straight, and whilst I didn’t gain much in height, I was swallowing up distance easily. Though I did have some concerns about the cloud line, which was showing signs of hovering on or about the ridge. There was little to show me where I was, the valley being quite enclosed, and any view back to Wasdale soon hidden by the curve of the valley.

At Pots of Ashness, where the valley took another turn, I has the choice of a steepish ascent to the flatlands above and approach haycock directly, or to take the more roundabout route, further up the valley, to gain the ridge at the col between the fell and Scoat Fell, further east.

Being in no rush, I took that route, which began to steepen after the outflow from Scoat Tarn. I kept looking out to my right, hoping to catch a glimpse of the tarn in its bowl, but never gained enough height to see it.

The clouds were threatening above and, by the time I got to the col, the last twenty feet or so had been within their folds.

No matter how experienced I got, I never liked walking in clouds. I never escaped the underlying fear of not being able to see where I was, and potentially falling down a cliff, but even in areas of clear tracks and guaranteed easy route-finding, I always felt enclosed, hemmed in. I walked to be out in the open, up in the hills, to see ahead and behind and all round, and in cloud on the tops, I lost the sense of being on the tops. The cloud was a ceiling above me, pressing down.

Nevertheless, the cloud had drifted clear once I reached the summit, and I had the uninterrupted view that I wanted. Despite its height, Haycock’s distance from the surrounding valleys means it doesn’t offer the greatest views, except over Blengdale which, paradoxically, was the main thing I wanted to see.

After my Dad died in 1970, I inherited his membership of the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway Preservation Society. His dad was born in Ravenglass, the youngest child of the Station Master on the main line, and in the early Seventies, our name was still recognised in the Village. We never let a holiday go by without a trip on the Ratty.

The River Mite had been added to the Rivers Irt and Esk as the Ratty’s third steam engine, and in the early Seventies, there was talk of building another engine. It was suggested that, in order to fit in with the other engines, any new train be named the River Bleng. I’d never heard of this river before, and on asking discovered it to be a tributary of the Irt. Reading the Western Fells identified its whereabouts to me, and its valley’s size and reputation. It had remained a point of curiosity to me ever since, but I had never been anywhere before from which I could see Blengdale for myself, until now.

I was both impressed and seriously unimpressed. Haycock was the ideal viewpoint, standing at the very head of the valley, which was broad and green. But my instant response, which I can reproduce more or less verbatim was “my God, what flaming idiot let the Forestry Commission into Ennerdale when this bloody useless waste of space was available?”

There is a Blengdale Forest much further down the valley, and which has a surprisingly favourable reputation, especially among cyclists, but I defy anyone to look upon the open, empty, featureless spaces of the long upper valley, fill it in their imagination with dark, dank straight lines of trees, regimented across the valley and not conclude that it looks so much better like that.

I was now as close to Caw Fell as I was ever going to get in normal circumstances, and especially when I was still working towards completion of the Wainwrights. The traverse was a mile each way, an inescapable there-and-back-again, and especially after the initial steep descent on rough ground, the walk deteriorated with every step. I pulled myself up onto the flat top of Caw Fell, wandering along in parallel to the fence, but the actual highest point was as impossible to determine without military-grade surveillance equipment as it is on Branstree.

Strangely, the view from caw Fell, circumscribed as it was by the breadth of the summit, was more memorable than that from Haycock. I could see how the ridge declining towards the Western Margins turned abruptly north after Caw Fell’s top, rising over the equally ungainly Iron Crag, whilst behind me the highlight of the view was of Haycock itself.

It was a fortunate trick of geography that Caw Fell’s top was situated at that point where perspective makes the fells look their grandest. Haycock soared, a massive dome, raised above the head of the valley, it’s summit wreathed again in clouds, preventing me from taking the photograph I wanted. Seen from that angle, Haycock was noble and grand, and looked a damn sight higher than in reality it was.

The cloud was now lower and thicker than before, and I had to go back that way to return to Nether Beck. I contemplated contouring around the head of Blengdale, keeping below the cloud-line, and below any of the crags. But there were no tracks and whilst the ground looked to be without difficulties from afar, I knew from past experience how wearing it was to traverse angled ground for any length of time. And having the emptiness of Blengdale for company did little to recommend it.

In the end, I climbed back up to Haycock, though I found that I could bypass the summit rocks and skirt round to the long descent towards Pots of Ashness and the damp looking plateau between Haycock and Seatallan.

The latter had actually been part of my initial plans for the day, thinking to sweep up three relatively unprepossessing fells in a single walk. However, on looking across towards the long ascent necessary to reach Seatallan, I have changed my mind. My rule of thumb is that if a ridge route involves 500′ of additional climbing, it should be classed as a separate ascent, and factored accordingly.

Omitting it today actually worked to my advantage. It was not all that long after that, in conversation with a fellow walker, he asked which Wainwright I was saving for last. I hadn’t even considered that before but a short review of the two dozen or so remaining made it clear that, for purely personal reasons, Seatallan would be the ideal choice.

Descending towards the flat (and wet-)lands, with the long and tedious rise of Seatallan beyond confirmed the wisdom of omitting that part of the walk. At that time of the day, setting out on a 700′ ascent was the opposite of wisdom.

There were no paths across the wetlands, but I had picked out the point where I would need to descend to Nether Beck and kept that in sight once I was down to the level. Crossing between the streams and rivulets was slow-going but without problems.

And then it was down the steep slopes to the beck, and the narrow path down the narrow valley, reversing the sights I’d seen behind me in the morning. Once again, I was in confined quarters, and it was just a retreat, with the car and getting my boots off as the goal.

It was a strange day, in a part of the Lakes which held no intrinsic appeal to me, yet despite the interference of the cloud it was a very satisfying and memorable day. Caw Fell in particular was very strange to visit, the sense of being so very far away from anybody else, and that gently curved but flat top on which, despite the nearby wall, I felt a tremendous sense of exposure, as if I were at risk of being swept to the edge of the top and over it and down.

Needless to say, I’d love to repeat that walk, and see if the same sensations affect me.

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