A Newlands Day


Newlands Valley
Newlands Valley

I have the terminal by the window today which means that, despite the double-glazing, I have the faint sensation of cold on my right hand side. The past few days of spectacular blue-sky clarity have greyed over, and I’m once again drifting elsewhere.

Monday was the anniversary of the first of the storms that devastated Glenridding. The damage the Lakes suffered that day, and in the weeks that followed, is by no means resolved: I understand that of over 550 bridges damaged or swept away by the floods, no more than about 150 have been repaired.

I missed my annual November trip, to places like Ambleside and Grasmere. My outing in sunny May never went further than Penrith, and whilst the fells surrounding Ullswater looked good in the spring sun, it wasn’t the fells that were damaged.

More and more, I find myself dipping into my recollections of walks, good walks, long walks, walks I’ve not yet gone into on these blogs. One such, an extended circuit of Newlands, landed me in a fair amount of potential trouble before the day was over.

I used to organise my weeks away on the progression from a leg-stretching short walk on the Sunday afternoon of arrival building up to a big walk on the Thursday, involving either one of the Lake District’s major fells or at least something that went on for miles with multiple summits I’d never previously collected.

A circuit of Newlands, starting with Maiden Moor, going round to Hindscarth, with a permissible diversion to Robinson and back, was perfect to wrap up this week. I planned to start and finish in the Newlands Valley, parking near to Little Town, at the foot of the Catbells approach to Hause Gate.

Though there was a shortish, pathless alternative route to the ridge, it was a nice day and I was happy to follow the orthodox route, steep though it was, to the ridge. Fellwalking isn’t about the shortest route, especially not at the beginning of the day, and it was sunny.

I reached the ridge after some decent exercise, and automatically looked in the Catbells direction. It was tempting to pay a visit, not having claimed Catbells before now, but sensibly I decided to save it until later. Indeed, I ended up saving it far later than I ever intended, since I was determined to take my lady to its summit and wouldn’t spoil the moment of discovery.

Dale Head from Maiden Moor
Dale Head from Maiden Moor

Once on the Western Wall of Borrowdale, which is steep and difficult to access, the way is easy and gentle, with no gradients to be concerned about. Maiden Moor’s top was a tilted field whose highest point was another of those that can’t be identified without sophisticated measuring equipment that didn’t exist that far back. I strolled along its upper edge, not hugging the edge, in order to lay a realistic claim to hitting the top, then dropped slowly down to the col that bridged the gap to High Spy.

That section of the ridge was surprisingly narrow for two such broad-based fells, but High Spy, as well as being higher, was also a bit more orthodox in shape, with a defined summit.

This was still more of a prelude to the highlights of the walk, which were going to be the triumvirate of Dale Head, Robinson and Hindscarth, three fells of similar height and design, throwing long ridges into Newlands. Borrowdale’s Western Wall was an approach, leading up to the business part of the day.

From High Spy there was a roundabout descent on pathless grass, curving to the west to come down to Dale Head Tarn, the only tarn in the whole of the North Western Fells, and that right in its lowest corner.

Across the outflow lay the direct ascent to Dale Head, famously tedious and looking from here as if its reputation wasn’t built on exaggeration. I had no intention of tackling that corner, not when an easier route was available, but that easier route proved to be a very odd experience in itself.

A faint track lead away from the head of the Tarn across grasslands. I say track, but there was little more than flattened grass to indicate that people ventured this way, and within a few moments I was out of site of the tarn and feeling as if I had passed into another world.

The route led through a shallow valley, barely describable as a valley. The way was silent, and the ‘path’ progressed a series of short levels, broad swathes of grass defined only by shallow growth of grass. The path twisted and turned gently, in stretches of fifteen to twenty yards. But for the evidence of this route underfoot, barely discernible except when you had your boots on it, I might have been the first person ever to come this way. I had the sense that if I were to have an accident here – which would have been very difficult to contrive – I would never be found.

For a fellwalker as enthusiastic as I was, I did have a few incipient fears: an inclination towards vertigo, a touch of claustrophobia. I had not previously demonstrated any susceptibility to agoraphobia, but on this one occasion, I felt awfully exposed. My pace increased, subconsciously, to get me out of here as soon as possible.

Eventually, the fence posts marking the route from Honister Pass to Dale Head summit, and a few people ascending that way, came into view ahead. I made directly for it and turned uphill on a famously easy ascent, to the summit.

dale-head-rangeDale Head dominates its immediate scene, and the head of Honister. It has a brilliant, massive cairn, directly above the full-length view of the Newlands valley, its only flaw being that it is right above that vista, with very limited traversing room round the cairn to get an uninterrupted photo. Given my incipient vertigo, I didn’t even think of trying. But it was a great view.

After a break for lunch, I resumed the trail. Dale Head, Hindscarth and Robinson lie in parallel, in that order east to west, but Hindscarth’s top lies off the ridge, projected further towards Newlands. The ridge, which narrowed quite sharply at one point, coinciding with a burst of rather fierce wind, crossways of course, that had me stepping carefully, dips and rises to the back of Hindscarth, and then curves away further west, to swing round to Robinson.

I’d planned to use Hindscarth, and the ridge over the remarkable Scope End for the descent, so for now it was on again, dipping to the low point on the ridge and then climbing a rather flat, broad-based and somewhat tiring ridge to the summit of Robinson. It was hotter than before, the walking was not inspiring, and by the time I reached Robinson, I was suffering the beginning of a headache and starting to regret including it in the round.

There was nothing to do from here but to turn back, cover trodden ground and regain the back of the Hindscarth ridge. A direct descent to Newlands would mean omitting a summit that would then end up isolated, not to mention leaving me with a lot of road-walking in Newlands to get back to the car. Nor was the ridge descending from Robinson anything like as an appealing walk.

So I trudged on. My head started getting worse but, more than that, I was starting to move very sluggishly. Looking across the curve at the head of Little Dale, there was the possibility of contouring across, avoiding the climb to the midpoint of the ridge, but taking into account how heavy-limbed I was getting, and the absence of any track, it didn’t seem worth the minimal gain it would make.

Hindscarth, Scope End, Robinson
Hindscarth, Scope End, Robinson

So I plugged on, joined Hindscarth’s ridge, made its cairn and sank down thankfully. But in doing so, I had used the last of my energy. It was four o’clock, and though there were still hours of sunlight ahead, the air had changed. Evening was slowly making its presence felt and I was alone. Conspicuously, everybody else on the fells – and there had been plenty about all day – had suddenly vanished.

I contemplated resting. I could afford a half hour or so, a bit of sleep, refresh myself a little. But there was nowhere to lie, to shelter but the stones of the summit and, to be truthful, I was only too conscious of the risk in falling seriously asleep, hours of it, and waking in twilight or darkness. So there was nothing for it but to move on.

Like the traverse of Glaramara under my sweatshirt turban, I have very little recollection of the descent, which is a terrible shame because, even in my exhausted state, I could tell this was a cracker to walk. But I just couldn’t take in my surroundings, not when at every point I was focused on my boots and where they were being placed. Scope End came and went, and the descent grew steep once more, sliding towards Newlands.

Eventually, I got to ground level, and trudged wearily back to the car. It was blazing hot, having been in the sun all day and accumulated such a concentrated dose of heat that, when I opened my cool box to extract a drink, the carton of milk had turned through about 540 degrees, and the tub of margarine was a sloppy brown liquid that nobody in their right mind would dream of imbibing. Back to Keswick, having poured away and wiped up everything I possibly could.

I never got round to repeating the main part of that walk, and enabling myself to properly experience the Scope End ridge. The Dale Head group were collected, and whilst I was still collecting Wainwrights, there were no walks that could be extended to reincorporate any of those summits.

Once I’d reached the end of that particular road, and was free to just wander where I would, circumstances, as I’ve previously said, combined to limit my prospective walking years to only a handful. I walked the Western Wall once, basing myself at Grange, following the mining track that ran under the walls of Castle Crag and turned up to the heights, returning over High Spy, Maiden Moor and Catbells (which I’d finally got my lady friend to the top of), and back via Hause Gate to Grange.

But despite the straits I found myself in, it was still a brilliant day and a great walk, and a good thing to remember on a slow, grey December day in Stockport.

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