Many years ago, in the first half of the Nineties, on a whim I decided to commit myself to playing every album I had – CD, vinyl, tape – during the year. When you live alone, you can do oddball things like that. I can’t remember how many albums I had then, but it was probably more than 400. That’s a lot of listening: I got to the last album somewhere in the early weeks of December.
Three or four years later, and a substantial number of additional albums in my collection (I was a considerably more voracious acquirer back then, when there seemed to be more good music) I decided to repeat the exercise. This time, I had listened to everything by the middle of May.
The difference was that, second time round, I was a lot more methodical about the task. I planned, I executed, I zipped through.
I mention this because my fellow blogger George has suggested I write about a particular walk that has a poignant element for me, and my lack of method first time round the Wainwrights was in its way responsible for that day.
I’ve spoken before of how my Dad, Stanley Crookall, introduced me to fellwalking in 1966, and of how reluctant, and complaining, I was. I grew out of it reasonably quickly, or at least that’s what I remember, but I have never forgotten that it was he who introduced me to the fells. I went on to complete the Wainwrights, and a part of that achievement was to do what Dad would have loved to do, and to see all these things that were denied him by the cancer that took him away from the fells, and eventually from us all, before he reached the age of 42.
I would love to set out on another Wainwright Round, go back to all those 214 summits (with especial reference to High Stile, Dodd, Scale Fell and Seat Sandal, from which I have not seen any views). But I know that it’s impossible, and my body wouldn’t let me. I have my doubts about getting to even a low summit again, given the state of my right knee.
But if I were to tackle the Wainwrights again, I would be methodical. There would be a plan, and it would be efficient. Not like the first time round, where planning did not extend beyond a Big Walk for the last day, and trying not to use the same Wainwright book twice.
There would be no holes in the jigsaw ‘next time’, no little fells in awkward corners that hadn’t tagged on to larger rounds, leaving me, as I neared the end of the list, with the prospect of short walks that didn’t amount to a full day’s expedition. Such as Fleetwith Pike.
Everyone who knows Buttermere knows Fleetwith Pike, and everyone who’s looked at even a small selection of Lake District photos knows the stunning view from its summit of the Buttermere valley, with the two lakes stretching out in a line. From the valley, the ridge is an obvious temptation, a straight, steep prow leading directly to the top.
On its own, Fleetwith Pike is maybe a half-day outing, with no real appealing route of return. To make it into a decent day, it was obvious that I should combine it with Haystacks, circuiting the short Warnscale valley, and returning via Scarth Gap. I have been to Haystacks before. It had been one of the very earliest fells I had climbed, or rather, we had climbed: the whole family.
My Buttermere walks were always done from Keswick, and for something at the head of the valley, I would cross Newlands Hause, pulling up at the top to allow my engine a chance to recover from that final steep pitch, after the bend, where there was never time to get out of first gear, and then that steep descent to Buttermere Village, riding on the brakes the whole way, which was why I would never drive over Newlands from the Buttermere end.
The only freely available parking at Buttermere by the Nineties was in Honister Bottom, and I had to go a good half-mile to find a suitable spot. The sun was well up the sky, and I had clear blue conditions and a fair amount of heat to face.
It was one of those days that started heavy-legged. There’s very little preliminary to the ascent: you leave the road and immediately you’re zig-zagging, in the lea of the fell, past Fanny Mercer’s white cross. I found it a struggle until I was out on the ridge.
Narrow ridges of this kind, thin trails amid the grass and rock, are great to follow, especially with that kind of view behind if you feel the need to halt for a breather. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy the ridge as much as I have others: it felt just that little bit too unremittingly steep, and although it was better to be out in the open, it was still a breathless day. Nor was I gratified that the path kept more to the Warnscale side of the ridge: Honister Bottom may not offer the best views, but Warnscale has a devastated look to it, as if it is the scene of some quasi-nuclear bomb test that has left a blight on the ground.
But persistence always brings the summit underfoot, and this was where the day changed, for the better. There was a breeze, and the air felt fresh now, and that spectacular view behind, with which I was so familiar already, but photos can never measure the scale of such sights. Still, I was peeved that the sun was shining too directly into my lens to make taking my own shot viable.
Fleetwith’s neat, bare summit was not bare of walkers. In fact, it was a bit like a tea party up there, like a Helvellyn summit crowd crammed into a smaller compass. I found a small patch of unoccupied ground, lowered myself onto it and dove into my rucksack for my sandwiches.
When I got up to move on, I was at last alone. I left the pack at Fleetwith’s summit behind, and strode off to descend the grassy decline to Dubs Bottom. I always preferred having the fells to myself, and I could now relax into sole possession of the afternoon.
En route to Dubs Bottom, I passed Black Star, the ‘summit’ of Honister Crag, and contemplated for a moment stepping aside to reach its summit. The thought amused me, that a mere walker like me could so easily reach the top whereas all the climbers were making it difficult for themselves, but then I realised that that wasn’t the point. It’s walkers who pursue summits: to climbers they’re the least interesting part of the crag.
Dubs Bottom was an interesting place, a wide depression studded with levels and derelict buildings from the old mining days. Beyond it, I could see the ground rising to the Old Drum House, at the stop of the seriously stiff ascent from Honister, the road to Great Gable, or Moses’ Trod, or the descent to Ennerdale by Loft Beck, so well used a thoroughfare yet almost invisible in Wainwright because it lends itself to no ascents.
Though it was no part of this walk, I crossed the dip and went up to the Drum House, climbing onto its platform and surveying that odd plateau that lies between the Buttermere and Ennerdale Valleys, and the way the Gable path turns towards the low ridge and seems to spring forward along its base. I’ve done that each time I’ve sweated up from Honister: by the time you get to the top, you need a few moments breather.
I turned back towards Dubs Bottom, which needed to be crossed at a diagonal, from the near right corner to the far left corner, to escape onto the fellside and the ridge of which Haystacks in the primary part. There were paths through the old workings, and I switched from one to another, like a child following a maze with invisible walls.
I emerged onto a path snaking in and out of the outcrops along the front of Haystacks. It moved up and down, and in and out, never the same for ten yards straight, and giving no glimpse as to what was ahead. I didn’t have Wainwright’s proverbial raging toothache, and I suspect I would have been giving it the major part of my attention if I did, but this crossing had immediately etched itself into my short list of paths I would happily go back and walk immediately: Ullock Pike to Long Side, the Corridor Route being other examples.
The best part came when I crossed the entrance to the cove that holds Blackbeck Tarn. Everyone sees Innominate Tarn as the jewel of Haystacks, but one look at Blackbeck, glittering in its sheltered bowl, the Tarn’s boundaries swelling towards the back of its expanse, and I was hooked. I’ve never been one for camping, being too fond of guesthouse beds in which to rest myself after a hard day’s fellwalking, but I could imagine the joy of an early awakening on the grasses above the reedy banks at the far end.
After Blackbeck Tarn, the winding path continued to weave up and down, but far too soon I was emerging onto the broad back of the fell, and could see across the head of Ennerdale to Great Gable, and Pillar. From there, it was just a gradually ascending way, passing Innominate Tarn’s shores (I cannot remember whether Wainwright had adorned it then) and on to the nearby summit, which surprised me by merely revealing another, and higher outcrop.
I had been here before, nearly thirty years before. I remembered that we’d not been able to see Innominate Tarn from the summit and had moved on to the other outcrop to see it, with the ring of high Ennerdale fells as its backcloth, but no further.
Part of me still can’t believe we had ever been there at all. My family were wedded to the quarter of the Lakes from Ambleside to Wasdale, and apart from the traditional wet-Friday trip to Keswick, never ventured further. I hadn’t even seen Haystacks until the previous year, when, for my benefit, we spent a non-walking rain-soaked day going round the Western Lakes, and I saw Ennerdale Water, Loweswater, Crummock Water and Buttermere for the first time ever, four new Lakes in one day, and we escaped by going over Honister Pass, between writhing clouds and towering cliffs, and this from my Uncle who normally wouldn’t take his cars over anything more steep than Dunmail Raise.
And here we were, in Buttermere, parking opposite Gatesgarth Farm, bound for Scarth Gap and Haystacks. I can only assume that it was its status as Wainwright’s favourite fell that brought us there. The pass was supposed to be one of the easiest in the Lakes, but once again our family maxim applied: ‘if Wainwright says it’s easy, it’s hard: if he says it’s hard, it’s bloody difficult!’
Enough so that, at the Pass, in a precursor of the stomach problems that would limit our expeditions in the Seventies, my Uncle stayed behind, leaving only the four of us, mother, father, daughter, son, to scramble up the gully and find our way to the summit.
My Dad was 39 in August 1968, fit, healthy, active. He was looking up, and ahead, to the high fells. His younger child, my sister, was older every year, and the range of our walks would be growing with her. His son had stopped whingeing if you so much as asked him to lace up his walking boots. No, he wasn’t as impressed with Haystacks as he’d hoped to be: to him, Lingmell, our second and highest top to date, was more the mountain top he envisaged. Idly, he suggested he’d prefer his ashes sprinkled there.
That November, we got away, just the four of us, for a couple of days in a small cottage in Grisedale Forest. I remember walking down the road to see Forge Force Falls on the evening we arrived, I remember lying in the top bunk in a crowded bedroom we all shared, feeling so much part of everything as my parents talked below, and I remember following the Grisedale Forest on our last day. There was no fellwalking as such.
Dad was complaining of pains in his left shoulder. Back in Manchester, he went to the Doctor. He was in hospital more than not over the next twenty months. He never saw the Lake District again. Haystacks was his last walk.
That’s not the place of sentiment for me. That came a couple of years later, crossing from the last Wainwright to the one that had been the First, unlovely, ungainly, unlikely Middle Fell in Nether Wasdale. As I arrived at the summit from the back, the party there was packing up and leaving. I walked round for the next half hour, talking to those who would never come back as I had come back, this once and only time.
But Haystacks is still one of only three tops where I can look the memory of my Dad in the eye and stand equal to him. Me and you, Dad, me and you.
I scrambled down to Scarth Gap and set off for the valley. I can’t remember if this descent came before or after the one I made after completing the High Stile range, which was the one where I sat down on a pathside stone to look at the very strange goings on in the wide green fields below, that I finally realised was the filming of an episode of One Man and his Dog.
Sadly, I never saw the broadcast episode, so I have no idea to this day whether I managed to get myself into the background of any shots, and add to my small stock of TV background shots.
And I drove away over Honister.