The Silence of the Uldales


The Uldales from a distance

Once upon a time, I set out to collect a bunch of summits, the Uldale Fells, that form one half of that green and nebulous country known as ‘Back o’Skidda”. There’s nothing out there that’s exciting, just a group of five fells that require a little bit of back-and-forthing to include in a single walk, and which required no especial effort or skill to collect. The walk took four hours from start to finish at Longlands Farm.

Yet I enjoyed my little grassland odyssey enough that, in those few post-Wainright years, I repeated the exact same walk, and took the exact same four hours, from Longlands Farm and back. And whilst there were some other walkers out those days, on some or other parts of the fells, we were never close enough to exchange words, not even the conventional greetings in passing.

Which endeared the walk(s) to me.

Longlands Farm lies on the road round the back of the Skiddaw/ Blencathra massifs. One day when low cloud put the fells out of reach, I drove this road, starting from the Penrith end, through Mungrisedale towards Caldbeck. The cloud was so low that, for the major length of it, from just after Hesket Newmarket until the serious descent to cross the foot of the Dash Valley, I drove invisibly, foglamp on, in a grey corridor of silence and solitude. It felt as if I was crossing a high moor, on a raised causeway.

I came back through Longlands Farm, though I can’t remember whether it was visible to me then. Certainly, I didn’t recognise it for what it was, and I only came back, from the Keswick end, when I wanted to take this route. The Farm lies in a steep dip, where a nameless beck crosses the road, and I had to be abrupt in pulling up for the available parking, on the fell side of the road, is just before the bridge, flattish land that can accommodate three to four cars but which is hardly ever likely to turn anyone away.

Be warned that this is not an exciting walk, nor a demanding one, and there is precious little rock to be seen and almost none to be put underfoot. The path takes a narrow, reedy course alongside the beck for the first couple of hundred yards before emerging into the open and starting to veer towards the right, across a very low ridge separating the beck from the valley of the infant River Ellen.

This is the first vista of the day and the low line of fells above the valley are almost all of those that will be crossed in the next few hours. The Ellen crosses the way ahead at a diagonal, from left to right, and the way is a broad way, declining at a gentle angle to cross the river, and rising beyond, across the lowest flanks of Great Cockup, to enter the day’s first, and primary highlight, the ravine of Trusmadoor.

This early in the walk, I found it impossible to saunter, and there was nothing to hinder me from striding out, except perhaps for the slow rise towards the entrance to Trusmadoor, which was set at that tedious angle that lies half way between level and interesting.

Once Trusmadoor is reached, the walk (except for exercise) really begins. Wainwright describes this, accurately, as a great natural railway cutting, and it’s a deep, steep-sided channel through the hills that catches the eye and the imagination, but which suffers from being completely unnecessary: it lies between two insignificant hills and leads from nowhere to nowhere. Uproot, it, stick it in the Scafells, and it would  be magnificent. It’s magnificent as it is, but with an overlooked, in-a-corner grandeur that receives only a fraction of the visitors it deserves.

Trusmadoor from afar

I say Trusmadoor is the real highlight of the walk and most people would agree, but I have a soft spot for the lawns below, fringing Burntod Gill just before it narrows to progress through its long, serpentine ravine. This comes from a completely different walk carried out between these two rounds, when I set out to collect Knott and Great Calva, and found myself scrambling up the ravine of Burntod Gill, beside the rushing beck, and having a glorious time of it. This had been an impromptu variation on my planned route and I wasn’t completely oriented to where I would emerge until I got there, and if I hadn’t a long way to go, I’d have stretched out for a long relaxing stop here.

The lawns lie off the line of ascent but demand a visit anyway, before returning to the near lip of Trusmadoor and starting the first serious climbing of the day.

Great Cockup, a name that makes 93 percent of adult male walkers snigger, is a low and unlovely lump forming the western wall of Trusmadoor, which is accessed along the stony, narrow ridge on the edge of the channel that is its best feature. The top is mostly grassy and the cairn is quite a distance from the corner at which the ridge debouches. When you get there, it offers no spectacular views over the North Cumberland plain, and there is nothing to do but to walk back the way you came.

At the bottom, it was only necessary to walk straight across and start up a similar narrow ridge on the opposite side, which was the key to the ascent of Meal Fell, which has one of the tiniest geographical footprints of the whole Wainwright guides.

There is a big difference between the two ribs: that on Meal Fell doesn’t rise to the summit, but instead levels out to contour across the back of the fell. I abandoned the path once this became plain, and worked my way up onto the summit, which has three individual ridges, elevated like causeways, one after another, with a near ninety degree zig-zag between each one, at the end of which the summit cairn arrives.

Meal Fell to Great Sca Fell

This offers an informative view of the ridge from here to Great Sca Fell, the highest point of this walk, a grassy ridge of increasing elevation to a summit hidden by the top itself, with Burntod Gill offering an interesting line in parallel, suggesting another route of approach, albeit with what looked like a very wearing ascent out of the upper Gill.

I descended the east ridge of Meal Fell onto that easy and broad grassy route towards Great Sca Fell, marching out unrestrictedly. The slope up to the invisible summit was straightforward, but being on grass it was not very interesting and was more tiring than a route on rock at the same angle or even steeper would have been. I settled at the cairn to eat my lunch, facing north, for there was nothing but higher fells and mountains crowding the near skyline in every other direction.

The first time I was here, I set off walking northwards, over the broad edge of the summit, and down across the sprawling Little Sca Fell (nothing around here is remotely reminiscent of any other Scafells). I’d got down about a hundred feet when I realised I’d left my camera behind and had to go charging back: there was no-one about and I found it at the foot of the cairn, where I’d left it.

The two remaining fells of the day lie north of Great Sca Fell, but at the end of different ridges. I’d chosen the furthest first, Brae Fell, alone at the end of a long, placid grassy ridge in a grassy nowhere devoid of people. The path, which surprised by being even one person wide, led directly to its little summit, overlooking the plain and distant Carlisle.

There was little to stay for, and nowhere to sit except on the grass. I turned on my heel and headed back into the grassy plain. On neither of my visits was there any sign of a track in this emptiness, other than the one underfoot, so I relied upon my judgement as to when to start veering over toward the half-concealed but surprisingly fast-running Longlands Gill. I was looking for somewhere to cross safely that didn’t involve me going too far back out of my way because as soon as I was across the beck, I was turning back north again, on a distinct path along the base of the ridge.

Oddly enough, it was in this widespread grassy bowl that I have one of my most vivid mental images, from that second round, when the weather was a little warmer and the skies a little brighter. I was heading inwards again, towards the fells, and there was a silence in the long grasses, and where there had been no markings all those years before there were faint tracks that suggested people came here, but not today, and the surrounding fells were grassy hills only and I might have been anywhere, but I was in tried, tested and true country of which I felt a part. I was alone but not lonely, and relaxed on my own two legs.

The first time round, I stayed by the beck until turning up onto the col behind Longlands Fell, but second time I was marginally more adventurous, and gained the ridge at its first col, going up and over the rather broad-beamed Lowthwaite Fell, which is higher than Longlands but doesn’t count as an independent summit for Wainwright.

Longlands Fell looking back

I crossed it nonchalantly, re-ascended Longlands and then carried on down its long ridge to gain the low country less than a quarter mile from Longlands Farm. There was nothing but a short stroll, and I was back at the car in pretty much exactly four hours on both occasions.

It was peaceful and quiet, and the walking was unstrenuous except in very short sections around Trusmadoor, and although the scenery deteriorates rapidly once you leave it and the lawns around Burntod Gill, that silent grassy plain at the back of Brae Fell, with its sense of exposure and its lonely country made an impression I’ll be long in forgetting.

And all to be had in half a day without even working up a sweat. Now I’m old, and arthritic, I could probably still get round the whole walk, and I wouldn’t like to bet that it would take me significantly longer than it did in my prime. It’s that sort of place, and I’ll bet it would still be empty like twice upon a time.

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