The Literal Back O’Skiddaw


The mouth of Southerndale

The first time I climbed Skiddaw, I was in unadulterated peak-baggers mode: maximum summits feasible. This meant the Long Side ridge, coming from the north, in parallel to the western flank of the main summit ridge, and climbing up from Carl Side col. It also meant coming back down to Carl Side col which, given my tendencies towards vertigo and the severe nature of the slope as it actually reaches the ridge, was a test of my nerve. Once I got back down, I didn’t fancy taking the Long Side ridge back, not out of any concerns about safety, but because I just didn’t want to go back exactly the same way I had climbed. My family did that: I covered more ground.

So I chose a line, a necessarily steep line, off the col and directly down into Southerndale. I took my time, stepped out cautiously, switched my line when it looked like getting involved with anything like scree, and arrived at the empty valley head with an easy walk home again. The absence of any paths was a trifling matter.

Time came and went. I climbed Skiddaw again via the Tourist Path, returning over Little Man and Lonscale Fell. I would do that walk once more, omitting Lonscale Fell on the descent, the summer I set out to climb all the 3,000’ers in one season (I fell one short by forgetting to bring a drinks bottle the day I reserved for Scafell).

But my favourite day on Skiddaw was a much more expansive version of the ascent from the Long Side ridge, a longer walk that in earlier days I thought beyond my stamina, which introduced me to lonely parts of the massif that weren’t in the least bit exciting, but which I had to myself for long hours. And that’s always worth having on Skiddaw.

For its first half, the walk was more or less identical to my first visit to the Long Side ridge. I parked in a layby on the Orthwaite Road that conveniently holds nearly half a dozen cars, walked up to the gate giving access to the fields, and strolled towards Barkbeth Farm, at the mouth of Southerndale. Here, as the valley mouth narrowed, there was a gate giving access to the valley, and an immediate ascent on grass to the low ridge.

But between then and then I had acquired Bill Birkett’s Complete Lakeland Fells. Not a book to carry around when walking, unlike Wainwright, but nevertheless containing many more points to visit than the Blessed had considered.

So, on achieving the ridge, I turned in the ‘wrong’ direction, following the pleasant little switchback of grass hummocks known as Watches, with its charming views towards Bass Lake, until I reached its highest point, on the furthest hummock. It was a diversion that only added to the length of the day, and I had to walk all the way back to start my circular course, but it was an enjoyable ridge to follow, gentle underfoot, and well worth the small effort it took.

Ullock Pike rose steeply above. It’s a true steep, straight approach, with a narrow crest along which the path ascends, occasionally changing sides between Southerndale and Bassenthwaite. The angle is unremitting, though the slope is not long. It was here that, quite by chance, I fell into an effortless comfortable rhythm, that ate up the slope with almost no expenditure of energy. All it required was a deliberate, slow pace, and I could climb and climb and climb without the least amount of weariness, nor need to stop. It felt like I could have gone on forever.

The Long Side ridge from Ullock Pike

Ullock Pike’s compact little top is a lovely place to halt, but it is better as the prelude to Longside Edge, a ten minute walk along a narrow but completely safe ridge, with steep slopes to either side. It’s a bit like a monorail, without the actual monorail, and it’s only flaw is that it is too short. It literally is no more than ten minutes when it is so enjoyable it should be at least twice the length, and there is the real temptation to turn back to Ullock Pike for the pleasure of doing it again.

From Long Side itself to Carl Side is equally enjoyable to begin with, but I’d barely left the former’s top before the ridge started to curve inwards towards the main body of Skiddaw. Carl Side itself is a rounded, flattened lump, much less inspiring as a target than Long Side, and the ridge loses itself in the final pull-up onto Carl Side itself. The path turns inwards, heading for Skiddaw, and to visit the summit it is necessary to divert over a low horizon onto the spreading heap.

From here, there’s a bit of a dip over a gravel field, and then it’s straight uphill, up the side of Skiddaw, on an increasingly steep path. This is at best a tedious climb and at worse an exhausting one, with nothing but stones beneath and no views to attract the eye unless you stop and look behind you. I was ever so glad that I had found that rhythm on Ullock Pike, for I was able to settle into it again, and the climb was an absolute doddle. I just stepped upwards, ever upwards, without the slightest sense of strain or weariness, without needing even to pause until I came out over the steepest stage and found myself on Skiddaw’s summit ridge.

Skiddaw top

The hard work done, I wandered along the ridge to Main Top, the highest point, and visited the cairn. Like all my previous visits, the place was crowded and I had to wait my turn with the viewfinder. It wasn’t like fighting my way to the cairn on Scafell Pike: crowds seem to be a bit more tolerable on Skiddaw and Helvellyn, which are more easily accessible by the casual pedestrian. Anyway, I didn’t intend to stay any longer than to register my presence, and I wandered on to the North Top to leave the crowds behind, enjoy an uninterrupted panorama, and scoff my sandwiches.

It was already quiet at the North Top, but as soon as I left it, moving forward, and down a long green slope, I was on my own, and I stayed that way from that point on. It felt strange after Skiddaw’s summit to so swiftly step into isolation. It felt as if I was stepping out of the world.

I walked away down an easy and broad incline that I quickly realised would have been hellishly tedious to walk up, and that without a look back or two towards the retreating skyline. It wasn’t long before I was at Broad End, an elevated platform on Skiddaw’s northern slope, of no great shape or significance save in its emptiness. It wasn’t even a pretence at a subsidiary summit, with virtually no downfall behind it to the path I’d walked down.

Broad End

This flank of Skiddaw is not necessarily steep, but it doesn’t take long to realise that you have lost enough height that you really wouldn’t want to turn round and climb back. Before you know it, the path is levelling out, and there is a mini-crossroads, at which the return route turns left, into a broad grass valley that starts to narrow the further along you get.

The crossroads is on the back of Bakestall, another of those features that are geographically only a part of a larger mass, Wainwright chose to treat individually, and we are better for it. I’d visited Bakestall already, the hard way, from the head of the Dash Valley, thinking thoughts that had gone into that day on Lord’s Seat when I’d unsuspectedly begun writing a novel, and this was a bit of a cheat, a short walk up the slightest of slopes to the summit cairn, an undeserved summit visit, but I did it. Then back to the crossroads and down that valley.

This was a quiet walk between increasingly enclosing walls, until the valley debouched upon a miniature replica of the scene above: a tiny crossroads, marked by a five stone cairn, the path onwards turning left into another green valley, a miniature top a few yards directly ahead, to be approached from the back, this one named Cockup, and vaguely parallel near the mouth of the Dash Valley to Great Cockup.

Bakestall face

Then down the second valley, between gradually encroaching walls, until I came out in the open, and onto a long path making its way around the northern boundary of the massif, above the intake walls.

Nothing now but distance to negotiate. The heights, and the heights of excitement, were a long way behind. The bottom of Southerndale was a long way ahead. The sun was sliding down the afternoon. There was no-one to see, nothing to do but follow the trail, a long march in unfamiliar surroundings, quiet and peaceful.

I’d rejected this particular route in the past, because of the long walk home round the northern perimeter, but I was a hardier walker now, with greater stamina, or at any rate greater confidence in it and I  strode along unconcernedly. The walk, in the terms I normally define walks, was long over and this country stroll a mere extended coda, under a high sun, in perfect peace.

My only moment of doubt lay in the crossing of the mouth of Barkbethdale, where the path dipped to the beck, then had to climb a low incline of its far bank on ground that was wet and soft. This short climb, so many hours after I’d last had to go uphill, proved more wearing than it normally would have been, but once I crossed the miniature watershed, the familiar skyline of Watches appeared directly ahead, with the narrow ridge of Ullock Pike beside it, and a short walk across the fields back to the car, and my cassette copy of The Distractions’ Nobody’s Perfect to repeat whilst I removed my boots.

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2 thoughts on “The Literal Back O’Skiddaw

  1. Wonderful account, Martin. I love Longside Edge, but when I did it we avoided going back the way we came by visiting Dodd and walking back through Dodd Wood. I like the idea of your route, though. I may give it a go at some point.

  2. It wasn’t the sort of walk I usualy planned, because of the long coda. Once you leave North Top, then despite the addition of Bakewell (from the bag with maybe fifty feet of ascent), it’s all going back andit’s a long walk. But it was a lovely walk, with a real sense that once you went down Skiddaw’s back, you had stepped into a different world, or even anotther dimension, in which human beings just didn’t exist.

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