The Unlovely


The immediate environs

I haven’t written about the Lake District for a long time. Though there are quite a few walks I’ve never written about, the peg on which to hang a post hasn’t been there. I’d feel as if I were writing for the sake of writing.
But a recent post by George Kitching on his continually excellent site (http://www.lakelandwalkingtales.co.uk/secrets-of-the-wastwater-screes/), evoked a few memories for me, going back a very long way indeed.
I have told this story before, but not in as much detail as I will now.
It’s as obvious as can be that I inherited my love of the Lakes, and of the fells. But in one way, I differed very greatly from the rest of the family. They – and I have reason to differentiate my Dad from this – were wedded to only one section of the Lakes. Apart from the near-statutory rainy-day visit to Keswick, no-one wanted to venture outside the arc from Ambleside (or Grasmere at a push) to Wasdale. I exempt Dad from this accusation of narrow-mindedness because he got us round as far as Buttermere, and to the top of Haystacks. But after his death, the only time we stepped outside the closed circuit, it caused ructions massive enough to have me swearing off family holidays in future inside the first 24 hours.
Once I started going up alone, I had a glorious time going wherever I chose, leading eventually to completing the Wainwrights. It’s safe to say that I loved all the Lake District, all the fells, the valleys, the Lakes and Tarns.
But it’s not entirely right to say that I love everywhere in the Lake District. Some places are less ‘lovable’ than others – Mungrisedale Common, I am thinking of you – but there isn’t really anywhere I actively do not like. With the possible exception of Burnmoor Tarn.
I have visited the Tarn on four occasions throughout my life. To me, it’s a dull, boring, colourless stretch of flat water, set in the unpropitious surroundings of tedious grass slopes of no interest whatsoever. I don’t care that one of those slopes in Scafell, it is Scafell’s least interesting and totally unphotogenic side.
It all goes back a very long way. Not before 1966, when I was first laced protestingly into a pair of walking boots, nor after 1968, when we reached our first summit. Somewhere between those two times, probably sooner rather than later.
We decided to walk to Burnmoor Tarn, from Eskdale. Don’t ask me why, not even when I was in my late teens did I get consulted on our destination for the day. It would have simply been chosen as a destination within our early capacities, and especially those of my younger sister, who was four in July 1966. Couldn’t be too far, couldn’t be too steep. Burnmoor Tarn, out of Boot in Eskdale, looked perfect in that respect.
I’ve been trying to remember whether we approached the walk by driving to Eskdale and parking at Dalegarth Station, or if we decided to fit it in as an informal Walk from Ratty, between trains from Ravenglass.
Either way, it was a bit of a grey day, not that we expected that to be a difficulty since we weren’t going to be getting up to any great heights. We walked to Boot to start the walk, crossing the bridge over the Whillan Beck, and taking the steep, slanting path raking across the fellside ahead, from left to right.
I remember the steepness most of all. I was still in that stage of whining whenever I was asked to walk uphill. I also can’t keep contrasting my attitude with the next time we crossed the bridge to go walking on that low flank of Eskdale, when we took the path straight up the fellside, onto the Boat How ridge, but not only was I a lot more enthusiastic by then, that was one of the very rare occasions when I had had some influence on where we were going for the day (don’t ask me how!)
Up and up, on a narrow path on which we had to walk single file, Dad and Uncle Arthur in the van, Mam at the rear keeping an eye on my little sister and me in the middle where I could cause the least disruption.
I’ve never taken that path since, though the year before last, when I took my Ravenglass Expedition, I slowly walked up the road on the other side of the Whillan Beck, into sight of the lip of the low, flat saddle of Burn Moor. So my memory is prompted, externally, of reaching the edge of the flatter land at last, the narrow confines ending, the route spreading out before us…

Burnmoor Tarn, seen from Scafell

This was where all the real problems started. At some point, and I can’t remember whether this was in the valley or once we’d come off the steep ascent, it started to grey over, and a wind started to blow up. I remember struggling into something out of the lonesome wild, but that might very likely be a slightly later recollection as we shall see.
The path was clear underfoot, so we set off towards the nearest horizon, a very low green ridge not far ahead. Beyond it was a dip, a shallow, indeed micro-valley across the way. We descended and ascended the far side, to find another, almost identical micro-valley. And on its further side, another.
What we didn’t know was that we were entering into our own, private, family hell. We had none of us been to Burnmoor Tarn before and had no idea how far it was. With the sky growing increasingly grey above, and the threat of rain growing increasingly inevitable, spirits were lowering all the more every time we crested a rise, only to see yet another dip-and-rise before us. Dad began encouraging us. Come on, it’s only over the next rise. Come on, it’s only over the next rise. The years exaggerate the experience but it must have been close on a dozen times, and everybody’s belief and patience eroded into nothingness, before we finally topped one more identical rise and saw the wide, cold, pale, spreading sheet of water below us. It was not an adequate regard for our patience, having nothing of the pleasant to look at. And as for Scafell, only a low tranche of its green and empty slopes was visible before our eyes were lifted to the base of the cloud.
I won’t say that there was a spring in our step now we’d finally arrived, nor that our pace increased as we descended to the tarn shore. The setting was best described as bleak. I can’t remember if I’d been introduced to the word bleak by this time, but I intuited bleak.
The final straw was the great moment in which insult was added to injury. We were less than fifteen yards from the shore of the Tarn when it started to rain. And rain with a degree of effort. This was particularly personal to me because I wore glasses, even then.
There was a scramble to get into waterproofs, with Mam helping first my sister, then me, because these were never easy things to put on over anoraks and walking boots, but eventually we were proofed against the rain. Without discussion, a quick consensus was formed that we would not hang around. We about-faced… and headed back towards Eskdale. Up a low ridge, across a micro-valley, up a low ridge, ad nauseam.
Eventually, a long time later, with nobody doing any talking, especially me, because my Dad had a quick (but forgivably brief) temper and anything I said would have a deleterious effect, until at long last we reached the edge of Burnmoor and started downhill again, to Ratty or to Uncle Arthur’s car. I can remember the odd personal disappointment more intense than that afternoon but not a worse experience overall.
Like I say, I’m prejudiced against Burnmoor Tarn. I think you can understand why.
If that were the end of it, that would be fine by me, but unfortunately I have three other, widely-separated encounters to report. Two of these were of my own sole making, but would you believe that, after that horrible time, my family took us back there?

In sunnier conditions

It was a different time, and a different day in all respects and, but for my resentful memories of the sodding place, it might have been a decent walk.
This was in the early Seventies, after Dad had left us, and we continued on our twice-yearly Lakes holidays, just the four of us, my mother and my Uncle in joint command and even less prospect of seeing somewhere out of their circumscribed arc. I think this was a Friday afternoon, I’m almost certain of it, a last day before going home from which self-catering cottage we’d booked that time. It was a sunny day, and because we hadn’t been there yet that week, we had to go to Wasdale, Wastwater and Great Gable.
It was sunny, a bright day, and it might even have been hot. Of all the walks we might have done out of Wasdale Head, the grown-ups selected… the Wasdale Corpse Road to Burnmoor Tarn.
Oh deep and abiding joy.
Maybe it was just too hot and, in the valley, stuffy, to countenance anything further or more strenuous. Or maybe it was just so hot it addled their brains. But we parked at the head of the Lake, rounded it towards Illgill Head and the track along the foot of the Screes, and when the Corpse road diverted off it, we turned uphill.
Like the other end, there was an initial steep ascent, though I can’t remember which was worse. It was slow going for all of us, which didn’t matter that much because we didn’t have anything like as far to go. And the views were clear and sharp and, once we were above the valley floor, we were at a height when the mountains ringing the valley head looked massive, monumental and mammoth. For that alone the walk was justified, though none of the photos I took captured even a fraction of that dimension.
Soon enough, we reached the lip of land at the top end of Burn Moor. There was the Tarn again, still and silver, in its shallow bowl. Sun burned down on it, but though the ground around it was green and not grey, it still had nothing that appealed to me. In an excess of energy, I strode out on the low, easy descent, first to the water’s edge by a good hundred yards at least.
There was still nothing to do, and nothing to look at, not even anything to sit down on. Burnmoor Tarn just isn’t a place to go to, it’s a place to go past, preferably without stopping, on the way to somewhere better.
The next time I saw Burnmoor Tarn, apart from the rare glimpse of it you can get in views, such as from the summit ridge of Yewbarrow, the Tarn being as shy in that respect as Floutern Tarn, was in the Eighties. It was a bit of an odd walk: by the time I started going to the Lakes on my own, every walk had the destination of at least one summit, but on this occasion, I’d set off to reach Miterdale Head. We’d been there once as a family, but I loved that secluded little valley and wanted to visit it again, with that perfect little bowl, the rim of crags surrounding the hidden head. What I was doing, aiming so low, I have no idea: the weather was good enough to exclude the possibility that walking had only been possible in the afternoon, limiting my ability to ascend to the heights, any heights.
By then, I was much more familiar with Wainwright than I’d been. I knew of his comments of how geography had clearly intended Burnmoor Tarn to drain away into Miterdale, but for a low bar of land, no more than twenty feet or so of uplift, that shifted the Tarn’s outflow to the far end, immediately next to its inflow. I wanted to see that for myself.
So I found a weakness in the encircling crags, scrambled up that, hauled myself over the lip and walked forward a dozen or so feet, and there it was. Good old, dull old Burnmoor, no different, except for the tantalising prospect of maybe some day the water finding a channel to here, creating a fine waterfall, dropping gracefully into the valley.

From all angles, the place is just dire

Three out of four. Another time, I decided it was time I climbed Illgill Head. before I’d declared myself out of the family’s holidays, we had climbed Whin Rigg, from the foot of Wastwater, but gone no more than a token distance further towards its partner.
Obviously, I should make both into a single expedition and, given my love for Miterdale, I planned to begin and end the walk there, climbing through the trees onto the ridge above Irton Pike, following the spine of the Screes over Whin Rigg, and descending from Illgill Head to sweep round and down, and back through Miterdale.
Things went well to begin with. I parker in Miterdale, walked back to the base of the path in the woods, set off uphill. The climbing was never strenuous, but the drawback was walking in woods. I had no sense of what progress I was making, and no views around me to enjoy.
When I eventually reached the ridge, and encountered a wind that I had been sheltered from thus far, I also found that the sky had gone very grey. There was cloud across Nether Wasdale, a ceiling sweeping up the far side of the Lake, that I anticipated seeing when I turned right and started uphill towards my first target.
I was not wrong. Beyond the great gash of Greathaw Gill (check?), I could see the grey cloud across my path. I walked cautiously under it, feeling the air go cold around me. I kept going, without any haste. After a while, in sight of a small outcrop, no more than twenty feet away, I squatted beside the path, prepared to give it chance to blow out. I sat there, huddled, for about fifteen minutes before admitting it would not blow itself out anytime soon if I just sat there, so I rose to my feet, walked up to the nearby outcrop – and discovered it was the bloody summit!
I didn’t wait there long but descended the other side, making very sure I wasn’t getting too close to anything that might represent an uncontrolled descent to the Screes. Before long, I was on the broad back of the ridge, and staying in the middle. This was because the cloudbase was round about at the same height as me. The way ahead would become clearer for a time, then dissolve into greyness. Call me a coward, but I was going nowhere near any precipitate edges unless I could see very clearly all around me and especially under my feet.
The path down the back of the ridge was clear and unmissable, I followed it onto the back of Illgill Head and up into the full cloud again, until i reached the summit.
There was nothing to see, except in one quickly-passing moment when the cloud swirled away, leaving a clear view down into Wasdale Head, and the foot of Great Gable. Five seconds, no more, enough to tantalise with a view worth seeing.
I’d gotten this far and I wasn’t going to turn round and go back over trodden ground, even though the route off Illgill Head wasn’t all that distinct. Given the shape of the fell, what risk could I be running even if I got off the path?
And once I got below the cloud level, even any residual concerns along that line were dispelled. It was just a flat downhill trudge, under dark clouds, through dingy air.
Of course, I was heading down towards Burnmoor Tarn, and this time I was seeing it from practically above, so that all its expanse lay below me. And no, it didn’t look any better than it had on any of the few occasions I had been anywhere near it.
The descent lay to the north-west of the Tarn. It would join to the Corpse Road on its descent from the saddle into Wasdale Head, turn right to go across the joint head and foot of the Tarn, and I could see the track leading away from that, along the south-east side of the Tarn, towards the Miterdale edge. In short, it was asking me to walk round three sides of this bloody big, bloody boring Tarn. Not even in the best of conditions could you get me to do that.
So I cut off the path to my right, across the blunt prow of the fell, on a gentle downwards trajectory, leaving Burnmoor Tarn to my left. It wasn’t an interesting walk, except as an exercise in avoidance: there were no paths, the ground was tussocky, it was at least twice as far as it looked like being on the ground, and if the rain had started in and my vision been impaired, it could have been sticky, but a long while later, I had left Burnmoor Tarn behind – for the last time to date – and was making for the slightly tricky because currently slippery descent into Miterdale Head from above.
All that remained was the long walk down Miterdale to where I had parked my car.
Years after that, I returned with my unexpected delight of a family, leading them to Miterdale Head, but not above to show them Burnmoor Tarn because the scramble was just a bit too much for them, and I wasn’t going to leave them.
So this is my history with Burnmoor Tarn, and the reasons why I don’t love it as I love nearly all the rest of the Lake District. Our first visit burned into me a dislike for the spot and any effort to get to it that has remained strong and forceful for over half a century, and Burnmoor’s lack of the least attractive or even semi-photogenic feature seals a determination to never waste precious time on it again.
There are so many better places in the Lakes to go to, even in distant memory.

4 thoughts on “The Unlovely

  1. Aha. Now I understand. It does sound as if your first encounter prejudiced you forever, although you’ve not been well served by subsequent visits. What a shame, although you are right—it isn’t the most exciting or photogenic corner of the Lakes.

    Many thanks for your kind comments about my blog.

    1. Your blog is continually excellent, George, and I will continue saying so.

      As for that long ago but never forgotten first visit, I think you would have ended up with an unshiftable prejudice had you been with us.

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