It began with a false start. My firm had a client who lived in Askam, an old Westmorland village just off the route to Haweswater, who needed a visit. I’d planned a weekend in the Lakes, and so arranged to see the man on the Sunday. I drove up Friday night after work, a sweltering night but one on which the shimmering outline of unidentifiable Lakeland fells swam into view not far past the end of the Blackpool Motorway, the furthest south I’ve ever seen the hills.
But I could only get Friday night in a Keswick Hotel – not guesthouse, a Hotel – in which I watched World Cup Football under a sheen of sweat, and Saturday dawned with cloud, wrecking my day. I still got up Grisedale Pike and Hopegill Head again, despite finding them swathed in cloud. I wandered in a silent landscape, droplets clinging to my beard, and then down to Coledale Hause, still shrouded, and not free of cloud until halfway down to the Valley.
I rang our client from Braithwaite, hoping I could see him that day, but no joy so, with no bed for the night, I drove home, and made a special journey back the next day – in hard rain for most of it – to serve my firm.
But that was just a false start. A fortnight later I was back, not on the Friday night as I’d quickly learned that High Summer was not the time to make impromptu attempts at weekends away, but for the beginning of five glorious consecutive Saturdays. Each began with the six o’clock alarm, hit the road for seven, cross the Cumbria border about eight and the hills to enjoy for as long as I wished, since no streams of traffic left Blackpool on Saturday nights.
I was back to Grisedale Pike and Hopegill Head, but this time under clear blue, with the wind across the peaks, and this time the full Coledale Horseshoe.
I’d done almost all of it before: Grisedale Pike and Hopegill Head: Eel Crag and the interloper, Wandope: Outerside and Barrow: three walks now blended into one round, a great day of steep ridges, fast climbs and striding out across the tops all day. In terms of the Wainwrights, the point of the walk was almost the least of it, a fell called Sail: a rounded, green dome squeezed between bulkier fells, with a summit cairn easier to see from above on the descent from Eel Crag than in the lush grasses of its top.
It was a great day’s walking in my favourite part of the Lakes, seven tops for the sake of one tick and a wonderful time. It was also a poignant moment: Sail was the last of The North Western Fells. The last book I’d opened became the first to be closed until I’d reached my goal.
A week later it was the contrasting surroundings of the low, wet, frequently drab ridge separating Derwent Water from Thirlmere. I arrived early, took the narrow road to Watendlath Tarn, paid for the maximum four hours in the little car park at the farm, and set off uphill.
First, a steepish ascent out of the valley, on the only ‘pass’ in the Lakes to cross a summit. I only climbed as far as the wall above the valley before veering off north on a slanting path that, very gradually, rose towards the ridge itself: too slowly because, after an interminable walk distinguished only by the fresh, clean air, I cut across easy ground to the ridge and headed back south.
Armboth Fell lay off the ridge to the Thirlmere side, a bog-dodging trek to a raised point that was actually lower than the ridge itself. Then High Tove, gently rounded, wet underfoot, that ‘pass’ crossing its summit rather than a col to either side because the summit was somewhat firmer underfoot. And more slutch-avoiding, bog-dodging, liquid grass circling as far as High Seat, from which I made a direct return to Watendlath, not without having to climb a locked gate to get onto the road.
And back at the car in a minute or two under those four legitimate hours!
Next, I went to the Helvellyns, for a parcel of fells surrounding the big one itself. Early enough to park in one of the limited spaces at the entrance to Grisedale, I strode in shade through the woods and in scorching heat across the flank of the fells to the Hole in the Wall where Red Tarn and Helvellyn’s face, between its two Edges, first appear.
I had on my Test Match Special Cap Radio – a baseball cap with a tiny AM radio pouched in one side, earphones like dangly horns and a miniature aerial to be tugged up out of the brim. England were playing South Africa at Lords (it was the infamous day of Mike Atherton and the dirt in his pocket) and England were starting the day needing about twenty to thirty runs to avoid the follow on.
As I walked back to add Birkshouse Moor’s summit to my tally, Phil De Freitas cracked off the necessary runs, aggressively. My film ran out when I tried to take a picture of Helvellyn from the cairn, so I sat down to put another one in. A couple were approaching from down-ridge: he, with balding head, a big white moustache and a proper walking shirt like Dad used to wear, looked as if he would be interested in the cricket, so I told him about the follow-on being avoided.
Over the next hour, as we followed our paths, our routes kept converging and I kept him up to date on the score. We toiled up the ridge of Catstycam, when the wind suddenly tore my Cap Radio off, and I had to scramble down about thirty feet to retrieve it.
Our ways parted on Catstycam. He asked about my plans and I jokingly said I was “Collecting”. “2,000 footers?” he immediately asked, with an enthusiasm that rapidly subsided when I admitted it was Wainwrights. “Oh dear,” said his companion.
Suddenly, I had a thought: could this old gentleman to whom I’d been chatting actually be the noted writer, climber and Guardian Country Diarist, A. Harry Griffin?
But it was back to business, and the grandest part of the day as I headed for Swirral Edge, the less famous ridge to Helvellyn. I loved every step of it. It’s not an independent ridge like Striding Edge, more a steep rocky prow, but it was hand and foot all the way and a great glory to top out and cross the short turf to the cairn.
Busy as ever, busier even than my last visit here, under cloud.
I crossed to the top of Striding Edge, drinking in the view and looking down on the perspiring masses dragging themselves up. In the case of several ladies, it was definitely looking down from above, and I shamelessly took advantage of my perspective until it was time to march on, across the broad top of Nethermost Pike with its three summit cairns, from each of which one of the other two looks higher, and then Dollywaggon Pike, an old favourite of my parents for some never-learned reason.
I descended the infamous Dollywaggon Zigzags, keeping to the curves, to Grisedale Pass and a long, sunshine retreat down the valley, to the shade of the woods and my broiling car.
My fourth Saturday took me across the Lakes to the far West, to Ennerdale, which is about as far as you can go starting from 6.00am in Manchester. To the west of the High Stile range were two more fells, Great Borne and Starling Dodd. The former was accessible from the rarely used Floutern Tarn Pass, rarely used because it flounders into the morass of Mosedale Head, behind Hen Comb.
I was a bit concerned to see signs plastered everywhere: “No Wainwright Routes Off This Path”. A local explained to me that the farmer had put them up, but nobody really knew if he’d any right to. Still, the Pass was a public footpath, and I doubted his remit extended that far. It was an easy, grassy route, from which I diverted at the top, onto the curious little ridge of Floutern Cop. Then, after carefully picking my way across a very glutinous piece of land, I got a foothold on Steel Brow, much of it a steep, rough scramble, which took me to a surprisingly indefinite top, split by a shallow valley.
That valley pointed the way onwards, along a broad, grassy ridge, to Starling Dodd, an easy route. The fell itself has little to distinguish it beyond airiness and loneliness, but that’s not to deprive it of its status as Wainwright’s last. Not in life, but in the Illustrated Guides: the final fell from which notes, sightings and photographs were taken, despite the presence of a comely woman hoping to meet Mr Wainwright (who instead gave his name as Walker. A. Walker).
Instead of the standard return, on my way back down the ridge I sought out a curl in the grass that became a trickle, a stream, a gill and a descent onto Floutern, leaving me a short climb to the Pass alongside the shy, narrow and, frankly, dull Tarn, and down again to Ennerdale Water.
And then came the sequence capper, one of the finest days I have ever had out walking in the Lakes. Like the Coledale Horseshoe, it was a walk that produced a single new summit whilst covering old ground, but it was magnificent, my third glorious day in five weeks.
I’ve written about it at length already, for this was Scafell Pike from Seathwaite, and all three of the Pikes that go to create the famous fell, but so what?
Arriving at Seathwaite under a 9.00am Saturday sun, every minute seeing two more cars parking in the run up to the Farm. Across the fields and rising to the entrance to the Taylorgill Force ravine. Hot enough to take off my shirt and walk bare-shouldered and chested. The long approach to Sty Head, the Tarn placid and blue. A ham and salad filled pitta looking down to Wasdale Head. Finding the Corridor Route and walking it end to end in a state of bliss that I didn’t want to end. Revisiting Lingmell, a quarter century after my other visit, the cairn a jumbled wreck but looking up at the Pike for I am about to take the route my Dad never did. The stony, busy ascent without a break, the last lap across the empty plateau, the summit again.
It’s crowded, disgustingly so. I practically have to force my way to the cairn because my being there displaces some ignorant lout from being the highest person in England. I take myself off to the south cairn, from where the wind blows, silencing those behind me, overlooking Eskdale, Mickledore and Scafell Crag.
Descent and reascent, into and out of a steep col. Turning off to traverse, carefully but confidently, balanced rock, all edges and angles and risk at every step, to Broad Crag. Descent and reascent, into and out of another steep col. Turning off to traverse the long back of Ill Crag, afternoon sun turning the Scafells into shimmering, backlit, silhouettes, impossibly close. A diversion along a surprising grassy rake onto the broad top of Great End, the highest point in the Lakes that’s below 3,000′. Descent, finally, to the cairn at Esk Hause, the meeting place of paths, the gateway to fells and dreams.
The long, tiring, reluctant descent, following a miniature gorge through a fold in the rock to Grains Gill, the greatest highway to the highest land, here a demanding route of exit, to Stockley Bridge and the final mile to how far away your car had to be left in the long ago morning.
Of such days are dreams made. Of such summers are memories made.
And a postscript. I went into work on Monday, bought the Guardian, flicked through. Harry Griffin had written that day’s Country Diary, about a hot Saturday in the Helvellyns, and a young man in a Viking Helmet who said to him, “They’ve avoided the follow on!”
The photo looks north, from Great Borne, towards the Buttermere Valley and the fells around it, dappled in sun. These were the kind of days I enjoyed in that priceless summer.