Series 2 – 36: The weather has the best of it


For some now-forgotten reason, I didn’t visit the Lakes again until Summer was past its peak, and then it was less a walking expedition than a date!
I’d tried the Guardian‘s ‘Soulmates’, or whatever it was being called nineteen years ago, and met a bright, intelligent, arty woman who was an Assistant Museum Director in Lancaster. As she was a fellwalker too, a day out was indicated, and I collected her on my way north, to Borrowdale and Seathwaite.
Of course I’d chosen a file on my list of remaining fells: Seathwaite Fell, another northern outlier of the Scafell range. Not a spectacular walk, but an enjoyable effort. We ascended by the orthodox Sty Head route before breaking off to make a pathless ascent towards the crags that rimmed the summit, following an easy breach onto the high ground. There was an easy stroll across the broad top, my first visit to the photogenic Sprinkling Tarn, a descent to Sty Head summit and a return by the Taylorgill Force variation, my first exposure to that fascinating ravine.
I think we met up only once more before she started seeing a non-Guardian guy: a colleague who’d been carrying a bit of a torch for her for some time, who she went on to marry. Good luck to her, we were suited for friends but not otherwise. It was a different kind of day, but what I recall it for most was standing at Seathwaite Fell’s cairn, surrounded by a circle of high, high fells, adorned with paths.
Famous paths, prominent routes, ways to high adventure. Every one sticking out, visible from miles around. Scratches, scars on the landscape, inflicted by people like me, worshippers of the fells, eager to be in the heights. We were cutting the fells to ribbons. I had never understood that so clearly before, never realised that the only solution was to ban us from the hills. For a hundred years if necessary, if it took that long to recover.
Did it stop me walking any more? No. I was just as big a hypocrite as everyone else who professed to care. Not with thirty-odd fells on my list to walk.
I knocked off another couple to the east of Blencathra a couple of weeks later, a pure, clear, sunshine Saturday in shy country. Two cars had parked there before me: when I returned, about half three, there were cars everywhere. I’d descended off Carrock Fell on a mystery path, a zigzag series of steep flights unrepresented in Wainwright – and not added to the Chris Jesty revised Second Edition, despite its clear presence from the north. In the midst of the Blessed One, there was still discovery, even for slaves like me.
The other thing I remember the day for was listening to the football on the radio: United – Champions after so many years – were at Southampton and Eric, playing his first game of the season, scored a precision chip that I wanted to see on MOTD later.
So far, so good, but my holiday away, at the beginning of the month, was not to be anything like so bright. I got up and down Hartsop-above-How, a sickle curve of a ridge rising out of Patterdale, whose summit is little more than a place where the ridge levels out briefly, a walk where the only variation route back was the other side of the wall. Sunday at least was dry and clear, but every other day of the week suffered.
There was no walking on Monday and, after transferring to Keswick on Tuesday, I took myself to the Stonethwaite Valley, at the head of Borrowdale, intent on two small fells that would at least be below the threatening cloud-line, come what may.
I still wanted dry weather for Eagle Crag, a fell of fearsome aspect, because I was going to do the direct route, and this meant putting myself into some precarious positions. Eagle Crag, and its associate, Sergeant’s Crag, lay in the corner of the Greenup Valley and Langstrath, geographically distant outliers of High Raise, Lakeland’s supposedly most central fell.
And after years, decades even, of the sight of Bowfell rising nobly at the head of Great Langdale and Eskdale, I was anxious to finally see its third aspect, at the head of Langstrath, though the clouds did not look propitious.
I crossed the beck at the gateway to Langstrath, waded uphill through waist-high (and wet) bracken that left me damp from the waist down. But there was no going back on this route: crossing a rickety stile where a broken fence abutted a cliff-face, beyond which a way along the foot of the cliff leads to a short, near vertical gully, up which I scrambled, emerging on the left at the top and having to circle around its head to progress to the right on a long, grass shelf, conscious of the lack of protection on my right and the steepness of the slope: then a scramble up a series of pathless green shelves until emerging near a tiny peak that proved to be the narrow summit.
That was when I finally started to believe I could do the difficult, dangerous ascents.
Sergeant’s Crag was half a mile along a mostly level ridge, with the path ‘behind’ the top. Rain was obviously closing in now and would reach me before I got to my other top, so I dragged on waterproofs and continued, picking out the cairn more by luck than judgement because by then it was tipping down, and it didn’t stop.
The ‘proper’ route back was to continue on to Stake Pass and reach the valley from there, but that meant heading further away from the car, and those who have the dialect will already know that Langstrath means ‘Long Valley’, so I negotiated a slow, careful, trackless and steep way directly downhill and marched back along the broad, flat path. Unlike on Yewbarrow the previous year, my waterproofs kept the rain out, but my glasses were soaked and thus, returning through the wet woods, I was unable to get a clear look at the flash of red that I am sure was my first ever Red Squirrel.
It seemed no better the next day so, after the traditional trip to Cockermouth, I motored further on, a first, and only visit to Whitehaven (I would pay my only visit to Workington a few years later, but that was for football, instead of filling time until the air seemed dry enough to chance a small hill). Come the afternoon, I motored back to Loweswater and added Hen Comb to my conquests: a grassy, narrow fell, isolated on three sides by the brutally wet Mosedale Head.
Big Walk Day was at least dry in the air, but the clouds were hovering at exactly the wrong level for me. I had chosen the High Stile Range, three massive, stern fells fronting to Buttermere, and turning steep backs on Ennerdale. A long steep ascent of Red Pike commenced the day: a long, straight angled walk, diagonally climbing the lower face, a level transit on rock to the entrance to Blackberry Comb and its deep blue Tarn, and the scramble onto the ridge, with the cloud dogging my shoulders for the last fifty feet or so, flickering the view.
High Stile, in the centre, was even higher. I crossed in safety, the view unseen but visibility sufficient to keep to the path. There were a couple of moments as I stood there, brief blowings allowing a glimpse through the curtain, hinting at the spectacular view beyond, but again it was not to be: not unless I wanted to turn and walk back, once I was firmly committed to the narrow ridge to the Range’s third fell, High Crag. Because the cloud burned away and the tops were stark under a streaming sun, too hot to turn back to, not with so many miles to go.
Over High Crag, down steep, knee-cracking screes, over the subsidiary rocks of Seat, to Scarth Gap Pass, and the return once more, this time without TV Sheep Dog Trials below me, and lastly the Lakeshore path to Buttermere Village.
The holiday may have been over, but the walking year not quite. There was a clear and sunny Sunday east of Kirkstone, claiming the sprawling Caudale Moor and the last of the Hartsop Dodds, during which I stood aside to let a fellrace shoot past me on Threshthwaite Mouth, and there was that unbelievable day on Yewbarrow.
There were twenty-eight summits left. Another year should do it. I had climbed more fells than that in a calendar year, even when the calendar excluded November to February for the lack of late light. 1994 would be a good year. I would achieve my ambition.
The picture is of Eagle Crag, as seen from the road entering Stonethwaite. The direct route goes up that face. Any earlier year, I’d have looked at it with trepidation but longing. Who wouldn’t want to be able to climb that? And now I had.

 

Series 2 – 35: Barf


It’s only a little fell, geographically not even a separate entity, a mere extension of Lord’s Seat, but Barf is recognised, indeed demanding of recognition, as a fell in its own right, and the direct ascent is worth relishing.
Things change. A year and a week before, I’d been up for an unexpected weekend with my lady love: a fortnight before we’d been on very friendly terms. Today, it was her 41st birthday, we weren’t on speaking terms and I was on my own, with her on my mind.
Another thing had changed: for the first time in twenty-six years, United were the Champions again. There might be so many things wrong in my life, but in that respect at least, something new had started: it was only six years to my first flight out of the country, to Barcelona, and another kind of mountain top.
But all that lay ahead, and besides was irrelevant. It was hot: not the best conditions for the steepness ahead, all of it under a broiling sun.
I’ve already described Barf, with its five-stage ascent and the whitewashed figure of the Bishop, in the first series. I’d favoured The North Western Fells so much that this rough little beast and one other were all that remained to me. The direct ascent, stiff and unnerving as it sounded, had always attracted me, and it was inevitable that I would want to go up by the most stringent route.
You could call it a compulsion. I was always eager to test myself against the harder routes, rather than settle for those that were safe, but bland. I’d been a walker for ten years now, always travelling within my limitations, but I was beginning to think that maybe I’d been too conservative in my thinking as to limitations.
So Barf direct it would be: park at the Swan, follow the little tarmaced lane into the woods, almost miss the Clerk, hidden in the tall grass, then the immediate steepness of the first stage. All that was ahead was steepness, enough to make a sliding fall a serious thing if I failed to make sure of my step. Little splashes of white reminded me of the volunteers who would lug a bucket of whitewash up here to keep the Bishop’s raiments fresh and pure: it was useful proof that others had made it in harder conditions than I was facing. What must it have been like before the scree was scraped away?
The Bishop came as an achievement, a breathing space and a surprise. Thirty years had gone by since Wainwright had prepared  The North Western Fells and cheekily commented on the pillar’s naked hindquarters, but the volunteers of 1993 had been round the back, and the Bishop gleamed white from all angles.
Next was the scree gully, also spoken of in warning terms by the Blessed, for its loose, treacherous slate. I trod it with caution, favouring the right hand side, but nothing pulled out on my hands when I grasped it and the worst moment was clambering over a raised bar to reach the higher level.
Of course, I was long-since committed. If anything impassable happened to me, I was firmly touring the headwaters of Excrement Creek because, if I could get back down the gully, I I wasn’t going back down the fist stage: not on my own two feet.
Ahead, the ground was easier. I was onto the open fellside, with scrub and bracken underfoot, the easiest gradient to date, making quick progress through a series of mini-dells, eyes fixed on Slape Crag, looming ahead: clearly impassable.
I’d memorised the route so the book could be stuck in my rucksack and I might have both hands free. Therefore I knew that I had to climb to the base of Slape Crag and escape left, along a rock groove like a miniature Jack’s Rake, not that this filled me with comfort. No matter how elastic my limitations might be, there was no way I could stretch them to Jack’s Rake – not before I’d climed all the Wainwrights.
The route was obvious from below: a green slash across the Crag. So I worked my way up to the very base of the Crag, angled left, and set my foot upon it. With yet more trepidation. Because, after about five steps, the next one went over, and round, a rib in the rock, into territory I couldn’t see: into the unknown.
Try as I might, I couldn’t make that step. I couldn’t see where my foot was going to land, so I couldn’t see if there really was anything for it to light on, and what was most terrifying was if I got there and found I couldn’t go any further, and that I really really couldn’t get back over that rib.
I backed off, eyeing the descent glumly, and did what you should always do at times like this (remember the descent off Brim Fell?): read Wainwright.
Which told me that the groove across Slape Crag that I needed was much lower and much lefter. And considerably less unnerving.
The fourth stage took me off the direct vertical ascent. A narrow path stepped smartly away leftish, with steep slopes below for the misstep. I went about a hundred yards, wondering where this was leading to, before a short rake gave me the opportunity to scramble up onto a similar trod heading rightish and upwards, back to the true line.
And to the third summit, from which I could properly look down at last, at Bassenthwaite Lake lying at Barf’s foot, across to Skiddaw’s western flanks, south to the Vale of Keswick. It was all easy slopes, short, sweet, springy turf, and an east final stroll across the second top, to the highest point.
It was still only early afternoon, so I indulged myself with the detour round Lord’s Seat’s top, with Aiken Beck below. I came and went from a different direction to that valley, so there was not to be any memories triggered of a lost piece of writing on that occasion: I had four more years to endure before that moment occurred.
For the descent I chose the easy route, the safe route: into the Forests and tracing the right roads to lead me to the steep but simple path down alongside Beckstones Gill. The profile of the Bishop attracted my camera, but the woods were too thick to permit a shot in which it was proud and visible, so I reached the Clerk without removing my lenscap, but with an added sense of accomplishment that would lead me on to other paths.
The photo is, naturally, of Barf. You can see all of the route up to and including Slape Crag. Would you do that?

Series 2 – 34: Ongoing Ascents


I’d had my chance. I didn’t have to still be at a firm where I was slowly beginning to hate every working day, where there was no future for me. I could have refused a five year Partnership contract in 1992. But then I’d have had to go looking for something better, in the middle of the 1992 recession, when Conveyancing Solicitors weren’t even ten a penny but rather several dozen. And this time I had a house and a mortgage: the kind of break my 1986 redundancy had offered was not an option.
So I was stuck for five years, approaching the age of 40, without a reliable partner. Not everything was bleak: I had accidentally become an Old Trafford regular, albeit in those last few years between the dismal seasons and the day the sky came off and the future turned Red. And I had the Lakes and the fells, almost at my fingertips.
In that sense, my cup was close to running over. Though winter months (November to February) and short days made walking inaccessible, the Lakes was still virtually on my doorstep every nice weekend that United were away, and I still had my regular two weeks away, and two-thirds of my quest already achieved.
It’s at this point that the story ceases to have a shape, though each walk still held memories to bring to the table. I had become a very experienced fell-walker, unafraid of, indeed seeking long days in country where no-one else might be seen, to the extent that I would get intensely resentful of the distant figure of another walker coming across the other ridge and ‘trespassing’ in “my” valley.
Lessons had been learned. I had complete confidence in myself – except in the brief, trepidatious moments of crossing steep and unsupported places – and a clear sense of my capacities and limitations, whilst at the same time beginning to test those supposed limitations in the suspicion that I might actually have been underrating myself all these years. That some of the more demanding ascents might be within my grasp.
Yet these were not always among the 52 fells that remained. Beda Crag was a lone summit, a low top reached along a narrow, fascinating ridge in sufficient time for me to cap the day with a long sweep round over Angletarn Pikes – where I looked in vain for that little grass dell of five years before: hardly surprising, given that I was distracted – but I remember it for being the first walk of the year: sun and March clarity, the sparkle of Ullswater, the elation of being back.
Tarn Crag above Grasmere was another loner, busy in approach and retreat along tourist paths and roads, but quiet on its ridge. A mass audience of boys gathered by the shore of Easedale Tarn, looking like a revivalist meeting, dispersed by the time I got down to the Tarn itself, puzzled me for a decade until I had a stepson at Manchester Grammar School going on holiday to their camp at Grasmere.
I remember the loneliness between Walla Crag and Bleaberry Fell, on a walk where I didn’t even need to move the car from outside my guesthouse, continually refinding an intermittent path because I knew where it would be next. Then, a blazing day above Buttermere, struggling under severe sun up the steep ridge to Fleetwood Pike, with its postcard view of Buttermere and Crummock Water, but I remember it more for the winding way round the old quarries and onto the back of Haystacks: giving my heart to the perfection of Black Beck Tarn, in its concealed hollow, rediscovering the cairn of the last fell Dad ever climbed, and descending Scarth Gap Pass with a One Man and His Dog being filmed in the fields below me: all sheep and dogs and cameras dispersed before I could get myself into a background shot.
Two fairly undemanding and unphotogenic fells gave me a good strenuous walk west of Ullswater, and rewarded me with magnificent views of the lake at a corner on the way back.
But if you want to hear of an impressive day, that first week away concluded with me finishing my collection of 3,000’ers.
There are only four fells in Lakeland, and therefore in all England, that extend above the 3,000′ contour (the metric equivalent of 914 metres is so much less impressive). I had climbed my first in 1975 and, even allowing for the interruption to my walking career that immediately followed, it really wasn’t favourable for me to take eighteen years to complete the set.
There are many ways of climbing Scafell, and I would have been tempted to go all out for Lord’s Rake were I not still collecting as many tops per walk as I could – sometimes the best route had to give way to the handy-for-two-other-summits route. The Scafell Range’s southernmost outlier, Slight Side was also on my list so I chose to approach and return from the south.
Then again, no major route out of Eskdale fails to be worth walking, and this was my chance to experience the Terrace Route, the lonely environs of Catcove Beck and the stiff scramble to Slight Side’s top before the ridge rising to Scafell, in the midst of Eskdale and Wasdale rose before me, inspiring the feet onwards.
It was delightful. I have never been so alone on a 3,000’er than that ridge to Scafell. It was astonishing to find the path in its early stages so intermittent, but again I unfailingly picked it up, over and over. There were rocks and rises, but it was a mainly green ridge for far longer than you’d expect, and at last I was negotiating little screes and short uplifts, blind and winding, knowing I was near but never yet there, until I finally reached the summit cairn. With no-one around. You don’t get that on the Pike.
I didn’t remain alone. I was joined by a family, which seemed a good time to go. I descended to a saddle, beyond which two separate buttresses arose, between them the head of Deep Gill. Deep Gill is a legitimate ascent of Scafell: me, I couldn’t even get myself close enough to look down. That’s one bloody steep gill – and that’s the navigable part of it.
Short of climbing down Broad Stand, or of returning via Slight Side, my only descent was into the little hidden hollow in the hill that holds Foxes Tarn. What a magnificent escape: the tiny tarn, overwhelmed by the boulder, seemingly no way out, until you round a corner and find a deep, stony channel down to below Mickledore.
And then the long, glorious retreat as if from the Pike: down Cam Spout, around the Esk, the diminishing scene of the Pike and Ill Crag, that long, empty upland valley, descending via a series of rocky gateways and the Cowcove Zigzags, and the long walk back.
The photo is of Ullswater from that corner with magnificent views, or rather it’s half the view. The Brown Hills stand above the corner between the upper and middle reaches of the Lake, and this is only the middle reach. But it’s an easy place to reach if you don’t go round the long way as I did.

Series 2 – 33: Two Yewbarrow Days


 

Despite the uncertain weather I often faced, I was rarely frustrated from my object. Pavey Ark in the snow, Green Crag in a blue funk, and then Yewbarrow, one of the symmetrical frames for the image of Great Gable, over Wastwater.
I’d switched to Saturday expeditions by then. These allowed me to stay later without fear of ten miles of crawling on the M6 to get past the end of the Blackpool Motorway and the weekenders pouring out: on a Sunday, I had to leave the Lakes not later than 4.00pm to avoid that.
I forget the weather in Manchester before I set off, but for some inexplicable reason, I had brought with me a change of clothes, something I had never done before, or since. Usually, I was perfectly happy to drive home in the sweat-stained gear that had seen me into the heights.
The sky above Wasdale Head was grey but there seemed no risk in going ahead. I wanted to tackle Dore Head and approach Yewbarrow’s summit over Stirrup Crag, which meant the alternate path into Mosedale: across the packhorse bridge immediately behind the Hotel, on lush grass, rising to cross a small saddle of land at the mouth of the valley, and locating the bottom of the broad, grassy ride that led confidently upwards: no difficulties but steepness.
Ahead, across the screes of Dore Head, a narrower path continued, inviting in its twists and turns, but to my dismay it was inaccessible.
Dore Head used to be known as one of the great scree-runs in Lakeland, a steep drop of loose stone down which enthusiastic and energetic walkers and climbers would hurtle themselves, body upright and tilted back, leading with the edge of the boot, descending in a series of controlled slides at immense pace. Unfortunately, too many years and too many runners had scraped all the scree away, leaving a bare, ground-out slope, and at this point a trench at least ten feet deep, with overhanging sides, no rock, and no visible means of getting down or, worse, getting up.
I don’t doubt that walkers slimmer and more agile (and braver) than me would have been across without a thought, though not without a struggle, but it wasn’t on for me. What, then, was my alternative?
Very simply, it was up or down. There was no path on this side of the scree, no route, just broken slopes, increasingly steep, and overhanging cliffs. On the other hand, I was not about to give up 5-600′ of fellside and then hunt for another way to start the walk, so up it was.
And carefully. I scrambled carefully across towards the crags, figuring I would at least have something to grab on to, and with slow and cautious steps, no more looking down than was unavoidable, and a very thoughtful examination of the ground before me, I slowly got to within ten feet of the ridge, at the foot of that unnerving groove down which I had refused to descend on that hot afternoon returning from the Mosedale Horseshoe. I crossed the nascent groove quickly but with everything alert, then found an easy way up onto level ground.
During this time, I had been oblivious to the weather. The cloud was down to almost the ridge, Stirrup Crag just a few dozen feet of forbidding rock, above which all was invisible, and Yewbarrow was clearly out of bounds.
Once more I would have to retreat down Over Beck, and settle for circumnavigating Yewbarrow, rather than climbing it. And, since rain now looked inevitable rather than probable, I got into kagoul and waterproof trouser.
It came down. I’d last been out in such rain descending from Great Gable into Seathwaite, but this was immense: solid, unceasing, sheeting, hammering rain, down the length of Over Beck and all the way back along the road. I learned that my waterproofs weren’t, that after a certain point they became waterlogs. I was soaked to the skin.
But I’d, improbably, brought a change of clothes with me, and there was a towel in my rucksack. I squelched into the car, drove the short distance to the hotel car park, pelted into the Men’s Toilets and got my roughly towelled self into dry clothes. Shirt, pullover, jeans, socks: no underpants.
Only a couple of years later I’d have unhesitatingly ‘gone commando’, but I was sufficiently inhibited to feel uncomfortable at that thought so, after as much squeezing out as I could physically produce, I slipped the wet things back on.
Which proved to be an embarrassing mistake since they, still sopping, immediately started to soak back, giving my jeans a two-tone effect not dissimilar to Superman’s red trunks. I stopped in both Cockermouth and Keswick on an extended way back, having come out of the hills far sooner than I’d planned, and there were plenty of eyes on me.
Of course, I had to go back. It was over a year later, in mid-October, the year’s last walk, at the end of a week of preternaturally clear skies that I longed would last until I could get up there. United were at home Saturday, so early on Sunday I was off to Wasdale.
Had I realised just how crisp and clear the atmospheric conditions were, I would have been out of bed two hours earlier, before dawn if I needed to, to give me the time to climb Scafell Pike. In clear conditions, not only is Snowden in Wales visible from its summit, but also the Mountains of Mourne, away across the Irish Sea: if they couldn’t be seen that day, they would never be visible at all.
My first inkling of just how good the views could be came when I crossed the top of the Corney Fell Road, and the seascape smashed itself into my face. The Isle of Man, familiar enough, but never so large, so sharp, so near, almost as if the sea behind it could also be seen. The Irish Sea a brilliant turquoise blue, a colour deeper than I had seen before, and as placid as a painting. And further along the coast, a mysterious silver coin laid on the water, a circle of white in incredible contrast to the Sea: the freshwater of the Ravenglass Estuary, pouring out into the turquoise, and not mingling with it. An astonishing sight.
And so to Mosedale again. I ignored the inviting green ride, passed beneath the bottom of the old screes and went looking for a route upwards. I found a small channel, like a dried grass rivulet, first of a succession of such guides, carrying up some 3-400′ on grass in which the cold sparkle of frost had already begun. From there, on leveller ground, I worked back towards the trench, crossing above bluffs, until I’d regained the height I’d reached the previous year and picked up the twisting path, which contoured back and forth and led me easily to the ridge. I fixed the point of arrival in my memory for future descents (I haven’t descended there yet, but I will remember for when I do).
Wainwright describes the ascent of Dore Head as “a tedious plod”, but by this route it’s anything but.
Stirrup Crag was a joy, a real hands-and-foot, where-will-the-next-bit-take-me scramble, that disappointed only in ending far too soon, after which the rooftree of Yewbarrow was simple to negotiate and the summit an easy upthrust. In the October sun, the western wall of the Scafells was a magnificent sight. My favourite view of the range is of the Pike and Ill Crag rising above Upper Eskdale, but this side wasn’t half bad.
I descended to Great Door, a tremendous, shattered gap in the skyline, seen as a square notch from the road below (the door opens, and closes). We got this far once, as a family, my sister so young and the area sufficiently treacherous that Dad roped her to a convenient rock for safety if she should fall. It’s not a good place for anyone insufficiently appreciative of danger.
From here, the path turned inwards, descending to Over Beck to avoid the impassible rocks of Bell Rib, before regaining Yewbarrow’s long, boat-like prow, and once again that walk up the road into Wasdale Head. Once in warm evening sunshine, a golden glow, once marching cheerfully under sluicing rain, once in October cool and clarity, this time in triumph.
The picture is of Dore Head, showing the screes, and the two flanks up which I made my separate ascents. No need to have been there to decide which one is the preferable route.

Series 2 – 32: A Well-Mixed Bag


 

The freedom to take off on a whim, hit a summit and be home to sleep in my own bed, was glorious, but it still didn’t compare to a week sleeping on the spot, getting into the fells without two hours driving first. September was here again, and each walk would build indelible memories.
Troutbeck Tongue was my Sunday afternoon leg-warmer, a beautifully sunny, hot even, day. The Tongue could only be approached on foot, a mile and a half along a valley road that did not admit of parking, so I left the car in the far corner of the Mortal Man pub (closed for the afternoon in accordance with traditional Licensing Laws) and rambled along, eager to get off the tarmac. It had rained heavily, recently, and the fields were full of informal tarns.
Once through the brush at the foot of the fell, I was chuffed to find a miniature ridge, successions of little outcrops, requiring a gentle, manageable scramble, but a scramble nevertheless. Midway, an impassable barbed wire fence crossed the ridge. I wadded up my anorak, placed it across the top strand, and slid over, preserving certain organs for uses that I hoped to resume. The ascent was a gentle delight, and could have been twice as long for me. And, in addition to the tourist view down Troutbeck to Windermere, I found a massive upland bowl behind, stretching to Threshthwaite Mouth at the valley head.
A stroll along the back of the fell, another anorak slide across the other half of the fence, and back along Hogg Beck, under the commanding heights of the Ill Bell Range, the grooves of Scot’s Rake, where the Romans began their long ascent to the tops, visible from far below.
The next day, I took myself off to lonely country, between Wasdale and Ennerdale. I planned to use the valley of Nether Beck to make a long, steady ascent to the ridge descending from Pillar, cross Haycock to the otherwise almost impossibly remote Caw Fell, and, returning over Haycock, end with the grassy, sprawling Seatallan. One look at the amount of additional climbing involved in getting back up to the latter’s summit put that idea out of court: any ridge route involving 500′ or more additional climbing is a new ascent.
All went well until I reached the ridge and found cloud dipping down to the col. But it was light and thin, and Haycock, the highest fell of the walk, was not too far above, so I plugged on, to its dome-like summit, with the cloud line hovering pretty much level with me.
It was my first opportunity to see the semi-legendary Blengdale, legendary in my mind anyway, after the suggestion, decades earlier, that a fourth Ratty steam-train should be named River Bleng. So I hunted out the expansive, full length view of the empty, featureless valley, and wondered aloud what idiot had selected Ennerdale for afforestation when this useless soggy waste was available.
The cloud had lifted sufficiently for me to continue to the flat-topped Caw Fell, miles away from everywhere else, though it remained sufficiently menacing to ensure I turned around quickly. Haycock stood, a giant dome presiding over Blengdale, and I was at a height that raised it to immense proportions. For a brief time I considered a direct, trackless contour around the head of the valley, but the utter loneliness of the setting, the feeling that an accident would leave me undiscovered, persuaded me to climb back up into the cloud, manoeuvre around Haycock’s top and locate the gully that gave direction to the descent onto the lowlands that would lead me back.
All that remained was a somewhat soft and damp walk over to the falls that led me back down to Nether Beck, and it was back to the car again.
To Keswick again, and another lonely day Back O’Skidda’, concentrating my efforts on the grassy giant, Knott. This fell, occupying miles of unfrequented territory, is the hub of this region, linking the Uldale Fells with the Caldbeck Fells and dominating both.
I made my approach from the lower part of the Dash Valley, but instead of approaching Whitewater Dash, the chalk-white falls, I diverted into a surprisingly broad and empty valley, containing Hause Gill. Wainwright’s route bore to the right of Burn Tod, but on a happy whim, I took another track, left, and made my way up Burntod Gill.
It was the highlight of my day: an enclosed beck in spate, twisting and turning frantically, scrambling along the bank, unable to see ahead or behind, nor escape save by advancing, until, after a period of time far too short to be fair, I emerged in an unexpectedly familiar place, on a lawn by a now quiescent beck, under the shadow of Trusmadoor.
The rest of the walk was not an anti-climax, though nothing of my endless odyssey up grass slopes onto Knott’s broad and level summit, nor the long walk to Great Calva, at the head of the gap between the Blencathra and Skiddaw massifs matched up to it. A long descent through the tough purple heather to the Skiddaw House Road, a descent by Whitewater Dash and a long cross-valley tramp to the car made for a satisfying end to the walk.
Reading Wainwright as often as I did, I couldn’t help but devise walks that allowed me to take a circular route to my transport, catching as many unvisited tops as I could. Long ago, Helvellyn had been my first acknowledged solo ascent, but there were several satellite fells around it that I had yet to visit. I’d devised two walks, each with Helvellyn at the centre, which I mentally dubbed the ‘Inner Circle’ and the ‘Outer Circle’ and, for a very ambitious Big Walk to end the year of 1992, I was set on the latter.
It was another occasion for trying to balance the low cloud and and the wind moving it along, and setting off with my usual more-in-stubbornness-than-in-hope.
The approach along the old road to the former Glenridding Lead Mine was easy and tedious, but there was more interest in the zigzag ascent of the old slagheap behind the derelict mine buildings. This led me to the sad, dingy basin that used to hold the old Sticks Reservoir – shown in Wainwright but drained before I ever got into the hills – and from there a long, twisting, enclosed gully through which the beck ran, which became tedious under the best sun of the day and turn succeeded turn. Eventually I was back at the top of Sticks Pass, only a fortnight since I had approached it from the west – the fastest I had ever returned anywhere in the Lakes.
Raise was an easy walk up a gradual slope, but once I reached the ridge, I lost my shelter from the wind, and paused to pull on my anorak for the rest of the walk. The cloud ahead still clung to the top of the ridge. I descended to the col, where a broad path arose from the valley to the left and swept onwards in unbreakable step over the summit of White Side and beyond. It was about six walkers wide and completely free of vegetation, as if an unusually focussed cloud of locusts had breezed through. It went over White Side’s highest point as if it weren’t there, and dragged me in its wake, there being little to halt for, until it expired at the foot of the climb up the sharpening ridge of Helvellyn Lower Man.
The cloud clearly enveloped Helvellyn, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I had, after all, climbed it before, and if it were feasible to get across and onto the second half of the walk, I was still determined to do so. To my left, small figures appeared and reappeared between gaps in the crest of Swirral Edge, unconcerned about the cloud.
Once I reached the summit plateau, I knew that progress was not on. I could navigate to the cairn, progressing uphill and keeping a wide berth on my left where I knew there to be crags, but in practical terms the whole of Helvellyn’s top is so well-walked that it is one omni-directional path.
There must have been a dozen folk on the summit when I reached it. There is a cross-shaped wallshelter, but it was so well subscribed, I would have had to book a fortnight in advance to have gotten a place on the leeward side. The cloud muffled conversation, the sheep had so far lost their natural timidity as to not merely beg food from our hands, but try to snatch sandwiches before they reached your mouth, and in the twenty minutes I relaxed there, not thirty seconds ever went by without a ghostly thickening of the cloud that transformed itself into another walker, reaching the summit. Capped by 300’ of cloud.
Given the land ahead, I wasn’t prepared to risk advancing, and so worked my way back to Lower Man, from where I descended into the daylight again, rejoining the locust path over White Side and down: past the ruins of the destroyed dam at Kepple Cove, and into the descent to the former Lead Mine again.
There I saw a path along the other side of the gill, and decided to explore. It turned out to be a beautifully level engineered path, a much happier route of retreat than the mine road, though I had to scramble down when Glenriddng village came in sight and the path showed no signs of going anywhere near it.
But that’s an enduring memory from the summit: cloud makes no difference to Helvellyn’s popularity. This is not a fell to visit when in search of solitude and your own company.
Being unable to find any photos that suggest a reason to climb Haycock, I’ve selected this shot of the approach to Helvellyn along this ridge, taken from below Raise’s summit. The peak to the left is Catstycam, joined to Helvellyn by Swirral Edge, and that to the right is Lower Man, showing the route of ascent that I couldn’t see for myself.

Series 2 – 31: The Revolution


The revolution began on Sunday.
I set the alarm, got up, chucked my rucksack and boots in the car and drove north. By mid-morning, I had gone past Keswick and up the rackety, steep road through the woods, jolting up to the back of Latrigg and the start of the Tourist Route to Skiddaw.
Yes, I’d already conquered Skiddaw but it wasn’t my primary destination of the day. I was now close to the three-quarter mark in collecting the Wainwrights, and there were fells in awkward gaps between longer routes I’d followed. It would be dull, and a waste of good walking if I restricted myself only to them. Today’s goal was Skiddaw Little Man, which, according to Wainwright, possessed one of the widest, deepest panoramas in the whole Lakes, best seen if approached from the back so that the view appeared at the last moment. To leave out the highly adjacent Skiddaw would have made for a half-assed walk, obsession rather than the joy of walking.
But Skiddaw is the greatest cloud magnet in the whole Lakes, able to attract a covering no matter how clear a sky may be, and there was grey stuff shielding the summit. Still, I set out in my traditional determination not to be deflected until it became too obvious I could go no further.
This moment arrived at the fence beyond the top of Jenkin Hill, at the end of the easy stroll that follows the initial stern 900’ of ascent. Yet again the cloud had not blown away. Rather, it had descended, and Little Man was firmly in the murk. Indeed, the underwisps of the cloud were visible in the air above my head. No point in climbing a fell for its view if that view is rendered invisible.
But no need to waste the day. I was below the cloud, just, and the fence could lead me over a long, level course, to Lonscale Fell, the blocky eastern end of the Skiddaw massif. My 150th Wainwright, in fact. And from there a steep, direct descent, over trackless grass, steering myself as best as I could to find the path that led to the wall corner that was the key to the final and very steep section of descent. At the bottom, I joined a path rounding the corner out of the Glenderaterra valley, and followed it back to the car.
As the planned walk had been cut short, I had ample time, so I decided to finish off with a wander over Latrigg: not, this time, by the tedious whaleback whose main merit is preserving the view to the last minutes, but by a longer, idle route, initially descending towards Keswick, before turning back, up a series of splendidly graded zigzags, to a gentle stroll around the flank, the view opening ahead, and the unexpected opportunity of a sit-down on a park bench, less than 100 yards from the top.
And then I headed home, long cool miles to the M6, long long miles down it. There was a tailback of almost 10 miles to the end of the M65, the Blackpool motorway, the weekending trippers flooding onto the motorway to go home, and I crawled through them until I was free, and finally got home and could read the Sunday paper.
A fortnight later, I shot off again, this time to Eskdale, in pursuit of unfinished business. Green Crag sits at the northern edge of Birker Moor, the most southerly fell in the Wainwrights, whose boundary is closed off with a solid line. I’d made an attempt on it previously, but been driven back by bizarre forebodings.
I’d climbed out of the valley easily enough on one of two old peat roads, only to find myself unaccountably spooked once onto the moor. It wasn’t just the threat of cloud bringing rain to this lonely scene, but an eerie sense of emptiness and isolation. I progressed very reluctantly to the bottom of the grassy ride that led to the summit ridge, where the minimal comfort of a path expired, looking for an excuse to give up and go back.
Which I found in a dead sheep, fallen from a small bluff, landing on its back with feet in the air, rotting away. It was enough: I fairly hurried back, justifying my decision by the rain that set in before I got to the bottom of the peat road, but knowing that that was not why I’d backed away.
On a sunny midsummer Sunday, such feelings were inexplicable: I scrambled up to the sharp peak, made my way down behind the coxcomb crest of the subsidiary Crook Crag, located the other peat road from above, where it wasn’t easy to find, and found it a tremendous highway down, a gem of twists and levels.
My next expedition nearly didn’t happen: I’d set aside another Sunday to shoot off to Thirlmere, climb Raven Crag, the tree-covered rock-climbers haunt above the Dam. But Sunday dawned dull, cloudy, wet. Deprived of purpose, I rattled about, trying to read the paper, find something else to do. Until the sun broke through at 10.30am, I screamed a loud soddit, raced through getting dressed and flung myself out onto the road north. By midday, I was parked up by the Dam, and just discovering that, in my haste, I had left behind not only my camera but my walking socks.
It felt strange to climb in ordinary M&S socks, but I got away without blisters, ploughing a steep uphill course, ignoring easy diversions onto the zigzagging Forest Road that I crossed multiple times. Then, from the fringe of a deserted logging camp on the ridge, a winding, overgrown trail into a little dell that, with the assistance of chicken-wired duckboards in wet spots, led me to the tiny, tree-fringed summit.
I even walked to the furthest end of the ridge before descending, enjoying a relaxing break on the top of The Benn, a subsidiary top ignored by Wainwright. Sometimes there could be more than what the master had advertised.
My last summer outing was more ambitious, and required an earlier start, though its starting point was just across the valley from Raven Crag. With no difficulties except initial steepness, I walked up Sticks Pass – second only to Esk Hause among foot passes, but more frequently used as a Pass – and then onto the grassy, rounded but impressively high tops of the three Dodds: Stybarrow, Watson’s and Great.
Had I not been due home before dark, ready to face another week in my loathsome work environment, I might have added the range’s most northerly peak, Clough Head. More grass, miles of it, presenting no difficulty but distance, but that distance was two miles there and two miles back, all of it over terrain that was clearly deeply dull.
So I made my way down a sea of grass, into the valley, and headed home for the Blackpool Motorway Tailback, one last time.
To find the Lakes put within my reach for concentrated little expeditions, several of them walks that were just a little too short for days that could begin as soon as the bacon and egg was washed down by the only cups of tea I drank each year (I drink coffee, instant though it is, but I wasn’t prepared to face the possible variants these people would serve up): this was a delight, and before very long it would become a vital relief from the weekly grind of the job that I came to loathe with a passion, that nearly destroyed my ability to work at the profession I’d now followed for fourteen years, and until recently with distinction.
All I had to do was work out how to miss that bloody Tailback.
The photo is of Green Crag. It’s far easier to find shots from Green Crag, over Eskdale, to the Scafells, than of the fell itself. This scene is from Muncaster Head Farm, at the eastern end of the lowly Muncaster Fell, and it shows, from left to right, Harter Fell, Crook Crag and Green Crag, though it doesn’t show quite how far back is Harter from the other two. Beautiful setting, mind you.

Series 2 – 30: Times Change


 

Mam’s passing left me with a greater sense of responsibility for myself: I had lost both parents and was left as the oldest in my family. For a time, at least, it brought my sister and I more closely together, though the great difference between our characters meant that didn’t last too long. And, on the mundane level, after administering Mam’s estate, I was left in a financially secure position. That too didn’t last.
My only ‘big’ indulgence (alright, I once spent £100 in HMV in upgrading albums to CDs in their 3 for £20 offer) was to buy a new car. I traded up from a Volkswagen Polo to an all-black Golf with a 1600cc engine: my first large engined car, my first with a cruising 5th gear. And I paid cash.
And my firm made me a partner, a month earlier than my contract required. It was only a salaried partnership, and in terms of responsibility for the firm’s running, that and 50p would buy me a cup of coffee, but it was a status of which my mother would have been inordinately proud. In a way, I was glad she was no longer there to see what happened: I had been at my new firm long enough to have developed a substantial doubt about wanting to be there. But the contract on offer was five years, nothing less. And we were now into the Major Recession, and Conveyancing Solicitors were ten a penny, and I had a mortgage to service.
So I signed up for a five year sentence, with deep (and prophetic) reservations. There were two of us brought into partnership at the same time, but I got the first slot on the notepaper because, well, I was white.
A holiday in late April was a chance to escape my worries for a time, and after a rainy Sunday, the week started to be sunny, allowing me to go notch up a steepish but short walk on Whinlatter fell, to the north of the Pass, guarding Aiken Beck. In an ironic coincidence, my first ascent as a Partner would be my first ascent after leaving my hated firm, just under five years later.
It wasn’t an especially memorable week. I had an enjoyable day on the northermost High Street range, on big, grassy hills that left me leg weary at the last, but the sun was only temporary, and whilst I managed to scramble up Mellbreak, the patron fell of Crummock Water the next day, my holiday petered out after that.
There was a tart aftermath. I was back to work on Monday, asking if I’d missed anything whilst I was away. Indeed I had: the previous Monday, whilst I’d been relaxing on Whinlatter, my fellow new partner had been killed by a lorry on the motorway. Officially, it was an accident, though there were factors which pointed in other directions. And there would be an unseemly confrontation between the widow’s wish for her own adviser from her community, and a certain not-too-far-distant person’s determination to maintain control of investing the estate after I’d finished probating it.
But the Lake District mould was about to be broken, thanks to my new, more powerful car, and my long-term love.
When I changed firms, I’d left her (though not my feelings) behind. We were generally distant at that time and I assumed that this should be the point to let it end, and for a long time I neither saw nor heard from her, until, a half year later, she’d rung up, invited herself round to chat, and things had sort of happened. For a week or three, before we stopped again, but we stayed in contact, saw each other occasionally, picked up again for a few weeks, let it drop again, etc.
I’d long since ceased to expect that I’d ever take her up Catbells as promised, though I’d always hung back from climbing it myself, out of some naïve dream, but with the sun shining in May, a hot summer anticipated and, a week before her fortieth birthday, we arranged to spend a day in the Lakes and, if she felt like it when she got there, we’d climb Catbells.
It was a hot day, and in its early stages something of an awkward one – for two people who were so close, the number of times we were not at ease in each other’s company was remarkable – and the day was not going all that well even after we’d started up Catbells. She was hot, sticky, out of breath on what were steep slopes, but as we gained height, as the breeze started to gain hold, and the final walk along the ridge to the top was considerably easier, all of a sudden she relaxed, and we clicked again.
Catbell’s summit was tourist-happy, so busy that, to gain a little space for ourselves, we moved down about ten feet on the Derwentwater side, and stretched out. Rather close together. And then we were kissing or, let’s be honest, snogging, and my hand was being led into once-familiar places. There was no chance of repeating our antics on Angletarn Pikes, not with this crowd around, nor on this slope (we’d have been in freefall towards the Lake in next-to-no-time), but it had greatly improved the mood of the day.
We descended slowly, neither of us eager to relinquish the delight of the day, and once back in my car, made our way back to Keswick for another drink. Before we found a pub, my love told me to wait on the corner whilst she phoned home to her daughter. Knowing her like I did, I had an unworthy thought but kept it to myself.
We found a crowded corner (the trick would have been to find an uncrowded one!), enjoyed a cold drink. Nothing was said but, when we were ready for another, I had to bring it up. “Do I take it we’re staying overnight?” I asked, “only I need to know what I can order to drink.”
Her face fell at her planned surprise being exploded, but not by too much. I was always the practical one, who thought about being allowed to drink if I had to drive us 120+ miles to get home, and about where we were going to stay, it being after 7.00pm on a Saturday night in Keswick.
So we went hunting for a bed, and that’s where the enterprise teetered on the edge of collapse, for there was a Jazz Festival on in Keswick that weekend, and there were no beds to be had for love nor money, anywhere in the town. In a desperate bid to avoid the comparative anti-climax of having to drive back to Manchester to my place, I suggested we try Cockermouth, but en route we saw a roadside sign saying Vacancies, and found ourself a nice bedroom in a guesthouse just outside the village of Braithwaite, and with time to et back to Keswick to eat and have another drink.
Pleasant things then occurred.
We woke to a fresh, sunny morning, and underwear that wasn’t ideal to wear again, but we made the most of the unexpected freedom of the day by travelling over to St John’s in the Vale, ascending the narrow, gated road to the Church, and enjoying the short, easy walk to High Rigg and back. Where, as the worshippers emerged from the church, my love bumped into the mother of her next door neighbour at home.
It was a lovely weekend, and that includes the walking, though it’s gotten relatively short shrift in this account. Sadly, it was never to be repeated, and a planned weekend away, in the Yorkshire Limestone Country defined in one of Wainwright’s later books, was almost a complete disaster. But it didn’t stop this weekend from being a treasured memory.
And in the longer term, which was to be of almost immediate effect, it didn’t distract me from realising that my altogether more powerful car had brought the Lakes to within my reach for a day’s outing. Where the Polo would have strained its engine all the way north, trying to shoot up the M6 at top speed, the Golf would cruise at 70mph, or more, just by going into 5th gear, and not notice. I could leave my door in North Reddish, Stockport, and in no more than an hour’s time, I could be crossing the Cumbria Border.
It put the fells within my reach for more than two separate weeks a year. And I would make use of that.
The picture is, naturally, of Catbells, seen across Derwentwater from Keswick. Is it any wonder that the summit is crowded on a summer’s day?