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.