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?

Series 2 – 29: The Last Report


I went away in September for the first time in three years, but unlike my usual experience, I was unlucky with the weather. Even on the days I walked, I suffered from cloud, with the exception of a single day, spent in the westernmost fells, just as my visit to Longsleddale had been to capture the easternmost summits.
Wastwater Screes have long been a part of my holidays, unending visits to Wasdale Head and staring out across the lake at those horrifyingly comprehensive fans of loose stone, and the traceable path across their foot.
We’d ascended Whin Rigg – the fell at the outer end of the ridge – in the years after Dad’s death, but the time had come to walk the ridge from end to end. I would base myself in shy Miterdale, climb up through the trees, and return from the valley head.
I don’t like climbing in woodland. I prefer open spaces, being able to see where I am, where I am going. It’s ironic for, no sooner had I emerged from the plantations onto the ridge than cloud started to descend onto the Screes. I made my way forward, picking up the trail we’d climbed out of Wasdale, and into oblivion again.
It was thick enough to halt me, to sit and try to wait it out, a quarter hour spent beside the path trying to disperse the cloud with non-existent telekinesis, only to find, when I admitted defeat and started up again, that I had been about fifteen feet from the summit throughout!
Beyond Whin Rigg, the Screes broadened. I progressed easily along a wide trail, with the cliffs overlooking the Lake to my left. It was too cloudy to try to follow the edge, not that I would have ventured all that near anyway. I just ploughed on until Illgill Head, where the cloud parted a couple of times, to permit birds-eye views of Wasdale Head, and then the steady downhill trudge.
Burnmoor Tarn, that great, flat expanse of water that I am so prejudiced against since that first visit, loomed large below, the path rounding three sides of it. Naturally, I short-cut the route above the fourth side, coming to the mysterious bowl of Miterdale Head for the first time in two decades.
There was better fortune for me in the Western Margins, my term for the grassy outbacks where the fells decline into green hills, falling away into the West Cumberland Plain. I would use the advantage of a 1,000′ leg-up on the Cold Fell Road, to gather in Grike and Crag Fell, the outermost fells on the south side of Ennerdale, then sweep outwards to the loneliest outlier of them all.
Though none of these fells were, in any way, outstanding, I have full memories of a sunny and open day, starting not far from the Kinniside Stone Circle along the old mine road – at places in the plantations ankle deep in slutch – taking to a formless, peaty ridge for my morning fells, made memorable by deep views downwards towards Ennerdale Water, and going a fair distance on the ultra-long walk to Caw Fell, before turning off, over lush, pathless grass, over the eccentrically named Whoap to my ultimate target, Lank Rigg.
This, to Wainwright in 1965, was the loneliest, most distant fell of them all, a top for which there would seem to be no climbers. So much so that, with deep reluctance, he concealed a two bob bit under a rock close to the summit cairn, as a reward for the reader who went there to look for it. If they were not claimed by Christmas, he said, he would get them himself, and buy fish’n’chips.
When The Western Fells was published, Wainwright’s cache was sought and found within twelve hours!
Nothing to look for today, just a descent along the valley of the Calder, a walk back along the road and, of all oddities, an absolutely fascinating programme on 14th Century Russian History on Radio 4, which I listened to in its entirety before driving back.
I set myself to Blencathra for my big walk, planning, in my usual manner, to assault the fell from the extreme east, along the subsidiary summits of Bowscale Fell and Bannerdale Crags, the former by its most sporting ridge. It was a day of good walking, under sun, in unfamiliar territory, but a little further in, Blencathra was troubled by cloud, and I by tired legs, so I abandoned the walk’s climax for another time, rounded things off by retreating down the upper waters of the River Glenderamackin, and along the ridge of Souther Fell.
This latter is also a place of interest, geographically, in that the Glenderamackin defines its boundaries on three sides, and historically, in that on a night in 1745, 26 reputable citizens swore to seeing an army crossing its top in an unbroken line. An army of carriages, horses and guns, passing where such things could not possibly pass, and leaving no trace on the turf of the summit the day following.
The only feasible explanation suggested is that a bizarre weather state caused a refraction that ‘beamed’ the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie, on manoeuvres beyond the Solway Firth, into the air above ‘Souter’. A tremendous optical illusion, if that were so.
But no armies for me. Instead, I headed for the motorway to drive south and, before even going home, I called on my mother at her new bungalow home. Why so, especially as I had rung her every night I was away, which was a thing very unusual for me when on holiday?
It was a regular thing, each time I went away, to tell her of my adventures and, as soon as the photos were developed, to show her what shots I had taken. Until that year, she still went away herself, pottering around, sometimes getting her boots on, in the limited fashion that was possible for her during the seven years since she had been diagnosed with emphysema.
There was something more now: three months earlier her Doctor had sent her to the Hospital, where she had been diagnosed with Cancer: Lung Cancer: months, rather than years.
I had issues with my mother, deep issues, but from the day she gave us that news, I put them away, never to be raised or resolved. Not a day went by that I did not see her or speak to her on the phone. This was the last holiday I could bring back to her for her to share vicariously in places where once she and her husband, dead twenty-one years at this time, might have gone.
A few days after Christmas, six weeks after her sixty-fifth birthday, she died quietly in her sleep, in her chair, in her own home, with the last Joan Hickson Miss Marple on the telly, and her eldest child with her.
The picture is, of course, of Lank Rigg, seen across the loggers camp at the foot of Grike.

Series 2 – 28: More like Old Times


 

I found a new job in January the following year, in North Manchester, a place I’d never practiced before. My senior partner took my Notice with calm unconcern: I obviously wasn’t valued, though much later, in heartbreaking circumstances, I was to find out that my employers were the only ones who undervalued me.
But I was at the top of my game, with a new challenge ahead, the guarantee of a Partnership after twelve months, a much-needed separation from my ex-love, with whom I still worked. The my Notice expired in April, ideal time for an unwinding/recharging week’s walking. As in 1983, it was a perfect bridge: between leaping out of the frying pan, and landing in the unsuspecting fire.
Nothing of that troubled me in advance. I had little Castle Crag on a beautiful afternoon for my leg-stretcher, and little, afforested Dodd, one of the cubs of Skiddaw, for the next day: an ideal walk for a day of heavy rain, with an approach that mixed walking in sheltered woodland or on forest roads, to a tree-fringed summit that didn’t offer you a view in the first place!
The weather also infringed on my first serious walk, an ascent of St. Sunday Crag at the head of Ullswater, designed to draw together two subsidiary fells. But as I approached the summit, cloud began to gather, the view was hidden, and I crossed the top in a hurry, as slanting rain began to drive painfully into my face. By the time it blew away, I was far enough down the classic north-east ridge to not wish to start climbing back up, and with views enough of the lake to content me.
My penultimate day was denied by choking cloud, clinging to the felltops, a long band of it, like the fires of some great burning, sliding down a valley, leaving the ridges untainted. Marvellous to look at, impossible to walk in.
But the week rallied to what would be a glorious conclusion, a worthy exit, for I was determined to take advantage of a clear, high-scudding day to return to the Mosedale Horseshoe.
It wasn’t going to be the full Horseshoe. That would properly begin with a straight up ascent of the bulky Kirk Fell, and conclude with long, prow-shaped Ullswater, extending to the shores of Wastwater. A little much, I thought, for a walk that was to take in the Monarch of Ennerdale, the grandiose Pillar, and its closest acolytes.
I was quickly up Black Sail Pass, this time with two reliable ankles, and onto the subsidiary top of Looking Stead, looking down into Ennerdale. There was enough of a wind on the tops to justify my anorak, at least as far as Pillar’s summit. In an ideal world, I would have dropped off the ridge, taken the Climber’s Traverse to Robinson’s Cairn and ascended at the side of Pillar Rock, a close up view of this climber’s haven, but given the miles ahead, this seemed foolish.
Instead, I opted for the long, stony, austere ridge where, despite the immense popularity of both Pillar and the Horseshoe, I was alone throughout, until reaching the busy top.
There was my main destination, up front, highest point and first of the day. It’s not always possible geographically, and especially when you’re trying to cover the most ground possible, to avoid the climactic point coming at the start, but there were more delights ahead of me. It remained windy on my traverse to Scoat Fell, the cairn on its highest point sitting on a drystone wall that crossed the exact summit, but the wind was dying, and I could put my anorak in my rucksack for the remainder of the day.
Once again, I went off-track, briefly, though this was all part of the plan. Steeple belongs wholly to Ennerdale, a slight, narrowing peak with a tiny summit, a mere ten minutes scramble away. The heat was getting up, and so too was another headache (I never really cottoned on to the idea that a hat might deflect some of the sun’s heat from my bonce: anyway, I would have hated not feeling the wind tugging through my unfettered hair).
Steeple was an airy delight, with depths on three sides. I returned to the ridge, started downhill towards Red Pike, identical in name to the westermost fell in the High Stile range, on the other flank of Ennerdale. The path, broad and straight, crossed the grassy back of the Pike, requiring a detour along the rim above the sudden, eroded downfall into Mosedale, then back to the long descent.
I fell in with a bloke a few years younger than me. We marched down the ridge under a strong, clear afternoon sun, matched by views that, as we progressed, widened to give us a panoramic sight of the twin approaches to Black Sail and Sty Head Passes. We swapped stories of walks we’d done, pointed each other towards places to go, breathed in the hills with every step until we arrived at Dore Head.
The walk should end with a descent here, direct and steep into Mosedale. I would tackle it now without a qualm, but at that time I didn’t have the advantage of two ascents before me. All I could see was a smooth channel, scraped free of scree and loose rock, going sharply down into invisibility after less than ten feet. I may be a very experienced walker, but I still suffer from an incipient vertigo, and I couldn’t do it.
So we parted: my new friend to the descent and I, with a reluctant glance to the additional miles, towards Over Beck, the shallow valley running behind Yewbarrow, the only alternative left. I scrambled down the valley to the distant prow of the fell, then turned back on the Wastwater road, a mile and a half to the car.
After my original ascent of Scafell Pike, this was my latest end to a walking day. It had turned into a gorgeous evening, still hot, the air in perfect peace, the fells crowded in close. The Pike loomed across the lakehead, looking near enough that I could reach out and touch its summit. My friend stopped in his car, driving out of Wasdale Head, saying a final farewell: a half hour later, I was driving back myself.
The picture is of Steeple, from Scoat Fell. Not a place to visit if someone is already standing there, though.

Series 2 – 27: Unsatisfactory Times


 

Every year since 1984, I’d taken a week off in early September to go walking in the Lakes, but not this year. The instability of my professional career hadn’t yet taken hold: I’d finally gone to my bosses and, highly nervously, put forward my case that, despite their promises, I had not been properly rewarded for what I had done the previous year to save their bacon when they’d had to abruptly let another Assistant Solicitor go.
They agreed (knowing, as I did not, that negotiations for the ‘merger’ were already under way, that I was wanted as part of the package, and that it was little skin off their nose to pay me more), and gave me a 25% raise in salary. That amount of money coming in made this the ideal time to take on, with minimal pain, a mortgage.
In the first week of September, when I would normally be up a fell, I took the possession of the keys to my first house.
A month later, with things a little more settled, I took a late week off, headed for the Lakes. But October was a poor time for weather and walking. I managed a cold and bleak walk whose highlight was the ascending ridge, to Steel Fell, and remember the sudden attractiveness of the sodden Greenburn valley, as weak sun glinted off a hundred runnels, filling the eye with light, but the only real pleasure of the return ridge was that it was the one I had seen from Helm Crag, on my return to the summits years before. I’d looked at it then, lacking the plan or ability to explore it, and now it was underfoot, and a return to Helm Crag to conclude.
The next day, even more gloomy, I paid a brief return to Latrigg and, without removing my boots, made an awkward segue into the Eastern Fells, stopping twice in different locations to climb each of Great and Little Mell Fells: grassy humps at the outer edge of the wild country, and of little or no interest. So much for October.
I would miss out on a September week away again the following year, again due to my house: I took a week off to decorate and returned to the beginning of the end with my new firm, my senior partner having taken my absence as a chance to go through my room with a fine tooth comb, demanding I deal with everything within seven days, on pains of an implicit threat of dismissal. I’ll admit to having underperformed in certain areas, but to nothing like this extent. What finished it for me was that, whilst I was gone, he had moved my desk to a more ‘efficient’ position in the room: i.e., square to the wall, not at an angle.
I got everything done as he demanded. But I also started looking for another job.
That’s taking a step out of sequence, for I did have an April/May break, and one with mainly good weather, although I made a foolish mistake that spoilt the week for me.
I had done my leg-stretcher, and by a pleasant route not depicted in Wainwright, this being because, as I discovered when I returned some years later to introduce a lady-friend to delightful little Gowbarrow Fell, it was across private ground, and the gate giving access was now padlocked.
The following day, I set off on what should have been a glorious expedition. From Seathwaite-in-Borrowdale I would ascend by the glorious highway into the hills that is Esk Hause, paying my first visit to that crossroads in the sky, the tilted platform that carries Lakeland’s highest Pass and a confusion of routes that demand ultra-care in mist.
And I would return along the northernmost extension of the Scafell Range, over unnoticed Allen Crags, and the sonorously named Glaramara.
My mistakes were compound. It was too high, hard and long a walk to tackle so soon in the walking year and I was tackling it on a day of surprising April heat, a burning sun, a lack of wind. Sense should have made me turn back from Esk Hause, but Allen Crags was only a hundred feet of climbing. And I really should have retreated then, but, come on, that’s a longer way round than going over Glaramara, so let’s get on with it.
I have little or no memory of the walk. I was exhausted under an unmerciful sun, dehydrated, head aching, trying to shield my head by tying my sweatshirt into a makeshift turban. I was nauseous and stumbling, as close to heatstroke as I’ve ever come. My only liquid was a single can of Coke, which it seemed unwise to drink given how my stomach was churning. Yet, on the final descent into Borrowdale, with a long field-path walk yet to come, to the car, I had no choice but to succumb and drink it.
It was warm, and ‘furry’ to the tongue, but the biggest surprise of all was that it settled my upset stomach down and enabled me to get back, safe, but seriously debilitated.
And that was it for walking the next day, no matter how good the weather. I did get out again the day after, in Langdale, aiming for the Central Fells’ High Raise, the flat centre of the Lake District. It meant another ascent of good old Mill Gill, and then a hugely enjoyable scramble up the narrow confines of Bright Beck.
In defiance of the heat, at the tiny head of the valley, a gigantic snow pudding had formed. Left over snow, in a shaded corner, on a lacing of vegetation that a complete idiot might have wriggled under, to be passed to get onto the ‘ridge’. What a contrast to Glaramara.
I still planned a Big Walk, but it was denied me. Between unbearable heat and haze – even the nearest fells were like pale blue cardboard cut-outs – and a twisted ankle (my left, the usual suspect) early in the ascent, there was no prospect of the Mosedale Horseshoe that year.
The picture is of Allen Crags with Glaramara behind, taken on what seems to be an equally bleached out day, from Ruddy Gill, at the head of the approach to Esk Hause via Grains Gill. Of course, I don’t remember any of this!

Series 2 – 26: A Time of Confusion


My relationship was going so well that, on my birthday in 1988, we got engaged secretly. Then, between Christmas and New Year, we abruptly, and on my part unwillingly, broke up. The relationship was restored, by accident, on New Year’s Eve, but the stable times had gone. The engagement was never restored, the relationship was never again stable. My career was entering a time of instability: my firm would ‘merge with’ (be taken over by) a more modern rival, my seeming position of professional strength would be undermined by a megalomaniacal senior partner who I distrusted intensely, and when I made a move to advance myself, I unwittingly placed myself in the worst environment I have ever experienced, under a senior partner even more hateful than the first.
Such chaos could not be kept out of other aspects of my life. Walking in the Lakes became bitty and awkward, and after the peak of 36 summits in the single year of 1988, I would add only 21 more tops in the next two years, and nothing more than a four peak day in those times.
Those years are not without memories that outshone the general discomfort of the times. There were no signs to begin with of the coming disruption, in a low-key May holiday that saw me move into the second half of the Wainwrights: a leg-stretcher with unexpectedly superb views of Crummock Water, another clean-ridged expedition into the North Western Fells on a sultry day, when the view I was expecting to see turned out to be absurdly accessible, coming less than a hundred yards from the end of the walk, by the car.
I took myself off for the second time to remote Longsleddale, my target being the Lakes’s two most easterly summits, Grey Crag and Tarn Crag. Grey Crag offered views inward that barely stretched past the other side of the valley, yet its overview over miles of moorland, looking out to the Howgill Fells and the Northern Pennines was potentially limitless. But the fell’s lack of height and the difficulty in getting good conditions made it a disappointment.
Descending from Tarn Crag to the lonely depths of another of Lakeland’s Mosedale’s (there are six: it means ‘dreary valley’, and this was not the one that is misnamed) I extended the walk to include Branstree, overlooking Mardale. It meant a long, dull trudge uphill by a wall to the infinitely flat summit, and an equally  long, dull trudge downhill by another wall to, to the top of Gatescarth Pass, from where I returned down Longsleddale to the car.
The easiness of the descent left ample time to contemplate the scene. The only other time I had been there was in my last family holiday. We had ascended Gatescarth from Mardale, and climbed Harter Fell from there. To reach the summit we followed an old fence uphill from the Pass, onto the subsidiary Adam A’ Seat, and thereafter over pathless grass, meandering onto the summit ridge near the third cairn, with its spectacular view of Haweswater.
They say that the hills are eternal. I understood it a different way on that walk: that the days we spend in them are eternity themselves. They don’t count in our lives, they are each and every one of them the same. I hadn’t been here in almost fourteen years: an overgrown teenager about to enter his last year at University, an overweight, bearded Solicitor aged 33, with a crumbling relationship. But no time had passed between those two days, because they had been spent in eternity that wouldn’t change if I were to return in 23 years time (I wish!)
This strange feeling was so strong that it overwhelmed the evidence that those two days were not one: the wide, obvious track slanting directly from the head of Gatescarth, ignoring the rise and fall of Adam A’ Seat, and heading directly for the ridge and the third cairn.
It looked as if it had been there for centuries. Fourteen years ago, there was no trace. It was my first real understanding of what people like me were doing to the fells.
The next day I made a steep-sided ascent of one flank of Caiston Beck, on the opposite side of Patterdale to the Hayeswater valley, crossing Scandale Head Pass and ascending to Red Screes, high above Kirkstone Pass. It was a fell that would become important to me years later, scene of the climax of the comic novel that finally grew out of that foolish manuscript I’d written several years ago.
The descent was equally knee-crackingly steep, but I had things on my mind. For some years, half a decade in fact, I had been an eager, and somewhat respected, contributor to British Comics Fandom, a BNF (Big Name Fan). I’d written articles, letters and reviews with eager if occasionally naïve enthusiasm, attended Conventions and Marts, mingled with similar-minded folk, and been a mainstay of the two highest-circulation fanzines of the day, FA and Arkensword.
But I’d also gotten a life when I began my relationship. And even if that was in trouble, I was changing. I wanted to direct my writing more towards my own inventions, rather than praise or criticism for other people’s work. I was no longer on such good terms as I had been with a number of my fandom friends, including the editors of those two ‘zines. And I was astute enough to recognise that I had more or less run out of things to say. I had commented on virtually everything I felt worth commenting upon, I had expressed all my opinions by now.
Descending over Middle Dodd, staring deep into the heart of Patterdale, I came to the conclusion that it was time to let go, to ignore the petty feelings and general irritability, and retire. So I went home, and did.
The picture is of the path from the top of Gatescarth Pass, towards Harter Fell. Tarn Crag and Grey Crag form the background. I don’t know the date of this picture, which is of no part of the walk I took that day, but sit and stare at it for a long time, and reflect that when I passed that way in the year of my 20th birthday, there was nothing but thick grass, and a wire fence to guide the way.

Series 2 – 25: A Full Year – Part 2


 

I made up for my lost day in May by a midsummer Saturday, bringing my love to the Lakes for the first time. Again, this story has already been told: standing guard as she whipped off her bra in order to breathe, summer afternoon naughties in a small and unobserved dell, her laughter captured as I balanced my camera on a handy rock, set the timer and hurtled myself into the frame beside her.
Angletarn Pikes was another tick on my list – trust me to maintain my concern for my own efforts – and I promised her Catbells, above Derwent Water, for her next summit. We got there, eventually, though not for some years yet. Our relationship, not that I realised, was heading towards a very prolonged and volatile period.
When I got away properly again, I had another concern: my walking boots were knackered. So, after booking in in Ambleside, before I could set out on my traditional leg-stretcher of a Sunday afternoon start, I needed to buy a new pair of boots.
This embarrassing task concluded, I headed for Stone Arthur, an outcrop on the Grasmere-facing flank of the Fairfield Horseshoe, deeply concerned with the newness of my footwear and the risk of developing blisters – from which I have, thankfully, very rarely suffered. I confessed my fears to a walker I met on the descent, and was given an unusual recommendation for breaking in new boots: Sunlight Soap Flakes.
There was a concept that went back to my East Manchester boyhood. Apparently, the first time you wear new boots, you should pack them with the Soap Flakes, insert feet, and find somewhere wet, and preferably rainy. Providing you can live through the embarrassment of foaming feet, you will emerge with leather softly moulded to the shape of your peculiar feet.
Even without soap flakes, I had no problems with my new boots. They took me on an expedition onto the southern rim of Great Langdale that took me to the beginnings of the royal road to Crinkle Crags and a glorious walk across the Langdale Skyline that, years later, would become one of my best days. The following day, I made myself another future promise, climbing the shapely Whiteless Pike in my lovely North Western Fells and discovering an enticing narrow ridge behind, positively demanding ascent, though not today, unfortunately.
Next came a gentle and peaceful day, “Back o’ Skidda’”.
The Northern Fells are, geographically, isolated from all the other fells of Lakeland. You cannot walk off them into another area at a high point, as you may traverse between Western and Southern at Sty Head, or Southern and Central at Stake Pass. And the Northern Fells are dominated by their two south-facing giants, Skiddaw and Blencathra.
But the region extends beyond, into lower, grassy fells, invisible to the tourists but also free from them. Those who want loneliness, who want to walk in peace, the world removed, may indulge themselves here. They will not die of excitement, but on the other hand they could break an ankle and still be able to get themselves back to the road running around its rim.
Excluding Binsey, I first came into this region driving blind. Skiddaw is a cloud magnet, frequently managing to hide its head behind a cloud when all the rest of the northern sky is blue, but this was a day of very low-hanging cloud, without risk of rain, but choking the fells off completely. To amuse myself, I set off to the east of Blencathra, circling around the back of this foreign region, via Caldbeck, and onto a road that felt as if it were an elevated causeway above a vast and empty plain. Nothing to see, and nothing to see.
It was northing like that this day: the sun hung uninterrupted. I strung the five fells of the Uldale group into a slightly awkward walk, easy walking, no rushing, five summits, and still back at the car after only four hours. It was the same again a decade later, when I repeated the walk: no matter what I did, I couldn’t stretch it out any longer than four hours!
Nor does it knock the fells to admit that the day’s best feature was not only not a summit but its first major feature, the natural railway cutting of Trusmadoor, a deep and steep sided channel between hills, from nowhere to nowhere, but a fascination nevertheless. And below it, an apron of land beside a meandering gill that immediately descends into a twisting gorge that was another day’s abiding memory.
The Fairfield Horseshoe had been a new record for me, but not a longstanding one, as I was to beat it on my last day, this time with a Big Walk of my own devising.
There’s no skill to devising Rounds: take any valley with fells on both sides and you have one. Some are more famous and popular, such as Fairfield or Coledale. I’d never heard anyone speak of a Hayeswater Round, so a walk that circled the narrow side-valley off Patterdale, that stretched deep into the highest fells of the Far Eastern area had its personal aspect, as well as another eight new summits.
The sun once again shone, too much so as the end of the day would prove, but the exposure of the tops was leavened by breezes for as long as I travelled above the valleys. I gained height quickly, and early, which is always best: get up above, stay above the world until the very end.
The centrepiece of the day was moving from west to east of Hayeswater, onto the High Street range, and onto High Street. The great Roman Road, from Ambleside to Penrith, the Legions striding through the fells in their armour, bearing their Eagles (Kidsty Pike, north of High Street itself, has long been home to England’s only pair of breeding Golden Eagles).
The Romans didn’t actually detour to High Street’s flat, wide top, but I did. So did others in history: the fell has the alternate name of Racecourse Hill, recognising centuries of summer meetings, the farmers of the surrounding valleys bringing their families and produce up here in summer, to met and greet, to talk, trade, wrestle and race in the only place all could reach.
I’d planned on eight fells, but as I reached my furthest point, I found myself a mile from High Raise, a fell distant from all valley bases. There was time, it was sunny, so I diverted there and back, celebrating my 100th Wainwright when I was there – only to learn of a miscount: that honour had gone ignored on Kidsty Pike.
It was downhill now, or so it seemed. The Knott (“ten minutes from the wall corner” said Wainwright, and again I could match him) was easy, but Rest Dodd, above the forbidden Martindale Deer Forest, was a steep descent and a tedious ascent. Then back to the Patterdale path until, in sight of Angle Tarn, where we’d sat in the late afternoon a few weeks back, I cut across rough ground to Brock Crags: the final summit and, thanks to my unplanned diversion, an unequalled ninth of the day.
Coming down, out of the breezes, the sun and sudden stuffiness gave me a splitting headache, one bad enough that, halfway back to Keswick, I had to pull in and dry heave at the roadside.
But it was a splendid year, my finest return, 36 summits, and to within a handful of the halfway point. I could call myself a serious walker now. Not that I ever realised that at the time.
The picture is, of course, of High Street, though it’s something of a cheat as it shows the fell’s much more interesting Mardale Face, outside the Round itself. It looks from the north east, showing something of the crags which are invisible from the expansive summit, and the descent to the Straits of Riggindale that led me into the latter half of the walk.