What I did instead of celebrating my Girlfriend’s Birthday


Barf

I’m posting this on 23 May because that’s the anniversary of the day I climbed Barf, back in 1993. I’m reminded of this particular walk because I’ve just acquired the latest ‘Walker’s Edition’ of Wainwright, updated by Clive Hutchby, The North Western Fells.

This compact little wedge of Lakeland, between Bassenthwaite Lake and the Buttermere Valley, is my favourite area of the Lakes, and I have had nothing but wonderful days on the fells when I have been using this book. My family would never ever have considered walks in this area so by the time I took The North Western Fells out for the first time, it was the last area I visited. In due course, it would be the first book I completed.

The first time I read one of Hutchby’s revisions, I am on the look-out for places where he has overruled Wainwright. There seem to be fewer than usual, but I did notice some changes on the page for Barf direct, from what used to be the Swan Inn. It doesn’t take much to remind me of that day, a Sunday afternoon in the sun, there and back from Manchester for no more than a couple of hours of walking, and the reason I can be so specific about the date I did this is that it was my then-girlfriend’s birthday.

By this point in our relationship, things had gotten volatile and we were going through frequent periods of not speaking to each other or, to put it more accurately, of her not speaking to me. That is why I wasn’t celebrating her birthday that year, and the sunny weather was why I’d headed up the M6 to try myself against the direct route up Barf.

I was in place, parking in the car park of what was still the Swan Inn that year, for about 11.30am, not having felt the need to push myself from Manchester. Then it was across the road and along the lane into the woods, coming sooner than I expected to the Clerk. And a poor thing this was, a simple stone not reaching even as far as my shoulders, almost invisible in the grass at the side of the lane, and lacking in even the rags of a whitewashing. Just beyond it was the beginning of the direct route.

This route breaks down into five distinct sections, getting progressively easier the higher up you get. The first is the direct climb, on a scree slope long since rubbed clean of all but the littlest stones, up to the legendary Bishop.

There seemed to be two parallel routes, about twenty feet apart. The right-hand path was not only theologically the more correct but also appeared to be marginally less severe. It was certainly steep, impossible to walk up, requiring a near hugging of the ground, hands and feet in tandem. I had no great difficulties getting up this, other than the growing concern about any possible necessity to retreat this way, which I was _not_ going to enjoy. Little flecks of whitewash, just in front of my eyes, reminded me that I was merely hauling myself and a rucksack up: how anyone did this carrying a bucket of whitewash I couldn’t imagine, but I was bloody glad I didn’t have to.

Once I reached the Bishop that was it. No matter what difficulties might lie ahead, there was going to be no retreat that way. The Bishop was far more impressive, a massive, twisted pillar whose back, contrary to Wainwright’s thirty year old report, was now fully whitewashed. I wondered if today’s volunteers had been shamed into doing that by The North Western Fells.

The Bishop

The next stage was the scree gulley. Wainwright found it treacherous and unpleasant. Hutchby dislikes it just as much, and directs walkers to the alternate path which equally unimpressed walkers have worn behind it to the right over the intervening years. I didn’t find it anything like as bad as either of them, though I approached with ultra-caution.

The worst part of the gully, to me, was an awkward step up to a higher level about halfway. Nothing came apart under my hands, the gully was wide enough to vary my line over the easier ground, I emerged rather wondering what the fuss was all about. Usually, the ground is more difficult than Wainwright describes: this was practically the only example of the opposite.

Stage 3 was very much an interlude, posing nothing but steepness. it was like walking up a field of scrubby land, with little hollows and inclines, nothing in the least dangerous or even awkward until I reached the foot of Slape Crag.

This is where Hutchby reports a second alternative, a higher route across the left hand side of the Crag. Oddly enough, because I wasn’t checking my Wainwright at that point, I took the green rake across that section of the Crag to be the escape into stage 4, and started along it. That is Hutchby’s alternate route, which he describes as easier except for one awkward step across an overhang. That stopped me. I would have to swing my left leg over a rock rib, without any knowledge of what lay on the other side of it, and I refused to take a literal step into the unknown on a rough little bugger like Barf.

So I retreated, checked the book, discovered I was in the wrong place, found the correct rake and crossed it without incident.

Stage 4 took me across the steep side of the fell, rather than up, on a narrow trod where I couldn’t put both boots down together. It stayed on a level for what appeared to be an excessive distance, walking towards the forests. In the end, I started to worry, looked for and found a grassy rake going up, and within the feet found the continuation of the path, this time angling left to right, and gently uphill, and emerging on the third summit.

All was plain sailing from here. I took a breather, looking down upon Bass Lake, suddenly surrounded by walkers, none of whom I’d seen on my ascent.

Where I was at was the third summit. The final stage was strolling stuff, a gentle uphill walk through rambling, easy little grass outcrops with a plenitude of paths to follow until I’d reached the summit.

Getting there was fun, and I’d only ever considered doing the direct route, though I had no intention of descending that way, and not because of my usual horror of going back over trodden ground. In fact, looking up from Barf’s little top, I could see that Lord’s Seat (which I’d already visited, and which, geographically, is not just a parent fell but the whole of the thing and Barf no more than a feature) was in easy reach.

I’d done it, in conditions of rain and snow back in 1984, and it had been no part of my plans, but this was still early, and it was easy to approach, and I’d probably have been ashamed of myself if I didn’t walk over there: what did I go fellwalking for?

It was my second visit to Lord’s Seat. The third and last would be transformational. I recalled a long-ago piece of writing I’d written after my first ascent, that had lodged in my memory, started playing about with it in my head and, 52 days later, I had completed a 72,000 word novel. Little did I know, that Sunday afternoon.

For descent, I was going to take the dull route, the one that crosses over, off Barf itself, into the forests. Walks along forest roads are always easy but, as far as I’m concerned, they’re also dull. I walk to see things and don’t like having masses of trees between me and the views. There was only the occasional glimpse of the Vale of Keswick.

It was like a Sunday afternoon stroll in flat country, until the awkward step down to follow the steep path alongside the beck. Now this was more like what I expect from walking, though I was surrounded by trees throughout, the sun striking through in fragments. I’m trying to avoid the word ‘dappled’ but that’s the one.

My point about the trees was proven as I neared the bottom of the descent. I was drawing level with the Bishop, gleaming white, thrust out from the stripped slope. It would have made for an ideal photo, but hunt as I might, I could find no line of sight that gave me a line of sight: nothing but a gleam of white among the trees was visible.

So I returned to the Clerk, and the car, changed back into my trainers and, content at my half day out, headed back towards the motorway and the road home.

That’s how I spent my girlfriend’s birthday that year. Two months later, when we were speaking again, I took her up to Keswick for the day, on a Saturday. We climbed Catbells, had a brilliant time, and decided to stay over. Long ago.

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On Sharp Edge Once


I haven’t been everywhere in the Lakes, not when it comes to walking. I have climbed each one of the 214 Wainwrights, but there are paths I never followed and features I’ve never seen close to. First among these has got to be Jack’s Rake, on Pavey Ark, a climb I would never consider attempting until I had completed all the Wainwrights for, like the Blessed himself, a broken leg (or worse) would have meant a broken heart.

Once I had ticked off my final summit, I had an unexpectedly truncated walking career ahead of me, and now I will never get up Jack’s Rake safely at all, any more than I could climb the North Face of the Eiger.

Which leaves only one candidate for the title of the most intense place I ever found myself in. Forget Striding Edge, forget Lord’s Rake, forget even that stupid steep descent off Brim Fell direct from Low Water. There was only one candidate, and that was Sharp Edge on Blencathra.

It was a Big Walk, that last day of the holiday tradition, and not the first time I’d set out to climb Blencathra from the east as  the climax to a week away. The first one had been planned as an ascent of Bowscale Fell along its ridge, and transferring to Blencathra via Bannerdale Crags, but low cloud on my ultimate destination put that out of consideration, and I returned via the Mousthwaite Col, and little Souther Fell, showing no signs of any armies, phantom or otherwise.

Mousthwaite Comb

This time, I wasn’t coming in from so far away. I parked in a layby on the Keswick-Penrith road, struggled across the field separating that from the old, pre-highway road, and started towards Mousthwaite Comb. The path spirals gently around this deep, curving basin in the side of the fell, it’s every step visible from the ground below. It looks like a natural to ascend, a rising route gaining height effortless, but its not quite that underfoot. I don’t mean the odd place where the path was damp underfoot, or where there was greenery to round, but of the angle of ascent, which seemed awkward and was tiring underfoot. I was unexpectedly glad to emerge into clear space at the Mousthwaite Col.

I descended from the Col to follow the well-marked path alongside the young Glenderamackin. Foule Crag loomed impressively ahead, growing more striking the closer I got to the branch path into the bowl holding Scales Tarn. I scrambled up beside the beck, which was broad and full.

But though Foule Crag had been riding proud and high throughout the walk to this point, weather conditions were changing. Cloud was gathering, and it was starting to blur the summit. It was getting colder, and a bit windier, even down by the outlet of the tarn, and I was eyeing the next stage of the walk, and the reason I’d decided to come via this route than any other: Sharp Edge.

From below, by the Tarn, it doesn’t look so fearsome, but I had read that page of Wainwright hundreds of times down the years and knew, so far as it is possible to know by reading, what was coming up. With the skyline deteriorated, I could have avoided it by going round the Tarn the other way and ascending the innocuous Scales Fell, but as I’ve mentioned previously, I am a stubborn little bugger and wasn’t prepared to back down this soon.

Folue Crag

So I headed up to the right, scaling the skyline, and turned towards the Edge. The cloud was accumulating, and the day getting darker, which was doing nothing for my spirits, but I went on cautiously, until I started along Sharp Edge itself. The path was distinct and clear. It was not for dancing along with gay abandon, but there was nothing to it that care and attention couldn’t manage. There was a cheat path well below the crest, on my right, avoiding any part of the ridge, which I ignored.

It’s all about the Bad Spot, isn’t it? Without that, Sharp Edge is just Striding Edge redux. And you can read all you like about the Bad Spot but words can’t describe it and you’ll never see it as it is until you get there, because no-one who is in a position to take photos or films that give you a true idea will ever be so criminally asinine as to try to take photos or film because anyone with minimal safety skills will be employing them to stay alive.

The Bad Spot starts when the path below the crest turns inwards, on naked rock, until it terminates as a ledge above a very narrow arete.

I’ve long been impressed by the mind’s ability to compress complex calculations as to velocity, direction, force, momentum and gravity into fractions of a second. Sportsmen and women at all levels do it constantly. Even I, on the cricket field, have done it several times: within an instant I have determined where a ball struck will go, what angle I have to move, at what speed and where to have my hands in order to catch it, all with a higher degree of accuracy than if I were to be equipped with the most sophisticated of measuring and computing equipment and hours in which to work.

Much the same happened as soon as I stepped out onto that ledge. My eyes took in the scene in a flash and calculated all the aspects, especially the most important of them all, which was that if I didn’t do this now, this instant, no delay, I would never do it at all. Even as much as two seconds thinking time would have been fatal: my nerve would have failed me irretrievably.

So I sat down, my legs dangling above the arete. Obviously, I wasn’t in a position to make any measurements, but I am pretty sure that those six foot tall or better had an unfair advantage in that they could rest their boots on the rock, whilst the 5′, 10″ers among us had to shuffle their bottoms off the ledge, gripping it with both hands, and trust their luck to land on the arete .

Opposite me, at the far end of this section, was an identical ledge of pretty much the same height. All I had to do was cross to it. All crossing to it required was one step in the midle of the arete, supported only by my boot, which would have to be placed with perfect balance on a rib of rock approximately half its width, surrounded on both sides by what my peripheral vision suggested were drops of at least two hundred feet, which I was not viewing with anything but my peripheral vision because the only thing I was staring at was that exact spot my boot would go. And I was concentrating on hitting that spot with perfect balance and staying there for a space of time unmeasurable (I had not, at this time, heard of picaseconds but I intuited picaseconds) before my other foot landed at the far end of that arete, my hands grasped the ledge and, with a demonstration of upper body strength that would have amazed anyone I’d been at school with, hauled myself up, shifted round and shuffled on my bottom far enough round the corner to put steep drops out of sight. And there, with my heart pounding and my legs wobbling, I sat and quivered.

Subjective time and objective time were not on speaking terms during this period, but it must have been a good five minutes by any functioning watch before my heartbeat diminished to normal, and my legs started to feel capable of supporting my weight again. I got up and moved on.

Sharp Edge

On, unfortunately, equated to about fifty feet of ascent before I came to the next obstacle. This was a broken, ridged area, stretching above, clearly requiring at least minimal scrambling to proceed. And at the same time, I had reached the cloud base.

This had descended to cover the peak, and I could only see some fifteen to twenty feet at most in front of me. I had no means of assessing just how difficult this next stretch would be: whether what I could see was representative of the next bit, or whether it got worse ahead, out of sight. And with Sharp Edge’s Bad Spot being so close behind, and the experience of risking a potentially fatal fall so fresh in my mind and elsewhere, I dithered.

To put it plainly, I was screwed. My bottle had gone, and I was dismally aware that there was no possibility of my going back over Sharp Edge today. I was way past the two seconds thinking mark, and couldn’t do it. But I also couldn’t go on, not like this, not knowing to a higher degree than I had previously needed, that it was safe.

I’ve mentioned from time to time incidents where luck had been on my side, and now it happened again, when it was sorely needed.

Earlier in the walk, between the Mousthwaite Col and the Scales Tarn turn-off, I’d passed a couple of blokes. I can’t remember how I knew or realised this but one of them was a professional guide, the first and only one I ever saw in the Lakes. They were heading my way and now, when I was dithering, they caught up to me.

The Guide quickly realised my mental state and, without a word, took me over as much as his paying client. He was gentle and reassuring and there was, in the end, nothing dangerous or even outside of my capacity in that section ahead, but he navigated me up it and restored my confidence in myself. I am still grateful to him.

I went on on my own. The cloud was down all around me and I would not be able to see anything, but the path was clear, and I angled round and up to the summit cairn, Hall’s Fell Top. I knew the cairn was close to the top of the ascent via Hall’s Fell and Narrow Edge, so I wandered only very cautiously in that direction. A brief swirl in the clouds allowed me a glimpse of green below, beyond the A66, but nothing else.

There is never much point in hanging around a cloud-shrouded summit, and besides I always was a bit of a restless walker, quick to move on. Whilst I was here, I intended to visit Atkinson Pike, the back end of the Saddleback that, when I was young, Blencathra had been saddled with (one of the many things for which Alfred Wainwright can be blessed is rescuing that name from oblivion). I passed the White Cross on the way, found the peak and retreated to descend to its right and behind it.

I found my way back under the cloud line, on a descending path whose only difficulty was a mild steepness. Below lay the rounded hummock of Mungrisdale Common, which I also intended to visit, because I had to visit it sometime, and was going to do on this walk, despite the absurd discrepancy in levels of satisfaction to be had from the two tops.

Mungrisdale Common

Top, as everyone who has been there knows, is a misleading word to use about Mungrisdale Common. I could see a thin track crossing from the Glenderamackin Col, to my right, a straight line leading with geometric precision to whatever was acceptable as a highest point. The ground was easy, and there was no reason to waste time or energy in descending to its start, so I veered left, in a wide curve, hitting the trail some good distance across the endless field.

The track ended at the ‘summit’. I looked around the void of Skiddaw Forest, the back of higher fells in each direction, except for the gap above the Glenderaterra River, over which a tiny glimpse of Derwentwater could be seen, cold and glinting. It was about all that was entertaining about the view.

I walked unhesitating back along the track, descended from the Glenderamackin Col, followed the river back to the Scales Tarn turn. Looking back, Foule Crag once again stood proud against the sky and as soon as I’d put some distance behind me, to get perspective on the view, I took the photo I’d failed to take on the ascent.

Then it was the Mousthwaite Col, and descending around that bowl, the path more interesting and easier in descent, and a final trek across the fields to the car in it’s layby. I’d climbed Blencathra, but would have to go back because I’d seen nothing, but I had crossed Sharp Edge and negotiated its Bad Spot, and I’d survived the experience. Nothing I ever did in the Lakes again would ever terrify me as much as that one split-second moment when I balanced on one boot on a narrow arete, trusting in the physical skills I was never quite sure I possessed.

I did it, and I was glad I did it. And I never tried it again.

The Silence of the Uldales


The Uldales from a distance

Once upon a time, I set out to collect a bunch of summits, the Uldale Fells, that form one half of that green and nebulous country known as ‘Back o’Skidda”. There’s nothing out there that’s exciting, just a group of five fells that require a little bit of back-and-forthing to include in a single walk, and which required no especial effort or skill to collect. The walk took four hours from start to finish at Longlands Farm.

Yet I enjoyed my little grassland odyssey enough that, in those few post-Wainright years, I repeated the exact same walk, and took the exact same four hours, from Longlands Farm and back. And whilst there were some other walkers out those days, on some or other parts of the fells, we were never close enough to exchange words, not even the conventional greetings in passing.

Which endeared the walk(s) to me.

Longlands Farm lies on the road round the back of the Skiddaw/ Blencathra massifs. One day when low cloud put the fells out of reach, I drove this road, starting from the Penrith end, through Mungrisedale towards Caldbeck. The cloud was so low that, for the major length of it, from just after Hesket Newmarket until the serious descent to cross the foot of the Dash Valley, I drove invisibly, foglamp on, in a grey corridor of silence and solitude. It felt as if I was crossing a high moor, on a raised causeway.

I came back through Longlands Farm, though I can’t remember whether it was visible to me then. Certainly, I didn’t recognise it for what it was, and I only came back, from the Keswick end, when I wanted to take this route. The Farm lies in a steep dip, where a nameless beck crosses the road, and I had to be abrupt in pulling up for the available parking, on the fell side of the road, is just before the bridge, flattish land that can accommodate three to four cars but which is hardly ever likely to turn anyone away.

Be warned that this is not an exciting walk, nor a demanding one, and there is precious little rock to be seen and almost none to be put underfoot. The path takes a narrow, reedy course alongside the beck for the first couple of hundred yards before emerging into the open and starting to veer towards the right, across a very low ridge separating the beck from the valley of the infant River Ellen.

This is the first vista of the day and the low line of fells above the valley are almost all of those that will be crossed in the next few hours. The Ellen crosses the way ahead at a diagonal, from left to right, and the way is a broad way, declining at a gentle angle to cross the river, and rising beyond, across the lowest flanks of Great Cockup, to enter the day’s first, and primary highlight, the ravine of Trusmadoor.

This early in the walk, I found it impossible to saunter, and there was nothing to hinder me from striding out, except perhaps for the slow rise towards the entrance to Trusmadoor, which was set at that tedious angle that lies half way between level and interesting.

Once Trusmadoor is reached, the walk (except for exercise) really begins. Wainwright describes this, accurately, as a great natural railway cutting, and it’s a deep, steep-sided channel through the hills that catches the eye and the imagination, but which suffers from being completely unnecessary: it lies between two insignificant hills and leads from nowhere to nowhere. Uproot, it, stick it in the Scafells, and it would  be magnificent. It’s magnificent as it is, but with an overlooked, in-a-corner grandeur that receives only a fraction of the visitors it deserves.

Trusmadoor from afar

I say Trusmadoor is the real highlight of the walk and most people would agree, but I have a soft spot for the lawns below, fringing Burntod Gill just before it narrows to progress through its long, serpentine ravine. This comes from a completely different walk carried out between these two rounds, when I set out to collect Knott and Great Calva, and found myself scrambling up the ravine of Burntod Gill, beside the rushing beck, and having a glorious time of it. This had been an impromptu variation on my planned route and I wasn’t completely oriented to where I would emerge until I got there, and if I hadn’t a long way to go, I’d have stretched out for a long relaxing stop here.

The lawns lie off the line of ascent but demand a visit anyway, before returning to the near lip of Trusmadoor and starting the first serious climbing of the day.

Great Cockup, a name that makes 93 percent of adult male walkers snigger, is a low and unlovely lump forming the western wall of Trusmadoor, which is accessed along the stony, narrow ridge on the edge of the channel that is its best feature. The top is mostly grassy and the cairn is quite a distance from the corner at which the ridge debouches. When you get there, it offers no spectacular views over the North Cumberland plain, and there is nothing to do but to walk back the way you came.

At the bottom, it was only necessary to walk straight across and start up a similar narrow ridge on the opposite side, which was the key to the ascent of Meal Fell, which has one of the tiniest geographical footprints of the whole Wainwright guides.

There is a big difference between the two ribs: that on Meal Fell doesn’t rise to the summit, but instead levels out to contour across the back of the fell. I abandoned the path once this became plain, and worked my way up onto the summit, which has three individual ridges, elevated like causeways, one after another, with a near ninety degree zig-zag between each one, at the end of which the summit cairn arrives.

Meal Fell to Great Sca Fell

This offers an informative view of the ridge from here to Great Sca Fell, the highest point of this walk, a grassy ridge of increasing elevation to a summit hidden by the top itself, with Burntod Gill offering an interesting line in parallel, suggesting another route of approach, albeit with what looked like a very wearing ascent out of the upper Gill.

I descended the east ridge of Meal Fell onto that easy and broad grassy route towards Great Sca Fell, marching out unrestrictedly. The slope up to the invisible summit was straightforward, but being on grass it was not very interesting and was more tiring than a route on rock at the same angle or even steeper would have been. I settled at the cairn to eat my lunch, facing north, for there was nothing but higher fells and mountains crowding the near skyline in every other direction.

The first time I was here, I set off walking northwards, over the broad edge of the summit, and down across the sprawling Little Sca Fell (nothing around here is remotely reminiscent of any other Scafells). I’d got down about a hundred feet when I realised I’d left my camera behind and had to go charging back: there was no-one about and I found it at the foot of the cairn, where I’d left it.

The two remaining fells of the day lie north of Great Sca Fell, but at the end of different ridges. I’d chosen the furthest first, Brae Fell, alone at the end of a long, placid grassy ridge in a grassy nowhere devoid of people. The path, which surprised by being even one person wide, led directly to its little summit, overlooking the plain and distant Carlisle.

There was little to stay for, and nowhere to sit except on the grass. I turned on my heel and headed back into the grassy plain. On neither of my visits was there any sign of a track in this emptiness, other than the one underfoot, so I relied upon my judgement as to when to start veering over toward the half-concealed but surprisingly fast-running Longlands Gill. I was looking for somewhere to cross safely that didn’t involve me going too far back out of my way because as soon as I was across the beck, I was turning back north again, on a distinct path along the base of the ridge.

Oddly enough, it was in this widespread grassy bowl that I have one of my most vivid mental images, from that second round, when the weather was a little warmer and the skies a little brighter. I was heading inwards again, towards the fells, and there was a silence in the long grasses, and where there had been no markings all those years before there were faint tracks that suggested people came here, but not today, and the surrounding fells were grassy hills only and I might have been anywhere, but I was in tried, tested and true country of which I felt a part. I was alone but not lonely, and relaxed on my own two legs.

The first time round, I stayed by the beck until turning up onto the col behind Longlands Fell, but second time I was marginally more adventurous, and gained the ridge at its first col, going up and over the rather broad-beamed Lowthwaite Fell, which is higher than Longlands but doesn’t count as an independent summit for Wainwright.

Longlands Fell looking back

I crossed it nonchalantly, re-ascended Longlands and then carried on down its long ridge to gain the low country less than a quarter mile from Longlands Farm. There was nothing but a short stroll, and I was back at the car in pretty much exactly four hours on both occasions.

It was peaceful and quiet, and the walking was unstrenuous except in very short sections around Trusmadoor, and although the scenery deteriorates rapidly once you leave it and the lawns around Burntod Gill, that silent grassy plain at the back of Brae Fell, with its sense of exposure and its lonely country made an impression I’ll be long in forgetting.

And all to be had in half a day without even working up a sweat. Now I’m old, and arthritic, I could probably still get round the whole walk, and I wouldn’t like to bet that it would take me significantly longer than it did in my prime. It’s that sort of place, and I’ll bet it would still be empty like twice upon a time.

A Day on the Roof


Where it begins and ends

Once again, this is a walk I outlined a long time ago as a Great Walk, but which now I want to recall as one of my finest days out in the Lake District. This was the second of four occasions on which I climbed Scafell Pike, and of my four expeditions to the highest point in England, by far and away my favourite.

I was still steadily working my way through my diminishing list of Wainwrights in the summer of 1994, in a run of sunny weekends when I went walking on six successive Saturdays. It was a July Saturday and I planned to drive up from Manchester, undertake the longest and hardest walk of my life, and return home all in a day, and a day of sun throughout.

These Saturday expeditions worked to a strict timetable: the alarm clock at 6.00am, into the car at 7.00am and look to be crossing the Cumbria Border by 8.00am on the M6: my record time was 58 minutes one Saturday. From there, it depended where I was going: I could be in Ambleside by 8.30am, but a walk out of Ennerdale took considerably longer.

And when it comes to parking at Seathwaite on a sunny day, you really do have to start early. This is not a scientific assessment, because to be a scientific assessment, I would have had to have hung around Seathwaite counting cars and wasting good walking time, but my estimate was that for every minute after 9.00am, you ended up parking two more car lengths from the farm.

Which is alright at 9.20am, full of the joys of summer, but something different at 4.30pm.

I love Seathwaite on a sunny morning. It’s the gateway to possibility. There is literally nowhere you can go from here that does not lead to a great day, and if you can’t be excited setting foot in the farmyard, you should give serious thought to spending the day with a good book instead.

This was the first of my visits to Seathwaite to see me turn under the square arch in the farmyard and walk across the fields to a little stone bridge over the young Derwent. I’d returned by this route on two previous visits, starting in wildly different directions but ending up in the same place. The last time had been when I took a never-quite-was girlfriend to climb Seathwaite Fell: we’d returned from Sty Head via the Taylorgill Force variation and now I wanted to climb that because it looked a lot more interesting than the main drag.

Taylorgill Force

The west bank of the Derwent was soft and grassy, and in spots a bit damp after I crossed the bridge. I set off brisk and purposeful, taking advantage of both the pleasant ground underfoot and the initially level ground. The main path to Stockley Bridge, and the crowds already progressing along it, were in clear sight after we’d passed the farm. Then the path started to angle uphill, still gently but at an increasing rate, until I was well above the river and looking for that moment when it would turn directly uphill, towards a gate visible on a rocky bluff above. Through the gate and I was inside the gorge.

From our descent before, I knew that to find the path round the ravine I had to duck under the extended tree branch directly in front of me. Ducking wasn’t a problem back then, even with a rucksack. The sun was beating down and there was no breeze at close confines. This was warm enough for me to strip off my sweatshirt and go bare-chested (ooh er, missus!) until I was out of the ravine and into the breeze again.

I worked round to the right, scrambling along the path into the little wooded defile above the falls, and from there emerging onto the long, flat gravel-lands on the lead-in to Sty Head Tarn. I knew from before that the path beside Sty Head Beck, here running in a narrow grassy channel, came and went on my side and all I need to do refind it was to walk on and not slip into the water, but at the first gap I thought, ah, to heck with it (or something similar), and hopped over the beck, scrambled up the bank and settled myself on the main drag.

It was only the mid-morning, the sun was still raising itself, and I had the opportunity to stride out on all but level ground, amid wide green walls, with Great End lazily rearing its massive head before me at every step. This kind of lazy walking is rare in the lakes and should be appreciated. I bowled along happily under the sun, my shirt restored as the breeze was once again decidedly breezy, and before long I was strolling the shores of the Tarn, and coming to the stretcher box at the top of Sty Head.

The official summit is beside the blue stretcher box but the highest point is about a hundred yards further on, at the lip of the downfall towards Wasdale Head. I settled myself down for a bite to eat, a pitta bread crammed with ham and Mediterranean vegetables, crunched happily, and healthily as I savoured the view.

The Corridor Route

Momentarily replete, I wandered back to begin the next leg. I was really looking forward to this bit. I remembered Mam and Dad talking about the Corridor Route enthusiastically. Neither of them had done it, and Mam had not lasted long enough for me to tell her that I had, and to describe it to her.

I set off in the direction of Esk Hause, keeping my eyes open for the thin track that led right, to the edge of the downfall and beyond it, on a broad, loose slope down which I worked. This didn’t cost me much height, in the scheme of things, and from the bottom I set foot on the Corridor Route.

It used to be called the Guides Route, which is understandable, but why it became known as the Corridor Route when it’s actually a series of linked ledges, angling across the flank of the massif, I don’t know, but it was a brilliant walk in itself, and it could have been twice as long and be twice as great. It was good, rough walking, full of mini-scrambles round corners, hard underfoot, demanding awareness, with the massive downfall of Great Gable over the right shoulder any time you wanted to slow down and just relish where you were. I am and always was summit-oriented, but things like this were worth the day itself.

As Lingmell Col came into view, I was a little worried to see the path apparently turn sharply uphill towards Broadcrag Col, but when I got to the end of the Corridor route, this was actually a long tongue of grey scree, descended the eroded slope, and no official route whatsoever.

To my right was the top of Piers Gill, and a steep glimpse into his forbidding surroundings. The only other time I had been in this place was with my family, when we had somehow turned a walk towards Sty Head via the Valley Route into a full-scale ascent beside the Gill, led by my enthusiastic father, about which I had been very doubtful. And here I was again, looking into that great shattered ravine and thinking myself very glad not to have come up that way again, especially not on my own.

But the continuation of the path looked to be angling up onto Lingmell Col on the Pike side, which I didn’t want. The descent to the lowest part of the Col might be minimal but on a walk of this length and scope, I did not want to lose any height, no matter how minimal. I was looking around for an alternative when I happened to catch sight, on my right, of a path crossing a little dell about ten feet lower, and I quickly dropped down to this to take me onto the Col where I wanted to be, with the added bonus of the first grass beneath my feet since the banks of the Derwent.

Lingmell – the classic cairn

There was no path up Lingmell for the first fifty feet, but then one sprung into being, entire, as if it had forced itself up through the ground. The summit had the same magnificent views of Gable and Mosedale, but the spire-like summit cairn had long since been replaced by an untidy, sprawling pyramid of stone. The original cairn had been demolished before we ever came here, but we had seen the rebuilt version that features in The Southern Fells, thicker at the waist, like me, than above or below.

Lingmell was the second, and highest, of three fells my Dad had climbed. I couldn’t not return. A day like this would have been the perfect day to have had Dad accompany me into the high country. It would have meant as much to him as it did to me.

Twenty five years earlier, or thereabouts, I had looked at Scafell Pike from this angle, convinced that we could climb it without difficulty. The adults pooh-poohed me. In the Nineties, I was vindicated. This approach isn’t the most exciting way of reaching Scafell Pike, but I walked up it without the need to halt.

It was the second of four times I climbed the highest peak. Despite the number of people on the path above and below me, I came to that band of stone where the path becomes nothing but scratches on rocks, where I seem always to be crossing alone. It makes the final steps into even more of a pilgrimage, and I not religious. Once the summit is reached, the scene becomes almost obscene with visitors, many of whom are clearly not here because they’re fellwalkers, but all of whom are here because this is where it is, the highest point. There is nowhere higher than here without getting into some flying machine.

You can tell they’re not fellwalkers because they don’t give way for you to visit the cairn, spoiling their momentary image of themselves as higher than anyone in the country. I just walked past them anyway and surveyed that incredible view, in which all is brilliant, but most of all Bowfell. This is the only place from which you can look down on it, and it’s amazing how the fell seems to twist its shoulders in embarrassment.

But crowds like that on a summer Saturday lunchtime are not what I put the effort in for. After making my duty visit, I headed downhill, south east, towards the unoccupied south cairn, with its vista of the wilds of Upper Eskdale and its grandstand seat for Scafell Crag from the gully to Foxes Tarn round to the the shadowed channel of Lord’s Rake. With my back to the masses, and the wind blowing from me to them, I could sit back and enjoy my lunch in the deceptive silence, pretending I was on my own.

Broad Crag- where intense care is needed

Nothing last forever. I angled across the stony top, steering to the right of the cairn to pick up the downhill route to Broad Crag. It was my first close-up sight of the second Pike (as we all still believed it to be then), a rounded, aggressive dome of stone. The path led steeply downhill into the narrow col, and just as steeply up out of it to cross Broad Crag’s Eskdale shoulder. This was challenging walking, hands supplementing feet, no looking at the view below without stopping and anchoring oneself.

I was going to climb it, of course I was going to climb it, despite everything Wainwright said by way of warning. I had nearly thirty years experience under my boots and I was not going to be here often and this day was about cramming in every good and exciting thing on the way.

Once I got close up, it was clear the way was going to be every bit as difficult and dangerous as Wainwright had said, but being being sensible and careful, ensuring each step was firmly anchored before I put my way on it, and balancing every step onto a knife-edge, I got up without difficulty and, after admiring the Pike’s rocks from this previously unseen angle, down to the path again in complete safety.

Ill Crag, where it pays to be cautious

Next was the drop into and climb out of Illcrag Col, and the turn right for the third Pike. For the first time that day, I began to feel the walk in my legs. Ill Crag lies a long way east of the main ridge, and I was surprised to find that, once I’d crossed its shoulder, the last stage was like a miniature of Broad Crag. By the time I’d got there, the sun was beginning to descended towards the far side of the massif: the light was hazy and golden, the crags dark, and the day started to feel as it time was running. I walked back to the path and down into Calf Cove.

Finally, I’d come to the point of the walk, in Wainwright-collecting terms. All of this was about ticking Great End off the rapidly shrinking list of unvisited summits. The final ascent was gently graded and surprisingly grassy. I arrived on the edge of the top with two cairns in sight.

The further and leftmost looked to be the highest, but the actual top was the nearer and rightmost. I made a careful beeline towards the first top, conscious that Great End is named for what it is and having no wish to accelerate over the cliff-edge. I then worked my way back along the line of the cliffs, as near as I dared step, which wasn’t all that near at all, until I reached the actual summit, and then back down to Calf Cove and the way to Esk Hause.

This was the second time I’d been here, and the third would follow within a matter of weeks. As always, I found it strange that the only direction there was not a path was down into Eskdale, but then the uppermost feet of the valley are so narrow, a path is unnecessary. I looked around, trying to commit routes to memory, then strolled down to the wall-shelter.

Esk Hause, where every path is glorious

All that was left now was return, and I felt tired but wholly satisfied. Nor was the last stretch a disappointment: Grains Gill is a wonderful route of ascent but it’s not that bad going down.

The final part of the walk, after the last summit, is always some kind of a dying fall. The achievements are usually over and all you’re doing is heading back, and it’s more often than not a trouble-free walk downhill. Grains Gill is a splendid route, but it was winding up and winding down. The lower valley was a long, narrow funnel, with Stockley Bridge in view all the way, getting slowly nearer.

Even arriving at the Bridge didn’t ease things up because that path from Seathwaite might be broad and generally level, but it’s been battered by billions of boots and it’s no picnic stroll. I got back to the farm sore-legged and weary. The farm cafe was still open and, for once I had some cash on me instead of locking my wallet in the glove compartment, I stopped off for some natural, farm-grown food and drink, an entirely natural Mars Bar and a locally-grown Diet Coke (what? You mean these weren’t farm produce?)

And then the stroll back to the car. This was the 4.30pm that was so different from 9.20am. I’d have liked to have been nearer, and got my boots off and into lightweight trainers that little bit sooner, but to be honest it could have been much worse, and the glory of the day tided me over and gave me a glow that lasted all the way down the motorway.

The Tarns of Missed Opportunity


The head of Great Langdale

The sun is shining again, and my head is in the high fells, which is where the rest of me wants to be. I’m remembering another walk, and remembering a moment where I didn’t take an opportunity that presented itself, under the sun.

It was the last day of the holiday, the one I always reserved for the Big Walk, something that covered miles and thousands of feet of ascent, and took me to the major mountains, the ones that attract walkers every day. Usually, this would be the Thursday of my week away, and I would make a leisurely return the following day.

But for once this was a Friday walk: United had had a European Champions League game in mid-week, and I had darted back to Manchester for the match on Wednesday night, and back to the Lakes the next day, but into a day of incessant rain. But it was September High Summer the next day, and I was going to pile into my car once I got back to the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel car park, and aim for the M6 and sleep in my own bed that night.

My walk was a cracker in prospect and in actuality: Crinkle Crags from Oxendale, Bowfell and Esk Pike, returning by Esk Hause, Angle Tarn and Rossett Gill. Long, difficult, demanding of strength and stamina. Satisfaction all but guaranteed.

I’ve written about this walk before, in a rather more impersonal manner, as a Great Walk (insert link). Ascending out of Oxendale’s narrow confines, the long approach along Crinkle Crag’s shoulder, gradually nearing the first red meat of the day but for the moment enlivened by the views backwards towards Windermere, or south into the Duddon Valley.

I was operating by Radio 4 when it came to time-keeping: I’d taken my watch off at home on Wednesday night but left it on the couch, and returned to Cumbria without a timepiece. Oddly, it disturbed me to be potentially out on the fells for a long walk with no means of keeping track of time, but I’d bought a Test Match Special cap radio the summer before, with a built-in miniature Long Wave/Medium Wave radio and earpieces on curly cables. The only channel I could decently get was Radio 4. This timed me round the fells, and was my longest ever exposure to the channel.

So when I got to the Bad Step on the Second Crinkle, I knew it was 12.30pm and of all things they could have been featuring, it was a programme about Manchester Town Hall!

I did what you’re supposed to do about the Bad Step, visited as if to size it up for next time, not that you’d have had me trying to go up it if there had been a next time, not without a certified rock-climbing companion to guide my every step and support me on a rope. Instead, I contoured across the broken ground at the back of the Crinkle until an easy semi-scrambling route was available, and semi-scrambled easily up that to the summit.

Of course, it was mandatory to visit each of the Crinkles in turn, especially as they were so close at hand. Then the long walk over Gunson Knott to Three Tarns, with the parallel scars of Bowfell Links directly ahead, and the long shattered tongue of scree-stone curling around its right hand side and onto the top.

Bowfell Links and the riiver of stones

Bowfell was the only one of the three fells I had previously climbed, from Mickleden and Rossett Pike, to Ore Gap. At that point, the cloud that had been teasing Bowfell’s topmost couple of hundred feet all day came down with some finality. I fell in with two walkers from Trafford Ramblers who were just coming down off Esk Pike, and we picked our way up onto Bowfell’s summit and found its highest point.

This was where it got sticky. We thought we’d picked up the path, but before very long found ourselves crawling out along a rocky route with an obvious steep downfall to our left. I gave in first, told them I was working back. I would find a path downwards, even if it wasn’t into Langdale.

I was very lucky. The number of times I have been lucky would make a less atheist person wonder if there wasn’t someone looking out for him. I immediately found a path and, despite my voice sounding thin in the cloud, I attracted the guys’ attention. We headed down, and of course it was the route to Three Tarns, and the Band, that river of stones I now regarded from below, in perfect sunshine.

It was a drag to ascend, but I found myself on the summit in clear daylight, the views to enjoy. Over to one side I could see the head of the Great Slab. But I didn’t divert over to look at it then, missing another chance I should really have gobbled up. Instead, I made for Ore Gap and beyond it onto Esk Pike.

Shamefully, my memories of Esk Pike are more fragmentary than of most other summits. It was an energetic, enthralling walk, and the summit itself lay off to the right of the main path, which crossed a shoulder about fifty feet below the summit, and I diverted to it and over it to tag it and return. And I remember the slow descent to Esk Hause, the path sometimes using rock ridges for short distances.

Esk Pike

It was my third, and last visit to Esk Hause and I came to the cairn at the top of the Pass from the diametrically opposite direction to my previous visit, a Saturday outing not more than six weeks earlier, Scafell Pike from Seathwaite via the Taylor Gill Force variation and the Corridor Route, and along the spine of the Pikes to Great End. From the cairn down to the wall-shelter, and then the retreat began towards Angle Tarn and Rossett Gill.

Every step from Bowfell summit onwards had taken me further away from my car, and it’s a long journey in itself from Esk Hause to the Old Hotel car park. It was still a glorious sunny day, and the views were superb. As far as Angle Tarn, dark and sinister in its bowl despite the weather, things were fine: three descents, two levels.

But from the Tarn there was a late on the day climb of 300 feet or so to reach the top of Rossett Gill. And my legs were as heavy as lead and the last thing I wanted to do was to go uphill any more today (unless it was my stairs at home to my bedroom). Radio 4 was relating an interesting programme about a man who wrote biographies for people, not famous people or celebrities, but ordinary folk who wanted to leave behind a record of their life, for their children and their family. I listened interestedly as I gritted through every tortuous step.

At that time, the top pitch of Rossett Gill was still a hellslide of erosion. I started down carefully, eyes open to my right so as not to miss the escape onto the upper leg of the higher zigzag. This was safe and secure, re-laid crazy paving, essential to preserve the fells, but unlovely in idea.

I can’t remember if this was part of my planning all along, or an on-the-spot opportunistic decision, but when I reached the outermost point of the zig-zag, I checked the relevant page in Wainwright, girded my metaphorical lines and continued across the pathless fellside, maintaining the angle of descent that I had been following, in pursuit of the old pony route.

I’d crossed three of the ten highest fells during the day, but looking back my proudest moment is that I found and followed the old Pony Route, which according to Jesty and Hutchby can no longer be traced on the ground. I crossed the fellside on the correct line, arriving exactly at the little natural weir Wainwright identifies, working down the tongue of land on intermittent grass channels, appearing and disappearing, escaping onto the main body of Bowfell before the tongue narrowed too much, following the level path on the border of Mickleden and finding my way across the soft valley floor, through the moraines, to the main Mickleden path, though this last part was slightly marred by my stepping up to the ankle in too-soft ground, and as a consequence the final march was step-squelch, step-squelch all the way home.

Rossett Gill

But I described this walk as a case of missed opportunity. For the meaning of that, let us go back to the vicinity of Three Tarns, below Bowfell Links. Let me return to my memory of a young, enthusiastic, bubbly, bright female fellwalker, who’d just come down off Bowfell, and who stopped to talk to me.

And I don’t mean just saying hello in passing. I don’t remember how our conversation started, but it must have come from her because I would never have tried to start anything extended with someone that young and that attractive. I was thirty-eight, and I’d have been surprised if she was older than twenty-three, with curly blonde hair and a slim figure emphasised by electric blue cycle shorts.

Boy, she was talking to me enthusiastically, telling me that she was staying in Ambleside – the very place I had been the night before – and not giving any indication that she was part of a group, either here at Three Tarns or down in Ambleside. She was really cheery and she seemed to like talking to me, and this was the sweat-shirted, shaggy brown-haired, bearded and bellied me.

I had the ideal set-up to suggest meeting her later than night in Ambleside, for a drink and whatever else we might have agreed upon afterwards. You who are reading this are no doubt way ahead of me in realising that I signally failed to take advantage of this opportunity. True, I’d have had to find another guest house for another night, which on a Friday night might have been a bit difficult, with people arriving for weekends away, but I didn’t even think to suggest it until I was far away, on Esk Pike, when it was much too late.

In my defence – no, strike that, I don’t believe I should be defended –  I was away on holiday in the Lakes, where sex and related subjects was not uppermost in my mind, especially not on Bowfell, nor was I automatically attuned to the idea that an attractive and bubbly cycle-shorted hottie about fifteen years younger than me might be interested in my company, let alone my body.

I let her go. I didn’t suggest a drink later on, I didn’t try to get her number (I’d have had nothing to write it down with, even if I had something to write it down on), and I didn’t even think to ask her her name. Like all fellwalkers, especially the ones going in the opposite direction to me, she was a passing ship.

And who knows, she might have been enthusiastic about talking to me because she was enthusiastic about talking to people and the suggestion of meeting up at the Sportsman later on would have had her shying away in loathing. That’s what I tell myself when I remember this brief encounter. Romance (or earthier things) and the fells only ever mixed on those rare occasions I took an already girlfriend (or wife) out walking.

Still, those cycle-shorts were appealingly tight…

A Tale of Two Crags and a flash of red


Eagle Crag – the challenging way

It’s a sunny day today, so I don’t know what’s triggered this particular memory, but on the way to the bus I found myself reminiscing about the day I climbed Eagle Crag, in low cloud and rain.

Eagle Crag is not a very high fell. Geographically, it’s nothing but the abrupt terminus of a long spur extending north east from High Raise. It’s an umbilical twin of the similar Sergeant’s Crag, and the two form the southern wall of Langstrath for much of its lower length.

But Eagle Crag is one more of those lower Lakeland fells that present a fierce aspect far outweighing its mere height. It’s a terminal cliff with an exciting escarpment that is really the only method of approach. The only other routes of access are dull and unworthy and, in the case of the one that goes really round the back, look tedious beyond belief and dangerously lonely.

I left Eagle Crag a long way into the Wainwrights, because I wanted to tackle it the direct route, but I was nervous about it. It was a direct assault on the in places near vertical face of the fell as seen from the Stonethwaite valley, and it had a few awkward, or potentially awkward spots from which it might prove a bit difficult to retreat. Even Wainwright had said that this was not a route to descend by unless it had been ascended very recently, which I took to mean the same day, and within no more than a couple of hours.

That’s the thing. I am, or rather was, even then, a very experienced fellwalker, but when it came to the more difficult routes, I had very little confidence in my ability to tackle anything other than the straightforward.

You’ve got to test your boundaries sometimes, so with great trepidation, on a dark and overcast afternoon, I drove to Stonethwaite for only the second time, changed into my anorak and boots, and set off on the Greenup Edge path.

Langstrath enters the Stonethwaite valley from the west, but there is a difference in levels making it impossible to see into the valley from the path. I dropped down to cross the valley at a footbridge, and follow a path on thhe other side of Greenup Gill through enclosures of bracken so as to ascend towards the tricky stage of the ascent. There was a steep but tedious walk up a sloping field of bracken, most of it waist height and wet from previous rain. My walking trousers slowly soaked through, making the ascent unpleasantly damp as well as draining. I stuck to the wall as much as possible, as an easy guide to the mini-ridge before the climb started to get serious.

From here, the way to the top is relatively short in comparison but the relatively nervous walker will find their nerves aquiver at every step onwards. Once I’d circled round to reach the mini-ridge where the wall abutted the cliff-front, there was a rickety and unconvincing stile over the wall at this point, that held up under my scrambling my bulk over it, conscious of its fragility.

From there, the route clings to the cliff face as you work across the Langstrath side to the foot of a steep, semi-grassy gully. This is relatively narrow, protecting the vertiginously-inclined from too much empty space. I worked up in by hand and foot, exiting to the left at its head and having to circle that head to proceed right along a grass ledge.

This was the worst part of the ascent. The ledge was pretty level and reasonably wide, but I would have felt much happier with a banister rail of some sorts along the right hand side because this was pure space. Wander too close to that edge – and anything within twice the width of the ledge constituted too close for me – and the next step was a doozy. I went carefully along the ledge, wondering how far it would go, where it ended, would it get any narrower, all the time aware that any retreat would mean putting the drop on my left side, which would have overloaded my senses more than a bit, and then having to go down that gulley, which I would not relish at all.

Just as soon as it was physically possible, when the wall to my left had declined to where it was only a short scramble up onto another, shorter grassy ledge, and then to a series of ledges each of which took me higher and further from that precipitate drop, I got off hat big ledge with gratitude and an increasing sense of safety. Above me, a small heap of rocks came into view, and I headed for it to discover that this was, by luck and not judgement, the summit.

Sergeant’s Crag in the sun

Getting through something like that successfully, i.e., intact, was always an adrenaline kick, but my arrival on the summit was closely followed by the arrival of rain and lowering cloud. Not so much as to trouble me at my modest elevation, but enough to require me to don waterproofs, though I’d got a hundred yards or two down the ridge before I had to make urgent adjustments.

There was never any intention to descend from Eagle Crag: the direct route was too fearsome, and the roundabout route too grim to consider, and besides, I was still collecting my Wainwrights and there was no way I would miss out on the chance to visit Sergeant’s Crag. I’d just come to the awkward step on the ridge when it was necessary to shelter myself, and then the clouds followed. I trudged along a path below the crest, on the dull side, in silence but for the hissing of the rain, the cloud close above, with no sense of how I was progressing along the ridge. Once again, luck came to my assistance, because when I decided I’d better check the ridge itself because the wrinkle I turned up to was Sergeant’s Crag’s summit!

I now had the issue of the return journey. Though the cloud was now lowering on High Raise itself, and looked likely to descend even further, I could see the greater part of the long, curling, grassy ridge towards the parent fell. It didn’t look in the least appetising. It looked much too easy to be lost in cloud before I could get too far in that direction, and far too easy to get off line.

More importantly, it was raining and it looked likely to get harder and I really did not want to get any further away from the car at Stonethwaite than was absolutely necessary. Technically, the descent from Sergeant’s Crag was in this direction and traversing over pathless territory towards the top of Stake Pass, and only then into Langstrath which, as you shouldn’t need reminding, means Long Valley.

Direct descent into the valley wasn’t feasible so I descended onto the ridge again, keeping to the Langstrath side, with my eyes open for any feasible line in a downwards direction, feasible here being a word meaning direct and safe. It wasn’t possible to see all the way down into the valley, so I had to take the lower portion of the descent on trust, but there seemed to be a possible route not too far from the summit, and I set off that way, between Bull Crag and the shattered rocks below the summit.

The rain, and the slipperiness of the grassy fellside were major obstacles, and I proceeded with deliberate speed, slow, steady, careful, constantly measuring the line and the angle in front of me. Like my long prior descent from Brim Fell, it was a very long time before the valley floor seemed to get any nearer. I just worked my way down, a few steps at a time, making sure my leading foot was firmly planted before I put any weight upon it. Though this was not yet even mid-afternoon, it was dark under the water-heavy clouds, and dismal of appearance.

It was a matter of concern that after I’d got over halfway down, the way ahead seemed to be interrupted by bluffs over which I couldn’t see but which suggested even steeper ground below them. But I’d committed myself to this course and after so long  steep descent, I was starting to feel the build-up of lactic acid in my calves, so the thought of abandoning this route and having to go back uphill – for what? – was doubly unwelcome.

So I stuck to my guns and to my concentration, and the lower slopes weren’t impassable, and I didn’t slip and I got to the bottom and the path – which was wide and commendably level – and headed for the valley end.

Langstrath from Stake Pass

Langstrath is not just a long valley, but also a very broad and empty one, and unless you’re walking towards Bowfell, it doesn’t have any scenic highlights. And Bowfell was invisible in the rainclouds so I couldn’t even turn round at intervals and admire that scene. It was trudge, trudge, trudge, under the rocks of the Sergeant’s Crag/Eagle Crag ridge, with very little inspiration.

The beck was wide and swift and didn’t look amenable to crossing it to the Rosthwaite Fell bank, but at Blackmoss Pot there was a footbridge I could use to get to the other side. Instead of having to match to and descend from the valley end to the Greenup path, I could cut a corner, through the woods, and make a more direct return to Stonethwaite.

My steps picked up in the woods, getting nearer to being able to get out of my soaked waterproofs. The rain was incessant and for a long time I’d been carrying my glasses in my hand, able to see better without them than with. Suddenly, in my myopic state, I glimpsed a red flash along a branch ahead of and above me, to my right. I crammed my glasses back on as quickly as I could, so that I could see more than mere shapes, but the flash had gone, and I saw neither it nor any of its colony. Sadly, that is the closest I ever came to seeing a red squirrel in its own fur.

Back in Keswick, I hung my waterproofs over the shower curtain rail in my bathroom to drain into the bath. because they were never going to recover if rolled up and stuffed in the bottom of my rucksack. It gave my guest room a funny smell all evening, but I survived.

And I survived the walk. More importantly, it gave me a new confidence. I’d gotten up without any difficulties except the self-imposed ones of my nerves. I took a long, hard look at myself and started to ask whether I’d been underestimating my abilities before now. I had always chosen to walk within my limitation, but Eagle Crag showed me that my perception of those limitations might very well not be the same as my real limitations.

I feel stupid that it took me that long to believe in myself, so that when I started tackling things like Sharp Edge, and Lord’s Rake, and Narrow Edge, I was so far along in my walking career. If I had believed in myself when I should have, I could haave done these much earlier, and left myself much more times for things I never got to, such as the High Level Route to Robinson’s Cairn, or the West Wall Traverse, or even the daddy of them all, Jack’s Rake.

Eagle Crag may well be a minor fell, but it had a major impact on me, and I remember it vividly, even on sunny days.

A flash of red

Re-Planning a Lakeland Expedition


Maybe (again)

Yesterday, a temperature of 20 degrees Celsius was recorded in Britain, in winter, for the first time ever.

Today, that record has been broken.

The skies are an unbroken blue, albeit with a tinge of white haze around the horizons. I was hot coming in to work and since my shift started I have been sitting here in a short-sleeved polo shirt, and about five minutes ago I was feeling unconfortably stuffy.

This is Britain in 2019: everything is broken.

Of course, I’m not complaining in the short term. This is nice weather and I’m happy to revel in it. On Sunday, one of my neighbours was out in shorts, sunbathing outside his front door. People continue to deny there’s something wrong with the Earth’s climate.

And the weather, if it can be relied upon and there isn’t a backlash in the immediate future, is tempting me to a day out. And when I say day out, I usually mean a Lake District Expedition: is Patterdale possible yet on current steamer schedules?

The answer is yes: depart Pooley Bridge 12.50, return 15.35, with thirty five minutes stopover at Glenridding. Not great, but feasible. But I can get a bus from Penrith at 11.20 outside the Rail Station, arriving Pooley Bridge 11.50. There’s a much bigger delay on the return, with the only bus leaving Pooley at 17.25 and returning to Penrith Rail Station for 18.09.

And I can do the train journey as two singles (08.47 from Manchester Piccadilly, 18.50 from Penrith), total £27.80 this Saturday coming. I can save £1 by going on Saturday week, but if I book for four weeks in advance, I can reduce the train fares to £21.00, by taking a slightly later train from Penrith.

Hmm. This is doable.

The problem is daylight: it’s starting to be light after 5.00pm now, but it still makes any outing at this time of year a bit too like a Birthday week trip. And if the skies are going to be this clear, and bright, I want all the access to daylight I can get. Nevertheless, with a, say 5.30pm cut-off point for daylight, I’d just about be on the bus at Pooley Bridge when the views vanish.

I wonder if the weather’s going to last…