Back to the Lakes


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It’s been nearly two years since I last saw anything of the Lakes, the Patterdale Expedition, the round trip on the Ullswater steamer. Last year’s plans had to be set aside, hopefully to be revisited before very long, but at last it’s possible to travel there in approved safety. The simplest of all trips: to Windermere by train, to see mountains and fells and lakes long familiar, but not so recently. It’s going back home for me. And I’m doing it for less than £20 on the train.
I’m stocked up with the usual accoutrements for any successful day out: a fully-charged mp3 player with 1,150 songs on it, plus headphones, a book of substance, waiting to be read in circumstances of peace and quiet and neither distraction nor interruption – my selection on this occasion being Mark Helprin’s Refiner’s Fire, a Christmas self-treat in 2019.
What am I going to do when I get there for the first time in nearly two years? I have options. Options, options, options. The first, and most steady and reliable of these, is to buy a Grasmere Dayrider at the bus station and head off to there, to walk round the village, check the Heaton Cooper Studios, visit Sam Read’s Bookshop, lift mine eyes to the hills and generally revel in the air and ambience of things. Then back to Ambleside to do the same things there, and nurse a pint in the Ambleside Tavern. Safe, reliable, done before, more than once.
A bit more esoteric option is to make that a Keswick Dayrider. Head into the Northern Lakes, do the wandering around, see twice as any Lakes and mountains, maybe time for a stroll round Ambleside coming back, we’d have to see. Same thing though, done that.
But there’s a third option, though one only available if the weather is good, dry and clear, and the train is on time. I’m supposed to be at Windermere for 10.38. If I can walk from there to Bowness in half an hour, and it’s downhill all the way, I can catch the Windermere Steamer to Waterhead at 11.10. For once I can be very specific: I last travelled on the Windermere Steamer in August 1975, which is enough of a gap to call it ‘new’.
The drawback with this is, first of all, the walk to Bowness, under the self-set pressure of working to a deadline, and then the arrival at Waterhead with – unless I am incredibly lucky with a bus – a mile’s walk from there to Ambleside. And what do I do then?
Unfortunately, weather or not, option three looks like being a non-starter on medical grounds. Unexpectedly, I started a headache at work on Wednesday that is proving resistant to dispersal. To my great disgust, it incorporates an element of light-headedness when I’m upright, making me feel that my head is not quite in the same plane as the rest of me: Not strictly conducive to marches downhill against the clock.

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I leave excessive time to get to the Station: psychologically I have to. The alarm is set for 6.30am, though I awake an hour before that. Shower and dress and walk to the bus stop (eight minutes) to catch a 7.15am bus to Piccadilly (thirty minutes) for a train that leaves at 8.48 am. I’m not crazy: the bus has form for interference. There’s a paucity of passengers on the Reddish leg and a plethora through Gorton. I arrive at Poiccadilly Station with seventy minutes to spare: W.H.Smith’s isn’t even open yet. Excess, excess, toujours l’excess! I het food and drink and sit down to read and wait.

I don’t really stop being twitchy until the train arrives. I’m fast enough to claim a table seat, facing forwards, in anticipation of the first views. Unlike the past few days of eaerly morning clear skies greying out to varying degrees of rain, this one’s started dull and is turning sunbright, with a touch of gold in the air more suggestive of the first hour after dawn. As Guy Garvey put it, it’s looking like a beautiful day.

It’s an oddly divided beautiful day, however. At Preston the sky westards, towards the coast, is an even, rich blue but on the other side it’s paler and patchier, knitted up with white clouds, drawing colour out of the sky. That way lies hill, of course.

There’s an irritating woman in the carriage, talking incessantly in an over-emphatic, self-satisfied voice. I’m not the only one who doesn’t like, and then I’m suddenly annoyed with myself for not remembering my mp3 player until we’re rolling into Lancaster. Music, vigorous, mostly obscure Sixties music envelops me happily.

To tell the truth, the book is not gripping me. I put it away and turn my attention to the window, getting an immediate reward because og yes indeed it is a beautiful day. A long skyline stretches across the drained sands of Morecambe Bay, an actual, genuine, gorgeous skyline of familiar ridges and shapes: the Old Man and dour Dow Crag, Red Screes above Kirkstone, the Fairfield Horseshoe, and even the tops of the Langdale Pikes. It doesn’t last long before local low rises intervene but it’s all still there, just as it was,and I’m thrilled. Crinkle Crags and Bowfell curve into view.

Clouds scud above them, white bumbles across a narrow band of the sky, decoration not threat. Against this vista, the line of the Howgill Fells, on the other side, doesn’t stand an earthly. Slowing into Oxenholme, there’s a beautiful angle into Kentmere, with Ill Bell prominent, framed by stolid Yoke before and almost imperceptible Froswick behind. All of which decides me: Keswick it is, I want to see all of this that I can.

For a moment, that seems to be in doubt. There’s neither bus stop nor timetable. The Grasmere driver reassures me, and then I see stop and timetable, sawn off at the base, on its back bu the wall of Booths. It’s half an hour and lots of milling around before we can get out of Windermere, by which time clouds are attracting one another and the blue bands are narrowing.

Just as the bus pulls out I get the most horrible shock: my former wedding ring is missing! I’ve worn it on my right hand since the Decree Absolute, though it’s slowly getting looser. Though it symbolises nothing but the past, it’s significance to me is immeasureable and I am in shock and almost tears at losing it. I’m desperately combing through both bags in the vain hope it’s dropped in there, and then something else drops, and I claw through my constricted jeans pocket and find it. The relief is incredible: to me it is literally priceless. It slides into my finger again. It will be a very long time before I take its presence for granted again.

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Once the shock has subsided I can concentrate on Mountains, valleys and lakes: all familiar, no new sights or surprises, just recognition. Familiarity does not breed comtempt, not here, not ever. These skylines, these flanks, lovely little Rydal with its ever-widening outflow, are encoded in ,me like a string of DNA. Everywhere I look, no ,matter how near or far, I see fells that I have climbed, many more than once. Once climbed, they became part of me. I seized them as I conquered them. I own them, me and millions of others.

North of Dunmail Raise, the sun illuminates everything. Thirlmere gleams from end to end. I will never lose the awe of seeing it so clearly, remembering the Sixties and beyond when the only way you even knew that was a lakre there was because your parents had told you. Blencathra looks magnificent, even by Blencathra’s standards, the old cloud-magnet Skiddaw has his head in the free air, though dark-shadowed, and we drop into nthe Vale of Keswick with Bassenthwaite Lake a flat, silver-steel expanse straight ahead and Derwent Water sunny and lit.

Keswick is full of people. Well, it is a Saturday, the weather is good and we have been released on our own recognizance. Pasing the bookshop, I spot the long-awaited Terry Abrahams; Life of a Mountain: Helvellyn, not long since out. But plans to eat at the Oddfellows Arms were clearly delusional. Everywhere has long queues and nowhere free to sit. So I amble towards Hope Park, the miniature Golf, the Crazy Golf, not that I’m going to play, but I scoff that ice cream I promised a friend I was going to eat at Easter, to cheer me up, and if you ever read this, Liz, here’s to you.

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But I’m restless, very restless. This isn’t to di with Keswick being ‘wick wi’ foak’ but rather a feeling of not wanting to confine myself to one place. So I ankle back to the Bus Station in time to catch my breath before I catch the 555 back to Grasmere. Climbing out of the town the roles are reversed: now it is Bass Lake that sits blue and Derwent Water that is grey.

Grasmere isn’t exactly empty but it’s a lot easier to cope with than Keswick. Then again I don’t wander far, barely off the Village Green: for the loo, for Sam Read’s Bookshop and the Heaton Cooper Studio, which still has too many lovely prints for the wallspace I have. The next bus is not supposed to be due until 3.30pm but I hop onto a Grasmere Sightseer and take myself upstairs to enjoy the open top section, and the 555 goes past whilst I’m on the bus anyway.

Year by year it’s getting harder to see the mouth of Ambleside Cave – called Rydal Cave on the announcement tape – as the fringe of trees below that section of Loughrigg Terrace reach for the heavens. Back in Ambleside, it’s sunny once more. In Fred’s Bookshop they’re playing Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues. They are just one more place to have copies of the first volume of Lakeland Views. If nothing else, you’ve got to admire the author for publishing a hand-written, hand-drawn book devoted to the Lakeland Gells, but judging by the cover that is really all you can admire.

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I solve my hot food urges with a burger from the Old Smithy chippy that takes so long to cook that I can only assume that they’ve had to slaughter a new cow to get the meat. It arrives neither particularly hot nor with any particular taste. Eating it leaves me with the best part of three hours to kill before my train at Windermere, so I stroll down to Loughrigg Park. Much of it is now covered with playground contraptions, themselves covered in children, so I settle down, drop the headphones into place again and try to look as if I am not looking at the young children but rather at their mothers.

With an irony that I cannot help but appreciate, I return to Windermere Station with exactly the same excessive lead time I manufactured for myself at Piccadilly. Having so much time in hand, I wander down into Windermere Vilage, to see if there’s somewhere I can get something to eat without having to queue for a galactic eon, but of course this means I have gone mad. Normaly, I’d have dived into Booths for coffee and cake but their cafe is still closed. i only just make it back there to reach the loos before that too becomes out of bounds.

If you’ve followed this so far you will surely be asking yourself, what have I been doing? Well, nothing really. I’ve been being, not doing, and being in as many places as I could, touching bases, refreshing connections. Everything’s still here and still in it’s place and there’s still room in all that for me, and that is what I have been doing.

Precisely at 6.00pm it starts to rain and I bolt inside the Station. It’s still sunny, and it’s isolated drops but they’re big isolated drops.

Forty dull minutes later and fifteen minutes before it’s due to depart, the train arrives. I spring aboard the last carriage, the one that will be nearest to the exit at Piccadilly, and secure myself a table seat again. I’m ready for home, to switch on the laptop for the first time that day, check that the rest of the world is still there. Bring in a Chinese takeaway tea., yes, I’d be up for that. Chicken in lemon sauce, fried rice and prawn crackers.

For some fucking annoying reason we sit and wait and wait and wait at Preston, exactly as we did this morning. I rapidly get sick of the high-pitched beeping signalling that the train doors are closing preparatory to seting off and we just sit there. I’m getting tired by now, fifteen straight hours on the go, and my ears are getting sore too, so I take off the headphones and then discover it’s from wearing my facemask for thirteen and a half hours solid, and there goesthe beeping for about the dozenth time and CAN WE GO, PLEASE?

And eventually we do. Piccadilly Station. The 203 bus. Realising that the Takeaway’s out because by the time it’s cooked and I’ve got it home it’s too bloody late for me to eat something like that without the near certainty of acid reflux. Tired, achey, legs, hips, back, arms, shoulders sore.

Can I do it again on Sunday?

Sunday Watch: Life of a Mountain – Helvellyn


At the time, it seemed propitious. I was in the Lake District yesterday, for the first time in almost two years. I’ve been waiting for the third part of Terry Abrahams’ ‘Life of a Mountain’ series, this time on Lakeland’s third highest and most popular fell, Helvellyn for ages. I knew it was done, I knew it had been put off premiering due to the COVID situation. I didn’t know that BBC4 had broadcast its traditional precised to one hour version as far back as January. I just saw it in a shop window and the lady behind the heavily protected till said it had not long since come out. Perfect for a Sunday morning.

But it was so utterly disappointing.

The full version is a sprawling two hours twenty-nine minutes long, an open invitation to call it bloated and an unavoidable one. Helvellyn sprawls, and yet insofar as its portrait of a year in the life of the mountain is concerned, it’s paradoxically extrememely limited. This is an entirely Patterdale-Ullswater biased portrait, without even the shadow of a pretence that the mountain has a western flank, that it towers about Thirlmere and can be ascended from that side.

Instead, every facet of the film, every view of Helvellyn we see, whether this be from the constantly low-motion aerial shots to those from the lake steamer, are of the mountain between Striding Edge and Swirral Edge, or they’te of Red Tarn between these two arms. Over and over again.

But then again such a small part of the film is about Helvellyn itself. This is a primarily polemic film, proclaiming the importance of conservation at every turn. It’s about things like the hill-farmers, the men on the steamers, poets, singers, one self-consciously eccentric writer is ridiculous clothing over-developing his every sentence. With very few exceptions, everyone talks modern day jargon, or bullshit. Environmentalists aren’t improving the landscape in any of the myriad ways they do, they’re upgrading it, the way I upgrade my customer’s ‘experience’ by selling them another package. Conservation, preservation, adaptation in a way in keeping with the natural life of the Lake District fells is very important but linguistically the battle is over and we lost.

Everybody’s out to push a viewpoint, but nobody had anything interesting to say about it. Those that are interested in their own personal fascinations cannot describe it as anything but a personal challenge that has emhanced their lives, which I’m sure it is and has. My own life, my walks in the hills, could be expressed in exactly the same fashion, but I hope that I have never sounded so pretentious when talking about them.

And endlessly we get another shot of Helvellyn’s face, between Striding Edge and Swirral Edge. Or a rolling vista of ridges. The film plods on. It’s about living and working around a particular mountain but it spends most of its time in the valleys. It’s generically about life in the Lakes without any sense that any part of it is specific to Helvellyn, is especially shaped by it. People love Helvellyn, love Patterdale, but they say why. It’s ‘special’ or ‘pretty’ or ‘brilliant’. The crap they spout has robbed them of the ability to actually express themselves.

And whereas Abrahams’ first venture, Scafell Pike, was comprehensive, and briliant, and focussed and properly obsessive, Helvellyn is far m,ore professional and has lost all ability to focus or to engage itself realistically with what Helvellyn is as a mountain, as a destination. The nadir comes in a section on the Ski Club, and their base on Raise, when we get the utterly sterile cliche of the skier sliding to a halt in front of the camera and sending a spray of snow over it.

Which is not to say the film doesn’t have its merit. Some, but not enough, people talk with quiet authority and eloquent simplicity about their specialised subject, feeling no need to over sell it, and there was one poignant sequence with a woman who described her spine as having collapsed five years ago, an active fellwalker who thought all of that lost, for good but who, in a top of the range electric wheelchair, with her husband alongside her, with her walking boots on despite the fact they were never going to touch the ground, had gotten as high on Helvellyn as she physically could. Her eyes said it all, the wonderment, the recognition of things she thought gone for good, the wonderful acceptance of being still able to be who she had been.

And her husband, talking into the camera, explaining that this was five years to the day since the operation, that very serious operation that his wife might well never have survived. The little brush away of something near the corner of his eye, the laconic ‘the longest day of my life’ in the tones that only one who has been through such a day and seen it come out can speak. The camera dropping behind as the pair stood overlooking a view, their arms around each other, her shoulders shaking and him gripping her like he still can’t entirely believe that he still gets to.

Too little, not enough. In the end, the intrusive music, the high-speed photopgraphy of coils boiling across the sky or sweeping up and down valleys, the early hours of indistinguishability from tides rolling in and out, became tedious, were padding. There wasn’t even enough of the fells for me to simply gape at in silent admiration, nothing onto which I could project my own memories of climbing Helvellyn.

Terry Abrahams is a very talented man and I envy him his skills. He’s gone from a life in the throws of despair and destruction to intetnationl recognition doimg something I would love to have been capable of myself. But he’s over-reached himself here, tried to make a statement a big statement and he’s blown it, big-time.

The Unlovely


The immediate environs

I haven’t written about the Lake District for a long time. Though there are quite a few walks I’ve never written about, the peg on which to hang a post hasn’t been there. I’d feel as if I were writing for the sake of writing.
But a recent post by George Kitching on his continually excellent site (http://www.lakelandwalkingtales.co.uk/secrets-of-the-wastwater-screes/), evoked a few memories for me, going back a very long way indeed.
I have told this story before, but not in as much detail as I will now.
It’s as obvious as can be that I inherited my love of the Lakes, and of the fells. But in one way, I differed very greatly from the rest of the family. They – and I have reason to differentiate my Dad from this – were wedded to only one section of the Lakes. Apart from the near-statutory rainy-day visit to Keswick, no-one wanted to venture outside the arc from Ambleside (or Grasmere at a push) to Wasdale. I exempt Dad from this accusation of narrow-mindedness because he got us round as far as Buttermere, and to the top of Haystacks. But after his death, the only time we stepped outside the closed circuit, it caused ructions massive enough to have me swearing off family holidays in future inside the first 24 hours.
Once I started going up alone, I had a glorious time going wherever I chose, leading eventually to completing the Wainwrights. It’s safe to say that I loved all the Lake District, all the fells, the valleys, the Lakes and Tarns.
But it’s not entirely right to say that I love everywhere in the Lake District. Some places are less ‘lovable’ than others – Mungrisedale Common, I am thinking of you – but there isn’t really anywhere I actively do not like. With the possible exception of Burnmoor Tarn.
I have visited the Tarn on four occasions throughout my life. To me, it’s a dull, boring, colourless stretch of flat water, set in the unpropitious surroundings of tedious grass slopes of no interest whatsoever. I don’t care that one of those slopes in Scafell, it is Scafell’s least interesting and totally unphotogenic side.
It all goes back a very long way. Not before 1966, when I was first laced protestingly into a pair of walking boots, nor after 1968, when we reached our first summit. Somewhere between those two times, probably sooner rather than later.
We decided to walk to Burnmoor Tarn, from Eskdale. Don’t ask me why, not even when I was in my late teens did I get consulted on our destination for the day. It would have simply been chosen as a destination within our early capacities, and especially those of my younger sister, who was four in July 1966. Couldn’t be too far, couldn’t be too steep. Burnmoor Tarn, out of Boot in Eskdale, looked perfect in that respect.
I’ve been trying to remember whether we approached the walk by driving to Eskdale and parking at Dalegarth Station, or if we decided to fit it in as an informal Walk from Ratty, between trains from Ravenglass.
Either way, it was a bit of a grey day, not that we expected that to be a difficulty since we weren’t going to be getting up to any great heights. We walked to Boot to start the walk, crossing the bridge over the Whillan Beck, and taking the steep, slanting path raking across the fellside ahead, from left to right.
I remember the steepness most of all. I was still in that stage of whining whenever I was asked to walk uphill. I also can’t keep contrasting my attitude with the next time we crossed the bridge to go walking on that low flank of Eskdale, when we took the path straight up the fellside, onto the Boat How ridge, but not only was I a lot more enthusiastic by then, that was one of the very rare occasions when I had had some influence on where we were going for the day (don’t ask me how!)
Up and up, on a narrow path on which we had to walk single file, Dad and Uncle Arthur in the van, Mam at the rear keeping an eye on my little sister and me in the middle where I could cause the least disruption.
I’ve never taken that path since, though the year before last, when I took my Ravenglass Expedition, I slowly walked up the road on the other side of the Whillan Beck, into sight of the lip of the low, flat saddle of Burn Moor. So my memory is prompted, externally, of reaching the edge of the flatter land at last, the narrow confines ending, the route spreading out before us…

Burnmoor Tarn, seen from Scafell

This was where all the real problems started. At some point, and I can’t remember whether this was in the valley or once we’d come off the steep ascent, it started to grey over, and a wind started to blow up. I remember struggling into something out of the lonesome wild, but that might very likely be a slightly later recollection as we shall see.
The path was clear underfoot, so we set off towards the nearest horizon, a very low green ridge not far ahead. Beyond it was a dip, a shallow, indeed micro-valley across the way. We descended and ascended the far side, to find another, almost identical micro-valley. And on its further side, another.
What we didn’t know was that we were entering into our own, private, family hell. We had none of us been to Burnmoor Tarn before and had no idea how far it was. With the sky growing increasingly grey above, and the threat of rain growing increasingly inevitable, spirits were lowering all the more every time we crested a rise, only to see yet another dip-and-rise before us. Dad began encouraging us. Come on, it’s only over the next rise. Come on, it’s only over the next rise. The years exaggerate the experience but it must have been close on a dozen times, and everybody’s belief and patience eroded into nothingness, before we finally topped one more identical rise and saw the wide, cold, pale, spreading sheet of water below us. It was not an adequate regard for our patience, having nothing of the pleasant to look at. And as for Scafell, only a low tranche of its green and empty slopes was visible before our eyes were lifted to the base of the cloud.
I won’t say that there was a spring in our step now we’d finally arrived, nor that our pace increased as we descended to the tarn shore. The setting was best described as bleak. I can’t remember if I’d been introduced to the word bleak by this time, but I intuited bleak.
The final straw was the great moment in which insult was added to injury. We were less than fifteen yards from the shore of the Tarn when it started to rain. And rain with a degree of effort. This was particularly personal to me because I wore glasses, even then.
There was a scramble to get into waterproofs, with Mam helping first my sister, then me, because these were never easy things to put on over anoraks and walking boots, but eventually we were proofed against the rain. Without discussion, a quick consensus was formed that we would not hang around. We about-faced… and headed back towards Eskdale. Up a low ridge, across a micro-valley, up a low ridge, ad nauseam.
Eventually, a long time later, with nobody doing any talking, especially me, because my Dad had a quick (but forgivably brief) temper and anything I said would have a deleterious effect, until at long last we reached the edge of Burnmoor and started downhill again, to Ratty or to Uncle Arthur’s car. I can remember the odd personal disappointment more intense than that afternoon but not a worse experience overall.
Like I say, I’m prejudiced against Burnmoor Tarn. I think you can understand why.
If that were the end of it, that would be fine by me, but unfortunately I have three other, widely-separated encounters to report. Two of these were of my own sole making, but would you believe that, after that horrible time, my family took us back there?

In sunnier conditions

It was a different time, and a different day in all respects and, but for my resentful memories of the sodding place, it might have been a decent walk.
This was in the early Seventies, after Dad had left us, and we continued on our twice-yearly Lakes holidays, just the four of us, my mother and my Uncle in joint command and even less prospect of seeing somewhere out of their circumscribed arc. I think this was a Friday afternoon, I’m almost certain of it, a last day before going home from which self-catering cottage we’d booked that time. It was a sunny day, and because we hadn’t been there yet that week, we had to go to Wasdale, Wastwater and Great Gable.
It was sunny, a bright day, and it might even have been hot. Of all the walks we might have done out of Wasdale Head, the grown-ups selected… the Wasdale Corpse Road to Burnmoor Tarn.
Oh deep and abiding joy.
Maybe it was just too hot and, in the valley, stuffy, to countenance anything further or more strenuous. Or maybe it was just so hot it addled their brains. But we parked at the head of the Lake, rounded it towards Illgill Head and the track along the foot of the Screes, and when the Corpse road diverted off it, we turned uphill.
Like the other end, there was an initial steep ascent, though I can’t remember which was worse. It was slow going for all of us, which didn’t matter that much because we didn’t have anything like as far to go. And the views were clear and sharp and, once we were above the valley floor, we were at a height when the mountains ringing the valley head looked massive, monumental and mammoth. For that alone the walk was justified, though none of the photos I took captured even a fraction of that dimension.
Soon enough, we reached the lip of land at the top end of Burn Moor. There was the Tarn again, still and silver, in its shallow bowl. Sun burned down on it, but though the ground around it was green and not grey, it still had nothing that appealed to me. In an excess of energy, I strode out on the low, easy descent, first to the water’s edge by a good hundred yards at least.
There was still nothing to do, and nothing to look at, not even anything to sit down on. Burnmoor Tarn just isn’t a place to go to, it’s a place to go past, preferably without stopping, on the way to somewhere better.
The next time I saw Burnmoor Tarn, apart from the rare glimpse of it you can get in views, such as from the summit ridge of Yewbarrow, the Tarn being as shy in that respect as Floutern Tarn, was in the Eighties. It was a bit of an odd walk: by the time I started going to the Lakes on my own, every walk had the destination of at least one summit, but on this occasion, I’d set off to reach Miterdale Head. We’d been there once as a family, but I loved that secluded little valley and wanted to visit it again, with that perfect little bowl, the rim of crags surrounding the hidden head. What I was doing, aiming so low, I have no idea: the weather was good enough to exclude the possibility that walking had only been possible in the afternoon, limiting my ability to ascend to the heights, any heights.
By then, I was much more familiar with Wainwright than I’d been. I knew of his comments of how geography had clearly intended Burnmoor Tarn to drain away into Miterdale, but for a low bar of land, no more than twenty feet or so of uplift, that shifted the Tarn’s outflow to the far end, immediately next to its inflow. I wanted to see that for myself.
So I found a weakness in the encircling crags, scrambled up that, hauled myself over the lip and walked forward a dozen or so feet, and there it was. Good old, dull old Burnmoor, no different, except for the tantalising prospect of maybe some day the water finding a channel to here, creating a fine waterfall, dropping gracefully into the valley.

From all angles, the place is just dire

Three out of four. Another time, I decided it was time I climbed Illgill Head. before I’d declared myself out of the family’s holidays, we had climbed Whin Rigg, from the foot of Wastwater, but gone no more than a token distance further towards its partner.
Obviously, I should make both into a single expedition and, given my love for Miterdale, I planned to begin and end the walk there, climbing through the trees onto the ridge above Irton Pike, following the spine of the Screes over Whin Rigg, and descending from Illgill Head to sweep round and down, and back through Miterdale.
Things went well to begin with. I parker in Miterdale, walked back to the base of the path in the woods, set off uphill. The climbing was never strenuous, but the drawback was walking in woods. I had no sense of what progress I was making, and no views around me to enjoy.
When I eventually reached the ridge, and encountered a wind that I had been sheltered from thus far, I also found that the sky had gone very grey. There was cloud across Nether Wasdale, a ceiling sweeping up the far side of the Lake, that I anticipated seeing when I turned right and started uphill towards my first target.
I was not wrong. Beyond the great gash of Greathaw Gill (check?), I could see the grey cloud across my path. I walked cautiously under it, feeling the air go cold around me. I kept going, without any haste. After a while, in sight of a small outcrop, no more than twenty feet away, I squatted beside the path, prepared to give it chance to blow out. I sat there, huddled, for about fifteen minutes before admitting it would not blow itself out anytime soon if I just sat there, so I rose to my feet, walked up to the nearby outcrop – and discovered it was the bloody summit!
I didn’t wait there long but descended the other side, making very sure I wasn’t getting too close to anything that might represent an uncontrolled descent to the Screes. Before long, I was on the broad back of the ridge, and staying in the middle. This was because the cloudbase was round about at the same height as me. The way ahead would become clearer for a time, then dissolve into greyness. Call me a coward, but I was going nowhere near any precipitate edges unless I could see very clearly all around me and especially under my feet.
The path down the back of the ridge was clear and unmissable, I followed it onto the back of Illgill Head and up into the full cloud again, until i reached the summit.
There was nothing to see, except in one quickly-passing moment when the cloud swirled away, leaving a clear view down into Wasdale Head, and the foot of Great Gable. Five seconds, no more, enough to tantalise with a view worth seeing.
I’d gotten this far and I wasn’t going to turn round and go back over trodden ground, even though the route off Illgill Head wasn’t all that distinct. Given the shape of the fell, what risk could I be running even if I got off the path?
And once I got below the cloud level, even any residual concerns along that line were dispelled. It was just a flat downhill trudge, under dark clouds, through dingy air.
Of course, I was heading down towards Burnmoor Tarn, and this time I was seeing it from practically above, so that all its expanse lay below me. And no, it didn’t look any better than it had on any of the few occasions I had been anywhere near it.
The descent lay to the north-west of the Tarn. It would join to the Corpse Road on its descent from the saddle into Wasdale Head, turn right to go across the joint head and foot of the Tarn, and I could see the track leading away from that, along the south-east side of the Tarn, towards the Miterdale edge. In short, it was asking me to walk round three sides of this bloody big, bloody boring Tarn. Not even in the best of conditions could you get me to do that.
So I cut off the path to my right, across the blunt prow of the fell, on a gentle downwards trajectory, leaving Burnmoor Tarn to my left. It wasn’t an interesting walk, except as an exercise in avoidance: there were no paths, the ground was tussocky, it was at least twice as far as it looked like being on the ground, and if the rain had started in and my vision been impaired, it could have been sticky, but a long while later, I had left Burnmoor Tarn behind – for the last time to date – and was making for the slightly tricky because currently slippery descent into Miterdale Head from above.
All that remained was the long walk down Miterdale to where I had parked my car.
Years after that, I returned with my unexpected delight of a family, leading them to Miterdale Head, but not above to show them Burnmoor Tarn because the scramble was just a bit too much for them, and I wasn’t going to leave them.
So this is my history with Burnmoor Tarn, and the reasons why I don’t love it as I love nearly all the rest of the Lake District. Our first visit burned into me a dislike for the spot and any effort to get to it that has remained strong and forceful for over half a century, and Burnmoor’s lack of the least attractive or even semi-photogenic feature seals a determination to never waste precious time on it again.
There are so many better places in the Lakes to go to, even in distant memory.

Three Fells and No Ridges


It’s been a long time since I last gave myself the pleasure of recollecting a day out in the Lakes, at least, not one I haven’t written about before. Currently, I’m picking up the threads of a part-completed novel set in the Lake District. The place where I left the book the last time I worked on it is actually set somewhere I never actually walked. Nevertheless, there is a fell the scene’s associated with, and that’s triggered a recollection of one of my oddest days fellwalking.

Every year, from the Eighties to the Nineties, I would budget my holiday time for two weeks away, walking in the Lake District (the remainder of my allotment would be carved up by whatever days I wants for the cricket: the Roses Matches, the Old Trafford Test).

I would choose weeks in April and September, just before and just after the full-blown tourist season. These usually proved to be best for good walking conditions, and the fells were rarely so crowded that I couldn’t find convenient parking for my base for walks.

One year, for reasons I can’t remember, I managed to get enough time to go away a third week, in the last week of October. The hour hadn’t gone back so I wasn’t prejudiced by early darkness, but it was colder than I was used to, and darker overall, the skies greyer and more overcast, though not noticeably worse for cloud on tops.

I remember an excellent walk up Steel Fell from Grasmere, rounding the head of wet Greendale, all its little streams and becks backlit and looking like veins of quicksilver, before returning along Calf Crag, Gibson Knott and Helm Crag, a nice little low-level ridge round.

The next day, I moved on to Keswick. It was a dark day, the sky and the air mostly grey and overcast, though the cloudbase wasn’t actually hanging on the fells, not even Skiddaw, the cloud-magnet. There weren’t going to be any sparkling views wherever I walked, so I decided I’d repeat my visit to Latrigg.

1…

There was no problem parking at the roadhead, where spaces abounded, and I let myself out the gate, crossed the slightly rushy region in the base of the hollow and set off up the back of the fell.

Climbing Latrigg this way is one of the dullest walks you can make. It’s literally nothing but an uphill trudge, without a glimmer of a view. You are confined between Latrigg’s sprawling slopes and the rising wall of Skiddaw behind. The only benefit of this approach, apart from conservation of time, is that the view only arrives with the last few steps. Even under that sky, it was a thing of beauty.

But once you reach Latrigg, you’ve nowhere to go but back, especially to a car at the roadhead. And it’s quicker downhill, so much so that it’s difficult to stretch the overall round trip out to an hour, and I still had much of the afternoon to go before nightfall. It was then that I hit upon a crazy idea.

With so little time used, why couldn’t I climb another fell? Another low fell, requiring not very much in time and effort? Another isolated  fell upon which I wouldn’t to waste a better day? It didn’t even need to be in the same book of Wainwright.

So I set off down the Underskiddaw road without changing out of my walking boots, back to the big roundabout, and turned towards Penrith. I left the highway at the turn for Matterdale, but instead of wandering through that lovely reserved valley to Ullswater, I turned off left, onto narrow lanes and valley routes, until I pulled up at a corner and hopped out again, handily placed to start a walk up the back of Great Mell Fell.

2…

I’ve always said that I retain memories of every fell I’ve climbed in the Lake District, but Great Mell Fell hasn’t troubled the memory banks by much. I remember that, instead of the direct and steep route from the south, where I was, I took a circular path round the west side and worked upwards gently, before using the direct route for descent. My one solid memory is disturbing three or four slightly shamefaced people, rooting around by the side of the path. They were searching for mushrooms, they told me, and one said, in pointed tones, ‘Magic mushrooms’.

Of course I’m now well aware what they meant, but back then I’d never heard of Psylocibin and, apart from guessing they were hinting at something pharmaceutically stimulating, had no idea what they were talking about. I’ve never met anyone else looking for natural highs in the Lakes, except from the scenery.

Overall, Great Mell Fell used up not much of an hour, and daylight was already checking its baggage and starting to consider moving on, but if you’re going to have to do both Mell Fells, why save the Little one for another day? I got behind the wheel, drove the short distance up onto the Hause and set off for my third fell of the afternoon.

…and 3

Once more, the direct ascent from the Hause was a short and uninteresting uphill trudge, and the summit was less that two minutes walk from the ‘crest’. With a view over Ullswater, despite this being only the lowest reach, it at least offered better views that its higher neighbour, and the effort expended in ascending it was minimal (it was so easy that, two decades later, my then wife and I sent two small sons up the path on their own: they were only out of sight on the summit for five minutes, no longer and they had fun being independent).

After that, I got out of my boots, dumped them into the boot, and returned to Keswick, to contemplate what to do about an evening meal. As walking days, or half days go, it was nothing to write home about, but the weirdness of the experience of climbing three fells in the same afternoon, without any ridge routes between them, was great fun, and there are worse things to think about in these latter days.

Thinking in the Rain


(Wednesday 16 October)

As the day has worn on, it’s turned sunny and bright outside, with the clouds seeming to be collected over the far, Yorkshire side of the not-so-distant Pennines. Despite this, in the moments work allows my mind to wander, it is wandering to the Lakes, and to rainy days and setting out to walk.

With one exception, I never set out to walk in the rain, though there were occasions when, before I got back to the car, I ended up in various kinds of rain, most often pretty heavy.

For some reason, I can see myself setting off, out of Buttermere Village, on the low-level path bound for Sail Pass, though on the two previous occasions I’ve been that way, my destination has been Whiteless Pike and Wandope, with a diversion to Rannerdale Knotts. They was grey cloud and wind on the first occasion, and sun on the second, so I’ve never walked that route in the rain, but it’s impressing itself upon me as I write.

I’m projecting myself there, along that narrow track, deep in that steep-sided valley. There’s a fresh smell in the air, wet grass, wet bracken, wet leaves. The gentle drumming of the rain on my kagoul hood drowns out all other sounds, enhancing the feeling of solitude and isolation. The rain is steady and there is no wind so it’s falling without force as I move through it. The hood protects my face and my glasses from the worst of it.

I’m not just happy to be alone, and to feel alone, in the fells, I like it that way. Some routes you have to resign yourself to just being a part of the traffic, but there are other days when your isolation is so wonderfully complete that the appearance of another walker on the ridge on the far said of the valley arouses grumpy resentment and has you muttering, “Get out of my valley.”

Some of this is a reaction to sitting in work, away from those colleagues with whom I would usually swap friendly conversation. I’m mentally gravitating towards a welcome isolation, a self-sufficiency, walking in the rain unhindered in the dream of being in the fell-country again. Up above are the heights, even if, like Rannerdale Knotts or Whiteless Pike, they’re not extreme heights. But they’re still a world above and beyond the mundane one, and a world that I can enjoy as my own, my private world, reduced to the space around my head and my body and my legs as rain closes in and shrouds.

And there is a massive difference between isolation in the midst of other people and isolation in a place where you go to be the only one for miles.

The Next Expedition?


There’s only a few minutes before I have to get moving and go to work. It’s been raining all morning, sometimes hard, but I feel as if my brain is finally starting to work properly again after a week of listlessness. So, after last week’s successful Patterdale Expedition, I’ve started thinking about where I might be able to get to next.

Do you know that it’s possible to get from Penrith to Buttermere village in just over two hours by bus, change at Keswick and via Borrowdale and Honister? And I already know it’s possible to get to Penrith by train early enough…

Thinking cap on, Crookall.

A Patterdale Expedition


When you book rail tickets four weeks in advance, to get the cheapest prices, you play pot luck with the weather. According to the forecasts, I am going to come up snakes eyes, to mix a metaphor. Thunderstorms all day, England’s World Cup semi-final to be pushed into the reserve day, this is what is promised. Given the weather most of the time since I bought the tickets, sunny, dry, hot, it’s feeding my never very deep-lying paranoia.

Which, given that I am booked on the 7.26am train from Piccadilly, and I am relying on the 203 bus, the only bus to win a Booker Prize for its timetable, is always hyperactive at times like this.

Everything started well. I responded to the alarm at 5.30am. It had been raining until quite recently, for everything outside was wet, but when I got out, ahead of time, it was dry and getting drier, and there was a freshness in the airthat the suggested the grey skies would slowly peel back to reveal the blue beyond.

I’d barely gotten twenty yards when there was a ping in my left calf, suggesting not so much cramp as a pulled muscle. I walked it off gently but this was going to be a true omen for the day.

The 203 upset my model of the Universe by being on time. Indeed, I was inside Piccadily Station, in the ‘Departure Lounge’ for Platforms 13 & 14, by 7.02am, the only hitch being a minor and quickly resolved panic over whether my rail tickets were in my wallet. It was a long time wait but these are the marginsI prefer to work with.

The train was on time, my seat was by the window, albeit looking backwards, and no-one turned up to claim the reserved seat to Glasgow Central next to me so that was my shoulder bag sorted.

There was nothing I could do about the weather so I paid the cloud only occasional mind as we ploughed north, devoting myself to a second attempt to read The Illuminatus Trilogy without stopping, though still without understanding.

This was an express train, stopping only at Preston and Lancaster and due in Penrith after only ninety minutes. Once we reached the shores of MorecambeBay, I switched to scanning the Lakes skyline. It was unpromising: dark, wispy, fragile clouds with a base below 1,000′: not good.

I was hoping for better north of the equivalent of Dunmail Raise but there was a thicker, darker, more pregnant band of cloud, and then suddenly it seemed lighter. Skylines became clearer, sharper. The message was mixed: sunlight on the lower slopes of Mardale, pockets of low cloud around the valley head. Kidsty Pike stood proud but Rampsgill Head was deep-capped.

Out at Penrith for five to nine with an hour to kill, or so I thought. I walked down to the Town Centre. The main street was smaller than I remembered and all the touristy shops seemed to have left. There used to be a  good bookshop somewhere round the back, where I spent a half hour on the morning of my wedding, having run my sister-in-law-to-be and my wife-to-be’s best friend in for last minute essentials. Where it is, if it still exists, I had no idea and I decided against searching for it, the air being an odd mixture of fresh and stuffy.

Thank Heaven I didn’t! I got back to the Rail Station in time to catch the slightly-delayed 9.20am bus, whose driver was in a chatty mood, and who told me tht thee 9.50am bus I intended to catch doesn’t run until theTimetable that comes into force on the 26th!

If I’d missed this bus, it wouldn’t have been fatal to my plans, but as the next bus was 11.20am, I’d have been stuck in Penrith for two hours. Then again, I do have a partly-completed novel with a scene in Penrith, so I could have spentthe time in research.

The sky was a fractal mixture of dark cloud, light cloud and blue spaces. The bus was riding between high hedgerows so it took a while before I could get some sense of the air in Patterdale. When I could see, it looked clear around Ullswater’s lowest reach but cloudy further back. Given the forecast, this was good going.

But when I got off the bus in Pooley Bridge, it was trying to rain, fine, light, sprinkly lane. The Steamer Shop in the Village was closed despite its advertised opening time of 9.15am.

There was nothing to do here either so I strolled on to the steamer landing. This took me across the temporary bridge that stands in the place of the beautiful stone arches destroyed forever by the floods of 2015/16. It’s an ugly, practical thing of steel cross-girders, an eyesore, where the old bridge was a thing of grace and beauty. It’s absence is a pang.

Ullswater, looking down to Hallin Fell

There’s a superb viewpoint just before the landings, by the Birkett Memorial. We came down here on the Saturday evening, for our first view of Ullswater, that holiday, and I took a photo of the lake, looking towards Hallin Fell, with the family at the forefront. I took another one now, in colour, but without anyone to grace it.

Ullswater is my favourite lake, its beautiful curves and bays, and this only the least-interesting reach of it. I haven’t seen it in, probably, about fifteen years and I felt a tremendous sense of contentment. All the visible hills remind me of walks gone past. PlaceFell was capped and dark, so it was Hallin Fell and Beda Head that stood out for me then. The lake chuckled and bubbled past me into the River Eamont.

I narrowed my eyes. Something long and white was crossing below Hallin Fell, turning into Howtown Bay. In a moment’s silence between the passing cars, I heard a distant bell. If I’m not mistaken, that’s my steamer from Glenridding.

This would be my fourth trip on the Ullswater Steamer but the first for this end of the Lake. My first was an impromptu decision on a rainy, cloudy afternoon, when walking was out of the question, Howtown and back. Twice since, I’d taken a one-way trip to Howtown and walked back, the first a solo over Place Fell, the second a family walk down the lakeshore path, which is as lovely as they say it is.

Eventually the steamer emerged and headed towards us. I paid for my ticket (which included 50% off the Ratty for the next twelve months, which gave mean idea…)

‘Raven’ approaches

As soon as the Steamer docked, I was on to it and dodging through the saloon to the foredeck. The commemorative plaque confirmed this was Raven, and in five days time it would be 130 years to the day since it was first launched.

We seemed to race up the lake into the teeth of a flapping wind, Hallin Fell dead ahead, the zigzags of the Hause visible to its left. As we started curving into the Bay, Beda Head became our pointer and little flecks of rain started to flick against my face.

Leaving the Pier at Pooley Bridge

It wasn’t until we started to slow down for Howtown the the magnificent middle reach of the lake, and the fells at the end of it, appeared as if out of nowhere. Sheffield Pike stood proud and sunny but there wasn’t much to see behind it except dark cloud.

We drifted into the Pier, no-one waiting to board us, though two walkers appeared from the direction of the road, only to stand and watch us leave. Twenty-eight people, one baby carriage and two dogs  disembark. I looked at Steel Knott’s steep prow and asked myself, did I really go up that? (yes, I did).

Howtown and Steel Knotts

Off on the next leg. A massive convoy of ducks sat on the surface of the lake on our left bow as we headed outround Hallin Fell. This was the bit I’dreally come here for.

The taped message for the tourist informed us of what to look out for and only made two egregious mistakes in three facts. It places Birkett Crag (no, it’s Fell) on the wrong side of Ullswater and claims Helvellyn is the second highest mountain in England. I don’t dare look up what it said about Donald Campbell.

We took a rather more leisurely turn down the middle reach. Some part of the High Street range, still cloud-clagged, appeared in the gap between Hallin Fell and Place Fell, whilst on the other side, the Hellvellyn range was similar, but someqhat lighter, as if it might finally blow clear.

The middle reach, looking to Sheffield Pike

Approaching the turn into the upper reach, we passed Lady of the Lake on the port bow. Saint Sunday Crag and Dollywaggon Pike, either side of Grisedale, are firmly cloud-blocked, though there’s masses of blue sky above the lake itself. I’ve always felt these names to be strange and foreign-sounding to the Lakes, ever since I first heard my mother mentioning them, way back in the early Sixties. They’re just not Cumbrian to me. Things looked very dirty at the head of Patterdale, where we could see straight into Threshthwaite Glen.

Over to starboard, there was a big hotel on the lakeshore that I tried not to look too closely at. Under an older name than it currently bears, this was where I was married, and there are too many memories in that.

It was still not yet quite midday when I got off the steamerand walked round into Glenridding Village. My plans were flexible enough to give me either two hours or three and a half here, which would be fine if I felt in any way fit for a walk. Indeed, I’d half picked out Keldas, at the foot of Birkhouse Moor, and brought The Eastern Fells in my bag, but I’m achey and creaky and have been all day.

I was trepidatious about what Glenridding might look like, bearing in mind that the floods did a real number on the Vilaage, but the repairs here seemed more complete and nothing appeared to be out of place. I settled into a picnic table and got out my lunch.

The best plan seemed to be to kick back, relax, and enjoy just being here, but I did wander a bit in the direction of the path to Lanty’s Tarn, just to see how far I might get if I went at it slowly. All that got me was some spotty rain, a buzzy insect with an obsession with my right ear and some stomach cramps that suggested I might be better off keeping the Public Conveniences in closer proximity so, despite some increasingly encouraging blue skies, I strolled back.

Sunshine over the Glenridding valley

Down in the valley, the soft breeze was very welcome, and I took root at another picnic table, enjoying the passing pedstrians and returning to my book. I could have dome some writing if the energy possessed me but overall this was not the day for creativity, so I socked up relaxing in Patterdale. Mind you, I noticed a lot of references to ‘The Ullswater Valley’: another Stickle Ghyll in the making?

St Sunday Crag

There was another, slightly more serious spot of rain when I wandered back off to the Pier. We were on Raven again, though this time I headed for the stern for the best views. There was a ton of worrying grinding from the engine, turning to face back down Ullswater, but the mountainscape was at last wonderful, St Sunday Crag sunwashedand magnificent, Dollywaggon dark andslope-shouldered and even a glimpse of a cloud-free Helvellyn as we retreated.

Helvellyn

Howtown was the beginning of the end.  Everything after this was journeying back. Waiting in the sweltering heat for the bus in Pooley Bridge. Fifty-five minutes to kill at Penrith Station with nothing to do and nowhere to go, unless you count McDonald’s, so back to my book.

With the exception of the bus to Pooley Bridge, all the travelling’s gone smoothly, all day, but then I go and blow it. My travel notes have me catching the18.06 at Penrith, change at Preston. My ticket was for the 17.50 direct to Manchester Piccadilly, but I didn’t realise this until a mini-argument over who has reserved seat A11. On the 18.06. Oops.

That could have been very expensive, but the ticket inspector on the Virgin train was decent enough to stamp my ticket anyway so my only loss was to get stuck in an aisle seat on a gloriously sunny evening, and unable to see out of either window. And Northern Rail surprise me twice at Preston, first by being dead on time, and then by not coming to check my ticket at all. I was even blessed with sitting opposite a nice-looking young woman, with long brown hair almost the shade mine used to be, and a lovely smile.

I got back to Piccadilly nearly fifteen hours after the alarm woke me, and I didn’t half know it by then. One bus-ride later, and I got off in the only sustained rain I experienced all day, despite the forecasts, and the evening still sunny, offering up a full-arch rainbow above my flat. Mind you, everything that could ache did ache by then, and I’d missed England beating Australia to reach the Cricket World Cup Final. But I’d had a grand day, and I’d been back to Ullswater. Where can I go next?

 

Fear and Loathing in Pooley Bridge


The time comes, in everyone’s life, when you have to decide to break away from holidays with the family. Since the early-Sixties, we had gone away twice a year, sometimes three, to the Lake District, to spend the week walking. At first this was at Low Bleansley Farm, with our hostess, Mrs Troughton, of lovely memory, and then, after the interruption of Dad’s illness and eventual death, at self-catering cottages.

As I’ve had cause to mention before, my family took a very restrictive approach to the Lakes, refusing to go outside the south-west quarter, from Langdale round to Wasdale, except for the wet-day visit to Keswick. I, who had fallen enthusiastically upon Dad’s Wainwrights, was eager to see all the places, and especially all the Lakes where we would never go.

I had neither authority nor influence over where we went and what we did, but I could still make suggestions and, one day, like water dripping upon stone, my mother and Uncle decided to shut me up by booking a self-catering cottage near Pooley Bridge, and Ullswater.

I was delighted, but the omens were not good. To begin with, the Lakes would be my second week away in three weeks. I was 19, and me and my mates had decided on a holiday of our own, to Blackpool. We had two cars (thanks to John passing his Driving Test on the Thursday before), and we shot off together for what was a real fun week, up on the North Shore. This is of relevance because I had a brilliant time not being told what to do or where to go, or what to eat. It was the very first time I was allowed to take responsibility for myself, and I loved it.

Back one Saturday, off to the Lakes the next. There were some immediate difficulties. My Uncle hated motorway driving but wouldn’t go over Shap (having crossed it myself a dozen times or more, I can’t understand why), so we went up the new M6 extension, through Tebay Gorge. And we were held up for over half an hour, crawling along that section, my mother already complaining. It was apparently my fault that traffic north was heavy. This was a sign of what was to come.

The ‘cottage’, in the village of Stainton, was more spacious, more modern, more upmarket (and consequently more expensive) than those we were used to. After settling in and unpacking, we went over to Pooley Bridge, parking in the car park down near the Steamer landings and walked down to the lakeside, looking along the lowest reach towards Howtown Bay, on the eastern shore, and little Hallin Fell in the middle of the view. I insisted on a photo.

I was enjoying myself, full of life and eager to see everything we could see now we were in a different part of the District. The possibilities were endless, relatively at least. I had been virtually guaranteed a trip to Mardale, to Haweswater, the only Lake I had not yet set eyes upon, now it was no longer ‘too far to drive’.

Ullswater from Hallin Fell

On Sunday, we took the road to Howtown, along the east side of Ullswater, onto and to the top of the Hause, that miniature alpine ascent with the steep slopes and tight bends and the fervent hope that nobody is trying to come down at the same time you’re struggling up.

From the Hause, we set off to climb Hallin Fell by the direct route. It was direct, with no difficulties except steepness and no advantages in ascent except directness. The summit, however, was a lovely low platform with views along the lower two reaches of Ullswater and the Helvellyns half-opposite. There was an RAF helicopter below, stooging along the surface of the lake, and no sooner did one of us point it out than it started ascending rapidly, directly at us and passing about fifty feet over our heads with me struggling to grab a photo of the machine at its nearest.

There is a way of making a much longer, more enjoyable and less steep expedition out of Hallin Fell, and decades later I discovered this on a whim, but otherwise there’s not much you can do other than have an extended sit down on the top then walk back, nor much entertainment available once you’re on the Hause again.

So we took our boots off and drove back to Pooley Bridge for a cup of tea and some ice cream. Which was where it all happened.

I can’t remember what caused it, and whether it was something I had said or done though at the time I didn’t feel as if I done anything out of order (despite being nineteen). Perhaps I had chafed, so soon after a holiday without authority, of being an adult myself for once, but my mother suddenly flared up at me, in the street, in front of everyone around, in real anger, in anger at being here, which as far as she was concerned was not really the Lake District. That they would not come over this side ever again was made plain.

I was shocked. That’s not why I didn’t say anything in response, that was because you didn’t talk back to my mother. But I burned at the way I’d been treated. I was nineteen. I’d voted (twice) the previous year. And I’d been shouted at in the street as if I was younger than my sister, just turned thirteen. I kept my counsel, trailed round behind the adults in silence. Long before we went back to the car, I had made my decision and, at the cottage, after tea, when I could get her on her own in the kitchen I told my mother plainly that this was the last time I was coming on holiday with the family. I didn’t give any explanation and she didn’t ask for any. That I was angry was clear to see, though I kept a lid on my fuming temper. And it was never discussed again in the whole of that week.

I can’t remember where we went the next couple of days, but on the Wednesday I was finally given the day I wanted: round Pooley Bridge and into the Lowther valley, and from there into Mardale and Haweswater. We stopped at the dam, to look at that, and for me to take a commemorative photo, then we followed the road all the way to the head of the Valley, where we parked and got into our boots.

Haweswater from the third cairn

As we were out of our normal country, I was given the Wainwright and sent out in front to lead. This didn’t involve much by way of direction finding: we zig-zagged up from the head of the lake, made a ninety degree turn into the upper valley and, without treading on rock at any point, got to the head of Gatescarth Pass.

There was no path on the Harter Fell flank of the Pass, just a wire fence heading directly uphill to the subsidiary point of Adam a Seat, and from there meandering across the fellside, following the fence, until it joined up with the wall along the summit ridge, just short of the third cairn with its legendary full-length view of Haweswater.

There was a bit of a wind blowing, so whilst everyone else hung back at the wall corner, I was allowed to advance, under strict injunctions about taking care, to the cairn itself and to take a photo. It was blowy enough, and in the direction of Harter’s face, for the instructions not to be necessary, but my mother lived her whole life without ever accepting that I had the nous to be careful without having to have it rubbed into me. I was never trusted to cross Kingsway without being told to take care with the traffic, and this at a traffic light junction.

It was then just a simple, but surprisingly long walk along the wall to the actual summit.

Harter was something of a landmark for us. It was the first time, ever, that we had reached two summits in a single week, and it was the highest top we’d reached since Lingmell, back in 1968. And, to my astonishment, instead of our turning back and descending towards Gatescarth Pass, we wandered across the wide summit to the edge above Nan Bield, to see if we could see Kentmere Reservoir from there, which we could, and then we decided to descend that way.

Only one time before, on Lingmell, had we ever descended by a different route to that by which we had ascended.

Small Water from Nan Bield

Deep cloud was amassing over the Ill Bell range, and we were all well-covered and ready for rain, but none arrived. The route down from Nan Bield took us along another classic Haweswater view, and past the jewel of Small Water, and down to the car.

Though Thursday was a much brighter and sunnier day, we didn’t do any more walking. Instead, we went down to Glenridding, and lazed around in the park at the head of the lake, around the route to the steamer landings. It was all very peaceful and quiet. I was wearing my Piccadilly Radio t-shirt with the 261 logo (my, that’s going back a long way) and there’s a photo of me in it (in black and white) somewhere, but I’m not going to post it even if I can find it.

Friday was our last day, and we were going for the big one, to climb Helvellyn by Striding Edge. That far back, you could take your cars to the end of the road in Grisedale, then it was cross the valley and, where the road doubled back on itself, through a gate and up a grass slope. My mother complained at me again, because this was the kind of walking she really disliked, going straight up, but I was less than sympathetic: this was the very first bit and I was full of energy.

Once again, I was allowed to lead, Wainwright in hand, on the long, slow diagonal across the flank of Birkhouse Moor, until the ‘Hole in the Wall’ (which I put in inverted commas because it was still only an informal name that far back) came in sight, and beyond it Red Tarn, Swirral Edge and the face of Helvellyn and its long flat top.

After an appropriate rest, we set off towards the Edge. I admit to a certain amount of trepidation, given its reputation, though the weather conditions couldn’t have been better for a trouble-free traverse. We followed the path and didn’t dare attempt the crest, though I have a vivid memory of a couple of guys strolling along talking to each other and paying no attention to what was, or might not have been, beneath their boots.

And then we came to the end of the Edge and discovered that the final escape from it was down a 10′ long rock chimney. My mother took one look and decreed that my sister was not going down there. My Uncle was only too ready to turn round: in recent years he had developed a stomach complaint that left him unable to manage any kind of strenuous walking after he had eaten lunch, which put a further limit on our walking, which could only go on as long as he could without eating.

That was it. The walk was over.

I didn’t say anything. What could I say that anyone would have listened to? The only positive thing I could think of was the negative that I would never have to put up with this frustration again. But it was a sickener. And though I said nothing, I am pretty sure my feelings must have shown on my face, because my mother turned to me and said, “But you can go on on your own, if you want?”

I wasn’t going to turn down a chance like that. They would make their leisurely way back to the Hole in the Wall, and I would head for the summit and come back. In my head, I was going to take the chance to come down via Swirral Edge, make a tour of it. First, however, I had to get down that little chimney, and whilst it was easy, even for such a limited scrambler as myself, my mother was insistent I be roped up for the descent. I must have looked a right nana, being lowered on a taut rope to protect me against a fall. As soon as I was down, I fumbled the knots open as fast as I could, turned towards the slope above, and made a beeline for it over a shallow depression, my eyes flickering across the multiple routes and channels before me. I was freeeeeee!

But you should see it from the fell…

All sorts of routes criss-crossed the slope. I made for the bottom of the one that looked to give me the easiest start. I would charge up about ten to twelve feet, scan ahead for the next easiest ten to twelve feet, scan ahead for the next easiest, etc., etc., etc. I did not plan anything. I just charged up, and that is the most accurate term, whatever was the easiest looking line directly in front of me, with all the energy at my command and with no concern for anything but the very next bit of the climb.

I had no idea of time’s passing, I was in a little world of motion, but probably ten minutes or so had passed before I started to develop the first minor gasps of strenuous breathing. These were not serious. I guessed I had gotten about half way up, but I was still flying, so I decided to keep pushing on and, when I found I really needed a breather, I’d pull up and have a look round to see exactly where I was.

Before I was remotely near that stage, I was in for one hell of a shock. The ground abruptly levelled out underneath my feet, revealing an easy, stony slope uphill. I turned round and looked down. Beneath me was Striding Edge, the classic sickle shape of a million postcards, not one of which could ever show the grandeur of the ridge as seen with the naked eye. Below me, an ant’s trail of people were perspiring upwards in sweaty toil (some of them female in open-neck t-shirts that, from this particular viewpoint were very much a viewpoint: I was nineteen, remember), not one of them moving with the speed I had just employed to tear up that slope in at most fifteen minutes, non-stop. Even then, I couldn’t believe it.

From there to the cairn, to the summit of my first 3,000 footer, felt to be longer underfoot than the scramble up from the Edge, but it was no more than a ramble. The summit was crowded. I wandered back and forth, looking in all directions, without getting within vertiginous range of the cliffs to Red Tarn. And I strolled over to the top of Swirral Edge, to check out my planned descent.

This is where the plan was disrupted. Swirral Edge began with a steep, scrambling descent towards rocks I couldn’t see. A couple of decades later, when I stood at that point for the second time, having ascended Swirral Edge, I found it terribly difficult to start down, even knowing there was nothing insuperable to face. On my own for the first time, I just didn’t have the nerve. I went back to above Striding Edge, stared down thoughtfully again, then descended in a more leisurely manner.

I didn’t fancy going back along Striding Edge, not in the face of the traffic (I may have been slightly more concerned about the rock chimney than I gave the impression earlier on). There was only one other alternative, which I took, edging carefully down steep grass until I reached the shore of Red Tarn, then following the water’s edge – no comfortable walk given I was crossing a still angled slope with no path – until the Hole in the Wall came into sight over rising grasses to my right, and my solo was over.

I would, after all, go on holiday again with my family, though this would only be to North Wales, with my mother and my sister. I would never go walking with them again.  There would only be a handful of times when I went walking with other people and you may call me selfish, but I loved the freedom to go the ways of my own choosing, at my own pace. I would never again move so quickly on the fells as in that first quarter hour of release, but at my peak I could negotiate walks of up to fourteen miles and 4,500′ of climbing in the same day, with the latter the more crucial factor.

But that fifteen minutes of release…

The Literal Back O’Skiddaw


The mouth of Southerndale

The first time I climbed Skiddaw, I was in unadulterated peak-baggers mode: maximum summits feasible. This meant the Long Side ridge, coming from the north, in parallel to the western flank of the main summit ridge, and climbing up from Carl Side col. It also meant coming back down to Carl Side col which, given my tendencies towards vertigo and the severe nature of the slope as it actually reaches the ridge, was a test of my nerve. Once I got back down, I didn’t fancy taking the Long Side ridge back, not out of any concerns about safety, but because I just didn’t want to go back exactly the same way I had climbed. My family did that: I covered more ground.

So I chose a line, a necessarily steep line, off the col and directly down into Southerndale. I took my time, stepped out cautiously, switched my line when it looked like getting involved with anything like scree, and arrived at the empty valley head with an easy walk home again. The absence of any paths was a trifling matter.

Time came and went. I climbed Skiddaw again via the Tourist Path, returning over Little Man and Lonscale Fell. I would do that walk once more, omitting Lonscale Fell on the descent, the summer I set out to climb all the 3,000’ers in one season (I fell one short by forgetting to bring a drinks bottle the day I reserved for Scafell).

But my favourite day on Skiddaw was a much more expansive version of the ascent from the Long Side ridge, a longer walk that in earlier days I thought beyond my stamina, which introduced me to lonely parts of the massif that weren’t in the least bit exciting, but which I had to myself for long hours. And that’s always worth having on Skiddaw.

For its first half, the walk was more or less identical to my first visit to the Long Side ridge. I parked in a layby on the Orthwaite Road that conveniently holds nearly half a dozen cars, walked up to the gate giving access to the fields, and strolled towards Barkbeth Farm, at the mouth of Southerndale. Here, as the valley mouth narrowed, there was a gate giving access to the valley, and an immediate ascent on grass to the low ridge.

But between then and then I had acquired Bill Birkett’s Complete Lakeland Fells. Not a book to carry around when walking, unlike Wainwright, but nevertheless containing many more points to visit than the Blessed had considered.

So, on achieving the ridge, I turned in the ‘wrong’ direction, following the pleasant little switchback of grass hummocks known as Watches, with its charming views towards Bass Lake, until I reached its highest point, on the furthest hummock. It was a diversion that only added to the length of the day, and I had to walk all the way back to start my circular course, but it was an enjoyable ridge to follow, gentle underfoot, and well worth the small effort it took.

Ullock Pike rose steeply above. It’s a true steep, straight approach, with a narrow crest along which the path ascends, occasionally changing sides between Southerndale and Bassenthwaite. The angle is unremitting, though the slope is not long. It was here that, quite by chance, I fell into an effortless comfortable rhythm, that ate up the slope with almost no expenditure of energy. All it required was a deliberate, slow pace, and I could climb and climb and climb without the least amount of weariness, nor need to stop. It felt like I could have gone on forever.

The Long Side ridge from Ullock Pike

Ullock Pike’s compact little top is a lovely place to halt, but it is better as the prelude to Longside Edge, a ten minute walk along a narrow but completely safe ridge, with steep slopes to either side. It’s a bit like a monorail, without the actual monorail, and it’s only flaw is that it is too short. It literally is no more than ten minutes when it is so enjoyable it should be at least twice the length, and there is the real temptation to turn back to Ullock Pike for the pleasure of doing it again.

From Long Side itself to Carl Side is equally enjoyable to begin with, but I’d barely left the former’s top before the ridge started to curve inwards towards the main body of Skiddaw. Carl Side itself is a rounded, flattened lump, much less inspiring as a target than Long Side, and the ridge loses itself in the final pull-up onto Carl Side itself. The path turns inwards, heading for Skiddaw, and to visit the summit it is necessary to divert over a low horizon onto the spreading heap.

From here, there’s a bit of a dip over a gravel field, and then it’s straight uphill, up the side of Skiddaw, on an increasingly steep path. This is at best a tedious climb and at worse an exhausting one, with nothing but stones beneath and no views to attract the eye unless you stop and look behind you. I was ever so glad that I had found that rhythm on Ullock Pike, for I was able to settle into it again, and the climb was an absolute doddle. I just stepped upwards, ever upwards, without the slightest sense of strain or weariness, without needing even to pause until I came out over the steepest stage and found myself on Skiddaw’s summit ridge.

Skiddaw top

The hard work done, I wandered along the ridge to Main Top, the highest point, and visited the cairn. Like all my previous visits, the place was crowded and I had to wait my turn with the viewfinder. It wasn’t like fighting my way to the cairn on Scafell Pike: crowds seem to be a bit more tolerable on Skiddaw and Helvellyn, which are more easily accessible by the casual pedestrian. Anyway, I didn’t intend to stay any longer than to register my presence, and I wandered on to the North Top to leave the crowds behind, enjoy an uninterrupted panorama, and scoff my sandwiches.

It was already quiet at the North Top, but as soon as I left it, moving forward, and down a long green slope, I was on my own, and I stayed that way from that point on. It felt strange after Skiddaw’s summit to so swiftly step into isolation. It felt as if I was stepping out of the world.

I walked away down an easy and broad incline that I quickly realised would have been hellishly tedious to walk up, and that without a look back or two towards the retreating skyline. It wasn’t long before I was at Broad End, an elevated platform on Skiddaw’s northern slope, of no great shape or significance save in its emptiness. It wasn’t even a pretence at a subsidiary summit, with virtually no downfall behind it to the path I’d walked down.

Broad End

This flank of Skiddaw is not necessarily steep, but it doesn’t take long to realise that you have lost enough height that you really wouldn’t want to turn round and climb back. Before you know it, the path is levelling out, and there is a mini-crossroads, at which the return route turns left, into a broad grass valley that starts to narrow the further along you get.

The crossroads is on the back of Bakestall, another of those features that are geographically only a part of a larger mass, Wainwright chose to treat individually, and we are better for it. I’d visited Bakestall already, the hard way, from the head of the Dash Valley, thinking thoughts that had gone into that day on Lord’s Seat when I’d unsuspectedly begun writing a novel, and this was a bit of a cheat, a short walk up the slightest of slopes to the summit cairn, an undeserved summit visit, but I did it. Then back to the crossroads and down that valley.

This was a quiet walk between increasingly enclosing walls, until the valley debouched upon a miniature replica of the scene above: a tiny crossroads, marked by a five stone cairn, the path onwards turning left into another green valley, a miniature top a few yards directly ahead, to be approached from the back, this one named Cockup, and vaguely parallel near the mouth of the Dash Valley to Great Cockup.

Bakestall face

Then down the second valley, between gradually encroaching walls, until I came out in the open, and onto a long path making its way around the northern boundary of the massif, above the intake walls.

Nothing now but distance to negotiate. The heights, and the heights of excitement, were a long way behind. The bottom of Southerndale was a long way ahead. The sun was sliding down the afternoon. There was no-one to see, nothing to do but follow the trail, a long march in unfamiliar surroundings, quiet and peaceful.

I’d rejected this particular route in the past, because of the long walk home round the northern perimeter, but I was a hardier walker now, with greater stamina, or at any rate greater confidence in it and I  strode along unconcernedly. The walk, in the terms I normally define walks, was long over and this country stroll a mere extended coda, under a high sun, in perfect peace.

My only moment of doubt lay in the crossing of the mouth of Barkbethdale, where the path dipped to the beck, then had to climb a low incline of its far bank on ground that was wet and soft. This short climb, so many hours after I’d last had to go uphill, proved more wearing than it normally would have been, but once I crossed the miniature watershed, the familiar skyline of Watches appeared directly ahead, with the narrow ridge of Ullock Pike beside it, and a short walk across the fields back to the car, and my cassette copy of The Distractions’ Nobody’s Perfect to repeat whilst I removed my boots.

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.