I have always loved the Duddon Valley, ever since first discovering it as a ‘secret’ valley, when I was still a child.
As I’ve mentioned before, for years we used to stay at Low Bleansley farm, on the west flank of the overlooked Lickle Valley. Low Bleansley was at the end of a narrow road from the hamlet of Broughton Mills, connecting all the farms on that side of the valley. The tarmac road ended there, but a cart-track continuation continued, through a gate and into woods, leading up the hillside. One night, after our evening meal, Dad and I went for a walk along this track. It lead us up to the top of the low fell, and down again into another valley, one I hadn’t suspected existed. It was heavily forested and we followed the track down far enough to see the road below.
Back at the farm, Dad traced the map and identified our newly-discovered valley as the Duddon, and it wasn’t too much longer before we explored it for the first time. I don’t know if this was our first visit, but I vividly remember my Uncle driving us along the valley to Seathwaite (6 miles) and a bit beyond, as far as a forked junction, but refusing to go further since the valley road, at that point, became extremely narrow, with no possibility of two cars passing each other. We explored a short distance on foot, but all this was late afternoon: perhaps a side-visit when returning from Ravenglass.
We did go further, into the surprisingly wide openness of the upper valley, though this came after Dad died, in the early Seventies. There were two such trips for I remember two walks from Cockley Bridge, at the foot of Hard Knott and Wrynose: up Hard Knott on foot on the tarmac, and then the short walk to Hard Knott fell, and, at my suggestion, into Mosedale, almost to the valley head, where it would have been possible in theory to look down on Lingcove Beck, but this petered out, like the path, on increasingly wet ground, causing an abandonment.
These excursions aside, since the Duddon was not a convenient base for walks my family preferred, more often we would see only the lower valley, the pastoral, forested three miles from Duddon Bridge to Ulpha, where my Uncle would increasingly often risk his engine on the steep, zigzagging road behind the Traveller’s Rest to cross the expanse of Birker Moor and take a wide corner off the drive to Eskdale.
Sometimes, he’d compromise, by going over Corney Fell, from which, in ascent, there was a superb view over the Duddon Valley.
When I started going on holiday alone, free of the need to compromise to my family’s physical limits, and able to choose my own walks, I covered most of the Coniston Range in my first full year. I did Wetherlam – Swirl How – Great Carrs in the spring, and Dow Crag – the Old Man – Brim Fell in the early autumn. Later, as described here . I would do the whole Round in a single walk, but before that, I needed Grey Friars to complete the Range. And, so as not to cover ground already trodden, and because I’d never done a serious walk out of the Duddon, I made a point of a climb from this direction.
The obvious approach from the Duddon Valley was by the south-west ridge, which gave me a choice of starting points. The longer route was to base myself at Seathwaite, take the right hand fork from that long ago narrow junction and make a gradual ascent to Seathwaite Tarn, or to choose a base further north, near Troutal, and ascend across the base of the ridge to gain the valley of the Tarn on a more direct route. This latter enabled me to use the extensive car park at Birks Bridge, a short stroll along the road.
This was a bitty, twisty ascent to begin with, under the lee of the ridge with no view of the way ahead until I was descending to the Tarn’s outflow. The ridge itself was pathless in those years, as Wainwright originally indicated, and it was a question of correctly identifying the grassy ride he recommended for access to the ridge. In the end, it was not difficult to spot, and I started to gain height steadily, in the centre of a wide channel.
Wainwright described the ridge as ‘a bewildering succession of abrupt craggy heights and knotty outcrops’, though there now appears to be a continuous path to the summit, but even then I found no great difficulties: just keep moving upwards, and eventually the summit crown comes into sight and it’s an easy ascent onto the round top and to the cairn. The highlight of the view is the Scafell range, seen in a great ring from Slight Side round to Esk Pike, but this was a greyish day, with the cloudline cutting across the range, so that was somewhat disappointing.
You should know by now that I find ascending and descending by the same route an anathema. There’s not much geographical alternative, so I decided to vary my route of descent by crossing the top and dropping down to Fairfield, the wide open plateau between Grey Friars and the wall of Swirl How. There wasn’t a path but by angling round to the right, it was easy to find the head of Seathwaite Tarn’s valley and turn down that.
I hadn’t seen anyone throughout the course of the walk which, even then, was how I liked it. The upper valley was lonely and empty, and the slope was easy and uncomplicated. I marched out steadily and confidently, and at a pretty fast rate. It curved to the right, and there was still no sight of Seathwaite Tarn, when I found my rapid course approaching a curious patch of light green standing out from the reedy grass around. It made me curious as to what it was, but my near headlong march took me to it, and upon it rapidly. Without thinking, I planted my right boot down on it. And kept going down.
My boot plunged through the nearly non-existent surface and kept going until I was in above my knee. And, between my insouciant momentum and the natural imbalance caused by having one leg shoot down about two and a half feet below where it should be, my left boot, like night following day, crashed down on the sickly-green patch and didn’t stop until it was almost at the knee.
There I was, in a bog, with no-one in sight and no-one remotely likely to come in sight in the foreseeable, up to an average of both knees in the muck and well and truly stuffed.
If you’ll permit me a brief digression: in those days I still owned a short satirical comic story by Howard the Duck creator Steve Gerber, using his experience in writing for TV of having his scripts submitted to Standards & Practices, i.e., the censors. Systematically, they gut every point of tension, drama and natural human response to crisis from his scene. There is a glorious moment when they instruct, ‘instead of the pilot reacting to his spaceship going out of control by banging his fit on the dashboard and shouting, “dammit!”, have him demonstrate a positive coping reaction.’
Positive Coping Reaction! What a gem! You cannot make things like that up, only real life can produce something so astonishingly perfect.
So here I was, in my own little real-life crisis, my opportunity to demonstrate a Positive Coping Reaction. And how did I positively cope? I panicked and, by main, fear-fuelled strength, wrenched my right leg far enough out of the bog to get my knee onto the firm ground on the bank immediately before me, and use that as a lever to drag my left leg out after it.
Now, look here, kids. I know that the likes of Douglas Adams and actual responsible adults will advise you Don’t Panic, but trust me and be flexible. There are circumstances where panic is your friend and you should be prepared to embrace him fervently.
Nevertheless, though I was now safe, and determined to give all spots of bright green the legendary wide berth, I was pretty much sopping wet, and sedgey from the knees down to my socks and boots, which had thankfully emerged with me. Make sure you tie secure knots in those laces.
So I resumed my downhill progress in a somewhat more circumspect manner, eager to see the curve of the valley expose Seathwaite Tarn, though this was still some way below. Walking its shore was calming and gentle, but I had one further obstacle to pass as I neared the outflow and recognised the point where I had to regain the lower part of the ridge to drop down to Troutal.
To get there, I had to cross a wide expanse of wet and soft ground. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have given it too much thought, but I was still rattled by my sinking experience, and was wary of any treacherous repetition. There was no way round it, I had to cross it, but how should I do this? The answer was ridiculous, but unexpectedly practical: a Groucho Walk.
Yes, I do mean the bent-kneed, half-crouch of the late Julius ‘Groucho’ Marx, and no, I am not joking. If you examine the movement, it has clear advantages. For one, the bent-knee stride means more ground is being covered at each step, and consequently a more rapid movement across the ground, whilst by splaying the stride, the centre of gravity is supported by a wider area, and only passes directly over the boot for a split-second. Of course, I didn’t have one fist clenched in the small of my back, nor another wielding an imaginary cigar, but in every other respect I adopted the position and made a very rapid transition to drier and firmer ground.
I don’t know how the theory stands up aerodynamically, but if it was all a load of gubbins, it was nevertheless a very effective placebo. I heaved a sigh of relief, descended to Troutal, the road and the car, and yanked my soggy socks and boots off. I could do nothing about my tide-marked jeans until I was back in Ambleside, however, and that called for a shower too.
Despite all this, I have never lost my love for the beautiful Duddon Valley, though the only other time I returned to Grey Friar, I stayed firmly out of that valley. No more bog-trotting for me.
In 1935, the village of Mardale Green in Mardale, Westmorland, was drowned when Haweswater dam was completed and the former High Water and Low Water rose up to create the modern day Haweswater reservoir, one of the two main suppliers of Manchester water.
Twice at least in the last century, in the drought summers of 1976 and 1984, the water level in Haweswater has dropped so much that the ruins of the village have reappeared. In 1976, I remember Stuart Hall reporting from the foot of Haweswater Dam – on the reservoir side! – and in 1984, in September, I walked some of the old lanes of the village myself. My mother, holidaying the previous week, had also visited Mardale, and crossed the bridge over the beck, but the levels were rising by now, and though the bridge was clearly visible – and safe and intact after all those years – the rising water had closed it off and both ends and the western part of the village could only be looked upon.
The current hot spell has exposed Mardale Green’s remains again. It is, I believe, the earliest in the year that this has happened.
I’m tired, I’m stressed, I’m jittery as f-u-c-k, what shall I do? I know – let’s go on an imaginary holiday.
Let’s go up to the Lakes again, in my imagination. Let’s pretend there was one more week, one more Sunday to Friday, divided between Ambleside and Keswick, on which the sun shines but the fells are cool, the atmosphere is clear and the views and the photographs are fantastic.
Let’s pretend that this holiday is the big one, the one that catches all the places I never got to go properly, the summits under cloud, the views unseen. All of them swept up in one go, in my prime of twenty odd years ago, before the knee became a problem.
So the car is packed, only because this is imagination I can cheat. Suitcase and rucksack, anorak, waterproofs and boots, but we don’t need the cassette player to provide me with music in the evenings, and instead I carry my mp3 player and headphones, and there’s a small space for my laptop, instead of a writing pad and spare pens.
And the alarm goes on a Sunday morning in North Reddish, Stockport. I’ve been to Old Trafford yesterday afternoon and United have won, won in the style we’ve lost, terrified the opposition into submission, reaffirming our position at the top of the Premier League. The tank is full of petrol, and here I go.
Romance is an essential component of the imagination, so let’s forego the latterday, get there as fast as I can route of motorways, and revert to that old AA ‘Manchester to the Lake District avoiding the A6’ route that my Uncle obtained in the Sixties, and which I still know by heart.
Leave through North Manchester, bypassing Bury on the M66, to Rossendale and that dual carriageway route that by-passes the drive over the moors to and through Burnley. Then it’s up through Pendle and Nelson and cross-country, briefly returning to civilisation by driving through Gisburn.
At Long Preston, I join the long A65, along the edge of the Limestone Country, through Settle where Dad would always settle for a doze in the car, under the massive presence of Ingleborough, one of a tiny handful of non-Lake District mountains I have climbed, towards Kirby Lonsdale and beyond, until I cross the M6 and make for Milnthorpe. In my imagination, the Flying Dutchman is still open, offering the sausage butties that I was never allowed at home, and just as all our three visits in 1966, ‘Strangers in the Night’ is playing as we walk in, because for a moment I am surrounded by people long gone.
Beyond Milnthorpe I head north for the long road across the foot of the Lakes. The full run would take me through such places as Haverthwaite, Lindale and Greenodd and to the moors from which there’s that glorious view of Dow Crag and Coniston Old Man, and along the Water.
But this time I regretfully turn off at Newby Bridge and follow Windermere all the way to Ambleside, because even in imagination time is not elastic. The hotel that overlooks the park has my old room available and they haven’t yet jacked up the price for singletons, so I unload my case and stuff, change into my walking trousers and boots and set off up the street.
My starter walk is Wansfell, for which I walk down the main street towards Windermere before diverting off along Old Lake Road and starting to gain height. This was a starter walk once, a sunny afternoon of the kind we have today and I ascended to the ridge via the first of Wainwright’s options from Blue Hill Road, which disappeared with Jesty. No wonder: it was a poor line that got tangled in rough fellside, leaving me no option but to traverse awkwardly over to the other path (now repaired), to emerge on Wansfell Pike above the most spectacular full-length view of Windermere, exactly the right distance below.
With my camera still in the hotel room.
So now I’ve got my camera, and the shot turns out to be perfect, of course. The problem with Wansfell is that Wansfell Pike is such a perfect summit in a perfect position, but Wansfell is higher and further back, involving a stroll along the ridge with the dull views directly ahead.
The descent is by the same route, save that I drop down further to cross Stock Ghyll, picking up the lane that leads directly into the heart of Ambleside.
A quiet evening, a nice dinner, a pint in the Ambleside Tavern and some music.
I sleep well and eat a cooked breakfast on Monday, complete with tea rather than coffee at the table. I am sensitive about the kinds of coffee you get in Lake District hotels and guesthouses. Today’s plan does not involve severe effort, so I have time to wander Ambleside and drink in the atmosphere.
Then off to Grasmere to do the same thing, and to pay my traditional visit to the Heaton Cooper Studio, which is as much a part of my Lakeland holidays as trips to Ravenglass and the Ratty were for family holidays. There isn’t room for a trip westwards this time, unless I retrospectively decide to extend the holiday backwards, travel up on Saturday, spend my first Saturday night in the Lakes since my Wedding Day, and go for a ride on Sunday.
Either way, this is Monday, I’ve had a hot tuna melt for lunch and it’s time to drive round to get as close as parking on the main road will place me to the Travellers Rest Hotel.
Seat Sandal was a walk on a rainy, cloudy day that offered no entertainment, but was on ground both familiar from previous a visit, and easy to follow. We’d ascended by Little Tongue Gill on a day that turned to rain, heading for Grisedale Pass, though we’d stopped at the hause above Grisedale Tarn, which is a little lower than the official head of the Pass.
They were rebuilding the path along Little Tongue Gill that day, had got about two-thirds of the way to the top. The contrast was striking: when I reached the end of the paved area, I stepped into a foot deep trench.
The cloud was down on the hause and the Tarn invisible, but today the sky is clear. Cloud dots the sky in clumps. I take another photo and turn to the steep slope to my left. There’s an initial scramble, to the right of the wall, which rapidly eases off. No need to guess where to cross the wall and stroll to the broad, flat cairn this time.
It’s a view I’ve never seen, not an extensive or brilliant one, even to the open west, but one of four denied by rain and cloud that I am ticking off. And under the sun, there is no need to return to the hause, to traverse across the top of Great Tongue and descend its length. To do so would bring back memories of that first visit: I took the lead descending, on my own, ten yards in front of everyone else, and so full of energy that I could have turned round at the bottom and done it all over again immediately.
But on such a day there’s no reason not to descend by the south western cairn and the slowly-narrowing ridge, with the Vale of Grasmere below and views all the way. There’s time to enjoy the return.
Tuesday is traditionally transition day. I check out of my first venue of the week and cross Dunmail Raise, this time northerly, to check in at Keswick. I have had a number of regular places here over the years, and my last place is my favourite, but this is taking place entirely within my own head, so once again a room in a hotel overlooking the park becomes available, and when I get back from my walks, a parking space within easy distance will also miraculously appear.
I have two small fells within easy reach of Keswick to reascend, on either side of Bassenthwaite Lake: the question is which to take first. I leave Keswick onto the A656, along the east shore of Bass, and when the road swings round in the direction of Cockermouth, I turn into the woods and the narrow, undulating roads to Wythop.
This was another Sunday afternoon starter walk, a long time ago. I made an afternoon out of it by taking in Ling Fell and Sale Fell together, the improbable ‘Sentinels of Wythop’
Ling Fell, on the far side of the village, deep in the narrow cleft of its valley and its mill-race, is round, unlovely and uninteresting. It’s not in my mind to return, but the only parking is on the high road, on that side of the valley, so I have to get close to it.
That’s not too bad, except for when it means coming back, because Sale Fell is on the other side of the valley and it’s accessible from the lower road. So I march up the valley, drop down via the cross road, deep in the woods of the lower Wythop Valley, and under the same sun as the day I walked here in reality, follow the road up to the farm, Kelswick, at the furthest extent of the valley.
A clear, well-angled path doubles back towards the cleft on the ridge, but this time, when I arrive at the top of the path, the weather doesn’t explode into a cloudburst. I am free to wander up my gentle green ridge, enjoying the vista across Bass Lake and the side-on view of Skiddaw, rising above the Long Side ridge. I say wander: last time, I was marching into the teeth of a howling wind, my head bowed, my glasses removed to my anorak pocket (there was nothing to see so it didn’t matter that I couldn’t see it).
But I’m constitutionally incapable of walking slowly unless the terrain won’t let me pass apace, so I stride out contentedly, contrasting the openness of this climb with the claustrophobia of my real visit. There’s a mixture of paths nowadays, whereas I remember just the open ridge – not that I was the most reliable witness that day!
Then, I reached the tiny cairn, walked round it and started heading back without a pause. I had not been beaten. Now, I can sit down on the springy turf, doff the rucksack, have a drink, admire the view at last.
Two down, two to go, and one within sight.
Down the ridge again. I don’t have to walk back to Kelswick, there’s a path dropping directly down, beside the wall, onto the lower road, down which I march to the village. Time for a sit on the bridge wall, admiring the mill race: perhaps this time the sky is bright enough to enable a decent picture to be taken of it.
An unwelcome stroll back uphill to the car, where I sit for half an hour, enjoying the sandwiches I bought in Keswick and then, without having removed my walking boots, I belt up, reverse out and drop back through Wythop to the main A656 again. But not to return to Keswick. Instead, I angle round the quiet roads beyond the foot of Bass Lake, aiming for the A56 Carlisle Road, and turn Keswick-wards there.
Just as Sale Fell is part of a pair with Ling Fell, separated by the Wythop Valley, it’s part of a pair with the third of my missing views, separated by Bass Lake itself. This is Dodd, that tree-clouded outlier of the Skiddaw Range, only not so tree-clouded now, after a mass-felling sometime prior to 1999. Like Seat Sandal, this was a walk for a wet day that otherwise gave me nothing to do: on a day with no views, what better fell to climb than one from which there were no views to begin with?
That was one of the few days on which Wainwright failed me, his ascent from Dancing Gate proving impossible to follow after less than a quarter-mile. I ended up struggling uphill through trees, never my favourite method of approach, until I emerged on a forest road, from where I threaded together a very heavy-legged approach to the little path onto the wooded top. There were pale glimpses of the Lake below, but nothing else.
Rather than return that way, I descended to Long Doors and began to march downhill. It came on to rain, but I had established a metronomic rhythm, left – right, left – right, without need to pause or halt, all down the simple gradient to the cafe, and all down the A56, using up little or no energy, until the car came in sight.
There’ll be none of that today. Downhill marches are one thing and regular movements are easily attainable on regular ground, but even at my most enduring peak, the same effect isn’t going to occur going uphill. Unless I manage that even, slow-measured tread I struck that time on the Long Side ridge, and that eats up both distance and time, because it’s slow.
Steadily, I gain height, in the tuck of land between the steep sides of Dodd and Carl Side, until Long Doors, when I can escape right and round, into the open. Now Dodd’s summit is clear and warm, and I can enjoy the view even Wainwright couldn’t, without even having to stretch up on my toes.
I’ve done this kind of split-walk expedition on only a couple of occasions before, once by design, the other on impulse. The second half of it is always a bit odd, psychologically, and is slower. Once back at the car the first time, both mind and body relax, automatically: the energetic stuff is over, time to kick-back. Then going out again, even with the reminder that these are walking boots pressing down upon the accelerator and clutch pedals, not the softness of trainers, is harder to do. Even on simple walks like this, where for once I have no more feasible plans than returning to the car by the identical route. Trodden ground indeed.
It’s an early return to the hotel so I slip out into the Park, hire a putter and tackle the Crazy Golf. With long practice, I got the round down to about 39 shots: I reckon that, letting a bit of realism creep in, the rust will be enough to push me back to about 45. Then Tuesday night in Keswick. Beef-filled Yorkshire Pudding and a pint at the Oddfellow’s Arms.
Wednesday is, in a sense, a free day. They’re all free days, really, but there is only one walk remaining to complete sweeping in those fells on my list. I can go anywhere I want, without compulsion. Shall it be flood-ravaged Cockermouth, restored in my memories, and a quiet half hour browsing in The New Bookshop before driving down Lorton and exploring the Buttermere Valley? Or Patterdale via Dockray and Matterdale, into the pre-flood Glenridding, where I was married? Or further east yet, out and round into Mardale and Haweswater?
In light of Thursday’s plan, east it shall be, and by this I mean the Far Eastern Fells, and distant Mardale. I’m going on a nostalgia trip. It’s not the Second Drought Summer that re-calls me, 1984 and walking through the remnants of Mardale Green. Let the lake be full, let all the bare strips, the untidy, ugly tidemarks be covered in good honest water. I m going back to 1975.
It was the first and only time the family had holidayed outside that rigid arc from Ambleside to Wasdale, and for my benefit. I had seen Ullswater and Patterdale only once, and at last Haweswater/Mardale wasn’t too far to drive. We came here on Wednesday. On Friday, we made an attempt on Helvellyn via Striding Edge that only I completed, symbolising the breach I’d made by announcing I would go on no more family holidays after this. The last summit I reached with them was Harter Fell, Mardale.
It’s a simple re-tracing of steps: the left-hand fork beyond the roadhead, the steepish zig-zags to where the corner turns into that green hanging valley beneath Gatescarth Pass, the meandering, silent ascent of relaid stone, the broad grass col. Gatescarth, for some reason, always feels a lonely place, further away from your fellow man than other spots in the Lakes.
From here, in 1975, I had the Wainwright, I had the lead. It wasn’t really needed: there was no path on this flank, but a wire fence led up to Adam-a-Seat, before turning across the fellside, tracking an old boundary to the summit ridge, just short of the third cairn and its fabled full-length view of Haweswater.
Now, and since before 1988, there’s been an already-eroded path, direct from Gatescarth to this wall-corner, even of gradient, easy of ascent. In sunlight, and free of the wind that brought the unnecessary warning not to go too near the edge to get my photo – as if I, with my vertigo, would ever get that close! – it’s the highlight of the walk. Then the long stroll over the flat summit to the distant main cairn.
In 1975, something amazing happened here, that I was in no way responsible for. My family, who had never yet reached a destination without walking back exactly the same way they’d come, decided to descend to Nan Bield Pass and return by Small Water!
Dark cloud massed over Ill Bell, Kentmere Reservoir was cold and still as steel. We descended to Mardale via Small Water, the first photo I had ever seen looking down towards Haweswater, spread out before us. It had become a cold afternoon, since Gatescarth onwards, and we were well wrapped up against rain that never came.
All my holidays alone built up to the Big Walk on Thursday, and the slow retreat home on Friday. There’s one walk, one summit left, from which the view was obscured by clouds (yes, that is a Pink Floyd reference: please do not hold it against me).
This is why I went east on Wednesday, not west. Today is the day to go to Buttermere because I’m going to climb High Stile.
To drive, I’d say my favourite Pass is Whinlatter, because of its ease and simple gradients, but if I’m heading for the Buttermere Valley itself, and an early start is mandated for a long walk, then the only way to go is Newlands. This side of the Pass is not too bad, until the very end: in any car I’ve driven I’ve tried to get up some speed on the straight section, to help me up the last, steep bit to the summit, but Newlands has a ninety degree right hand bend just below that bit, on which all momentum is lost, requiring a laboured limp to the top, in second gear if I’m lucky. Not even imagination can overcome that turn, and I have never reached Newlands Hause without pulling in to let the engine recover.
One of these days, perhaps in another imaginary holiday, I’ll leave the car here and take off up one of the paths from the Hause. Knott Rigg is easy walking, trainers and jeans stuff apparently, though I’d want the boots for the ridge to Ard Crags which would have to be part of the walk.
Once the engine has had time to cool down, it’s down to Buttermere Village, and this is the brake’s turn to take the strain. Because it’s downhill all the way, and it’s steep downhill, and I have never tried to come up this side and never will, not even in my head. At the Village, I’m going to need to park for the day, so let’s assume that the quarry just down the road towards Crummock Water is still operating, and I can get my gear on there.
This is a straight repeat, and it’s a repeat of a walk I’ve not that long ago written about, so let’s insert a link here and not describe the route in the same detail. My memories glide through the long diagonal ascent across Red Pike’s foreground, the rocky ledges that lead to Bleaberry Tarn’s outlet, and scaling the path to Red Pike, only this time the light stays good, the sky is well above my head, there is nothing to darken the day, or enforce any gloom, and I can relish the view.
And there are no concerns about disappearing into the cloud on High Stile, no issues about where the path might lead and whether I’m getting too close to invisible cliffs. So I make it to the summit of High Stile for a second time and I can see all there is to see, and the purpose of this holiday is fulfilled.
I wander downhill to the vantage point that offers me dramatic, near vertical views of Buttermere Village, and take multiple photos. Then it’s time for the long retreat, the narrow ridge to High Crag, the steep continuation to Scarth Gap, the scramble downhill. This time, there’s no One Man and his Dog in the valley below, and I reach ground level and take my time strolling along the lakeshore path, Buttermere lapping gently beside me, until I turn across the fields, back to Buttermere Village, and the car.
This being my imagination, I have enough time to drive along beside Crummock Water, and through gentle, spacious Lorton, to Cockermouth. Like all things in this week, this is the Cockermouth of old, undamaged by floods, and The New Bookshop is what it was, and I have time to browse in the way I used to before I became used to instant access through Amazon and eBay.
And because this is my fantasy, and it can take in whatever I want, there are books that never existed, there for me to buy. I very rarely came out of The New Bookshop without three purchases. So, one at a time, I discover that there is a fourth Master Li and Number Ten Ox story from Barry Hughart, another Dortmunder Gang book from Donald E Westlake and, most precious of all, one final Sam Vimes and the City Watch book from dear old Terry Pratchett, written at the peak of his powers, before the first onset of the Alzheimers, and it’s written to incorporate the ending I had envisaged as a perfect Last Discworld Book, only Terry does so much more with my skeleton than I’d ever imagined possible. I know what I’m going to be doing this evening.
And it’s morning, and it’s time to go home. Register out, drive round Keswick. Take the Penrith road, but cut through Matterdale, through unravaged Glendridding, and over Kirkstone Pass. It’s far too early for the Inn to be open but I stop and wander around, making the goodbye as long as I can because I don’t know how long it will be before I can be here again.
Then down, through Troutbeck, without stopping, through Kendal, with one final stroll and one final bookshop because in my imagination the walls of my pokey little flat are elastic and I can bring in an infinite number of book, especially imaginary ones.
But at long last, it’s the M6, south and home. No drawing it out through Settle and Gisburn, just M6, M61, M602 and Salford and Manchester’s inner ring road, and Hyde Road, Reddish Lane.
And I am back to reality, to where I really live, not where I used to live, from which I departed on this Imaginary Holiday.
I think I’ll do this again.
Late in my shift last night, we had notification of multiple exchange outages in Cumbria and Lancashire. I ran my eye down the list of exchanges affected, familiar names stretching from Penrith to Keswick, and a bit beyond that, as far as Braithwaite, and that brought back a memory.
Between 1987 and 1997, I was in a relationship with a woman a couple of years older than myself. We met at work, things were very intense for quite a time and then life’s complications began to get in the way. For the last half of our relationship, and perhaps more, things were permanently volatile, off and on and several stages between.
I’d taken the opportunity to introduce her to the Lake District in 1988, a day out in Patterdale, climbing Angletarn Pikes (which was on my list of Wainwrights to be done). We took things easy, took our time, had a brilliant day of it. I promised to take her up Catbells, the next time.
That time didn’t come for a long time. We were up and down with a vengeance, at one point not even having any contact for nearly six months. And things were decidedly on and off when we met up again.
I still hadn’t climbed Catbells. It remained on my ever-shrinking list, but I kept the faith and refused to ascend it, in the hope that we’d one day make that opportunity for ourselves.
Well, at long last, it came about. We were mostly friends, rather than anything deeper, though my feelings for her ran deep and had by no means been extinguished. And one summer, the opportunity came up, a day out to the Lakes, visiting Keswick and, no promises, maybe we’d have a go at Catbells.
Things were pretty fragile between us. I was not to press her over the walk, so I simply kept my mouth shut on it. We had a solid lunch in the Oddfellows Arms, where I always try to eat when I’m in Keswick, and then, slightly begrudgingly, as if I had pressured her into it, she agreed we’d do the walk.
I drove round into the Newlands Valley. It was a hot day, high sun and few clouds and I parked in a corner of the road where there was some shade from trees. It was quiet and cool among the trees.
It’s a fairly steep climb out of Newlands onto the ridge. It’s like that on either side, but Newlands gave us more peace and quiet: a summer Saturday afternoon on Catbells was going to be heaving. We took our time, far more time than I might alone, but there was nothing to rush for, and I was content to go at her pace. The more content she was, the nicer the day.
We reached the ridge without any major effort, and from there to Catbells was easy-peasy. And it was heaving, with very little space on which to sink and sit down. She took the initiative, led us a little downhill on the Derwentwater side. The ground quickly steepened away but we only ventured down about five or six yards, not out of hearing of the buzzing on the summit, but substantially out of sight. It was too angled to comfortably sit, so we stretched out, side-by-side.
And arms found their way around each other, kissing started, and she took one hand and slipped it under her shirt, where I was encouraged to confirm what sight had already told me about what she was wearing underneath.
We could do so much in our seclusion, but it wasn’t like Angletarn Pikes, when we’d been completely alone.
With a new feeling of contentment and connection between us, we slowly moved on, taking the tourist path towards Keswick before doubling back at a lower level, towards Newlands and my car. We headed back to Keswick, to get ourselves another drink. Before we did, she insisted on using a phonebox to call back home and speak to her daughter.
Keswick on Saturday night. I’d never been there at that time before. The pubs were crowded, and it took about three before we found one where there was actually a space we could slip into. She was bubbly, excited, uncontained. I had an inkling of the surprise she was planning to pull but I wanted her to have the fun. But when it came to our second round of drinks, I had to speak up, so I could decide what to order for myself. Were we staying tonight?
Her face fell, for which I was sorry. She was keeping it back, to spring on me as a surprise: let’s get a room and stay. But I knew her too well by then, and had read that surprise the moment she’d gone off on her own to call her daughter. There really was no other reason to have done so. But it was the difference between a Diet coke or another half of lager and lime for me.
However, there was a nearly fatal flaw in our plan. We weren’t just seeking an impromptu guesthouse vacancy in Keswick on a summer Saturday night, we were doing it on the weekend of a Jazz Festival in the town. There was literally no room at the Inn.
I hadn’t overindulged on the lager, so I was still within safe limits to drive. If push came to shove, we would go back to Manchester and my house, but a weekend in the Lakes, and a little more walking on Sunday was a preferable deal so I called upon my ingenuity and local knowledge and we headed off towards Cockermouth.
Whether they could have sorted us out became moot when my partner in fun spotted a Vacancies sign as we passed the edge of the village of Braithwaite. And that Vacancy turned out to be for a double room, with appropriate bed, which we took. The only other visitors to this heaven-sent little place were a pair of very shy, very young Japanese girls.
Our night secured, we went back to Keswick and completed our day with fish’n’chips from the Old Keswickian. Suitably greased up, we drove back to Braithwaite, at which point I am firmly drawing a curtain across the rest of the day.
Sunday was equally hot and sunny. Steeping into yesterday’s underpants and socks was a bit icky, especially as it had been such a hot day, but this was a small price to pay and we were both paying it. I’d only brought The North Western Fells with me, for Catbells, but there was an easy walk available that I’d done before, that involved little energy or time, but would give my companion her third summit. This was High Rigg.
The road up to the church on the saddle requires two gates to be opened to progress: it was a pleasant change to have a passenger to whom this could be delegated. We parked up just as the Morning Service was ending. Of all the coincidences, my partner was approached by a woman in her fifties: this was the mother of my lady’s next door neighbour!
We made a stroll of it, sitting on an outcrop off the top for ten minutes before visiting the actual summit. This was an affront to my fellwalker’s instincts, that I had to suppress, to my companion’s amusement. It was a perfect day.
But we had to get back to Manchester, and domestic chores that demanded attention, and there was a limit to how much time we could actually spend in each other’s company by that time without things starting to break down again. So we drove back, on good terms, and I dropped her off, and that was it.
So Braithwaite Exchange breaking down last night was the spur to remembering that unexpectedly sweet weekend. It’s not really my usual sort of walking story, since the walking turned out to be the least point of it, but I did tick off another Wainwright and Catbells is a lovely place to be, alone or in company.
We never climbed another fell together, and I doubt she added to her tally, unless after a slammed down phone one night in late summer 1997 she met someone else who took her walking in Lakeland. I doubt it would have mattered to her either way, but those walks we did together remain as cherished memories.
The snow is now laying on pavements and side-streets, but is vanishing from rooftops and ceasing to inconvenience us in Stockport. It’s still bringing back memories of other snowy periods: this one’s from the mid-Nineties, when I was still a Solicitor.
We were acting for a famous TV personality who also owned a Lake District Hotel famed for its food. I’d been assigned a case with an interesting and contentious legal point. There were, and I assume still are, very stringent, even draconian Health and Fire Safety regulations, about accommodation provided to Hotel staff. Our client had been summonsed in front of the Magistrate’s Court over the application of such regulations to another building, in a different part of Windermere, maintained for external staff accommodation.
Our client was disputing the applicability of the regulations to a property not physically attached to the Hotel: it was absurd to apply them to a distant building. My legal research suggested that the regulations were intended to be so draconian that they applied to external property, but we had taken Counsel’s Opinion, and were fighting the case. It was to be heard on Friday morning, at Windermere Magistrates Court, and I was to attend to sit behind our Barrister.
The problem was, this was taking place in January, and the Lakes were getting very badly hit for snow. I was to drive up on Friday morning, visit the Hotel first, then collect the Barrister from the Railway station and drive him to the Court. The owner would not be attending and the Hotel was to be represented by the Manager.
(Though it’s not relevant to this story, the outcome was that the Court found against our client. He was furious and we looked into an appeal, but I left the firm before learning the outcome of this. However, during once conference with the senior Partners, who were unhappy at the Barrister’s failure, I had the temporary pleasure of asking them to shut up whilst I re-read and got my head round a particular provision in the regulations, and came to the conclusion – which they eagerly supported – that our Barrister had misinterpreted and got 180 degrees wrong. They were talking of suing him for negligence, which you can’t really do with Barristers…)
I was looking forward to an extra visit to Cumbria, even if it was only Windermere. On the other hand, I was a bit cautious of the weather. The first sign came on the Thursday. I called the manager to confirm the following day’s arrangements. I asked him about the snow. I clearly remember his reply. “Well, I got in today without any problems,” he said, “but then I do have skis.” That did wonders for my confidence.
But Friday was clear and fine, in Manchester at least, and all the way north up the M61/M6, as far as Kendal, that is and the turning for Windermere. I had not gotten very far beyond the bypass before the snow started piling up in increasing piles. The foothills around the lower ends of Kentmere and Troutbeck were white, as were the higher fells visible in the interior, but the snow had been efficiently been swept to the verges. Where it was worryingly thick.
Carefully following my directions, I drove through Windermere to the mini-roundabout at the foot of Kirkstone Pass, turned back on the Bowness Road and then into the street where the Hotel was situated. It was a bit slushy, but nothing like the Hotel drive, up which I drove very cagily.
I’d allowed plenty of time, more than had proved necessary, so after being introduced to the manager and getting directions from him to the Magistrate’s Court, I backed out again, very carefully, and headed back to meet our Barrister at the station.
The Magistrate’s Court (which has been shut for years) was a big, detached building on the left side of the main road down from Windermere to Bowness Bay. Our Barrister wanted to get some things before the hearing so I drove him down to the edge of Bowness Village, the first shops, paid a token visit to a bookshop whilst waiting, and then found a parking place more or less opposite the Court.
I won’t bother you with proceedings within which, in any rate, would probably breach client confidentiality. The Court was a big, wide open, old-fashioned building, practically two-storeys high, with a skylight letting on to the mid-morning sky. I mention this in particular because once Court started, we sat there whilst the minor stuff was dealt with and then got on about 10.45.
About fifteen minutes later, I chanced to look up. There were big, swirling, ominous snowflakes falling onto the skylight. They didn’t cease for the rest of the morning.
So I’m trying to concentrate on the legal arguments, so that I can keep comprehensive and preferable accurate notes whilst every 45 – 90 seconds looking up nervously, trying to work out from that little rectangle of sky just how high it might be piled up outside.
The road was still clear when we emerged defeated, but the sky was iron and the snow was showing no signs of even easing off. I delivered our Barrister to the station to make his way back to Manchester and returned to the Hotel – which was even less firm under my wheels – to report back to the Manager.
I was raring to get going, before things got worse and I found myself up the Lakes without a paddle, but I’d been promised a lunch by the Hotel, not to mention the chance to get out of my suit and into comfortable clothes, as I was not expected to be back to the office that day. And even though I could have been back there for about 4.00pm without making any undue effort at it, I had no intention of returning to the office this side of the weekend.
The lunch was not typical of the Hotel’s justly famed cuisine, being a simple steak and kidney pie, but it was a really tasty steak and kidney, with gloriously flaky pastry and loads of gravy, but, what was more important at that moment, it was hot.
Still, I did not linger over it, and as soon as I was decently able, and sent on my way with an equally hot cup of coffee, I was out of there.
Of course, I needed to communicate the result to the office so, having had to take a wide circle round through Bowness again, just to get safely away from the Hotel, I stopped off at a public telephone box (this was prior to the age of my having a mobile phone) and rung Manchester.
To my secret delight, neither of our Senior Partners were available. In fact, there was a general shortage of people available to take a call, so I ended up speaking to another of our Partners who had nothing to do with the case, to pass on the outcome and confirm that I would deliver a full report on Monday. And, with the streets starting to get worryingly slushy, I settled thankfully into my driving seat, and headed for the Kendal road and the rapidly diminishing risk of being stuck up there.
I love the Lakes, and they look gorgeous under snow, but I have never rushed away from them with such eagerness. If I’m going to be staying there in conditions like that, it’ll going to be under my terms, not the weather’s. I got in alright, but then I do have skis: no thanks!
One of the running themes in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, especially those set in or around Ankh-Morpork, is that what most people mostly want is that tomorrow should be roughly similar to today. We respond to that with a wry smile because we recognise its essential truth.
For many years, I lived my life expecting that its parameters would continue to apply forever. My career, the income I made from it, the interests I pursued in my leisure time, these would, with the inevitable, minor changes brought about by the passing years, stay the same.
The Lake District, its fells and mountains, lakes and tarns, it’s lonely, high paths and ridges, would always be there for me. Yes, a day would come, in some unimaginable future that had no bearing upon me as yet, when increasing age would reduce stamina, flexibility, strength. Some walks, some scrambling would become progressively untenable. Scafell Pike from Seathwaite, ascending by Taylorgill Force, the Corridor Router and Lingmell, descending by the subsidiary Pikes, Great End, Esk Hause and Grains Gill, would one day become too much for me to manage, even if I tackled it without first driving up from Manchester.
But if certain walks would move beyond me, others would remain. The fells would always be there. They are still. The high and lonely places remain, though the loneliness diminishes each year. They are there for me, but I am not there for them
I never imagined a time might come when I would be exiled from the fells. That my life would change in unexpected ways that broke down almost every aspect of that same-every-day life I used to live. That my ultimately smug assumption that I could always escape into the hills would one day become nothing but a mocking memory.
My health has changed. I have an arthritic right knee and hip, the latter kept under mostly-pain free control by medication but the former a constant irritation. There are other medical matters, controlled by an array of medication. But given the opportunity to exercise, to retrain myself to a greater walking fitness, given time, I would not, I fancy, disgrace my past too outrageously.
But the fells may be there, but I cannot be. I do not have a car, and I do not have the means to acquire one or run it if I did. Drew Whitworth may be on a second round of climbing not only all the Pictorial Guide Wainwrights, but also all the Outlying Fells, but he’s a bit younger and a lot fitter and, at the end of the day, less strapped for cash: he shows it can be done, but not everyone can emulate him.
It’s hard to say this without it coming over like a whine. Trust me, I can whine if the circumstances require it, but I try to limit the whining until I’m alone and I can feel thoroughly sorry for myself. But even then, I’m far too conscious that too much of my present, and persistent circumstances are my own responsibility. I am where I am through my own fault, I accept my blame.
At the moment, I can afford occasional train trips to the Lakes, without overnight stays. That means I can get to Windermere, for Ambleside and even Grasmere, or Penrith, which is almost twice as much in train fare and requiring another hour on the bus if I want to penetrate as far as Keswick.
Several years ago, I calculated that it is possible to leave Manchester at not too outrageous an hour in the morning, and by changing trains and using the Ratty of beloved memory, I could spend a couple of hours in Eskdale, enough time to walk to Boot and the waterfalls of the Whillan Beck before I have to begin the carefully-planned journey home.
I haven’t checked in recent years to see in the logistics hold up but I never followed through on this plan because it wanted a fellow-traveller, someone preferably female and sympathetic, to enjoy the day alongside me. Which set up another and different kind of problem.
But without a car, without transport of my own, to go when and where I wish, without fear of train-times back, the list of places in the Lakes that I cannot see is horrible to contemplate. Wasdale, Great Gable, Ennerdale, Pillar, the Buttermere Valley, High Stile and Haystacks, Back o’Skiddaw. Perhaps from Penrith, I can get to Pooley Bridge, maybe take the round trip on the Ullswater steamer, but Mardale and Haweswater…
It’s one thing to accept that my knee and hip might restrict my ability to get out onto the fells, to remind myself of a world I used to assume was mine by right, and the authority of a pair of good boots, but without making myself independently mobile, I cannot even see the majority of those places that used to be so familiar.
What’s left is imagination and memory. I’ve told most of the good stories of walks past, here on this blog. But that doesn’t deny me the ability to take myself back in thoughts and words. I have a series on Imaginary Albums on here: maybe I should start to write about Imaginary Holidays as well…
The post-Wainwright period proved to be considerably shorter than the years of steadily accumulating summits in pursuit of completion. Part of it was a shift in work commitments, reducing the opportunities to get away, a lot of it was the unexpected joining of my life to someone else’s, and more or less ending the ability to go off on my own whenever I felt like it, because I no longer felt like it. And some of it was that the drive that had kept me focused on the ‘prize’ was no longer the same, because I had been there.
At first, I concentrated upon places I hadn’t been in literally years. It had taken me twenty-six years to visit each of the 214 Wainwright’s, but with some judicious choices of routes, I managed to achieve the proud record of having stood at the summit of every one within the previous ten years, and to keep that status up for about eight months before my other commitments started to cause my record to slide.
Looking back now, it amazes me that I hadn’t swept up that small handful of fells I’d only climbed in adverse weather conditions. True, High Stile, and to a lesser extent Seat Sandal were relatively recent, but Sale Fell and Dodd would have been ideal for family expeditions, once I had one, especially as the latter had had its summit stripped entirely of trees since my visit in the rain.
I’d climbed Causey Pike in the early Eighties, one of my first expeditions when I ventured into the fells on my own, and my first ever walk in the North Western Fells. It had been a dull day, a little cold, and I had returned via the inner wall of Coledale, catching the rain at the end of things.
This time, a sunny Saturday of driving up from Manchester in the grand tradition of things, I was planning a somewhat artificial walk: Causey Pike and Scar Crags to Sail Pass, but returning by a sideways slip onto the parallel Knott Rigg/Ard Crags ridge, that I’d also climbed in the Eighties, on that occasion by following the Newlands road to gain the former fell at Keskadale Farm.
This meant a road walk of about half a mile between the start and end of the walk so for once I played smart and tucked my car into a small roadside quarry at the foot of Rigg Beck, where my route of return would debouch, and walked round the base of Causey to start. There was an offroad path, above the tarmac, for most of the way, making the stroll rather pleasant.
I remember those fresh Saturday mornings, the difference in the air from Manchester, the knowledge that I had no responsibilities to anyone, except to get myself back safe and sound, and on the walk ahead I had no fears of difficult situations. All that I had to do was to enjoy myself.
Naturally, I was taking the same approach, by Rowling End. The first time round, it was a test of ability: I was still a novice walker, inexperienced at walking alone, my background that of family caution, the easy, unexciting option, the dull way up.
This time I was without trepidation. I’d done it before, and I had much more serious climbs under my belt. So I ploughed merrily onwards, surprised to find the walk that less enthralling when I knew it to be so much more feasible. Instead, I had the amusement of realising that I could look down into the little quarry where my car was parked, and keep an eye on its safety even as far as Causey’s summit.
Though what good it could possible have done me if I’d been witness to a theft from 2,000 foot above it, I have no idea.
I was at least bolder this time in making a direct attack on Causey’s highest point, the bobble at the very top of the ridge. I’d chickened out originally, casting to the right to find a way around and up, but now I scrambled like the best of them, up and over and there to the top.
Beyond the serpentine end of Causey Pike’s extended summit ridge, there’s nothing remotely exciting all the way to and over Scar Crags. It is nothing more than a whaleback top, a broad ridge, a bridge between more exciting fells at either end, and when you’re casting Sail as a more exciting fell, you know that the bar has fallen very far.
This was long enough ago that the path remained untouched. I have now seen horrifying and ugly photos of reconstructed paths on Scar Crags’ back, elevated causeways sweeping backwards and forwards in curves that elsewhere might be entitled to be called graceful but which, on the back of an honest Lakeland fell, are hideous in their excess. Surely the ground beneath cannot have been so badly damaged that this was necessary?
I hadn’t stopped first time because I’d had the clouds threatening just behind me, and I wasted no more time this time because there simply wasn’t anything to stop for, like Brim Fell in the Conistons. So it was down, easily, to the unofficial Sail Pass, and a change of direction.
Twice from here I’d turned back east, to return to Newlands, but this time I took the opposite branch, descending at a gentle and grassy angle onto a quiet and attractive space between the two ridges. It was too broad and grassy to be a defile, too wide to be a col or a pass. It was just a valley head with valleys and backs leaving it in opposite directions, under the twin walls of Sail behind me, and the Knott Rigg/Ard Crags ridge before me.
As I’ve mentioned, I am not and never have been a camper, but once more I could imagine pitching a tent in this place, to one side of the path, and waking in the early morning to the sun pouring down.
There was no orthodox path across the divide. I took a line on an outcrop along the ridge towards the hidden Knott Rigg, and started towards it, at an angle across the fellside that, as far as I could mange it, would involve only incremental climbing at worst, as the skyline dropped down to greet me. Once I reached the ridge, there was nothing but an easy forward and upward walk to Knott Rigg.
All the hard walking was behind me now, left behind at Causey Pike’s summit. I strolled to Knott Rigg, admired the view, reversed my steps to where I had joined the ridge, and strolled on. Ard Crags is smaller, with neater lines, and the path wound up following the crest in a tight little groove. The well-defined top offered excellent views across Newlands, and there was an even better ridge ahead, first descending to, then following the crest of Aiken Knott, a walk of glorious openness.
Ideally, this ridge would persist to the very end, but a fence crossing the ridge from side to side forces a surprisingly long descent towards Rigg Beck, on the left, crossing a flank that, after the delights of most of the walking so far, seemed surprisingly drab.
There’s a path on the other side of the beck, wide and easy, making for an unstrenuous end to the walk. The first time I followed this down, I kept turning around to gauge the view back to Ard Crags, looking for that shot which Wainwright had used for the opening page of his chapter, where Ard Crags appears in isolation, as a triple-topped pyramid. This time I knew that, with typical irony, the view is only a hundred yards or so upstream from the car park, and can be viewed with unfair ease after a stroll in open-toed sandals, or even flip-flops.
Despite having been out of my sight for the last two-thirds of the walk, my car remained untouched, and I was my usual assiduous self about getting into trainers again, even though this had been far from a punishing, or even tiring day.