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.
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…
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.
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…)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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’.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
I haven’t been everywhere in the Lakes, not when it comes to walking. I have climbed each one of the 214 Wainwrights, but there are paths I never followed and features I’ve never seen close to. First among these has got to be Jack’s Rake, on Pavey Ark, a climb I would never consider attempting until I had completed all the Wainwrights for, like the Blessed himself, a broken leg (or worse) would have meant a broken heart.
Once I had ticked off my final summit, I had an unexpectedly truncated walking career ahead of me, and now I will never get up Jack’s Rake safely at all, any more than I could climb the North Face of the Eiger.
Which leaves only one candidate for the title of the most intense place I ever found myself in. Forget Striding Edge, forget Lord’s Rake, forget even that stupid steep descent off Brim Fell direct from Low Water. There was only one candidate, and that was Sharp Edge on Blencathra.
It was a Big Walk, that last day of the holiday tradition, and not the first time I’d set out to climb Blencathra from the east as the climax to a week away. The first one had been planned as an ascent of Bowscale Fell along its ridge, and transferring to Blencathra via Bannerdale Crags, but low cloud on my ultimate destination put that out of consideration, and I returned via the Mousthwaite Col, and little Souther Fell, showing no signs of any armies, phantom or otherwise.
This time, I wasn’t coming in from so far away. I parked in a layby on the Keswick-Penrith road, struggled across the field separating that from the old, pre-highway road, and started towards Mousthwaite Comb. The path spirals gently around this deep, curving basin in the side of the fell, it’s every step visible from the ground below. It looks like a natural to ascend, a rising route gaining height effortless, but its not quite that underfoot. I don’t mean the odd place where the path was damp underfoot, or where there was greenery to round, but of the angle of ascent, which seemed awkward and was tiring underfoot. I was unexpectedly glad to emerge into clear space at the Mousthwaite Col.
I descended from the Col to follow the well-marked path alongside the young Glenderamackin. Foule Crag loomed impressively ahead, growing more striking the closer I got to the branch path into the bowl holding Scales Tarn. I scrambled up beside the beck, which was broad and full.
But though Foule Crag had been riding proud and high throughout the walk to this point, weather conditions were changing. Cloud was gathering, and it was starting to blur the summit. It was getting colder, and a bit windier, even down by the outlet of the tarn, and I was eyeing the next stage of the walk, and the reason I’d decided to come via this route than any other: Sharp Edge.
From below, by the Tarn, it doesn’t look so fearsome, but I had read that page of Wainwright hundreds of times down the years and knew, so far as it is possible to know by reading, what was coming up. With the skyline deteriorated, I could have avoided it by going round the Tarn the other way and ascending the innocuous Scales Fell, but as I’ve mentioned previously, I am a stubborn little bugger and wasn’t prepared to back down this soon.
So I headed up to the right, scaling the skyline, and turned towards the Edge. The cloud was accumulating, and the day getting darker, which was doing nothing for my spirits, but I went on cautiously, until I started along Sharp Edge itself. The path was distinct and clear. It was not for dancing along with gay abandon, but there was nothing to it that care and attention couldn’t manage. There was a cheat path well below the crest, on my right, avoiding any part of the ridge, which I ignored.
It’s all about the Bad Spot, isn’t it? Without that, Sharp Edge is just Striding Edge redux. And you can read all you like about the Bad Spot but words can’t describe it and you’ll never see it as it is until you get there, because no-one who is in a position to take photos or films that give you a true idea will ever be so criminally asinine as to try to take photos or film because anyone with minimal safety skills will be employing them to stay alive.
The Bad Spot starts when the path below the crest turns inwards, on naked rock, until it terminates as a ledge above a very narrow arete.
I’ve long been impressed by the mind’s ability to compress complex calculations as to velocity, direction, force, momentum and gravity into fractions of a second. Sportsmen and women at all levels do it constantly. Even I, on the cricket field, have done it several times: within an instant I have determined where a ball struck will go, what angle I have to move, at what speed and where to have my hands in order to catch it, all with a higher degree of accuracy than if I were to be equipped with the most sophisticated of measuring and computing equipment and hours in which to work.
Much the same happened as soon as I stepped out onto that ledge. My eyes took in the scene in a flash and calculated all the aspects, especially the most important of them all, which was that if I didn’t do this now, this instant, no delay, I would never do it at all. Even as much as two seconds thinking time would have been fatal: my nerve would have failed me irretrievably.
So I sat down, my legs dangling above the arete. Obviously, I wasn’t in a position to make any measurements, but I am pretty sure that those six foot tall or better had an unfair advantage in that they could rest their boots on the rock, whilst the 5′, 10″ers among us had to shuffle their bottoms off the ledge, gripping it with both hands, and trust their luck to land on the arete .
Opposite me, at the far end of this section, was an identical ledge of pretty much the same height. All I had to do was cross to it. All crossing to it required was one step in the midle of the arete, supported only by my boot, which would have to be placed with perfect balance on a rib of rock approximately half its width, surrounded on both sides by what my peripheral vision suggested were drops of at least two hundred feet, which I was not viewing with anything but my peripheral vision because the only thing I was staring at was that exact spot my boot would go. And I was concentrating on hitting that spot with perfect balance and staying there for a space of time unmeasurable (I had not, at this time, heard of picaseconds but I intuited picaseconds) before my other foot landed at the far end of that arete, my hands grasped the ledge and, with a demonstration of upper body strength that would have amazed anyone I’d been at school with, hauled myself up, shifted round and shuffled on my bottom far enough round the corner to put steep drops out of sight. And there, with my heart pounding and my legs wobbling, I sat and quivered.
Subjective time and objective time were not on speaking terms during this period, but it must have been a good five minutes by any functioning watch before my heartbeat diminished to normal, and my legs started to feel capable of supporting my weight again. I got up and moved on.
On, unfortunately, equated to about fifty feet of ascent before I came to the next obstacle. This was a broken, ridged area, stretching above, clearly requiring at least minimal scrambling to proceed. And at the same time, I had reached the cloud base.
This had descended to cover the peak, and I could only see some fifteen to twenty feet at most in front of me. I had no means of assessing just how difficult this next stretch would be: whether what I could see was representative of the next bit, or whether it got worse ahead, out of sight. And with Sharp Edge’s Bad Spot being so close behind, and the experience of risking a potentially fatal fall so fresh in my mind and elsewhere, I dithered.
To put it plainly, I was screwed. My bottle had gone, and I was dismally aware that there was no possibility of my going back over Sharp Edge today. I was way past the two seconds thinking mark, and couldn’t do it. But I also couldn’t go on, not like this, not knowing to a higher degree than I had previously needed, that it was safe.
I’ve mentioned from time to time incidents where luck had been on my side, and now it happened again, when it was sorely needed.
Earlier in the walk, between the Mousthwaite Col and the Scales Tarn turn-off, I’d passed a couple of blokes. I can’t remember how I knew or realised this but one of them was a professional guide, the first and only one I ever saw in the Lakes. They were heading my way and now, when I was dithering, they caught up to me.
The Guide quickly realised my mental state and, without a word, took me over as much as his paying client. He was gentle and reassuring and there was, in the end, nothing dangerous or even outside of my capacity in that section ahead, but he navigated me up it and restored my confidence in myself. I am still grateful to him.
I went on on my own. The cloud was down all around me and I would not be able to see anything, but the path was clear, and I angled round and up to the summit cairn, Hall’s Fell Top. I knew the cairn was close to the top of the ascent via Hall’s Fell and Narrow Edge, so I wandered only very cautiously in that direction. A brief swirl in the clouds allowed me a glimpse of green below, beyond the A66, but nothing else.
There is never much point in hanging around a cloud-shrouded summit, and besides I always was a bit of a restless walker, quick to move on. Whilst I was here, I intended to visit Atkinson Pike, the back end of the Saddleback that, when I was young, Blencathra had been saddled with (one of the many things for which Alfred Wainwright can be blessed is rescuing that name from oblivion). I passed the White Cross on the way, found the peak and retreated to descend to its right and behind it.
I found my way back under the cloud line, on a descending path whose only difficulty was a mild steepness. Below lay the rounded hummock of Mungrisdale Common, which I also intended to visit, because I had to visit it sometime, and was going to do on this walk, despite the absurd discrepancy in levels of satisfaction to be had from the two tops.
Top, as everyone who has been there knows, is a misleading word to use about Mungrisdale Common. I could see a thin track crossing from the Glenderamackin Col, to my right, a straight line leading with geometric precision to whatever was acceptable as a highest point. The ground was easy, and there was no reason to waste time or energy in descending to its start, so I veered left, in a wide curve, hitting the trail some good distance across the endless field.
The track ended at the ‘summit’. I looked around the void of Skiddaw Forest, the back of higher fells in each direction, except for the gap above the Glenderaterra River, over which a tiny glimpse of Derwentwater could be seen, cold and glinting. It was about all that was entertaining about the view.
I walked unhesitating back along the track, descended from the Glenderamackin Col, followed the river back to the Scales Tarn turn. Looking back, Foule Crag once again stood proud against the sky and as soon as I’d put some distance behind me, to get perspective on the view, I took the photo I’d failed to take on the ascent.
Then it was the Mousthwaite Col, and descending around that bowl, the path more interesting and easier in descent, and a final trek across the fields to the car in it’s layby. I’d climbed Blencathra, but would have to go back because I’d seen nothing, but I had crossed Sharp Edge and negotiated its Bad Spot, and I’d survived the experience. Nothing I ever did in the Lakes again would ever terrify me as much as that one split-second moment when I balanced on one boot on a narrow arete, trusting in the physical skills I was never quite sure I possessed.
I did it, and I was glad I did it. And I never tried it again.