What I did instead of celebrating my Girlfriend’s Birthday


Barf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bishop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cloud and Isolation in the Western Margins


Some places in the Lakes are simply not easy to get to. Most of the main valleys have roads of some kind or another in which the walker who doesn’t want to spend hours tramping the roads can get to within reach of the fells, the major example of which being Ennerdale, which has been out of bounds to non-Forestry Commission traffic for decades.

In more recent times, lovely, remote Swindale has been made access only, thankfully after I had enjoyed the ascent of the only Wainwright that can only be directly approached from its distant valley head.

Grisedale is another valley that has long been denied access for the tourist driver, but the road only extended a mile into the valley before the ways took to the fellsides, and if you can’t manage a walk of a mile on the way to the fells, you should hang up your boots in shame.

Some fells, however, are just a long way away, even in such a compact area as the Lakes. But if you consider the geography in the west, in that green and grassy domain I call the Western Margins, the valleys spread particularly widely towards the sea, and there are silent and empty hinterlands that make access from the coastal side a long and slow business. And don’t forget Blengdale.

Working towards the end of the Wainwrights, I had to find a way of getting to Haycock and Caw Fell.

Their relative inaccessibility had been obvious to me for years, having been reading the books since the early Seventies, long before the mad ambition to climb them all had ever come into my head. Wainwright himself had picked out Caw Fell as a long distance trod, six miles there from the Cold Fell Road, and six miles back. This still came over as intimidating, even when I had demonstrated the ability to cover longer distances, over rougher and much more interesting ground without collapsing in my tracks.

I’d even walked the first part of that approach, on another day n the Western Margins, Grike round to Lank Rigg, and it didn’t looked remotely difficult underfoot, and yet Wainwright made it feel like a major expedition into extremely lonely and isolated country, just waiting to trip you up.

And it wasn’t as if the ‘shorter’ approach, from Ennerdale, looked in the least bit appealing.

If it were to be done, it looked as if it would have to be done from Haycock and back. And that looked as if it would be best done from Wasdale, via Nether Beck.

This was something of an unusual walk for me. I was unfamiliar with Nether Beck, except for the fact that it and Over Beck debouched into Wastwater in a very short space. Most expeditions involved a fairly immediate climb into the hills, up some sort of ridge aimed for my first fell of the day, but Nether Beck, as emphasised in the long, thin map extension in the Haycock chapter, had little to do with Haycock. I would be starting along a narrow, confined beck valley, with a long way to walk before I even came near to, let alone saw my first target of the day.

Nevertheless, this made the early walking quite easy. The path was distinct, the valley mostly straight, and whilst I didn’t gain much in height, I was swallowing up distance easily. Though I did have some concerns about the cloud line, which was showing signs of hovering on or about the ridge. There was little to show me where I was, the valley being quite enclosed, and any view back to Wasdale soon hidden by the curve of the valley.

At Pots of Ashness, where the valley took another turn, I has the choice of a steepish ascent to the flatlands above and approach haycock directly, or to take the more roundabout route, further up the valley, to gain the ridge at the col between the fell and Scoat Fell, further east.

Being in no rush, I took that route, which began to steepen after the outflow from Scoat Tarn. I kept looking out to my right, hoping to catch a glimpse of the tarn in its bowl, but never gained enough height to see it.

The clouds were threatening above and, by the time I got to the col, the last twenty feet or so had been within their folds.

No matter how experienced I got, I never liked walking in clouds. I never escaped the underlying fear of not being able to see where I was, and potentially falling down a cliff, but even in areas of clear tracks and guaranteed easy route-finding, I always felt enclosed, hemmed in. I walked to be out in the open, up in the hills, to see ahead and behind and all round, and in cloud on the tops, I lost the sense of being on the tops. The cloud was a ceiling above me, pressing down.

Nevertheless, the cloud had drifted clear once I reached the summit, and I had the uninterrupted view that I wanted. Despite its height, Haycock’s distance from the surrounding valleys means it doesn’t offer the greatest views, except over Blengdale which, paradoxically, was the main thing I wanted to see.

After my Dad died in 1970, I inherited his membership of the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway Preservation Society. His dad was born in Ravenglass, the youngest child of the Station Master on the main line, and in the early Seventies, our name was still recognised in the Village. We never let a holiday go by without a trip on the Ratty.

The River Mite had been added to the Rivers Irt and Esk as the Ratty’s third steam engine, and in the early Seventies, there was talk of building another engine. It was suggested that, in order to fit in with the other engines, any new train be named the River Bleng. I’d never heard of this river before, and on asking discovered it to be a tributary of the Irt. Reading the Western Fells identified its whereabouts to me, and its valley’s size and reputation. It had remained a point of curiosity to me ever since, but I had never been anywhere before from which I could see Blengdale for myself, until now.

I was both impressed and seriously unimpressed. Haycock was the ideal viewpoint, standing at the very head of the valley, which was broad and green. But my instant response, which I can reproduce more or less verbatim was “my God, what flaming idiot let the Forestry Commission into Ennerdale when this bloody useless waste of space was available?”

There is a Blengdale Forest much further down the valley, and which has a surprisingly favourable reputation, especially among cyclists, but I defy anyone to look upon the open, empty, featureless spaces of the long upper valley, fill it in their imagination with dark, dank straight lines of trees, regimented across the valley and not conclude that it looks so much better like that.

I was now as close to Caw Fell as I was ever going to get in normal circumstances, and especially when I was still working towards completion of the Wainwrights. The traverse was a mile each way, an inescapable there-and-back-again, and especially after the initial steep descent on rough ground, the walk deteriorated with every step. I pulled myself up onto the flat top of Caw Fell, wandering along in parallel to the fence, but the actual highest point was as impossible to determine without military-grade surveillance equipment as it is on Branstree.

Strangely, the view from caw Fell, circumscribed as it was by the breadth of the summit, was more memorable than that from Haycock. I could see how the ridge declining towards the Western Margins turned abruptly north after Caw Fell’s top, rising over the equally ungainly Iron Crag, whilst behind me the highlight of the view was of Haycock itself.

It was a fortunate trick of geography that Caw Fell’s top was situated at that point where perspective makes the fells look their grandest. Haycock soared, a massive dome, raised above the head of the valley, it’s summit wreathed again in clouds, preventing me from taking the photograph I wanted. Seen from that angle, Haycock was noble and grand, and looked a damn sight higher than in reality it was.

The cloud was now lower and thicker than before, and I had to go back that way to return to Nether Beck. I contemplated contouring around the head of Blengdale, keeping below the cloud-line, and below any of the crags. But there were no tracks and whilst the ground looked to be without difficulties from afar, I knew from past experience how wearing it was to traverse angled ground for any length of time. And having the emptiness of Blengdale for company did little to recommend it.

In the end, I climbed back up to Haycock, though I found that I could bypass the summit rocks and skirt round to the long descent towards Pots of Ashness and the damp looking plateau between Haycock and Seatallan.

The latter had actually been part of my initial plans for the day, thinking to sweep up three relatively unprepossessing fells in a single walk. However, on looking across towards the long ascent necessary to reach Seatallan, I have changed my mind. My rule of thumb is that if a ridge route involves 500′ of additional climbing, it should be classed as a separate ascent, and factored accordingly.

Omitting it today actually worked to my advantage. It was not all that long after that, in conversation with a fellow walker, he asked which Wainwright I was saving for last. I hadn’t even considered that before but a short review of the two dozen or so remaining made it clear that, for purely personal reasons, Seatallan would be the ideal choice.

Descending towards the flat (and wet-)lands, with the long and tedious rise of Seatallan beyond confirmed the wisdom of omitting that part of the walk. At that time of the day, setting out on a 700′ ascent was the opposite of wisdom.

There were no paths across the wetlands, but I had picked out the point where I would need to descend to Nether Beck and kept that in sight once I was down to the level. Crossing between the streams and rivulets was slow-going but without problems.

And then it was down the steep slopes to the beck, and the narrow path down the narrow valley, reversing the sights I’d seen behind me in the morning. Once again, I was in confined quarters, and it was just a retreat, with the car and getting my boots off as the goal.

It was a strange day, in a part of the Lakes which held no intrinsic appeal to me, yet despite the interference of the cloud it was a very satisfying and memorable day. Caw Fell in particular was very strange to visit, the sense of being so very far away from anybody else, and that gently curved but flat top on which, despite the nearby wall, I felt a tremendous sense of exposure, as if I were at risk of being swept to the edge of the top and over it and down.

Needless to say, I’d love to repeat that walk, and see if the same sensations affect me.

Third Generation Wainwright – Second Opinion


Whilst in Ambleside, back in November, I discovered that the second of Wainwright’s Pictorial Guides had just been reissued in its Third Edition, as revised by Clive Hutchby. I bought it after a chat with the bookshop owner, in which I expounded on the views I’d formed about the first such book. The owner confirmed that that was how Hutchby came over in person.

I decided to postpone reading The Far Eastern Fells until Xmas, but the day has been and gone, I’ve read through the book, and it seemed appropriate to give a Second Opinion about how Hutchby is handling his set task. Especially as The Central Fells is on its way as early as the first week in March 2016.

Second Opinions are usually a reassessment, a re-ordering of perceptions. This Second Opinion is not. It is exactly the same as my First Opinion, only worse.

I am taking on trust the accuracy of Hutchby’s amendments, which is the sole positive aspect of this book. It is everything else about this Revision that I loathe.

I previously mentioned the way that Hutchby’s version is being presented not as the Third Edition, but as the Walkers Edition. The more I see that, the angrier I get about it. It’s a shitty claim, combining within it the suggestion that it’s taken until now, and Clive Hutchby, to get it properly right, and openly demeaning Wainwright himself by the blatant implication that his original version was somehow not for Walkers.

It’s a touch of arrogance that allows Hutchby to inflate himself at the expense of someone far more talented than himself, and far far more original. It’s a far cry from Chris Jesty’s respectful sublimation of himself into the refreshing of the work of someone he never once pretended to even equal.

I admit to never having been entirely happy with the stylistic changes made for Jesty’s Second Edition, which moved the series a few steps away from Wainwright’s classic simplicity. The use of red lines and dots to indicate paths and routes I always regarded dubiously.

Hutchby’s Edition takes this several steps further, making the red lines deeper, darker and more prominent. This has the unwelcome effect of dominating the page: the eye is drawn to the red, especially on pages where Hutchby has to accommodate a profusion of alternative paths in small areas, and the dominating colour obscures the rest of the page.

Instead of a well-balanced, clear map or image in which all the elements are of equal importance, the red lines impose a cage effect upon the page: everything else is behind bars that cross before the eyes.

It only serves to exacerbate the effect of so many fussy, overstuffed pages. Wainwright, though completely untrained, had an immense natural skill at composition. His primary concern was, at all times, clarity, and he kept his pages simple and clear. Hutchby, in contrast, is eager to cram more, ever more in to every page.

To some extent, that’s inevitable. The Far Eastern Fells comes over sixty years after its original, and amongst the many changes it has to encompass is the appearance of multitudes of paths where once Wainwright only indicated a trackless route. Many pages are busier because the ground Hutchby has to present is busier, and he cannot be blamed for a sometimes cramped response.

But Hutchby’s instincts are to cram in even more information, to overload pages that are already in danger of losing any focus. Worse, to achieve his ends he will play about with entire chapters, shifting images and paragraphs from one page to the next, shrinking the space for the elements to breathe and cramping everything up.

In at least one instance, to achieve this Hutchby has had the main image on the first page of a ‘chapter’ shrunk by half an inch in depth, in order to stuff other things in.

The more I look at The Far Eastern Fells, the more despairing I get. It appears that the obvious solution to the necessity to add material, namely, adding extra pages, has either been overlooked, or else rejected, be it in the interests of cost, or thickness or other reason. But the effect is clunky and unlovely.

I cannot enjoy these editions. What was so great about the original Wainwright Guides was that as well as being a clear, concise and utterly practical guide to the Lake District fells, they were simultaneously a work of art. They were only ever intended to be the first of these. The second aspect arose naturally, out of the hand and eye of Alfred Wainwright.

Chris Jesty revised the Guides out of love and respect, intent on every page in reflecting Wainwright and not supplanting him. Clive Hutchby appears to be out to do his own version, replacing Wainwright wherever there’s the merest crack into which he can insert something clearly superior. And Frances Lincoln Publishers, in the absence of their founder, are collaborating in the junking of something beyond the collective ability of all of them to achieve.