It’s been a long time since I last gave myself the pleasure of recollecting a day out in the Lakes, at least, not one I haven’t written about before. Currently, I’m picking up the threads of a part-completed novel set in the Lake District. The place where I left the book the last time I worked on it is actually set somewhere I never actually walked. Nevertheless, there is a fell the scene’s associated with, and that’s triggered a recollection of one of my oddest days fellwalking.
Every year, from the Eighties to the Nineties, I would budget my holiday time for two weeks away, walking in the Lake District (the remainder of my allotment would be carved up by whatever days I wants for the cricket: the Roses Matches, the Old Trafford Test).
I would choose weeks in April and September, just before and just after the full-blown tourist season. These usually proved to be best for good walking conditions, and the fells were rarely so crowded that I couldn’t find convenient parking for my base for walks.
One year, for reasons I can’t remember, I managed to get enough time to go away a third week, in the last week of October. The hour hadn’t gone back so I wasn’t prejudiced by early darkness, but it was colder than I was used to, and darker overall, the skies greyer and more overcast, though not noticeably worse for cloud on tops.
I remember an excellent walk up Steel Fell from Grasmere, rounding the head of wet Greendale, all its little streams and becks backlit and looking like veins of quicksilver, before returning along Calf Crag, Gibson Knott and Helm Crag, a nice little low-level ridge round.
The next day, I moved on to Keswick. It was a dark day, the sky and the air mostly grey and overcast, though the cloudbase wasn’t actually hanging on the fells, not even Skiddaw, the cloud-magnet. There weren’t going to be any sparkling views wherever I walked, so I decided I’d repeat my visit to Latrigg.
There was no problem parking at the roadhead, where spaces abounded, and I let myself out the gate, crossed the slightly rushy region in the base of the hollow and set off up the back of the fell.
Climbing Latrigg this way is one of the dullest walks you can make. It’s literally nothing but an uphill trudge, without a glimmer of a view. You are confined between Latrigg’s sprawling slopes and the rising wall of Skiddaw behind. The only benefit of this approach, apart from conservation of time, is that the view only arrives with the last few steps. Even under that sky, it was a thing of beauty.
But once you reach Latrigg, you’ve nowhere to go but back, especially to a car at the roadhead. And it’s quicker downhill, so much so that it’s difficult to stretch the overall round trip out to an hour, and I still had much of the afternoon to go before nightfall. It was then that I hit upon a crazy idea.
With so little time used, why couldn’t I climb another fell? Another low fell, requiring not very much in time and effort? Another isolated fell upon which I wouldn’t to waste a better day? It didn’t even need to be in the same book of Wainwright.
So I set off down the Underskiddaw road without changing out of my walking boots, back to the big roundabout, and turned towards Penrith. I left the highway at the turn for Matterdale, but instead of wandering through that lovely reserved valley to Ullswater, I turned off left, onto narrow lanes and valley routes, until I pulled up at a corner and hopped out again, handily placed to start a walk up the back of Great Mell Fell.
I’ve always said that I retain memories of every fell I’ve climbed in the Lake District, but Great Mell Fell hasn’t troubled the memory banks by much. I remember that, instead of the direct and steep route from the south, where I was, I took a circular path round the west side and worked upwards gently, before using the direct route for descent. My one solid memory is disturbing three or four slightly shamefaced people, rooting around by the side of the path. They were searching for mushrooms, they told me, and one said, in pointed tones, ‘Magic mushrooms’.
Of course I’m now well aware what they meant, but back then I’d never heard of Psylocibin and, apart from guessing they were hinting at something pharmaceutically stimulating, had no idea what they were talking about. I’ve never met anyone else looking for natural highs in the Lakes, except from the scenery.
Overall, Great Mell Fell used up not much of an hour, and daylight was already checking its baggage and starting to consider moving on, but if you’re going to have to do both Mell Fells, why save the Little one for another day? I got behind the wheel, drove the short distance up onto the Hause and set off for my third fell of the afternoon.
Once more, the direct ascent from the Hause was a short and uninteresting uphill trudge, and the summit was less that two minutes walk from the ‘crest’. With a view over Ullswater, despite this being only the lowest reach, it at least offered better views that its higher neighbour, and the effort expended in ascending it was minimal (it was so easy that, two decades later, my then wife and I sent two small sons up the path on their own: they were only out of sight on the summit for five minutes, no longer and they had fun being independent).
After that, I got out of my boots, dumped them into the boot, and returned to Keswick, to contemplate what to do about an evening meal. As walking days, or half days go, it was nothing to write home about, but the weirdness of the experience of climbing three fells in the same afternoon, without any ridge routes between them, was great fun, and there are worse things to think about in these latter days.
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 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.
It’s freezing cold, cloudless and blue skies: why not slip off to the Lake District for another Imaginary Holiday.
This time, we’re definitely heading for Keswick for the start of the week, the early Sunday drive up the Penrith section of the M6, Blencathra’s profile overlooking the A656. I’ve had my return to the hotel overlooking the park, let’s update my nostalgia and rebook for two nights on good old Bridgedale, on the main street, just past the mini-roundabout.
The name of the game is to not use the same book of Wainwright twice in the same week, and to try to go to as many different areas as I can from last time. So, since I didn’t actually do any Patterdale walking last time out, let’s do that.
I’ve climbed Gowbarrow Fell a couple of times in the past, from the Hause, below Little Mell Fell. It’s a lovely, low, rural fell, of gentle gradients. The first time I did it, I parked at the Hause on a Sunday afternoon of gentle sun. There was a wide path leading directly from that spot that Wainwright didn’t mention. I strolled along it, checking my position by his map, curling round a low, green bump and picking up a path onto the summit from behind. Then I returned by the same route.
When I came back with an old friend, recently separated from her husband and children and in need of distraction, we had a Sunday out. I thought of Gowbarrow, but in the meantime, the landowner had padlocked the gate and put up signs very fiercely forbidding access. Instead, we took the car down a bit further towards Patterdale, parking near Watermillock Church.
There was a mostly level path along the flank of the fell, overlooking Ullswater, and we wandered along, chatting. There’s only been a few times since I broke with my family that I’ve gone walking with a companion, and Linda wasn’t a girlfriend (or wife). Indeed, given her current frame of mind with her husband, I was sternly warned about making a pass!
At the ruins of the former refreshment hut we sideslipped up towards the broad back of the fell, and made our way up its back, from a different angle than before.
I could choose an ascent from a direction I’ve not walked before, via Aira Force and Yew Crag, but I’m in the mood for a lazy and undemanding stroll, and the route from Watermillock Church will remind me of older times and a long friendship long broken.
So I’ll stroll along the flank of the fell, through the increasing plantations, until the route via Yew Crag joins from the left and then turn uphill, through an easy tuck, and those who have chosen to assert their rights to roam under the Countryside Rights of Way Act would arrive here over untracked ground, having passed behind the hummock of Great Meldrum, and nothing left but the easy ascent up the back of the summit.
There are three ways back: by the same route, by the farmer’s route, or the longest way round, by descending towards Dockray and following a path above the intake wall, until it reaches a quiet road leading back to just below the Hause. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t give myself so much road walking, but this quiet hinterland behind Gowbarrow Fell is beautiful, perfect for a Lazy Sunday afternoon stroll (‘ere, mustn’t grumble…), when the exercise is minimal and the atmosphere is the point of the day.
Of course, I’ve still got to get up and over the Hause. but it’s neither high, nor steep, nor far before I’m trotting downhill again. I think I’ll sit in the car with the door open and all the windows down for a while before driving off.
There should be time for another stroll, back in Keswick, though the town and down towards Derwent Water, turning into the Park and finding a little hummock from which to gaze down the lake towards the Jaws.
But let’s do some serious walking on Monday. My pursuit of the missing views kept me out of the North Western Fells, but there’s a matter I’d like to clear up just to the west of Newlands that should make for an entertaining day using the leg muscles seriously.
I finished off one holiday with an extended Newlands Round – Maiden Moor, Dale Head, Robinson, Hindscarth – in which I rather over-extended myself. I started a nasty headache, under the sun, struggling up the final slopes onto Robinson’s top, and by the time I’d circuited Little Dale to Hindscarth, I was completely drained. The long descent over Scope End was wasted on me as all my focus was on not falling over.
So let’s go back. But rather than repeat the walk, let’s just restrict it to those last two fells, for I wasn’t in the best state to take in Robinson by the time I got there. Call it a circuit of Little Dale, about which Wainwright was so negative, though it looked alright to me on the day. Ridges run in parallel from Newlands. Well supplied with barms and liquid, I’ll hunt out an offroad space close to the lane to Newlands Church, convenient for both.
Re-imagining what it’s like to go up (or down) a ridge I’ve never walked is far from easy. Studying Wainwright, or internet walking sites, or photos of the ground cannot make up for grass and rock under your boots, nor can it tell me what views I will enjoy along the way.
And which way do I walk? Surely Scope End demands ascending? It may be familiar territory, though by the time I descended it I was blurred by headache and exhaustion. But the thought of a new ridge, and one that Wainwright recommends as the best way up Robinson (as well as being anti-clockwise) is almost irresistible, and the thought of having to repeat that tedious, draining slog to the summit off the ridge from Hindscarth settles it.
There’s an easy, pedestrian route into Little Dale, and a trackless climb onto the ridge beyond High Snab Bank, but I have never been inclined to soft ways round, so once I reach the end of the road past Low High Snab, I take to the open fellside, cutting upwards steeply on a well-defined path. This is the way of the North Western Fells: short, steep ascents on grass to gain long, airy ridges, and I curve leftwards into High Snab Bank itself, where the gradient is gentle and the walking can be brisk, until I near the edge of Blea Crags.
Here are three rock steps in succession, across the path, each twenty to thirty feet in height and requiring my scrambling head to get up. I wonder what real-life exertions they’d require, but I think of Stirrup Crag and Lining Crag, and the fun I had on these, and get up them.
Above lies the meat of the ridge, following the edge of Robinson Crags, overlooking the neighbouring valley of Keskadale Beck, where care is needed with an unfenced edge. There’s a rock step on this, just below 1,800 feet, but I think I’d do what I tended to do when I could, and hove a little ‘inland’, far enough not to let my incipient vertigo turn me into a bag of nerves.
As the ground eases, the prominent cairn that suggests it’s the summit is revealed to be a third of a gentle mile off the actual, somewhat sprawling top. This time, I arrive in the same kind of sunshine but without the grinding headache that marred my visit.
It’s a fell-filled view, if the wide top shuts off valley sights, and Floutern Tarn is visible just beyond Hen Comb, but apart from the eating of those barm cakes, this isn’t a summit to inspire an extended stay. Hindscarth is the nearest thing, just across Little Dale, and once refreshed, I am back on actual trodden ground, crossing the top towards the Littledale Edge fence, and following it around east, to the choice of paths: whether to bear left and shortcut across the depression, or continue to the highest point on the ridge to Dale Head and approaching Hindscarth from behind with the benefit of being a purist.
This time, I’ll take it easy, take the ‘shortcut’, avoiding the unnecessary regaining and losing of height.
Let me imagine now that Hindscarth, reached much earlier in the afternoon than before, has other walkers in its summit. Usually, I refer my summits in solitude, when I can get them, but I had that last time, and it felt unwelcome and frightening. No necessity for conversations, perhaps, but a bit of company would restore a psychic balance.
Then off, downhill, on a clear, almost grooved path, with Newlands to the right and below. I can take my time, walk with ease and regularity, enjoy the view rather than concentrate ferociously on where my feet fall, until I cross Scope End and turn downhill, remembering how relieved I was to have gotten here safely.
At the very foot of the ridge, I have a choice: a long contour back left into the valley of Scope Beck, to cross and regain the lane past Low High Snab, or the lane ahead from Low Snab to Newlands Church and, somewhere close by, my car. I think I’ll do it the easy way.
Tuesday begins by packing the car and heading south over Dunmail Raise to lodge in Ambleside until the week ends: where to today?
I’ve already used The Eastern Fells, so how about somewhere Central? I park at somewhere like the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, in the little car park on the opposite side of the Great Langdale Road. The black wood of the Hotel stands out away from the road and behind it, Mill Gill tumbles joyously down the fellside. I know they call it Stickle Ghyll these days, but we are walking inside my head now. The sun sparkles down from above, I change into my trusty boots, tuck my walking jeans into my socks and shrug my Dad’s old rucksack onto my back.
I couldn’t begin to work out the number of times I have been up and down Mill Gill, above the New Hotel, Dungeon Ghyll. The first time goes back to the middle Sixties, when we used the path to the west of the Gill, before it was closed due to erosion, and the last would have been somewhere during the Nineties, maybe even for the original walk of which this imaginary ascent is an extended repeat.
The only highest fell in any of the Wainwright books that I never visited a second time is the Central Fells’ High Raise. Most of the available routes are from the top of Greenup Edge Pass, reached from three different valleys, but no-one wants to go up Greenup Edge if they can help it. When the time came to collect High Raise, I approached from Great Langdale and I propose to do that again.
From the New Hotel, that means crossing the beck by the footbridge to gain access to the east bank of Mill Gill. This is the route I have taken more often than I can remember, but on that last visit, knowing the congested stony stair ahead of me, I was intrigued to see a narrow path head away to the right that was not in Wainwright. Out of curiosity, I followed it.
It proved to be another path, running in parallel to the main drag, about ten yards up the hill. It was narrow and unspoiled and I was completely alone. The walking was a little easier, because the ground had not been broken by overuse, and instead of the walking in this section being a grind, I felt refreshed and cheerful.
The path’s now marked in Hutchby’s Third Edition Wainwright, and it may no longer be the quiet alternative it was when I found it for myself, nor as discrete underfoot, but that’s the route I plan to tread, away from the numbers, as Mr Weller once put it, in his youth.
Given that I’m not aiming for the Langdale Pikes in any way, it would be completely legitimate to take the short cut zigzag route to the east of Tarn Crag (not the one beneath Sergeant Man), but that would be to do myself out of the supreme purpose of climbing to Stickle Tarn: the sight of Pavey Ark rising gradually but majestically over the lip of the final channel, and providing the glorious backdrop to the Tarn itself. No amount of climbing saved can justify passing this sight by.
For High Raise, it’s necessary to follow the shore of the tarn round, paralleling the great cliff-face, and following its feeder, Bright Beck, around the end of Pavey Ark. The crossing to the North Rake on the Ark is passed, and any first time visitor here will mark where it diverges, as did I.
But we are bound for ahead. Wainwright is not impressed by the ascent after Stickle Tarn, but before too long the route drops into the channel of Bright Beck, and there is a long straight scramble beside the water. I can’t recall, but this may have been my first extended scramble, and I had a whale of a time, hauling myself along by hand and foot.
Ahead, at the top of the channel, was a strange white thing. I was climbing in either late April or early May, a bright, sunny day, but it was clear from a long way down that this was some deposit of snow, sheltered from the spring sun. When I finally got to it, the snow was extensive in depth, at least some ten feet and nearly six feet wide, and it was supported by a mass of long grasses. It looked like a natural ice igloo, that you could wriggle under, though I wasn’t about to try that, because it looked easily fatal if the damned thing collapsed on me.
Actually, the worst part of the walk was getting out of the gully on trackless grass. This brought me out into the open, onto the wide plateau that stands behind the front of the Langdale Pikes, filling the horizon from Grasmere to Langstrath. The sun was high and there was nothing left but an uphill walk to the bare top of High Raise.
In terms of the sheer extent of the flatlands, there isn’t another place in the Lakes that feels so exposed and yet so secure. The views are limited so far as valleys are concerned, but there is nothing for a long way around that overshadows High Raise and diminishes its isolation.
Sergeant Man, a rocky outcrop on the edge of High Raise’s top, is not geographically a separate fell, any more than is Pavey Ark, but on the same basis that Wainwright separated the Ark from Thunacar Knott, he divorces the Man to make it a separate destination, though it would be odd for anyone climbing either fell to ignore the other. The crossing is nothing but a downhill walk, without features, and indeed Sergeant Man is one of the very few Wainwrights about which I have no easily available mental image to call upon when I think of it.
From here, it’s a cross-country walk, downhill all the way, to the edge of the basin that contains Stickle Tarn, and that’s the way I retreated, because I was still bagging Wainwrights and I had already added all those around. But the point of these imaginary holidays is not to simply repeat what I’ve done.
So, instead of bearing off for Stickle Tarn, I shall turn my steps towards the broad ridge between Langdale and Easedale, until I reach the walkers crossroads on the moderate skyline, where the path beyond Easedale Tarn crossed the watershed. I came this way from Easedale once, gaining the ridge here aware that I was actually higher than the next summit along, Blea Rigg.
There’s nothing particularly exciting either at Blea Rigg or on the way to it, but it’s a variation on a walk done, and a change is always welcome. Blea Rigg then, and a slow stroll back, until paths start to lead down towards the Tarn, and then the short cut that doesn’t matter on the return journey, into the channel of Mill Gill, and back along the old familiar path, where twice I was headachey and sick in the same place, on the day of my O-Level results, and the day of the O-Level results two years later, when I’d already had my A-Level results.
For Wednesday, I want to head east, into the lonely country that’s as far away as Lakeland gets. This isn’t going to be an exciting walk, and neither will Thursday’s be, but there’s a thematic continuity between the two that link them. And these are places I have only been once, and thus are territory I want to revisit.
I’m planning a trip to Longsleddale, rounding from Kendal onto the Shap Road, and slipping off into that narrow road along that long, straight, unspoiled valley, as far as Sadgill. Once, there used to be a small parking space, easily filled on a busy day, but the last time I looked into Longsleddale, it looked as if this has swelled into a full-scale car park. Convenient though that would be, I’d rather I was wrong.
Walks along one ridge of a valley have the drawback of ending a long way from where they start. Revisiting Grey Crag and Tarn Crag means a long walk, either way, from the Head of Longsleddale to Sadgill, unless I want the walk to take place in a very small compass. Given the attraction of the Head of Longsleddale, I’d rather not.
This time, in the peace and quiet, I’m putting the long valley walk first. The farm lane rolls on, between drystone walls, level and straight, with the narrowing jaws of the valley and the rising packhorse track visible all the way. Up cobbled steps, where the horses hauled carts to the quarries, the steepening way into that quiet hinterland, that indefinite country where Gatescarth Pass continues to its summit, and the Mosedale valley opens up on the right, suggesting a country far removed from human habitation.
This is the way to go. Not into Mosedale itself, which on my one visit here struck me as a place where the miles are far longer than a mile and where people could disappear forever, melting into the landscape. For Tarn Crag, take the Mosedale path, with an eye to where the ascent of Branstree, left, begins alongside a mounting fence, and instead turn right, over featureless slopes, increasingly pitted with peat-bogs, through which the path threads until it reaches the lonely cairn.
There is only one site in Lakeland, as defined by Wainwright, that lies east of here, and that summit it a half hour on, at best, along a dull, damp, peaty ridge, before we reach Grey Crag.
There is no other distinction to this fell that its geographical position. It’s a flat, grassy top, with good views down into Longsleddale, but insufficient height to look at fells beyond the valley rim. Eastwards, the ground dissolves into rounded ridges, where at some point the Lake District comes to an end and indeterminate ground separates the walker who braves this isolation from the Howgill Fells, on the other side of Tebay Gorge. There is no real looking out, only the knowledge that you are looking out, out and away where nothing stirs the eye or the mind.
Descent to Longsleddale is marked by a patchy path, first west across the summit on a slow gradient to find the fence and the stile that permits progress, then a turn almost due south on a clear line descending the shallow green ridge to Great Howe, with its survey pillar off-route to the left, and its Longsleddale views, up and down. The escape off Great Howe isn’t worth risking in mist, with scarps and rock to thread through, as the ground gets steeper and the path a little less clear. But I should be able to safely get to the second stile, where wall and fence meet, and follow the wall towards the valley head until the path breaks and descends the easy gully that leaves you in the upper field. One more stile, and just the lower field to cross to the gate opposite the Sadgill parking facilities.
There was one curiosity I observed, ascending here long ago that should be clear to see in descent. Across the valley, on the flank of Shipman Knotts, I saw an intriguing path, a thing of zigzags, angles and reversals, snaking up the fellside, about halfway between the Kentmere ‘pass’ and Kentmere Pike’s Goat Crag. I instantly wanted to walk it, test it underfoot, but I couldn’t see where it went, up or down. I don’t believe so defined a route can only exist halfway up a fell, but neither Jesty nor Hutchby have teased it out, so either I suffered a sustained optical delusion or it’s a purely private farm path. This one attracts but frustrates the imagination.
From Longsleddale in the east to the furthest west. For the final day of this imaginary holiday, I’ve selected for myself a long walk, of the kind I used to reserve.
It’s long-distance in two senses, first in the drive from Ambleside to reach the starting point, on the crossing of Cold Fell, from Calder Bridge to Ennerdale Bridge, and in the walk itself, twelve miles, there and back. I’ve done longer walks, even on days when I’ve driven from Manchester first, and been returning the same day, but Wainwright warns that the miles are long on this ascent, long and empty. This is more of an endurance test than a walk for pleasure, because I intend to climb Caw Fell.
Six miles there, on the skyline south of Ennerdale, and six miles back, a long way from anywhere else. My only previous visit to Caw Fell was as an adjunct to ascending Haycock from Nether Beck, Wasdale, the nearest point involving the shortest incursion onto this unloved, wide-spreading fell.
And I’ve walked the beginning of this route, when I set out to collect the westerly group of Grike, Crag Fell and Lank Rigg, parking on the Cold Fell road and setting off along the old miner’s road through the forests. That was easy underfoot, although badly slutchy in at least one point, and if I’m going for the big one, there’s no need to waste time and effort on visiting those first two summits again.
So I can make good time over the first two to three miles of the exercise, on easy gradients that end up dipping to the bottom of the first serious rise. This is where the real walking starts.
And as with Robinson, I can’t recreate a walk never walked. I can only look at Wainwright’s map, and his contours. The dip at the end of the mine road, after passing beside Crag Fell, can’t realistically be called a col, but this is the first of two depressions to be passed as a Ridge Route from the fell. At this point, I’d be about halfway to my destination, with little or no difficulty walking to date.
From here though, I’ll be passing into the unoccupied open, the bare, grassy, unfrequented ridges that prompted me to class this region, from Nether Wasdale to the Loweswater fells, as the Western Margins. From the depression, the path starts to climb, initially quite steeply but then merely inexorably, as I start to scale Iron Crag.
The path is broad, and if it were needed, there’s a wall to the left that runs all the way to Caw Fell and beyond. It’s not a near neighbour as you grind out the ascent onto Iron Crag’s bareback top. I saw that part of the route from Caw Fell, Iron Crag running pretty much south to north, wide and empty. It looked lonely, and paradoxically something that might trigger my incipient vertigo. It’s the building roof/aircraft carrier syndrome, wide flat places with no walls or fences guarding their edges, leaving me uneasy about going over them, no matter how distant I am from anything I can fall over.
Across Iron Crag, there is another dip, a depression to cross, with streams descending westwards towards the grasslands of Whoap and Lank Rigg. Above that, the ridge is gained, and Caw Fell’s final bulk, lying on an east – west axis, the wall still the guide to the flat and exposed highest point. Where exactly that is is a matter of trusting the cairn builders: the cairn is north of the wall, which can be easily crossed to touch it. One half of the job is done.
All that remains is to return. Six miles have got me there, six more will get me back. On peak form, which is always the case in Imaginary Holidays, I’ve a couple of miles and a bit more in reserve, and a couple of thousand feet of untried, and this is not the kind of demanding walking as is involved in Scafell Pike from Seathwaite ascending via Sty Head and the Corridor Route and returning over the other two Pikes, Esk Hause and Grains Gill. Just stride out, ignore the monotony of the walking and the scenery, and who knows: by the time I’m back at the foot of the ascent to Crag Fell, I’ll have enough energy left to vary the return by traversing Crag Fell and Grike again, or maybe even Whoap and Lank Rigg.
Or maybe I’ll just maintain the purity of the only kind of walk I went out of my way to avoid, the pure There and Back Again, where every step of retreat is over the ground crossed in ascent. Back to the Cold Fell road, back to the long drive home by dying sunlight, and into Ambleside. Chicken and chips, eaten out of the paper on a bench beside the Park? It’s been a brilliant week.
On days like this, when the gulf of a day’s work I no longer believe in looms large, I dream of the Lake District. It looks like I will not be taking up a job that will interfere with my planned Patterdale Expedition.
But that will be a valley-based operation, except for the crossing of Kirkstone Pass on the bus from Windermere (and that’s going to be an experience! If it’s a double-decker, I’m going upstairs.) So let me dream of some walking experience out of Patterdale that I’ve not previously recollected here.
There aren’t that many that I haven’t written about, here and there, but one does remain that bears re-living.
After I got my late and much-lamented shiny black Volkswagen Golf, I found it easy to run up from Manchester for a day’s walking on a Saturday or Sunday, to pick up an increasing number of Wainwright’s from my decreasing list of those yet to bag. There was a simple pleasure in the ability to just be there and back in a day, with ample walking time between.
At some point, I was going to have to tackle Caudale Moor, the name Wainwright gave to the sprawling, multi-ridged, flat-top fell that buttresses Kirkstone Pass to its east. Like Caw Fell, its expanse makes it something of a long walk for, like Caw Fell, its flat top. However, unlike Caw Fell, at least it’s not isolated. That I also had its satellite fell, Hartsop Dodd, to collect pretty much determined that the approach had to be from Hartsop, although it would probably have been my best bet anyway.
I motored up on Sunday morning, Manchester to the M61/M6 and off onto the Kendal bypass, through Windermere and up through Troutbeck. Patterdale always has been one of my favourite valleys, and Ullswater my favourite lake, though I wasn’t going that far north today: just past Brothers Water and turn right along the short road to Hartsop Village,
Hartsop looks as if it lies in the bottom of the Hayeswater valley, which is the obvious route of ascent, but it also sits below Threshthwaite (‘Threshet’) Glen, which lies between Gray Crag and Hartsop Dodd, and which can only be accessed by going round the back of the village. It’s narrow, flat and secluded, and I felt as if I had entered a secret place. Hartsop remained partially visible behind but it rapidly seemed to be far away.
I was on my own, happily so on a Sunday morning in which Hartsop itself had been occupied by the beginnings of a fell race I was to cross later on. Threshthwaite Glen was dead straight and mostly flat, rising eventually into Threshthwaite Cove, a little higher, a little wider but still as empty as a Tory’s promises. The exit from this secluded place is a steep wall at the far end, visible a long way off. This is Threshthwaite Mouth, which is paradoxically better known from its other side, above the end of the Troutbeck Valley, and the long emptiness behind the mini-ridge of Troutbeck Tongue.
All the climbing was concentrated into the middle of the walk, by angled paths up the wall to Threshet Mouth, some of these lines a little soft underfoot, with increasing steepness until I came out upon the Mouth, ready for a break, and then onto Caudale Moor itself.
I had an excuse for an extended breather: almost as soon as I reached Threshet Mouth, the fell-racers came skipping and jumping down the steep rocks eastward, from Thornthwaite Crag, and racing across the short, flat col to tackle the equally steep rock westward leading up. Courteously, I placed myself off to one side of the path, letting them through until the mass had gone and I could continue in good conscience that I was not interfering with the chances of any runner.
That left me in good heart and leg muscle for pulling myself upwards on the most interesting terrain of the day. Like most such slopes, I could only see a short distance ahead and could only gauge my progress by what I could see of Thornthwaite Crag behind me, but by this time, I had developed a taste for scrambles, as long as they were not too rough, and compared to things like Stirrup Crag on Yewbarrow, this was definitely not rough.
The top of Caudale Moor lacks intrinsic interest, being a vast green plain, stretching out in all directions. The summit has multiple names, Stoney Cove Pike (the highest point) and John Bell’s banner among them, and I used Wainwright’s summit plan to ensure that I stood at all the significant points whilst I could. I’d enjoyed the solitude below, and the scramble to the top, but any summit that reminds you more of an aircraft carrier deck than a Lakeland fell does not stir you to repeat visits. Had I been younger, I might well have had time to consider a return visit, but my guess that this would be my only visit would prove to be correct.
At least it was a dry, clear afternoon, with ample time left. There were no valley views until I left the top walking north towards the ridge declining to Hartsop Dodd, which gave me the best views of the day, into Patterdale, a view that grew increasingly intimate once I was past the latter.
The walking was on grass, there was a wall for guidance and I could march or stroll as I preferred with no worries about taking my eyes off where I was placing my boots.
Once I was across the Dodd, and on my way down into the valley, I had to start paying more attention to the ground underneath my feet, as this started to slope away with increasing rapidity, to the point that, as I got lower and it all got a lot steeper, I started to get concerned about exactly how I was going to return to the valley. If the rate of descent continued to increase, I was going to be trying to walk down a vertical slope by the time I was in reach of Hartsop.
But of course it didn’t get like that, though my knees were starting to feel something of the strain, and I came off the ridge into the bottom of Threshet Glen, rejoining the path close to the valley mouth, with an easy stroll back to my parking field on the other side of the village. No fuss, no strain, just a day of sun and wind, another couple of fells taken off my diminishing list, and the return to Manchester, hoping vainly to beat the long queues that always held us up, passing the exit from the Blackpool Motorway and all the way to the M61 turn-off.
That was why I eventually worked out that Saturday walks were a better bet, without the gauntlet of people leaving Blackpool after their weekends.
One of the problems of living in a confined space like mine is that certain possessions cannot be put out for display. It’s only recently, as in, this year, that I’ve dug some of my pictures out, battered hooks into the walls, and hung them up to enjoy again.
However, wallspace is limited, and I still have more that for now have to stand stacked and unseen in the little storage cupboard.
But browsing on Amazon a few minutes ago has unlocked a thread of memory about a completely impractical purchase from a few years ago. It was one of my annual birthday week pilgrimages to the Lake District, maybe as long ago as 2013, I can’t remember. I saw a fascinating thing in the now-only-surviving bookshop in Ambleside, whose name escapes me for the moment (it’s the one opposite the street on which Zeferelli’s lies.)
I couldn’t resist buying it and bringing it home, though I had nowhere to put it, and indeed have no idea where to go to get it framed – at either a reasonable or an unreasonable price – for hanging on the wall. What was the impulse purchase? It was an A2 poster titled Tubular Fells.
Tubular Fells is the work of geographer Peter Burgess, who devised it in 2011. It’s a very simple yet wonderfully effective concept: represent the 214 Wainwright Fells as a geographical map, but to do so in the classic style of the Harry Beck London Tube map.
Ridges are represented as Tube lines, summits as stations, the lines coloured as the coloured Wainwright editions. It’s the kind of idea that seems obvious once it’s done yet it demanded individual inspiration to conceive.
Though I’ve never seen any publicity about it, Burgess’s map has sold out multiple printings. It’s available at various Lake District shops as well as online at Burgess’s website, although my online security won’t let me access the site so you’d better be cautious.
For most of the time since I bought it, Tubular Fells has been rolled up in its cardboard tube. I’m almost sure where I can lay my hands on it, and there is a stretch of wall above my bed where it might fit, so my next step is to google Picture Framers in Stockport and see if I have enough uncommitted cash to warrant getting it out of its tube. I’ll let you know when I’ve got it done.
A conversation between colleagues overheard: a team-mate has bought tickets for the musical Hamilton, for his girlfriend’ birthday, but it’s a secret he has to keep whilst she is badgering him to go, or it won’t be the surprise he intends. This has brought back a bittersweet memory of my Dad’s last Xmas, in 1969.
He’d been in and out of hospital for over a year by then, though only my mother and her elder brother knew at that point that his cancer was terminal. Dad had been the one to urge our Lake District holidays towards the fells, and who had gently managed my initial reluctance to a burgeoning enthusiasm.
During his illness, we hadn’t been able to add to the three fells we had already climbed. There were no holidays, no Lake District, not even a Bonfire Night and Fireworks that year, just some sparklers for my sister and I, properly wrapped up, to have outside the French window at the back, because the noise who have disturbed Dad.
Wainwright had completed his Pictorial Guides, and gone on to the Howgill Fells, which didn’t attract us. He’d produced The Pennine Way Companion, which did nothing for us. But he’d begun a series of Sketchbooks, intended to run to five, showcasing his beautiful and wonderfully representative pen-and-ink drawings. It would be available for December.
In my mind, it was the perfect Xmas present for Dad. He loved the Wainwrights as much as I was starting to do and I desperately wanted to give him this book for Xmas. I suggested it to Mam, but she was curiously unencouraging and vague. I brought it up a couple more times, unable to understand why this idea didn’t seem to be favoured. It was perfect, absolutely so, and I couldn’t understand why we were missing the opportunity to give him something so suited.
What ended up being my present to him, I can’t remember.
On Xmas day, at Granny and Grandad’s, the family together as we always celebrated Xmas day, I found out why they wouldn’t let me give my Dad that book as a present. I opened a hard, rectangular parcel, and found it to be Wainwright’s First Lakeland Sketchbook. I couldn’t give it Dad, because Dad and Mam were giving it me.
I’d forgotten that detail but it all comes back to me now, and whilst it was a lovely book, and I have it still, and after Dad died, I collected the other four as they appeared, the gift fell a little flat that year. I was just turned fourteen, and I wanted that book for my Dad. He could and did read it, and enjoy it as much as me, but I wanted it for him. There was never another Xmas, and though there was one more birthday, in January 1970, his 41st, I have the same no idea of what I bought him as a present.
Now I’m sitting here, remembering this, and there’s a tiny lick of pain behind the memories, because I don’t have the memory I should have had, of my Dad’s look of pleasure at a gift given by his son that was so perfectly what he would have wanted.
Most memories associated with Dad come with their measure of pain because the loss is uncontrollable. At least I have recovered one more moment to add to that inadequate store of memories that are all I can hold to.
Given my current status of fitness, not to mention the stability of my right knee, I’m reliant now on my memory for the kind of long, peak-heavy walk I used to organise for the last walking day of my twice-annual holidays. When it came to peak-bagging, the Fairfield Horseshoe was one of my best tallies, eight summits in the course of a day, but that didn’t set my record. There was one walk on which I went one better, visiting nine summits in a single walk that was better than I’d originally planned. And a walk that had at least a claim to being semi-original.
By that I mean that it doesn’t appear anywhere in the Wainwrights as a recognised walk, unlike the Fairfield Horseshow or the Mosedale Horseshoe. It is a horseshoe, of its kind, but when I came up with it myself, from a study of the Far Eastern Fells, I actually called it the Hayeswater Round.
It was an obvious piece of design and I calculated that I could reach eight tops, none of which I had previously climbed, starting and finishing at the village of Hartsop, tucked away in its little valley off the side of Patterdale. And, in keeping with my basic instinct about such things, I proposed to walk anti-clockwise.
This meant starting off by scaling Gray Crag, a narrow, steep-sided, steep-nosed fell at the end of a flat-topped ridge emanating from Thornthwaite Crag.
The direct assault on Gray Crag from Hartsop was steep and long. This kind of ascent did not seem the most sensible for the start of such an ambitious day, and especially one that promised to be very sunny, so after studying the relevant chapter, I decided to approach the ridge a little more obliquely. This meant leaving Hartsop by the track to the filter house, crossing the beck there and completing the ascent to the shores of Hayeswater, where the path petered out into nothingness.
The early stages of this were hot and dusty and a bit of a grind, but by the time I was in Hayeswater’s narrow valley, there was fresher air, the grass was sweet underfoot, and the sun sparkling off the water was delightful.
There were no paths on this flank of Gray Crag, so I simply took a sighting on the skyline behind me, at a suitably gentle upwards angle, and set off across the grass, trying always to angle up. Once I gained the prow of the ridge, there was nothing for it but to start the serious climbing, scrambling between outcrops, until the gradient eased and the rest of the ascent was just an uphill stroll.
Gray Crag’s shape is that of a promontory. I had a long, lazy gentle stroll, crossing a disused wall three-quarters of the way along, until the final rise onto the top of Thornthwaite Crag, whose summit lay half right, distinguished by its monumental cairn, Thornthwaite Beacon. This was an ideal spot to take lunch, under the sun, with a gentle breeze and gentle slopes all around, especially when my next top was going to be the highest point of the walk.
From Thornthwaite Crag, it was an easy, mostly flat or very gently graded, grassy walk to High Street, along High Street. I strolled back from the massive cairn, descending into the grassy bowl that lay back from the head of the Hayeswater valley, and onto the whaleback of High Street.
This was the old, the famous Roman Road, high above the world, the place where troops in armour, with red cloaks and leather sandals, had once marched, from Ambleside to Penrith. This is the place where the walker of imagination, with romance and history in their souls, can close their eyes and hear the jingle of metal, the creak of leather, the murmur and tramp of the Legions, out above the world.
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t conjure them into my mind, to trick my eyes and ears. It was just me, curiously alone, on a broad path that leveled out below the summit, by-passed it on the west by some distance, that I had to leave and struggle up featureless grass to the broad, flat top. The Legions would not come to me in the Twentieth Century.
I had left the Legions behind, and the history that should have swept around me at this point was that of the countryfolk of the valleys, Racecourse Hill and the annual meet of the dales folk, climbing out of their valleys for three days of revels, of conversation, games, racing, courting, trading and all those things we take for granted, but which then was denied by the daily struggle to earn a literal living.
That should have been evocative too, but once again I couldn’t conjure the visions in front of my eyes. It was just a flat, green top, with a cairn on the highest point, and an edge to the panorama that was a long way away all round and revealed nothing of those adjoining valleys and little of the fells beyond.
It ended up being a long walk east from the cairn before I got a glimpse of Haweswater lying deep in the curve of Mardale. Because this was the last lake I got to see, years after first visiting the Lakes, because I had to badger my family into holidaying in a completely different part of the Lakes than usual before they’d even drive out there, because it is remote and distant and it feels as if you have to drive out and back in to even visit Mardale, I’ve always had a fascination for Haweswater above all the other lakes, and it was essential that I see it on this walk. It didn’t look in the least impressive from that angle. I couldn’t even see the distant dam because the valley curved so much.
I decided I didn’t need to return to the summit so angled back to meet the wall just above the surprisingly steep descent to the surprisingly narrow Straits of Riggindale, beyond which it was a long haul up to the summit of Rampsgill Head, with its splendid view of the wide-open, very straight but not particularly interesting valley of Ramps Gill.
My next destination was Kidsty Pike, whose odd, angular peak was not far distant. It was similar to crossing from Swirl How to Great Carrs in the Conistons, except that wainwright had set no time trials on this ridge route. I ticked off Kidsty’s top having really seen little of the best of the fell. I assumed I would one day make a return visit from the valley, on a more entertaining ascent, but though I did that for High Street, and had a brilliant day of it, I never got back to Kidsty.
Technically, like Wandope in the Coledale Horseshoe, this was not part of any geographic Hayeswater Round, but was too close to pass up. However, it was the furthest point of my planned route: except that it was still only early in the afternoon, I had gained a lot of height, and it was only three-quarters of a mile up the ridge to High Raise. This was a fell I needed to claim at some point, but which appeared to be quite a distance away from valley – or more pertinently road – level.
It meant an extra mile and a half I hadn’t budgeted for, but on the other hand I was here, I had the time and it was too convenient to ignore. I tramped north on the continuation of High Street, along an open, empty, rounded ridge, without incident or excitement, until I was level with High Raise’s top and diverted off to the right.
It was, or so I thought at the time, my 100th summit. When I checked my records on returning home, I discovered I had miscounted. No. 100 had gone uncelebrated, back on Kidsty.
Having diverted so far out of my way, I needed to get back on track, so I tramped, with a slight bit of trudge creeping in, back to Rampsgill Head. There was no need to return to its cairn, so I contoured pathlessly across its northern face, aiming to pick up the path for Patterdale, descending from its summit.
This brought me out at the foot of the Knott, and another Wainwright time trial: anyone full of the joys of spring should be able to make it from the wall corner in two minutes, a test I passed, just, though as I was full of the joys of early September, I claim a special exemption.
I still had two more tops on my round, the first of which was Rest Dodd. This is the key to The Nab, deep in the Martindale Deer Forest which was, in those days, firmly out of bounds. I had no plans to make an attempt on the hidden fell from its reasonably innocuous rear, not that day and not after the miles I had covered, though I would come back several years later and collect The Nab.
But on both occasions I quickly found Rest Dodd to be a tedious and draining ascent. Some fells are like that, with no seeming reason. they do not have steeper flanks, or rougher ground, but the walk drags, and the energy is depleted quickly.
This first time, I was dropping down from The Knott’s little top and heading straight across the Patterdale path, downhill in a straight line, to a deep dip in a small dell, with virtually no level ground, just an immediate climb, still following that straight line, to the top of the walls angling across Rest Dodd’s Hayeswater face. Even the short climb up unmarked grass, where the two wall ends form an angle that, for no apparent reason, do not meet, was tiresome, and i spent little time on the summit of Rest Dodd, enough only to study the ground northwards into Martindale, before retreating down the other wall until I regained the Patterdale path.
It had been a long day and a long walk, and I had been under a strong September sun the whole day. I was growing leg-weary and welcomed the gentle gradients of the path as far as Satura Crag. After that, it was a case of leaving the path for the trackless ground to the left and picking Brock Crag’s summit out of the indefinite outcrops on the edge of the valley.
Unfortunately, the day had just been that little bit too long and that little bit too sunlit. The valley wall down towards Hartsop was steep, and the tracks zigzagging exposed to the sun, and I was sudfdenly out of the breeze that had kept everyuthing cool. It was stuffy and unpleasant and I wasn’t more than a third of the way down before I was struck with a blinding headache, a good old-fashioned razor blade across the eyeballs job, which tended to blur my recollection of the final stages.
Of course, I swallowed a couple of tablets the moment I had got my boots off – nothing but nothing precedes removing the boots at the end of a long day in the fells – but it made for an unpleasant drive back to Keswick, with the headache still paining, and my stomach starting to churn, sufficiently so that at one point, exiting the Matterdale valley, I had to pull up and crouch in the verge in the belief that that days sandwiches were making a break for it.
But such misadventures are all part of days in the fells. The inclusion of High Raise may, in retrospect, have been ill-judged, but it took my tally for the day to nine summits, and I have never had some a productive day before or since, and I have never been in a position whereby I could have revisited it. So I regret nothing and remember with glee my own, self-designed, Hayeswater Round.
It’s a sorry spectacle, the greed with which 2016 is grabbing people to take with it, the latest the 96 year old writer, Richard Adams, the creator of Watership Down.
I heard about it late, in 1975, bought it, read it and, like almost everybody else, loved it. Like the best of stories, it began as a story for Adams’ own children, to be told on car trips and at bedtimes, and, like The Hobbit, generations earlier, when written down it was quickly sold.
And he changed the course of fantasy fiction as well. After Watership Down, there was a pronounced towards beast-fable, stories focusing on animals of every kind, the most notable example perhaps being William Horwood’s Duncton Wood, and its many sequels, of Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. But it was Adams who opened that door for them to follow.
And I remember going halfway across Nottingham, to its only suburban cinema, in 1978, to watch the animated film, from which Art Garfunkel’s ethereal ‘Bright Eyes’ had already spent several weeks at No. 1 (six of them eventually).
Adams went on to a long and successful career as a writer, though I only read two more of his books, his first two sequels. Shardik was set in a fantasy world, full of made up names and places, none of which felt or sounded real, and was about a bear that was worshiped as a god. I was disappointed and didn’t keep the book long.
His third, The Plague Dogs, I was sensible enough to borrow from the Library rather than buy, sitting up late on a Friday night to finish it, at about 3.00am. It was a good book, and it was full of route-maps of the dogs’ progress, drawn by Wainwright, but I wanted to finish it and take it back as soon as possible, because it was impossibly flawed.
It needed a strong editor to tell Adams to cut it back by about 100 pages, and to knock back his obsession with animal testing. That was an essential part of the book from Adams’ point of view, but his constant attacks unbalanced the book, came over as a bee in the bonnet rather than any well-reasoned protest.
I never read anything else by Adams.
But he wrote Watership Down. And we honour him for that.