Yewbarrow in October


Deep blue sky from visible horizon to visible horizon. A glowing yellow sun. Diamond sharp air. Hard edged sun-cast shadows.

Today’s weather takes me back over twenty years to a similar week in a mid-Nineties October. Day after day it was cold and blue and crystal clear, and I was anxiously eyeing the sky for signs of it changing before I could get to the Lakes on Sunday for a day’s walking (United were at home on Saturday).

With the night drawing in from about 4.30pm, I couldn’t plan a long expedition, and I’d already been frustrated at Yewbarrow on a rainy, cloudy Saturday in the summer, so that former my plan. I was away up the motorway, crossing the south of the Lakes and cutting out the corner behind Black Combe on the Corney Fell Road. This gave me my first surprise.

I breasted the ridge, about 900′ or so, and saw the Irish Sea appear before me. It was amazing.

The sea spread out from side to side, and was a deep turquoise blue that I have never seen before or since. The Isle of Man lay in the middle of this, looking bigger and nearer than I have ever seen, before or since, as if the sea on the western side of the island were also visible. Further along the coast, there was a white circle, like a silver coin laid down on the turquoise, which puzzled me until I realised, from its position, that this was the estuary at Ravenglass, and that the white had to be the fresh water, pouring out into the sea, a different colour from the seawater and not yet merging.

It was stunning to see, but the first thought I had was frustration, at not having foreseen just how clear the air would be. Had I realised it would be, could be like this, I would have set the alarm a couple of hours earlier, and aimed to be at Wasdale Head in time to get up Scafell Pike: they say that it is possible from there to see the mountains of Ireland, and if they weren’t visible in those conditions, they never would be!

I motored on to Wasdale Head, parked at Down-in-the-Dale, and headed for the Hotel, cutting through its grounds and across the Packhorse Bridge for the path into Mosedale.

On my previous visit, kit had been a grey day, with cloud swirling about all the Wasdale tops, but I had set off with my usual grim determination optimism, banking on it clearing by the time I got that high. It didn’t. What was worse was that I had taken the broad green ride that rose from the Mosedale path, meeting the Dore Head scree run about halfway up, only to find when I got there that the scree-run had been dug into a scree-less rough channel, with ten foot overhangs guarding it, and no possible way across to the path on its further side.

I could have descended four to five hundred feet to the valley floor, and tried going up the far side, but I was not prepared to make that kind of retreat. This side of the channel was pathless, but studying what lay above, I figured I could get up that, especially if I angles over left, towards the base of the crags. Since I’m still here to write this, it obviously worked, but I’d not take that decision again.

I climbed carefully, a few steps at a time, studying the ground immediately ahead, and once I had got to the cliffbase, clinging on to it for comfort and support. It was slow progress, a couple of steps at a time where needed, working my way back towards the scree run at the centre.

The worst part was discovering there was no way onto the safety of the ridge on that side, not without climbing the base of Stirrup Crag itself. To get onto ground from which I could complete the ascent, I had to contour across the top of the trench, deep, scraped bare, no support under foot. It wasn’t as bad at Sharp Crag, but only Sharp Crag was a worse moment.

I’d reached the ridge safely, but the cloud hadn’t departed in the meantime. It was swirling around Stirruip Crag: no going on, no going back. My only option was to retreat down Over Beck, to circumnavigate Yewbarrow instead of climb it. And I hadn’t gone more than about four hundred yards before it started raining.

It rained hard. I’d gotten into my waterproofs as soon as it started but after a certain point, when it sluices down like it did then, waterproofs become waterlogs: I tramped back to Down-in-the-Dale, got behind the wheel and drove as close to the Hotel as I could and sprinted for the gents. By some incredible chance, I’d brought a change of clothes with me. I never did that, but I had that day, so I could get into dry things even if I wasn’t perfectly dry.

The only drawback was that I had not thought to bring replacement underwear. I was not prepared to go commando, though I really wish I had: my wet y-fronts immediately soaked through my jeans and I spent the rest of the day, returning via Cockermouth and Keswick, looking like a superhero around the loins.

But there would be no such occurrences this October Sunday. All well calm and crystal clear, bright and dry.

I passed under the broad green ride, and beneath the debouchment of the old scree-chute, after which I started looking for a path bearing upwards. The first I found was a narrow trod, on grass, gaining height through a sequence of minor dells, in which the grass underfoot sparkled with  miniature frost.

This played out after about three hundred feet and I contoured left, across the top of a prominent bluff, to reach a more firmly defined, but still narrow path near the edge of the trench. This was one of those superb, will-o’-the-wisp paths, never heading in the same direction for more than about six or seven steps at a time, zig-zagging to and fro, gaining height comfortable, before emerging in a little dell, dominated by a boulder in its centre/ I rounded the boulder, pulled myself up to the top and found myself on the ridge, about ten yards north of Dore Head.

Stirrup Crag was black against the sun. I tackled the scramble, hands and feet, twisting backwards and forwards and having a glorious time of it. It could have lasted at least twice as long as far as I was concerned, I was enjoying myself massively and sorry to come out on top of the Crag, on the rooftree of Yewbarrow, with an easy stroll to the summit rocks.

Many years ago, with my Dad and Uncle Arthur, we’d gotten close to here, leaving my mother and sister behind at Great Door and going ahead enough to look across and see Burnmoor Tarn on its boring moor. The western wall of the Scafell range looked magnificent: I usually gravitate to the eastern aspect, above Eskdale but this day the Wasdale front was worth every atom of daylight.

And then a slow descent, via Great Door, and down into Over Beck and, for the third time, the long slow walk back along the lake road. It was not as good as the first time I’d finished a walk that way, completing the Mosedale Horseshoe on a brilliant day, not being prepared to descend Dore Head, sight unseen, and coming this long way round, tramping the road at a September 6.30pm, the Pike and Scafell looking close enough across Wastwater that I felt as if I could reach out and touch them.

There was a long drive back, and it was dark before I was in Manchester, but the preternatural clarity of the weather had made it a magical experience for me. Today has brought it back, and I have wallowed in it!

The Grand Tour of the Lakes: Stage Two – South to West


Coniston Water and its Old Man

The Second Stage of the Grand Tour covers the quarter from South to West, my family’s old home territory. It’s a long drive round from Consiston to Wasdale, and whilst there’s a Lake at the beginning and a Lake at the end, there’s none in between. On the other hand, there are enough variants on the route my Uncle would have taken to keep the fertile mind amused in planning.
The way forward is the Broughton road, from the south end of Coniston Village. The lake is soon visible, dark in its narrow valley on the left, for those who haven’t come round via the Ferry option. I have traveled this road more times than any other in the whole Lake District, all the way round to Ravenglass, and pleasant as it is, the option for variation is frequently uppermost.
The first of these comes just after Torver, where the main road bears left to follow the shore of the lower end of the Lake. A short while after the roadfork, a steep, narrow, unwalled fell road, signposted Broughton Moor, leaps steeply off to the right, leading to a narrow, high-level route with interesting views, and pleasant solitude. It’s as difficult to imagine meeting another car along here as it is easy to imagine the problems of trying to get past one.
Meanwhile, the main route follows the valley until emerging suddenly on the lip of the Lickle Valley and bearing left towards Broughton. No need to pass through the village: a mile before it, bear right to come out by a fine pub. There is a double right turn, and suddenly you’re hurtling down the hill on a wide highway, picking up speed in happy fashion towards the Duddon River. Don’t get too enthusiastic: the bridge in single-tracked and traffic-lighted, and in any event there are double ninety degree turns to cross from one bank to the other, so the inrush of speed is only ever going to be a brief one, but exhilarating while it lasts.
Back to the Broughton Moor variation. This ends at an unsignposted T junction where a left turn quickly brings you back to the main route, on the lip of the Lickle. However, a right turn heads along the valley wall before descending to the tiny hamlet of Broughton Mills, in the heart of the valley. The road forks, the left branch visiting all the farms along the western side of the valley and culminating at Low Bleansley, of long ago memory, but the right fork quickly begins to rise, along a narrow valley between low ridges of fells.

The Lickle Valley and Duddon Bridge

There are gates at two points on the ascent, to be opened and closed which, apart from the possibility of pleasant company, is a good reason for bringing along a passenger, and the road rises to a fresh, narrow, grassy col with room to park on the verges. I mention this solely because, if the weather is good, and the ground dry, a delightful mini-expedition lasting all of ten minutes, even in trainers, can get you to the little peaked top of Stickle Pike. Take the path on the left, but don’t be too long.
With or without a halt for peak-bagging, the road now descends into the Duddon Valley, emerging just north of Seathwaite: turn left and drive three miles, almost as far as Ulpha.
Pause here and return to the main route. At the foot of the hill running down from the pub, is the road into the Duddon Valley. If you haven’t fancied the Broughton Moor/Broughton Mills variants, you can always turn right here and enjoy a leisurely ride along to the Lower Duddon, as far as Ulpha where, at the Travellers Rest, just beyond the hamlet, drivers who have gone over the moors will be found proceeding towards you. Let both of you here turn onto the Birker Moor Road.
Meanwhile, back on the main route, having crossed Duddon Bridge, the road hugs the riverbank for a quarter mile before veering left and starting to gain height to cross the low pastoral country descending from the Black Combe massif. This is another, beautiful country drive, as long as you ignore turnings towards Millom. The road wends its way down the Whicham Valley towards the Irish Sea, meeting this just north of Silecroft. Turn right, and speed northwards. The route passes through Bootle, after which you should, in decent conditions, be able to see the Isle of Man out in the Sea, but this will have slipped behind by the time the route is joined by a road on the sight, signposted Corney. Funnily enough, there was a road on the right signposted that way, just as we turned away from the Duddon…
This variation is an enjoyable exercise on its own, having no connection with any other short-cuts or fell roads. It cuts off a massive corner by crossing the moors behind Black Combe, instead of going all the way round it. The turning follows the Duddon initially before climbing through woods onto the open moorland. This reveals a stunning view of the Duddon, which the driver is especially placed to observe, so make sure any passengers see it. The road crosses the watershed at about 900′, immediately revealing the Irish Sea, and the Isle of Man is soon in sight on the long, slow descent to rejoin the main coast road just as it descends to cross the River Esk and the mouth of Lower Eskdale. One final variant comes up as the road sweeps toward the bridge, an unsignposted, country lane. This is a haven of peace and solitude, sliding up through the unfrequented Lower Eskdale, and joining the road coming down off Birker Moor at its further end.

Birker Moor, looking north

Travellers by that route have also cut off a massive corner in this leg of the Grand Tour, and whilst drivers will not have enjoyed the steep, zig-zagging ascent up the fellside immediately behind the Travellers’ Rest, once the road reaches the fringes of the Moor, the driving is easy. Directly ahead are views over Burnmoor on the far side of Eskdale, offering an unusual angle on the mountains at the head of Wasdale. And there are expansive views over the northern part of the Moor, to the rocky turrets of Green Crag, and the peak of Harter Fell beyond it, before the road starts a much more gradual descent into Middle Eskdale, picking up drivers who have come via Lower Eskdale just before reaching the valley proper.
This is almost the end of this long, lakeless quarter. The main route crosses the Esk and races towards Muncaster Fell, with Muncaster Castle appearing and disappearing behind its screen of trees. Behind the fell, the road descends towards Ravenglass. This is the advantage of the main route, apart from the generally better and wider roads, for Ravenglass is an ideal spot to stop for tea and buns.
Leave it for the coast road north. If you can time your departure to get just ahead of a train leaving the Ratty, you can beat it to the bridge over the track at Muncaster Mill and hang over the fence as the train steams below.
With or without that bonus, continue north until hitting the signs to turn off for Eskdale and Wasdale. This quickly leads to a long, arrow-straight stretch of road over a mile in length along which, in deserted conditions, you can utterly bomb along. The beginning of the ridge separating the two valleys rises directly ahead, and it hardly needs signposting to direct you to the left when the road forks. Those still following the variations are not far away. They will have turned left onto the main valley road, by Eskdale Green and, at the next fork, borne right, to join the coast road stalwarts just short of Santon Bridge.
Across the bridge, turn right as signposted for Wasdale. Great Gable almost immediately fills the entire sky ahead, its most popular aspect rearing up majestically. The road disappears into trees until, with the shadow of the Screes growing large on the right, Wastwater itself comes into view through the trees. The road emerges on the shore and follows this along the other shore of the lake as far as a junction, at Greendale. From lake to lake, the second leg of the Tour has been completed.

Wastwater