On Sharp Edge Once


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.

Mousthwaite Comb

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.

Folue Crag

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.

Sharp Edge

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.

Mungrisdale Common

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.

A Day in the Lakes: 2018


I’m sitting in a railway station.

No, this is not a late attempt to become Paul Simon, though if someone offered me the chance to turn into the man who wrote and arrange “Bridge over Troubled Water”, I would, in the traditional manner, snatch your hand off.

I’m here at Piccadilly Station for my annual day out in the Lakes, full of carefully calculated plans and forty-five minutes ahead of departure time because, as you know, I am paranoid about public transport and, long before the day is over, that paranoia will again be proven justified.

The plan is foolproof: train to Windermere, bus to Glenridding, steamer to Pooley Bridge and back, reversing the route. Massive turnaround margins at all points, and the sun’s a clear, pale blue, promising ideal conditions. Admittedly, there are tannoy announcements about delays and cancellations, but I’ve got things under control.I’m going to Ullswater, my favourite of the Lakes, and one where my memories are very much my own, with little intrusion from my family.

There’s a lovely surprise as, nose in my book, I am greeted by my name being spoken with surprise and delight. It’s a former team-mate, who left my employers to go into Nursing Training, oh my god is is fifteen months ago already? She’s on her way to Salford University and is really pleased to see me, which gives me a boost. She’s really enthusiastic, absolutely loving it, and as lovely as ever. As usual, I wish I was half my age.

Her train leaves before mine but we have time for a good chat and, when hers is delayed I catch up with her on the platform and we resume nattering. Ironically, she’s commenting about hos the Government want us to save the environment by using public transport more, and just how bad it is: you can tell what’s coming, can’t you?

Her train delays mine a handful of minutes, and there are fits and starts as we escape Manchester. I haave my headphones on, my book open and as far as I’m concerned, the day starts now.

This stage of the journey is too familiar by now to demand attention until we reach Lancaster at least, and come into sight of the high country. I’m reading Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Labyrinth of the Spirits”, the final part of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books Quartet, bought as soon as published in English but saved for an occasion such as this because it is just over 800 pages long. But eminently readable@ I an a quarter of the way through it by Preston, where the train splits. The sky is unchanged, as empty as a Tory’s heart.

The two back carriages are to go on to Blackpool North, the front two to Windermere. That’s what they announced at Piccadilly, and that’s how I’m sat but I listen alertly for confirmation, because I am, as I say, paranoid.

Despite this being the mid-point of November, there’s a softer edge to this pellucid sky that’s suggestive of a heat-haze. The perfect clarity of distant vistas looks improbable. As we nar Lancaster, I’m looking north more and more, eager for that first hillside.

We’ve made up all but a minute of the delays by now, but we generously give it another six or seven minutes headstart before moving on. I’m still not concerned: I have forty-five minutes at Windermere before the Patterdale bus. I see cows in a field, standing in a patient line at an open gate, like ticket holders awaiting an invisible doorman’s permission to enter the theatre.

But paranoia never sleeps but fitfully. On the approach to Oxenholme, it’s announced that the service will terminate there. Passengers for Windermere will have to wait for the next train, at 11.18.

And at that moment, the Patterdale expedition is, if you’ll pardon my French, fucked. There’s enough leeway built into the schedule to cope if the Patterdale bus is an hourly service but whilst I can’t be categoric, I’m pretty bloody sure it’s two-hourly. So the connection to the Steamer is irretrievably lost. I’m not even there yet and the day is ruined.

I can’t even improvise because, according to the guard, the bus from Oxenholme will arrive at Windermere after the next train. For every good omen it seems there is a bad step.

I can’t begin to plan an alternative day until I do reach Windermere, and when i get there I can’t even find a timetable for a Patterdale service.

I’ve done Gfrasmere/Ambleside too often now for that combination to hold much appeal in the circumstances but, given that my reurn train isn’t until 6.30pm, I figure that gives me time to hit Keswick.

There’s a second good omen in Booth’s to which I repair for a cardboard ham sandwich, as I investigate the November/December issue of Lakeland Walker and discover an article by Alan McFadzean about a walk from Wet Sleddale to Gatescarth Pass and back, via Mosedale. Alan’s blog Awkward Roads is linked to here but he hasn’t posted there since February, and I’d begun to fear the worst, so this is an encouraging discovery.

Heading towards Ambleside, the usual sights parade themselves in the usual order, enhanced by my being upstairs on a double-decker. But cloud rests on the shoulders of the Langdale Pikes and, despite it being perfect at valley level all along the Lake, by Ambleside it’s clear that the interior is going to be cloud-hooded.

The best of today is now going to be Dunmail Raise and Thirlmere. I came this way as recently as 2014, when I visited Keswick, but that was a return journey, after dark, in which the lake was invisible and I couldn’t even tell we’d started climbing Dunmail Raise until we were actually crossing its summit.

The ‘No Vacancies’ signs are in full flower as we navigate our way out of Ambleside, and the streams and becks are in spate. The Brathay outflowing serene Rydal Water is wider than I’ve ever seen it.

It’s odd not to be getting out at Grasmere Village, where the sun has broken through in patches, lighting up the northern wall of Far Easedale, with Helm Crag for once standing clear of the cloud.

The rains that have left the roads wet have made Thirlmere as full as I ever remember seeing it, without a trace of the ugly stripped-bare tidemark. It dreams alone, heedless of the traffic that can only race past, with precious few places to stop. I remember the Thirlmere of the Sixties, when the roadside trees were planted so thickly that it was next to impossible to see the Lake, no matter how close the road came. North of the invisible dam, the sun is once more out. The Vale of St John is illuminated by a celestial lighting director, its backcloth a sunlit Blencathra with an isolated cloud-cap I’m more used to seeing on Skiddaw. Ironically, the great cloud magnet is proud of all but a few wisps on Lonscale Fell. Bassenthwaite Lake lies placidly beneath Dodd.

By the time I’ve ‘done’ the town, the sky has collapsed and Skiddaw resumed its usual aspect, with only Latrigg visible. The Market’s busy: I inspect half of it going down towards Lake Road, leaving the other half for the way back. There’s still some light over Newlands, but nothing for Borrowdale, making the camera a waste of space.

There isn’t much left to do until 4.30pm when I’ll catch the bus back, so I decide to find a pub and hole up with a pint and my book.

Frankly, I know I’m sour, but I’m glad to get off the street, and out of the way of people who seem oblivious to this being a public place, with other people around them, and who are continually stepping out in random directions, all of then directly in front of me. I appear to be the only person in Keswick paying attention to where folk are heading and trying to avoid them.

A pub in Keswick means the Oddfellows Arms, where I order hot food. Haddock, chips and peas, garden not mushy, arrives with almost supernatural speed, or am I just used to shitty service? There’s background music by Fleetwood Mac, all of it from Rumours but not Rumours: the playing order’s wrong and ‘Silver Spring’ wasn’t on the album, it was b-side to ‘Go Your Own Way’: it may be forty-one years ago but I remember these things.

And then there’s nothing left but to wander back to Booth’s and the bus stop.

The light’s failing as we climb out of Keswick but it says long enough for me to catch sight of Thirlmere on the way back, but no other Lakes. Then a coffee in Booth’s Windermere, and a most unsatisfying square of Victoria Sponge – I thought home-made was supposed to be best – and then the train and the dark and the slow return.

On a train to Manchester Piccadilly that, suddenly, becomes a train to Preston. This is too much. The guard reassures me that we’re merely being attached to another train at Preston, but I’m right and he’s wrong and he’s marvelling at how I knew. We really are being terminated in mid-journey. Very decently, he writes on my ticket that I should be allowed onto the next Manchester train free of charge. It’s being run by Transpennine, and the guard diesn’t even demur when I explain. “I’m used to Northern” he says. I have no intention of getting used to Northern.

The only upside is that this train gets me back to Piccadilly fifteen minutes earlier than I otherwise expected and I only have five minutes to wait for a 203 home.

It’s been a day in the Lakes, for which I ought to have been happy, but the plain fact is that I wasn’t. I was shafted. But that’s what you get when you have to rely on public transport in a third-rate country that’s spent the day I’ve been cut off from all news descending into a fourth-rate country.

Of course, I can try again, in 2019, when it’s lighter and things like buses and steamers might ply a bit more often. But dare I? How can I trust Northern Rail not to fuck it up for me a second time? Or actually a third, because they got me going and coming.

Bastards.

Life of a Mountain: Blencathra – TV debut Tuesday


A heads up for those of you interested in the Lake District: BBC4 will be showing Terry Abrahams’ Life of a Mountain: Blencathra on Tuesday evening, 14 February, from 9.00 – 10.00pm.

Like the Scafell Pike film broadcast on BBC4 in 2015, this is an edited version of the full-length film, available on DVD, which runs to two hours. I haven’t see the edited version, and to be honest, I didn’t think the film, overall, was quite as good as Scafell Pike, but it’s still superb, and programmes about the Lakes are not so common that we can turn our noses up about any of them, so treat yourself and watch this, because you will enjoy yourself.

And there’s another Lake District documentary on Friday this week: riches!

Another Day Out: The Lakes (part 2)


I suppose I’d better get down to this. After all, I did stick a (part 1) on yesterday’s description of the journey North, and so I’d better fulfill the unwritten contract with my public (Hi, how are ya? Did you get the card I sent? How’s work?) and come up with a (part 2) to cover the rest of the experience. Actually, it’s not as interesting, but there you go.

When I left off, it was to wander round the corner to the bus stop outside Penrith Station to catch the bus to the Rheged Centre (pronounced Regg-ed, not Ruh-gged, as I’d previously imagined). There were absolutely no problems on this leg of the journey, which got me there with nearly ninety minutes to spare, but this  was the Sunday timetable.

After I collected my ticket, I looked fora bite to eat. The Cafe was somewhat on the expensive side, especially for the filled rolls which were a bit on the upmarket side (i.e., more health, less common filling) for my tastes, so I treated myself to a roast beef in the Restaurant instead.

That made my second roast beef meal in three days, and boy they were generous with the beef. There was a genuine risk that I’d run out of other things to eat between hacking off large portions of beef, but it was superb. There was still time to kill, so I wandered around a bit and discovered that I have been maligning Clive Bratby slightly over his Third Edition Wainwrights.

You will recall that I have taken serious umbrage at his updated volumes being sold as Walkers Editions, but this has to be tempered somewhat by the discovery that the original versions – which have been maintained in the original, dust-jacketed format – have been rebranded as Readers Editions. It’s still a diabolical liberty, but it’s an arguably logical diabolical liberty.

For the second Sunday running, not only was I at the cinema but I was first one in, though Life of a Mountain – Blencathra filled up a lot more, and faster, than Captain America. The seating was one immense, tall bank, and I was in row G, practically central. This put my eyeline pretty much halfway up the massive screen, but the climb to get up there was almost as strenuous as getting to the top of Blencathra itself.

The audience was interesting (with the exception of the boring boor beside me). I’m not saying it was old but it was doubtful whether I actually got into the upper fifty percentile.

The Rheged Centra was an interesting place overall. It’s semi-underground, built downwards into the landscape, with a grassy roof that makes it as unobtrusive in the beautiful landscape as possible. It also had a brilliant wooden Children’s Adventure Playground that had me regretting I couldn’t drop fifty years and have a go on it myself. But what it didn’t have was a sign anywhere saying that it closed at 5.30pm.

Which was next to immediately after the Q&A with Terry Abraham, which made everything suddenly all of a rush. I wandered down to the bus stop and checked the timetable. There was a Keswick-bound bus due almost immediately but, thankfully, a Penrith service at 18.00. It meant a nearly thirty minute wait but so what? I wasn’t going anywhere.

And I nearly wasn’t going anywhere. It was  still only 5.45pm when the lady came to shut the gate that the bus would need to go through to get out. There was no last bus, she assured me: they always shut the gate at 5.45pm. There was a rising tide in my voice as I protested this, drew attention to the timetable (‘extra services from 1 May to 30 October’). But they’re shutting the bus gate on the way in, she patiently explained.

I should explain that the Rheged Centre may only be two miles from Penrith, but at least half of that distance is a very busy dual carriageway with no pavements, and that this was nearly 6.00pm on a very sunny and hot day with my knees and it now being almost twelve hours exactly since my alarm went off and I was already awake…

And the lady was being politely unsympathetic to the nth degree and no doubt thinking why didn’t I just come in a car like normal people when my point was proven by the bloody bus turning up.

Except that it wasn’t, since the driver told me he’d only come in because he could see me at the stop from the main road at the top (thank Cthulhu I hadn’t still been sitting on that rock, below his eyeline) and he’d been told not to come in on the way back. And in case I hadn’t grasped what, after all, was a very simple and straightforward explanation, he told me this all over again. You only get it once.

All of which goes to explain why, when I got back to my Hotel, I didn’t head for the bar, with its Sky Sports TV, or the beer garden, backing onto Castle Park and the remnants of Penrith Castle, I hauled myself upstairs, lay down on the bed and basically didn’t shift from there all evening.

I was not totally idle. I constantly fought with the horribly unreliable wi-fi to catch up on the final day of this year’s Premier League (didn’t realise the significance of the date when I bought the ticket last November). Thankfully, all the issues were decided, so it didn’t matter, and United’s end-of-season was an even damper squib, thanks to the farce of the abandonment due to the discovery of an explosive device – which turned out to be a fake, left behind from the last security test.

I slept well and long overnight, but I’d overlooked that I needed to order breakfast, so I wandered over to Morrison’s Cafe and made do with a succulent apple tart wit fresh, local cream and a white coffee. My train was still not due for more than an hour so I pottered about, trying to avoid going back to sleep, and took up station at the Station in ample time.

Since the service had been on the move since one of Edinburgh or Glasgow, and was ultimately bound for Manchester Airport, there was a bit of a push for seats. I ended up on the wrong side of the carriage for the last views of the Lakes and a bit cramped from having to have my case in with my seat.

Consolation was to be had, sparingly, in the form of a young lady (thirtyish) sat on the other side of the coach. She was wearing a calf-length, dove grey midi-dress, with a slit to mid-thigh on the side facing me and, although she had rapped the fabric modestly about herself, as she shifted in her seat, and stretched out her legs between those of her husband, opposite, the lower part of the fabric  kept falling away. Nothing untoward was revealed, but she had superb, long, slim legs that were a delight to glance at from time to time. Brought back a memory or two, actually.

The train was slow to pull out, and there were several sections where it moved leisurely or even halted, to the frequent consternation and apologies of its staff. By the time we reached Wigan Northwest, they were open in confirming that we would reach Manchester 31 minutes late, and thus be entitled to a refund on our tickets. They even handed claim forms out, though as I had nowhere to go but home and noting to do but nothing when I got in, I doubt I’ll bother claiming.

So finally it was Piccadilly (even though my ticket said Oxford Road, for some inexplicable reason). It not being after 8.00pm, my bus home was still running every ten minutes, not that I had to wait more than one.

And here I am, holed up and comfortable and already discussing the next day out, and meeting up with a mate in London to visit another Exhibition.

What a pity work has to spoil it all tomorrow.

Life of a Mountain – Blencathra


Oh boy!

Here I am, lying around feeling sorry for myself with a nasty, griping throat and a head that feels like another thought will never cross it again and I stumble across brilliant news.

I have twice praised Terry Abraham’s stunning film, Life of a Mountain – Scafell Pike, both in the edited version broadcast on BBC2 in the early part of this year and the full-length version available on DVD. Now, idly browsing a feature on ‘The Ten Greatest Walks in the Lake District’ on the website for The Great Outdoors magazine, the profile of David Powell-Thompson alerted me to the news that Terry is currently researching a sequel about the magnificent Blencathra.

The new film is set for release next year, giving me at least one thing to look forward to in 2016.Premier scheduled for the Rheged Centre, Penrith, on 16 May.

Sight unseen, I’m prepared to plug it to everyone who loves the Lakes and its mountains, even if it appears that Terry has decided to involve ‘celebrities’ in at least one part of this piece. The clip on the TGO site is about the infamous and nerve-wracking Sharp Edge, and features Stuart Maconie and Ed Byrne.

Maconie I can stand but as for Byrne, well, I’m not going to watch the clip, I want to experience the whole thing as a pristine, fresh, experience, so I can only hope he fell off. Not necessarily on that bit, but I shall be very interested to see how that section gets filmed and if Abrahams has worked out a method of filming that captures the experience, I would prefer to watch that little sequence behind several sofas, with someone else’s hands across my eyes, and maybe in a different room in a different house.

(I got across intact but, even if I were suddenly back at my peak, I would think long and hard – possibly until I was well off my peak again – before going that way a second time.)

One hopes that this is merely the second in a long list of such films…

A Day in the Lakes – 2014


016It’s becoming a bit of a ritual. I take this week off each year, for my birthday, and on the Thursday I go up to the Lakes for the day.

This is the third year now. The last two have seen me go to Windermere, Bowness and Ambleside, and last year i even got back onto the fells, in a small way, for a small time, to a small height, but enough to bring back to life all those wonderful years of spent with my boots on and to give me perhaps the only truly, unalloyedly happy day I’ve had in several years.

This year I wanted to be a bit more ambitious. I wanted to see Keswick again, Skiddaw and Blencathra, the North Lakes, to go down to the lakeshore at Derwentwater and gaze into the Jaws of Borrowdale.

Such things are not easy from Manchester by public transport, on a limited income. There’s a substantial leap in fares between Windermere and Penrith on the train, and the bus service to Keswick is by no means as aligned to the trains as it is at Windermere.

But if you start early enough, it can be done, if planned along the lines of a military operation. Piccadilly to Penrith. A half-hour wait for the bus to Keswick. To return by the same route would mean nearly two hours hanging around in Penrith for the economical train, but a bus to Windermere means only 40 minutes wait for an earlier – and cheaper! – train.

The problem with military operations is that they’re dependant upon being on time for each leg, and when the first of them involves the 203, Greater Manchester’s most consistently unreliable service, the day starts fraught. There were many moments on the rush hour ride that had me nervily checking my watch: miss the train at Piccadilly and the day would be fucked and my tickets wasted.

But speed picked up, stomach issues subsided and I was easily on time for my train, in which Coach A naturally proved to be the one at the back.

The weather of last week, or even yesterday afternoon, would have been ideal: cold, crisp, clear blue skies. But of course it had changed. It was overcast, a thick layer of dark cloud, louring. It didn’t look helpful. Mind you, the further north we travelled, the more this dark underlay dispersed, though it only revealed a higher level of white, flat sky.

There were no views of the fells until beyond Lancaster, looking across Morecambe Bay and trying to find the distant Black Combe. It looked dark further in, and it stayed that way. As we passed the periphery of Lakeland, our air was relatively clear, but all the glimpses inwards showed the clouds low and in command.

From Oxenholme, I abandoned my Crossword and Killer Sudokus in favour of what views I could: Longsleddale’s narrow slit, the looming Howgills above Tebay Gorge, the expansiveness of Wet Sleddale (which I’ve never visited). Kidsty Pike was visible over the line of Mardale, but High Street was consumed.

I left the train at Penrith. Nature called so I used the nearby MacDonalds for the only thing it’s useful for and waited for the bus opposite the ruins of Penrith Castle. It was the first time I’d ever seen it: my only other trip to Penrith Station was in the dark, to collect my shortly-to-be sister-in-law and her son.

When I got on the bus, I settled on the driver’s side, thinking to enjoy the views of Blencathra close up. From the east, the saddleback to Foule Crag that gives this fell its unwanted second name – pretty much its first name until Wainwright came along – is most obvious, and despite the scant difference in height, the top was hidden by cloud but Foule Crag stood clear.

The bus didn’t just barrel down the A66, but made side-trips to Stainton, Penruddock and Threlkeld en route. The first of these was the scene of the first holiday I persuaded my family to take on the eastern side of the Lakes, which turned out to be the last one I went on.

Still, the best views were inwards, not outwards, even if the air was lightening in the north. Inwards and forwards: when it came into view, the Vale of Keswick was majestic but satanic. The familiar fells crowded round but cloud hugged Eel Crag and Grisedale Pike, lending a threatening aspect to the scene that was all the more dramatic for discovering that Skiddaw, that perennial cloud magnet, was free and clear and bright.

Four hours after I left my flat, I touched down in Keswick. But the moment of arrival was also the onset of leaving: I only had four hours and twenty minutes to go. No time for excursions onto the fells, not unless I wanted to pay for a taxi to take me to the Latrigg roadhead and wait whilst I shuffled my way up and down it.

Food first: when in Keswick, I always eat at the Oddfellow’s Arms and I did not intend to make an exception today. Roast beef, unstinted, new potatoes, carrots and peas with gravy, all in a plate-sized Yorkshire Pudding, for only £5.95. Pity the lager and lime was nearly £4 on top of that.

Derwentwater was nearer – much nearer – than I remembered it. I wandered across Crow Park, finding the ideal place to look down the Lake. A sunny Saturday on this spot came into mind, when the fells were full of light and looked enormous, but I ruthlessly tuned that memory out. From here I could see fells that spread across five Wainwrights, all of which I’ve climbed and some more than once, and but for the interior cloud, I could have claimed the Southern Fells as well. Out of reach for now.

On the other hand, somewhere else famous was not. Maybe I was at last old enough to visit Friar’s Crag. So I strolled slowly along to this famous viewpoint, which was everything that has been said about it, conditions permitting (see the photo above), but on the other hand the essential me hasn’t changed one bit and there were too damned many people about for my liking, and none of us had put in the hard yards to deserve this.

On the way back, it started raining, whispering in the woods. I contemplated the Crazy Golf in Hope Park, trying to remember what my course record was: something in the low Thirties, I’d played it that often and regarded a three-shot hole as a personal insult. The Pitch-and-Putt course was something else. I’ve never been round it in less than 42 or more that 49 strokes.

But the rain was getting harder, I have a recalcitrant shoulder bag that refuses to stay on a shoulder unless nailed on (no thanks) and besides, the shop was shut.

Keswick’s changed. So many familiar places, most of which offered books, have closed and gone. So too has the Cars of the Stars Museum, removed to Miami in 2011. The building and sign are still there, just not the exhibits I wandered round with awe and amazement, telling myself I’d died and gone back to my childhood.

I decided upon a coffee. I’m a straightforward white Gold Blend with one sweetener sort of guy, but of course they don’t sell that kind of coffee anywhere. The filter coffee gad run out, and as they were closing at 4.00pm, they weren’t making any more. So I scanned the list and decided on Espresso, but that was because I’d forgotten how small the cups are and that I don’t actually like Espresso, so the stop wasn’t exactly a success.

By the time I started drifting towards the bus station (a mere layby: I remember when this place had a proper Bus Station), it was raining like no bugger’s business and Skiddaw had disappeared, along with the whole of his massif, and indeed every fell it’s possible to see from the streets of Keswick.

The bus wasn’t due for another twenty minutes, but instead of holing up in a warm pub with a cold half-pint, I sat outside Booths. It was the old military operation bit again, and these days I’m far too paranoid about being late to feel in the least bit comfortable at being anything other than awfully early.

When the 555 arrived, I led the general charge from shelter, but courteously stood back to let the Keswick-bound passengers stream off. There’s always one though, one who’d rather stand on the platform and natter to the driver, completely oblivious to how many people are being kept standing in gusting winds and sheeting rain whilst he’s dry and warm, but a concerted psychic blast hit him and he shifted out of the way.

The bus climbed out of Keswick, heading south. I looked back across the town but in that gloom, that rain, there wasn’t an earthly chance of glimpsing Bass Lake under Dodd, not without Superman’s powers of vision. For me, it then became a race south, losing the light rapidly, to reach Thirlmere whilst it was still possible to see the Lake, but that was a forlorn hope.

In the dark, we could have been anywhere. Indeed, it was only when I saw the Dual Carriageway sign in the bus headlights that I realised we’d climbed Dunmail Raise and were now heading down into the Vale of Grasmere.

A couple of walkers in their early Thirties got on in the village and sat in front of me. I mention them because she was having a brilliant day, one of those days that’s too good to be contained, and she was grinning and chatting, and snatching little kisses at the side of his face. For the time being, her world was everything it was possible to be and she was elevated, and I was envious of him and found myself hoping he could be what she saw him as being at that time. You didn’t want to think of that sort of delight being brought down. Thankfully, they got off at Ambleside, before I could no longer resist recollecting times when I was the lucky recipient of joy like that.

Grasmere and Rydal, and even with the lights at Waterhead, there was no more lakes to be seen. I got off a Windermere with time for a much more palatable coffee before waiting for the train home. What shall I do next year?

A La’al Bit O’ Dreaming…


My Preciousssss

Checking up on my usual sites when I first log on to the Internet, I usually end up at the Guardian, which, for all its manifest faults, nosediving standards and increasing number of writers that I’ve simply given up reading, is still my paper: well, look at the others.

There’s a front page story that immediately drew my attention: the chance to buy a Lake District fell!

The one in question is Blencathra, which is an extremely attractive proposition. Who in his right mind wouldn’t want to climb Blencathra (we don’t use the S-word round here) by Narrow Edge, then look round and say: this is mine.

Apparently, the Lowther Estate are putting the peak, with its attendant grazing rights, plus hoggetts, up for sale for about £1.75m, for Inheritance Tax purposes (this is why Polly Toynbee was completely wrong to advocate abolishing Inheritance Tax, otherwise you won’t get golden opportunities to purchase your own fell: wonder if I could put it on the mantelpiece?). It’s not a decision they’re taking lightly – well, you don’t get to be an obscenely rich aristocrat who owns large chunks of the country by selling stuff off to plebs – but as far as I’m concerned, it could be a golden opportunity.

You see, apparently a UK ticket won £73m on EuroMillions on Friday night, and I haven’t checked my ticket yet, so there’s my one-off, high ticket luxury purchase sorted out. Immediately after the E-type Jaguar…

 

Great Walks – Blencathra by two Edges


Blencathra from Castlerigg
Blencathra from Castlerigg

Among the many things that the Blessed Wainwright achieved was the rescuing from obscurity of the beautiful name of Blencathra for the magnificent mountain standing to the north side of the broad Keswick – Penrith gap. When I was young, and first introduced to the Lakes, this splendid fell was known only by the prosaic name of Saddleback (from its appearance from the east, which highlights it’s twin-topped peak).
Skiddaw and Saddleback: the alliterative pair were the two dominant peaks, southward facing, their satellites grouped around them. If you looked hard at an Ordnance Survey map, squinting up your eyes, it was just about possible to read the bracketed qualification (or Blencathra) for the latter.
But already The Northern Fells had been published, last of the original volumes to be self-published, under the kindly-lent name of Henry Marshall, and Wainwright had devoted 36 pages, the most required for any fell in the Pictorial Guides, to a name he was determined to promote.
Nowadays, the map reads Blencathra (or Saddleback).
Blencathra presents a glorious frontage to the main A66 road, its symmetrical, batwing shape clawed by four deep and narrow gills, gouged out of the fell, leaving three upright, narrow-crested ridges reaching towards the skyline. Add in the rounded, grassy outliers at either end and the southern aspect offers nine separate routes of ascent before we even begin to consider approaches to Blencathra from other points of the compass.
I’ve climbed the fell twice, by different routes, each resulting in a memorable day, if not for exactly the same reasons. One route goes by Narrow Edge, the other by Sharp Edge. They’re not really suited to a round walk, though a strong walker who doesn’t mind a couple of miles of road – even if it’s a very busy dual carriageway – can link the two. Even then, I wouldn’t advise it, since both routes, and especially Sharp Edge, are routes of ascent, not descent.

Sharp Edge from above
Sharp Edge from above

To take Sharp Edge first, this walk lies slightly around the corner of the fell, on its eastern side. There are a variety of approaches. Walkers with a taste for long-distance routes can park at Mungrizedale and follow the valley of the young River Glenderamackin, crossing it at a footbridge to gain Scales col, but it is more convenient to either park at Scales and follow the path round the base of Scales Fell, or to do as I did and take to the old road from Scales and park in the little car park at the foot of Mousthwaite Comb.
Take the path to the left of the beck, the upper part of which can be clearly seen curving across the upper part of the Comb to reach the col. The path is distinct and offers no difficulties, but is not as enjoyable an ascent as it looks from below. The views are confined, and these are not greatly enhanced by reaching the col.
All is grassy on this flank of Blencathra, and the Glenderamackin runs through a largely featureless valley, none too far below the col, running from north round to east. Don’t descend to it, but turn to follow the path left, a wide groove running above the infant river.
Before long, Foule Crag – the lower half of the ‘saddleback’ – comes into view over the near skyline, an impressive and thrusting peak, arced above rugged rock. This grows steadily larger until the path crosses Scales Beck, where take the path turning upwards on its further bank, scrambling into the deep bowl containing the dark waters of Scales Tarn. Sharp Edge is the arête of naked rock occupying the skyline right.
The Edge, which is as little known in comparison to Helvellyn’s Striding Edge as it is more severe, dominates this walk. It should only be attempted by experienced fellwalkers, and should be avoided entirely if windy, wet or icy conditions. It is so central to the day that the walk can easily be divided into a trepidatious and cautious approach and a full of relief aftermath.
It can be avoided entirely by crossing the outflow of the Tarn and taking a broad path that joins the ascent over Scales Fell, and this should be done if weather conditions are adverse, but really, you have come this way in order to tackle Sharp Edge and it would be a serious failure of nerve not to even approach it.
The path leads onto the base of the ridging, curving to the left above the Tarn to reach the beginning of the rocks. The crest is narrow and will attract adventurous scramblers, but as with Striding Edge, a well-made path follows the ridge, mostly on the other side, about ten feet below the crest.
But as progress is made, in safety, this option runs out, the path moves upwards and meets the crest along a ledge of rock that comes to an end above a naked strip of knife-edged rock. This is the acid test. To proceed, it is necessary to follow the ledge to its end, to sit down and, very carefully, shuffle off onto the knife-edged. Walkers over six foot tall have the advantage in being able to get a foot on the arête before letting go above, instead of having to slide off onto it.
A similar ledge is on the other side, which you will need to grab and pull yourself up onto before shuffling round to the right and safety. But there is a moment between where you have to take a single, unsupported step on the knife edge, with neither ledge to hold.
Everyone must approach this point in their own manner and there will be those who are unable to face it. I knew that if I didn’t do it immediately, without hesitation, I would lose my nerve and be unable to do it at all. And afterwards, with my heart pounding for five minutes and my legs elastic, I found myself rattled: cloud had descended on the ridge and I found myself frozen, between what I couldn’t see ahead, and what I knew I couldn’t face going back.
In clear conditions, there is nothing to fear on the remainder of the ascent, though there are still two sections where scrambling on rock is necessary, and even fun, until the gradient eases off to bypass the peak of Foule Crag, and lead to an easy stroll across the depression to the summit.
The best return on this ascent is over Scales Fell itself, to Scales, though peak-baggers will turn their eye to the unlovely, shapeless bulk of Mungrizedale Common, backed onto Blencathra. It’s ‘top’ is only a tiny distance above its unappealing roundness, it’s generally wet underfoot everywhere, and a bee-line can be made to join the faint path making an arrow-straight way for the cairn.
But it’s in Wainwright, so do it, count it off and follow the path back to the Glenderamackin col to take the path downstream until it’s possible to break off for Scales col, Mousthwaite Comb and the descent to your car.

                                                                     Looking down Narrow Edge

Every walker should, when they have gained the necessary experience and confidence, test themselves against Sharp Edge, but as an approach whose every step is thrilling, and which leads unerringly to the summit, the frontal assault via Hall’s Fell cannot be equalled.
For this route, park at the eastern end of Threlkeld village, off the main A66, and take the old road towards Threlkeld Hall, turning left along a lane to the open base of the fell, passing Gategill, where the Blencathra foxhounds are kept. Gate Gill lies directly ahead, another of the myriad routes up this face, but bear right and strike up a steep, zig-zagging path up the base of Hall’s Fall.
This part of the walk is as close as it gets to being tedious. Height must be gained, and with effort. At 1,400′, the walks levels out slightly, and veers across the broadest beam of Hall’s Fell, until the adjacent Doddick Fell and Scales Fell come into view, at which point the route begins to trend back towards the west, approaching the point at 2,000′ where Hall’s Fell narrows and becomes a rocky ridge, ascending a succession of turrets, eyes fixed firmly forwards upon the unwavering peak above.
From here to the summit, every step is a delight, as the ridge tightens, allowing no variation or escape. Care is needed, and the experienced walker is favoured, especially along a short section, midway, where the path becomes a rock groove, along the side of a narrow crest, which is best dealt with by keeping your hands on the crest and edging crab-wise: walkers unfortunate enough to be under 5′ 10” will be progressively disadvantaged on this section.
Even here, the sense of danger is minimal to a cool head, and it cannot be compared to the bad section on Sharp Edge. Beyond, the ridge curves west, then back to north, before making a bee-line for the summit, which is literally only a couple of yards beyond the crest.
Though it’s a surprisingly short ascent compared to other walks, Narrow Edge is pure delight because of that long, high, steep-sided ridge, poised above shattered territory to either side, and its abrupt, unequivocal end. Relish it.
The best descent is westward, following the rim of the fell over Gategill Fell Top and descending in a smooth, wide, grassy curve around Blease Fell to return to Threlkeld. Indeed, the return was so smooth that just about an hour after leaving Blencathra’s summit, I was staring back up at it from the centre of the Castlerigg Stone Circle. And that’s fast!