…don’t make you feel inspired, they make you feel dumb, as in, how dumb am I not to have thought of that before? I had one of those today. Fortunately, for my wounded feelings of smartness, it turned out the idea was impractical in the first place.
It’s all about a day out. Last summer, I got from Manchester to Glenridding and back, including trips each way on the Ullswater Steamer, in a day. I started thinking about whether I could get even further afield. It appeared that Buttermere was possible, and would even be very easy if I were to go up one afternoon and stay in either Penrith or Keswick overnight.
At the moment, it looks like being something that I can’t free up time for until July and the start of the new holiday year.
Then, thinking about it this morning, I suddenly thought: You Idiot! The mainline through Ambleside and Penrith isn’t the only railway line through the Lakes, there’s the coast line, through places like Whitehaven and Workington: the bus journeys from there to Buttermere will be so much shorter and easier (if not quite so appealing in terms of the countryside you pass through).
What a maroon. What an ultra-maroon.
This was a brilliant idea. Until I checked Cumbria County Council’s Bus Timetables and learned there are NO bus services from Whitehaven or Workington into Buttermere. As far as I can tell, the only bus service to Buttermere comes from Keswick over Honister Pass.
As the day has worn on, it’s turned sunny and bright outside, with the clouds seeming to be collected over the far, Yorkshire side of the not-so-distant Pennines. Despite this, in the moments work allows my mind to wander, it is wandering to the Lakes, and to rainy days and setting out to walk.
With one exception, I never set out to walk in the rain, though there were occasions when, before I got back to the car, I ended up in various kinds of rain, most often pretty heavy.
For some reason, I can see myself setting off, out of Buttermere Village, on the low-level path bound for Sail Pass, though on the two previous occasions I’ve been that way, my destination has been Whiteless Pike and Wandope, with a diversion to Rannerdale Knotts. They was grey cloud and wind on the first occasion, and sun on the second, so I’ve never walked that route in the rain, but it’s impressing itself upon me as I write.
I’m projecting myself there, along that narrow track, deep in that steep-sided valley. There’s a fresh smell in the air, wet grass, wet bracken, wet leaves. The gentle drumming of the rain on my kagoul hood drowns out all other sounds, enhancing the feeling of solitude and isolation. The rain is steady and there is no wind so it’s falling without force as I move through it. The hood protects my face and my glasses from the worst of it.
I’m not just happy to be alone, and to feel alone, in the fells, I like it that way. Some routes you have to resign yourself to just being a part of the traffic, but there are other days when your isolation is so wonderfully complete that the appearance of another walker on the ridge on the far said of the valley arouses grumpy resentment and has you muttering, “Get out of my valley.”
Some of this is a reaction to sitting in work, away from those colleagues with whom I would usually swap friendly conversation. I’m mentally gravitating towards a welcome isolation, a self-sufficiency, walking in the rain unhindered in the dream of being in the fell-country again. Up above are the heights, even if, like Rannerdale Knotts or Whiteless Pike, they’re not extreme heights. But they’re still a world above and beyond the mundane one, and a world that I can enjoy as my own, my private world, reduced to the space around my head and my body and my legs as rain closes in and shrouds.
And there is a massive difference between isolation in the midst of other people and isolation in a place where you go to be the only one for miles.
There’s only a few minutes before I have to get moving and go to work. It’s been raining all morning, sometimes hard, but I feel as if my brain is finally starting to work properly again after a week of listlessness. So, after last week’s successful Patterdale Expedition, I’ve started thinking about where I might be able to get to next.
Do you know that it’s possible to get from Penrith to Buttermere village in just over two hours by bus, change at Keswick and via Borrowdale and Honister? And I already know it’s possible to get to Penrith by train early enough…
I’m tired, I’m stressed, I’m jittery as f-u-c-k, what shall I do? I know – let’s go on an imaginary holiday.
Let’s go up to the Lakes again, in my imagination. Let’s pretend there was one more week, one more Sunday to Friday, divided between Ambleside and Keswick, on which the sun shines but the fells are cool, the atmosphere is clear and the views and the photographs are fantastic.
Let’s pretend that this holiday is the big one, the one that catches all the places I never got to go properly, the summits under cloud, the views unseen. All of them swept up in one go, in my prime of twenty odd years ago, before the knee became a problem.
So the car is packed, only because this is imagination I can cheat. Suitcase and rucksack, anorak, waterproofs and boots, but we don’t need the cassette player to provide me with music in the evenings, and instead I carry my mp3 player and headphones, and there’s a small space for my laptop, instead of a writing pad and spare pens.
And the alarm goes on a Sunday morning in North Reddish, Stockport. I’ve been to Old Trafford yesterday afternoon and United have won, won in the style we’ve lost, terrified the opposition into submission, reaffirming our position at the top of the Premier League. The tank is full of petrol, and here I go.
Romance is an essential component of the imagination, so let’s forego the latterday, get there as fast as I can route of motorways, and revert to that old AA ‘Manchester to the Lake District avoiding the A6’ route that my Uncle obtained in the Sixties, and which I still know by heart.
Leave through North Manchester, bypassing Bury on the M66, to Rossendale and that dual carriageway route that by-passes the drive over the moors to and through Burnley. Then it’s up through Pendle and Nelson and cross-country, briefly returning to civilisation by driving through Gisburn.
At Long Preston, I join the long A65, along the edge of the Limestone Country, through Settle where Dad would always settle for a doze in the car, under the massive presence of Ingleborough, one of a tiny handful of non-Lake District mountains I have climbed, towards Kirby Lonsdale and beyond, until I cross the M6 and make for Milnthorpe. In my imagination, the Flying Dutchman is still open, offering the sausage butties that I was never allowed at home, and just as all our three visits in 1966, ‘Strangers in the Night’ is playing as we walk in, because for a moment I am surrounded by people long gone.
Beyond Milnthorpe I head north for the long road across the foot of the Lakes. The full run would take me through such places as Haverthwaite, Lindale and Greenodd and to the moors from which there’s that glorious view of Dow Crag and Coniston Old Man, and along the Water.
But this time I regretfully turn off at Newby Bridge and follow Windermere all the way to Ambleside, because even in imagination time is not elastic. The hotel that overlooks the park has my old room available and they haven’t yet jacked up the price for singletons, so I unload my case and stuff, change into my walking trousers and boots and set off up the street.
My starter walk is Wansfell, for which I walk down the main street towards Windermere before diverting off along Old Lake Road and starting to gain height. This was a starter walk once, a sunny afternoon of the kind we have today and I ascended to the ridge via the first of Wainwright’s options from Blue Hill Road, which disappeared with Jesty. No wonder: it was a poor line that got tangled in rough fellside, leaving me no option but to traverse awkwardly over to the other path (now repaired), to emerge on Wansfell Pike above the most spectacular full-length view of Windermere, exactly the right distance below.
With my camera still in the hotel room.
So now I’ve got my camera, and the shot turns out to be perfect, of course. The problem with Wansfell is that Wansfell Pike is such a perfect summit in a perfect position, but Wansfell is higher and further back, involving a stroll along the ridge with the dull views directly ahead.
The descent is by the same route, save that I drop down further to cross Stock Ghyll, picking up the lane that leads directly into the heart of Ambleside.
A quiet evening, a nice dinner, a pint in the Ambleside Tavern and some music.
I sleep well and eat a cooked breakfast on Monday, complete with tea rather than coffee at the table. I am sensitive about the kinds of coffee you get in Lake District hotels and guesthouses. Today’s plan does not involve severe effort, so I have time to wander Ambleside and drink in the atmosphere.
Then off to Grasmere to do the same thing, and to pay my traditional visit to the Heaton Cooper Studio, which is as much a part of my Lakeland holidays as trips to Ravenglass and the Ratty were for family holidays. There isn’t room for a trip westwards this time, unless I retrospectively decide to extend the holiday backwards, travel up on Saturday, spend my first Saturday night in the Lakes since my Wedding Day, and go for a ride on Sunday.
Either way, this is Monday, I’ve had a hot tuna melt for lunch and it’s time to drive round to get as close as parking on the main road will place me to the Travellers Rest Hotel.
Seat Sandal was a walk on a rainy, cloudy day that offered no entertainment, but was on ground both familiar from previous a visit, and easy to follow. We’d ascended by Little Tongue Gill on a day that turned to rain, heading for Grisedale Pass, though we’d stopped at the hause above Grisedale Tarn, which is a little lower than the official head of the Pass.
They were rebuilding the path along Little Tongue Gill that day, had got about two-thirds of the way to the top. The contrast was striking: when I reached the end of the paved area, I stepped into a foot deep trench.
The cloud was down on the hause and the Tarn invisible, but today the sky is clear. Cloud dots the sky in clumps. I take another photo and turn to the steep slope to my left. There’s an initial scramble, to the right of the wall, which rapidly eases off. No need to guess where to cross the wall and stroll to the broad, flat cairn this time.
It’s a view I’ve never seen, not an extensive or brilliant one, even to the open west, but one of four denied by rain and cloud that I am ticking off. And under the sun, there is no need to return to the hause, to traverse across the top of Great Tongue and descend its length. To do so would bring back memories of that first visit: I took the lead descending, on my own, ten yards in front of everyone else, and so full of energy that I could have turned round at the bottom and done it all over again immediately.
But on such a day there’s no reason not to descend by the south western cairn and the slowly-narrowing ridge, with the Vale of Grasmere below and views all the way. There’s time to enjoy the return.
Tuesday is traditionally transition day. I check out of my first venue of the week and cross Dunmail Raise, this time northerly, to check in at Keswick. I have had a number of regular places here over the years, and my last place is my favourite, but this is taking place entirely within my own head, so once again a room in a hotel overlooking the park becomes available, and when I get back from my walks, a parking space within easy distance will also miraculously appear.
I have two small fells within easy reach of Keswick to reascend, on either side of Bassenthwaite Lake: the question is which to take first. I leave Keswick onto the A656, along the east shore of Bass, and when the road swings round in the direction of Cockermouth, I turn into the woods and the narrow, undulating roads to Wythop.
This was another Sunday afternoon starter walk, a long time ago. I made an afternoon out of it by taking in Ling Fell and Sale Fell together, the improbable ‘Sentinels of Wythop’
Ling Fell, on the far side of the village, deep in the narrow cleft of its valley and its mill-race, is round, unlovely and uninteresting. It’s not in my mind to return, but the only parking is on the high road, on that side of the valley, so I have to get close to it.
That’s not too bad, except for when it means coming back, because Sale Fell is on the other side of the valley and it’s accessible from the lower road. So I march up the valley, drop down via the cross road, deep in the woods of the lower Wythop Valley, and under the same sun as the day I walked here in reality, follow the road up to the farm, Kelswick, at the furthest extent of the valley.
A clear, well-angled path doubles back towards the cleft on the ridge, but this time, when I arrive at the top of the path, the weather doesn’t explode into a cloudburst. I am free to wander up my gentle green ridge, enjoying the vista across Bass Lake and the side-on view of Skiddaw, rising above the Long Side ridge. I say wander: last time, I was marching into the teeth of a howling wind, my head bowed, my glasses removed to my anorak pocket (there was nothing to see so it didn’t matter that I couldn’t see it).
But I’m constitutionally incapable of walking slowly unless the terrain won’t let me pass apace, so I stride out contentedly, contrasting the openness of this climb with the claustrophobia of my real visit. There’s a mixture of paths nowadays, whereas I remember just the open ridge – not that I was the most reliable witness that day!
Then, I reached the tiny cairn, walked round it and started heading back without a pause. I had not been beaten. Now, I can sit down on the springy turf, doff the rucksack, have a drink, admire the view at last.
Two down, two to go, and one within sight.
Down the ridge again. I don’t have to walk back to Kelswick, there’s a path dropping directly down, beside the wall, onto the lower road, down which I march to the village. Time for a sit on the bridge wall, admiring the mill race: perhaps this time the sky is bright enough to enable a decent picture to be taken of it.
An unwelcome stroll back uphill to the car, where I sit for half an hour, enjoying the sandwiches I bought in Keswick and then, without having removed my walking boots, I belt up, reverse out and drop back through Wythop to the main A656 again. But not to return to Keswick. Instead, I angle round the quiet roads beyond the foot of Bass Lake, aiming for the A56 Carlisle Road, and turn Keswick-wards there.
Just as Sale Fell is part of a pair with Ling Fell, separated by the Wythop Valley, it’s part of a pair with the third of my missing views, separated by Bass Lake itself. This is Dodd, that tree-clouded outlier of the Skiddaw Range, only not so tree-clouded now, after a mass-felling sometime prior to 1999. Like Seat Sandal, this was a walk for a wet day that otherwise gave me nothing to do: on a day with no views, what better fell to climb than one from which there were no views to begin with?
That was one of the few days on which Wainwright failed me, his ascent from Dancing Gate proving impossible to follow after less than a quarter-mile. I ended up struggling uphill through trees, never my favourite method of approach, until I emerged on a forest road, from where I threaded together a very heavy-legged approach to the little path onto the wooded top. There were pale glimpses of the Lake below, but nothing else.
Rather than return that way, I descended to Long Doors and began to march downhill. It came on to rain, but I had established a metronomic rhythm, left – right, left – right, without need to pause or halt, all down the simple gradient to the cafe, and all down the A56, using up little or no energy, until the car came in sight.
There’ll be none of that today. Downhill marches are one thing and regular movements are easily attainable on regular ground, but even at my most enduring peak, the same effect isn’t going to occur going uphill. Unless I manage that even, slow-measured tread I struck that time on the Long Side ridge, and that eats up both distance and time, because it’s slow.
Steadily, I gain height, in the tuck of land between the steep sides of Dodd and Carl Side, until Long Doors, when I can escape right and round, into the open. Now Dodd’s summit is clear and warm, and I can enjoy the view even Wainwright couldn’t, without even having to stretch up on my toes.
I’ve done this kind of split-walk expedition on only a couple of occasions before, once by design, the other on impulse. The second half of it is always a bit odd, psychologically, and is slower. Once back at the car the first time, both mind and body relax, automatically: the energetic stuff is over, time to kick-back. Then going out again, even with the reminder that these are walking boots pressing down upon the accelerator and clutch pedals, not the softness of trainers, is harder to do. Even on simple walks like this, where for once I have no more feasible plans than returning to the car by the identical route. Trodden ground indeed.
It’s an early return to the hotel so I slip out into the Park, hire a putter and tackle the Crazy Golf. With long practice, I got the round down to about 39 shots: I reckon that, letting a bit of realism creep in, the rust will be enough to push me back to about 45. Then Tuesday night in Keswick. Beef-filled Yorkshire Pudding and a pint at the Oddfellow’s Arms.
Wednesday is, in a sense, a free day. They’re all free days, really, but there is only one walk remaining to complete sweeping in those fells on my list. I can go anywhere I want, without compulsion. Shall it be flood-ravaged Cockermouth, restored in my memories, and a quiet half hour browsing in The New Bookshop before driving down Lorton and exploring the Buttermere Valley? Or Patterdale via Dockray and Matterdale, into the pre-flood Glenridding, where I was married? Or further east yet, out and round into Mardale and Haweswater?
In light of Thursday’s plan, east it shall be, and by this I mean the Far Eastern Fells, and distant Mardale. I’m going on a nostalgia trip. It’s not the Second Drought Summer that re-calls me, 1984 and walking through the remnants of Mardale Green. Let the lake be full, let all the bare strips, the untidy, ugly tidemarks be covered in good honest water. I m going back to 1975.
It was the first and only time the family had holidayed outside that rigid arc from Ambleside to Wasdale, and for my benefit. I had seen Ullswater and Patterdale only once, and at last Haweswater/Mardale wasn’t too far to drive. We came here on Wednesday. On Friday, we made an attempt on Helvellyn via Striding Edge that only I completed, symbolising the breach I’d made by announcing I would go on no more family holidays after this. The last summit I reached with them was Harter Fell, Mardale.
It’s a simple re-tracing of steps: the left-hand fork beyond the roadhead, the steepish zig-zags to where the corner turns into that green hanging valley beneath Gatescarth Pass, the meandering, silent ascent of relaid stone, the broad grass col. Gatescarth, for some reason, always feels a lonely place, further away from your fellow man than other spots in the Lakes.
From here, in 1975, I had the Wainwright, I had the lead. It wasn’t really needed: there was no path on this flank, but a wire fence led up to Adam-a-Seat, before turning across the fellside, tracking an old boundary to the summit ridge, just short of the third cairn and its fabled full-length view of Haweswater.
Now, and since before 1988, there’s been an already-eroded path, direct from Gatescarth to this wall-corner, even of gradient, easy of ascent. In sunlight, and free of the wind that brought the unnecessary warning not to go too near the edge to get my photo – as if I, with my vertigo, would ever get that close! – it’s the highlight of the walk. Then the long stroll over the flat summit to the distant main cairn.
In 1975, something amazing happened here, that I was in no way responsible for. My family, who had never yet reached a destination without walking back exactly the same way they’d come, decided to descend to Nan Bield Pass and return by Small Water!
Dark cloud massed over Ill Bell, Kentmere Reservoir was cold and still as steel. We descended to Mardale via Small Water, the first photo I had ever seen looking down towards Haweswater, spread out before us. It had become a cold afternoon, since Gatescarth onwards, and we were well wrapped up against rain that never came.
All my holidays alone built up to the Big Walk on Thursday, and the slow retreat home on Friday. There’s one walk, one summit left, from which the view was obscured by clouds (yes, that is a Pink Floyd reference: please do not hold it against me).
This is why I went east on Wednesday, not west. Today is the day to go to Buttermere because I’m going to climb High Stile.
To drive, I’d say my favourite Pass is Whinlatter, because of its ease and simple gradients, but if I’m heading for the Buttermere Valley itself, and an early start is mandated for a long walk, then the only way to go is Newlands. This side of the Pass is not too bad, until the very end: in any car I’ve driven I’ve tried to get up some speed on the straight section, to help me up the last, steep bit to the summit, but Newlands has a ninety degree right hand bend just below that bit, on which all momentum is lost, requiring a laboured limp to the top, in second gear if I’m lucky. Not even imagination can overcome that turn, and I have never reached Newlands Hause without pulling in to let the engine recover.
One of these days, perhaps in another imaginary holiday, I’ll leave the car here and take off up one of the paths from the Hause. Knott Rigg is easy walking, trainers and jeans stuff apparently, though I’d want the boots for the ridge to Ard Crags which would have to be part of the walk.
Once the engine has had time to cool down, it’s down to Buttermere Village, and this is the brake’s turn to take the strain. Because it’s downhill all the way, and it’s steep downhill, and I have never tried to come up this side and never will, not even in my head. At the Village, I’m going to need to park for the day, so let’s assume that the quarry just down the road towards Crummock Water is still operating, and I can get my gear on there.
This is a straight repeat, and it’s a repeat of a walk I’ve not that long ago written about, so let’s insert a link here and not describe the route in the same detail. My memories glide through the long diagonal ascent across Red Pike’s foreground, the rocky ledges that lead to Bleaberry Tarn’s outlet, and scaling the path to Red Pike, only this time the light stays good, the sky is well above my head, there is nothing to darken the day, or enforce any gloom, and I can relish the view.
And there are no concerns about disappearing into the cloud on High Stile, no issues about where the path might lead and whether I’m getting too close to invisible cliffs. So I make it to the summit of High Stile for a second time and I can see all there is to see, and the purpose of this holiday is fulfilled.
I wander downhill to the vantage point that offers me dramatic, near vertical views of Buttermere Village, and take multiple photos. Then it’s time for the long retreat, the narrow ridge to High Crag, the steep continuation to Scarth Gap, the scramble downhill. This time, there’s no One Man and his Dog in the valley below, and I reach ground level and take my time strolling along the lakeshore path, Buttermere lapping gently beside me, until I turn across the fields, back to Buttermere Village, and the car.
This being my imagination, I have enough time to drive along beside Crummock Water, and through gentle, spacious Lorton, to Cockermouth. Like all things in this week, this is the Cockermouth of old, undamaged by floods, and The New Bookshop is what it was, and I have time to browse in the way I used to before I became used to instant access through Amazon and eBay.
And because this is my fantasy, and it can take in whatever I want, there are books that never existed, there for me to buy. I very rarely came out of The New Bookshop without three purchases. So, one at a time, I discover that there is a fourth Master Li and Number Ten Ox story from Barry Hughart, another Dortmunder Gang book from Donald E Westlake and, most precious of all, one final Sam Vimes and the City Watch book from dear old Terry Pratchett, written at the peak of his powers, before the first onset of the Alzheimers, and it’s written to incorporate the ending I had envisaged as a perfect Last Discworld Book, only Terry does so much more with my skeleton than I’d ever imagined possible. I know what I’m going to be doing this evening.
And it’s morning, and it’s time to go home. Register out, drive round Keswick. Take the Penrith road, but cut through Matterdale, through unravaged Glendridding, and over Kirkstone Pass. It’s far too early for the Inn to be open but I stop and wander around, making the goodbye as long as I can because I don’t know how long it will be before I can be here again.
Then down, through Troutbeck, without stopping, through Kendal, with one final stroll and one final bookshop because in my imagination the walls of my pokey little flat are elastic and I can bring in an infinite number of book, especially imaginary ones.
But at long last, it’s the M6, south and home. No drawing it out through Settle and Gisburn, just M6, M61, M602 and Salford and Manchester’s inner ring road, and Hyde Road, Reddish Lane.
And I am back to reality, to where I really live, not where I used to live, from which I departed on this Imaginary Holiday.
I think I’ll do this again.
I haven’t previously written of the High Stile Range as a Great Walk because, although it undoubtedly is, my experience of it was in large part a frustration. Not wholly: there was much that was good and the start and the end of the walk, but when the main fell, the highest peak, is covered with cloud during the part of the walk where you’re crossing it, you can’t really call it a success.
The High Stile Range is three high peaks in a dead straight line of under two miles, between Buttermere on the rocky, impressive, challenging north-east and Ennerdale on the dull, grassy, featureless south-west. Most walks tackle the ridge from Buttermere, for reasons that will be immediately obvious to anyone who sees the Range from that side: you don’t even need to view the Ennerdale flank to make a decision.
Those of us who hate to cross trodden ground during a walk find ridges like this a bit difficult. There is no Horseshoe element whatsoever, or if there is it’s one that’s been straightened out by Desperate Dan. You have to gain the heights at one end and drop down off the other and find some reasonable way of connecting the walk-foot at each end.
Fortunately, this is not an insuperable problem with the High Stile Range.
The day began with the usual engine-stressing, brake-busting crossing of Newlands Hause. Parking at the Village end of Buttermere is at even more of a premium than the Gatesgarth end, and I took refuge in a small roadside quarry a quarter mile or so before the Village, where, if I recall correctly, I still had to pay for a day’s parking.
At either end, the ridge is across the valley from the road, and there is a long, flat, green walk to the base of the Range, rising steeply from the edge of the lake. At the Village end, the path across the fields is narrow and bounded. It felt like a long way to go just to get to the bottom of the walk, especially as I was eyeing cautiously the cloud level, sweeping about at just below the top of High Raise.
I’ve done this before, setting off for a walk that might take me under cloud cover, anxiously raising my eyes but ploughing on determinedly, daring the cloud to still be there when I get up with it. Helvellyn, that time I went round by Sticks Pass, Raise and White Side, ending up sitting in a wind-shelter too crowded to get into the lea side, watching people arrive out of the cloud at least every thirty seconds. A first attempt at the Coledale Horseshoe, having driven up Friday night during the 1994 World Cup, and having to descend to Coledale Hause after feeling my way to Hopegill Head, the water droplets catching in my beard. Bowfell the first time, via Rossett Gill, Rossett Pike and Ore Gap, nearly coming to grief on Bowfell Links when we lost the path down. I should know better by now, or then, but I pressed on.
The walk didn’t really begin until we reached the further lake shore, and then the lines of walkers turned towards the head of the valley, until a gate at the foot of a long, diagonal path. And it was through the gate and up, up and up, single file, through the woods on a long, narrow route that kept to the same gradient and never ended, left, right, left, right, nowhere to turn aside and take a break without holding up a continual procession behind.
That’s exactly what it was like, a procession going up the stairs. I’ve never had an experience like it on the fells, before or since.
Not until the route emerged from the woods did the way widen to enable people to settle to their own pace. And after a short section directly up the broad fellside, the way turned right, and we could enjoy an extended level section, dashing or strolling, all across the face of the fell, below Bleaberry Cove, on rock. I couldn’t resist the urge to stride out and overtake a lot of the stair-climbers who had preceded me, whilst allowing the younger and fitter to burst past me.
The openness and the levelness was like a rush of fresh air, especially after the confines of the woods. I have never liked not being able to see where I am in height at any time on a climb.
At the far end of this extended terrace was the confused and tumbling outflow of Bleaberry Tarn, white water to hop across to gain the far bank and turn back uphill, scrambling into the lip of the cove, the tarn bright under a heavy sky, and High Stile’s buttresses beyond it.
The cloud was still hovering, this time around the top of Red Pike, my first destination. The path moved away to the right, onto the saddle separating the Pike from its subsidiary, Dodd. I wondered, on the saddle, about turning towards the latter, but it would be a strenuous day and Dodd was a literally backwards step, a few hundred feet of climbing I would have to repeat when I got back to this point. An actual Wainwright, of course. A subsidiary summit, no.
So I committed to the long, straight ascent towards Red Pike, and to the lowering cloud cover that was making the day grey, and doing the same for my mood. For the first time today, the walking was tedious, and I found wisps beginning to float around me and across me.
Red Pike was almost exactly the same height as the cloud base. I did get a full view, but it was from under a very low roof and through grey air that robbed the panorama of its richness. And as the clouds were unshifting, I had before me the prospect of crossing to High Stile in complete invisibility.
The ground underneath was not too difficult, though the path was far from being as distinct as I would have liked, and the presence to my left of steep and dangerous cliffs had me like a cat on hot bricks all the way to High Stile’s summit cairn. There was nothing to see, not through the swirling grey. I had Wainwright’s word for it that the supreme viewpoint was down the slope towards the lake, at the end of a rocky nose.
I went in that direction with ultra-caution as to what might lie beneath my feet or, rather, what might suddenly not lie beneath my feet. This viewpoint was lower than the summit, maybe it might, just, peep beneath the cloud, but as ever my optimism was merely hopeful. For a moment only, a swirl of wind blew away the screen, and I caught sight of the lake and the Village and the deep valleys opposite, but it was literally a moment only, and then the enclosure again.
I made my way back to the summit cairn, collected the rucksack I had, trustingly, left there, and started towards the rough descent to High Crag. It was still a bit nervy: I do not like cloud on the tops. But I came out below the cloud level, the ridge started to narrow, and then I was walking the narrow path along the top of Burtness Comb, and behind me the cloud had burned out and it was all sun and afternoon glory, and I was alone on this narrow, level ridge, with steepness on both sides, and behind me High Stile bare, proud and clean of cloud.
Not that I was going to turn round and add that extra climbing to my day. There’s a psychological dimension to descending from a summit, and I have found that once I have gotten more than a token distance from the top, steps retraced are heavy and draining. Onwards, ever onwards, not backwards. Though I regret not summoning that extra energy now, and going back for the view that now was unobstructed.
I was now above Burtness Comb, on a flat ridge that felt as narrow as a rail, and the sun was now burning down on my exposed position. It was one of those crossings that felt endless, with little change in the scenery to suggest I was getting much further forward, High Crag not seeming to loom at all, and care required in view of the lack of width.
But at last I reached the third fell, and made the short climb to its little top, bare of summit furniture on which to sit.
With nothing to wait for, and the sun slowly dehydrating me, I set off down the unremittingly steep ridge towards Scarth Gap. This was a strain on the knees throughout, and I quickly made a mental resolution that when I came back to the High Stile Range, I would not reverse the order of ascent. This ridge was not merely steep, but well-scraped, and hard underfoot.
By the time I got down the worst of it, to the base of Seat, the soles of my feet were burning. I had the option of the easy route, bypassing this long, subsidiary upthrust to the south, and joining the Pass lower down but, purist that I am, insisted to myself on crossing it along the ridge, before finally reaching Scarth Gap.
This made the third time I had dropped down off that particular Pass, to the Buttermere valley, but this time there was the matter of returning to the Village, not Gatesgarth. However, rather than the road, I had left myself the lakeshore path, which was cool, and quiet, and level, and uncrowded. There was no need for hurry, and the presence of the Lake lifted the spirit of my feet, even if I couldn’t physically plunge them in it for cooling.
In the end, I met the gate where the diagonal stair debouched onto the route, and not too much further was the turn across the valley to the Village, and the little quarry car park where I could relieve myself of my boots and transfer to soft-soled trainers for the drive over Honister and back to Borrowdale.
Many years ago, in the first half of the Nineties, on a whim I decided to commit myself to playing every album I had – CD, vinyl, tape – during the year. When you live alone, you can do oddball things like that. I can’t remember how many albums I had then, but it was probably more than 400. That’s a lot of listening: I got to the last album somewhere in the early weeks of December.
Three or four years later, and a substantial number of additional albums in my collection (I was a considerably more voracious acquirer back then, when there seemed to be more good music) I decided to repeat the exercise. This time, I had listened to everything by the middle of May.
The difference was that, second time round, I was a lot more methodical about the task. I planned, I executed, I zipped through.
I mention this because my fellow blogger George has suggested I write about a particular walk that has a poignant element for me, and my lack of method first time round the Wainwrights was in its way responsible for that day.
I’ve spoken before of how my Dad, Stanley Crookall, introduced me to fellwalking in 1966, and of how reluctant, and complaining, I was. I grew out of it reasonably quickly, or at least that’s what I remember, but I have never forgotten that it was he who introduced me to the fells. I went on to complete the Wainwrights, and a part of that achievement was to do what Dad would have loved to do, and to see all these things that were denied him by the cancer that took him away from the fells, and eventually from us all, before he reached the age of 42.
I would love to set out on another Wainwright Round, go back to all those 214 summits (with especial reference to High Stile, Dodd, Scale Fell and Seat Sandal, from which I have not seen any views). But I know that it’s impossible, and my body wouldn’t let me. I have my doubts about getting to even a low summit again, given the state of my right knee.
But if I were to tackle the Wainwrights again, I would be methodical. There would be a plan, and it would be efficient. Not like the first time round, where planning did not extend beyond a Big Walk for the last day, and trying not to use the same Wainwright book twice.
There would be no holes in the jigsaw ‘next time’, no little fells in awkward corners that hadn’t tagged on to larger rounds, leaving me, as I neared the end of the list, with the prospect of short walks that didn’t amount to a full day’s expedition. Such as Fleetwith Pike.
Everyone who knows Buttermere knows Fleetwith Pike, and everyone who’s looked at even a small selection of Lake District photos knows the stunning view from its summit of the Buttermere valley, with the two lakes stretching out in a line. From the valley, the ridge is an obvious temptation, a straight, steep prow leading directly to the top.
On its own, Fleetwith Pike is maybe a half-day outing, with no real appealing route of return. To make it into a decent day, it was obvious that I should combine it with Haystacks, circuiting the short Warnscale valley, and returning via Scarth Gap. I have been to Haystacks before. It had been one of the very earliest fells I had climbed, or rather, we had climbed: the whole family.
My Buttermere walks were always done from Keswick, and for something at the head of the valley, I would cross Newlands Hause, pulling up at the top to allow my engine a chance to recover from that final steep pitch, after the bend, where there was never time to get out of first gear, and then that steep descent to Buttermere Village, riding on the brakes the whole way, which was why I would never drive over Newlands from the Buttermere end.
The only freely available parking at Buttermere by the Nineties was in Honister Bottom, and I had to go a good half-mile to find a suitable spot. The sun was well up the sky, and I had clear blue conditions and a fair amount of heat to face.
It was one of those days that started heavy-legged. There’s very little preliminary to the ascent: you leave the road and immediately you’re zig-zagging, in the lea of the fell, past Fanny Mercer’s white cross. I found it a struggle until I was out on the ridge.
Narrow ridges of this kind, thin trails amid the grass and rock, are great to follow, especially with that kind of view behind if you feel the need to halt for a breather. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy the ridge as much as I have others: it felt just that little bit too unremittingly steep, and although it was better to be out in the open, it was still a breathless day. Nor was I gratified that the path kept more to the Warnscale side of the ridge: Honister Bottom may not offer the best views, but Warnscale has a devastated look to it, as if it is the scene of some quasi-nuclear bomb test that has left a blight on the ground.
But persistence always brings the summit underfoot, and this was where the day changed, for the better. There was a breeze, and the air felt fresh now, and that spectacular view behind, with which I was so familiar already, but photos can never measure the scale of such sights. Still, I was peeved that the sun was shining too directly into my lens to make taking my own shot viable.
Fleetwith’s neat, bare summit was not bare of walkers. In fact, it was a bit like a tea party up there, like a Helvellyn summit crowd crammed into a smaller compass. I found a small patch of unoccupied ground, lowered myself onto it and dove into my rucksack for my sandwiches.
When I got up to move on, I was at last alone. I left the pack at Fleetwith’s summit behind, and strode off to descend the grassy decline to Dubs Bottom. I always preferred having the fells to myself, and I could now relax into sole possession of the afternoon.
En route to Dubs Bottom, I passed Black Star, the ‘summit’ of Honister Crag, and contemplated for a moment stepping aside to reach its summit. The thought amused me, that a mere walker like me could so easily reach the top whereas all the climbers were making it difficult for themselves, but then I realised that that wasn’t the point. It’s walkers who pursue summits: to climbers they’re the least interesting part of the crag.
Dubs Bottom was an interesting place, a wide depression studded with levels and derelict buildings from the old mining days. Beyond it, I could see the ground rising to the Old Drum House, at the stop of the seriously stiff ascent from Honister, the road to Great Gable, or Moses’ Trod, or the descent to Ennerdale by Loft Beck, so well used a thoroughfare yet almost invisible in Wainwright because it lends itself to no ascents.
Though it was no part of this walk, I crossed the dip and went up to the Drum House, climbing onto its platform and surveying that odd plateau that lies between the Buttermere and Ennerdale Valleys, and the way the Gable path turns towards the low ridge and seems to spring forward along its base. I’ve done that each time I’ve sweated up from Honister: by the time you get to the top, you need a few moments breather.
I turned back towards Dubs Bottom, which needed to be crossed at a diagonal, from the near right corner to the far left corner, to escape onto the fellside and the ridge of which Haystacks in the primary part. There were paths through the old workings, and I switched from one to another, like a child following a maze with invisible walls.
I emerged onto a path snaking in and out of the outcrops along the front of Haystacks. It moved up and down, and in and out, never the same for ten yards straight, and giving no glimpse as to what was ahead. I didn’t have Wainwright’s proverbial raging toothache, and I suspect I would have been giving it the major part of my attention if I did, but this crossing had immediately etched itself into my short list of paths I would happily go back and walk immediately: Ullock Pike to Long Side, the Corridor Route being other examples.
The best part came when I crossed the entrance to the cove that holds Blackbeck Tarn. Everyone sees Innominate Tarn as the jewel of Haystacks, but one look at Blackbeck, glittering in its sheltered bowl, the Tarn’s boundaries swelling towards the back of its expanse, and I was hooked. I’ve never been one for camping, being too fond of guesthouse beds in which to rest myself after a hard day’s fellwalking, but I could imagine the joy of an early awakening on the grasses above the reedy banks at the far end.
After Blackbeck Tarn, the winding path continued to weave up and down, but far too soon I was emerging onto the broad back of the fell, and could see across the head of Ennerdale to Great Gable, and Pillar. From there, it was just a gradually ascending way, passing Innominate Tarn’s shores (I cannot remember whether Wainwright had adorned it then) and on to the nearby summit, which surprised me by merely revealing another, and higher outcrop.
I had been here before, nearly thirty years before. I remembered that we’d not been able to see Innominate Tarn from the summit and had moved on to the other outcrop to see it, with the ring of high Ennerdale fells as its backcloth, but no further.
Part of me still can’t believe we had ever been there at all. My family were wedded to the quarter of the Lakes from Ambleside to Wasdale, and apart from the traditional wet-Friday trip to Keswick, never ventured further. I hadn’t even seen Haystacks until the previous year, when, for my benefit, we spent a non-walking rain-soaked day going round the Western Lakes, and I saw Ennerdale Water, Loweswater, Crummock Water and Buttermere for the first time ever, four new Lakes in one day, and we escaped by going over Honister Pass, between writhing clouds and towering cliffs, and this from my Uncle who normally wouldn’t take his cars over anything more steep than Dunmail Raise.
And here we were, in Buttermere, parking opposite Gatesgarth Farm, bound for Scarth Gap and Haystacks. I can only assume that it was its status as Wainwright’s favourite fell that brought us there. The pass was supposed to be one of the easiest in the Lakes, but once again our family maxim applied: ‘if Wainwright says it’s easy, it’s hard: if he says it’s hard, it’s bloody difficult!’
Enough so that, at the Pass, in a precursor of the stomach problems that would limit our expeditions in the Seventies, my Uncle stayed behind, leaving only the four of us, mother, father, daughter, son, to scramble up the gully and find our way to the summit.
My Dad was 39 in August 1968, fit, healthy, active. He was looking up, and ahead, to the high fells. His younger child, my sister, was older every year, and the range of our walks would be growing with her. His son had stopped whingeing if you so much as asked him to lace up his walking boots. No, he wasn’t as impressed with Haystacks as he’d hoped to be: to him, Lingmell, our second and highest top to date, was more the mountain top he envisaged. Idly, he suggested he’d prefer his ashes sprinkled there.
That November, we got away, just the four of us, for a couple of days in a small cottage in Grisedale Forest. I remember walking down the road to see Forge Force Falls on the evening we arrived, I remember lying in the top bunk in a crowded bedroom we all shared, feeling so much part of everything as my parents talked below, and I remember following the Grisedale Forest on our last day. There was no fellwalking as such.
Dad was complaining of pains in his left shoulder. Back in Manchester, he went to the Doctor. He was in hospital more than not over the next twenty months. He never saw the Lake District again. Haystacks was his last walk.
That’s not the place of sentiment for me. That came a couple of years later, crossing from the last Wainwright to the one that had been the First, unlovely, ungainly, unlikely Middle Fell in Nether Wasdale. As I arrived at the summit from the back, the party there was packing up and leaving. I walked round for the next half hour, talking to those who would never come back as I had come back, this once and only time.
But Haystacks is still one of only three tops where I can look the memory of my Dad in the eye and stand equal to him. Me and you, Dad, me and you.
I scrambled down to Scarth Gap and set off for the valley. I can’t remember if this descent came before or after the one I made after completing the High Stile range, which was the one where I sat down on a pathside stone to look at the very strange goings on in the wide green fields below, that I finally realised was the filming of an episode of One Man and his Dog.
Sadly, I never saw the broadcast episode, so I have no idea to this day whether I managed to get myself into the background of any shots, and add to my small stock of TV background shots.
And I drove away over Honister.
Stage Three of the Grand Tour takes us from Wasdale to Keswick, West to North. This was the great unknown, the unexplored territory of that rainy day back in the Sixties. My family walked in this sector only a handful of times, less even than that, but over time I have driven these roads many times over, and climbed all the fells to be had in this distant quarter.
In Wasdale, we’d only got halfway down the lake, as far as Greendale, where the only other road in the valley escapes northwestward. Wasdale Head itself is not so far away that it’s a bind to drive on, but the valley is a cul-de-sac and there’s no option but to drive back. And this is a long drive to begin with. So, with a diversion or not, drive away from the lake, towards and through Gosforth, back to the coast road and continue north.
At Egremont, it’s back to the moors, Ennerdale 7m and a long ascent out of the village, onto the long grassy slopes of the area I’ve taken to calling the Western Margins, where the ridges descending from Wasdale, Blengdale and Ennerdale grow rounded and green, and expand like a Weight watcher at Xmas. The road passes the Kinniside Stone Circle, a fake circle created by an archaeologist as a demonstration for a class, and the forest road that provides access to the ridge that, long miles hence, leads to Pillar.
Once, parked on this road whilst setting off for a walk along the forest road, I returned to my car and, whilst removing my boots, put on the radio. It must have been Radio 4, for some obscure reason, because I found myself listening to a programme about Russian history, back far enough that it was still the Grand Duchy of Muscovy. The programme proved so fascinating that once I’d got rid of my walking gear, I sat up there listening through to the end, before descending, long and straight, to the mouth of Ennerdale.
Ennerdale Water, low and dark, fills the mouth of the valley and is seen, though not well, on the descent from the moors. On that first visit, the Anglers’ Rest Hotel still stood on the lakeshore, and my Uncle drove down to the hotel, on the worst and most rutted road I ever knew him to take. A few years later, in anticipation of the raising of the water level, to provide water to Whitehaven, the Anglers’ Rest was demolished, only for the plans to be rejected. Ennerdale Water is as it is since the days before the Forestry Commission moved in.
The valley is forbidden to cars, but it is still possible to drive to within a decent view of the lake without taking yourself out of the way for the next leg. There is no stable route: a number of little roads, fell roads that don’t get too high, twist and turn in the loop around the outside of the Loweswater Fells. Just follow the signposts to the village of Lamplugh, and from there signposts towards Loweswater.
Loweswater is the Odd Lake Out, the one that flows inwards, deflected from the coast by a low bar of green, wooded land over which the road slides, finding the lake unguarded among its fringes of trees. Loweswater’s never going to give anybody palpitations, but it’s an oasis of quiet.
A glance at the map inclines the casual visitor to think of Loweswater as one of a group of three Lakes in a single valley, but the geography is not so. Loweswater drains north into the wide Vale of Lorton, as do the two linked Lakes of Crummock Water and Buttermere. The road veers north towards Cockermouth, along with the beck, and there is a sharp turn back at a Y-junction to head towards the Buttermere Valley. Crummock Water is already in view before reaching this point, filling the mouth of the valley, and away beyond its head is the unexpected sight of Great Gable, from a completely different angle, this time complete with its younger sister, Green Gable, forming the high skyline beyond the irascible Haystacks.
The road is tight to the shore of Crummock, and there is nowhere to stop and relish the sight across the lake to Melbreak or the High Stile range. Next up is Buttermere Village and, almost before Crummock Water has disappeared out of sight, tranquil Buttermere, a simple, almost geometric shape in the head of the valley.
The escape from Buttermere is by Honister Pass, a side valley into which the road turns, with a long, flat bottom lead to a steep, narrow climb more severe than anything my Uncle had set his car to before. I’ve crossed Honister myself now, more than once, and I’ve yet to reach its crest in anything above First Gear, the upper stages being so strenuous. It’sa steep and unnerving climb from the bridge, after the long, long approach through Honister Bottom, the road hemmed in by cliffs and rocks as it heads ferociously up.
But it has to be done: the only other escape is to go back to Buttermere Village and tackle Newlands Pass, and the Buttermere side of that is so unremittingly steep that I have only ever crossed the pass from Keskadale, over the Hause.
Besides, whereas Honister drops you into the head of Borrowdale, Newlands emerges in the Newlands valley, which then requires a bit of contrivance to go back and see Derwent Water.
In any event, a drive through Borrowdale is hard to resist, even in the worst of conditions, though the day I came over Honister behind a woman too scared to go at faster than 20mph all the way to Grange was something of a trial. Even my passenger got frustrated!
Derwent Water comes into view just beyond the bridge at Grange. The orthodox route would be to go straight ahead, along the east shore of the lake, to Keswick and a welcome break, not to mention the end of the stage. It’s more fun though to cross the bridge into and through Grange and ascend to the unfenced road high above the western shore, with it’s broader vistas. And, as you’re on the side away from the edge, it’s completely safe too.
This route is much more useful given that the Grand Tour also needs to take in Bassenthwaite Lake before heading for home. The high road descends into the lower Newlands Valley, where quiet roads can be used to navigate back to the main A56 on its way to Cockermouth. The road runs along the western shore of Bass Lake (as it is locally known), though the road runs in two channels. Northbound is the old, undulating road, now a single track highway, whilst the southbound carriage offers the better, closer views. When the route merges, carry on a short distance to the Castle Inn and turn right, to cut across to the Carlisle road, which should be followed back to Keswick. A drink – non-alcoholic for the driver – can be enjoyed now.
Tarns are bodies of water, but a tarn is more than just the water. It is its surroundings, its background, where it is and how it is shaped. This is what makes a tarn delightful to the sight, or not.
Far back in the Sixties, when we still lived in Brigham Street, my parents had a set of four Heaton Cooper prints of paintings of various tarns, identically framed by my Dad and hung one above another on the wall. Fifty years later, more or less, I have these prints still.
The four tarns were, in no particular order, Sprinkling Tarn, Stickle Tarn, Goatswater and Blackbeck Tarn.
Two of these were obvious choices: we had already visited Stickle Tarn and Goatswater, and would return almost regularly. And Sprinkling Tarn was also obvious, given how attractive the Tarn is, with its curving shores, its little peninsula and the massive backdrop of Great End: it’s so wonderfully photogenic, even for those who have never been to it. I myself would not do so for many years yet.
But Blackbeck Tarn? I don’t think I even knew where it was for several years, not until the day we climbed Wainwright’s favourite fell, Haystacks, for it’s the lower of the two tarns on the sprawling back of that terrier fell. Even then, we didn’t see it: we were limited in time for exploring, and only made it far enough from the cairn to see the more famous Innominate Tarn, where Wainwright’s ashes were to be sprinkled.
It’s not as if the print was in any way attractive. It was painted from no great height above the tarn, close by its shores, looking across a flat and indefinable spread of narrow water to an undistinguished background. Why ever did they choose that? By the time I wanted to ask, they had gone.
It was years before I saw Blackbeck Tarn for myself, and then only from a distance. It is visible from behind and above from the Brandreth plateau, rising from Honister Pass towards Great Gable, crossing the back of the Buttermere and Ennerdale valleys.
From up there, it’s a detail, a blue pool in a wide vista, whose greatest significance is the way in which it looks as if it pours directly into Crummock Water.
Finally, in the early Nineties, closing in on the decreasing number of outstanding Wainwrights, I spent a splendid sunny Buttermere Tuesday on the direct ascent of Fleetwith Pike from Gatesgarth. A sweaty ascent in conditions of great beauty, especially the view directly behind of Buttermere and Crummock Water. To complete the day, I planned a wide circuit of Warnscale, descending Fleetwith’s back, via Black Star (the summit of Honister Crag), all the way down to the Old Drum House, which i’d previously approached from Honister itself.
From there, I circuited back towards the old quarries, all of it easy walking high under the sun, winding in and out of derelict buildings, and making my way towards the back of Haystacks.
It was a fascinating walk already, and even more so once I got onto the crags and the path began to slide into and out of the rocks, until it descended to cross the outfow of an enclosed hollow in the rocks, and there was Blackbeck Tarn.
I fell in love with it instantly: the narrowing of the Tarn between the encroaching rock walls, the wider, rounder, gentler section beyond it, swelling into this hidden bay, with reedy shores at the far end, the whole surrounded by green lawns. It looked like a magical hidden place in the world and I, who have never camped out in the fells nor had any serious inclination to do so, immediately felt the urge to wake up in this little kingdom, in the glowing rays of dawn, alone and silent.
It was late in the afternoon, I still had Haystacks’ by no means smooth summit to negotiate, and then the descent to and by Scarth Gap Pass. So my time in that spot was limited but the image is still in my mind.
So I walked on, past Innominate Tarn, scrambled over the summit, Dad’s last, and down, carrying with me the lovely scene. The print is still nondescript, but now I’ve seen Blackbeck Tarn for myself, I can discern the curve of the far shore, understand where the painter stood and imagine myself into that scene.
I still don’t understand why Mam and Dad bought the print, though.
There are multiple ways by which one can climb Great Gable, and to my shame I have used only two of those routes, in only two visits to that famous summit.
The best route for the peak-bagger who is still counting off Wainwrights is from Honister Pass, in the rear of the fell. It’s an ever-changing route, with many merits, although there are no sightings of the Napes and the other crags on the famous face of the fell, and the walk is well-advanced before foot is even set on Gable itself. But the views offered throughout, towards Buttermere and Ennerdale, and the sight of Gable’s less-celebrated but still very impressive northern crags, at close quarters, is worth the expedition in itself.
A simple up-and-down from Honister offers the priceless advantage of a 1,167′ boost on the departure point. On the other hand, there is little opportunity to vary the walk on the return route, and the peak-bagger will be looking longingly at the nearby Base Brown, off any direct route from Honister and disturbingly isolated: omission would require a separate expedition, and the fell does not really justify being the sole objective of anything but a rain-affected half-day.
So what contrivance makes this set-up into a viable walk?
The simplest one might seem to be making Base Brown a there-and-back from Green Gable on the return trip. But even if there’s no actual need to return to a summit that’s to be crossed twice already, the retreat is more than I’d contemplate so late in the day. Either Base Brown must be the first top, or the last, with an ascent from or descent to Seathwaite as part of the plan. Which means bridging the gap between Seathwaite and Honister top at either the start or the end of the day. How would you rather end the walk? With a long, steep descent among trees from Gillercomb to Seathwaite, or the road to Honister foot and another, albeit sylvan mile to Seathwaite? I thought so.
So park at Seathwaite in the sunny morning hours, the earlier the nearer to the farm itself. Once in boots, with rucksack fully loaded, turn your back to the hills and walk back down the Seathwaite lane, a tree-shadowed delight on a morning such as this, until reaching the Borrowdale road, a half-mile from Seatoller.
These days, the Honister Rambler bus runs from Seatoller to Buttermere, allowing easy passage to the top of Honister, but on that long ago day there was no such facility. My plan involved hitching a ride to the summit, but a half hour at the Seathwaite road end, where the only passing drivers indicating a willingness to pick me up were those whose cars were safely full, I had to take to the road and haul myself up on foot: not a recommended start.
The walk proper doesn’t start until Honister top. A few years ago, the owner of the Slate Mine planned to install a zip-wire from the top of Honister Crag, across the valley. A BBC documentary followed his efforts to get Planning Permission which, thankfully, was refused, although this was sadly posthumously, he having lost his life in a helicopter crash before the decision came up. He was passionate about his plans, which would have irreparably changed the scene here, but incapable of understanding that he might not be allowed to do what he wanted.
Honister is a scene of industry, and always has been, but slate mining (and tourism!) is a Lakes industry, and long may it stay that way.
Start along the level towards the Honister Mine, as far as the foot of the old tramway, which has been visible from lower down Honister, scaling the flank of Fleetwith Pike. It’s steep throughout, until it eases off on reaching the back of Fleetwith, and an eroded middle portion, just short of the old cutting, has been fenced off, with a path constructed to bypass it on the right. It’s hardly what’s wanted by anyone who has been forced to walk up Honister, but it’s the gateway to the fells, and it leads over easing ground to the old Drumhouse.
Here, the scope of the coming walk becomes visible. The distant fell appearing over the immediate skyline, looking impossibly distant to the average walker, turns out to be Pillar: Gable lies much closer at hand, still looming darkly, at the end of a long, mainly grassy ridge, the middle ground of which is not immediately visible. A path bears left from the Drumhouse, towards the ridge, turning in a wide curve to follow the base of the higher ground.
If Gable were the only concern, this path would provide a smooth, fast highway, only gaining the ridge at the back of Green Gable. However, it is much more satisfying in all respects to leave the path, after it has straightened out, taking one of the easy green rides towards the ridge, and gaining the old post and wire fence that runs from Honister top, across the summit of this first fell.
Appropriately, the top is one of two knotts, with no immediate indication of which is the highest, so visit both before following the infallible fence onwards.
As Grey Knotts falls behind, the ground broadens and flattens. The next top, Brandreth, skirts the wide bowl of Gillercomb to the left, offering nothing of excitement, but all eyes that are not directed towards Great Gable’s cliffs will instead be turned northwards, towards Buttermere, High Stile and Grasmoor. The view towards the lake, across Haystacks’ back, looking down on Innominate and Blackbeck Tarns, is magnificent despite the dull foreground.
Beyond the cairn marking Brandreth’s highest point, the path declines gently towards the low dip at the back of Green Gable. The direct route from the Drumhouse appears on the right, converging gently, leaving only an uphill walk on rising ground to the grassy, but neat and narrow summit of Green Gable.
The lower Gable is forever subordinate to its higher and more famous neighbour, but it has a better summit, and it is the perfect place from which to look up to those northern cliffs. It will now be afternoon, and the sun will be casting a halo over the dark face.
Another great thing about this approach is that, if you are feeling heavy-legged, and doubting your ability to make it as far as Great Gable, the subsidiary summits are a brilliant device to keep you going, there being such a short distance from one to another, until by Green Gable it would be a dull fellow (or lady) indeed who could not sum up the extra effort to cross to Great Gable.
There is a short, steep descent to Windy Gap, a true narrow-sided col, and beyond, a stony path wastes no time in ascending to the left of the crags ahead, a well-graded zigzag route making the most of the slope as it patiently ascends onto the broad, domed top of Gable, so unexpected to the first time visitor who has only known the fell from its classic aspect above Wastwater. Walk south to the summit cairn, into which is set the memorial plate for the Fell & Rock Climbing Club fallen in the First World War.
The view from Great Gable is excellent, and is best of all in its close range of the western wall of the Scafell massif. This held my focus on my first visit as the texture of the air made it plain that the sun of morning was fading away, and that there would be rain coming. So it was not until a second visit (direct from Seathwaite, via Sty Head and the Breast Route), that I wandered towards the view of Wasdale and descended to Westmorland Cairn, which should be on anyone’s programme.
This not only offers a superb full-length view of Wastwater, but also the chance to study the tops of the Napes Ridges, and the scree-laden routes upwards between them. This being a clear day, these slopes will be ‘wick w’foak’ toiling upwards, already in need of a Boots full of deoderants and antiperspirants
A return via Windy Gap is unavoidable. and the simplest route from there is up and over Green Gable again, veering to the right as Gillercomb begins to open out, for the neck of land leading to Base Brown. If you’re starting to feel tired, and want to avoid what appears like unnecessary climbing, it is possible to contour around the flank of Green Gable, high above the Sty Head route, crossing the upper part of Mitchell Cove, but the way is pathless and isolated, and the effort of walking across a tilted slope is not worth the energy saved.
Descend by the route taken in ascent, as far as a fork, where take the right hand branch down to the head of Gillercomb ignoring the turning down into the valley. There are no difficulties between here and Base Brown’s summit.
The difficulty now is how to proceed. There is a route down the ridge but the terminal rocks are likely to prove so, and unless familiar with the route in ascent, it is probably wiser to turn back as far as the head of Gillercomb, and descend through that spacious bowl. The early stages are steep but a long, level section follows until the route starts to descend again towards the open mouth of the glacial valley, where the path loses itself in sight of the terminal wall.
I arrived here with the day cooling, and the rain massing, and struggled into my waterproofs twenty yards from the wall, just in time for the deluge that fell.
The descent into Seathwaite, steep and dark and winding, with the farm tantalisingly in view below and seeming never to be growing nearer, was my first experience of a National Trust relaid path. With the rain pouring and the stones underfoot shining, it resembled nothing so much as spiral crazy paving, and I moved slowly and carefully down. There were no difficulties on that occasion, but on a later visit, in the dry and the sun, I found the path vanishing midway, and a precarious climb necessary down a steep slope to regain the route.
Whatever the conditions, the path eventually reaches the valley, and the young River Derwent. Cross the footbridge laid by the Ramblers Association, cross the fields and enter the Farm under the square arch, from where we shall once again prove the wisdom of my advice about getting there early to park near.