All the Fells: Clough Head


Clough Head – The Eastern Fells 2,381′ (205)

Date: 11 September 1994

From: Wanthwaite

Sooner or later, if you keep climbing Wainwright fells, you reach the point where there is only one left in a book, one final climb that will see you set aside that book, not to be needed again until it’s all done, and you can go back to selecting walks just for the hell of it, for the sheer fun of being in places you like. Clough Head is situated at the northernmost point of the Helvellyn range, a bluff and steep-sided fell isolated from its nearer neighbours, the Dodds group by about two miles of broad-based grass, very much lower than Stybarrow Dodd. The closest I came to it was a Sunday expedition climbing the Dodds from Sticks Pass. Despite the heights, the walking was easier and faster than I had expected and it was early in the year and I thought about it. But two miles there was two miles back, in lonely, empty country of little walking interest. And I would have to come all the way back, including the long climb back onto Stybarrow to descend to where my car was parked at Legburthwaite. Which might have been manageable if I then had only to drive back to Keswick, but this was a one-day thing, with Manchester two and a half hours away and my hated job in the morning. So Clough Head became a solo, on another Sunday afternoon where it functioned as a more extreme than usual legwarmer at the start of an Autumn holiday. Rather than go out of my way to find Fisher’s Wife’s Rake, I took the more direct and only little less steep approach from Wanthwaite, moving stiffly upwards through abandoned quarries into a tremendous amphitheatre, precariously crossing its top and then tackling the convex slope Wainwright picks up, where movement seemed endless along an ever receding slope, in pursuit of a retreating skyline. I was glad to get to the top. Of course I wasn’t going the same way down: aside from my prejudices against trodden ground it was too damned steep! I walked on, descending gentle slopes, as far as White Pike, overlooking the old corpse road that ran across the northernmost roots, a damp, flat wasteland, an empty one. I got into my waterproofs once I reached the road and plodded gently back. It was a long walk, but paradoxically a contented one, despite the lack of excitement in the scenery. Nevertheless, there was a degree of pressure, self-set, for United were live on Sky at four o’clock (away to Leeds, I think) and despite deploring them on moral grounds, I was eager to catch the game. Unfortunately, with perfect irony, I failed as there wasn’t a pub open in Keswick at 4.00pm. What is the point of the ongoing vulgarisation of society if you can’t take advantage of it when it suits you?

Rain Days 2


Skiddaw from Sale Fell

The view I didn’t see

The Guardian ‘Country Diary’ used to be completely reliable, a fortnight cycle, with the late Harry Griffin every alternate Monday. Since the last reshuffle, it’s impossible to anticipate when Tony Greenbank will appear. It’s certainly not once a fortnight, that’s all I’m sure of.
He was in the paper yesterday, on a bus ride from Keswick to Grasmere, via Thirlmere and Dunmail Raise. Since the storms of December washed half the road away, there’s been no direct route north, but now, three months on, the service has been restored. Not the main road, but the roundabout route via Thirlmere Dam and the rougher road down the western shore.
It reminded me that, in December, I wrote a piece for this blog, inspired by the rains and the floods, about rain days of the fells. But the sheer,  awful devastation of the storms made such a piece inappropriate, and I put it by. Now it can appear.

Reports of floods in Cumbria, and especially at Cockermouth, which suffered so severely only a little more than half a decade ago, inevitably bring up recollections of rain days on the fells, so long ago.
I’ve written about most of the significant occasions when I’ve been caught out in the rain: the long long ago trek to Burnmoor Tarn, coming down by Sour Milk Ghyll after conquering Great Gable, circumnavigating Yewbarrow, and the long, slow retreat along Langstrath.
These aren’t the only times I’ve been out alone on the fells when the rain has closed in, in enveloping form, and I have found myself a long way from the car, with a silent trek broken only by the thrum of the rain on my kagoul hood, and a sense of complete loneliness. Time elongates, even as I stride on, confident and untroubled. However far I have to go, time resolved into a perpetual now, a moment in which I walk, shrouded, attempting to remove myself from the effects of the universe around me.
There was a Sunday afternoon starter walk one year, Manchester to Keswick in the morning, park at the northern mouth of the Vale of St John, the steep climb out of the valley towards Clough Head, the convex slope above the crags and the ever receding skyline, with rain closing in, and time closing in too. United were on Sky, playing the 4.00pm kick-off at Leeds, I think, and I had plans to be back in Keswick, find a pub showing the game and sink myself in the despised Murdochian debasement of our culture.
I had no intention of descending the direct route back. As the rain grew closer, I walked north over easy ground to White Pike, the very end of the Helvellyn range, and down to the old Coach Road, wandering the northern edge of the high lands, and I tramped in rain-silence home to the car and Keswick, and the ironic frustration that debasement had not yet penetrated so far as nowhere with a Sky TV was open at that hour of Sunday afternoon!
But I remember the sodden tramp along the coach road more clearly than I do Clough Head’s top, or the long vista along the drenched grassy ridge back to Great Dodd. Rain, and the cold, hemming me in.
There was another Sunday starter, this time from Ambleside, where I booked in in the village and set off to stretch my legs on a climb up Loughrigg Fell. This wasn’t on my ‘Wainwrights’ list, as I’d climbed the fell, from Rydal, many years earlier with my family, descending to and returning along Loughrigg Terrace and exploring the famous cave. No such treats on an ascent directly from Ambleside Village, starting by crossing the park, and no difficulties in the walk, and things were still clear on the summit, but as I began to descend, repeating my outbound route, the sky began to close in very rapidly from the east. I was still some ways above the old golf course, and it was already clear that this was not a case of whether I would get back ahead of the rain, but how soon it would hit me. And it hit hard, drenching me through my waterproofs, which were so wet that they and my outer clothes beneath had to be hung over the shower rail to drain into the bath to be of any use to me the following day.
Rain in Ambleside also brings back recollections of a brief two day break my wife and I spent there, some years ago. We woke on our last day to drenching rain, pouring down ceaselessly on the Village. By the time we had enjoyed our breakfast and wandered out it had taken on epic proportions. The streets were running with rain, the walls were running with rain, there were gutter waterfalls everywhere, the beck was swollen, Bridge House looked as if it could be in serious danger if it went on like that. We covered ourselves up well, enjoying the unusual spectacle in a crazy way, happy.
Where else have I been in the Lakes when it has been so wet? There was a midweek day when I was based at Keswick and it was so rainy that serious walking was out of the question, but I still had little, tree-choked Dodd on my list. It was the ideal fell for such a day, the trees preventing a view from the summit in even the best of conditions, so I fought my way up a very indistinct path that must have changed a lot since Wainwright’s days, happy to break out of the trees and into the rain because at least I could see where the hell I was.
So I wandered across the face of Dodd on shallow-angled forest roads, the rain coming down steadily, until I got to the path that led to the little summit. Then back to the roads and down to the col beneath the high side of Carl Side, from where I marched home, all the way down to the road at the northern end of the fell, and all the way back down the road to my car at the southern end. Hardly what you would call fellwalking, but oddly enjoyable in its lone, wet way.
But Dodd was a rare case of setting off in the rain, knowing my enjoyment of the day was going to be limited from the start and determined to make the minimal most of out conditions. There was an occasion, on the other side of Bassenthwaite Lake, on Sunday afternoon starter where expectations were drastically different.
It was a fine, indeed sunny September afternoon, and I’d booked in for the first half of my week in Keswick. My plans involved me going ’round the corner’, following the Cockermouth road on the way past the foot of Bass Lake, and cutting into the narrow little roads among the trees, to cross the foot of the Wythop valley. I was planning on climbing one of the two small Wainwrights that stand as outliers to the mouth of the valley.
Which of the two it would be was to be determined by the availability of parking. Space in Wythop village being tighter than the proverbial duck’s arse, I wound up on the upper road into the valley, on the flanks of Ling Fell. At this point it was sunny.
Ling Fell is an unlovely fell and an unlovely climb, an upturned pudding without ridges or shape. One path circles its lower flanks, but you have to strike out uphill to reach its summit. There are no special features, no special views and no special reason ever to go back there again.
All of which meant I was back at the car far too early to take my boots off so, the weather still being sunny and hot, I took the road up the valley, crossed over to the lower road on the Sale Fell flank and took a gently angled green ride back to the wall that crossed the ridge north of Sale Fell’s summit. There were only the broad rudiments of a path so I set off uphill, confident that the fell was too small and the ridge too innocuous to pose any problems.
This was only too true, until, no more than a third of the way up, I was overtaken by a storm, a ferocious, lashing, wind-bestrewn storm, right in my face. Visibility was rapidly reduced to no more than five yards, not counting that I had to drag off my glasses and stick them into a waterproof pocket. It was an incredible reversal, but I was mulishly determined not to be beaten on a fell as small as this one, so I kept ploughing on uphill.
The wisdom of this course was exemplified by the news that, several miles to the south, in this same storm, a walker on Great Rigg was struck by lightning and killed.
I’ve never seen anything like it, the speed and ferocity of the storm, the complete obliteration of any view, and out of almost nowhere. Ahead of me, the ground eased, the small cairn appeared. I approached it at a brisk march, walked round the far side and started downhill the way I’d come without breaking stride. By the time I was back at the ridge, the rain had gone and I walked down to the village and studied the mill race in its centre in sunshine again.
Rain days in the Lakes. Given that I’m only getting up there one day in November every year, that seems to be my lot. But some of those days were memorable, and being out alone with the rain on the fells was an experience I wouldn’t sacrifice for anything.

Sunday on the Dodds


Great Dodd – Sunday stroll

Height in a fell is not always what it’s cracked up to be. For every additional foot above sea level that a summit boasts, there’s an assumption that the task of getting there becomes more demanding, requires greater effort, and will be proportionately more satisfying. That’s what you get with Scafell Pike, Great Gable, Bowfell, Blencathra, to name a few. But it’s not a guarantee. Great Dodd, and the Dodds range north of Sticks Pass, may include one of the twenty highest¬† Wainwrights, but their ascent is nothing more than a Sunday stroll.
I was running out of Wainwrights, happily, thanks to the greater freedom I enjoyed with my Golf. A 1600cc engine made the trip to the Lakes for a day’s walking consummately easy, and on a sunny weekend day, I could be into my boots and setting off into the fells earlier than when I was actually staying in Cumbria.
The Dodds were familiar figures on the edge of sight, great grassy slopes looming above the northern end of the road to Keswick, forming the eastern border of the Vale of St John. Unlike the Helvellyn range to the south, the Dodds group turned a rockier face to the west, albeit only in the form of rock that rises to about 1,600′, above which there is nothing but swelling grass slopes.
The easiest access to the Dodds is via Sticks Pass, the high level crossing between Thirlmere and Glenridding that’s second only to Esk Hause in height, but which is far more frequented as I’ve always been led to believe. As a Pass, that is, crossing from side to side of the range: Esk Hause is so much more popular as a platform to reach the highest mountains than as a crossing from Eskdale to Borrowdale. Given my family history with Passes, it was a given that I would ascend this way.
It seemed very strange to be donning my boots at Stanah. I associate the Thirlmere valley, and its northern offshoots, with rainy-Friday expeditions to Keswick, and with my midweek transfer of base from South to North Lakeland, or vice versa. This valley was for transit, not stopping. I have only ever done three walks from here.
Truth to tell, I remember almost nothing of the ascent. It begins at Stanah and, above the intake walls, follows the line of Stanah Gill zigzagging steeply until above the rocky outposts, when it breaks south, across the western ridge of Stybarrow Dodd. The gradient is easier, the walking untroubled, the direct route up the ridge unappealing, and it’s only a matter of time before you reach the broad col of Sticks Pass.
Even the water race was not the surging thing Wainwright seemed to imply, but a dead-still metal channel, crossed in a step.
The sticks that lent the Pass its name are long gone but, in the absence of deep snow cover, they are no longer necessary. Having taken so long to get to the top of Sticks Pass, it was somewhat ironic that I should have been back less than a month later, ascending this time from Patterdale, as part of the Helvellyn range walk I call the Outer Circle.
Stybarrow Dodd lies due north of the Pass. A track, looking tedious but instead surprisingly easy, leads directly to the official cairn, though the highest ground is another hundred yards uphill.
All walks change once you reach the tops. The hardest work is done, you are elevated, in spirit as well as body. There’s a sense of release, a sense that for so long as you remain up here, you are in another world, one in which the demands of life below are suspended whilst you enjoy the freedom and openness of this other existence.
The Dodds range consists of four summits, though I was only concerned with three today. Great Dodd, the highest point, lay directly north, separated from Stybarrow by the deep cut of Deep Dale, marching eastwards, visible only as a high-sided, grass-lined declivity. But the next Dodd was Watson’s Dodd, lying well west of the direct line of the ridge, overlooking St John’s.
I already knew of its peculiar geography from thirty years of reading Wainwrights. Watson’s Dodd has a front to St John’s, but no back. Away from the valley, twin wings sweep back, forming ridges that rise to Stybarrow and Great Dodd. Long paths sweep effortlessly along these ridges, a flying ‘V’ that flanks a valley that clearly divides the two bigger Dodds. From Stybarrow Dodd’s top, you look at the non-existent back of Watson, like looking behind the Magician’s mirror.
Chris Jesty reports a certain amount of confusion at the end of the paths that lead to and from Watson’s Dodd, but a the time there was nothing to it: just a straightforward walk, veering west, along a wide, level wing, to the summit at the apex, then back again, with little reason to stop, along the other wing, aiming for Great Dodd.
Once again, the path is grassy and looks tedious, but is easy underfoot. As with Stybarrow, there was an official cairn, with a higher point beyond.
All told, though I didn’t have my eye on my watch at the time, I had collected my three summits in a ridiculously short space of time, something between half an hour and an hour. But Great Dodd was above 2,800 feet: to be able to collect so high a fell with so little effort seemed fundamentally wrong. I didn’t usually try to climb fells of that height on a Sunday expedition, when I needed to be on my way home soon after 4.00pm to avoid getting caught up in the tailbacks that could run for ten miles o the way to the junction with the Blackpool Motorway and the trippers pouring home and a weekend’s fun. But height was irrelevant: the Dodds were Sunday afternoon fare.
I could, of course, carry on and collect the other fell in the range, the outlier Clough Head. The whole of the way was clear to see from Great Dodd’s summit: a broad-backed grass ridge, free from complications, free of interest save for the out-of-place rock outcrop of Calfhow Pike, halfway there. A mere stroll.
But a two mile stroll there was also a two-mile stroll back. I hated retracing my steps for more than the most unavoidable of brief distances, and besides there was the seven hundred foot plus climb back up to Great Dodd that, that far into the day, certainly would be tedious, no matter how easy. Of course, there was no real need to regain that lost height: I could contour levelly across the flank of Great Dodd, join my intended route of descent, down the western ‘ridge’. But two miles: and two back: not on, not for me.
A wise choice: Clough Head proved to be more enjoyable as a solo expedition, a stretch-the-legs beginning to a week away than any such ridge route could have been.
So I began to walk west and down, down pathless, thick grass, gradually steepening as I got below the 1,600′ line. Mill Gill lay to my left, but I didn’t seek out its line, which proved to be a mistake. As indicated in The Eastern Fells, I planned to cross the Gill below the ravine and above its steep rock-lined fall. I could pick up a path crossing behind the Castle Rock of Triermain, descend to the road at Legburthwaite.
Instead I missed it. I came down to the intake wall, facing a sign saying that shooting may be going on behind the wall. I turned right, south, hoping to make my way along the wall, bt was soon stopped in my tracks by Mill Gill, impossible to drop down to and cross.
In an ignominious manner, I retreated north, along the wall for about a quarter mile. There was no sound of shooting, and I had lost enough height to be able to see the road across the pastures beyond the wall. There was a gate visible, so I shinned over the wall, made a bee-line for the gate, and let myself out into legitimacy before anyone could see me.
For once, the road walk to the car was fairly pleasant.