Film 2019: The Plague Dogs

I bought this DVD as a curiosity, and because it was cheap (cheapness is an essential factor for curiosities). Like many of my generation, I bought ‘Watership Down’, after hearing so much about it, in my late teens. I followed Richard Adams on to ‘Shardik’, which was less impressive and which caused me to only borrow ‘The Plague Dogs’ from the library, despite it being set in my beloved Lake District, and featuring route maps of the dogs’ flight drawn by the Blessed Wainwright himself.

I took it out of the Library on a Friday afternoon and started reading it after tea. I stayed up until somewhere between 2.00 and 3.00am, determined to finish it in a single session. Not because it gripped and enthralled and I had to find out how it ended, but because I was determined to get it over and done with for good, and not have to drag myself back to it on Saturday.

I never read it again. Even with those wonderful Wainwright maps, I wouldn’t buy it. I went to see Watership Down the film twice whilst I lived in Nottingham, but I avoided The Plague Dogs film.

So why now? For that, the credit (or blame) has to go to  my fellow blogger George Kitching, of the superb Lakeland Walking Tales site, and his two part account of following the Plague Dogs’ trail.

George and I differ on the merits of the book. Of course, he has the advantage of having read it within the past forty years. At the time, I thought it grossly overwritten, and badly in need of a dictatorial editor to tell Adams to cut it down by a hundred pages, and get over yourself with this Animal Testing ranting. Let not it be thought that I’m anything but against it myself, but Adams himself admits that part of the book is a polemic, and he totally loses any perspective in his writing and grinds on about it long after his point is doubly made.

The film exists in two versions, the theatrical cut which runs for 86 minutes, and the original director’s cut, which lasts 103 minutes. Only in Australia has the full cut been commercially released and the version I have watched is the common version. I was not impressed.

The film follows the book in general. Rowf, a black labrador/retriever cross, voiced by Christopher Benjamin of all people, is a test subject at Lawson Park Research Centre near Coniston in the Lake District. He is constantly drowned and resuscitated to test the ultimate limits of stamina. Snitter, a smooth fox terrier, voiced by the great John Hurt, has just undergone a brain operation to confuse subjective/objective experiences. The two escape and go on the run, causing havoc, before they are impliedly drowned in the Irish Sea, trying to escape the Army.

That sounds like a very thin summary, but this is ultimately a very thin film. Whereas Adams can go in deep on the dogs’ reactions, and amplify the public reaction to how the dogs are, untruthfully and callously, stigmatised as carrying the Bubonic Plague, the film, by adopting a naturalistic approach that runs deeper than the same team’s adaptation of Watership Down, denies itself that asset and forces itself to go no deeper than the surface of the dogs’ own reactions and understanding.

As a result, the film becomes a chase story, as superficial as that sounds, and forfeits any chance of real structure. Rowf and Snitter encounter the odd sheepdog here or there, but the film’s only other character of substance is the Tod, a wily fox, voiced in deep Geordie by James Bolam to the point of vocal caricature.

That lack of structure is a real problem. The dogs clatter around. Time passes at odd rates without any idea of how long things are taking. There is very little sense of location, despite the fact that the film is determinedly set in the Lake District, or at any rate in a Lake District. Real names and places are mentioned, Coniston, Dunnerdale, Thirlmere, Glenridding, Ravenglass. A genuine map of Middle Eskdale is used late on. Some accurate buildings are shown – a Coop general store in Coniston, the road under the railway bridge into Ravenglass – but these only compound the film’s biggest mistake which is its over-exaggerated, over-styled, and phoney Lake District fell-country.

Of course, part of this is my personal bugbear. Anything set in the Lake District has to undergo a fine-toothed comb examination from me as to its accurate depiction of the Lakes. The 1974 Swallows and Amazons film always falls apart during the heedless sailing scenes when boats flicker to and from between Coniston Water, Windermere and Derwent Water from second to second. I am far too harsh on the subject of authenticity for any film or tv series’ good.

But the film makes this a rod for its own back. By insisting upon naturalism, in the movements of animals and humans, by including accurate buildings, it sets itself a standard that it then conspicuously abandons. The countryside is unreal. It’s exaggerated both vertically and horizontally. Fells and mountains crowd together in formations that bear no resemblance to the Lakes. One repeated long, deep, straight valley image turns up in what must be at least three different places, far apart. Occasional mountain outlines appear out of context, including two Great Gables, nowhere near either Wasdale or Gable’s surrounding fells.

It makes the film feel rootless. As well as no sense of structure, or of time, there is no genuine sense of place.

One thing that does the film credit is that it restores Adams’ original ending. In the book, Adams’ editor (amongst others) persuaded him to a deus ex machina ending where naturalist Sir Peter Scott and Snitter’s not-dead-after-all master turn up to save the dogs from the Army, aided by a complete character reversal from the book’s most unpleasant human, but writer and director Martin Rosen has them instead swimming out to sea from the beach at Ravenglass, heading for an island that is a place of dream. The dogs disappear into the mist, and it is left open as to whether they reach any island, but in the context of the film’s determined solidity, the implication is that they drown, that this is their means of escape.

So I’ve seen it, and for the first time since I began this series in the first week of January last year, I have come to a film I shall not keep, nor bother watching again. My thanks to George for inspiring this experiment, nevertheless, and I shall be interested in any comments he wishes to make.

Tarns – Goatswater

I’ve written about Goatswater before, in the context of it being one of the family’s ‘stock’ walks, repeated from holiday to holiday. Tarns were just some of the easily-achievable destinations to which the family was limited by the respective strength and stamina of its two youngest members, my sister and myself. Targets like Throstlegarth and Mickleden were flat, but walks to places like Goatswater introduced us to the uphill climb that was neither too distant nor too strenuous for little legs.
On the main road from Broughton to Coniston, on the approach towards the Village, there were a number of Public Footpath signposts, pointing fellwards towards Coniston Old Man. On a rare holiday without my Uncle, the four of us tried one of these, only to have it peter out in the open on the moor east of the Old Man. We wound up in the Village, three of us hanging around in the sun whilst Dad walked back to retrieve the car: I still have a vivid memory of a crowd of lads walking up the road chorusing the Lovin’s Spoonful’s big hit, ‘Daydream’ a song perfect for the conditions.
Though I’ll never know, perhaps that experience is what prompted Dad to first buy a Wainwright: the Southern Fells would have been the book of choice, given our habit of limiting ourselves to the south western quarter. Certainly, when we next tried a walk from the Coniston Road, it was from much further away, near Torver, it was along a route described by Wainwright, and it took us to Goatswater for the first time.
The approach is gentle enough, starting along a farm lane at a bend in the road, and easing upwards through woods to gain a path following the beck that descends from the tarn, high above. There’s not much to see in the early part if the walk, between the trees and the outwards swell of land from the edge of Cover Moor, but it’s quiet and a gentle uphill walk.
The first point of interest on the walk is Banishead Quarry. It’s developed a certain degree of fame now, but in the Sixties it was completely unheralded, despite the spectacular waterfall pouring into the unnamed ‘tarn’ in its bed. Even Wainwright passed it by with nothing more than a cursory mention.
Admittedly, both tarn and waterfall are artificial, but they’re no less a sight for that. Dad and I tried to find the source of the waterfall and, despite obstacles, squirmed round just far enough to see that it actually fell sideways out of an otherwise untroubled beck. And clearly there must have been an underground outflow as the water level never increased over the following years when we passed: no danger of the quarry filling up and spilling over.
Banishead Quarry was the true beginning of interest in the walk beyond its exercise. From here, the way came out into the open, still below the lip of the Moor, but only a short distance below the line of the Walna Scar Road, rounding the foot of Coniston Old Man’s south west ridge. But the section up to the road, and again beyond it, was on steep grass, the steepest gradient of the walk.
When it was done, we were let out onto the upper part of Cove Moor, on a path that hugged the wings of the ridge, in a wide, fractal curve around the edge of the moor, aiming for the turn into the corrie that holds the tarn. A little bit of uphill scrambling to round the final outcrop and take that first sight of Goatswater’s rocky shores, where we would fetch up.
For my sister and I, Goatswater was the destination: the intrinsic fascination with water, and shores, where we would stand, compulsively throwing in any stones that would fit our little hands. Goatswater was long and narrow, contained within its steep-sided hollow, with the rough, wall-like flank of the Old Man behind us and, across the tarn, the cliffs of Dow Crag.
That was what drew Dad and his elder brother. They’d stand side-by-side, twin binoculars fixed on the crags, sometimes calling me over and trying to direct my trembling hands to find little flashes of red or blue that were cragsmen, suspended by rope on vertical stone. My Dad and Uncle would have been up there themselves if they had the chance, the equipment, the experience: instead, they would find miniature climbs on the rocks behind us, rope up and scramble up.
One year, at least, they roped my sister and I in, literally. One would stand above, with the rope belayed, whilst we would make our way up stiffly, the other to one side, filming our endeavours with the cine camera. I heard Dad praising my sister to her mother as a natural, commenting on how she would clean handholds out with her fingers. When it was my next turn on the rope, determined to win the same praise, I spent so much time digging the moss out of a spectacularly easy crack that the whole sequence of the film is of me stood there, making no upwards progress.
For all that it was so easy to access from easy country, Goatswater was a rough place. It was always cold, the surface of the tarn white and choppy from the wind hissing through the corrie. Dow Crag leant a great tone to the atmosphere, but we were so regular in our visits.
We never went further than the shore beside the outflow, the path petering out yards from there. There were no heights from which to get a perspective on the tarn so I always think of it in that first sighting, as I ’rounded the corner’.
A couple of times I suggested going further on, following the shores of the tarn, then heading up the trackless wall of Goats Hause. That would have enabled us to look down upon Goatswater as a whole, and also to see out the other side. I was always curious to see what could be seen on the other side: it was the foundation of my urge to climb all the Wainwrights. There was no path, but there were no difficulties, and it wasn’t too steep, but my suggestions always fell upon deaf ears. Eventually, we’d pack up and set off back, down the way we came, to Torver and the car. Until the next time.
Since those days, I’ve never been back to Goatswater itself, though I have twice seen it by the view from Goats Hause that my family wouldn’t stir themselves to see.
Both times I was crossing the Hause as part of a walk between summits.
My first occasion was years ago, at the very beginning of my solo walks, a day spent in the southern part of the Coniston Range. There was no visit to Torver, nor any diversion to Banishead Quarry, just a crossing of Cove Moor on the Walna Scar Road, to the top of the Pass, and then the switchback route along the ridge of Dow Crag and its subsidiaries, before descending to cross the Hause en route to the Old Man.
And, a decade and more later, in the bright sun of a late afternoon of a glorious day, the tail end of a walk along the whole range, from the Old Man to Dow Crag, and Walna Scar Pass and back.
To be honest, from the Hause, Goatswater is nothing much to look at, though for once the sun glittered on its waters the way it never did from the shore. It belongs to Dow Crag’s crags, sombre and dark, as if on the edge of a storm. Sun does not suit it. The view from the Hause is not the view I remember when I think of Goatswater.

Cheap Cumbrian Thrills

I’ve never been a particular fan of detective stories, not in print at any rate. The only crime fiction books I own, and which I’ve kept for thirty years, are the Philip Marlowe books by Raymond Chandler (probably the Twentieth Century’s most frequently – and ineptly – imitated writer), though more recently I had a then-complete collection of the much-missed Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series (in a fantastic variety of paperback editions) which had to go when it became necessary to downsize my collection.

I don’t dislike crime fiction, probably because I don’t read enough of it to get thoroughly tired of its tropes. I read the entirety of Agatha Christie when younger, courtesy of Greater Manchester Libraries, and solved the story before the detective exactly once, and that in a short story, but I couldn’t force myself to read another page of her ever again. I read most of Ellery Queen in the same period, with rather more enjoyment but similar bafflement (I hated that period of ‘his’ career when the crime would get solved about five-sixths of the way in, only for Queen to then pull a completely new fact out of his ass that invalidated everything that had gone before).

Only recently, but long enough ago for me to have completely forgotten how, I came across the name of Martin Edwards, a well-established and highly-respected crime writer based in Liverpool. Edwards was born the same year as I and also became a Solicitor, although he’s still in the profession and has got a lot higher in it than I did. He started off with a Liverpool-set series featuring Solicitor Harry Devlin, but what caught my interest was that he has also written a series of crime novels set in the Lake District, the first ever to do so.

You’re not going to be surprised at me immediately wanting to sample them. Unfortunately, Stockport Central Library could only offer me the latest Harry Devlin book, which was alright, though not particularly special, and that’s allowing for my anti-Liverpool bias. However, a rare visit to a remainders bookshop recently turned up copies of the second and third books in the six-so-far series, cheap enough to indulge myself upon.

It was meant to be light reading, inconsequential entertainment. One unexpected side-effect of this blog is the growing difficulty I have in reading anything without analysing it as if it were to be the subject of a blogpost. Unfortunately, the first one I read was so abysmally shite, despite all the praise Edwards has received – and from people who ought to know what they’re talking about, like the aforementioned Reginald Hill – that, despite the other one being a little better, I found it impossible not set down why these books are such a disappointment.

Let me first make it plain that, as crime books, as detective stories, they’re neither better nor worse than most that I’ve read. The Cipher Garden is an orthodox puzzle, presenting a long series of suspects without ever really tipping its hand about the guilt or innocence of any of them, before revealing the culprit as the only one with no seeming part in the game, right at the very end. The murder is nasty, and there are a couple of other deaths and one psychosexual revelation that ought to have been disturbing but which everybody seemed to take very casually (no, it wasn’t brother and sister for once, thankfully: even Reginald Hill got caught up in that overused cliche, I’m sorry to say).

In contrast, The Arsenic Labyrinth is more of a missing person plot, although the person ends up being missing because she’s dead. This time, it’s pretty clear whodunnit, since he plays a pretty major role in the forefront, the real puzzle being why this has all happened (the death is accidental, more or less, but it’s why the victim was where she was to suffer her accident that eventually unravels), and there’s a pretty similiar last minute death of a perpetrator as in the preceding book.

Both novels include a sub-plot mystery, one involving the titular Cipher Garden and what exactly it is concealing, the other a second, much older murder victim found in the same Arsenic Labyrinth. In both cases, the sub-plot has nothing to do with the story, not even as a reflection or complement.

But then I don’t read crime fiction for the crime or, primarily, the solving of it. I read it for the characters involved: for Marlowe’s cynicism and dry wit nevertheless not concealing a code of ethics that, battered and strained as it may be, is the bedrock of what he has to see when he looks in that mirror, or Mid-Yorkshire’s finest trio, the Fat Man, the Graduate Copper and the Impassive Model of Efficiency.

So who does The Lake District Series offer? It’s basically a two-hander, one pro, one amateur. Or should that be the other way around? Edwards’ blog indicates that he first grew interested in the amateur, Daniel Kind: former Oxford Don, a historian who approaches history as a detective, puzzling out the truuth of the past, and thus an interestingly plausible character as an amateur detective in the present. To counterbalance him, Edwards wanted a strong female character, hence Detective Chief Inspector Hannah Scarlett who, to complement the historical theme, is the head of the recently formed Cumbria Cold Case Review team.

Both characters come with baggage designed to clog down the seemingly inevitable (and horribly slow on the evidence of these two books) progression into each other’s bed (or at least a common one). Daniel has recently lost his partner Aimee to a suicide for which he feels guilty. His life has been changed by the beautiful, passionate livewire magazine writer Miranda, who persuades him to downsize from job, home and TV career and relocate with her to a remote cottage in the remote (and fictional) Lake District valley of Brackdale.

Hannah, in contrast, is a rising figure in the Cumbria Constabulary, that is until she makes a mess of the Rao trial (which may or may not be further explicated in the first book), allowing the accused to go free. Because of this mess, she has been shunted sideways to head the newly formed Cold Case team, complete with a former Detective hired as a civilian consultant (hark, do I hear Denis Waterman singing, ‘it’s alright, it’s ok’? …). Hannah lives with her long-term partner, bookseller Mark Amos, and, coincidentally, is linked to Daniel by the fact that her mentor in the force was Daniel’s estranged father Ben Kind (now deceased), who abandoned his wife and two children years earlier for a younger woman.

So Hannah investigates cold cases, whilst Daniel gets intrigued by historical incidents that somehow end up overlapping with these cases, and both spend lots of time trying to put the other out of their mind because they, just like the other, have a partner they are at the very least turned on by (so far, the copious, but only lightly described sex is between our couples), whilst trying not to come on too personally to each other when they do cross trails, in case the other gets the wrong, i.e., right idea. The fact that Miranda breaks up with Daniel at the end of book 3 no doubt does nothing to accelerate this pair’s progress.

Curiously, though perhaps not so curiously, whilst Edwards is always quick to provide brief descriptions of all the supporting characters (especially when it comes to the skirt levels of the females), he doesn’t provide any substantial descriptions of either Daniel or Hannah. We know that the latter is gradually lightening her hair a shade at a time from book to book, on the way to being dazzlingly blonde, and that she doesn’t have pneumatic breasts, but that’s as far as it goes.

Nor are we given any hints as to their ages, which are presumably contemporary to some degree. Hannah’s young enough to get pregnant (but suffer a very early miscarriage) in The Cipher Garden but given the respective career paths to be travelled to reach, on one side, a Detective Chief Inspectorship and, on the other hand, a professorship at Oxford, I’d have though the pair must be in their forties at least. Six months pass between the two books, and Daniel shoots off to America after the latter, delaying book four until his return, so tempus is fugiting, yet Hannah’s Mark (who doesn’t want to become a father) is still plausibly arguing they have years yet to make a decision

I can’t say I’m impressed by either of them, as you may have guessed by describing the first of these two reads as ‘absolute shite’ and, if you’re the kind of perceptive reader I think you are, who knows how much I love the Lake District, and who has noted that whilst I said I was interested in these books because that’s where they’re set, but I haven’t mentioned that side of it yet, you’ve no doubt guessed by now what part of these two books I am SERIOUSLY not impressed with. So here we go.

The first of these two books is set east of Esthwaite Water, around a fictional village of Old Sawrey that’s an addition to the real landscape of Near and Far Sawrey, with their Beatrix Potter connections. The second is set in Coniston Village, with an added post-industrial feature transplanted from elsewhere in the form of the Arsenic Labyrinth. Cumbria Constabulary Divisional HQ seems, somewhat improbably, to be set in Kendal rather than the more obvious Carlisle (Kendal having been part of the long-obliterated Westmorland, pre-1974). Daniel and Miranda’s Brackdale feels to be somewhere in the south-east Lakes in the first book, though it’s never defined: indeed Edwards on his blog confirms that he visualises it being between Kentmere and Longsleddale, so score one for my perceptions.

And Edwards admits to fictionalising geography to one degree or another. As for the rest of it, his research has been thorough, detailed and a genuine pleasure for him. And, as far as I am able to discern, from a Cumbrian grandfather and an association with the Lakes stretching back over fifty years now, conducted with a completely tin ear. There is nothing, and no-one in either of these boks that remotely suggests the Lake District. There are place names, bandied about with no context but names, there are fells that are named with no thought for what they look like, what shape they give to the landscape – fur hilven, the word fell only appears once in either of these books, as part of the generic name of the fictional Tarn Fell in Brackdale: every single reference to the fells is as mountains! There are no fucking mountains anywhere near Esthwaite Water, the whole point of the place is that it is purely pastoral.

And not a single person in either of these books sounds like a Cumbrian for so much as a sentence. I’m not asking for dialect and phonetic spelling, but please, if this is supposed to be authentic, why does nobody speak with the slightest inflection in their voice, the slightest suggestion of Cumbrian rhythm, not even a suggestion of any slowness of speech. There is nobody in either book who sounds as if they have ever been to the Lakes for more than a half day trip, no matter how long they’re supposed to have lived there.

And Edwards seems obsessed by the idea that there is a motor-route called the Hardknott Pass. Not once does it get mentioned as anything other than the (as opposed to any of the other Hardknotts sprinkled round the place, or maybe the other Passes, not one of which has a name remotely like Hardknott) Hardknott (as opposed to, ooh, say, Hard Knott – since it’s name is derived from the definitely-spelt-as-two-words fell overlooking it) Pass. It’s Hard Knott Pass, and it’s universally referred to as Hard Knott, because there is probably only one person in every thousand who knows there is even a Hard Knott fell, and no-one in my fifty eight years of life has ever referred to it as the Hardknott.

That little gem featured prominently throught The Cipher Garden where it was the scene of a long ago alibi, and where it was the Hardknott Pass to Wasdale, which it is if you ignore the fact that it comes down into Eskdale, down which you have to travel a long way before there’s a road round into Wasdale – and that’s Eskdale, by the way, not, as people seem to think in the other book, the Eskdale Valley. As for the oh so closely researched The Arsenic Garden, much of the action, and indeed the murder, takes place in Coppermines Valley, between the Old Man and Wetherlem, Coppermines Valley, the scene of quarrying and mining, centuries worth, Coppermines Valley, which rises to the largest body of water this side of the Coniston Fells, Levers Water.

That’s Levers Water with an ‘R’. It is not Levens Water, NOT Levens Water with an ‘N’, is there nobody with an ounce of knowledge of the Lakes who could at least proof-read these books?

So pardon me if I cannot sympathise with the ultimately banal concerns of Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind and in which book they will eventually satisfy their non-existent sexual tension (there was more tension in the relationship between Daniel and his law lecturer sister than I could finding his essentially schoolboy yearnings about the equally schoolgirlish DCI). I am thoroughly repelled by the complete lack of understanding or conviction on the writer’s part about the Lakes, the balloon thin conviction of place and the smugness with which he thinks he’s got it.

Try reading Reginald Hill’s The Woodcutter instead. It might have a brother and sister having it off, and a highly melodramatic climax atop Pillar Rock, but if you want to feel that you’re in the Lakes, you’ll know it.

Little Gems – Holme Fell

Coniston Water from Holme Fell

Holme Fell is a true Lakeland fell in miniature, rough, aggressive, craggy, and spoiled only by its complete lack of height, just over 1,000 feet.
Geographically, the fell lies north of Coniston village, under the shadow of the Coniston range. Wetherlam’s third, and most diffuse ridge, culminating in the exciting (from below) ramparts of the Yewdale Fells, is bordered to the east by the shy, sylvan Tilberthwaite valley. A low ridge runs from Wetherlam across the head of the valley, which is closed off to the east by the rough sprawl of Holme Fell, which falls away towards the uplands between the Coniston range and Windermere, which includes Black Fell.
The summit of the fell is defended by a rim of crags that is only breached on the eastern flank. Take the Ambleside road north out of the village, into the long, flat, sylvan valley beyond. The road hugs the western side, underneath the Yewdale fells: if the weather has been wet and the becks are in spate, it’s worth pulling up just to look at the tumbling waters. When Holme Fell appears, directly ahead, a side road escapes left, to Tilberthwaite and the main road turns right, across the valley. The gap of Tilberthwaite opens alarmingly wide, the skyline disappearing completely in a most unLakes manner. Pass a side road signposted Hodge Close Only, and the entrance to Yew Tree Farm then, as the road turns left again on reaching the other side of the valley, look to park among the woods on the outside of the corner. This is the recognised car park for the scramble up besides Tom Gill to the picturesque Tarn Hows. If this is full, which on a sunny day is quite possible, there is off-road parking available further on the road, by the artificial fishing tarn.
Walk back, taking great care as this is a busy road, to the entrance to Yew Tree Farm and turn in at the gate. Almost immediately, take the gate to the right, closing it firmly behind you, and finding a path that heads away round the corner of the fell ahead, through fields of overgrown grass. The noise of the road is still there, if slightly distanced, and this is a pleasant stroll round to the eastern side of Holme Fell.
After about a quarter mile, the path starts to tend leftwards, towards the base of the fell. All this flank is quite thickly wooded, and the path makes its way into the trees and begins to rise.
It continues to climb at the same, steady, even angle across the flank of the field. below and to the right, the ground falls away sharply, although for most of the way there is enough of a screen of trees to your right to avoid any risk of vertigo, and whilst the ascent is never easy, it’s completely safe.
After a time, the trees begin to thin out, the sound of cars diminishes and is replaced by the sound of running water. This marks the approach to Uskdale Gap: the path begins to lose a little of its steepness and emerges into the open under the rim of crags, before turning into the wide channel of the Gap. Follow this up, keeping the beck to your right, and emerge onto the edge of a scruffy, rock-strewn top, with paths streaming away north and west.
Ivy Crag, decorated by a prominent cairn, lies directly south, and from there turn west to pick your way to the summit rocks.
Holme Fell’s situation, close to the high wall of Wetherlam, restricts its view, but the full-length prospect of Coniston Water is the obvious highlight, and a fine reason, alongside the exercise, be up here in the first place.
A return by the same route is perfectly feasible, but it’s always more fun to find a different route, and the paths across the back of the fell are too wide and too inviting not to explore. It’s worth a stroll even if you plan on descending via Uskdale Gap, but if you direct your steps towards the north west corner of the fell, you can find a steep and winding path down through the woods on that side, that, if approached with care, brings you down onto the Hodge Close road.
Stroll back along the tarmac, with no worries about traffic disturbing you, and Tilberthwaite Beck bubbling beside. Just short of the main road, a gate leads onto a field path back to Yew Tree Farm, paralleling the road but avoiding the risks of having to walk that, until you reach the farm entrance and have to complete your journey back to the care with your eye on the copious traffic.

Little Gems – Black Fell

Ambleside and the head of Windermere from Black Fell

The Lake District is not just good for the big, all day walks, through stirring country, striding out in the sky all day, returning fatigued with satisfaction. It’s also blessed with little fells, miniatures in the midst of high country that offer nothing better than an afternoon’s quiet and gentle exercise, and views that are an over-reward for the effort necessary to reach their tops.
They’re fells for those who are ageing, whose stamina and agility is not what it once was. For those who have families adorned with small children, whose safety and stamina has to be the first consideration, for those whose time is restricted, for walkers who are starting their holiday in the middle of the day and want a good little leg-stretcher, a loosener before the serious business of Helvellyn or the Pike in the morning.
They’re fells for days that started with cloud and rain overhanging everything, and not just Skiddaw, only to clear unexpectedly at 2.00pm, leaving the air smelling fresh and clean. They’re even fells for that long summer evening, when the sun shows an extreme reluctance to leave the sky and the light is soft and rich.
It’s a bit of a cliche, but for one reason or another, they’re little gems and I’m going to write about a few of them in this new series.

First, and almost the lowest of the low in the Wainwrights is Black Fell, in the Southern Fells, a low and rambling wedge of land taking up a surprising length of Windermere’s western shores. Geographically, it’s the easternmost extension of the Coniston Group: where that range traditionally is bounded by the Yewdale fells limb of Wetherlam, the ground extends beyond the Tilberthwaite Valley, encompassing the little top of Holme Fell and, after being crossed by the main Coniston-Ambleside road at its lowest point, rises to touch the 1,000′ contour one last time, at Black Fell’s summit. Beyond it, the ground falls away at last towards Windermere.
Whilst it’s possible to force away up through the trees that cluster on the eastern flank, paths are not easy to follow in the plantations and there is little to see among the trees. The usual route crosses the fell on a well-established bridleway, from the north-western corner, overlooking the lowest part of Langdale, as far as the plantations south of the fell, which hold the famous Tarn Hows. The path itself simply doubles back, uphill, to the surprisingly isolated summit and its impressive cairn.
The start of the walk is a white gate on the east of the Coniston-Ambleside road, just before the road disappears into the trees to drop, quite sharply, towards Skelwith Bridge. There is a lay-by which doubles as the approach to a farm access on the opposite side, about 100 yards away in the Coniston direction: do NOT block the farm road.
From the gate, the walk starts immediately, and surprisingly steeply up a grassy bank about fifty feet high. This is actually the most strenuous walking between here and the summit.
The bridleway levels off just beyond the crest and trends gently up and down across the wide flank of Black Fell, heading generally in a direction south of south-east. Trainers are good enough for this section, although overall walking boots are preferable, particularly for the last section. The way bypasses a working farm – the path becoming heavily-rutted in this area – and ambles forward until it is south of the summit. Then it begins to descend noticeably, into a wide and shallow col. Plantations appear ahead, behind a well-constructed drystone wall, and the path heads towards a prominent ladder-stile. look, however, left for a path breaking off and doubling back uphill.
After an initial section of very easy scrambling, the path emerges into the open. The summit rocks are visible half-right and the path heads fairly directly towards them, emerging on a broad platform decorated by a substantial cairn, a substantial wall b=with a massive step-stile leading over it, the whole thing guarded by a surprisingly steep trench close at hand to the west.
There used to be some doubt about whether there were rights of way across the wall. Most people will cross the stile just to see what it’s like on that side, but wandering too far is not recommended, there being no discernible paths and the ground soon starting to fall away.
The view is exceptionally good for such a low summit, but it comes from Black Fell’s relative isolation. Windermere is seen at length, a side-on view of the upper two-thirds of Lake, with the islands opposite Bowness Bay being a particular highlight under a high sun. It’s a superb station for the Ambleside-based walker, on the first day of his holiday, to get a sense of the local geography, and a good look at the major fell-groups – the Conistons, Bowfell and the Crinkles, the Langdale Pikes, the Fairfield Horseshoe, Red Screes and Kirkstone Pass and the Ill Bell Range: a week’s walking to study for so little effort.
Those who do not have such ambitions will experience the joy of reaching a summit for very little expenditure of time or energy, and will relish the views as a proper reward.
Enterprising walkers, especially those conscious of geography, will have worked out that the route back involves a biggish detour to the south, and will want to consider the possibility of just striking out west and hitting the bridleway overland. This is perfectly possibly, but the presence of the trench complicates things and a long, rough detour about its head, north, is necessary, on surprisingly rough terrain. Care is necessary and the detour ends up not really being a saving, especially on time, but if the weather is good, it can be a fun exercise in primitive route-finding. Once at the bridleway, walk home.

The Coniston Round

Coniston Old ManThe Old Man above his Village

Before the restructuring of Local Government in 1974, the Lake District was divided between three of the ancient shires of England. These were Cumberland, which lent a variation of its name to the new integrated region, Westmorland, which was cleared from the map, and Lancashire, in the form of the Furness District, otherwise known as Lancashire-across-the-water, the water in question being Morecambe Bay.
The boundaries between the three counties met at the top of Wrynose Pass, as commemorated by The Three Shire Stone, with the county boundaries proceeding along the Duddon Valley to the south west, and the Brathay Valley in the east. Lancashire’s only range of fells was the Coniston Range, and their highest point, Coniston old Man, was thus the highest point in Lancashire.
But these days are long gone. The undistinguished Gragareth serves as Lancashire’s highest point now, a highest point impossible to detect on its flat and featureless top, whilst the Coniston Range remains among the most popular walking destinations in the Lakes.
Geographically, the Coniston group is built around a central, north-south ridge linking the two highest peaks, the Old Man in the south, and Swirl How in the north, with outliers to each side. Swirl How is the geographically significant fell in the range, with ridges spinning west, north and east from its neat, uncluttered top, to the south, an outlying spur to the west of the Old Man leads to the group’s finest cliff-face and its sharpest summit.
At first description, it would seem that to devise a walk that covers all the seven summits in the range in a single day would be an artificial thing, full of back-tracking. However, the proximity of the outliers at the northern end of the ridge, and the sheer bulk of that eastern outlier, Wetherlam, which runs to three southward ridges itself, enables the walk to be planned as a circuit of Coppermines Valley. In this manner, there is the barest minimum of walking over trodden ground during the day, and that towards its end.
The walk has to be based upon Coniston Village, where parking is easy to be had (and I am not going to reveal where free road parking can be found, in case you fill it up before I can get there).

The mouth of Coppermines Valley, surrounded by high fells

Coppermines Valley is reached along the lane at the side of the White Horse, which rapidly changes from tarmac to rough, land rover track, until the path begins to rise among trees, climbing to the mouth of the valley. Land Rovers, and cars with top notch shock absorbers can make it this far as the former miners cottages just inside the valley have been converted to holiday homes. The path turns away from them in disdain, climbing back upon itself to a platform from where the lake below first comes into sight. Here the path doubles back once more, and before long it can be seen angling across the rising fellside, making for a deep fold in the ridge a half mile distant.
Ahead, the deep trench of Coppermines Valley shows ample evidence of the mining and quarrying activity of centuries, and Wetherlam’s Black Sail ridge drops steeply into the valley, offering another potential route of ascent.
The current walk lies on the flanks of the Yewdale Fells, those splendid ramparts that look so impressive above the northern approaches to Coniston Village, but which are no more than a facade for the indefinite ground at the end of Wetherlam’s longest and loosest ridge.
Follow the path into the notch in the ridge. This, if followed, descends to Tilberthwaite, in its quiet valley, but when a track splits off left, crossing the little trench, transfer to this. In a short distance, it starts to climb upwards, onto the broad end of the Lad Stones ridge.
The ridge is primarily broad and grassy in its lower section, but there is a decided change in texture halfway up, as rock increasingly comes to litter the way, until the wide, untidy top comes underfoot, and the first north and westward views of the day come into sight, the Scafells being the centre of the picture. The unruly cairn is close to the steep edge overlooking Little Langdale and care should be taken approaching the lip of the summit to maximise the downward views.

Wetherlam, across Coppermines Valley

From here, the walk turns west, following a well-walked, surprisingly narrow in parts path, which crosses behind the subsidiary Black Sail summit. A short diversion can add this to the walk with a small expenditure of energy, but bear in mind there are many miles to go.
The path descends steeply to the narrow col of Levers Hause, from where an easy return to Coniston can be made, left, through Coppermines valley, if this were necessary. Ahead however is one of the highlights of the walk, the steep, hands on rock ascent of the Prison Band, a series of rocky towers leading almost the whole way to Swirl How’s top. There will have been ample opportunity to study this on the descent, together with the easier path to its right, which offers a steep ascent without undue excitement. Having done both on different occasions, I have to point you to the rock.

The Prison Band, and Swirl How beyond

Swirl How’s neat, uncrowded summit allows you to see the range almost in full, and to appreciate its geographical importance. The main ridge heads south, but Great Carrs and Grey Friar loom close at hand, and a simple study of the ground suggests that the next hour or so need not be a series of there and back again ridges.
Great Carrs, curving around the unfrequented valley of Greenburn Beck, looms close at hand. Wainwright describes the walk around the valley head as a seven minute stroll, and I am proud to have matched that timetable on two widely separated occasions. Admittedly, there is little sense of achievement associated with this crossing: the fell deserves an ascent across its own footprint at some point, to be properly enjoyed.
There is no need to return to Swirl How: from the lowest point of the depression, contour across right and down to join the long, straightforward downhill track onto the wide plateau of Fairfield, or just aim directly for it anyway, the ground being free from danger. Beyond, the track rises to approach the square top of Grey Friar. Apart from its spectacular view of the Scafell Range, there is little to commend the fell, though a decent walk can be made of the ridge from the Duddon Valley. Simply tick it, off, relish the view, and return to Fairfield.

Swirl How, Great Carrs and Grey Friar

It may be thought that an ascent back to Swirl How is now needed, with the fell looking like a green wall, but a well-engineered path curves away from the plateau to the south, maintaining a level contour around the head of the valley containing Seathwaite Tarn. The path encourages striding out with no effort, with the Tarn slowly curving into view as the valley opens below. there’s a point at which the path suddenly disappears, overrun by a wet patch of indeterminate width, but simply walk up the fellside about fifteen feet and a parallel path enables progress to continue.
It looks like the level route will take you to Levers Hawse, the lowest point on the ridge, and if you wish, conserve energy by going all the way. A better option is, when the upthrust of Little Gowder Crag comes level on the skyline, and the Tarn is in full view, zigzag up the fellside in wide sweeps, and gain the ridge for the rest of the walk. The openness, and the scramble over LGC are worth it.
At Lever’s Hawse, the broad path starts to rise again, crossing the broad back of Brim Fell. There is a tiny cairn on its flat top, but otherwise nothing to hold the interest, so march on, crossing the shallow dip in the ridge and follow a similar path up the wide northern side of Coniston Old Man, the highest point, by the odd couple of feet, of the day.
Where Brim Fell offers nothing to delay the walker, the Old Man’s top is a place for rest, contemplation and, in amongst the crowds, perusal of the views, which extend south as far as Blackpool Tower, which the more tripper oriented among the crowds will be actively straining to see. The true walker’s eyes will be fixed due west, upon the magnificent cliffs of Dow Crag, the final summit of the day.

The Old Man of Coniston and Brim Fell

There is no direct route possible, thanks to the deep trench holding the invisible Goatswater between the two fells, but the walk around the hollow of the tarn is easy throughout. Tired walkers will no doubt debate the wisdom of walking westward when Coniston Village and the car lies due east. This is the wisdom of doing this walk anti-clockwise: the leg-weary walker will be infinitely more enthused at adding to the miles to cross Dow Crag than he or she will for Grey Friar.
Retrace steps a hundred yards or so and take a route curving down to the left, across the flank of the Old man and onto the wideness of Goat’s Hause. The ascent on the far side, swinging around behind the fearsome crags, is without difficulty, although the highest point is, like such fells as Helm Crag and Harter Fell in Eskdale, achievable only by a short rock climb. First time visitors will feel obliged to complete the walk: those who have already scaled Dow Crag have the liberty of conscience to stand as close as they can to the final upthrust and call the job done, in the interests of aching legs. Continue along the declining ridge, rising at intervals to cross the lower tops of Brown Pike and Buck Pike, before descending finally to the summit of Walna Scar Pass.

Dow Crag from the Old Man

There has been enough opportunity in the final stages of the descent to see that the summit of Walna Scar fell lies only a few steps above the short green slope south west of the Pass. Walna Scar is not part of the Coniston Range, nor even in the Southern Fells, but it does feature in the Outlying Fells, and indeed is the only top in that volume to exceed 2,000′. Peak baggers will be tempted, but anyone having the excess energy to spring up this final slope should be subjected to steroid tests on the return to the Village.
Instead, turn thankfully east, negotiating the initially steep and, when last walked, extremely eroded upper section of the Pass. Gradually, the slopes level out, to cross the wide expanse of Cove Moor, by Cove Bridge. Beyond, the way is crossed by a profusion of routes, on the popular walk from Torver to Goatswater and the Old Man. Banishead Quarry, with its spectacular waterfall, is only a short distance downhill, but most walkers will have their sights set on the long tramp back. The Walna Scar Road descends gently between a pair of rock gateways, passes the shy, reedy Boo Tarn, at the foot of Wainwright’s favourite ascent of the Old Man, long since buried under the expanding grounds of Bursting Stone Quarry, and culminates at the parking area at the top of the narrow fell road down into the Village.
Unless a lift can be hitched from a departing driver grateful for you holding the fell-gate open for them, march on in what will hopefully be early evening sun, lit by intimate views of the country below the Old Man, and the unusual rib of the Bell, before arriving in the Village by the road next to the long-closed station.
If the Coop is still open, grab an ice cream bar. If the day has been hot, grab two: the first won’t even touch the sides.

The Bell, from the road back to the Village