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.

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