Joined-up Walking


Wetherlam Edge

I’d gone away in March, I’d got back into my boots for the first time in nearly a decade, and it hadn’t killed me. Let’s do this again.

I was enjoying myself at my new firm, settling into place. I’d started at a very busy time, too busy basically for anyone to properly speak to me that first week, or rather four days since it ran up to Good Friday. The firm’s principal client was the Housing Corporation and it had £7,000,000 to disburse on various Refurbishment and Newbuild schemes by Housing Associations in the North of England. It had to all be spent by Easter, or the budget for 1983/4 would be cut, and my new colleagues were working every hour God sent to get this done, and a newby who didn’t know the procedures couldn’t take any of the strain from them.

I had no interest in the conventional sun and sea holidays, I had no children restricting my holiday times to school holidays, I was happy to let my colleagues take the prime weeks as long as I got the days here and there for Roses Matches and the Old Trafford Test, and I booked my real holiday for the beginning of September, and went off once more to the Lakes, after the crowds had started to thin.

It was the same as before: set off on Monday for Ambleside, but this time I stayed two nights there, and two nights in Keswick. And from Ambleside on Tuesday, I set off to the Tilberthwaite Valley.

We’d visited once in the Seventies, the post-Dad family, changing into our boots, setting off into the gorge, heading for Tilberthwaite Gill falls. Which were about five minutes away. I can’t help but be amused by it: a complete failure of planning by my Uncle and Mother. Given the number of times I’d read the Wainwrights by then,I was far better prepared than anyone else to plan a walk in new country, but of course I was still part of the ‘children’, which meant that my voice counted for absolutely nothing.

We’d barely begun and here we were, sat around on the banks as if we were stopping for a much deserved drink, nothing to do and nowhere to go, since the gorge stopped there. Having not used up even the least amount of energy, I prowled around, discovered a path under the trees, scaling the flank of the gorge behind us and received official permission to see where it went. I scrambled uphill, under the trees, to where it debouched onto a wide, well-made track rising from right to left, just inviting exploration.

I descended, reported my discovery and, with a certain degree of resignation among the adults that seemed to be based on this being my idea and not their’s, led them up into the open air and along the track. Not far ahead, it would round to the right, into a shallow, upland valley, walled off by a green ridge at its further end.

The path – an old miner’s track to their mines – was beautifully graded. It skirted the edge of the valley to the old, abandoned mines, at the valley end, and we followed the track as it continued upwards, to the ridge, with Wetherlam rising majestically to the left.

I was all in favour of going for it. We hadn’t expended that much energy getting here, and we had ample time, but the adults were not in favour (I had gotten too much leeway today as it was). So we walked back, following the miner’s track all the way down, then round to the car parked at the foot of the Gill.

I walked ahead, all the way, separated from the rest of the family. I had begun to do that since my Peak Forest Canal sponsored walk in 1972. I didn’t go too far distant, but I was fitter and a faster walker than the rest, and I suppose that subconsciously I was demonstrating how I was continually straining at the leash.

As a family, we never went back to Tilberthwaite but I remembered the miner’s route and kept it in mind, and now I was in charge, it seemed a perfect opportunity to follow my interest, and not to stop at the foot of the ridge again. It was a sunny day, unlike my two expeditions in March, and after sweating a bit to get up the first climb out of Tilberthwaite – these miners really walked to work this way every morning? Cor! – I got into the upper valley and made good time round its rim and onto the ridge.

With the exception of my brief, rocket-fueled powering up Helvellyn from Striding Edge, Wetherlam Edge was the roughest thing I’d tackled thus far. It was a broken route, without a consistent path, and sometimes it took me to the literal edge. I was tense all the way, worrying about getting into a position from which I couldn’t retreat, but I negotiated my way to the summit, with its impressive views over towards the Scafells, and I had reached my first substantial, serious top on my own.

But it was the same as Helm Crag in the March: now I was here, what did I do next? Once again I hadn’t thought further than the summit I’d set out to attain and it was still far too early that day to just turn back and head for my car. It certainly wasn’t going to rain that afternoon.

So, because it was still early, not even 1.00pm, I ploughed on to the next obvious destination, Swirl How, across Swirl Hause. This meant facing the Prison Band or rather, at this early stage in my career, taking the path avoiding the crest and the scramble, to its right, until I was on the summit. I had completed my first ridge route, I had climbed two fells in the same day for the first time ever!

And from Swirl How’s summit, the ridge curved around the head of Greendale, to nearby Great Carrs, whose summit cairn was entirely too near for me to ignore it. A seven minute stroll, Wainwright called it, which was a challenge worth taking up. I didn’t exactly saunter, in fact I strode out enthusiastically rather than stroll, and I was at the cairn in exactly seven minutes.

Then it was another case of what next? Grey Friar was in sight, it was still only 2.30pm, what was to stop me? It was a consciousness of my inexperience, not in the sense of potential lack of competence, but a genuine lack of any understanding of my stamina. I could go on, but at what point was I going to start to flag? Thanks to my lack of foresight, every step forward was carrying me further away from my car, would be a step back I had to cover when I reach the limits of my stamina.

Reluctantly, because it was still a lovely afternoon, sunny and bright and hours of it to come, I turned back. Back round Greendale head to Swirl How – definitely not a seven minutes stroll that way – down beside the Prison Band and a somewhat wearing scramble back onto and towards Wetherlam.

The ascent of Wetherlam Edge had left me eager to avoid it on the way back, and the chance came when I was on the ridge, still climbing towards the summit. Grassy flanks opened up to my right, pathless but inviting. No need to climb any higher, I could detour across this flank, work my way onto the Lad Stones ridge, down towards the valley and, lower down, when the ridge began to bend west towards Coniston, and the path from Coppermines Valley to Tilberthwaite was visible in open country, I could divert eastwards to pick it up.

There were a couple of walkers camped on the path. It seemed churlish to aim to avoid them, though they were a pair of middle-aged women who’d stopped for a brew. And my inexperience had shown in my having carried insufficient liquid that I was dry and parched. Kindly, they poured out for me a cup of tea, though the milk was heading rapidly towards the turn and little bits of it floated in the cup, which made me feel a bit ill (which I tried to both ignore and not show).

And then it was the final leg, descending into Tilberthwaite Gorge, steeply beside the invisible falls, and out into the car park, approaching my car from the opposite side to that I had left six hours or so previously.

The next day, I moved on to Keswick, using the day to relax and move about. For some absurd reason that I wouldn’t grow out of for another couple of years, I had the impression that I wasn’t fit enough to go walking more than every other day, so I had no plans to do any more walking until Thursday.

As I’ve mentioned many times, my family was rooted in the southwest quarter of Lakeland, the Southern and Western Fells, with an expedition into the Central Fells, and I had dragged us into the Eastern and Far Eastern Fells on that final holiday near Ullswater. But none of us had done any walking in the North Western Fells, and Wainwright’s obvious love of that region had attracted my attention a hundred times when I had been reading the books.

Now was the time to break that duck, beginning with the attractive oddity of Causey Pike.

It looked seriously steep as I approached it from the road across the valley, parked in a corner of the road that didn’t obstruct anyone’s way. I was tossing over in my mind how to proceed, right up to the foot of the fell: did I take the narrow, exciting route over Rowling End, or did I play safe and take the boring, steady route to the base of the fell? Well, duh!

It was Rowling End, then a steep ascent, although I did bottle out on the short scramble over the final few feet of rock just below the cairn (this first time). And here I was.

And there was Scar Crags, further back, higher, much less distinctive, mind, so I set off in that direction. By the time I reached its whaleback top, the clouds were gathering and rain was no longer merely an option, so I passed straight on, there being nothing to detain me on the top, not even a decent cairn.

Down to the col and, the conditions being what they were, turning down on the right, into the narrow valley that would lead me back to the road and the car. Except that it didn’t come on to rain that quickly. It grew dim and grey, and there was a parallel ridge that wasn’t all that high above the valley, so I crossed over, across the damp, green-looking bed of what must once have been a tarn, and contoured my way awkwardly up to the top of Outerside.

I was now on a roll, down Outerside’s steep, long southern ridge, by-passing Stile End – it did not count as a Wainwright – and up to the top of Barrow: only two days and I had already exceeded my record number of fells in a single day. I had also, more by luck than good judgement, found the kind of walk I would specialise in in future. I had ascended by one ridge and descended by another, minimising to the point of almost obliteration, the ground I had to tread twice in a day (hence my use of the term ‘trodden ground’ for that part of the walk I had to tackle twice).

There being no direct way down from Barrow towards my car, I retreated to the col below Stile End and took the diagonal path heading back up the gill that would merge, further up, with the path descending it. Just where the two met, the heavens opened. I sat down and pulled on my waterproofs, and then walked back down the gill to the car.

Seven summits in two walks, but more importantly I had begun to accustom myself to the fells. To longer walks with more tops than my family had ever planned, to forward planning, so that I could arrange my walks to avoid repeating or retreading my steps. To realising that I didn’t need company on the fells, that solitude and autonomy were brilliant, and that I wasn’t maybe a liability to myself after all, who had to have someone around to tell me where to walk and get me out of the problems I’d inevitably stumble over if I was left to take responsibility for my clumsy, useless self.

I was already addicted to the fells. It hadn’t quite come to me that I could go on and climb all of them. The desire had been there, in every page of every Wainwright that I’d read and re-read, over and over. I needed to start to believe in my capacity for doing so. March had seen me get into my boots again, but September had start to build my never sturdy confidence that I could physically do it. The road to anywhere starts with a single step, but getting there requires understanding that you can indeed put one walking boot in front of another enough times to get to the end, and I was already looking forward to next year, and more places I’d never been, more paths I’d never followed, and more views that I would reach under my own steam.

The channge meant never going back to Throstlegarth from Brotherilkeld, or Goatswater from Torver again. It meant that climbing Mill Gill to Stickle Tarn was a means to an end, not a destination itself.

Why my mother,and my Uncle, weren’t interested, why they wanted only so many things and nothing more when there was the whole of the Lakes to be taken in and enjoyed, I never knew nor understood. My mother would enjoy the photos I brought back, but even if her slowly deteriorating health would have allowed her, she would never have dreamed of walking in those, to her, alien places (I do her one injustice: in the second Drought Summer, in 1984, she drove herself to Mardale, walked through the revealed Village of Mardale Green. But she wouldn’t even have considered little Latrigg, because it didn’t lie between Ambleside and Wasdale.)

We are all strangers to each other, no matter how close we are. I always imagine that my Dad would have followed ever footstep I made in the fells (except the stupid ones) if he’d had the opportunity. On Earth-2, I like to think that he did. Solitude and autonomy are one thing, but I’d have welcomed his company every single day.

Another Day Out: The Lakes (part 1)


I’m writing this not from my usual base but from the Lake District, Penrith to be exact, and I’m here not just for the day but the night: sleeping over and going home tomorrow, leisurely.

I’m here for Life of a Mountain: Blencathra at the Rheged Centre, a report on which will follow later in the day. This is my first visit to Cumbria this year, and since the dreadful floods of the turn of the year, and it’s the best weather I’ve seen in all my previous visits. From the 6.00 am alarm, it’s been blue sky and cotton wool clouds, though they did sort of amass at one point en route, suggesting less dry weather ahead, which so far has not only failed to materialise, but also to look likely.

The travel has, as usual, been the torture. It usually is but today’s programme has been particularly fraught with traps for my usual paranoia: bus to Piccadilly Gardens, walk to Victoria Railway Station, train to Preston and Rail Replacement Coach, all to arrive four hours earlier than I need, but this is the only way into Penrith by public transport from Manchester today, hence the insanely early start.

The last changeover was the one giving my nerves most to work on but it was smooth as butter: four of us on a single-decker coach, bound for Penrith. Actually, it’s all gone well, with the only hitch being right at the start: the bus was five minutes late. Of course it was: it’s only the first bus of the day, four stops out of the bus station, 7.19am, what on Earth made me think it might be on time?

I was feeling a bit frazzled then, and a lot more now as yesterday didn’t go well. Between the dreadful news about Darwyn Cooke and an unexpected exchange of texts in the evening, the implications of which I’m still trying to analyse (private stuff, people, not unrelated to a recent post), I lost it last night, couldn’t even summon up the energy to watch the Eurovision Song Contest, or even the voting (I haven’t missed that in over a quarter century and I still don’t even know the answer as I write), and of course fretted about waking up in time today.

As a result of which I beat the alarm by at least fifteen minutes, hence the feeling a bit fuzzy round the edges by now.

But the drive up was greatly enjoyable. From Lancaster, Morecambe Bay and the southernmost fells came into view, and from a coach you can see much further than the near ground level of a car. I could soon see from friendly old Black Combe through to Dow Crag and the Old Man, whilst north of Lancaster, more and more fells and valleys became visible, until I could see the whole panoply of ridges across South and East Lakeland from Dow Crag to the fells east of Longsleddale. Not all of it all at once (bloody trees fringing the M6) but it’s the longest and widest panorama of the fells that I’ve been in much too young.

North of the M6 summit there was another vista to survey (not that I am denigrating anything east of Tebay Gorge, which was looking very attractive as well, but it’s not the Lakes, is it?) Again, it’s a long time since I’ve seen these fells so clearly and so well lit. I quickly identified Swindale and Mardale (always a breeze when Kidsty Pike is visible), only to realise that I couldn’t properly see the former from the south and that what  I was looking at was Wet Sleddale, which I have never visited. It looked good from this angle for once.

The cloud was high enough that not of the tops were obscured, yet the air made everything look pale,  low and distant. Glad as I was to see so much after so much time, I couldn’t help but feel a certain sadness. There was no intimacy to the views, and that is what I’ve lost. The fells and I are no longer intimate friends but former neighbours, mindful of our past closeness, but gone our separate ways.

Enough of that! I’m here now, and in fifteen minutes time I’m out to the bus to the Rheged Centre. Time to find out what really happened to Stuart Maconie and Edd Byrnes on Sharp Edge…

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.

Cumbria Scenes – An Epilogue


There were more walks after Seatallan and Middle Fell. I was free to explore wherever I wished, and to return to places last seen long years before. For several months, I could cheerfully boast that I had done all the Wainwrights in a cycle of less than ten years. And I could chance my arm at things like Lord’s Rake now that a slip, and a broken leg, would not have meant the ultimate disaster of falling short.
But those years were all too short, far shorter than I could ever imagine they’d be. Injury, working commitments, constraints of time and money, and the dream of an unexpected marriage: all these things happened.
Now I’m 57: overweight, with no stamina, dodgy knees, diabetic, financially strapped. Can’t get there, couldn’t do what I used to do if I did, not without a lot of practice to regain walking fitness once more. There’s still Jack’s Rake I haven’t done, and the West Wall Traverse, and the Robinson’s Cairn route to Pillar, and maybe Sharp Edge again, or toiling up Gable by Gavel Neese and the Hellgates, to Westmorland Cairn.
And there’s Dodd, High Stile and Seat Sandal, from whom I’ve yet to see a view.
Or every one of the routes I’ve taken that, given a heartbeat to make a decision, I would walk again.
I live in hope, if not, at the moment, with hope.
But this series is over. Will there be a third series? This epilogue appears long months after it was written, and the urge to take myself out among the rocks and bracken of memory remains quiet. Not yet, if ever, is the only answer I can give.
In the meantime, there is one more photo to share, that belongs here.

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Stanley Crookall (1929 – 1970)
Dorothy Crookall (nee Robinson) (1926-1991)
Mam and Dad