The Grand Tour of the Lakes: Stage Three – West to North


One last look back

Stage Three of the Grand Tour takes us from Wasdale to Keswick, West to North. This was the great unknown, the unexplored territory of that rainy day back in the Sixties. My family walked in this sector only a handful of times, less even than that, but over time I have driven these roads many times over, and climbed all the fells to be had in this distant quarter.
In Wasdale, we’d only got halfway down the lake, as far as Greendale, where the only other road in the valley escapes northwestward. Wasdale Head itself is not so far away that it’s a bind to drive on, but the valley is a cul-de-sac and there’s no option but to drive back. And this is a long drive to begin with. So, with a diversion or not, drive away from the lake, towards and through Gosforth, back to the coast road and continue north.
At Egremont, it’s back to the moors, Ennerdale 7m and a long ascent out of the village, onto the long grassy slopes of the area I’ve taken to calling the Western Margins, where the ridges descending from Wasdale, Blengdale and Ennerdale grow rounded and green, and expand like a Weight watcher at Xmas. The road passes the Kinniside Stone Circle, a fake circle created by an archaeologist as a demonstration for a class, and the forest road that provides access to the ridge that, long miles hence, leads to Pillar.

Ennerdale Water and Pillar

Once, parked on this road whilst setting off for a walk along the forest road, I returned to my car and, whilst removing my boots, put on the radio. It must have been Radio 4, for some obscure reason, because I found myself listening to a programme about Russian history, back far enough that it was still the Grand Duchy of Muscovy. The programme proved so fascinating that once I’d got rid of my walking gear, I sat up there listening through to the end, before descending, long and straight, to the mouth of Ennerdale.
Ennerdale Water, low and dark, fills the mouth of the valley and is seen, though not well, on the descent from the moors. On that first visit, the Anglers’ Rest Hotel still stood on the lakeshore, and my Uncle drove down to the hotel, on the worst and most rutted road I ever knew him to take. A few years later, in anticipation of the raising of the water level, to provide water to Whitehaven, the Anglers’ Rest was demolished, only for the plans to be rejected. Ennerdale Water is as it is since the days before the Forestry Commission moved in.
The valley is forbidden to cars, but it is still possible to drive to within a decent view of the lake without taking yourself out of the way for the next leg. There is no stable route: a number of little roads, fell roads that don’t get too high, twist and turn in the loop around the outside of the Loweswater Fells. Just follow the signposts to the village of Lamplugh, and from there signposts towards Loweswater.

Shy little Loweswater

Loweswater is the Odd Lake Out, the one that flows inwards, deflected from the coast by a low bar of green, wooded land over which the road slides, finding the lake unguarded among its fringes of trees. Loweswater’s never going to give anybody palpitations, but it’s an oasis of quiet.
A glance at the map inclines the casual visitor to think of Loweswater as one of a group of three Lakes in a single valley, but the geography is not so. Loweswater drains north into the wide Vale of Lorton, as do the two linked Lakes of Crummock Water and Buttermere. The road veers north towards Cockermouth, along with the beck, and there is a sharp turn back at a Y-junction to head towards the Buttermere Valley. Crummock Water is already in view before reaching this point, filling the mouth of the valley, and away beyond its head is the unexpected sight of Great Gable, from a completely different angle, this time complete with its younger sister, Green Gable, forming the high skyline beyond the irascible Haystacks.
The road is tight to the shore of Crummock, and there is nowhere to stop and relish the sight across the lake to Melbreak or the High Stile range. Next up is Buttermere Village and, almost before Crummock Water has disappeared out of sight, tranquil Buttermere, a simple, almost geometric shape in the head of the valley.
The escape from Buttermere is by Honister Pass, a side valley into which the road turns, with a long, flat bottom lead to a steep, narrow climb more severe than anything my Uncle had set his car to before. I’ve crossed Honister myself now, more than once, and I’ve yet to reach its crest in anything above First Gear, the upper stages being so strenuous. It’sa steep and unnerving climb from the bridge, after the long, long approach through Honister Bottom, the road hemmed in by cliffs and rocks as it heads ferociously up.

Crummock Water and Buttermere

But it has to be done: the only other escape is to go back to Buttermere Village and tackle Newlands Pass, and the Buttermere side of that is so unremittingly steep that I have only ever crossed the pass from Keskadale, over the Hause.
Besides, whereas Honister drops you into the head of Borrowdale, Newlands emerges in the Newlands valley, which then requires a bit of contrivance to go back and see Derwent Water.
In any event, a drive through Borrowdale is hard to resist, even in the worst of conditions, though the day I came over Honister behind a woman too scared to go at faster than 20mph all the way to Grange was something of a trial. Even my passenger got frustrated!
Derwent Water comes into view just beyond the bridge at Grange. The orthodox route would be to go straight ahead, along the east shore of the lake, to Keswick and a welcome break, not to mention the end of the stage. It’s more fun though to cross the bridge into and through Grange and ascend to the unfenced road high above the western shore, with it’s broader vistas. And, as you’re on the side away from the edge, it’s completely safe too.
This route is much more useful given that the Grand Tour also needs to take in Bassenthwaite Lake before heading for home. The high road descends into the lower Newlands Valley, where quiet roads can be used to navigate back to the main A56 on its way to Cockermouth. The road runs along the western shore of Bass Lake (as it is locally known), though the road runs in two channels. Northbound is the old, undulating road, now a single track highway, whilst the southbound carriage offers the better, closer views. When the route merges, carry on a short distance to the Castle Inn and turn right, to cut across to the Carlisle road, which should be followed back to Keswick. A drink – non-alcoholic for the driver – can be enjoyed now.

Derwentwater and Bassenthwaite Lake

A Day in the Lakes – 2014


016It’s becoming a bit of a ritual. I take this week off each year, for my birthday, and on the Thursday I go up to the Lakes for the day.

This is the third year now. The last two have seen me go to Windermere, Bowness and Ambleside, and last year i even got back onto the fells, in a small way, for a small time, to a small height, but enough to bring back to life all those wonderful years of spent with my boots on and to give me perhaps the only truly, unalloyedly happy day I’ve had in several years.

This year I wanted to be a bit more ambitious. I wanted to see Keswick again, Skiddaw and Blencathra, the North Lakes, to go down to the lakeshore at Derwentwater and gaze into the Jaws of Borrowdale.

Such things are not easy from Manchester by public transport, on a limited income. There’s a substantial leap in fares between Windermere and Penrith on the train, and the bus service to Keswick is by no means as aligned to the trains as it is at Windermere.

But if you start early enough, it can be done, if planned along the lines of a military operation. Piccadilly to Penrith. A half-hour wait for the bus to Keswick. To return by the same route would mean nearly two hours hanging around in Penrith for the economical train, but a bus to Windermere means only 40 minutes wait for an earlier – and cheaper! – train.

The problem with military operations is that they’re dependant upon being on time for each leg, and when the first of them involves the 203, Greater Manchester’s most consistently unreliable service, the day starts fraught. There were many moments on the rush hour ride that had me nervily checking my watch: miss the train at Piccadilly and the day would be fucked and my tickets wasted.

But speed picked up, stomach issues subsided and I was easily on time for my train, in which Coach A naturally proved to be the one at the back.

The weather of last week, or even yesterday afternoon, would have been ideal: cold, crisp, clear blue skies. But of course it had changed. It was overcast, a thick layer of dark cloud, louring. It didn’t look helpful. Mind you, the further north we travelled, the more this dark underlay dispersed, though it only revealed a higher level of white, flat sky.

There were no views of the fells until beyond Lancaster, looking across Morecambe Bay and trying to find the distant Black Combe. It looked dark further in, and it stayed that way. As we passed the periphery of Lakeland, our air was relatively clear, but all the glimpses inwards showed the clouds low and in command.

From Oxenholme, I abandoned my Crossword and Killer Sudokus in favour of what views I could: Longsleddale’s narrow slit, the looming Howgills above Tebay Gorge, the expansiveness of Wet Sleddale (which I’ve never visited). Kidsty Pike was visible over the line of Mardale, but High Street was consumed.

I left the train at Penrith. Nature called so I used the nearby MacDonalds for the only thing it’s useful for and waited for the bus opposite the ruins of Penrith Castle. It was the first time I’d ever seen it: my only other trip to Penrith Station was in the dark, to collect my shortly-to-be sister-in-law and her son.

When I got on the bus, I settled on the driver’s side, thinking to enjoy the views of Blencathra close up. From the east, the saddleback to Foule Crag that gives this fell its unwanted second name – pretty much its first name until Wainwright came along – is most obvious, and despite the scant difference in height, the top was hidden by cloud but Foule Crag stood clear.

The bus didn’t just barrel down the A66, but made side-trips to Stainton, Penruddock and Threlkeld en route. The first of these was the scene of the first holiday I persuaded my family to take on the eastern side of the Lakes, which turned out to be the last one I went on.

Still, the best views were inwards, not outwards, even if the air was lightening in the north. Inwards and forwards: when it came into view, the Vale of Keswick was majestic but satanic. The familiar fells crowded round but cloud hugged Eel Crag and Grisedale Pike, lending a threatening aspect to the scene that was all the more dramatic for discovering that Skiddaw, that perennial cloud magnet, was free and clear and bright.

Four hours after I left my flat, I touched down in Keswick. But the moment of arrival was also the onset of leaving: I only had four hours and twenty minutes to go. No time for excursions onto the fells, not unless I wanted to pay for a taxi to take me to the Latrigg roadhead and wait whilst I shuffled my way up and down it.

Food first: when in Keswick, I always eat at the Oddfellow’s Arms and I did not intend to make an exception today. Roast beef, unstinted, new potatoes, carrots and peas with gravy, all in a plate-sized Yorkshire Pudding, for only £5.95. Pity the lager and lime was nearly £4 on top of that.

Derwentwater was nearer – much nearer – than I remembered it. I wandered across Crow Park, finding the ideal place to look down the Lake. A sunny Saturday on this spot came into mind, when the fells were full of light and looked enormous, but I ruthlessly tuned that memory out. From here I could see fells that spread across five Wainwrights, all of which I’ve climbed and some more than once, and but for the interior cloud, I could have claimed the Southern Fells as well. Out of reach for now.

On the other hand, somewhere else famous was not. Maybe I was at last old enough to visit Friar’s Crag. So I strolled slowly along to this famous viewpoint, which was everything that has been said about it, conditions permitting (see the photo above), but on the other hand the essential me hasn’t changed one bit and there were too damned many people about for my liking, and none of us had put in the hard yards to deserve this.

On the way back, it started raining, whispering in the woods. I contemplated the Crazy Golf in Hope Park, trying to remember what my course record was: something in the low Thirties, I’d played it that often and regarded a three-shot hole as a personal insult. The Pitch-and-Putt course was something else. I’ve never been round it in less than 42 or more that 49 strokes.

But the rain was getting harder, I have a recalcitrant shoulder bag that refuses to stay on a shoulder unless nailed on (no thanks) and besides, the shop was shut.

Keswick’s changed. So many familiar places, most of which offered books, have closed and gone. So too has the Cars of the Stars Museum, removed to Miami in 2011. The building and sign are still there, just not the exhibits I wandered round with awe and amazement, telling myself I’d died and gone back to my childhood.

I decided upon a coffee. I’m a straightforward white Gold Blend with one sweetener sort of guy, but of course they don’t sell that kind of coffee anywhere. The filter coffee gad run out, and as they were closing at 4.00pm, they weren’t making any more. So I scanned the list and decided on Espresso, but that was because I’d forgotten how small the cups are and that I don’t actually like Espresso, so the stop wasn’t exactly a success.

By the time I started drifting towards the bus station (a mere layby: I remember when this place had a proper Bus Station), it was raining like no bugger’s business and Skiddaw had disappeared, along with the whole of his massif, and indeed every fell it’s possible to see from the streets of Keswick.

The bus wasn’t due for another twenty minutes, but instead of holing up in a warm pub with a cold half-pint, I sat outside Booths. It was the old military operation bit again, and these days I’m far too paranoid about being late to feel in the least bit comfortable at being anything other than awfully early.

When the 555 arrived, I led the general charge from shelter, but courteously stood back to let the Keswick-bound passengers stream off. There’s always one though, one who’d rather stand on the platform and natter to the driver, completely oblivious to how many people are being kept standing in gusting winds and sheeting rain whilst he’s dry and warm, but a concerted psychic blast hit him and he shifted out of the way.

The bus climbed out of Keswick, heading south. I looked back across the town but in that gloom, that rain, there wasn’t an earthly chance of glimpsing Bass Lake under Dodd, not without Superman’s powers of vision. For me, it then became a race south, losing the light rapidly, to reach Thirlmere whilst it was still possible to see the Lake, but that was a forlorn hope.

In the dark, we could have been anywhere. Indeed, it was only when I saw the Dual Carriageway sign in the bus headlights that I realised we’d climbed Dunmail Raise and were now heading down into the Vale of Grasmere.

A couple of walkers in their early Thirties got on in the village and sat in front of me. I mention them because she was having a brilliant day, one of those days that’s too good to be contained, and she was grinning and chatting, and snatching little kisses at the side of his face. For the time being, her world was everything it was possible to be and she was elevated, and I was envious of him and found myself hoping he could be what she saw him as being at that time. You didn’t want to think of that sort of delight being brought down. Thankfully, they got off at Ambleside, before I could no longer resist recollecting times when I was the lucky recipient of joy like that.

Grasmere and Rydal, and even with the lights at Waterhead, there was no more lakes to be seen. I got off a Windermere with time for a much more palatable coffee before waiting for the train home. What shall I do next year?