A Patterdale Expedition


When you book rail tickets four weeks in advance, to get the cheapest prices, you play pot luck with the weather. According to the forecasts, I am going to come up snakes eyes, to mix a metaphor. Thunderstorms all day, England’s World Cup semi-final to be pushed into the reserve day, this is what is promised. Given the weather most of the time since I bought the tickets, sunny, dry, hot, it’s feeding my never very deep-lying paranoia.

Which, given that I am booked on the 7.26am train from Piccadilly, and I am relying on the 203 bus, the only bus to win a Booker Prize for its timetable, is always hyperactive at times like this.

Everything started well. I responded to the alarm at 5.30am. It had been raining until quite recently, for everything outside was wet, but when I got out, ahead of time, it was dry and getting drier, and there was a freshness in the airthat the suggested the grey skies would slowly peel back to reveal the blue beyond.

I’d barely gotten twenty yards when there was a ping in my left calf, suggesting not so much cramp as a pulled muscle. I walked it off gently but this was going to be a true omen for the day.

The 203 upset my model of the Universe by being on time. Indeed, I was inside Piccadily Station, in the ‘Departure Lounge’ for Platforms 13 & 14, by 7.02am, the only hitch being a minor and quickly resolved panic over whether my rail tickets were in my wallet. It was a long time wait but these are the marginsI prefer to work with.

The train was on time, my seat was by the window, albeit looking backwards, and no-one turned up to claim the reserved seat to Glasgow Central next to me so that was my shoulder bag sorted.

There was nothing I could do about the weather so I paid the cloud only occasional mind as we ploughed north, devoting myself to a second attempt to read The Illuminatus Trilogy without stopping, though still without understanding.

This was an express train, stopping only at Preston and Lancaster and due in Penrith after only ninety minutes. Once we reached the shores of MorecambeBay, I switched to scanning the Lakes skyline. It was unpromising: dark, wispy, fragile clouds with a base below 1,000′: not good.

I was hoping for better north of the equivalent of Dunmail Raise but there was a thicker, darker, more pregnant band of cloud, and then suddenly it seemed lighter. Skylines became clearer, sharper. The message was mixed: sunlight on the lower slopes of Mardale, pockets of low cloud around the valley head. Kidsty Pike stood proud but Rampsgill Head was deep-capped.

Out at Penrith for five to nine with an hour to kill, or so I thought. I walked down to the Town Centre. The main street was smaller than I remembered and all the touristy shops seemed to have left. There used to be a  good bookshop somewhere round the back, where I spent a half hour on the morning of my wedding, having run my sister-in-law-to-be and my wife-to-be’s best friend in for last minute essentials. Where it is, if it still exists, I had no idea and I decided against searching for it, the air being an odd mixture of fresh and stuffy.

Thank Heaven I didn’t! I got back to the Rail Station in time to catch the slightly-delayed 9.20am bus, whose driver was in a chatty mood, and who told me tht thee 9.50am bus I intended to catch doesn’t run until theTimetable that comes into force on the 26th!

If I’d missed this bus, it wouldn’t have been fatal to my plans, but as the next bus was 11.20am, I’d have been stuck in Penrith for two hours. Then again, I do have a partly-completed novel with a scene in Penrith, so I could have spentthe time in research.

The sky was a fractal mixture of dark cloud, light cloud and blue spaces. The bus was riding between high hedgerows so it took a while before I could get some sense of the air in Patterdale. When I could see, it looked clear around Ullswater’s lowest reach but cloudy further back. Given the forecast, this was good going.

But when I got off the bus in Pooley Bridge, it was trying to rain, fine, light, sprinkly lane. The Steamer Shop in the Village was closed despite its advertised opening time of 9.15am.

There was nothing to do here either so I strolled on to the steamer landing. This took me across the temporary bridge that stands in the place of the beautiful stone arches destroyed forever by the floods of 2015/16. It’s an ugly, practical thing of steel cross-girders, an eyesore, where the old bridge was a thing of grace and beauty. It’s absence is a pang.

Ullswater, looking down to Hallin Fell

There’s a superb viewpoint just before the landings, by the Birkett Memorial. We came down here on the Saturday evening, for our first view of Ullswater, that holiday, and I took a photo of the lake, looking towards Hallin Fell, with the family at the forefront. I took another one now, in colour, but without anyone to grace it.

Ullswater is my favourite lake, its beautiful curves and bays, and this only the least-interesting reach of it. I haven’t seen it in, probably, about fifteen years and I felt a tremendous sense of contentment. All the visible hills remind me of walks gone past. PlaceFell was capped and dark, so it was Hallin Fell and Beda Head that stood out for me then. The lake chuckled and bubbled past me into the River Eamont.

I narrowed my eyes. Something long and white was crossing below Hallin Fell, turning into Howtown Bay. In a moment’s silence between the passing cars, I heard a distant bell. If I’m not mistaken, that’s my steamer from Glenridding.

This would be my fourth trip on the Ullswater Steamer but the first for this end of the Lake. My first was an impromptu decision on a rainy, cloudy afternoon, when walking was out of the question, Howtown and back. Twice since, I’d taken a one-way trip to Howtown and walked back, the first a solo over Place Fell, the second a family walk down the lakeshore path, which is as lovely as they say it is.

Eventually the steamer emerged and headed towards us. I paid for my ticket (which included 50% off the Ratty for the next twelve months, which gave mean idea…)

‘Raven’ approaches

As soon as the Steamer docked, I was on to it and dodging through the saloon to the foredeck. The commemorative plaque confirmed this was Raven, and in five days time it would be 130 years to the day since it was first launched.

We seemed to race up the lake into the teeth of a flapping wind, Hallin Fell dead ahead, the zigzags of the Hause visible to its left. As we started curving into the Bay, Beda Head became our pointer and little flecks of rain started to flick against my face.

Leaving the Pier at Pooley Bridge

It wasn’t until we started to slow down for Howtown the the magnificent middle reach of the lake, and the fells at the end of it, appeared as if out of nowhere. Sheffield Pike stood proud and sunny but there wasn’t much to see behind it except dark cloud.

We drifted into the Pier, no-one waiting to board us, though two walkers appeared from the direction of the road, only to stand and watch us leave. Twenty-eight people, one baby carriage and two dogs  disembark. I looked at Steel Knott’s steep prow and asked myself, did I really go up that? (yes, I did).

Howtown and Steel Knotts

Off on the next leg. A massive convoy of ducks sat on the surface of the lake on our left bow as we headed outround Hallin Fell. This was the bit I’dreally come here for.

The taped message for the tourist informed us of what to look out for and only made two egregious mistakes in three facts. It places Birkett Crag (no, it’s Fell) on the wrong side of Ullswater and claims Helvellyn is the second highest mountain in England. I don’t dare look up what it said about Donald Campbell.

We took a rather more leisurely turn down the middle reach. Some part of the High Street range, still cloud-clagged, appeared in the gap between Hallin Fell and Place Fell, whilst on the other side, the Hellvellyn range was similar, but someqhat lighter, as if it might finally blow clear.

The middle reach, looking to Sheffield Pike

Approaching the turn into the upper reach, we passed Lady of the Lake on the port bow. Saint Sunday Crag and Dollywaggon Pike, either side of Grisedale, are firmly cloud-blocked, though there’s masses of blue sky above the lake itself. I’ve always felt these names to be strange and foreign-sounding to the Lakes, ever since I first heard my mother mentioning them, way back in the early Sixties. They’re just not Cumbrian to me. Things looked very dirty at the head of Patterdale, where we could see straight into Threshthwaite Glen.

Over to starboard, there was a big hotel on the lakeshore that I tried not to look too closely at. Under an older name than it currently bears, this was where I was married, and there are too many memories in that.

It was still not yet quite midday when I got off the steamerand walked round into Glenridding Village. My plans were flexible enough to give me either two hours or three and a half here, which would be fine if I felt in any way fit for a walk. Indeed, I’d half picked out Keldas, at the foot of Birkhouse Moor, and brought The Eastern Fells in my bag, but I’m achey and creaky and have been all day.

I was trepidatious about what Glenridding might look like, bearing in mind that the floods did a real number on the Vilaage, but the repairs here seemed more complete and nothing appeared to be out of place. I settled into a picnic table and got out my lunch.

The best plan seemed to be to kick back, relax, and enjoy just being here, but I did wander a bit in the direction of the path to Lanty’s Tarn, just to see how far I might get if I went at it slowly. All that got me was some spotty rain, a buzzy insect with an obsession with my right ear and some stomach cramps that suggested I might be better off keeping the Public Conveniences in closer proximity so, despite some increasingly encouraging blue skies, I strolled back.

Sunshine over the Glenridding valley

Down in the valley, the soft breeze was very welcome, and I took root at another picnic table, enjoying the passing pedstrians and returning to my book. I could have dome some writing if the energy possessed me but overall this was not the day for creativity, so I socked up relaxing in Patterdale. Mind you, I noticed a lot of references to ‘The Ullswater Valley’: another Stickle Ghyll in the making?

St Sunday Crag

There was another, slightly more serious spot of rain when I wandered back off to the Pier. We were on Raven again, though this time I headed for the stern for the best views. There was a ton of worrying grinding from the engine, turning to face back down Ullswater, but the mountainscape was at last wonderful, St Sunday Crag sunwashedand magnificent, Dollywaggon dark andslope-shouldered and even a glimpse of a cloud-free Helvellyn as we retreated.

Helvellyn

Howtown was the beginning of the end.  Everything after this was journeying back. Waiting in the sweltering heat for the bus in Pooley Bridge. Fifty-five minutes to kill at Penrith Station with nothing to do and nowhere to go, unless you count McDonald’s, so back to my book.

With the exception of the bus to Pooley Bridge, all the travelling’s gone smoothly, all day, but then I go and blow it. My travel notes have me catching the18.06 at Penrith, change at Preston. My ticket was for the 17.50 direct to Manchester Piccadilly, but I didn’t realise this until a mini-argument over who has reserved seat A11. On the 18.06. Oops.

That could have been very expensive, but the ticket inspector on the Virgin train was decent enough to stamp my ticket anyway so my only loss was to get stuck in an aisle seat on a gloriously sunny evening, and unable to see out of either window. And Northern Rail surprise me twice at Preston, first by being dead on time, and then by not coming to check my ticket at all. I was even blessed with sitting opposite a nice-looking young woman, with long brown hair almost the shade mine used to be, and a lovely smile.

I got back to Piccadilly nearly fifteen hours after the alarm woke me, and I didn’t half know it by then. One bus-ride later, and I got off in the only sustained rain I experienced all day, despite the forecasts, and the evening still sunny, offering up a full-arch rainbow above my flat. Mind you, everything that could ache did ache by then, and I’d missed England beating Australia to reach the Cricket World Cup Final. But I’d had a grand day, and I’d been back to Ullswater. Where can I go next?

 

Helvellyn – The Outer Circle


Helvellyn – but not as you’ll see it on this walk

If you want to undertake a long, serious walk that incorporates Helvellyn – the Lake District’s third-highest and most-visited mountain – then it must be approached from the Patterdale valley, to the east of the range. There are a profusion of walks from the west, from Wythburn and Thirlmere, but this is the grassy, sleek, dull side of the range, long miles with few features.
The best long-distance walk from the east is one I call ‘The Outer Circle’. It takes advantage of the fact that Sticks Pass, to the north, and Grisedale Pass, to the south, disburse into Patterdale little more than a mile apart, enabling one to be used to gain the ridge, and the other to leave it, with a long, high traverse and five high summits between.
There are only two drawbacks to the Outer Circle. One is Striding Edge, the other is Swirral Edge, and is an ascent of Helvellyn from the east really worth it if it doesn’t incorporate at least one of these narrow, airy, hands on rock approaches?
But the walker who completes the Outer Circle can walk tall, even as he (or she) stumbles sore-footed back to the car once back to the road.
Circular walks pose the immediate problem of which way to go round. I don’t know if it’s some instinctive prejudice, but the vast majority of my circle walks have been done anti-clockwise. It just seems to be the way that produces the better walking, and in the case of the Fairfield Horseshoe, it certainly produces the best views.
So take advantage of the car park in Glenridding Village, parking as close to the entrance as possible: this will matter. Walk north along the main road, and turn off down a side-street, feeling incongruous in boots and rucksack, as you pass between residential terraces. When the road opens up at the far end, veer right, then left, onto the Glenridding Lead Mine road (rough, unmetalled). This is a long, straight walk, towards the hills, flat and slightly tedious, especially if under a hot sun: the valley is sufficiently enclosed to choke off any cooling breezes.
Ahead, the derelict buildings of the former lead mine grow slowly larger, until you finally reach their foot. There are various routes from here towards the massif. The main walk, bearing half-left to follow the beck, ascends past the gradually healing ruins of the former Kepple Cove Tarn. The Outer Circle route turns off right, onto the base of the steep slag-mound directly behind the disused buildings, though the walk will catch up with the path by the beck further along.

The Lead mine

The former slagbank is steep, and the route zig-zags across its face, loose and loud underneath, until it reaches a long, angled terrace that runs from left to right across the upper face, and leads to the final scramble up and beyond.
Above is the bed of the former Sticks Reservoir, drained in 1962 when the mine was abandoned. It occupies a large hollow in the fellside, and the path follows its old bank, taking a long detour north, then west along half its shoreline. A beeline could be made across the drained bed, but the grass is darker, somehow forbidding, suggesting that it may still be soft underfoot, and many walkers will just keep to the path and try to picture the scene as it was for Wainwright, in the early Fifties.
Beyond this basin, the valley narrows into a miniature defile, twisting and turning as it follows Sticks Gill (East) upstream. There’s no views to gauge progress by, and this stage is frustrating as it never seems to end. Finally, it does debouch onto the long, wide plateau that is the top of Sticks Pass.
The Helvellyn range lies south, its first summit, Raise, overlooking the Pass. Leave from the cairn at the highest point, and the ascent is an uncomplicated, uphill walk, that steepens slightly when you reach the summit rocks, but which is without any difficulty whatsoever. If there is wind about on the day, this is where it will first make itself effective.
South lies White Side, a simple rounded fell with a broad swathe sweeping up out of the valley of Kepple Cove and crossing the bare top without a break. There’s no path off Raise initially, but one soon develops on the easy southern slopes, merging into the route – the main path through Glenridding Lead Mine, left below – and crossing the top of White Side. There is nothing on top, no rocks, nowhere to sit except on the ground, and no reason to pause except for registering your next conquest.
But the ridge gets very interesting from this point, after a short descent into the final hollow before the climb onto Helvellyn itself.

Helvellyn and Lower Man from White Side

To the left, the jagged ridge of Swirral Edge approaches the main bulk of the fell from the col at the back of shapely Catstycam (sometimes, but rarely nowadays known as Catchedicam). There’s ample time on the descent to look for stick figures, walkers following the ridge, moving into and out of sight behind outcrops. Once you reach the foot of the long climb, up the towering flank of Helvellyn Lower Man, there is little opportunity to observe as effort will be concentrating on the ascent, the most direct and therefore steepest of the day.
Things start to ease as the top of Lower Man, a subsidiary summit itself over 3,000′, is reached at the northern edge of the curved, broad plateau that constitutes Helvellyn’s popular summit. It’s hard to distinguish an actual path, given how many millions of boots have tramped here, every year, but the way onwards is obvious: uphill, along the broad crest or, in clear weather, veer left to follow the rim of the cliffs overhanging the comb in which Red Tarn lies, between the twin arms of the Edges.
Helvellyn’s highest point is marked by three things: a large cairn, a cross-shaped wind-shelter, and hordes of people. I climbed by this route in low cloud, spent twenty minutes lunching in five yard visibility, during which time not thirty seconds passed without a new arrival at the top. Do not expect solitude and the privacy of your thoughts in silence.

Book early to be out of the wind

When ready to leave, descend half-leftish to the top of Striding Edge. The sickle-curve of the ridge that lies below you is the scene of a million postcards, not a one of which can duplicate anything of the reality of the view from this point. Though it lies off a direct route south, for this reason alone it must be visited.
Besides, from the top, a narrow path skirting the edge of the steep decline leads around the curve of Helvellyn’s top, to the little col between it and Nethermost Pike. This narrow trod is far more interesting than the main highway, and it will be far less frequented, which after twenty minutes on Helvellyn on a nice day, will be extremely welcome.
From the col, the main path along the ridge stays mainly to the western side as far as Grisedale Pass, omitting to visit either of the two remaining tops. Ignore it and bear left to gain Nethermost Pike’s flat and uninteresting top, which is decorated by three cairns, in a widespread triangle. From each cairn, at least one of the others looks higher, so trek round each one, return to the highway and drop down to the col before Dollywaggon Pike. This Pike has a much more attractive and appropriate shape, and when the highway levels off to cross the back of the fell, leave it by a narrow path that follows the crest to the day’s final summit, and follow the crest down and right to return to the main route.

The Dollywagon Zigzags

This leads to the top of the (in)famous Dollywaggon Zig-Zags. These are a wonderfully graded series of gentle terraces, criss-crossing the broad back of the fell that overlooks Grisedale Tarn and its Pass. For years these have been hacked about, as many such routes have been, by crude, impatient walkers, too hasty and ignorant to understand that the zig-zags make the steep ascent so much easier, who have short-cutted the zig-zags (usually in descent) by straight line routes that have torn and scarred the fellside. The National Trust have, of course, stepped in to relay the original route, and it is gradually re-establishing its ascendency: it is certainly the best way, up or down.
Grisedale Pass marks the southernmost point on the ridge in this walk. The actual summit of the Pass lies beyond the further limit of the Tarn, but the descent now is left, over the lip of Grisedale itself, firstly steeply through the upper parts of the valley, still high in the hills, before the way eases at the Climbers Hut, and a choice has to be made as to which side of the valley is to be followed. But, on the first part of the descent, look left, among the tumbled and littered stones, for the rock known as The Brother’s Parting, marking the place at which William Wordsworth took his last leave of his Sea-Captain brother John, who would die at sea five years later. The rock is carved with faded letters that can best be made out from the extreme left, looking across its surface, and is far easier to locate in ascent than descent.

Nethermost and Dollywaggon Pikes from Grisedale

Beyond the Climbing Hut, the path forks. The branch to the left follows the northern flank of the valley, and is slightly shorter, but it is exposed to the air. Should the afternoon sun now be beating down on your head, better to stick with the right fork, leaving you a long, mostly level walk back along the valley, several sections of which being, however, under the cool shade of trees.
Eventually, this route emerges at the roadhead in the lowest part of the valley, with a mile to walk, undulating, mostly under shade from the copious woods, emerging at the northern end of Patterdale Village.
There is a further half-mile or more to Glenridding Village, along a narrow, busy road, with no pavements. Keep to the left, in defiance of the most sensible practice, and a track turns away behind the wall, paralleling the road in complete safety for most of the way back to the head of Ullswater, and the road to the boat-landings. Transfer to the other side of the road, so as to have the nearest traffic in your sight, ahead of you, and after crossing the beck in the Village, go back to the pavement on the left side, and turn into the car park. There is a small, but painful ascent to turn up, but if the car has been left at this end, relief is shortly available.