I have always loved the Duddon Valley, ever since first discovering it as a ‘secret’ valley, when I was still a child.
As I’ve mentioned before, for years we used to stay at Low Bleansley farm, on the west flank of the overlooked Lickle Valley. Low Bleansley was at the end of a narrow road from the hamlet of Broughton Mills, connecting all the farms on that side of the valley. The tarmac road ended there, but a cart-track continuation continued, through a gate and into woods, leading up the hillside. One night, after our evening meal, Dad and I went for a walk along this track. It lead us up to the top of the low fell, and down again into another valley, one I hadn’t suspected existed. It was heavily forested and we followed the track down far enough to see the road below.
Back at the farm, Dad traced the map and identified our newly-discovered valley as the Duddon, and it wasn’t too much longer before we explored it for the first time. I don’t know if this was our first visit, but I vividly remember my Uncle driving us along the valley to Seathwaite (6 miles) and a bit beyond, as far as a forked junction, but refusing to go further since the valley road, at that point, became extremely narrow, with no possibility of two cars passing each other. We explored a short distance on foot, but all this was late afternoon: perhaps a side-visit when returning from Ravenglass.
We did go further, into the surprisingly wide openness of the upper valley, though this came after Dad died, in the early Seventies. There were two such trips for I remember two walks from Cockley Bridge, at the foot of Hard Knott and Wrynose: up Hard Knott on foot on the tarmac, and then the short walk to Hard Knott fell, and, at my suggestion, into Mosedale, almost to the valley head, where it would have been possible in theory to look down on Lingcove Beck, but this petered out, like the path, on increasingly wet ground, causing an abandonment.
These excursions aside, since the Duddon was not a convenient base for walks my family preferred, more often we would see only the lower valley, the pastoral, forested three miles from Duddon Bridge to Ulpha, where my Uncle would increasingly often risk his engine on the steep, zigzagging road behind the Traveller’s Rest to cross the expanse of Birker Moor and take a wide corner off the drive to Eskdale.
Sometimes, he’d compromise, by going over Corney Fell, from which, in ascent, there was a superb view over the Duddon Valley.
When I started going on holiday alone, free of the need to compromise to my family’s physical limits, and able to choose my own walks, I covered most of the Coniston Range in my first full year. I did Wetherlam – Swirl How – Great Carrs in the spring, and Dow Crag – the Old Man – Brim Fell in the early autumn. Later, as described here . I would do the whole Round in a single walk, but before that, I needed Grey Friars to complete the Range. And, so as not to cover ground already trodden, and because I’d never done a serious walk out of the Duddon, I made a point of a climb from this direction.
The obvious approach from the Duddon Valley was by the south-west ridge, which gave me a choice of starting points. The longer route was to base myself at Seathwaite, take the right hand fork from that long ago narrow junction and make a gradual ascent to Seathwaite Tarn, or to choose a base further north, near Troutal, and ascend across the base of the ridge to gain the valley of the Tarn on a more direct route. This latter enabled me to use the extensive car park at Birks Bridge, a short stroll along the road.
This was a bitty, twisty ascent to begin with, under the lee of the ridge with no view of the way ahead until I was descending to the Tarn’s outflow. The ridge itself was pathless in those years, as Wainwright originally indicated, and it was a question of correctly identifying the grassy ride he recommended for access to the ridge. In the end, it was not difficult to spot, and I started to gain height steadily, in the centre of a wide channel.
Wainwright described the ridge as ‘a bewildering succession of abrupt craggy heights and knotty outcrops’, though there now appears to be a continuous path to the summit, but even then I found no great difficulties: just keep moving upwards, and eventually the summit crown comes into sight and it’s an easy ascent onto the round top and to the cairn. The highlight of the view is the Scafell range, seen in a great ring from Slight Side round to Esk Pike, but this was a greyish day, with the cloudline cutting across the range, so that was somewhat disappointing.
You should know by now that I find ascending and descending by the same route an anathema. There’s not much geographical alternative, so I decided to vary my route of descent by crossing the top and dropping down to Fairfield, the wide open plateau between Grey Friars and the wall of Swirl How. There wasn’t a path but by angling round to the right, it was easy to find the head of Seathwaite Tarn’s valley and turn down that.
I hadn’t seen anyone throughout the course of the walk which, even then, was how I liked it. The upper valley was lonely and empty, and the slope was easy and uncomplicated. I marched out steadily and confidently, and at a pretty fast rate. It curved to the right, and there was still no sight of Seathwaite Tarn, when I found my rapid course approaching a curious patch of light green standing out from the reedy grass around. It made me curious as to what it was, but my near headlong march took me to it, and upon it rapidly. Without thinking, I planted my right boot down on it. And kept going down.
My boot plunged through the nearly non-existent surface and kept going until I was in above my knee. And, between my insouciant momentum and the natural imbalance caused by having one leg shoot down about two and a half feet below where it should be, my left boot, like night following day, crashed down on the sickly-green patch and didn’t stop until it was almost at the knee.
There I was, in a bog, with no-one in sight and no-one remotely likely to come in sight in the foreseeable, up to an average of both knees in the muck and well and truly stuffed.
If you’ll permit me a brief digression: in those days I still owned a short satirical comic story by Howard the Duck creator Steve Gerber, using his experience in writing for TV of having his scripts submitted to Standards & Practices, i.e., the censors. Systematically, they gut every point of tension, drama and natural human response to crisis from his scene. There is a glorious moment when they instruct, ‘instead of the pilot reacting to his spaceship going out of control by banging his fit on the dashboard and shouting, “dammit!”, have him demonstrate a positive coping reaction.’
Positive Coping Reaction! What a gem! You cannot make things like that up, only real life can produce something so astonishingly perfect.
So here I was, in my own little real-life crisis, my opportunity to demonstrate a Positive Coping Reaction. And how did I positively cope? I panicked and, by main, fear-fuelled strength, wrenched my right leg far enough out of the bog to get my knee onto the firm ground on the bank immediately before me, and use that as a lever to drag my left leg out after it.
Now, look here, kids. I know that the likes of Douglas Adams and actual responsible adults will advise you Don’t Panic, but trust me and be flexible. There are circumstances where panic is your friend and you should be prepared to embrace him fervently.
Nevertheless, though I was now safe, and determined to give all spots of bright green the legendary wide berth, I was pretty much sopping wet, and sedgey from the knees down to my socks and boots, which had thankfully emerged with me. Make sure you tie secure knots in those laces.
So I resumed my downhill progress in a somewhat more circumspect manner, eager to see the curve of the valley expose Seathwaite Tarn, though this was still some way below. Walking its shore was calming and gentle, but I had one further obstacle to pass as I neared the outflow and recognised the point where I had to regain the lower part of the ridge to drop down to Troutal.
To get there, I had to cross a wide expanse of wet and soft ground. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have given it too much thought, but I was still rattled by my sinking experience, and was wary of any treacherous repetition. There was no way round it, I had to cross it, but how should I do this? The answer was ridiculous, but unexpectedly practical: a Groucho Walk.
Yes, I do mean the bent-kneed, half-crouch of the late Julius ‘Groucho’ Marx, and no, I am not joking. If you examine the movement, it has clear advantages. For one, the bent-knee stride means more ground is being covered at each step, and consequently a more rapid movement across the ground, whilst by splaying the stride, the centre of gravity is supported by a wider area, and only passes directly over the boot for a split-second. Of course, I didn’t have one fist clenched in the small of my back, nor another wielding an imaginary cigar, but in every other respect I adopted the position and made a very rapid transition to drier and firmer ground.
I don’t know how the theory stands up aerodynamically, but if it was all a load of gubbins, it was nevertheless a very effective placebo. I heaved a sigh of relief, descended to Troutal, the road and the car, and yanked my soggy socks and boots off. I could do nothing about my tide-marked jeans until I was back in Ambleside, however, and that called for a shower too.
Despite all this, I have never lost my love for the beautiful Duddon Valley, though the only other time I returned to Grey Friar, I stayed firmly out of that valley. No more bog-trotting for me.