A Duddon Fell


A Duddon Fell

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.

Seathwaite Tarn

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.

On such a day…

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.

The beautiful Duddon Valley

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.

The Grand Tour of the Lakes: Stage Two – South to West


Coniston Water and its Old Man

The Second Stage of the Grand Tour covers the quarter from South to West, my family’s old home territory. It’s a long drive round from Consiston to Wasdale, and whilst there’s a Lake at the beginning and a Lake at the end, there’s none in between. On the other hand, there are enough variants on the route my Uncle would have taken to keep the fertile mind amused in planning.
The way forward is the Broughton road, from the south end of Coniston Village. The lake is soon visible, dark in its narrow valley on the left, for those who haven’t come round via the Ferry option. I have traveled this road more times than any other in the whole Lake District, all the way round to Ravenglass, and pleasant as it is, the option for variation is frequently uppermost.
The first of these comes just after Torver, where the main road bears left to follow the shore of the lower end of the Lake. A short while after the roadfork, a steep, narrow, unwalled fell road, signposted Broughton Moor, leaps steeply off to the right, leading to a narrow, high-level route with interesting views, and pleasant solitude. It’s as difficult to imagine meeting another car along here as it is easy to imagine the problems of trying to get past one.
Meanwhile, the main route follows the valley until emerging suddenly on the lip of the Lickle Valley and bearing left towards Broughton. No need to pass through the village: a mile before it, bear right to come out by a fine pub. There is a double right turn, and suddenly you’re hurtling down the hill on a wide highway, picking up speed in happy fashion towards the Duddon River. Don’t get too enthusiastic: the bridge in single-tracked and traffic-lighted, and in any event there are double ninety degree turns to cross from one bank to the other, so the inrush of speed is only ever going to be a brief one, but exhilarating while it lasts.
Back to the Broughton Moor variation. This ends at an unsignposted T junction where a left turn quickly brings you back to the main route, on the lip of the Lickle. However, a right turn heads along the valley wall before descending to the tiny hamlet of Broughton Mills, in the heart of the valley. The road forks, the left branch visiting all the farms along the western side of the valley and culminating at Low Bleansley, of long ago memory, but the right fork quickly begins to rise, along a narrow valley between low ridges of fells.

The Lickle Valley and Duddon Bridge

There are gates at two points on the ascent, to be opened and closed which, apart from the possibility of pleasant company, is a good reason for bringing along a passenger, and the road rises to a fresh, narrow, grassy col with room to park on the verges. I mention this solely because, if the weather is good, and the ground dry, a delightful mini-expedition lasting all of ten minutes, even in trainers, can get you to the little peaked top of Stickle Pike. Take the path on the left, but don’t be too long.
With or without a halt for peak-bagging, the road now descends into the Duddon Valley, emerging just north of Seathwaite: turn left and drive three miles, almost as far as Ulpha.
Pause here and return to the main route. At the foot of the hill running down from the pub, is the road into the Duddon Valley. If you haven’t fancied the Broughton Moor/Broughton Mills variants, you can always turn right here and enjoy a leisurely ride along to the Lower Duddon, as far as Ulpha where, at the Travellers Rest, just beyond the hamlet, drivers who have gone over the moors will be found proceeding towards you. Let both of you here turn onto the Birker Moor Road.
Meanwhile, back on the main route, having crossed Duddon Bridge, the road hugs the riverbank for a quarter mile before veering left and starting to gain height to cross the low pastoral country descending from the Black Combe massif. This is another, beautiful country drive, as long as you ignore turnings towards Millom. The road wends its way down the Whicham Valley towards the Irish Sea, meeting this just north of Silecroft. Turn right, and speed northwards. The route passes through Bootle, after which you should, in decent conditions, be able to see the Isle of Man out in the Sea, but this will have slipped behind by the time the route is joined by a road on the sight, signposted Corney. Funnily enough, there was a road on the right signposted that way, just as we turned away from the Duddon…
This variation is an enjoyable exercise on its own, having no connection with any other short-cuts or fell roads. It cuts off a massive corner by crossing the moors behind Black Combe, instead of going all the way round it. The turning follows the Duddon initially before climbing through woods onto the open moorland. This reveals a stunning view of the Duddon, which the driver is especially placed to observe, so make sure any passengers see it. The road crosses the watershed at about 900′, immediately revealing the Irish Sea, and the Isle of Man is soon in sight on the long, slow descent to rejoin the main coast road just as it descends to cross the River Esk and the mouth of Lower Eskdale. One final variant comes up as the road sweeps toward the bridge, an unsignposted, country lane. This is a haven of peace and solitude, sliding up through the unfrequented Lower Eskdale, and joining the road coming down off Birker Moor at its further end.

Birker Moor, looking north

Travellers by that route have also cut off a massive corner in this leg of the Grand Tour, and whilst drivers will not have enjoyed the steep, zig-zagging ascent up the fellside immediately behind the Travellers’ Rest, once the road reaches the fringes of the Moor, the driving is easy. Directly ahead are views over Burnmoor on the far side of Eskdale, offering an unusual angle on the mountains at the head of Wasdale. And there are expansive views over the northern part of the Moor, to the rocky turrets of Green Crag, and the peak of Harter Fell beyond it, before the road starts a much more gradual descent into Middle Eskdale, picking up drivers who have come via Lower Eskdale just before reaching the valley proper.
This is almost the end of this long, lakeless quarter. The main route crosses the Esk and races towards Muncaster Fell, with Muncaster Castle appearing and disappearing behind its screen of trees. Behind the fell, the road descends towards Ravenglass. This is the advantage of the main route, apart from the generally better and wider roads, for Ravenglass is an ideal spot to stop for tea and buns.
Leave it for the coast road north. If you can time your departure to get just ahead of a train leaving the Ratty, you can beat it to the bridge over the track at Muncaster Mill and hang over the fence as the train steams below.
With or without that bonus, continue north until hitting the signs to turn off for Eskdale and Wasdale. This quickly leads to a long, arrow-straight stretch of road over a mile in length along which, in deserted conditions, you can utterly bomb along. The beginning of the ridge separating the two valleys rises directly ahead, and it hardly needs signposting to direct you to the left when the road forks. Those still following the variations are not far away. They will have turned left onto the main valley road, by Eskdale Green and, at the next fork, borne right, to join the coast road stalwarts just short of Santon Bridge.
Across the bridge, turn right as signposted for Wasdale. Great Gable almost immediately fills the entire sky ahead, its most popular aspect rearing up majestically. The road disappears into trees until, with the shadow of the Screes growing large on the right, Wastwater itself comes into view through the trees. The road emerges on the shore and follows this along the other shore of the lake as far as a junction, at Greendale. From lake to lake, the second leg of the Tour has been completed.

Wastwater

Obscure Corners – Walna Scar


Walna Scar fell, and it’s road leading upwards

Technically, Walna Scar and its environs is not that obscure a corner. It’s a part of the Coniston fells, the continuation of the Dow Crag ridge after it has descended over Blind Pike and Buck Pike. But it’s not in the Wainwrights, or not to those of us old enough to remember the Blessed’s reluctant rejection of the very idea of the Outlying Fells, in the closing pages of Book 7.
On the other hand, there’s enough interesting and attractive country, and summits, on that long ridge accompanying the eastern wall of the Duddon Valley, and Walna Scar fell is the only 2,000′ plus top in those Outlying Fells, making it an obvious target for a day in which solitude is a primary desire.
And I confess that solitude was specifically what I required on this outing, as it took place on FA Cup Final day, 1998.
I am a long-term football fan, and I love the FA Cup. Since 1968, I have lined up on Cup Final Day to watch the whole proceedings, throughout all of BBC and ITV’s coverage (the BBC has always been best). I was seriously committed to the Cup Final, but I didn’t want to watch that year. Each year, I’d choose a team I wanted to see win, but the choices on offer were Arsenal under the still-relatively new Arsene Wenger and Newcastle United under the former Liverpool manager Kenny Dalgleish.
I passionately wanted to see Wenger lose the Final. I passionately wanted to see Dalgleish lose the Final. I could not sit there and see either of them win.
So, with no alternatives available short of crossing the Vibrational Barrier into Earth-2, I boycotted the game and went to the Lakes instead. I didn’t even discover the result until the Sunday paper was delivered. The Lake District is a wonderful alternative to most things under the sun.
The road to Walna Scar the fell is the road to Walna Scar the pass, of course. It was a sunny May Saturday, and despite the limited nature of my expedition, I didn’t award myself a lie-in: alarm at six, hit the road at seven, the Cumbria border at eight, and parked up at the head of the narrow, climbing lane past the old station generously before nine.
I have a history with the Walna Scar Road, dating back into my father’s life-time, when on a soporifically hot August afternoon, we took up Wainwright’s recommendation about the sweet and gentle gradients of the Boo tarn approach, long since obliterated by quarry activity. Easy it might have been in normal conditions, but all of us struggled to lift our heavy legs at all, and we managed no more than three zigs and two zags before giving up and trudging down to the shore of the Tarn to rest.
Later, at least one of our multifarious visits to Goatswater was made by following the Walna Scar Road as far as Cove Moor, before turning up into the wide basin above.
And one of my very first solo expeditions was to Dow Crag, and thence the Old Man, via the pass and the ridge.
The point is that, as far as the pass, the way is as rutted and eroded and busy as any walk in the Conistons is likely to be, and the solitude you seek will not surround you until you break with the processions and, at Walna Scar top, turn left, not right, up the bare, trackless grass slope that leads away from the high fells.
The top of the fell is absurdly easy to reach: 100 feet of climbing, and the ground levels out onto a wide, grassy top, with the small summit cairn less than fifty feet away.
But that brief ascent makes all the difference. The crowds have gone a different way, no doubt marveling at your eccentricity in going off in the wrong direction, and now you are on your own for the next couple of hours.
All the hard work has been done, but Walna Scar’s summit invites a gentle stroll west and south, towards the two subsidiary summits of West Pike and White Maiden, little more than half a mile away.
West Pike, the lower of the two, overlooks the Duddon Valley, a sovereign guarantee of beautiful views. Visit this first, and return to White Maiden.
This, for me was the highlight of the walk, as this narrow, slightly peaked top, looks out over a steep fall to the upper valley of the River Lickle, a place of closely planted trees and logging, a wilderness with no seeming access, especially from White Maiden. Further west, a jumbled ridge with no paths enabling the continuation of the walk, leads to the rough but shapely Caw, worthy of a separate expedition in itself another day.
There’s no more progress to be made in this direction, but the walk and the solitude can be pleasantly extended by descending the eastern flank of White Maiden, crossing a gently rock-strewn slope towards Red Gill, which, further downslope, becomes Ash Gill Beck. There are no paths, but when you reach the former bridge, cross the Beck and work left towards Ash Gill Quarry, where a good track heads across the fellside towards the lower slops of the Old Man.
I actually got into trouble near the bottom of this section, not from the landscape or anything like that, but from my left contact lens, which abruptly dried out completely on me.
This was not nice at all: it immediately became so dry, and so painful that I had to extract it, but I had not brought the lens carrying case with me, nor did I have my glasses in the rucksack. The lens was far too dry to even attempt to pop back in, and all I could do was to gently decant it into a compartment of my wallet (which I never usually carried onto the fells) and carry on with grossly mismatched eyesight: excellent in my right eye, extremely myopic in the left. It was such a hot, sunny day that it was far from ideal to maintain a permanent squint.
From the base of the Gill, it was a simple stroll towards the Walna Scar road as it emerges from the shadow of the Old Man. At this point, you might expect to kiss your solitude goodbye, but there are ways. I started down the old route back to Torver that I’d not walked in over twenty years, to give myself a view on Banishead Quarry and it’s waterfall and pool. Though this loses a small amount of height,, which is not recommended on a hot Saturday, it enabled me to strike off east, on sheeptracks that toyed with being intermittent, but which conducted me back comfortably to the roadhead, in peace and quiet. indeed, the main drag was visible more of the way, a hundred yards and more to the left, and if the track was ever seriously threatened, I would just have walked over there. But it kept me away from people until the time came to swing back towards the gate, and the car.
The quiet part of the walk is relatively short, there being no feasible link from Walna Scar fell and its subsidiary to any other high ground, and even the crossing of the lower part of the Moor cannot be said to be lonely, but on a day when you wish to get away from all others for a time, this is an enjoyable short expedition, during which you will learn nothing as to the progress of football matches taking place in London.Walna Scar fell, and it’s road leading from Coniston