All the Fells: Harter Fell (Eskdale)

Harter Fell – The Southern Fells 2,140′ (5)

Date: 24 August 1973/23 April 1974/6 May 1995

From: Penny Hill, Eskdale/ Penny Hill, Eskdale/Hard Knott foot

There are two Harter Fells in the Lake Districts, in two different areas: differently sized and shaped fells, of different heights, that share a name but nothing else. Apart from both making for great days out walking. I saw and walked the Eskdale Harter long before even seeing the Mardale version, as was implicit in having a family that didn’t want to venture out of the Ambleside/Wasdale arc of the Lake District. Whether I registered it then or not, I will have seen Harter on my first ride on the Ratty, and that before I ever suffered the horror of having boots put on my feet and propped upright to walk. We didn’t attempt it until after Dad had passed on, on a hot and muggy afternoon, from Dalegarth. We followed the path in from Doctor Bridge via Penny Hill, worked our way up onto the gap that led through to the Duddon Valley, then set off uphill on an everlasting and tiring slope. My mother was actually so hot that she undid the bottom of her tartan walking shirt and tucked it up to let the air get onto her stomach, that is until we passed some descending walkers, whereupon she covered up again. The biggest bugbear was literally the bugs: the fell was plagued with flying insects, leaving us in no peace, constantly swatting at them, trying to brush them away from our heads, though when I said I could swear at them I was curtly advised not to. According to the notes pencilled on the title page of Harter’s chapter in the Southern Fells, we did the walk again only eight months later, but I have no memories of climbing Harter twice so early, nor even if the day of the persistent flies was our first or second visit. The full Wainwright round took twenty-six years allowing for slow initial progress and eight years self-exile, but once I had reached Seatallan, I wanted to go back to old places I hadn’t visited in a quarter century, and one of these was Harter. Since I’d decided to use the ridge to Hard Knott Pass for an exploratory descent, I chose a route from the foot of the Pass, slanting across the face of Harter until I joined the path up from the Duddon Valley gap. There were no flies, and this time I (cautiously) scrambled up to the rocky high point. The ridge to Hard Knott was as tedious and unattractive as everyone keeps saying and, in the way of all such things, seemed to be half again as long as it actually was on the ground. I determined never to actually try ascending by that way, though in the end the question never arose.

All the Fells: Hard Knott

Hard Knott – The Southern Fells 1,803′ (4)

Date: 31 May 1973/6 May 1995

From: Hard Knott Pass/ Harter Fell

I’ve climbed Hard Knott the fell twice but I have very few memories of it from either occasion. It’s a low and not very shapely wedge of land whose top is a wilderland of low upthrusts with no pattern to them. The date of my first ascent will clue you in to this being another of the very few visited with my family: indeed, Hard Knott was the first summit we climbed as a foursome, after Dad’s death. For that, we parked at the head of the Duddon Valley and walked up the Pass, though unlike our first ever walk, from Eskdale, there was no means of making an overland ascent and we followed the road all the way. Once at the summit, we turned off onto the fell. What I most remember is suddenly being infused with an explorer’s zeal. I lead the way, I wanted to wander round and check out as much of this confusing area as I could and, when the other three decided not to budge from the summit, I requested and was granted permission, hedged around with the usual qualifications, to not merely wander north, towards the Scafells but, after that, to head out towards Eskdale and visit the Border End peak, overlooking the valley. It was my first real taste of solo walking, and I loved it. My return was twenty years in the making, post-Wainwrights, on a Saturday out from Manchester. I was out to revisit Harter Fell, and this time to follow its long and unvalued ridge down to the Pass. On the spur of the moment, since I had a lot of the afternoon left, I followed my own footsteps across the path and across the untidy top to Hard Knott’s summit, although I restricted my other exploring to a visit to the Fort on the way back down the road.

All the Fells: Green Crag


Green Crag – The Southern Fells 1,602′ (151)

Date: 28 June 1993

From: Eskdale

Green Crag is one of those fells that are out on the edge but it’s unique in the Wainwrights in that the edge is drawn, and in thick, black, straight lines, instead of fading out into Birker Moor. The fell in Wainwright’s terms consists of Green Crag itself, an individual miniature peak with a tight top, and the coxcomb ridge of Crook Crag adjoining it. It’s best seen from the Birker Moor Road, where the distance lends a bit of depth to the view: from Eskdale, it lies a bit too far back beyond the valley edge to be properly seen. Green Crag was one of a very tiny number of fells where I made a failed attempt before actually climbing it. It was a dull day in Eskdale, not one for going far, and it seemed the perfect height and distance. I used the Low Birker drove road to reach the valley edge but almost immediately I was spooked. Some of it was the weather, cold and threatening to come down, amplifying the forbidding aspect of Birker Moor to my immediate right. The path dipped in and out of the nearby fellside until emerging under the long channel that led to the skyline between Green Crag and Crook Crag. The prospect of cloud coming down hard had been on my mind ever since I got out of the valley, and whilst I am not normally susceptible to atmosphere in the fells, there was something wrong that day. Then I saw a dead sheep. It had obviously fallen off a bluff, and landed on its back on a rock, and that was enough. I gave up and turned back. When I returned it was on a sunny Sunday from Manchester. I ascended by the same route, but this time, with the air clear and the sun untroubled, there was nothing to fear from Birker Moor and my biggest trouble was, when I got up to the ridge and went round behind Green Crag to complete the ascent, I had to do a mini-scramble to reach the top. Even then, it was coming down it that was the only objection. It was one of those days when I was wearing my Test Match Special Cap Radio, and I was amused to find that, out above the Moor, I was picking up a radio station based in Douglas, Isle of Man! Back off the Crag, I took the path lying behind Crook Crag, not wishing to follow its ridge on this occasion. I would save that to another visit, one that never happened. But I came down onto the plateau bordering on the edge of Eskdale, looked back to fix in my memory the point where I’d descended from the hills (which I can still envisage) against returning to do the climb from this end, and tracked down the top of the Penny Hill peat road. This was a cracker of a descent, nicely graded, a series of shelves, offering easy progress and decent views over the valley. I would use this when I came back. But this was another of those plans that fell through because life had other things in store for me.

Eskdale Expedition

Once upon a time, going to Eskdale for the day would have been simple. It would have been alarm at 6.00am, behind the wheel at 7.00am, cross the Cumbria border at 8.00am and, depending on which of the many short cuts available that I chose, Eskdale for about 10.00am, early enough to climb Scafell, if that was my thing for the day.

But let’s not pretend that’s my option now. Public transport won’t do that sort of thing for me. Today’s expedition is going to cost a lot in terms of traveling time, the best part of ten hours on trains, or waiting for connections. And that’s not counting the Ratty.

Given that, at the very best, I’ll only get two and a half hours in Eskdale itself, some have asked if it’s going to be worth it? That’s before we throw in factors like being on a week’s leave, which means that this year’s extraordinary heatwave has vanished out the window, leaving cool, cloud-laden and frequently wet conditions all round, or that I’ve been feeling drained and dozy all week, the wet weather has brought out my arthritic knee and hip, not to mention that I’ve been finding sleep as elusive as the point to Boris Johnson, and I’m asking myself the same question.

It’s not merely tradition that sees me keep too the 6.00am alarm, which has to drag me awake. I’m booked on the 8.30am train from Piccadilly but I intend to catch the bus at 7.00am: it’s a 203, remember, and my paranoia about that service is entirely justifiable. I then excel myself by painfully half-jogging to catch the 6.50am bus which, with a clearly energised driver charging through traffic lights instead of slowing down in a bid to get them to turn red, drops me off with over an hour to spare.

Of course, if I had taken even half of that hour for additional sleep, I would not have been here for 8.45am.

Northern Rock at Ravenglass

My bag is full of all the wants and requirements for the day – scotch egg barms, water bottle, mp3 player with old-style ear-covering headphones and Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, which I want to read in readiness for the English publication of The Labyrinth of the Spirits next month – except for cold drinks. I acquire two small bottles of Diet Coke and take up position in Platform 14’s ‘Departure Lounge’ by 7.50am, wondering how I’m going to get to Lancaster on a train bound for Blackpool North.

The mystery is solved when this is fully announced as one of those split services: from Preston the rear two carriages will detach and head for the seaside and the front two carry on for, ultimately, Windermere via my first change. Needless to say, Piccadilly announce that the other way round and we’ve reached Bolton (hack, plew!) before the conductor interrupts my musical reverie to tell me I’m in the wrong half of the train. I’d snagged myself a nice window/table seat too, but then I get another one further up, albeit with the surface sticky from spilt juices.

The day’s early tension faded out once I was on the train and everything was out of my hands, but the relaxation didn’t last.

There were some hints of blue streaks in the sky, pale from a hundred washings, and they grow a bit until, by Horwich Parkway the forward sky looks very promising.

We’re six minutes late at Preston and by the time the carriages are separated, we’ve eaten up fifteen of the twenty-five minutes I have between connections at Lancaster, enough to set the butterflies off again. The sky’s getting better and hotter, though there’s still enough cloud ahead of us to leave it all balanced.

I leave the train at Lancaster with that ten minutes still preserved, debouching onto the same platform the Barrow-in-Furness train will arrive at, but I relax only for moments. The Edinburgh train immediately before it is running late, enough that it will inevitably delay mine. For which I have a five minute connection at Barrow…

The Edinburgh train is processed out quickly, but next on the board is the bloody Glasgow train, which, as an express, takes precedence. A friendly porter confirms the Barrow train will follow it, about ten minutes late: they do try to hold the Coast train connection.

What can I do? Nothing but play it as it lays. I’ve been on a hot streak with the pen all the way so far, and I’m loving the music. So what if the bloody Glasgow train is itself five minutes late? My careful plans didn’t factor in checking alternatives, so until I get to Barrow, I won’t know when the next Coast train is. Every hour? Every two hours? Even if all I can do is turn straight round at Dalegarth, I’ll get my Ratty trip if it kills me.

At last, no more than seventeen minutes late, we move off. I’ve grabbed another window/table seat, from which I’ll be able to see the hills inland, once we’re around Morecambe Bay, but until then the views are through the other windows.

Irton Pike and Whin Rigg

At Arnside, we begin the crossing of the Bay, wide, flat expanses of water to both sides, long horizons. Kent’s Bank, where (Great-) Uncle Alfand Aunty Marion used to live, is an isolated platform in the middle of nowhere. I detect we’re approaching Ulverston (where I was once offered a job I declined) by the sight of the monument we only knew as Hoad (pronounced in a deep and serious tone not unlike Hoder), and this is where I get my first serious views of the fells. I have to puzzle out exactly what I’m looking at before I realise it’s the Conistons – this is an unusual angle to see them at – with the Old Man and Dow Crag cloud-bound.

Dalton, where we holidayed with Uncle Frank a couple of times before the bust-up over Aunty Lily Bunting’s Will that split the family, is much more extensive than I ever remember it. It’s alsowhen my connection should be leaving Barrow.

The train eventually crawls into Barrow, not that that matters when the conductor announces that the next Coast train leaves from Platform 2 at 12.06. So much for the 12.10 or 12.45 Ratty. So much for two hours in Eskdale.

If I have to sit around for half an hour in Cumbria, I wouldn’t choose Barrow Station (or anywhere in Barrow, come to that). It’s now bright, breezy and sunny and I’m filling in page after page in my Notepad with almost manic determination, swapping from the first draft of this post to a vital scene in my current novel, to another ‘Infinite Jukebox’ blogpost, inspired by one of the songs on my new, extended playlist.

The train arrives and the station announcer reels off a list of stops that takes almost as long to read as we were late in getting here. The driver wanders off for a cup of tea, leaving us standing on the platform, listening to the recitation over and over, until a couple of minutes before departure, when we are finally allowed to board. I score my fourth window/table seat of the day but I’m planning from here to spend more time gaping at Black Combe than writing.

At first, the Combe’s on my left as we swing north to cross the Duddon Estuary. A long line of rounded fells extends beyond it, and the predatory cloud keeps picking it its summit as I try to work out just what I’m looking at in the darker distance, but I’m unable to orient the angles to my satisfaction. On my side, the shrouded Conistons reappear.

I’m seeing the Duddon Fells again. It’s been a while. Proud and shapely little Stickle Pike, so easy to access from the top of the Broughton Mills road. Caw, beyond it, that I wanted to desperately to have been included in Wainwright and which I finally climbed from ‘The Outlying Fells’.

Next stop Foxfield (‘all change for Broughton and Coniston’, at least until Dr Beeching swung the axe that had so recently cut off that branch line when first I sailed past here). Shy red deer, a long long way from Martindale, peer at our train from an overgrown field, startled into stillness.

Millom, where one Friday teatime of a cottage holiday we went for fish’n’chips, stunned at the silence, the emptiness of the streets, as if we were in a ghost town, and indeed we were for though we didn’t know it then, this was the day they closed the Ironworks, throwing practically the whole town out of work without a word of warning.

This land is full of memories and the train just a line on which to peg them out.

River Irt at Dalegarth

Now we’re properly in the shadow of Black Combe, the cloud still snatching and retreating, and I can see the line of the path from Wicham by which we climbed it, without fuss or bother, in 1974, was it, when the haze was too great for the extensive view from the top, and then Silecroft but not its beach of stones, so perfect for two kids to try to hurl back into the sea. Rolling grass undulations keep us from seeing the sea.

Bootle, where Uncle Alf and Aunty Marion moved to, and to which I drove, in two successive Aprils, for their funerals. Some of the lower Eskdale Fells are now visible as we finally pass the Combe’s mammoth footprint, Muncaster Fell (which we climbed one morning before paying a duty visit to our elder relatives), a denuded Irton Pike, cloud behind.

I see more when we cross the Esk estuary. I see the gates into Eskdale, I see the shape of reclusive Miterdale, where last I reached its head I took my then-wife and her children. I see Scafell is cloud-choked.

And then it’s Ravenglass, and I may be way behind on my carefully planned schedule, but I am nevertheless here. Because this is where I come from, in whatever an atheist has for a spirit. Great Grandad Robert, who I never knew, was Station Master here. Grandad Arthur was born here in 1894. This is where the Crookalls are from, for all that the rest of my lineage is pure Manchester.

Do I recognise the Ratty? Not a bit of it.

It’s changed and grown, and I’ve seen too little of that, and nothing for the last fifteen years or so and everything of the ramshackle little organisation with the two trains, run by Volunteers from a Preservation Society, the members of which included my Dad, descending to me after his death, is gone. Only the lines and the turntable remain. I’m booked on the 1.30pm from Platform 3 (Platform 3!). There’s a green steam train hooked up to it.

I hasten down to see it (and take a photo), though it’s ‘Northern Rock’ and not the familiar and very old faithful, ‘River Irt’. The surroundings may have changed, but the small of coal and steam is instantly recognisable.

There are a variety of carriages: open, closed, roofed. I stake a claim in an open carriage with ages to go. I am going to see everything the clouds will allow me to see. And this really is how it used to be: I remember roofed carriages first being introduced. I remember ‘Northern Rock’ being introduced to the line, and the debate about what to name it: it was suggested that, to harmonise with the three steam trains already operating, it be called ‘River Bleng’, and wondering where the heck the Bleng was.

Water Mill at Boot

How long is it since I actually rode on the Ratty? It isn’t this century, but Hell’s Bells, it could be as long ago as the Eighties! It was a cold, frequently wet day, with the fells out of the question and I made up my mind on the spur of the moment, killing time with a there-and-back-again to Dalegarth that I remember for getting chatty across two carriages with an attractive young blonde (wearing a wedding ring) who was up from Lancaster for the day. At Irton Rose, she invited me to sit with her in her carriage to continue the conversation, an enthusiasm for my company I wasn’t used to. Alas, to my everlasting regret, I took the ring pretty seriously, and let her go off wandering from Dalegarth instead of volunteering to accompany her: what else  was I doing with my time anyway? Frequently, the kindest word I can say for my younger self is ‘chump’. Absolute chump.

There are no blondes today, attractive or otherwise, and the conductor reckons it will rain before we get to Eskdale. So what? If it rain, it rains. (And it doesn’t).

Steam starts to be produced up top amidst a regular noise more like clicking than chuffing. I’d worried about getting a train in mid-August, even on a midweek day, remembering crowded carriages and sharing compartments but we’re not much more than half-full. It never used to be like that on the Ratty in August.

We’re only waiting for the line to clear, for ‘River Mite’  all handsome in gleaming maroon, to draw in the down train. Oh God, I remember ‘River Mite’ being introduced, and the shock of seeing it not being in green livery, before the decision to repaint ‘River Esk’ in black.

Then we’re really off and outside the station everything is as it was fifty years ago, and if you think I’ve waxed nostalgic this far, now I’m mainlining times that were. Parents and Uncle and kid sister crowd me into the corner of this little compartment and for a moment, several moments, eyes sting and my cheeks are wet.

Irton Road (where I am shocked to find we don’t stop) means we have swung away from the line of the Mite and the miniature crags and cliffs of Muncaster Fell, and are entering Middle Eskdale. Harter Fell stands proud, taller than its real height, and Green Crag’s Cullin-like ridge commands the eye. Eskdale Green has, shockingly, been renamed ‘The Green’ (and we don’t stop there either, what is this place coming to?) But we do stop at a station that never existed in my time, Fisherground Halt, because these intermediate stations are now only request stops.

Next is Gilbert’s Cutting, which flabbergasts me by being so green, moss and fern having softened the bare rocks of its creation in 1963. And Beckfoot Crossing, where the line of ‘Owd Raty’ runs parallel for a stretch before diverging to Boot village, a section deemed too steep for ‘Laal Ratty’ when it was rescued from oblivion.

At last I’m in Dalegarth, for 2.10pm, giving me only eighty minutes among hills and fells, rock and grass and woods not seen in like forever, that I’d honestly given up hope of seeing again, and I was wrong about that, and glory be, ‘River Irt’ is sat here, bright as ever, waiting to pull the next down train.

Green Crag and Birker Force across Eskdale

Where our walks to Boot tended to be more of an amble, I haven’t the time now to be anything but brisk. I cross to the right hand side to face the oncoming traffic, little of it that there is, but nobody else does. Boot has been heavily re-developed, and they’re still knocking it about now, scaffolding over the bridge: tourism. I don’t recognise much.

But the path I want, up beside the Whillan Beck (we always called it ‘the’: I wonder why) has to be the only one on the right. The cascades and torrents, the rushing, milk-white water crashing down over broken rock is immediately familiar, but it’s inaccessible now, and I’m sure there used to be a monkey-puzzle tree along here. And surely this wasn’t a tarmaced lane? Often steep, it leads me almost to Gill Head Farm (National Trust) and the real footpath, to Eel Tarn and Scafell. A half day scrambling around here, that forlorn week of going away after Dad died, me with my little transistor radio in my anorak front pocket, my mother disgusted.

From here I should have the perfect view of Scafell’s least interesting side but for that bloody cloud. It’s not much, it’s not far, it’s maybe 500′ at the very best, but it’s all I can do in the time I have.

So, down to Dalegarth again. The steep bits of the lane are worse for my knees than in ascending, but its still quicker downhill. The Whillan Beck cascades are too screened by trees for a decent photo but I take one anyway. Back in Boot, there’s a big pub with a big beer garden, full of benches and tables full of people, with parasols advertising Robinson’s Bitter (our Robinson’s Bitter? Robbie’s from Stockport?) and that’s just wrong, completely wrong. My parents would have had a fit.

The first thing I do back at the station is to leave a little liquid reminder that I’ve been here (TMD, I hear you cry but I couldn’t resist the alliteration). I’ve just finished buying replenishments when my train steams in: this time it’s ‘River Mite’, to my disappointment, having hoped to see the old holy trinity of trains (‘River Esk’s driver is off ill, I later hear). Three rivers three trains, three memories.

I transfer the contents of a bottle of cold Harrogate Spring Water (what’s wrong with Buxton, then?) to my water bottle and drain the cold can. As I recycle plastic bottles and cans fervently, I have to take these home. I’m now accumulating quite a stock.

As we pull out, the first fine spatters of rain hit us, but we quickly outrun them. So much for showers in Eskdale.

Whillan Beck cascades

I sit with my back to the engine, looking back at where I’ve been, at Eskdale for the longest possible time. At the end of the line, bordering the Mite estuary, there behind me is Nether Wasdale, free from cloud at last. Seatallan, where it ended, and Middle Fell, where it started, side by side. Unseen, all the other Wainwrights crowd between them.

As I cross the the mainline station that Great Grandad would probably still recognise, I’m gratified by one last reminder that not everything has changed: ‘River Mite’ has edged onto the turntable, and the driver still has to turn it round by applying his shoulder and pushing!

It’s all about going home now and retreat is never as interesting as advance. It should be straightforward as I have only the one change, at Lancaster, ahead of me, with a forty-six minute connection to sit out. Of course, that depends on the 4.25pm train turning up on time and it doesn’t. A clearly disgruntled customer with a smartphone reports it is running twenty-five minutes late. Still, if i have to hang around a railway station, Ravenglass is my preference.

Once the train arrives, correctly late, it’s chocker with homebound workers from Sellafield. There’s not a seat to be had and I’m bloody lucky that I only have to stand until Silecroft. It’s now a beautiful evening, glorious traveling weather: beyond Bootle, I can catch glimpses of the sea from my ‘extra’ height, sparkling and light, but we’re both too low and too far south for there to be the remotest possible chance of glimpsing the Isle of Man.

Coming this way, I remember a Sixties holiday when we all drove up as usual in Uncle Arthur’s car on Saturday, but he had work commitments and couldn’t stay the week, so on the Tuesday morning after the Bank Holiday Monday we saw him off from Silecroft to Manchester on the ancestor of this train, and he left his car keys for Dad to drive the rest of the week.

At long last, my non-stop writing is slowing down, not that it stops for a very long time yet. But this is Barrow again, and it’s now nearly twelve hours since that alarm dragged me awake. And still hours to go before I get home.

After Barrow the train becomes an express, stopping only at Carnforth, which I’m sure it wasn’t originally. We flash through empty station after empty station, chasing the sun and the glitter on the Bay towards a mainland dark with cloud that we nevertheless brush away. The train was originally scheduled to reach Lancaster for 6.26pm, then forecast for 6.44pm, and it pretty near exactly splits the difference when it does arrive. Which means another thirty minutes hanging around before I grab my last window/table seat of the day.

Even with all the stops we have to make, I’m not sure why it’s supposed to take us more than ninety minutes to Piccadilly, but I get my explanation at Preston, where we arrive at 7.30pm. In a symmetrical moment I would normally appreciate if it hadn’t been so long a day already, we are to be joined by a Blackpool North train and depart at 7.44pm. Trains, eh?

River Mite

I’m still writing away, though the energy level has dipped. A quick check at the end of the day confirms I have covered fourteen and a half two-sided sheets of the Reporters Notepad, which is going to make for a lot of typing up and redrafting over the next couple of days. Not looking forward to that.

Sunset is now advancing like a Roman Army conquering Gaul, and will coincide with my arrival at Piccadilly. There’s Rivington Pike and the Winter Hill transmission mast to the right, and to the right are the last sunlit clouds, the ice cream castles of Joni Mitchell’s words and Judy Collins’ voice, earlier in the day, massive vanilla ramparts. When I worked for Bolton Council, one of our Chief Surveyors took me up our private road to Winter Hill. It’s bloody flat up there, no place to be on foot in cloud.

Finally, it’s Manchester. I’m lucky enough to drop onto a 203 bus after only a couple of minutes and now I’m really tired and glad to get in for more or less 9.30pm.

Could it have been better? Of course it could. Would I have preferred to have had a companion? Yes, I would. Was it worth it? Course it bloody was, and I’ll do it again, and there’s the full Coast train run to Carlisle to try.

Because it’s possible. And because when life hands you lemons you make lemonade, even if it takes you ages to work out the recipe. I’ve been back to the Ratty, I’ve been back to Eskdale. What’s next?


Eskdale: To Go or Not To Go

Oh yes…

Many of you will be aware of (and probably be thoroughly bored by) the number of times I have bemoaned the circumstances that keep me from seeing familiar and wonderful places in the western Lake District. Reliance on public transport to get to Cumbria, and the extreme limitations of public transport once I’ve got there, pretty much rules it out.

But not completely. I’ve long nursed an ambition for a particular day out that can get me by train to the Ratty and thus give me something like two to two and a half hours in Eskdale. And I’ve long put that off because it has always felt like I should be taking someone with me.

If I make that a deal-breaker, I’ll never do it. So, with a week’s holiday coming up in August, I’ve been looking at the practicalities – financial and timetable-wise – of making an Eskdale expedition on Thursday August 16.

Basically, the cheapest and most convenient journey is to break it into two legs: Manchester Piccadilly to Lancaster, departing 8.30am, 50 minute break at Lancaster, then Lancaster to Ravenglass, arriving 12.04pm.

This then gives me the options of the 12.04pm (diesel) or 12.45pm (steam) trains from Ravenglass to Dalegarth, with the former the train of choice, but that’s dependent upon the train being on time as I only have six minutes to transfer over.

Based on the Ratty timetable, I’d have to be back at Dalegarth to catch the 3.30pm to Ravenglass, then retread my steps.

It’s slightly cheaper to get single tickets each way, but that ties me to certain trains and, to keep the costs down, I wouldn’t be back at Piccadilly until 8.45pm. On the other hand, if I buy returns for the two legs, it’s only about £2.00 – £4.00 dearer, depending on which train I get back from Lancaster but I have a free hand catching return trains, including ones from Lancaster that are a damn sight more expensive as single fares.

Basically, I can get, as I said, two to two and a half hours in Middle Eskdale, around Dalegarth for just under £50 in rail fares, including the Ratty. For that, I’m committing myself to about five and three-quarter hours of train journeys, not counting the 40 minutes each way to Eskdale, which doesn’t count because that’s the whole point of the day.

So, do I do it? The weather forecast for August 16 is sunny with clouds, and the day appeals because it’s the day after the anniversary of my Dad’s death, and he is the main reason for my love of the Lakes: I took over his Ratty membership for years after his death.

Having worked out how possible it is, and with enough margins at changeovers to minimise the possible problems with delayed trains, I don’t see how I can’t, partner in travel or no partner in travel.

So, when I go into Manchester on Saturday (expect the latest excoriation of Doomsday Clock), I’m going to purchase my tickets, charge up my mp3 player, make sure there’s plenty of ink in my pen and plenty of clean pages in my notepad: there will be an official Eskdale Expedition report.

Walking Blues


Back to work today for the first time in half a week, courtesy of something viral that had me feeling extremely light-headed at my desk (and more so when I stood up to let my team manager know how I was).

En route to work, I had to visit the post office to post two outstanding eBay items, long overdue despatch, but there was a lorry blocking the narrow section beside the Redrock development so my bus had to go the long way round and into the Bus Station from the back.

So I walked slowly from my point of disembarkation to the Post Office, and slowly back from there to the Sandwich Pound, and MacColls for my paper and something to drink, and then the Steps out of Mersey Square: 54 of them, my daily grind that, in the five plus years I’ve been working here, I have always done in one, no breaks, no halts, and still do.

And getting to work to discover that one lift is out of commission and the other, whilst supposedly working, is on the ground floor and not responding to any button presses whatsoever. I work on the Fifth Floor. I walked all the way. Five flights. I only needed three stops for breath.

I’m not going into this on the assumption that you’re all inherently fascinated with my every moment and will drink this in like some super-effective energy drink. Events over the weekend had me thinking about screensavers on laptops. I’ve previously used different Rick Geary cartoons as screensavers but on my current, and less than perfect machine, I’ve used a classic photo: Scafell Pike and Ill Crag, rising above Upper Eskdale.

You’ve seen it before: I’ve used it at least twice on this blog. It’s a classic scene, one of my favourites views in the Lakes, something I have seen half a dozen times in the high atmosphere, the long walk in from Eskdale via the Cowcove zigzags.

If you were to transport me this instant to Eskdale, to the mouth of the farm road to Taw House, to the start of that walk in that takes me back to that very spot, with boots on feet and rucksack on back, and to the beginning of the middle morning, 10.00am, a dry, clear, warm day, if you were to give me the freedom to set boot on that route back into the heart of the Scafells, my own heart would swell, with delight, with the air that tastes so very different to anything the streets of Stockport can offer, and I would step out on the way home into the fells.

Or would I?

My exertions this morning, both on the (relatively) flat and on those stairs, suggest an unwelcome conclusion. My short ramble on the lower flanks of Loughrigg Fell, back in 2012 aside, I have not done any fellwalking since the very early days of my marriage. I have been out of the fells for more than a decade, for close on fifteen years. I have known for a very long time that if my fortunes changed, and the chance to return to the Lakes for holidays and weekends was once more available to me, there would need to be a long period of retraining and recovery.

But I was so slow in walking, and even the 54 steps were a trial to ascend. I wanted nothing more than to get to sit down. There is a massive difference between Mersey Square in Stockport and the Cumbrian Fells, and that difference is heartening and warming: I would want to walk in the Lakes and I would want to walk uphill.

Do I have, would I have the energy and the strength to get there? The idea of reaching the Pike itself on a one-off expedition like that is out of the question, but to get far enough to be in sight of the highest fells: am I still physically capable of walking that far?

I’m not feeling at my best today. But I haven’t felt at my best for a very long time. I don’t get enough exercise and I feel weary enough that I don’t do any more exercise. My second Museum trip to London this year is probably the longest sustained walking I’ve done in years, and long before it was over, I was hot and drained, and strolling slowly enough that an arthritic slug could have overtaken me.

Suddenly, I’m starting to wonder whether my exile from the fells is going to be permanent, if I’m going to be fit for nothing more than the Outlying Fells.

One thing’s for certain: my retraining programme is going to have to be at least twice as long as I’d previously thought and it might take me a month to get back above 2,000 feet again. If ever.

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.


Life of a Mountain revisited

Back in January this year, the BBC aired a beautiful hour long documentary, directed by Terry Abrahams, about a year in the life of England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, and I watched it and raved about it here.

At the time, I mentioned that this was an edited-down version of the original film, available on DVD in a two hour length. I have now put my hands upon this DVD and watched it, and I can only recommend it all over again, only even more.

For anyone who loves the Lakes, this is an absolute must. It’s gentle, thoughtful, unpretentiously lyrical, and the filming is some of the most beautiful and enthralling I have ever seen about the Lakes country. Abrahams has imposed no personal vision on his film, nor given it any set course. It’s organised around the four seasons, and these four sections can be viewed separately, but who, given the possibility of 126 minutes of heavenly absorption, would want to watch only a part?

Given that this is just over twice as long as the original, it’s strange to report that it doesn’t feel as if there are masses of additional material. With the exception of another interlude with the Wasdale shepherdess at the end, book-ending her introduction to the televised version, the additional material is mainly more of the same things, more conversations with the natural talkers I referred to previously, relaxed, delighted just to be where they are, as much a part of the landscape as the mountains we return  to, over and over.

My two criticisms previously are resolved in the extended original. Whilst the film itself is still Wasdale oriented, there is much more material on the Eskdale flank of the mountain, and the music, second time round, comes over as much more in tune with the whole piece. It seemed nothing like so obtrusive, and it was a fitting companion to such scenes of beauty, grandeur and enthrallment.

It was interesting to contrast pronunciations. The proper pronunciation of Scafell Pike was spelled out to be with a long ‘a’, Skaw-fell, echoing the former spelling of the title, which is what I was taught as a land, though a majority of those referencing the name did so with a short ‘a’, as in Scar – fell. On the other hand, I have always been brought up – by a Cumbrian grandfather, no less – to pronounce the valley as ‘Wast’l’, whereas people who ought to know were universally pronouncing it ‘Wass-dale’.

Too late to unlearn now.

Lovely film, and a poignant reminder of places to return to and places still to go. Worth every penny you pay for it.


Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike

And what a mountain

BBC4’s Wednesday night documentary about Scafell Pike, Britain’s highest mountain, came with favourable previews, although I’d have raced home from work to catch it if it had been promised to be a load of old boots, because there just aren’t enough television programmes about the Lake District. The last documentary I recall seeing was about the late owner of the Honister Mine and his attempts to get Planning Permission to instal a zip-wire across the Pass, which was a much less comfortable experience on several levels.

But this hour long documentary, produced and directed by Terry Abraham (who if he isn’t related to the Abraham Brothers of Keswick, who were pioneers of rock-climbing, still had a perfectly apt surname), deserve all the credits it got.

It took a beautifully simple approach to its subject, which was a year in the life of the Pike. Delightfully, there was no voiceover narration or ubiquitous presenter forcing a fixed viewpoint on the film. Instead, Abraham simply created the space for people who live and work and walk and climb to talk about what the mountain and its solid presence meant to them. Some of these people were working professionals, shepherds and farmers. Others were men who were drawn to the Lakes as photographers, guides, artists and guidebook writers, professional hillfolk.

All of them were natural talkers, unfazed at being in front of a camera, ready to open up on what the mountain meant to them, each in their own way. The camera didn’t worry them, the director let them talk, and the genuine love they all, in their differing ways, felt for just being there did not need any smartarse to sum up for them.

Two people in particular caught my eye and ear. One was the legendary, and phenomenal Jos Naylor, Wasdale farmer, fell-runner and simply unbelievable performer of feats that you and I could not imagine achieving in a year, let alone a month of Sundays. The film didn’t wallow in what Naylor had done, it just allowed one casual fact to stand, as Naylor recalled the time he set off on an impromptu run from Wasdale Head to the top of Scafell Pike and back. He asked a friend to time him, almost as an afterthought: it took 47 minutes. 47 minutes from Wasdale Head, up and down Scafell Pike. It’s hard to think of Jos Naylor as being merely human after things like that.

The other was David Powell-Thompson, a cheerfully laconic northerner who has spent the last twenty five years as a researcher for walkers, walks and television programmes about the Lakes, doing what he loves every day and being paid for it (lucky dog!). Powell-Thompson’s finest moment came at the annual Wasdale Show, winning the Best Beard rosette. To be taken home and put with the one he won last year!

The film didn’t just content itself with the ‘professionals’, but made room for the visitors to talk, a dozen or so walkers climbing the Pike and being invited to chat on camera. The closest to a dissenting voice was a teenage girl, dragged up the Pike for the first time by her Dad, who confessed to not liking the wind, but voice of the night was the voluable Scot, filmed with the glorious northern vista behind him, who couldn’t get over being where he was and the brilliant views.

Along with the talk, the film produces an array of brilliant pictures showing Scafell Pike and the Wasdale scenery in different shades and colours. We began with stars and a sunrise over valleys streaming with thick, roiling clouds, like a massive white-topped sea, and towards the end, a backpacker camping out rapturised about the night sky, unaffected by light spillage whatsoever, whilst the sky above teemed with more stars (and meteorites) than I have ever seen in cities with the naked eye.

And if that wasn’t delicious in itself, there was the time-lapse shot of the Pike throughout a night, astonishingly lit by night-climbers with head-torches, scaling the summt and rushing down, their torches unbelievably bright, like distant cars on a night-time hill, only more so.

One climber, familiar with Everest and K2, confessed to preferring rock climbing on the Pike, though we watched him start to tackle Broad Stand – not a walker’s route – on Scafell, getting quite some way up before showing his command of extreme good sense by stopping because the rock and the handholds were just too wet and slippery, and heading back.

If I’ve any critcism of the film, it would be less about the near-ubiquitous background music (quiet, suitably pastoral, but still over-indulged) than the fact that it was so Wasdale-oriented. Scafell Pike is more than a Wasdale fell, which was acknowledged quite some ways into the film, but the Eskdale flank – which I find to be more spectacular in both appearance and approaches – got very much short shrift. Some superb vistas, some conversations with guide book writers and backpackers exploring this side, but the preponderence of talkers were part of the Wasale scene.

No, this was quite the nicest thing that’s been on television so far this year, and I suspect that distinction will last quie some time yet. I’d urge you to catch it on the iPlayer whilst it’s available, and an early repeat would be welcome, especially if the BBC decide to re-show the film at its original two-hour length. I could have stood a lot more of that.

Tarns – Foxes Tarn

Foxes Tarn is a place to savour. Not so much for the waters, but for their context. No walker will set out with it as a destination, or even as a highlight of his or her day, but it is nevertheless a wonderful place to be, because when you are on the shore of Foxes Tarn, you are either on the threshold of the highest heights, or you have begun the return to the ground but are still touched by the majesty of the summits.
The tarn is the highest named body of water in the Lake District, as well as being one of the smallest. It hides in a hollow in the north-western flank of Scafell, invisible from outside to anyone lacking the vision of a Clark Kent. I’d estimate its surface area to be not much more than that of a good-sized family lounge, and one that is occupied by a boulder the size of a three-piece suite.
Foxes Tarn’s importance is as a route of ascent to, or (in my case) descent from Scafell, for those whose limitations preclude the direct approach from Mickledore via Broad Stand. A steep, stony gully that almost chokes the streamlet running from the tarn’s outflow gives a way to bypass the crags on the Eskdale flank of the fell, and it occupies the narrow bed of a fold in the fellside, out of which a steep, loose path (remade once already by the National Trust and now as abominably loose as before), climbs almost vertically onto the back of the summit.
As I said, one comes here en route to the top of the second highest fell in England, or in the very first stage of descent.
I’ve never ascended Scafell via Foxes Tarn: both my visits have been in retreat from the summit, and I’ve never paused by the water. This, I think, is the likely fate of Foxes Tarn when anyone visits it from above: after leaving the saddle on the back of Scafell, the land rapidly steepens, the way is enclosed on both sides and the tarn is visible for a long, slow time, from above. The hollow looks to be completely enclosed from above: escape by water or foot looks impossible. It has the feel of a secret chamber, accessible only by some means revealed only to a very few.
By the time you reach the bed of the hollow, and the brief shores of the tarn, it has been in sight for long enough to take in all its glories, such as they are. There is no temptation to wait beside it, no need for rest. The outflow opens around a corner, the hollow is not as sealed as it looks. There are miles to go and, in the case of walkers who have conquered Lord’s Rake earlier in the day, I can attest to a heightened adrenalin that incites you to devour as much as you can whilst you’re up here.
I rather imagine that it would be a very different matter in ascent. Given that the stone-chocked gully requires careful negotiation in descent, I rather think that by the time the Tarn is reached, unseen and unsuspected until that moment you stumble ‘around the corner’ and find it beside you, the temptation to sit and take a breather would be very high. Especially when you look at the next stage to get out of there!
I think it would be nice to rest there, out of sight of everyone except those few birds that circulate. It’s always nice to sit by a tarn and contemplate its waters. Even through a boulder on which you could seat a family of five.