Like the Eskdale Harter Fell, my first visit to its Mardale namesake was with my family. In 1975, I had still never been to Mardale nor seen Haweswater, not even in a distant view, though I had suggested a number of walks that would at least give me a chance to see it. But it was an unspoken bargain that if the family were to take a holiday at Ullswater, we would finally visit Haweswater since it would no longer be too far to drive. We headed over there on the Wednesday, a long, roundabout route that was outside and then back in. My Uncle stopped the car by the dam to let me get a good look at it and a photo, then it was down to the head of the Lake and into out walking gear. It was a cool, blustery day. I don’t remember having any input into what we were going to do, and the Mardale Harter was actually a bit higher than the normal run of fells we would tackle in that half-decade, but the approach was straightforward and simple, and on grass all the way. This was out of the parking area and turn left to head for Gatescarth Pass. It may have been grass every step of the way, but I drunk all of it in, because I’d never seen any of this before. There was no path from the top of the Pass to Harter so, with me as bookholder and guide, we followed the wire fence uphill to the lowly hillock of Adam a Seat, then followed the fence as it angled across the flank until it reached the summit ridge at the north end of the long top. The classic full-length view of Haweswater from the third cairn was mere yards away and I was allowed to divert to it for a photo if I promised to be ultra-careful of the wind and the nearby cliff-top. As if I, with my vertigo, was going to get near enough to it to go over in the face of the wind! We then walked back to the actual summit, which was second in height only to Lingmell amongst those ascents we’d completed thus far. I expected us to reverse our steps back towards Gatescarth but I was in for a surprise. With the excuse of wanting to see down into Kentmere, where the Reservoir was a bright spot under increasingly dark and threatening clouds, gather overhead, we crossed the top until it was visible. Then, to my shock, we went down that way, towards Nan Bield Pass. It was only the second time, and the first with my Uncle, that we had not descended by the exact same route as our ascent. Well-wrapped up, we got to Nan Bield and that classic view to Haweswater over Small Water, and wound our way down the other Pass to the car. I was to come back to Harter, unexpectedly, before the end, a Sunday there-and-back to Mardale and as close to the valley head as I could. This was another of those half dozen days that, at the drop of a hat (or, more practically, twenty-five years) I would repeat enthusiastically. High Street by Rough Edge and Long Crag, Mardale Ill Bell, the previously unclimbed purpose of the day and, back at Nan Bield with time to spare and plenty of walking yet in my legs, the impromptu decision to go back over Harter, straight up and over, trailing in the wake of a lady walker whose black stretch pants were so stretched that it was less a case of VPL (Visible Pantie Line) as VPC (Visible Pantie Colour). I descended via the third cairn along a brand new path direct to Gatescarth top, that had been walked not only into existence but into erosion in the less than two decades since I had been here before. And there was one more visit, though not an especially successful one, post-Wainwrights. I wanted to do the Kentmere Horseshoe, from Shipman Knotts to Harter Fell in the morning, and returning from Thornthwaite Fell to Yoke, but with walking days becoming fewer, my stamina was ebbing away. and it was a hot day and I ran out of water before descending to Nan Bield, leaving me no option but a very long, very slow and very dry retreat down the valley until, almost back at the village, I knocked on a door and had my water bottle half-filled with cold tapwater that I guzzled eagerly, but which was not enough to stave off a sun-induced headache that I tried to medicate with paracetamol back at the main road, one of which I promptly brought up in the road.
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.
I’m tired, I’m stressed, I’m jittery as f-u-c-k, what shall I do? I know – let’s go on an imaginary holiday.
Let’s go up to the Lakes again, in my imagination. Let’s pretend there was one more week, one more Sunday to Friday, divided between Ambleside and Keswick, on which the sun shines but the fells are cool, the atmosphere is clear and the views and the photographs are fantastic.
Let’s pretend that this holiday is the big one, the one that catches all the places I never got to go properly, the summits under cloud, the views unseen. All of them swept up in one go, in my prime of twenty odd years ago, before the knee became a problem.
So the car is packed, only because this is imagination I can cheat. Suitcase and rucksack, anorak, waterproofs and boots, but we don’t need the cassette player to provide me with music in the evenings, and instead I carry my mp3 player and headphones, and there’s a small space for my laptop, instead of a writing pad and spare pens.
And the alarm goes on a Sunday morning in North Reddish, Stockport. I’ve been to Old Trafford yesterday afternoon and United have won, won in the style we’ve lost, terrified the opposition into submission, reaffirming our position at the top of the Premier League. The tank is full of petrol, and here I go.
Romance is an essential component of the imagination, so let’s forego the latterday, get there as fast as I can route of motorways, and revert to that old AA ‘Manchester to the Lake District avoiding the A6’ route that my Uncle obtained in the Sixties, and which I still know by heart.
Leave through North Manchester, bypassing Bury on the M66, to Rossendale and that dual carriageway route that by-passes the drive over the moors to and through Burnley. Then it’s up through Pendle and Nelson and cross-country, briefly returning to civilisation by driving through Gisburn.
At Long Preston, I join the long A65, along the edge of the Limestone Country, through Settle where Dad would always settle for a doze in the car, under the massive presence of Ingleborough, one of a tiny handful of non-Lake District mountains I have climbed, towards Kirby Lonsdale and beyond, until I cross the M6 and make for Milnthorpe. In my imagination, the Flying Dutchman is still open, offering the sausage butties that I was never allowed at home, and just as all our three visits in 1966, ‘Strangers in the Night’ is playing as we walk in, because for a moment I am surrounded by people long gone.
Beyond Milnthorpe I head north for the long road across the foot of the Lakes. The full run would take me through such places as Haverthwaite, Lindale and Greenodd and to the moors from which there’s that glorious view of Dow Crag and Coniston Old Man, and along the Water.
But this time I regretfully turn off at Newby Bridge and follow Windermere all the way to Ambleside, because even in imagination time is not elastic. The hotel that overlooks the park has my old room available and they haven’t yet jacked up the price for singletons, so I unload my case and stuff, change into my walking trousers and boots and set off up the street.
My starter walk is Wansfell, for which I walk down the main street towards Windermere before diverting off along Old Lake Road and starting to gain height. This was a starter walk once, a sunny afternoon of the kind we have today and I ascended to the ridge via the first of Wainwright’s options from Blue Hill Road, which disappeared with Jesty. No wonder: it was a poor line that got tangled in rough fellside, leaving me no option but to traverse awkwardly over to the other path (now repaired), to emerge on Wansfell Pike above the most spectacular full-length view of Windermere, exactly the right distance below.
With my camera still in the hotel room.
So now I’ve got my camera, and the shot turns out to be perfect, of course. The problem with Wansfell is that Wansfell Pike is such a perfect summit in a perfect position, but Wansfell is higher and further back, involving a stroll along the ridge with the dull views directly ahead.
The descent is by the same route, save that I drop down further to cross Stock Ghyll, picking up the lane that leads directly into the heart of Ambleside.
A quiet evening, a nice dinner, a pint in the Ambleside Tavern and some music.
I sleep well and eat a cooked breakfast on Monday, complete with tea rather than coffee at the table. I am sensitive about the kinds of coffee you get in Lake District hotels and guesthouses. Today’s plan does not involve severe effort, so I have time to wander Ambleside and drink in the atmosphere.
Then off to Grasmere to do the same thing, and to pay my traditional visit to the Heaton Cooper Studio, which is as much a part of my Lakeland holidays as trips to Ravenglass and the Ratty were for family holidays. There isn’t room for a trip westwards this time, unless I retrospectively decide to extend the holiday backwards, travel up on Saturday, spend my first Saturday night in the Lakes since my Wedding Day, and go for a ride on Sunday.
Either way, this is Monday, I’ve had a hot tuna melt for lunch and it’s time to drive round to get as close as parking on the main road will place me to the Travellers Rest Hotel.
Seat Sandal was a walk on a rainy, cloudy day that offered no entertainment, but was on ground both familiar from previous a visit, and easy to follow. We’d ascended by Little Tongue Gill on a day that turned to rain, heading for Grisedale Pass, though we’d stopped at the hause above Grisedale Tarn, which is a little lower than the official head of the Pass.
They were rebuilding the path along Little Tongue Gill that day, had got about two-thirds of the way to the top. The contrast was striking: when I reached the end of the paved area, I stepped into a foot deep trench.
The cloud was down on the hause and the Tarn invisible, but today the sky is clear. Cloud dots the sky in clumps. I take another photo and turn to the steep slope to my left. There’s an initial scramble, to the right of the wall, which rapidly eases off. No need to guess where to cross the wall and stroll to the broad, flat cairn this time.
It’s a view I’ve never seen, not an extensive or brilliant one, even to the open west, but one of four denied by rain and cloud that I am ticking off. And under the sun, there is no need to return to the hause, to traverse across the top of Great Tongue and descend its length. To do so would bring back memories of that first visit: I took the lead descending, on my own, ten yards in front of everyone else, and so full of energy that I could have turned round at the bottom and done it all over again immediately.
But on such a day there’s no reason not to descend by the south western cairn and the slowly-narrowing ridge, with the Vale of Grasmere below and views all the way. There’s time to enjoy the return.
Tuesday is traditionally transition day. I check out of my first venue of the week and cross Dunmail Raise, this time northerly, to check in at Keswick. I have had a number of regular places here over the years, and my last place is my favourite, but this is taking place entirely within my own head, so once again a room in a hotel overlooking the park becomes available, and when I get back from my walks, a parking space within easy distance will also miraculously appear.
I have two small fells within easy reach of Keswick to reascend, on either side of Bassenthwaite Lake: the question is which to take first. I leave Keswick onto the A656, along the east shore of Bass, and when the road swings round in the direction of Cockermouth, I turn into the woods and the narrow, undulating roads to Wythop.
This was another Sunday afternoon starter walk, a long time ago. I made an afternoon out of it by taking in Ling Fell and Sale Fell together, the improbable ‘Sentinels of Wythop’
Ling Fell, on the far side of the village, deep in the narrow cleft of its valley and its mill-race, is round, unlovely and uninteresting. It’s not in my mind to return, but the only parking is on the high road, on that side of the valley, so I have to get close to it.
That’s not too bad, except for when it means coming back, because Sale Fell is on the other side of the valley and it’s accessible from the lower road. So I march up the valley, drop down via the cross road, deep in the woods of the lower Wythop Valley, and under the same sun as the day I walked here in reality, follow the road up to the farm, Kelswick, at the furthest extent of the valley.
A clear, well-angled path doubles back towards the cleft on the ridge, but this time, when I arrive at the top of the path, the weather doesn’t explode into a cloudburst. I am free to wander up my gentle green ridge, enjoying the vista across Bass Lake and the side-on view of Skiddaw, rising above the Long Side ridge. I say wander: last time, I was marching into the teeth of a howling wind, my head bowed, my glasses removed to my anorak pocket (there was nothing to see so it didn’t matter that I couldn’t see it).
But I’m constitutionally incapable of walking slowly unless the terrain won’t let me pass apace, so I stride out contentedly, contrasting the openness of this climb with the claustrophobia of my real visit. There’s a mixture of paths nowadays, whereas I remember just the open ridge – not that I was the most reliable witness that day!
Then, I reached the tiny cairn, walked round it and started heading back without a pause. I had not been beaten. Now, I can sit down on the springy turf, doff the rucksack, have a drink, admire the view at last.
Two down, two to go, and one within sight.
Down the ridge again. I don’t have to walk back to Kelswick, there’s a path dropping directly down, beside the wall, onto the lower road, down which I march to the village. Time for a sit on the bridge wall, admiring the mill race: perhaps this time the sky is bright enough to enable a decent picture to be taken of it.
An unwelcome stroll back uphill to the car, where I sit for half an hour, enjoying the sandwiches I bought in Keswick and then, without having removed my walking boots, I belt up, reverse out and drop back through Wythop to the main A656 again. But not to return to Keswick. Instead, I angle round the quiet roads beyond the foot of Bass Lake, aiming for the A56 Carlisle Road, and turn Keswick-wards there.
Just as Sale Fell is part of a pair with Ling Fell, separated by the Wythop Valley, it’s part of a pair with the third of my missing views, separated by Bass Lake itself. This is Dodd, that tree-clouded outlier of the Skiddaw Range, only not so tree-clouded now, after a mass-felling sometime prior to 1999. Like Seat Sandal, this was a walk for a wet day that otherwise gave me nothing to do: on a day with no views, what better fell to climb than one from which there were no views to begin with?
That was one of the few days on which Wainwright failed me, his ascent from Dancing Gate proving impossible to follow after less than a quarter-mile. I ended up struggling uphill through trees, never my favourite method of approach, until I emerged on a forest road, from where I threaded together a very heavy-legged approach to the little path onto the wooded top. There were pale glimpses of the Lake below, but nothing else.
Rather than return that way, I descended to Long Doors and began to march downhill. It came on to rain, but I had established a metronomic rhythm, left – right, left – right, without need to pause or halt, all down the simple gradient to the cafe, and all down the A56, using up little or no energy, until the car came in sight.
There’ll be none of that today. Downhill marches are one thing and regular movements are easily attainable on regular ground, but even at my most enduring peak, the same effect isn’t going to occur going uphill. Unless I manage that even, slow-measured tread I struck that time on the Long Side ridge, and that eats up both distance and time, because it’s slow.
Steadily, I gain height, in the tuck of land between the steep sides of Dodd and Carl Side, until Long Doors, when I can escape right and round, into the open. Now Dodd’s summit is clear and warm, and I can enjoy the view even Wainwright couldn’t, without even having to stretch up on my toes.
I’ve done this kind of split-walk expedition on only a couple of occasions before, once by design, the other on impulse. The second half of it is always a bit odd, psychologically, and is slower. Once back at the car the first time, both mind and body relax, automatically: the energetic stuff is over, time to kick-back. Then going out again, even with the reminder that these are walking boots pressing down upon the accelerator and clutch pedals, not the softness of trainers, is harder to do. Even on simple walks like this, where for once I have no more feasible plans than returning to the car by the identical route. Trodden ground indeed.
It’s an early return to the hotel so I slip out into the Park, hire a putter and tackle the Crazy Golf. With long practice, I got the round down to about 39 shots: I reckon that, letting a bit of realism creep in, the rust will be enough to push me back to about 45. Then Tuesday night in Keswick. Beef-filled Yorkshire Pudding and a pint at the Oddfellow’s Arms.
Wednesday is, in a sense, a free day. They’re all free days, really, but there is only one walk remaining to complete sweeping in those fells on my list. I can go anywhere I want, without compulsion. Shall it be flood-ravaged Cockermouth, restored in my memories, and a quiet half hour browsing in The New Bookshop before driving down Lorton and exploring the Buttermere Valley? Or Patterdale via Dockray and Matterdale, into the pre-flood Glenridding, where I was married? Or further east yet, out and round into Mardale and Haweswater?
In light of Thursday’s plan, east it shall be, and by this I mean the Far Eastern Fells, and distant Mardale. I’m going on a nostalgia trip. It’s not the Second Drought Summer that re-calls me, 1984 and walking through the remnants of Mardale Green. Let the lake be full, let all the bare strips, the untidy, ugly tidemarks be covered in good honest water. I m going back to 1975.
It was the first and only time the family had holidayed outside that rigid arc from Ambleside to Wasdale, and for my benefit. I had seen Ullswater and Patterdale only once, and at last Haweswater/Mardale wasn’t too far to drive. We came here on Wednesday. On Friday, we made an attempt on Helvellyn via Striding Edge that only I completed, symbolising the breach I’d made by announcing I would go on no more family holidays after this. The last summit I reached with them was Harter Fell, Mardale.
It’s a simple re-tracing of steps: the left-hand fork beyond the roadhead, the steepish zig-zags to where the corner turns into that green hanging valley beneath Gatescarth Pass, the meandering, silent ascent of relaid stone, the broad grass col. Gatescarth, for some reason, always feels a lonely place, further away from your fellow man than other spots in the Lakes.
From here, in 1975, I had the Wainwright, I had the lead. It wasn’t really needed: there was no path on this flank, but a wire fence led up to Adam-a-Seat, before turning across the fellside, tracking an old boundary to the summit ridge, just short of the third cairn and its fabled full-length view of Haweswater.
Now, and since before 1988, there’s been an already-eroded path, direct from Gatescarth to this wall-corner, even of gradient, easy of ascent. In sunlight, and free of the wind that brought the unnecessary warning not to go too near the edge to get my photo – as if I, with my vertigo, would ever get that close! – it’s the highlight of the walk. Then the long stroll over the flat summit to the distant main cairn.
In 1975, something amazing happened here, that I was in no way responsible for. My family, who had never yet reached a destination without walking back exactly the same way they’d come, decided to descend to Nan Bield Pass and return by Small Water!
Dark cloud massed over Ill Bell, Kentmere Reservoir was cold and still as steel. We descended to Mardale via Small Water, the first photo I had ever seen looking down towards Haweswater, spread out before us. It had become a cold afternoon, since Gatescarth onwards, and we were well wrapped up against rain that never came.
All my holidays alone built up to the Big Walk on Thursday, and the slow retreat home on Friday. There’s one walk, one summit left, from which the view was obscured by clouds (yes, that is a Pink Floyd reference: please do not hold it against me).
This is why I went east on Wednesday, not west. Today is the day to go to Buttermere because I’m going to climb High Stile.
To drive, I’d say my favourite Pass is Whinlatter, because of its ease and simple gradients, but if I’m heading for the Buttermere Valley itself, and an early start is mandated for a long walk, then the only way to go is Newlands. This side of the Pass is not too bad, until the very end: in any car I’ve driven I’ve tried to get up some speed on the straight section, to help me up the last, steep bit to the summit, but Newlands has a ninety degree right hand bend just below that bit, on which all momentum is lost, requiring a laboured limp to the top, in second gear if I’m lucky. Not even imagination can overcome that turn, and I have never reached Newlands Hause without pulling in to let the engine recover.
One of these days, perhaps in another imaginary holiday, I’ll leave the car here and take off up one of the paths from the Hause. Knott Rigg is easy walking, trainers and jeans stuff apparently, though I’d want the boots for the ridge to Ard Crags which would have to be part of the walk.
Once the engine has had time to cool down, it’s down to Buttermere Village, and this is the brake’s turn to take the strain. Because it’s downhill all the way, and it’s steep downhill, and I have never tried to come up this side and never will, not even in my head. At the Village, I’m going to need to park for the day, so let’s assume that the quarry just down the road towards Crummock Water is still operating, and I can get my gear on there.
This is a straight repeat, and it’s a repeat of a walk I’ve not that long ago written about, so let’s insert a link here and not describe the route in the same detail. My memories glide through the long diagonal ascent across Red Pike’s foreground, the rocky ledges that lead to Bleaberry Tarn’s outlet, and scaling the path to Red Pike, only this time the light stays good, the sky is well above my head, there is nothing to darken the day, or enforce any gloom, and I can relish the view.
And there are no concerns about disappearing into the cloud on High Stile, no issues about where the path might lead and whether I’m getting too close to invisible cliffs. So I make it to the summit of High Stile for a second time and I can see all there is to see, and the purpose of this holiday is fulfilled.
I wander downhill to the vantage point that offers me dramatic, near vertical views of Buttermere Village, and take multiple photos. Then it’s time for the long retreat, the narrow ridge to High Crag, the steep continuation to Scarth Gap, the scramble downhill. This time, there’s no One Man and his Dog in the valley below, and I reach ground level and take my time strolling along the lakeshore path, Buttermere lapping gently beside me, until I turn across the fields, back to Buttermere Village, and the car.
This being my imagination, I have enough time to drive along beside Crummock Water, and through gentle, spacious Lorton, to Cockermouth. Like all things in this week, this is the Cockermouth of old, undamaged by floods, and The New Bookshop is what it was, and I have time to browse in the way I used to before I became used to instant access through Amazon and eBay.
And because this is my fantasy, and it can take in whatever I want, there are books that never existed, there for me to buy. I very rarely came out of The New Bookshop without three purchases. So, one at a time, I discover that there is a fourth Master Li and Number Ten Ox story from Barry Hughart, another Dortmunder Gang book from Donald E Westlake and, most precious of all, one final Sam Vimes and the City Watch book from dear old Terry Pratchett, written at the peak of his powers, before the first onset of the Alzheimers, and it’s written to incorporate the ending I had envisaged as a perfect Last Discworld Book, only Terry does so much more with my skeleton than I’d ever imagined possible. I know what I’m going to be doing this evening.
And it’s morning, and it’s time to go home. Register out, drive round Keswick. Take the Penrith road, but cut through Matterdale, through unravaged Glendridding, and over Kirkstone Pass. It’s far too early for the Inn to be open but I stop and wander around, making the goodbye as long as I can because I don’t know how long it will be before I can be here again.
Then down, through Troutbeck, without stopping, through Kendal, with one final stroll and one final bookshop because in my imagination the walls of my pokey little flat are elastic and I can bring in an infinite number of book, especially imaginary ones.
But at long last, it’s the M6, south and home. No drawing it out through Settle and Gisburn, just M6, M61, M602 and Salford and Manchester’s inner ring road, and Hyde Road, Reddish Lane.
And I am back to reality, to where I really live, not where I used to live, from which I departed on this Imaginary Holiday.
I think I’ll do this again.
The hills are eternal.
That’s been said probably since man first started going up into the hills for pleasure, and like so many things repeated endlessly, it is true.
I first ascended Scafell Pike in April 1985. It had been there for centuries, millennia, before I climbed it out of Eskdale, via the Cowcove ZigZags and Cam Spout. And if I were somehow to be translated a hundred years, a thousand years, into the future after my death, I would be able to climb it by that same route, or by any of the other approaches I used to reach it in later climbs.
Unless we have, before then, carried out our unspoken threat to destroy this planet and all life upon it, such an experience will be unchanged from that sunny May day when I set off so late.
Because the hills don’t change as we do. Because no matter how much later we go back, they are as they were when first we set boot to path, in our buoyant youth of endless energy.
Many years ago, I discovered that those seemingly trite words are true in a less concrete but equally valid sense.
Let me first go back to the August of 1975, and my last holiday with my family. I was nineteen, approaching twenty and the third year of my Law Degree at Manchester University. Two weeks previously, I had gone on my first holiday with ‘the lads’, a week in Blackpool. The family holiday was the first we had ever taken outside the south-west quarter that had confined our operations (a few, rare exceptions otherwise) to the arc from Langdale to Wasdale.
We were in the north-east, a few miles from Pooley Bridge, the consequence of my increasing urging that we try other areas of the Lakes, instead of writing them off as ‘too far to drive’. I had never seen Haweswater before. I had only ever seen Ullswater, Queen of the Lakes, once, on a 1970 coach-trip with my grandparents. At last, these places were no longer ‘too far to drive’.
It was ironic, then, that it took little more than 24 hours for me to decide, and communicate, that I was never going on another family holiday again.
Part of it was, undoubtedly, that I had had my first holiday with ‘the lads’ only a fortnight earlier, a week in Blackpool: I was no longer prepared to accept being treated like a little boy who was expected to do and go what and where he was told. And, to be honest, at nineteen, and full of energy, I was beginning to get very frustrated at the limited walking we could do to accommodate my mother and my uncle.
That said, for walking purposes, that week was our most successful, with three expeditions and three summits. On the Wednesday, I got my long-held wish, a trip to Mardale, my first sight on Haweswater. From Mardale Head, we ascended the grassy zig-zags towards Gatescarth Pass and, from the top of the pass, followed Wainwright’s directions, letting the old wire fence guide us over the trackless flank, first to the summit of the subsidiary top, Adam a’Seat, and then in a wide curve across the fellside to the wall corner at the north end of the summit plateau, by the third cairn, with its famous and magnificent full-length view of Haweswater.
And glory be, once we had reached the summit, the highest top we’d ever reached (Coniston Old Man didn’t count, thanks to our ignominious retreat less than 100 yards from the cairn), we didn’t simply retrace our steps all the way we’d already come but, with the wind rising, we walked towards Kentmere and its Reservoir, descended to the top of Nan Bield Pass and came down via the perfect jewel of Small Water.
Two days later, on our last day, we set off towards Helvellyn via Striding Edge where, on reaching the Edge’s furthest end and finding that progress required descending a ten foot rock chimney, my mother promptly declared that my thirteen year old sister was not going down that, and we would start back.
I’ve no doubt that my face conveyed exactly what I felt at that moment, but I am sure that it was what I had said about this being the last time I would ever go walking with the family that caused her to say that there was no reason I couldn’t go on on my own.
This was almost unprecedented: we walked together, as a family. I recall only one previous occasion, at Tilberthwaite, when I had been trusted to put one foot in front of another without being watched to see I didn’t break my neck. I took the chance to go solo, to set my own pace and make my own decisions with such alacrity that I was on Helvellyn’s summit less that fifteen minutes later!
Flash-forward now fourteen years, to 1989. I have gone from being a naïve 19 year old struggling to escape from the confines of my family to a bearded 33 year old qualified Solicitor, with a long term (if volatile) relationship and his own house and mortgage. Instead of being subject to other’s choices of walking, and their transport to get to fell foots, I have my own car, and an already decent history of solo walking, with over 100 Wainwrights under my bell and not so much as a twisted ankle. And I was paying my second visit to the long, straight, secluded loveliness of Longsleddale.
My previous visit had seen me take to the ridge separating this valley from Kentmere, using the unnamed pass that’s a direct continuation of the Garburn Road to get me to Shipman Knotts and, beyond it, Kentmere Pike. This time I was bent on the eastern wall of the valley.
I’d always been fascinated about Grey Crag in the Far Eastern Fells. It was the outer edge of Lakeland, of Wainwright’s Lake District, the easternmost fells, and it had those pages of long, lonely ascents from outside, with names and places that appeared nowhere outside those few pages: Huck’s Bridge, the Jungle Café, another Wasdale and Borrowdale. Not that I planned an assault from that direction.
The climb out of Longsleddale was unexceptional, its highlight being the revelation, as I ascended, of a path on the opposite side of the valley, zig-zagging up the flank of Shipman Knotts, unrecorded in Wainwright, its beginning impossible to discern beyond Sadgill. It drew the eye, invited attention, demanded climbing, though I’ve yet to return to Longsleddale to see if I can trace its start.
Grey Crag was the edge. Out there to the east, in the indistinct haze, the low ridges and the low vantage point, Lakeland became something else, the high lands changing their character imperceptibly, merging slowly into the Howgills, and beyond the Pennines.
I wasn’t just after Grey Crag, but also its neighbour, Tarn Crag, and I struck out north, accompanied by an elderly fellwalker (elderly compared with me now). I don’t remember the ridge being anything like as bad for peat as it reputedly is now, but this was – as most of my late year expeditions were – a sunny week at the tail end of a sunny summer.
From Tarn Crag, I continued north. It had been the limit of my fixed plans, but the hours had been few and time was ample, and ahead, beyond the indefinite head of Mosedale, lay Branstree. It’s an unlovely fell, of long, featureless grassy slopes up which the walker can only trudge, topped with a plateau on which finding the highest point is guesswork, without views unless one is prepared to walk until an edge is found.
But it needed walking, and this was a golden opportunity, the right place with the right amount of time, so I trudged up Selside Brow, duly ticked off my third top of the day, and turned my head to the long, grassy descent towards the summit of Gatescarth Pass. Where I had not been since that day with my family, so many years before.
That’s when I understood that the hills were eternal in more than just the standard sense. The hills not only stood the test of time, they repelled the passage of it. They existed in a Time of their own, a perpetual now, where the edgy, uncertain 19 year old with ambitions he didn’t know how to pursue, ascending from Mardale, and the solid, settled 33 year old with the will and the means to go everywhere he wanted, descending from Branstree, both existed, the years between then vanished and dwindled to a non-existent point.
My Uncle was gone. My mother was slowly being strangled by emphysema. My sister was a married woman who had lost all interest in fell-walking.
But all that existed elsewhere than here. Above Gatescarth Pass, where I would arrive and depart in exact counterpart to my other presence, the hills were eternal and I felt a part of that eternity in me.
Paradoxically, what inspired this insight was change, the impression of time. In 1975, we had followed the fence in a roundabout arc on a trackless fellside. But in 1989, a path left Gatescarth top, making an easy-angled beeline for the wall corner by the third cairn. At one and the same time, it looked as if it had been there forever, and as if it were a hallucination, something impossible to accept on a bare fellside.
(A few years later, I used that path as a descent from Harter, at the end of a superb Sunday spent walking the Mardale Skyline: it was already eroded, in need of National Trust repair when less that twenty years before it did not exist. Can you think of anything more frightening than that?)
The path hung over my eyes, an illusion imposed on the landscape that was and still was in my eternity. I had been here once, and I had not so much returned as recreated myself. A quarter century later, knowing that I have only to close my mind to bring forth an unending parade of scenes, I know myself to be part of that eternal time, away in the fells, that isn’t a part of our ‘real’ life in which changes occur, yet which is realer than anything we will ever experience.
From Gatescarth, I descended the long route into Longsleddale, to Sadgill and my car. I haven’t been back since, and the chances aren’t great for that being soon, but the hills are eternal and I dream of being there again, and returning to then.
Middle Eskdale is that section of the valley that is designed by the road. This is the part of Eskdale to which the tourists come, hundreds of them brought daily by Laal Ratty, as many driving into or through Eskdale, through the villages that decorate its quiet environs. They walk besides the river, visit the church, visit Stanley Ghyll Force, they make little expeditions onto the walls of Eskdale, miniature peaks, lonely tarns. They rest, relax,eat chocolate.
The road from Ravenglass and the coast follows the Mite flank of Muncaster Fell until the ridge dips, and road and Ratty bear across to Eskdale. Some five miles further on, those with a taste for steep curves and tricky manoeuvres with the brakes escape over the shoulder of land to the east that lies behind Harter Fell’s pyramidal form: the infamous Hard Knott Pass.
This photo is taken from Border End, on Hard Knott fell, looking down on the old Roman Fort that is now claimed to be the southernmost element of Hadrian’s Wall. But the valley, wide and lush, lies in the centre of the eye, Middle Eskdale, extending itself to the activities of hundreds.
At the lowest part lies Eskdale Green, a straggling village at the foot of the Birker Moor Road, visited by two stops on the Ratty. The Outward Bound Centre occupies this part of the valley, screened by the lush trees that thicken and gather all through the valley. Then there is Dalegarth, where the little trains are turned around for the journey back to the coast. Boot, the capitol of Eskdale, a tiny hamlet under the Boat How Ridge, the gateway to Burnmoor and its Tarn. Just beyond it, the foothills around Eel Tarn and Siney Tarn, the southernmost ground of the Scafell Range, and Eskdale’s old inn, the Woolpack.
On the south side of the valley lies Harter Fell, a graceful cone that encourages even the timid to think of a spot of fellwalking, and the line of outcrops comprising Crook Crag and the superior Green Crag, marking the spot where the lonely wilderness of Birker Moor resolves into the Lakeland fells we love.
Middle Eskdale has come to terms with the tourists, without giving up any part of its soul. It allows them to share what it has, openly and freely, but does not compromise. It keeps the balance between the valley of Cumbrian farmers, and the hordes who come to admire, and it does so effortlessly.
And it beckons onwards, to the high fells at its head, granting the richest of its favours only to those who are prepared to put on their boots and put some effort into it.