A Buttermere Expedition: Part 2


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I’m awake from early on and it looks as if I’ve been sold a bill of goods. Instead of overcast skies, rain or even the threat of occasional showers, it’s bloody gorgeous, deep blue skies, whisks of white cloud and everything as sharp and clear as could be, except for Skiddaw of course, insisting on donning a fringe of cloud for its top.

There are two breakfast servings and I’m on the first, at 8.00am, orange juice, toast and jam, most of a Full English (I have declined the fried tomato and the black pudding), which is nicely filling but could have been better. A half hour of preparation, mainly paring down what I need to the minimum, includes jamming a sweatshirt into my bag, in case the day doesn’t stay suited to a short-sleeved polo shirt.

Once outside I almost immediately come to a contretemps with a local lady, who notices my facemask looped under my chin like hers, but who tells me gleefully that she’s looking forward to getting rid of her ‘beard’. I tell her I’m still going to be wearing mine. She interprets this as this as a challenge, because it is, and starts going on about how she hates it (do you think we’re having a barrel of laughs with these things on all the time?) but I cut her off with the plain statement that I’m going to keep wearing mine to avoid any risk of passing any symptoms I might have to other people. I wish this fucking Government and its sycophantic fucking rich man’s right wing press would point out even once that that is why we’re wearing them.

I’m in no hurry so I stroll through the town, picking up sandwiches and liquids at Greggs (my, how unimaginative), but there’s a Buttermere bus boarding when I get to the bus station, so I board it. It’s a single-decker, as is absolutely necessary for something going over Honister Pass, but that means it’s also full. There’s none of this stuff about social distancing or not sitting next to anyone you’re not already intimate with in one way or another, though we all wear masks. I haven’t had this experience for sixteen months and I’m lucky to get the only seat, back row, right hand side, where a one seat space exists. It’s an old bus and when it’s standing still it judders worse than a 405-line black and white television.

Despite it saying Honister Pass on the front, the bus leaves through north Keswick, as if bound for Cockermouth or Carlisle. But it turns off through Portinscale, towards Newlands and Grange, down twisting leafy lanes. There is Hindscarth, prominent, and how long is it since I saw that? Sudenly it hits me: It isn’t just Buttermere that’s the prize for today, but everything. Everywhere about me. It’s all an old land that I have not revisited in way too long. There are no memories in these tree-shrouded ways, all the memories associate with tops and ridges, but all about me the fells rise, their names as familiar as well-loved lyrics and as easy to recite. Hindscarth and Robinson. Red Pike over Newlands Hause. The back of Catbells. Swinging towards Grange and approaching via the high road, west of Derwentwater, looking down and across spectacularly. Grange Fell in its two parts, Castle Crag, Rosthwaite Fell, Glaramara. Crossing the Stonethwaite Valley and peering to Eagle Crag. The Seathwaite Valley and Great End.

The worst bit is that we’re going up Honister the ‘wrong way’, from Seatoller. I’ve only ever driven it from the other side, after horror stories about the steep descents here. The only time I went this way, I walked it. My stomach is still listening to old family tales, despite the awareness that these buses go up here half a dozen times a day. Can’t convince me. I’m not too good in a bus on the steep bit down off the top either.

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But as the bus descends, the view opens out. Red Pike, High Stile – why couldn’t I have had a day like this when I climbed that ? – Mellbreak. Is that Hen Comb over the Scale Force gap? High Crag, and looking back to Haystacks. A brief glimpse of Crummock Water as we descend to Buttermere Village and I prepare to disembark. It’s scorching. I get a drink at the cafe and write up my draft thus far, disturbed by a bird shitting on my right wrist.

Let’s go walking.

Not, sadly, up any of these wonderful mountains, but across the fields and round to the foot of the Lake, and the people sitting around just as if this were Bowness Bay without the ice creams, and then the shore path along the southern side of Buttermere, under the high ridges of the High Stile Range.

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I have time, lots of time, and well I need it, for I am slow, slow slow slow slow slow. I’ve no more reached the lakeshore path than I’m sitting down on a handy rock, joking with a passing pair that I am so far out of condition that you can’t see Condition from Jodrell Bank. Only I wish it was a joke.

It’s a busy path with parties passing by in opposite directions all the time. There’s a young couple with a very young child and a black dog that can’t get enough of the lake, racing forward and hurling itself down to the water-line at every opportunity. Our paths criss-cross and they see me with my notepad a couple of times, sat on one rock or another. Eventually, they ask me if I’m sketching (I would if I could), so I explain about the notes for this post. They’re intrigued and ask for the blog-name, so I give it them (never miss the chance of a new reader), so if they’ve found this and are reading it, hi there, and hope the rest of your day went well.

Apart from the crunch of boots and shoes and trainers from behind or ahead, which is not continuous I’m pleased to say, there’s a welcome stillness to things, broken sometimes by birdsong, by the breeze whispering the trees, the music of little gills rippling into the lake and the disruptive drone of what sounds like a helicopter at the head of the lake, though I can’t see one in the sky.

I’m stopping at every stop where there’s something I can sit upon, not just because I am genuinely tired but in order to spin this walk out. There’s not much to do in Buttermere if you’re not walking, or eating/drinking and I don’t want to be back at Keswick too soon. Besides, as I may have mentioned already, it’s bloody lovely everywhere.

For some reason, after my chat with the interested couple, I develop a second wind stronger than the first, and plough on semi-relentlessly until beneath High Crag, towering like a buttress concealing beyond the sky-line the kind of stronghold common to fantasy fiction.

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I’m close enough now to the head of the lake to see that blasted helicopter, which seems to be whirling about aimlessly in Warnscale, or heading up to skim the face of Haystacks’ crags. As I got nearer, I could see something globular and black dangling from it. To cut a long story short, it was a National Trust helicopter relaying supplies of stone to path-layers up on Scarth Gap, though the pilot was giving a damned good impression of not knowing where the hell he was headed and the noise was only getting more irritating.

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When I finally get to Gatesgarth, glad to lose the uneven stones underfoot, it’s 1.15pm. There’s the delightful sight of trestle tables which usually indicates the presence of some establishment ready to sell you food and drink to rest on such things but which, on this occasion, lets me down comprehensively. There’s a portable ice-cream shop all right, but it’s shut.

I’ve got those Greggs sandwiches, crusty baguettes, rather, but it’s too damned hot to eat, especially anything crusty, so I have a good long sit down until the next bus comes. There are more clouds in the air now, but they’re still only Joni Mitchell ice cream castles, and they don’t stay that way for long. I’m sat where I can see the bus coming down Honister Bottom in easy time to cross to the stop. I bought myself an All-Day Rider ticket: if I’m back in time, shouldn’t that cover me to pop to Cockermouth and back?

It’s not very often that I get to sit in the sun, breathing fresh air, and contentedly let my head fill with nothing. The bus isn’t due till 2.15pm so I’ve got ample time in which to do it. Damn that bloody helicopter, though.

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I apparently can’t help it. There are still seven minutes before the bus is due, and it’s nearly ten minutes late but I am compelled to go over to the stop now. When it arrives there’s only one other passenger on it, until it fills up at Buttermere that is, so I get my choice of seats on the left. I also discover that somehow or other my All Day-Rider ticket has vanished from my wallet, but the bus driver’s a decent sort and lets me on anyway.

The views from this side, over Buttermere to High Stile and Burtness Comb, are phenomenal but incapable of capture from a moving bus with a digital camera, as will be the vista over the Vale of Lorton and the back of the high fells when we turn for Whinlatter Pass some time later. At least I get to enjoy the sparkle of Crummock Water, under the sun, although no matter how high the road rises I cannot squeeze out the merest glimpse of Loweswater, in its grassy bay.

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Unlike Portsinscale and Newlands there are memories in these lanes, though not necessarily happy ones. Down off a high, hot day in the fells, I found myself called upon to play Samaritan to an older couple from Essex: he’d had a heart attack, she was lost and I raced them as fast as the roads allowed to High Lorton, where there was a police station (to no avail: he didn’t survive). Below Whiteside, again after a high, hot day in the fells, I went over badly on my ankle, on level grass a hundred yards from the car, ruining the rest of that holiday, and the chances of my ever playing squash again.

Whinlatter Pass, at least, is a more pleasant recollection. There was the day following the northern ridge of Aiken Beck where I started my favourite novel out of almost nothing. The kids having a wonderful time, playing at the Visitor Centre, late one Sunday afternoon, and following them through the human-sized badger sett that had too many convolutions inside for how big it was outside.

But Whinlatter is like a private possession, a Pass I chanced on my own that my family would never have dreamed of driving, only me, my own turf, so easy to drive, unlike Honister, or Newlands Hause.

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By the time we were back at Keswick, my legs were aching to buggery. I wanted an ice cream, but it seems that these are next to impossible to find in Keswick, no newsagents with freezers full of lollies and ices. So I called in the Oddfellows again, this time just for a pint, for which I was put out in the beergarden at the back. Nice to see people still being sane. The very nice short-haired blonde shows me, to my surprise, that my debit card is also a contactless card: all this time and I never knew, fancy that.

I take my time then wander wearily back. I still want that ice cream so if the only place you can buy them is a back street Spar… There’s a United Utilities van in the back-street, ‘helping make things flow easily’ by blocking the way so I have to clamber over someone’s rockery…

It’s been a long day and I think you can tell it’s been a fantastic one. All the photos are my own. The break has been brief but rewarding, and once I’ve finished preparing this, I shall rock back and watch England’s Euro 2020 semi-final.

No interruptions, please.

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The Day I Went Back


Wainwright’s Favourite

Many years ago, in the first half of the Nineties, on a whim I decided to commit myself to playing every album I had – CD, vinyl, tape – during the year. When you live alone, you can do oddball things like that. I can’t remember how many albums I had then, but it was probably more than 400. That’s a lot of listening: I got to the last album somewhere in the early weeks of December.
Three or four years later, and a substantial number of additional albums in my collection (I was a considerably more voracious acquirer back then, when there seemed to be more good music) I decided to repeat the exercise. This time, I had listened to everything by the middle of May.
The difference was that, second time round, I was a lot more methodical about the task. I planned, I executed, I zipped through.
I mention this because my fellow blogger George has suggested I write about a particular walk that has a poignant element for me, and my lack of method first time round the Wainwrights was in its way responsible for that day.
I’ve spoken before of how my Dad, Stanley Crookall, introduced me to fellwalking in 1966, and of how reluctant, and complaining, I was. I grew out of it reasonably quickly, or at least that’s what I remember, but I have never forgotten that it was he who introduced me to the fells. I went on to complete the Wainwrights, and a part of that achievement was to do what Dad would have loved to do, and to see all these things that were denied him by the cancer that took him away from the fells, and eventually from us all, before he reached the age of 42.
I would love to set out on another Wainwright Round, go back to all those 214 summits (with especial reference to High Stile, Dodd, Scale Fell and Seat Sandal, from which I have not seen any views). But I know that it’s impossible, and my body wouldn’t let me. I have my doubts about getting to even a low summit again, given the state of my right knee.
But if I were to tackle the Wainwrights again, I would be methodical. There would be a plan, and it would be efficient. Not like the first time round, where planning did not extend beyond a Big Walk for the last day, and trying not to use the same Wainwright book twice.
There would be no holes in the jigsaw ‘next time’, no little fells in awkward corners that hadn’t tagged on to larger rounds, leaving me, as I neared the end of the list, with the prospect of short walks that didn’t amount to a full day’s expedition. Such as Fleetwith Pike.
Everyone who knows Buttermere knows Fleetwith Pike, and everyone who’s looked at even a small selection of Lake District photos knows the stunning view from its summit of the Buttermere valley, with the two lakes stretching out in a line. From the valley, the ridge is an obvious temptation, a straight, steep prow leading directly to the top.
On its own, Fleetwith Pike is maybe a half-day outing, with no real appealing route of return. To make it into a decent day, it was obvious that I should combine it with Haystacks, circuiting the short Warnscale valley, and returning via Scarth Gap. I have been to Haystacks before. It had been one of the very earliest fells I had climbed, or rather, we had climbed: the whole family.
My Buttermere walks were always done from Keswick, and for something at the head of the valley, I would cross Newlands Hause, pulling up at the top to allow my engine a chance to recover from that final steep pitch, after the bend, where there was never time to get out of first gear, and then that steep descent to Buttermere Village, riding on the brakes the whole way, which was why I would never drive over Newlands from the Buttermere end.
The only freely available parking at Buttermere by the Nineties was in Honister Bottom, and I had to go a good half-mile to find a suitable spot. The sun was well up the sky, and I had clear blue conditions and a fair amount of heat to face.
It was one of those days that started heavy-legged. There’s very little preliminary to the ascent: you leave the road and immediately you’re zig-zagging, in the lea of the fell, past Fanny Mercer’s white cross. I found it a struggle until I was out on the ridge.

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Narrow ridges of this kind, thin trails amid the grass and rock, are great to follow, especially with that kind of view behind if you feel the need to halt for a breather. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy the ridge as much as I have others: it felt just that little bit too unremittingly steep, and although it was better to be out in the open, it was still a breathless day. Nor was I gratified that the path kept more to the Warnscale side of the ridge: Honister Bottom may not offer the best views, but Warnscale has a devastated look to it, as if it is the scene of some quasi-nuclear bomb test that has left a blight on the ground.
But persistence always brings the summit underfoot, and this was where the day changed, for the better. There was a breeze, and the air felt fresh now, and that spectacular view behind, with which I was so familiar already, but photos can never measure the scale of such sights. Still, I was peeved that the sun was shining too directly into my lens to make taking my own shot viable.
Fleetwith’s neat, bare summit was not bare of walkers. In fact, it was a bit like a tea party up there, like a Helvellyn summit crowd crammed into a smaller compass. I found a small patch of unoccupied ground, lowered myself onto it and dove into my rucksack for my sandwiches.
When I got up to move on, I was at last alone. I left the pack at Fleetwith’s summit behind, and strode off to descend the grassy decline to Dubs Bottom. I always preferred having the fells to myself, and I could now relax into sole possession of the afternoon.
En route to Dubs Bottom, I passed Black Star, the ‘summit’ of Honister Crag, and contemplated for a moment stepping aside to reach its summit. The thought amused me, that a mere walker like me could so easily reach the top whereas all the climbers were making it difficult for themselves, but then I realised that that wasn’t the point. It’s walkers who pursue summits: to climbers they’re the least interesting part of the crag.
Dubs Bottom was an interesting place, a wide depression studded with levels and derelict buildings from the old mining days. Beyond it, I could see the ground rising to the Old Drum House, at the stop of the seriously stiff ascent from Honister, the road to Great Gable, or Moses’ Trod, or the descent to Ennerdale by Loft Beck, so well used a thoroughfare yet almost invisible in Wainwright because it lends itself to no ascents.
Though it was no part of this walk, I crossed the dip and went up to the Drum House, climbing onto its platform and surveying that odd plateau that lies between the Buttermere and Ennerdale Valleys, and the way the Gable path turns towards the low ridge and seems to spring forward along its base. I’ve done that each time I’ve sweated up from Honister: by the time you get to the top, you need a few moments breather.
I turned back towards Dubs Bottom, which needed to be crossed at a diagonal, from the near right corner to the far left corner, to escape onto the fellside and the ridge of which Haystacks in the primary part. There were paths through the old workings, and I switched from one to another, like a child following a maze with invisible walls.
I emerged onto a path snaking in and out of the outcrops along the front of Haystacks. It moved up and down, and in and out, never the same for ten yards straight, and giving no glimpse as to what was ahead. I didn’t have Wainwright’s proverbial raging toothache, and I suspect I would have been giving it the major part of my attention if I did, but this crossing had immediately etched itself into my short list of paths I would happily go back and walk immediately: Ullock Pike to Long Side, the Corridor Route being other examples.

Blackbeck Tarn

The best part came when I crossed the entrance to the cove that holds Blackbeck Tarn. Everyone sees Innominate Tarn as the jewel of Haystacks, but one look at Blackbeck, glittering in its sheltered bowl, the Tarn’s boundaries swelling towards the back of its expanse, and I was hooked. I’ve never been one for camping, being too fond of guesthouse beds in which to rest myself after a hard day’s fellwalking, but I could imagine the joy of an early awakening on the grasses above the reedy banks at the far end.
After Blackbeck Tarn, the winding path continued to weave up and down, but far too soon I was emerging onto the broad back of the fell, and could see across the head of Ennerdale to Great Gable, and Pillar. From there, it was just a gradually ascending way, passing Innominate Tarn’s shores (I cannot remember whether Wainwright had adorned it then) and on to the nearby summit, which surprised me by merely revealing another, and higher outcrop.
I had been here before, nearly thirty years before. I remembered that we’d not been able to see Innominate Tarn from the summit and had moved on to the other outcrop to see it, with the ring of high Ennerdale fells as its backcloth, but no further.
Part of me still can’t believe we had ever been there at all. My family were wedded to the quarter of the Lakes from Ambleside to Wasdale, and apart from the traditional wet-Friday trip to Keswick, never ventured further. I hadn’t even seen Haystacks until the previous year, when, for my benefit, we spent a non-walking rain-soaked day going round the Western Lakes, and I saw Ennerdale Water, Loweswater, Crummock Water and Buttermere for the first time ever, four new Lakes in one day, and we escaped by going over Honister Pass, between writhing clouds and towering cliffs, and this from my Uncle who normally wouldn’t take his cars over anything more steep than Dunmail Raise.
And here we were, in Buttermere, parking opposite Gatesgarth Farm, bound for Scarth Gap and Haystacks. I can only assume that it was its status as Wainwright’s favourite fell that brought us there. The pass was supposed to be one of the easiest in the Lakes, but once again our family maxim applied: ‘if Wainwright says it’s easy, it’s hard: if he says it’s hard, it’s bloody difficult!’
Enough so that, at the Pass, in a precursor of the stomach problems that would limit our expeditions in the Seventies, my Uncle stayed behind, leaving only the four of us, mother, father, daughter, son, to scramble up the gully and find our way to the summit.
My Dad was 39 in August 1968, fit, healthy, active. He was looking up, and ahead, to the high fells. His younger child, my sister, was older every year, and the range of our walks would be growing with her. His son had stopped whingeing if you so much as asked him to lace up his walking boots. No, he wasn’t as impressed with Haystacks as he’d hoped to be: to him, Lingmell, our second and highest top to date, was more the mountain top he envisaged. Idly, he suggested he’d prefer his ashes sprinkled there.
That November, we got away, just the four of us, for a couple of days in a small cottage in Grisedale Forest. I remember walking down the road to see Forge Force Falls on the evening we arrived, I remember lying in the top bunk in a crowded bedroom we all shared, feeling so much part of everything as my parents talked below, and I remember following the Grisedale Forest on our last day. There was no fellwalking as such.

Forge Force

Dad was complaining of pains in his left shoulder. Back in Manchester, he went to the Doctor. He was in hospital more than not over the next twenty months. He never saw the Lake District again. Haystacks was his last walk.
That’s not the place of sentiment for me. That came a couple of years later, crossing from the last Wainwright to the one that had been the First, unlovely, ungainly, unlikely Middle Fell in Nether Wasdale. As I arrived at the summit from the back, the party there was packing up and leaving. I walked round for the next half hour, talking to those who would never come back as I had come back, this once and only time.
But Haystacks is still one of only three tops where I can look the memory of my Dad in the eye and stand equal to him. Me and you, Dad, me and you.
I scrambled down to Scarth Gap and set off for the valley. I can’t remember if this descent came before or after the one I made after completing the High Stile range, which was the one where I sat down on a pathside stone to look at the very strange goings on in the wide green fields below, that I finally realised was the filming of an episode of One Man and his Dog.
Sadly, I never saw the broadcast episode, so I have no idea to this day whether I managed to get myself into the background of any shots, and add to my small stock of TV background shots.
And I drove away over Honister.

Tarns – Blackbeck Tarn


Tarns are bodies of water, but a tarn is more than just the water. It is its surroundings, its background, where it is and how it is shaped. This is what makes a tarn delightful to the sight, or not.
Far back in the Sixties, when we still lived in Brigham Street, my parents had a set of four Heaton Cooper prints of paintings of various tarns, identically framed by my Dad and hung one above another on the wall. Fifty years later, more or less, I have these prints still.
The four tarns were, in no particular order, Sprinkling Tarn, Stickle Tarn, Goatswater and Blackbeck Tarn.
Two of these were obvious choices: we had already visited Stickle Tarn and Goatswater, and would return almost regularly. And Sprinkling Tarn was also obvious, given how attractive the Tarn is, with its curving shores, its little peninsula and the massive backdrop of Great End: it’s so wonderfully photogenic, even for those who have never been to it. I myself would not do so for many years yet.
But Blackbeck Tarn? I don’t think I even knew where it was for several years, not until the day we climbed Wainwright’s favourite fell, Haystacks, for it’s the lower of the two tarns on the sprawling back of that terrier fell. Even then, we didn’t see it: we were limited in time for exploring, and only made it far enough from the cairn to see the more famous Innominate Tarn, where Wainwright’s ashes were to be sprinkled.
It’s not as if the print was in any way attractive. It was painted from no great height above the tarn, close by its shores, looking across a flat and indefinable spread of narrow water to an undistinguished background. Why ever did they choose that? By the time I wanted to ask, they had gone.
It was years before I saw Blackbeck Tarn for myself, and then only from a distance. It is visible from behind and above from the Brandreth plateau, rising from Honister Pass towards Great Gable, crossing the back of the Buttermere and Ennerdale valleys.
From up there, it’s a detail, a blue pool in a wide vista, whose greatest significance is the way in which it looks as if it pours directly into Crummock Water.
Finally, in the early Nineties, closing in on the decreasing number of outstanding Wainwrights, I spent a splendid sunny Buttermere Tuesday on the direct ascent of Fleetwith Pike from Gatesgarth. A sweaty ascent in conditions of great beauty, especially the view directly behind of Buttermere and Crummock Water. To complete the day, I planned a wide circuit of Warnscale, descending Fleetwith’s back, via Black Star (the summit of Honister Crag), all the way down to the Old Drum House, which i’d previously approached from Honister itself.
From there, I circuited back towards the old quarries, all of it easy walking high under the sun, winding in and out of derelict buildings, and making my way towards the back of Haystacks.
It was a fascinating walk already, and even more so once I got onto the crags and the path began to slide into and out of the rocks, until it descended to cross the outfow of an enclosed hollow in the rocks, and there was Blackbeck Tarn.
I fell in love with it instantly: the narrowing of the Tarn between the encroaching rock walls, the wider, rounder, gentler section beyond it, swelling into this hidden bay, with reedy shores at the far end, the whole surrounded by green lawns. It looked like a magical hidden place in the world and I, who have never camped out in the fells nor had any serious inclination to do so, immediately felt the urge to wake up in this little kingdom, in the glowing rays of dawn, alone and silent.
It was late in the afternoon, I still had Haystacks’ by no means smooth summit to negotiate, and then the descent to and by Scarth Gap Pass. So my time in that spot was limited but the image is still in my mind.
So I walked on, past Innominate Tarn, scrambled over the summit, Dad’s last, and down, carrying with me the lovely scene. The print is still nondescript, but now I’ve seen Blackbeck Tarn for myself, I can discern the curve of the far shore, understand where the painter stood and imagine myself into that scene.
I still don’t understand why Mam and Dad bought the print, though.