A Patterdale Expedition

When you book rail tickets four weeks in advance, to get the cheapest prices, you play pot luck with the weather. According to the forecasts, I am going to come up snakes eyes, to mix a metaphor. Thunderstorms all day, England’s World Cup semi-final to be pushed into the reserve day, this is what is promised. Given the weather most of the time since I bought the tickets, sunny, dry, hot, it’s feeding my never very deep-lying paranoia.

Which, given that I am booked on the 7.26am train from Piccadilly, and I am relying on the 203 bus, the only bus to win a Booker Prize for its timetable, is always hyperactive at times like this.

Everything started well. I responded to the alarm at 5.30am. It had been raining until quite recently, for everything outside was wet, but when I got out, ahead of time, it was dry and getting drier, and there was a freshness in the airthat the suggested the grey skies would slowly peel back to reveal the blue beyond.

I’d barely gotten twenty yards when there was a ping in my left calf, suggesting not so much cramp as a pulled muscle. I walked it off gently but this was going to be a true omen for the day.

The 203 upset my model of the Universe by being on time. Indeed, I was inside Piccadily Station, in the ‘Departure Lounge’ for Platforms 13 & 14, by 7.02am, the only hitch being a minor and quickly resolved panic over whether my rail tickets were in my wallet. It was a long time wait but these are the marginsI prefer to work with.

The train was on time, my seat was by the window, albeit looking backwards, and no-one turned up to claim the reserved seat to Glasgow Central next to me so that was my shoulder bag sorted.

There was nothing I could do about the weather so I paid the cloud only occasional mind as we ploughed north, devoting myself to a second attempt to read The Illuminatus Trilogy without stopping, though still without understanding.

This was an express train, stopping only at Preston and Lancaster and due in Penrith after only ninety minutes. Once we reached the shores of MorecambeBay, I switched to scanning the Lakes skyline. It was unpromising: dark, wispy, fragile clouds with a base below 1,000′: not good.

I was hoping for better north of the equivalent of Dunmail Raise but there was a thicker, darker, more pregnant band of cloud, and then suddenly it seemed lighter. Skylines became clearer, sharper. The message was mixed: sunlight on the lower slopes of Mardale, pockets of low cloud around the valley head. Kidsty Pike stood proud but Rampsgill Head was deep-capped.

Out at Penrith for five to nine with an hour to kill, or so I thought. I walked down to the Town Centre. The main street was smaller than I remembered and all the touristy shops seemed to have left. There used to be a  good bookshop somewhere round the back, where I spent a half hour on the morning of my wedding, having run my sister-in-law-to-be and my wife-to-be’s best friend in for last minute essentials. Where it is, if it still exists, I had no idea and I decided against searching for it, the air being an odd mixture of fresh and stuffy.

Thank Heaven I didn’t! I got back to the Rail Station in time to catch the slightly-delayed 9.20am bus, whose driver was in a chatty mood, and who told me tht thee 9.50am bus I intended to catch doesn’t run until theTimetable that comes into force on the 26th!

If I’d missed this bus, it wouldn’t have been fatal to my plans, but as the next bus was 11.20am, I’d have been stuck in Penrith for two hours. Then again, I do have a partly-completed novel with a scene in Penrith, so I could have spentthe time in research.

The sky was a fractal mixture of dark cloud, light cloud and blue spaces. The bus was riding between high hedgerows so it took a while before I could get some sense of the air in Patterdale. When I could see, it looked clear around Ullswater’s lowest reach but cloudy further back. Given the forecast, this was good going.

But when I got off the bus in Pooley Bridge, it was trying to rain, fine, light, sprinkly lane. The Steamer Shop in the Village was closed despite its advertised opening time of 9.15am.

There was nothing to do here either so I strolled on to the steamer landing. This took me across the temporary bridge that stands in the place of the beautiful stone arches destroyed forever by the floods of 2015/16. It’s an ugly, practical thing of steel cross-girders, an eyesore, where the old bridge was a thing of grace and beauty. It’s absence is a pang.

Ullswater, looking down to Hallin Fell

There’s a superb viewpoint just before the landings, by the Birkett Memorial. We came down here on the Saturday evening, for our first view of Ullswater, that holiday, and I took a photo of the lake, looking towards Hallin Fell, with the family at the forefront. I took another one now, in colour, but without anyone to grace it.

Ullswater is my favourite lake, its beautiful curves and bays, and this only the least-interesting reach of it. I haven’t seen it in, probably, about fifteen years and I felt a tremendous sense of contentment. All the visible hills remind me of walks gone past. PlaceFell was capped and dark, so it was Hallin Fell and Beda Head that stood out for me then. The lake chuckled and bubbled past me into the River Eamont.

I narrowed my eyes. Something long and white was crossing below Hallin Fell, turning into Howtown Bay. In a moment’s silence between the passing cars, I heard a distant bell. If I’m not mistaken, that’s my steamer from Glenridding.

This would be my fourth trip on the Ullswater Steamer but the first for this end of the Lake. My first was an impromptu decision on a rainy, cloudy afternoon, when walking was out of the question, Howtown and back. Twice since, I’d taken a one-way trip to Howtown and walked back, the first a solo over Place Fell, the second a family walk down the lakeshore path, which is as lovely as they say it is.

Eventually the steamer emerged and headed towards us. I paid for my ticket (which included 50% off the Ratty for the next twelve months, which gave mean idea…)

‘Raven’ approaches

As soon as the Steamer docked, I was on to it and dodging through the saloon to the foredeck. The commemorative plaque confirmed this was Raven, and in five days time it would be 130 years to the day since it was first launched.

We seemed to race up the lake into the teeth of a flapping wind, Hallin Fell dead ahead, the zigzags of the Hause visible to its left. As we started curving into the Bay, Beda Head became our pointer and little flecks of rain started to flick against my face.

Leaving the Pier at Pooley Bridge

It wasn’t until we started to slow down for Howtown the the magnificent middle reach of the lake, and the fells at the end of it, appeared as if out of nowhere. Sheffield Pike stood proud and sunny but there wasn’t much to see behind it except dark cloud.

We drifted into the Pier, no-one waiting to board us, though two walkers appeared from the direction of the road, only to stand and watch us leave. Twenty-eight people, one baby carriage and two dogs  disembark. I looked at Steel Knott’s steep prow and asked myself, did I really go up that? (yes, I did).

Howtown and Steel Knotts

Off on the next leg. A massive convoy of ducks sat on the surface of the lake on our left bow as we headed outround Hallin Fell. This was the bit I’dreally come here for.

The taped message for the tourist informed us of what to look out for and only made two egregious mistakes in three facts. It places Birkett Crag (no, it’s Fell) on the wrong side of Ullswater and claims Helvellyn is the second highest mountain in England. I don’t dare look up what it said about Donald Campbell.

We took a rather more leisurely turn down the middle reach. Some part of the High Street range, still cloud-clagged, appeared in the gap between Hallin Fell and Place Fell, whilst on the other side, the Hellvellyn range was similar, but someqhat lighter, as if it might finally blow clear.

The middle reach, looking to Sheffield Pike

Approaching the turn into the upper reach, we passed Lady of the Lake on the port bow. Saint Sunday Crag and Dollywaggon Pike, either side of Grisedale, are firmly cloud-blocked, though there’s masses of blue sky above the lake itself. I’ve always felt these names to be strange and foreign-sounding to the Lakes, ever since I first heard my mother mentioning them, way back in the early Sixties. They’re just not Cumbrian to me. Things looked very dirty at the head of Patterdale, where we could see straight into Threshthwaite Glen.

Over to starboard, there was a big hotel on the lakeshore that I tried not to look too closely at. Under an older name than it currently bears, this was where I was married, and there are too many memories in that.

It was still not yet quite midday when I got off the steamerand walked round into Glenridding Village. My plans were flexible enough to give me either two hours or three and a half here, which would be fine if I felt in any way fit for a walk. Indeed, I’d half picked out Keldas, at the foot of Birkhouse Moor, and brought The Eastern Fells in my bag, but I’m achey and creaky and have been all day.

I was trepidatious about what Glenridding might look like, bearing in mind that the floods did a real number on the Vilaage, but the repairs here seemed more complete and nothing appeared to be out of place. I settled into a picnic table and got out my lunch.

The best plan seemed to be to kick back, relax, and enjoy just being here, but I did wander a bit in the direction of the path to Lanty’s Tarn, just to see how far I might get if I went at it slowly. All that got me was some spotty rain, a buzzy insect with an obsession with my right ear and some stomach cramps that suggested I might be better off keeping the Public Conveniences in closer proximity so, despite some increasingly encouraging blue skies, I strolled back.

Sunshine over the Glenridding valley

Down in the valley, the soft breeze was very welcome, and I took root at another picnic table, enjoying the passing pedstrians and returning to my book. I could have dome some writing if the energy possessed me but overall this was not the day for creativity, so I socked up relaxing in Patterdale. Mind you, I noticed a lot of references to ‘The Ullswater Valley’: another Stickle Ghyll in the making?

St Sunday Crag

There was another, slightly more serious spot of rain when I wandered back off to the Pier. We were on Raven again, though this time I headed for the stern for the best views. There was a ton of worrying grinding from the engine, turning to face back down Ullswater, but the mountainscape was at last wonderful, St Sunday Crag sunwashedand magnificent, Dollywaggon dark andslope-shouldered and even a glimpse of a cloud-free Helvellyn as we retreated.


Howtown was the beginning of the end.  Everything after this was journeying back. Waiting in the sweltering heat for the bus in Pooley Bridge. Fifty-five minutes to kill at Penrith Station with nothing to do and nowhere to go, unless you count McDonald’s, so back to my book.

With the exception of the bus to Pooley Bridge, all the travelling’s gone smoothly, all day, but then I go and blow it. My travel notes have me catching the18.06 at Penrith, change at Preston. My ticket was for the 17.50 direct to Manchester Piccadilly, but I didn’t realise this until a mini-argument over who has reserved seat A11. On the 18.06. Oops.

That could have been very expensive, but the ticket inspector on the Virgin train was decent enough to stamp my ticket anyway so my only loss was to get stuck in an aisle seat on a gloriously sunny evening, and unable to see out of either window. And Northern Rail surprise me twice at Preston, first by being dead on time, and then by not coming to check my ticket at all. I was even blessed with sitting opposite a nice-looking young woman, with long brown hair almost the shade mine used to be, and a lovely smile.

I got back to Piccadilly nearly fifteen hours after the alarm woke me, and I didn’t half know it by then. One bus-ride later, and I got off in the only sustained rain I experienced all day, despite the forecasts, and the evening still sunny, offering up a full-arch rainbow above my flat. Mind you, everything that could ache did ache by then, and I’d missed England beating Australia to reach the Cricket World Cup Final. But I’d had a grand day, and I’d been back to Ullswater. Where can I go next?


Third Generation Wainwright

Earlier this year, without fanfare or review, except perhaps in places I tend not to visit, Frances Lincoln Ltd published the first in a new Edition – the Third – of the Wainwrights.
For those still unfamiliar with the term, I’m referring to the series of seven guidebooks to the fells and mountains of the English Lake District produced between 1950 and 1965 by the late Alfred Wainwright (who also gives his name to the 214 fells and mountains covered therein). Wainwright’s books were a comprehensive guide: geography, maps, features, ascents, descents, ridge-routes and views. More than just guidebooks, they were works of art: hand-written, hand-drawn, hand-mapped. One man’s hand, one man’s eye, one man’s mind.
Of course, from the date of publication, each book grew steadily out of date, as the fells changed, walls and fences were put up or taken down, paths fell into disuse or were walked into being. Wainwright would have withdrawn them after a few years, when their inaccuracy became too much for his pride, but their slow-burning yet phenomenal popularity prevented this fate from occurring, and I for one have spent nearly fifty years walking with the originals in hand, literally, without once getting lost or confused (for any reason attributable to the books).
Had Wainwright had the idea earlier in life, he would have gleefully begun revisions, but completion of his Guides more or less coincided with retirement.
Eventually, a Second Edition did appear, from Frances Lincoln, revised by former taxi-driver and map-making enthusiast Chris Jesty. Jesty’s round of Editions were completed between 2005 and 2009, and he deserves a thousand rounds of applause for his superb work (if only to deflect the waves of jealousy from those who, like me, would have killed for the chance to take his place!)
Now, only ten years later, Lincolns have commissioned former newspaper editor and Lakeland enthusiast Clive Hutchby to start again. A decade has gone by since Jesty’s work, and the latter has admitted that, not being as practiced a walker as Wainwright himself, he had not checked all of the unmarked routes in the seven books, a task which Hutchby has determined to accomplish.
And now the first fruits of Hutchby’s labours is with us, as Book 1, The Eastern Fells, is available. And the first thing to be noticed is that there is a vast difference of intent between the Jesty and the Hutchby Editions. Jesty’s Second Edition was about Continuity, about Preservation and Respect. His books were Wainwright’s books, updated as required to reflect the changes wrought by forty to fifty-five years of life in the Lake District, but otherwise kept as close to the original as possible.
Sometimes, this meant changes to Wainwright’s text. Since the old boy was no longer here to apply his hand, Lincoln’s took advantage of the advances of technology and had Wainwright’s letters scanned in to be formatted as a Wainwright font. Thus, new sections, new paragraphs, could be inserted in Wainwright font, to keep the look of each page as consistent as possible, and as close to the original as possible.
It doesn’t entirely work. There is a difference, a discernible difference, between the human hand and a computer text. No matter how meticulous Wainwright was in the forming of each letter, how regularly it was formed, the weight of each pen-stroke, the amount of ink on each nib, the minute fractions of discrepancy in the spacing of letters, these are all an intrinsic part of his work, and the reader can sense these, can detect the organic nature of the work.
A computer is too mechanical. It is too regular, too even. Every ‘r’, every ‘k’, every capital ‘T’ is identical, over and over, every space between letters is exact and equal to a microscopic degree. The eye sees, and the mind registers.
So its use was as sparing as necessity required. Jesty kept everything he could of Wainwright. That’s not the case with Hutchby.
The difference is immediately noticeable. Gone are the dust jackets: the book is glued directly inside the glossy covers. And the book is slightly narrower, slightly taller. These are perhaps sensible changes, making the book physically more convenient for rucksack and anorak pockets.
But that’s not all. The title has changed. These books are no longer A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells: they are Wainwright’s Walking Guide to the Lakeland Fells. And, to distinguish this latest version from the previous two, this is not the Third Edition. It’s the Walkers Edition.
Walkers Edition? What the hell do Hutchby/Lincoln’s think the original books were? Embroiderers Editions? Police Detectives Editions? Japanese Calligraphers Editions? At the sight of those words, my hackles rose, and they have remained in a risen state ever since.
Because this is the edition in which the publishers (who are no longer led by Frances Lincoln herself) have decided that it’s going to change. And one thing that has changed once you get inside is that these books are no longer Wainwright’s. Except where it is impossible to intervene, in lettering entered onto maps, Wainwright’s hand has been removed from the vast majority of the book. Everything has been reset in Wainwright font, no matter how exact the original wording remains. Alfred Wainwright is halfway out of the door of his own Guides.
After that, the Hutchby Edition has built up a prejudice in me that is impossible to overcome. I have read the originals so often that, if the printing plates were to be destroyed, the whole series could be recreated, intact, by scanning my memories. They were neat, precise, sometimes almost lyrical, and Wainwright knew how to let a page breathe. Hutchby suffocates pages, adding and adding lines and paragraphs of font, changing as he goes.
It’s one thing if these amendments are updates, removal of obsolete and irrelevant references, updating details, even adding descriptions to paths in places that didn’t exist for Wainwright when he walked. This is Hutchby’s job, his purpose, and generally he does a decent job of it.
But too often, too intrusively, too self-importantly, Hutchby cannot resist making changes that exceed this remit. He cannot resist swamping pages with additional information, cross-referring to other chapters, paragraphs of etymological construction of fell names, changes to Wainwright’s opinions to substitute his own, adding information to one page that duplicates Wainwright’s existing statement of the same thing on the next!
It begins to look as if the book is taller so that Hutchby can cram all these titbits into page bottom paragraphs without distorting the maps.
The majority of this additional information is unnecessary. If Hutchby were doing his own guide, it might be interesting background material, but it’s offensive to me because of the way in which it detracts from the source material. It’s no longer Wainwright’s guide, not with this guy Hutchby running round the edges, sticking his stuff on all over the place with drawing pins, and chopping bits out just so he can write his thoughts instead.
And it’s against the whole purpose of the enterprise, which was to be purely and cleanly about the fells, focused upon what the walker wanted – and needed – to get them to the top of a fell and, what’s more, safely down again. Hutchby’s clutter is antithetical to that spirit.
To take one random example, go to Hart Side 8, showing the view. Wainwright makes the comment, ‘The view is disappointing. Although Hart Side has a considerable altitude, it does not overtop the main ridge to the west, which hides all the high fells beyond. Intervening ground to the east conceals most of Ullswater’. There are no updates which alter or qualify that brief statement, but Hutchby still feels the need to alter it, by changing the first line to, ‘The view is generally disappointing.’ (italics added).
That’s Hutchby’s opinion. This is Wainwright’s book. Hutchby should be keeping his damned nose out of things and not trying to set up his own opinions.
The Helvellyn chapter is the first to be seriously molested, with some of the changes sensible and necessary, whilst others are just more examples of Hutchby’s obsession with making changes. An extended section on Striding Edge is introduced, complete with new maps and drawings, covering two full pages, which is very useful, and it’s paralleled by giving Swirral Edge a half-page – no maps, no drawings – that is achieved by cutting Lower Man’s page in half in a decidedly perfunctory manner.
Elsewhere, Hutchby rejects the gradient plans of the respective Western and Eastern Approaches, is curiously obsessive about forcing an ascent over Catstycam in as a ‘new’ approach and, for no discernible reason whatsoever, swaps the order of the Eastern and Grasmere approaches pages.
Actually, this Catstycam issue is typical of another distinct difference in approach. Wainwright treated his readers with respect. He was performing a useful, invaluable task for them, but (contrary opinions noted) he was not leading anyone by the hand. He trusted his readers to make connections, and to plan and think for themselves. Hutchby doesn’t. Anyone with half a brain can look at the Helvellyn chapter and work out that there’s a route of approach over Catstycam. Hutchby pushes it repeatedly, clogging up a scene where there are already several approaches, making the book even fussier.
Only when reaching the final pages is there any relief: Wainwright’s original Personal Notes have been preserved intact, his handwriting now a jarring contrast to the mechanical print. No doubt, at some future point, these too will be reset in the font, to preserve the unity of the Volume, but for now they are a small mercy.
No, I do not like this Third Edition. Indeed, I am opposed to almost all the new ideas that have gone into it, and unless someone of true taste and enlightenment comes into authority at Frances Lincoln, I can only see this trend worsening in future Editions.
Nevertheless, I will be buying them, and when I get back to the fells, I will be carrying them. Whatever the faulty aesthetics, it must be remembered that these are Guide Books, and their principal concern is accuracy and fidelity to the fells as they are in 2015 and the immediate future.
In that, I have no doubt that Hutchby can be trusted to have done the right job – and if he hasn’t, disgruntled and misled walkers will be flooding Frances Lincoln’s with complaints and criticisms, and Mountain Rescue will undoubtedly have things to say as well. And armchair walkers like myself would get all smug, which I firmly do not want to see.

Cheap Cumbrian Thrills – a few additional notes

Re-acquainting myself with the library last month, for the first time since before Christmas, my eyes happened to light upon Martin Edwards’ The Frozen Shroud, the sixth and, to date last, in his Lake District Mysteries series featuring Historian Daniel Kind and Detective Chief Inspector Hannah Scarlett of the Cumbria Constabulary Cold Crimes Squad.

Thinking it was a new book, I thought I’d give it a peruse, but I had in fact read it before, but simply not commented upon it. Feeling in the mood for a bit of malicious chastisement, and suffering from sufficient a degree of anal retentivity as to be faintly disturbed at leaving one book out, I thought I’d pass a few comments on the same.

It’s possible that this may be the last book of the series: after all, it ends with the two will-they-won’t-they-oh -get-on-with-it protagonists finally planning a shagging weekend in Wales after assiduously spending over two-thirds of the book avoiding each other rigidly on the grounds that now all complications keeping them from getting it together have been erased that they aren’t actually interested in each other at all. So, bang goes the sexual tension, which is more than the sexual tension had been going in the first place.

Plus Hannah’s publicity-seeking Deputy Chief Constable has legged it out of the Force, no longer blocking Hannah’s route to further promotion.

And, on a more sobering note, the present day murder victim is Hannah’s best friend and polar opposite, Terry, her face battered in in a brutal crime intended to echo two similar incidents – one deeply historical – which have given rise to rumours of a ghost. The killer is the least likely person, naturally, until a motive common to the present killing and the one of five years ago with which Edwards opens the book, presents itself as the closing pages approach.

The setting for this crime is once again Ullswater, in the shape of a fictional peninsula on the east shore of the lake, south of Howtown, which forms an effective closed community, inhabited by flamboyant, arty types. The book’s title is not linked to any pseudo-Cumbrian place or thing, but rather the brutal crime, which is less offensive, but mostly the book’s plus points are negativities: that it doesn’t try too hard to persuade you that it is taking place in the Lakes.

The same old criticisms apply: a complete absence of sense of place (it takes a bit more than placing Helvellyn ‘opposite’ and having Hallin Fell ‘loom’ over the scene at convenient moments when the latter is only a small fell to begin with and far too far north of Helvellyn to be in any meaningful sense opposite). Nor does anyone in the book talk remotely Cumbrian. But I repeat myself. And really, the out-of-place names for places and things are just trite this time instead of unreflective.

As a by the by, this is not the only crime fiction story I’ve read of late to set itself in the Lake District. When I’m after undemanding, easy-to-read fiction that I can just breeze through without being tempted to blog, I’ve read several of Edward Marston’s Railway Detective series: polite, mid-Victorian crime, very professional, slightly formulaic stuff whose selling point is that the crimes are all, in one way or another, connected to or facilitated by the burgeoning rail network of the 1850s. Former Barrister Robert Colbeck of the Metropolitan Police is the go-to guy for any train crime, much to the disgust of his stuffy, ex-Army Superintendent Mr Tallis and his home-loving, train-fearing Sergeant, Victor Leeming.

Marston’s most recent contribution to the series, which now includes a dozen novels, is a collection of short stories, a dozen indeed, spanning the whole country and including, in one tale, Ravenglass Station. Now that’s what you call personal, not merely on behalf of my spiritual county, but my great grandfather, who was Stationmaster at Ravenglass Station. Probably not quite as far back as the Railway Detective’s celebrated visit, but that’s not the point.

Honestly, Marston must have done no research whatsoever into Ravenglass Village, because the kind of community he plonked down for Colbeck to investigate made Edwards’s efforts look like a documentary. If you’re going to be that casual about your subject, bloody well make something up instead, so it doesn’t matter.

Oh well, at least I’ve got that off my chest.


A Walk Along The Canal

The Peak Forest Canal at Marple

As I’ve written before, when my parents first decided that we would henceforth spend our Lake District holidays in walking, I wasn’t the most receptive of children. My boots were too tight, too heavy, it was too far, too steep, I didn’t like it, and the fact that my younger sister seemed perfectly happy wasn’t helping any.

I got over that stage when we set out to climb Sty Head out of Wasdale Head. I had a purpose, a cause: ever since I had learned of its existence, I wanted to see Green Gable. Everybody could see Great Gable, but its slighter, hidden cousin fascinated me, and Sty Head was going to be my first chance.

And my enthusiasm was confirmed when we reached the point where the path slid across the great scree fanning down from the distant Napes Ridges, and my mother took one look and decreed that my sister would go no further, not across that. They would retreat to the beck, paddle their feet, whilst Dad and I would go on alone, the men of the party.

I have far too few memories of being around my Dad alone: father and son together without interruptions. I wanted to see Green Gable, I was trusted to go ahead with him, I wanted to live up to his expectations, I wanted to be the son we all want ourselves to be at that age, and so we went on, and I didn’t grumble, moan or complain, and we came out onto the top of the pass, saw Sty Head Tarn, ahead and below, saw a sliver of green slope out beyond the curve of Great Gable’s breast that meant I’d fulfilled my aim, and then we set off back, to get our share of paddling.

That didn’t mean I was cured. There was a visit to Mill Gill, an attempt of Harrison Stickle via Pike How, on a day that began with blazing skies before transmuting into low cloud that imprisoned us perhaps no more than a hundred feet below the summit until we gave in. That early part of the day was scorching, the fellside unbelievably steep, my whole body unwilling to proceed. Doubtless I whined again.

The pains in Dad’s shoulder, that would eventually lead to a diagnosis of terminal cancer, kept us away from the Lakes for almost eighteen months. After he died, the end to weeks and months of strain as his body failed, an impromptu holiday was set up, a week away that involving taking we children out of school, no objections raised. It wasn’t a success, we chose a poor week for weather, I’d gotten hooked on pop music by then and Medium Wave reception in the Lakes was pants.

But holidays continued as they always had, just without Dad. We chose self-catering cottages, got away twice a year, went walking. It was still the same.

In 1972, in pursuit of fundraising for something of which I have no memory, Burnage High School held a sponsored walk. It was on a Tuesday, and the School would be closed for the day and everyone would participate. It wasn’t compulsory: those who didn’t want to walk, or couldn’t, could withdraw, but that amounted to maybe three boys out of a School of 700.

We would walk the length of the Peak Forest Canal, from Denton in Manchester to its terminus at Whaley Bridge, in north Derbyshire, a long way down the A6, sheltered under the moors that protected Buxton. It was an awkward, uneven length that, for official purposes, was designated to be 20km. We were issued with sponsorship forms and duplicated diagrams, breaking down the route.

I looked forward to it. I was sixteen, young and fit, and I was already a walker. True, this was not walking as I knew it, 99% flat (there was a section, approximately midway, where the canal ran through a long tunnel, either in too poor a state to negotiate, or else deemed too long to risk boys not falling in, which was by-passed by a brief diversion off-route, steeply uphill for maybe 150′, and just as steeply down again). But I had a bit of a rivalry going on with my mate Brian, aka Zack, one of only two boys whose nicknames pursued them into the Sixth Form, where we started using first names for the first time, who was loudly boasting of how he’d walk my legs off and finish miles ahead of me.

We had to turn up at School at more or less the usual time, then mill around until the coaches shuttled us off to Denton and the start. Zack and I ended up on different coaches – we were in different forms – and I was five minutes ahead of him when we were discharged on this back street in Denton, racing down to the towpath and turning left for Whaley Bridge.

I had my boots, and walking socks on, a good thick pullover, and my anorak in my rucksack. I set off with a will and didn’t stop. It was the first time I’d been let off the leash, allowed to walk at whatever pace suited me, and I took full advantage.

For a flat canal, it was an interesting and varied walk in the morning hours. We passed through tunnels where once bargemen would have walked their craft along, their feet to the tunnel roof. We crossed a high brick aqueduct, one of us quite gingerly. It rained two or three times. None of it stopped me. I pulled my anorak on and off on the march, ate my sandwiches whilst stomping along. Some of it was the desire not to have Zack catch me up and overtake it, but most of it was the sheer freedom to do so. I didn’t stop because I didn’t have to, I didn’t have to wait for anyone else, or gear myself to their frailties. I was sixteen and I walked on because I could, and I liked knowing that.

When I reached the lunch place, hundreds of boys lazing around, I didn’t stop. I wasn’t tired (besides, I’d already eaten all the butties) and it was back to the towpath and through New Mills, passing the backs of factories, having missed the women coming out to eat their lunch snap in the open air. Then a short rise to cross the main road, and all the towns were behind us.

The latter half of the walk was a bit more tedious. The weather had settled, grown warm, enough to be just slightly stuffy. My legs were beginning to ache. And we were out into the country now, following the curve of a long, slow, green valley. It ought to have been more my style but it wasn’t. Nothing changed. I stared at the same wooded hillsides, with nothing new entering the view.

The last diversion was to cross a road, join the final stretch of the Canal along what seemed like a spur, into the barge-filled basin that marked the end, beyond which sweaty boys of all ages set up a barrage of chatter. A check of my watch, four hours, almost to the very minute, twenty kilometres in four hours, non-stop. I settled to wait for Zack, already smug.

It was a long wait, forty-five minutes before he rolled into sight. Deduct the five minutes between coaches at the School, I had been forty minutes faster than him. Which, by the strangest of coincidences, was exactly as long as he’d spent at the lunch-place, or so he said. I had little enough chances for superiority back then, I wasn’t going to accept that.

It had been a great day. Unfortunately, it was to do me no good at all when it came to holidays in the Lakes. Nothing had changed, except me. I had had my eyes open as to what I was capable of doing, and having that limited to the slow progression and frequent halts of the elders chafed. I wanted to get off ahead, see the next horizon, and the one beyond it as well, not spend all day in the same valley. I wanted summits, and once I reached one (which was usually our limit in a seven day holiday) I saw no reason not to go on to the next one, instead of returning by the identical route we’d used to ascend.

I was at University now, eighteen and older, but still I counted for nothing, was a child to be told what I would do and where I would go, and that wasn’t going to change. There were other things that frustrated me: the day over, the evening meal consumed, the pots washed, I would persist in asking where would be going tomorrow, despite the answer being some minor variation on ‘you haven’t finished with today yet’.

Yes, the mere idea of thinking ahead, of setting a destination for the next day (if the weather’s decent, we might go down Eskdale and walk to Throstlegarth), seemed to be an anathema. In my mother it was a complete  difference of personality: she could never understand me working out what walks I wanted to do on a week away, didn’t know why I bothered walking them if I’d already worked out where I was going, couldn’t understand the joy of planning, anticipation, the satisfaction of a plan working coupled with the complete freedom to do something totally different if I felt like it, or the weather changed.

It wouldn’t have mattered as much if they hadn’t been so bloody slow in the morning about deciding where to go. Breakfast, and pots, cups of tea, making butties and an absolute refusal to consider where they might take us until they were ready to get into the car, and even then it would take ages to make a decision. As the next couple of years progressed, it got so slow that it would usually be 11.30am before we even left the cottage, hours of good walking time wasted and me bored skullless, waiting for something to happen.

I may be projecting what I want to think on my absent Dad, but to me he was the driving force. He’d wanted to go fell-walking, he was thrilled by the Wainwrights, he looked ahead. He only ever reached three summits, Middle Fell and Lingmell in Wasdale, and Haystacks, and I credit him for the fact that we actually climbed a fell outside of that quarter from Wasdale round to Langdale. My mother even said that she was only interested in that part of the Lakes, a claim I still cannot comprehend. How can you love the Lakes and not want all of it? Not want to gulp all of it down and see all the beauty it can offer? I believe my Dad felt that, that he wanted to see new things, not only the same old places over and again, that he was only waiting for my sister and I go be old enough…

There was one more thing on top. My Uncle developed some kind of stomach condition, I know not what, that meant that once he had eaten, further uphill progression became painful. He’d go on as long as he could, but eventually he’d have to eat… One more governor, one further limitation.

Somehow, I have no idea how or why, I got my own way for once. In August 1975, we foresook South West Lakeland for the North East. A cottage in Stainton, a base for Ullswater, the long awaited chance to go and see Haweswater, now it wasn’t ‘too far to drive’. August 1975, a prelude to the following year’s Drought Summer. I wanted to revel in it, in all these new views around me, but I had made another mistake.

You see, I’d just been away on holiday. With the lads. A week in Blackpool, six days at home, a week in the Lakes. I’d had a week of doing things for myself, taking responsibility. One of four, like in the Lakes, but one with a voice, a say, an equal share in what we chose to do. Saturday to Saturday, then, a Saturday later it’s off to the Lakes, nineteen years old, staring down the barrel of my third and final year at University, but still a kid, still nothing, still to be told what to do and where to do. Even when we were on the holiday that was chosen for me.

It was ironic that, by early-evening on the Sunday, I was telling my mother that this was the last family holiday I was coming on. And it was.

As I’ve already said, the week endied in an appropriately symbolic fashion. We set off to climb Helvellyn, significantly higher than anything we’d ever climbed before, and by Striding Edge. We got to the far end of the Edge, the bit where you have to climb down a ten foot rock chimney, and just as on Sty Head, almost a decade before, my mother took one look and decreed that my sister wasn’t going down that.

It was the ultimate frustration. I was furious, though I knew better than to let any of it slip. But Mam surprised me. We never talked about it, but I think it was because this was my last day with them. It was a gesture, or apology, or understanding, of release, but she stunned everyone by saying there was no reason I couldn’t go on on my own, reach the summit, meet them back at the Hole in the Wall.

Of course I had to be roped up to be let down the chimney (there were always strings attached, literally in this case) but after that I was on my own, trusted. I forgot all of them. I was so adrenalised by my freedom that I shot up the screes from Striding edge to the summit plateau in ten glorious, furious minutes of scrambling. Look what I can do!

The next year, and the years that followed, they went away and I stayed home, enjoying a week of freedom. Without a car, or the money to own and run one, the Lakes were out of reach for years. My next visit was the only other time I went to the Lakes again with my family: a Bank Holiday Monday day-out with my sister’s boyfriend and future husband making up the party. We went to Wasdale Head: it was baking hot, the lake shone like a silver coin, we had nothing to do and Department S’s “Is Vic There?” was playing on the radio.

Two months later, I bought my first car, to get to the Roses Match at Headingley. In October, I went up to the Lakes to practice driving round narrow, winding roads. The next time I went there, again on my own, encumbered by no-one, I took my boots. I put them on for Helm Crag. A lot followed.

Helvellyn: The Inner Circle

One of the most famous sights in the Lakes
One of the most famous sights in the Lakes

The walk I call The Inner Circle is a shorter, but more dramatic ascent of Helvellyn and its satellite fells, this time including both Striding Edge and the less-famous Swirral Edge.
This time the walk begins and ends in Grisedale itself, which makes parking an issue. A road leaves the main valley road at the north end of Patterdale Village, and goes into Grisedale for a mile but non-residents cars are only allowed in the first 100 yards, parking space for ten cars and no more. An early arrival is imperative for failure to bag a spot means that the car has to be parked quite a distance away, adding to the length of the walk at beginning and end.
Once installed, the road heads into the trees, rising and falling for a cool, shaded mile, before emerging into the sun at the foot of the valley. Follow the road when it turns 90 degrees right across the valley floor but, when it turns ninety degrees right again, leave it at the gate and follow the path across the fields and up a surprisingly steep slope for this end of the day, until a well-established path bears away left to cross the fellside.
This is an old and famous path, crossing the southern flank of Birkhouse Moor, an ungainly fell thrust towards Patterdale, from the spine of Striding Edge. It maintains a fairly consistent, undemanding angle across the fellside, with excellent views for most of the way towards the head of the valley, where Nethermost Pike and Dollywaggon Pike present noble aspects unsuspected from the ridge itself (now you can see why Nethermost Pike is called a Pike in the first place). It’s not until the final, long, steeper section to the Hole in the Wall is reached that the way becomes at all draining: this crosses a sterile, bare section whose attraction is the end.
The Hole in the Wall is exactly that, a wide gap in the stone wall running along the ridge. When I first passed this way, it was an informal name, fellwalkers’ affectionate term for a significant place in the hills, the gateway to Striding Edge, but it’s now been accepted by the Ordnance Survey as the official name of this place.
Helvellyn appears for the first time, its flat rim of crags glowering over the dark waters of Red Tarn. A low depression spreads widely and wetly beneath the outflow of the Tarn, covered with paths going every which way.

                                                             Helvellyn from the approach to Striding Edge

But before the hard work starts, walk back along the wall, rising slowly towards the little peak of Birkhouse Moor. Though decorated by a cairn, the first hummock is not the highest point. Walk on to the second, leaving the wall behind. This is your first top of the walk.
Return to the Hole in the Wall, and go forward, towards the most enthralling part of the day, the crossing of Striding Edge. Experience is welcome on this route, but is not essential. Except in conditions of high wind, or ice underfoot, the Edge is not dangerous to anyone who takes care. The walk to reach it is surprisingly long and much height has been gained before the first pinnacle looms into view. Choose your level carefully.
A simple path avoids the crest, clinging closely to the Edge, mostly about ten to thirty feet below its crest, mostly on the Red Tarn side. Unless experienced at handling rock, it is probably sensible to take this route on your first visit, although if you feel up to it, go for it. It’s narrow, and if you slip you could go a long way, but in good conditions, the vast majority of walkers will negotiate it without difficulty.
The alternative, for the experienced and the bold at heart, is to follow the crest. On my second visit, I set out to do this. I got over the first pinnacle without difficulty, though conscious of what lay (or rather did NOT lay) about me, but though I got to the top of the second pinnacle, I found the descent from it to be too steep for my liking, given the lack of breadth, and I retreated to the path at the side. On the other hand, I have seen people strolling along, hands in pockets, having a conversation and not looking at their feet, so perhaps I am, at the end, too much of a wimp.
Whichever approach you take, there is but one way down off the Edge, and that is via a ten foot tall rock chimney, requiring some minimal climbing. In a world in which rock climbers rate Jack’s Rake on Pavey Ark as Easy, this would be regarded as piffling, and as such is no obstacle to anyone with any experience of scrambling.
Across a short hollow lies the final face of Helvellyn, a wall of crossing and competing paths when I ventured here, perhaps now corralled by the NT to avoid further erosion. Once, I breezed up the face without stopping, starting to breathe slightly heavily after about 15 minutes and considering a breather in the near future, before the slope eased and I found myself on the edge of the summit. Look upwards and imagine that. I was 19, and I’d just been set free of waiting for my family for the very first time: but it still amazes me that I was up there like a rat up a drainpipe so quickly.
Take it more slowly, and don’t look down until you reach the top, not because it looks fearsome, but so as not to spoil the view of Striding Edge from the top. Then follow the hordes upwards, half right, until you reach the windshelter and the cairn and the sweaty millions.
Leave by strolling north, in sight of the edge of the cliffs, until the slope rises slightly to the head of Swirral Edge.

Swirral Edge

In contrast to its more famous neighbour, Swirral is less of an actual edge than a steadily rising rock rib, requiring hands and feet in both directions. It’s a glorious scramble, with a profusion of routes. From above, on a first visit, it will look intimidatingly steep to start down. But handholds are plentiful, and the worst of the slope is only short. Turn round and feel your way down carefully until you feel confident enough to descend facing the route. At the foot of the slope, there is a level section where the path interwinds between outcrops, before curving away right, down towards the broad lands below the Tarn. Before doing so, turn off left to follow the ridge, now on grass, up steepening and narrowing slopes to the compact summit of Catstycam, a well-shaped fell dominated by the wall of the Helvellyn range.
Return to the ridge and descend on the path towards the outflow of Red Tarn. Cross the broad lands and rise to the Hole in the Wall, and take the long path down Birkhouse Moor’s flanks, until back to the car.

Helvellyn – The Outer Circle

Helvellyn – but not as you’ll see it on this walk

If you want to undertake a long, serious walk that incorporates Helvellyn – the Lake District’s third-highest and most-visited mountain – then it must be approached from the Patterdale valley, to the east of the range. There are a profusion of walks from the west, from Wythburn and Thirlmere, but this is the grassy, sleek, dull side of the range, long miles with few features.
The best long-distance walk from the east is one I call ‘The Outer Circle’. It takes advantage of the fact that Sticks Pass, to the north, and Grisedale Pass, to the south, disburse into Patterdale little more than a mile apart, enabling one to be used to gain the ridge, and the other to leave it, with a long, high traverse and five high summits between.
There are only two drawbacks to the Outer Circle. One is Striding Edge, the other is Swirral Edge, and is an ascent of Helvellyn from the east really worth it if it doesn’t incorporate at least one of these narrow, airy, hands on rock approaches?
But the walker who completes the Outer Circle can walk tall, even as he (or she) stumbles sore-footed back to the car once back to the road.
Circular walks pose the immediate problem of which way to go round. I don’t know if it’s some instinctive prejudice, but the vast majority of my circle walks have been done anti-clockwise. It just seems to be the way that produces the better walking, and in the case of the Fairfield Horseshoe, it certainly produces the best views.
So take advantage of the car park in Glenridding Village, parking as close to the entrance as possible: this will matter. Walk north along the main road, and turn off down a side-street, feeling incongruous in boots and rucksack, as you pass between residential terraces. When the road opens up at the far end, veer right, then left, onto the Glenridding Lead Mine road (rough, unmetalled). This is a long, straight walk, towards the hills, flat and slightly tedious, especially if under a hot sun: the valley is sufficiently enclosed to choke off any cooling breezes.
Ahead, the derelict buildings of the former lead mine grow slowly larger, until you finally reach their foot. There are various routes from here towards the massif. The main walk, bearing half-left to follow the beck, ascends past the gradually healing ruins of the former Kepple Cove Tarn. The Outer Circle route turns off right, onto the base of the steep slag-mound directly behind the disused buildings, though the walk will catch up with the path by the beck further along.

The Lead mine

The former slagbank is steep, and the route zig-zags across its face, loose and loud underneath, until it reaches a long, angled terrace that runs from left to right across the upper face, and leads to the final scramble up and beyond.
Above is the bed of the former Sticks Reservoir, drained in 1962 when the mine was abandoned. It occupies a large hollow in the fellside, and the path follows its old bank, taking a long detour north, then west along half its shoreline. A beeline could be made across the drained bed, but the grass is darker, somehow forbidding, suggesting that it may still be soft underfoot, and many walkers will just keep to the path and try to picture the scene as it was for Wainwright, in the early Fifties.
Beyond this basin, the valley narrows into a miniature defile, twisting and turning as it follows Sticks Gill (East) upstream. There’s no views to gauge progress by, and this stage is frustrating as it never seems to end. Finally, it does debouch onto the long, wide plateau that is the top of Sticks Pass.
The Helvellyn range lies south, its first summit, Raise, overlooking the Pass. Leave from the cairn at the highest point, and the ascent is an uncomplicated, uphill walk, that steepens slightly when you reach the summit rocks, but which is without any difficulty whatsoever. If there is wind about on the day, this is where it will first make itself effective.
South lies White Side, a simple rounded fell with a broad swathe sweeping up out of the valley of Kepple Cove and crossing the bare top without a break. There’s no path off Raise initially, but one soon develops on the easy southern slopes, merging into the route – the main path through Glenridding Lead Mine, left below – and crossing the top of White Side. There is nothing on top, no rocks, nowhere to sit except on the ground, and no reason to pause except for registering your next conquest.
But the ridge gets very interesting from this point, after a short descent into the final hollow before the climb onto Helvellyn itself.

Helvellyn and Lower Man from White Side

To the left, the jagged ridge of Swirral Edge approaches the main bulk of the fell from the col at the back of shapely Catstycam (sometimes, but rarely nowadays known as Catchedicam). There’s ample time on the descent to look for stick figures, walkers following the ridge, moving into and out of sight behind outcrops. Once you reach the foot of the long climb, up the towering flank of Helvellyn Lower Man, there is little opportunity to observe as effort will be concentrating on the ascent, the most direct and therefore steepest of the day.
Things start to ease as the top of Lower Man, a subsidiary summit itself over 3,000′, is reached at the northern edge of the curved, broad plateau that constitutes Helvellyn’s popular summit. It’s hard to distinguish an actual path, given how many millions of boots have tramped here, every year, but the way onwards is obvious: uphill, along the broad crest or, in clear weather, veer left to follow the rim of the cliffs overhanging the comb in which Red Tarn lies, between the twin arms of the Edges.
Helvellyn’s highest point is marked by three things: a large cairn, a cross-shaped wind-shelter, and hordes of people. I climbed by this route in low cloud, spent twenty minutes lunching in five yard visibility, during which time not thirty seconds passed without a new arrival at the top. Do not expect solitude and the privacy of your thoughts in silence.

Book early to be out of the wind

When ready to leave, descend half-leftish to the top of Striding Edge. The sickle-curve of the ridge that lies below you is the scene of a million postcards, not a one of which can duplicate anything of the reality of the view from this point. Though it lies off a direct route south, for this reason alone it must be visited.
Besides, from the top, a narrow path skirting the edge of the steep decline leads around the curve of Helvellyn’s top, to the little col between it and Nethermost Pike. This narrow trod is far more interesting than the main highway, and it will be far less frequented, which after twenty minutes on Helvellyn on a nice day, will be extremely welcome.
From the col, the main path along the ridge stays mainly to the western side as far as Grisedale Pass, omitting to visit either of the two remaining tops. Ignore it and bear left to gain Nethermost Pike’s flat and uninteresting top, which is decorated by three cairns, in a widespread triangle. From each cairn, at least one of the others looks higher, so trek round each one, return to the highway and drop down to the col before Dollywaggon Pike. This Pike has a much more attractive and appropriate shape, and when the highway levels off to cross the back of the fell, leave it by a narrow path that follows the crest to the day’s final summit, and follow the crest down and right to return to the main route.

The Dollywagon Zigzags

This leads to the top of the (in)famous Dollywaggon Zig-Zags. These are a wonderfully graded series of gentle terraces, criss-crossing the broad back of the fell that overlooks Grisedale Tarn and its Pass. For years these have been hacked about, as many such routes have been, by crude, impatient walkers, too hasty and ignorant to understand that the zig-zags make the steep ascent so much easier, who have short-cutted the zig-zags (usually in descent) by straight line routes that have torn and scarred the fellside. The National Trust have, of course, stepped in to relay the original route, and it is gradually re-establishing its ascendency: it is certainly the best way, up or down.
Grisedale Pass marks the southernmost point on the ridge in this walk. The actual summit of the Pass lies beyond the further limit of the Tarn, but the descent now is left, over the lip of Grisedale itself, firstly steeply through the upper parts of the valley, still high in the hills, before the way eases at the Climbers Hut, and a choice has to be made as to which side of the valley is to be followed. But, on the first part of the descent, look left, among the tumbled and littered stones, for the rock known as The Brother’s Parting, marking the place at which William Wordsworth took his last leave of his Sea-Captain brother John, who would die at sea five years later. The rock is carved with faded letters that can best be made out from the extreme left, looking across its surface, and is far easier to locate in ascent than descent.

Nethermost and Dollywaggon Pikes from Grisedale

Beyond the Climbing Hut, the path forks. The branch to the left follows the northern flank of the valley, and is slightly shorter, but it is exposed to the air. Should the afternoon sun now be beating down on your head, better to stick with the right fork, leaving you a long, mostly level walk back along the valley, several sections of which being, however, under the cool shade of trees.
Eventually, this route emerges at the roadhead in the lowest part of the valley, with a mile to walk, undulating, mostly under shade from the copious woods, emerging at the northern end of Patterdale Village.
There is a further half-mile or more to Glenridding Village, along a narrow, busy road, with no pavements. Keep to the left, in defiance of the most sensible practice, and a track turns away behind the wall, paralleling the road in complete safety for most of the way back to the head of Ullswater, and the road to the boat-landings. Transfer to the other side of the road, so as to have the nearest traffic in your sight, ahead of you, and after crossing the beck in the Village, go back to the pavement on the left side, and turn into the car park. There is a small, but painful ascent to turn up, but if the car has been left at this end, relief is shortly available.