During the long pursuit of the Wainwrights, I made almost a fetish of not repeating myself. Walks were designed to be circular, to get me back to my car with a minimum of trodden ground, i.e., going over ground I’d already covered during the walk. The same went for new ascents. Due to my unplanned and largely erratic approach in the beginning, I found myself left with odd fells here and there whose collection involved returning to tops I’d already visited. Sometimes, such as Great End and Sail, this became the opportunity to repeat a superb walk. Elsewhere, I still tried to make each individual walk as fresh as possible, covering newer ground, exposing myself to even more of the Lake District every time. This was the case in respect of Knott, the great, grassy, sprawling fell that’s the highest point ‘Back O’Skiddaw’. It’s distance from approach points, and its sheer size made it something of a difficult prospect, especially as I anticipated a dull foreground. However, the obvious decision to incorporate Great Calva into the walk dictated the best starting point as being Orthwaite, or in actual fact a convenient roadside parking space short of the village, giving me a briefer roadwalk to access the start of the walk, on the north-west side of the Dash Valley. Wainwright indicated two possible paths, one of which, in 1960, had been fading into the grass. I can’t remember if any trace of it existed in 1992 but in any event I wanted to take the lower path, to see Brockle Crag, which turned out to be decidedly unimpressive. From there, I diverted alongside Hause Gill, crossing a low lip and dropping into a fascinating gap in the fells. It appeared to be wide and spacious, hemmed in on every side by steep and bare slopes, some kind of secret valley not quite of the Lakes. It made a massive impression on me. The plan was to cross this valley and go straight on, following the line of Hause Gill and swinging round to the summit from the south-south-west. But my eye was attracted by an unidentified track, bearing left, in the direction of a narrow ravine. There were two paths, in parallel, one aiming for the defile itself. Consumed by curiosity, I followed this. It led into the narrow confines of a rushing, surging, twisting gill, the path precariously following the north bank. It wasn’t quite a scramble, the gradient wasn’t enough for that, but it did often involve hands as well as feet, and it was enclosed, with no escape except forward or back. I followed it gleefully. I had no idea where this was going but I didn’t care. It could go on for hours as far as I was concerned. Another of those times when it just didn’t last long enough, though I’d lost all track of time before the torrent began to ease, the bordering slopes to expand, and there I was at the lawns just below Trusmadoor, for I had been following Burntod Gill. I took a breather, not because I needed to rest but because I’d enjoyed my diversion so much I wanted to bask in it a while. Nor had I compromised my ascent: across the beck was a zigzag path up the flanks of Burn Tod, that eased the angle of ascent until it faded into the grass. By then, the way to the top was easy to see, though wading through tussocky grass wasn’t fun. The final stretch took much longer than it looked from below but eventually I subsided by Knott’s cairn, tucking into my sandwiches and contemplating Wainwright’s suggestion that the top was ideal for an impromptu cricket sensation, though I suspected he wasn’t the cricket fanatic I was, because unless you carried a dozen balls or more and played ‘six-and-out’, it would have been a very short match when the first boundary would have seen the ball roll hundreds of feet down the surrounding slopes.
Great Calva has a unique position, situated exactly on the great central rift that runs all the way through the Lake District from the Glenderaterra valley in the north, separating the Skiddaw and Blencathra massifs, to the foot of Windermere in the far south, beyond all but the foothills. Nowhere along that rift does the land rise above the summit of Dunmail Raise. I don’t remember much of an extensive view that day: indeed, on the rambling ridge route from Knott, which seemed to have very little directness to it. I arrived at the northern and lower end of the summit ridge in some short-term cloud that left me a bit concerned for its effects on progress. But the top was clear and I could record another success in the ever-diminishing number of fells I had left. What remains more clearly in the mind was the descent to the Skiddaw Forest road, making a careful, curving way down intense purple-clad heathery slopes whose tough stalks made for slow, catching progress. Eventually I reached the ‘road’, tractor broad but unmetalled, in sight of Skiddaw House, which was in the wrong direction for visiting. This left me a long, slow retreat to the car, taking me down the steep zigzags bordering on Whitewater Dash – a much more exciting name than the simplistic Dash Falls, though the constant white spatter is equally attractive under either name – and down into the Dash Valley. I crossed to the far side to complete my long stroll back, a bit foot-sore from all the concrete by the time I got there but nevertheless content with my achievements.
Ever since I broke free from the confines of the family, fellwalking for me has revolved around summits. The long years of collecting the Wainwrights came with an emphasis on always having a felltop as a destination, and on those few occasions when I have set out with no more than the exercise as the point have always seemed to me to be lacking in something, no matter how enjoyable they have been.
Sometimes, though, the best part of a walk, it’s most enjoyable experience, has had nothing to do with any of the summits reached during the course of the expedition, has indeed been far superior to the tops collected en route.
I’m almost inclined to say that about the Corridor Route, on Scafell Pike, but even the exhilaration of that walk across the flank of the massif can’t override the fact that this is Scafell Pike we’re talking about. On the other hand, Lord’s Rake, on Scafell, was my true destination the day I went by that route, having already climbed the fell,
But one day does stand out in memory for having as it’s most enjoyable time an unplanned, and very low-level spell of walking that came unpredictably soon in the day.
My wanderings in the Northern Fells had left me with just a handful of tops in that book. Blencathra would be an expedition in itself, and Mungrisedale Common an unlovely outlier tacked on, just to say that I had been there. But this left Knott and Great Calva: two contrasting fells, linked by a common ridge, but hardly what you’d choose for a walk that has to find its way back to where the car is parked in the morning. But it can be done.
The most convenient base for the walk was the Orthwaite road, verge parking beyond the gate for the farm road into the Dash valley. A path doubles back into the valley on its northern side, offering a choice of routes, high and low, depending whether or not you want to see Brockle Crag on the way. This is not as spectacular as it may be, being more a steep bank of quartz outcrops than a crag in its own right, but my preference for this path led directly to the highlight of the walk.
The lower route is supposed to be difficult to trace now, though there were no such issue the day I came this way. Whilst the Dash bears rightwards towards its spectacular falls, the path wound away left towards the foot of Burn Tod, the immense shoulder of Knott directly ahead.
It opened into an empty, impressive amphitheatre, a place where, if scaled up sufficiently and laden with CGI, it would not be difficult to imagine an army of Orcs marching to lay siege to the Hornburg.
My Wainwright route lay to the right of Burn Tod, closing off this empty bowl, scaling beside Hause Gill to reach the saddle between Knott and Great Calva, but there was an intriguing path not actually marked in the Northern Fells, heading distinctly half-left to where another gill emerged from a narrow defile lying between the bare, steep sides of Burn Tod and Great Cockup. Curiosity drew me along until I reached the bank of the gill, and could see the path snaking along the western bank, into the winding ravine through which the gill bubbled fiercely. A path not noted by Wainwright? I couldn’t resist.
There followed one of those wonderfully absorbing spells where time disappeared out of the window. The path clung to the bank, within the spray of the water at certain points, twisting and turning. There was no crossing the gill, and no escape up either side of this steep-sided course but to follow the gill, upstream or down. And there was no risk that I would turn round and start downstream, not now I had started on this route.
The way twisted and turned, back and forth, allowing me to see no more than ten to fifteen yards ahead at any one time. I was lost without knowledge of how far or short the walk in this gill would be, stepping lively and eagerly all the way. I was enclosed, but felt nothing of that faint claustrophobia from which I sometimes suffer. For the duration, time and the outside world were suspended.
Having not previously connected the dots of the geography between various chapters of the Northern Fells, I had no idea where I might emerge, so it came as a pleasant surprise when the gates of the gill opened out onto broad, wide lawns, directly below the mouth of Trusmadoor, for this was Burntod Gill, and this was a spot I had visited before, when strolling round the Uldale Fells.
I had only to change pages in the chapter on Knott to continue my walk to a summit that could not hope to live up to that exhilarating passage, but there would be no further difficulties in the day, save perhaps a certain dullness.
Across the gill, and onto a long, rising series of well-graded zig-zag sweeps, eating up height on the flank of Burn Tod, until these abruptly levelled out and disappeared underfoot when nearly at the level of the flat top. Knott lay half left, a broad, rounded dome across a sea of thick, tussocky grass, pathless and dragging at your feet as you wade onwards and upwards. There’s an unusual little parapet midway which provides easier walking if you make for it, the grass growing a little less thick and cloying, until beyond, all there is is an uphill walk onto Knott’s broad and flat summit.
All about is level, sheep-shorn grass. Wainwright suggests that if someone happens to be carrying stumps, bat and ball, the surface would be suited to an impromptu game of cricket, but that suggests he had little feeling for the game, as opposed to his beloved Blackburn Rovers, as any firmly struck shot would have overshot some tightly drawn boundaries and sent the ball unacceptably downhill to allow for the over to be completed.
Ironically, his other suggestion for beguiling the time, for mixed parties only, was also called to mind a few moments later, by the arrival from the north of a young couple. Given that my presence constituted something of a gooseberry, I ought to have packed up and moved on, to allow them their privacy – on a flat, open top a hundred yards wide? – but this was lunch and I wasn’t shifting until I had fed and watered.
There are plenty of ways off Knott, which is rather the hub of the Northern Fells, and it’s a fair stretch to Great Calva, and an ascent of almost 500′ to the latter summit. That kind of height loss is never recommended on a ridge route, where anything much above 350′ of additional climbing becomes more like a new ascent to me. But the ground in grassy and easy, with no undue gradients, and on a walk taking in only two fells, not too burdensome.
The col lies a long way west, requiring a roundabout approach. Knott’s thick grass is easier to tread downhill and I was able to stride out. My memory is a bit hazy on the subject of the weather, for I remember it being dry and exposed on Knott, but I have the distinct impression of thin, enveloping cloud as I reached the boggy bit, just below the summit, suggesting a change in weather on the crossing.
This would account for my lack of memories of the view from Great Calva, a neater top by far, and its unique view along the great Central Rift of Lakeland over which Wainwright enthuses.
I was, by now, some distance from the car, with no obvious or direct route back that did not require retracing my steps over trodden ground. Long and roundabout though it may be, there was a straightforward solution, which was to follow the summit ridge over the south cairn, descend below the cloud-line, and make for Skiddaw Forest below.
The direct line aimed more or less for Skiddaw House, but this would bring me down unnecessarily far from the head of the Dash valley, so as soon as the slope permitted I angled away to my right, fixing upon a point on the Skiddaw House road just this side of Dead Beck, and picking my best way through the thick, purple, grasping heather that decorates this side of the fell. It made for slow-going, which tends to frustrate me, but the slope was steady, the Road wasn’t going anywhere, and this was the last of the serious walking of the day.
I’ve always maintain that the worst part of any walk is coming back down the road at the end, and any walk that demands more than a mile of tarmac is a badly-planned walk, but there is no tarmac up here in the hills, just the remarkable emptiness of Skiddaw Forest, broken only by the wind and the scrunch of your boots. The road rose to the lip of the Dash valley before descending in tight zig-zags beside Whitewater Dash, levelling out beneath Dead Crags.
In the bottom of the valley, a convenient farm road enabled me to cross to the north side of the valley and regain my route back to the car.
Not a particularly exciting day, and perhaps best thought of as a perfect example of a contrived pairing of two fells that had not fitted into other, more natural expeditions. Two more of the increasingly shorter lists of Wainwrights. But the day had been made for me by that impromptu diversion into Burntod Gill, by that near-scramble along its bank, the twisting and turning, rising and falling, the gushing waters frantic at my side throughout. Good, hard walking in conditions that others may have shied away from, but for which I was fully prepared, a test to pass with flying colours, a half hour – if it was that – of sheer delight.