I suppose I could have counted this, and its predecessor regarding Scafell Pike, as a film and included them both in my film summer season, but either way it is always a pleasure to spend two hours of a cold but sunny Sunday morning in the Lake District, paying close attention to one of its finest mountains.
Life of a Mountain – Blencathra is the work of Terry Abraham who, not quite a decade ago, was an unemployed Liverpudlian who bought a camera, taught himself filming and spent a year on England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, filming the mountain in its many aspects, filming the life that goes on around it, talking to people and building the results of his efforts into a two hour documentary film, released on DVD and then broadcast on BBC2, even if edited down to one hour. The film received extraordinary acclaim and made Terry Abrahams a star. It gave him more money and resources to make a similar film about Blencathra.
Blencathra, or Saddleback as it was known in my youth, and still largely is locally, is in the Northern Lakes, the only mountain area to be isolated from the rest of the District, with no links over high ground. Like the other and higher mountain that dominates the region, Skiddaw (locally pronounced Skidder), it presents a front to the south, and what a front. The mountain consists of five fells, linked into one massive massif, with a brilliant symmetry of dark combs presented between them. It displays almost all its finery to open view, and for anyone with walking or climbing instincts, it is a magnet not just to the eye but the boots.
There are so many routes of ascent to choose from that Wainwright ended up giving Blencathra more pages than any other fell in his seven Pictorial Guides. He also revived the beautiful, romantic, original name. Saddleback was prosaic and merely descriptive, whereas broadcaster and walker Eric Robson traces the Celtic name to Blenc-Arthur, Arthur’s Seat, King Arthur. The intruder name still shows on Ordnance Survey Maps as a small capitals alternative to Blencathra, whereas I remember the days when there was a certain euphony between the paired names of Skiddaw and Saddleback, and it was Or Blencathra that appeared on maps in small capitals.
Abraham’s film is subtly divided into four parts, one for each season, but without any formal distinctions between sections being drawn in the film itself. It’s contributors are mainly local people, though broadcaster Stuart Maconie and comedian Ed Byrne also appear, and the film’s greatest character, as he was in the Scafell Pike film, is guide and TV researcher David Powell-Thompson, a transplanted Geordie and a calm, dry, experienced presence.
There is so much to see of Blencathra and over the film’s two hour length we see the mountain from all sides. But the majority of this is aerial footage, probably a drone camera, drifting without pattern or any real sense of the mountain’s construction, in silent scenes, or rather scenes set to a swelling orchestra. The music is pretty prevalent in this film, and there are even two songs written about Blencathra, not to mention a poem, all broadcast in full.
This is where I begin to express my disapointment. There’s a distinct change in emphasis from Scafell Pike to this, in that the film is far less concerned with the mountain itself and rather with the people who live and work about it. Life Around a Mountain might have been a more accurate title, but the film’s sub-title, A Year in the Life of the People’s Mountain, is a hint (excuse me, but ever since Tony Bloody Blair in 1999, I have become allergic to anything being described as ‘The People’s…’)
Sequenvces actually featuring the mountain are surprisingly rare, and many of these are actually looking at the mountain rather on it. There are only three sequences directly dealing with the ascent of the mountain itself, and two of these feature Sharp Edge, which to me is over-egging the pudding. Neither of these sequences show the bit of Sharp Edge that gave me my worst moment fellwalking ever, which is etched on my memory as if burned there by acid, which, given that Wainwright picks out this spot for special mention, is a strange omission. Is it me? Is my far-too-vivid memory of having to take one unsupported step, placing my life on my ability to balance on one boot on a blade of rock narrower than said boot, a false one? Or is it that nobody not being lowered from a helicopter by winch to hover, Superman-style, over the bad spot will do this with the need to attend to a camera in their hands overwhelming their primitive Survival Instinct?
Either way, the film does not match up to Scafell Pike in sheer fascination with the mountain itself. In the end, its stringest sequence turned out to be an unhappy coincidence. Abraham filmed this over the year from Spring 2015 to Spring 2016. He was engaged on a sequence about a working farm, run by a cheerful mother and a lacomic son, managing both the tiny farm and a successful guest business. This was December 2015, the month of the devastating rainstorms that flooded so much of my beloved country, causing irreperable damage – for who can put a countryside back together is less than a century? And even then make it look as it was? – and despite the mother’s forced oiptimism afterwards, it destroyed them. Those memories are very bitter: the new bridge at Pooley Bridge is modern, elegant and all-metal, but the old stone bridge, with its several spans, was both beautiful and of its place in a way the new bridge never will be. The destruction that time caused makes me want to weep.
A sad note on which to end. Blencathra is worth it because it’s next to impossible to make a bad film about the Lake District, though Abraham’s Helvellyn did its damnedest, and I’m always ready to look on places I’ll never see in real life again. But it could have been so much better, and Terry Abraham had already shown how it could, and should, be done.
It’s been nearly two years since I last saw anything of the Lakes, the Patterdale Expedition, the round trip on the Ullswater steamer. Last year’s plans had to be set aside, hopefully to be revisited before very long, but at last it’s possible to travel there in approved safety. The simplest of all trips: to Windermere by train, to see mountains and fells and Lakes long familiar, but not so recently. It’s going back home for me. And I’m doing it for less than £20 on the train. I’m stocked up with the usual accoutrements for any successful day out: a fully-charged mp3 player with 1,150 songs on it, plus headphones, a book of substance, waiting to be read in circumstances of peace and quiet and neither distraction nor interruption – my selection on this occasion being Mark Helprin’s Refiner’s Fire, a Christmas self-treat in 2019. What am I going to do when I get there for the first time in nearly two years? I have options. Options, options, options. The first, and most steady and reliable of these, is to buy a Grasmere Dayrider at the bus station and head off to there, to walk round the village, check the Heaton Cooper Studios, visit Sam Read’s Bookshop, lift mine eyes to the hills and generally revel in the air and ambience of things. Then back to Ambleside to do the same things there, and nurse a pint in the Ambleside Tavern. Safe, reliable, done before, more than once. A bit more esoteric option is to make that a Keswick Dayrider. Head into the Northern Lakes, do the wandering around, see twice as many Lakes and mountains, maybe time for a stroll round Ambleside coming back, we’d have to see. Same thing though, done that. But there’s a third option, though one only available if the weather is good, dry and clear, and the train is on time. I’m supposed to be at Windermere for 10.38. If I can walk from there to Bowness in half an hour, and it’s downhill all the way, I can catch the Windermere Steamer to Waterhead at 11.10. For once I can be very specific: I last travelled on the Windermere Steamer in August 1975, which is enough of a gap to call it ‘new’. The drawback with this is, first of all, the walk to Bowness, under the self-set pressure of working to a deadline, and then the arrival at Waterhead with – unless I am incredibly lucky with a bus – a mile’s walk from there to Ambleside. And what do I do then? Unfortunately, weather or not, option three looks like being a non-starter on medical grounds. Unexpectedly, I started a headache at work on Wednesday that is proving resistant to dispersal. To my great disgust, it incorporates an element of light-headedness when I’m upright, making me feel that my head is not quite in the same plane as the rest of me: Not strictly conducive to marches downhill against the clock.
I leave excessive time to get to the Station: psychologically I have to. The alarm is set for 6.30am, though I awake an hour before that. Shower and dress and walk to the bus stop (eight minutes) to catch a 7.15am bus to Piccadilly (thirty minutes) for a train that leaves at 8.48 am. I’m not crazy: the bus has form for interference. There’s a paucity of passengers on the Reddish leg and a plethora through Gorton. I arrive at Poiccadilly Station with seventy minutes to spare: W.H.Smith’s isn’t even open yet. Excess, excess, toujours l’excess! I get food and drink and sit down to read and wait.
I don’t really stop being twitchy until the train arrives. I’m fast enough to claim a table seat, facing forwards, in anticipation of the first views. Unlike the past few days of early morning clear skies greying out to varying degrees of rain, this one’s started dull and is turning sunbright, with a touch of gold in the air more suggestive of the first hour after dawn. As Guy Garvey put it, it’s looking like a beautiful day.
It’s an oddly divided beautiful day, however. At Preston the sky westwards, towards the coast, is an even, rich blue but on the other side it’s paler and patchier, knitted up with white clouds, drawing colour out of the sky. That way lies hills, of course.
There’s an irritating woman in the carriage, talking incessantly in an over-emphatic, self-satisfied voice. I’m not the only one who doesn’t like this, and then I’m suddenly annoyed with myself for not remembering my mp3 player until we’re rolling into Lancaster. Music, vigorous, mostly obscure Sixties music envelops me happily.
To tell the truth, the book is not gripping me. I put it away and turn my attention to the window, getting an immediate reward because oh yes indeed it is a beautiful day. A long skyline stretches across the drained sands of Morecambe Bay, an actual, genuine, gorgeous skyline of familiar ridges and shapes: the Old Man and dour Dow Crag, Red Screes above Kirkstone, the Fairfield Horseshoe, and even the tops of the Langdale Pikes. It doesn’t last long before local low rises intervene but it’s all still there, just as it was, and I’m thrilled. Crinkle Crags and Bowfell curve into view.
Clouds scud above them, white bumbles across a narrow band of the sky, decoration not threat. Against this vista, the line of the Howgill Fells, on the other side, doesn’t stand an earthly. Slowing into Oxenholme, there’s a beautiful angle into Kentmere, with Ill Bell prominent, framed by stolid Yoke before and almost imperceptible Froswick behind. All of which decides me: Keswick it is, I want to see all of this that I can.
For a moment, that seems to be in doubt. There’s neither bus stop nor timetable. The Grasmere driver reassures me, and then I see stop and timetable, sawn off at the base, on its back by the wall of Booths. It’s half an hour and lots of milling around before we can get out of Windermere, by which time clouds are attracting one another and the blue bands are narrowing.
Just as the bus pulls out I get the most horrible shock: my former wedding ring is missing! I’ve worn it on my right hand since the Decree Absolute, though it’s slowly getting looser. Though it symbolises nothing but the past, it’s significance to me is immeasureable and I am in shock and almost tears at losing it. I’m desperately combing through both bags in the vain hope it’s dropped in there, and then something else drops, and I claw through my constricted jeans pocket and find it. The relief is incredible: to me it is literally priceless. It slides into my finger again. It will be a very long time before I take its presence for granted again.
Once the shock has subsided I can concentrate on Mountains, valleys and Lakes: all familiar, no new sights or surprises, just recognition. Familiarity does not breed comtempt, not here, not ever. These skylines, these flanks, lovely little Rydal with its ever-widening outflow, are encoded in me like a string of DNA. Everywhere I look, no matter how near or far, I see fells that I have climbed, many more than once. Once climbed, they became part of me. I seized them as I conquered them. I own them, me and millions of others.
North of Dunmail Raise, the sun illuminates everything. Thirlmere gleams from end to end. I will never lose the awe of seeing it so clearly, remembering the Sixties and beyond when the only way you even knew that was a Lake there was because your parents had told you. Blencathra looks magnificent, even by Blencathra’s standards, the old cloud-magnet Skiddaw has his head in the free air, though dark-shadowed, and we drop into the Vale of Keswick with Bassenthwaite Lake a flat, silver-steel expanse straight ahead and Derwent Water sunny and lit.
Keswick is full of people. Well, it is a Saturday, the weather is good and we have been released on our own recognizance. Passing the bookshop, I spot the long-awaited Terry Abrahams: Life of a Mountain: Helvellyn, not long since out. But plans to eat at the Oddfellows Arms were clearly delusional. Everywhere has long queues and nowhere free to sit. So I amble towards Hope Park, the miniature Golf, the Crazy Golf, not that I’m going to play, but I scoff that ice cream I promised a friend I was going to eat at Easter, to cheer me up, and if you ever read this, Liz, here’s to you.
But I’m restless, very restless. This isn’t to do with Keswick being ‘wick wi’ foak’ but rather a feeling of not wanting to confine myself to one place. So I ankle back to the Bus Station in time to catch my breath before I catch the 555 back to Grasmere. Climbing out of the town the roles are reversed: now it is Bass Lake that sits blue and Derwent Water that is grey.
Grasmere isn’t exactly empty but it’s a lot easier to cope with than Keswick. Then again I don’t wander far, barely off the Village Green: for the loo, for Sam Read’s Bookshop and the Heaton Cooper Studio, which still has too many lovely prints for the wallspace I have. The next bus is not supposed to be due until 3.30pm but I hop onto a Grasmere Sightseer and take myself upstairs to enjoy the open top section, and the 555 goes past whilst I’m on the bus anyway.
Year by year it’s getting harder to see the mouth of Ambleside Cave – called Rydal Cave on the announcement tape – as the fringe of trees below that section of Loughrigg Terrace reach for the heavens. Back in Ambleside, it’s sunny once more. In Fred’s Bookshop they’re playing Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues. They are just one more place to have copies of the first volume of Lakeland Views. If nothing else, you’ve got to admire the author for publishing a hand-written, hand-drawn book devoted to the Lakeland Fells, but judging by the cover that is really all you can admire.
I solve my hot food urges with a burger from the Old Smithy chippy that takes so long to cook that I can only assume that they’ve had to slaughter a new cow to get the meat. It arrives neither particularly hot nor with any particular taste. Eating it leaves me with the best part of three hours to kill before my train at Windermere, so I stroll down to Loughrigg Park. Much of it is now covered with playground contraptions, themselves covered in children, so I settle down, drop the headphones into place again and try to look as if I am not looking at the young children but rather at their mothers (which I am, one or two in particular).
With an irony that I cannot help but appreciate, I return to Windermere Station with exactly the same excessive lead time I manufactured for myself at Piccadilly. Having so much time in hand, I wander down into Windermere Vilage, to see if there’s somewhere I can get something to eat without having to queue for a galactic eon, but of course this means I have gone mad. Normally, I’d have dived into Booths for coffee and cake but their cafe is still closed. I only just make it back there to reach the loos before that too becomes out of bounds.
If you’ve followed this so far you will surely be asking yourself, what have I been doing? Well, nothing really. I’ve been being, not doing, and being in as many places as I could, touching bases, refreshing connections. Everything’s still here and still in it’s place and there’s still room in all that for me, and that is what I have been doing.
Precisely at 6.00pm it starts to rain and I bolt inside the Station. It’s still sunny, and it’s isolated drops but they’re big isolated drops.
Forty dull minutes later and fifteen minutes before it’s due to depart, the train arrives. I spring aboard the last carriage, the one that will be nearest to the exit at Piccadilly, and secure myself a table seat again. I’m ready for home, to switch on the laptop for the first time that day, check that the rest of the world is still there. Bring in a Chinese takeaway tea., yes, I’d be up for that. Chicken in lemon sauce, fried rice and prawn crackers.
For some fucking annoying reason we sit and wait and wait and wait at Preston, exactly as we did this morning. I rapidly get sick of the high-pitched beeping signalling that the train doors are closing preparatory to setting off and we just sit there. I’m getting tired by now, fifteen straight hours on the go, and my ears are getting sore too, so I take off the headphones and then discover it’s from wearing my facemask for thirteen and a half hours solid, and there goes the beeping for about the dozenth time and CAN WE GO, PLEASE?
And eventually we do. Piccadilly Station. The 203 bus. Realising that the Takeaway’s out because by the time it’s cooked and I’ve got it home it’s too bloody late for me to eat something like that without the near certainty of acid reflux. Tired, achey, legs, hips, back, arms, shoulders sore.
The relaxation of lockdown conditions opens up a number of possibilities for the stir-crazy, including the ability to get on a train and go somewhere for no more reason than to come back again. I have been having a play on British Rail’s Journey Planner, looking at prices and timetables and things that are clearly affordable. Days out to places like Stafford or Lancaster. I could do York for just over £30 or London for £94… well, maybe not that. Then there’s the obvious destinations: Windermere for £16.20 on two singles, Penrith on the same basis for only £18.60 if I set off from Piccadilly at 06.26am (and £25.40 if I wait till 8.00am). To put it plainly, I have options. In the past fourteen months I have only once gone further than Manchester City Centre. Anywhere that is not Manchester City Centre, or more confiningly Stockport, suddenly takes on a massive appeal. Just to be somewhere else, see something else. Especially if it happens to be a Lake, and mountains. Naturally, the major question is, should !? I haven’t gone through the past year in complete safety without being sensible from day zero. Before I take off to look at the grass on the other side of the fence, I should wait and see the impact of the new conditions. Knowing the lot out there, stupidity is going to play an important part in the reaction to even limited relaxation of the rules. I’m expecting infections to go up again. And given that I have my second COVID-19 vaccination booked for Saturday coming, it’s going to be the 24th before I could even consider going anywhere. Time enough…
I haven’t written about the Lake District for a long time. Though there are quite a few walks I’ve never written about, the peg on which to hang a post hasn’t been there. I’d feel as if I were writing for the sake of writing. But a recent post by George Kitching on his continually excellent site (http://www.lakelandwalkingtales.co.uk/secrets-of-the-wastwater-screes/), evoked a few memories for me, going back a very long way indeed. I have told this story before, but not in as much detail as I will now. It’s as obvious as can be that I inherited my love of the Lakes, and of the fells. But in one way, I differed very greatly from the rest of the family. They – and I have reason to differentiate my Dad from this – were wedded to only one section of the Lakes. Apart from the near-statutory rainy-day visit to Keswick, no-one wanted to venture outside the arc from Ambleside (or Grasmere at a push) to Wasdale. I exempt Dad from this accusation of narrow-mindedness because he got us round as far as Buttermere, and to the top of Haystacks. But after his death, the only time we stepped outside the closed circuit, it caused ructions massive enough to have me swearing off family holidays in future inside the first 24 hours. Once I started going up alone, I had a glorious time going wherever I chose, leading eventually to completing the Wainwrights. It’s safe to say that I loved all the Lake District, all the fells, the valleys, the Lakes and Tarns. But it’s not entirely right to say that I love everywhere in the Lake District. Some places are less ‘lovable’ than others – Mungrisedale Common, I am thinking of you – but there isn’t really anywhere I actively do not like. With the possible exception of Burnmoor Tarn. I have visited the Tarn on four occasions throughout my life. To me, it’s a dull, boring, colourless stretch of flat water, set in the unpropitious surroundings of tedious grass slopes of no interest whatsoever. I don’t care that one of those slopes in Scafell, it is Scafell’s least interesting and totally unphotogenic side. It all goes back a very long way. Not before 1966, when I was first laced protestingly into a pair of walking boots, nor after 1968, when we reached our first summit. Somewhere between those two times, probably sooner rather than later. We decided to walk to Burnmoor Tarn, from Eskdale. Don’t ask me why, not even when I was in my late teens did I get consulted on our destination for the day. It would have simply been chosen as a destination within our early capacities, and especially those of my younger sister, who was four in July 1966. Couldn’t be too far, couldn’t be too steep. Burnmoor Tarn, out of Boot in Eskdale, looked perfect in that respect. I’ve been trying to remember whether we approached the walk by driving to Eskdale and parking at Dalegarth Station, or if we decided to fit it in as an informal Walk from Ratty, between trains from Ravenglass. Either way, it was a bit of a grey day, not that we expected that to be a difficulty since we weren’t going to be getting up to any great heights. We walked to Boot to start the walk, crossing the bridge over the Whillan Beck, and taking the steep, slanting path raking across the fellside ahead, from left to right. I remember the steepness most of all. I was still in that stage of whining whenever I was asked to walk uphill. I also can’t keep contrasting my attitude with the next time we crossed the bridge to go walking on that low flank of Eskdale, when we took the path straight up the fellside, onto the Boat How ridge, but not only was I a lot more enthusiastic by then, that was one of the very rare occasions when I had had some influence on where we were going for the day (don’t ask me how!) Up and up, on a narrow path on which we had to walk single file, Dad and Uncle Arthur in the van, Mam at the rear keeping an eye on my little sister and me in the middle where I could cause the least disruption. I’ve never taken that path since, though the year before last, when I took my Ravenglass Expedition, I slowly walked up the road on the other side of the Whillan Beck, into sight of the lip of the low, flat saddle of Burn Moor. So my memory is prompted, externally, of reaching the edge of the flatter land at last, the narrow confines ending, the route spreading out before us…
This was where all the real problems started. At some point, and I can’t remember whether this was in the valley or once we’d come off the steep ascent, it started to grey over, and a wind started to blow up. I remember struggling into something out of the lonesome wild, but that might very likely be a slightly later recollection as we shall see. The path was clear underfoot, so we set off towards the nearest horizon, a very low green ridge not far ahead. Beyond it was a dip, a shallow, indeed micro-valley across the way. We descended and ascended the far side, to find another, almost identical micro-valley. And on its further side, another. What we didn’t know was that we were entering into our own, private, family hell. We had none of us been to Burnmoor Tarn before and had no idea how far it was. With the sky growing increasingly grey above, and the threat of rain growing increasingly inevitable, spirits were lowering all the more every time we crested a rise, only to see yet another dip-and-rise before us. Dad began encouraging us. Come on, it’s only over the next rise. Come on, it’s only over the next rise. The years exaggerate the experience but it must have been close on a dozen times, and everybody’s belief and patience eroded into nothingness, before we finally topped one more identical rise and saw the wide, cold, pale, spreading sheet of water below us. It was not an adequate regard for our patience, having nothing of the pleasant to look at. And as for Scafell, only a low tranche of its green and empty slopes was visible before our eyes were lifted to the base of the cloud. I won’t say that there was a spring in our step now we’d finally arrived, nor that our pace increased as we descended to the tarn shore. The setting was best described as bleak. I can’t remember if I’d been introduced to the word bleak by this time, but I intuited bleak. The final straw was the great moment in which insult was added to injury. We were less than fifteen yards from the shore of the Tarn when it started to rain. And rain with a degree of effort. This was particularly personal to me because I wore glasses, even then. There was a scramble to get into waterproofs, with Mam helping first my sister, then me, because these were never easy things to put on over anoraks and walking boots, but eventually we were proofed against the rain. Without discussion, a quick consensus was formed that we would not hang around. We about-faced… and headed back towards Eskdale. Up a low ridge, across a micro-valley, up a low ridge, ad nauseam. Eventually, a long time later, with nobody doing any talking, especially me, because my Dad had a quick (but forgivably brief) temper and anything I said would have a deleterious effect, until at long last we reached the edge of Burnmoor and started downhill again, to Ratty or to Uncle Arthur’s car. I can remember the odd personal disappointment more intense than that afternoon but not a worse experience overall. Like I say, I’m prejudiced against Burnmoor Tarn. I think you can understand why. If that were the end of it, that would be fine by me, but unfortunately I have three other, widely-separated encounters to report. Two of these were of my own sole making, but would you believe that, after that horrible time, my family took us back there?
It was a different time, and a different day in all respects and, but for my resentful memories of the sodding place, it might have been a decent walk. This was in the early Seventies, after Dad had left us, and we continued on our twice-yearly Lakes holidays, just the four of us, my mother and my Uncle in joint command and even less prospect of seeing somewhere out of their circumscribed arc. I think this was a Friday afternoon, I’m almost certain of it, a last day before going home from which self-catering cottage we’d booked that time. It was a sunny day, and because we hadn’t been there yet that week, we had to go to Wasdale, Wastwater and Great Gable. It was sunny, a bright day, and it might even have been hot. Of all the walks we might have done out of Wasdale Head, the grown-ups selected… the Wasdale Corpse Road to Burnmoor Tarn. Oh deep and abiding joy. Maybe it was just too hot and, in the valley, stuffy, to countenance anything further or more strenuous. Or maybe it was just so hot it addled their brains. But we parked at the head of the Lake, rounded it towards Illgill Head and the track along the foot of the Screes, and when the Corpse road diverted off it, we turned uphill. Like the other end, there was an initial steep ascent, though I can’t remember which was worse. It was slow going for all of us, which didn’t matter that much because we didn’t have anything like as far to go. And the views were clear and sharp and, once we were above the valley floor, we were at a height when the mountains ringing the valley head looked massive, monumental and mammoth. For that alone the walk was justified, though none of the photos I took captured even a fraction of that dimension. Soon enough, we reached the lip of land at the top end of Burn Moor. There was the Tarn again, still and silver, in its shallow bowl. Sun burned down on it, but though the ground around it was green and not grey, it still had nothing that appealed to me. In an excess of energy, I strode out on the low, easy descent, first to the water’s edge by a good hundred yards at least. There was still nothing to do, and nothing to look at, not even anything to sit down on. Burnmoor Tarn just isn’t a place to go to, it’s a place to go past, preferably without stopping, on the way to somewhere better. The next time I saw Burnmoor Tarn, apart from the rare glimpse of it you can get in views, such as from the summit ridge of Yewbarrow, the Tarn being as shy in that respect as Floutern Tarn, was in the Eighties. It was a bit of an odd walk: by the time I started going to the Lakes on my own, every walk had the destination of at least one summit, but on this occasion, I’d set off to reach Miterdale Head. We’d been there once as a family, but I loved that secluded little valley and wanted to visit it again, with that perfect little bowl, the rim of crags surrounding the hidden head. What I was doing, aiming so low, I have no idea: the weather was good enough to exclude the possibility that walking had only been possible in the afternoon, limiting my ability to ascend to the heights, any heights. By then, I was much more familiar with Wainwright than I’d been. I knew of his comments of how geography had clearly intended Burnmoor Tarn to drain away into Miterdale, but for a low bar of land, no more than twenty feet or so of uplift, that shifted the Tarn’s outflow to the far end, immediately next to its inflow. I wanted to see that for myself. So I found a weakness in the encircling crags, scrambled up that, hauled myself over the lip and walked forward a dozen or so feet, and there it was. Good old, dull old Burnmoor, no different, except for the tantalising prospect of maybe some day the water finding a channel to here, creating a fine waterfall, dropping gracefully into the valley.
Three out of four. Another time, I decided it was time I climbed Illgill Head. before I’d declared myself out of the family’s holidays, we had climbed Whin Rigg, from the foot of Wastwater, but gone no more than a token distance further towards its partner. Obviously, I should make both into a single expedition and, given my love for Miterdale, I planned to begin and end the walk there, climbing through the trees onto the ridge above Irton Pike, following the spine of the Screes over Whin Rigg, and descending from Illgill Head to sweep round and down, and back through Miterdale. Things went well to begin with. I parker in Miterdale, walked back to the base of the path in the woods, set off uphill. The climbing was never strenuous, but the drawback was walking in woods. I had no sense of what progress I was making, and no views around me to enjoy. When I eventually reached the ridge, and encountered a wind that I had been sheltered from thus far, I also found that the sky had gone very grey. There was cloud across Nether Wasdale, a ceiling sweeping up the far side of the Lake, that I anticipated seeing when I turned right and started uphill towards my first target. I was not wrong. Beyond the great gash of Greathaw Gill (check?), I could see the grey cloud across my path. I walked cautiously under it, feeling the air go cold around me. I kept going, without any haste. After a while, in sight of a small outcrop, no more than twenty feet away, I squatted beside the path, prepared to give it chance to blow out. I sat there, huddled, for about fifteen minutes before admitting it would not blow itself out anytime soon if I just sat there, so I rose to my feet, walked up to the nearby outcrop – and discovered it was the bloody summit! I didn’t wait there long but descended the other side, making very sure I wasn’t getting too close to anything that might represent an uncontrolled descent to the Screes. Before long, I was on the broad back of the ridge, and staying in the middle. This was because the cloudbase was round about at the same height as me. The way ahead would become clearer for a time, then dissolve into greyness. Call me a coward, but I was going nowhere near any precipitate edges unless I could see very clearly all around me and especially under my feet. The path down the back of the ridge was clear and unmissable, I followed it onto the back of Illgill Head and up into the full cloud again, until i reached the summit. There was nothing to see, except in one quickly-passing moment when the cloud swirled away, leaving a clear view down into Wasdale Head, and the foot of Great Gable. Five seconds, no more, enough to tantalise with a view worth seeing. I’d gotten this far and I wasn’t going to turn round and go back over trodden ground, even though the route off Illgill Head wasn’t all that distinct. Given the shape of the fell, what risk could I be running even if I got off the path? And once I got below the cloud level, even any residual concerns along that line were dispelled. It was just a flat downhill trudge, under dark clouds, through dingy air. Of course, I was heading down towards Burnmoor Tarn, and this time I was seeing it from practically above, so that all its expanse lay below me. And no, it didn’t look any better than it had on any of the few occasions I had been anywhere near it. The descent lay to the north-west of the Tarn. It would join to the Corpse Road on its descent from the saddle into Wasdale Head, turn right to go across the joint head and foot of the Tarn, and I could see the track leading away from that, along the south-east side of the Tarn, towards the Miterdale edge. In short, it was asking me to walk round three sides of this bloody big, bloody boring Tarn. Not even in the best of conditions could you get me to do that. So I cut off the path to my right, across the blunt prow of the fell, on a gentle downwards trajectory, leaving Burnmoor Tarn to my left. It wasn’t an interesting walk, except as an exercise in avoidance: there were no paths, the ground was tussocky, it was at least twice as far as it looked like being on the ground, and if the rain had started in and my vision been impaired, it could have been sticky, but a long while later, I had left Burnmoor Tarn behind – for the last time to date – and was making for the slightly tricky because currently slippery descent into Miterdale Head from above. All that remained was the long walk down Miterdale to where I had parked my car. Years after that, I returned with my unexpected delight of a family, leading them to Miterdale Head, but not above to show them Burnmoor Tarn because the scramble was just a bit too much for them, and I wasn’t going to leave them. So this is my history with Burnmoor Tarn, and the reasons why I don’t love it as I love nearly all the rest of the Lake District. Our first visit burned into me a dislike for the spot and any effort to get to it that has remained strong and forceful for over half a century, and Burnmoor’s lack of the least attractive or even semi-photogenic feature seals a determination to never waste precious time on it again. There are so many better places in the Lakes to go to, even in distant memory.
I haven’t previously written of the High Stile Range as a Great Walk because, although it undoubtedly is, my experience of it was in large part a frustration. Not wholly: there was much that was good and the start and the end of the walk, but when the main fell, the highest peak, is covered with cloud during the part of the walk where you’re crossing it, you can’t really call it a success.
The High Stile Range is three high peaks in a dead straight line of under two miles, between Buttermere on the rocky, impressive, challenging north-east and Ennerdale on the dull, grassy, featureless south-west. Most walks tackle the ridge from Buttermere, for reasons that will be immediately obvious to anyone who sees the Range from that side: you don’t even need to view the Ennerdale flank to make a decision.
Those of us who hate to cross trodden ground during a walk find ridges like this a bit difficult. There is no Horseshoe element whatsoever, or if there is it’s one that’s been straightened out by Desperate Dan. You have to gain the heights at one end and drop down off the other and find some reasonable way of connecting the walk-foot at each end.
Fortunately, this is not an insuperable problem with the High Stile Range.
The day began with the usual engine-stressing, brake-busting crossing of Newlands Hause. Parking at the Village end of Buttermere is at even more of a premium than the Gatesgarth end, and I took refuge in a small roadside quarry a quarter mile or so before the Village, where, if I recall correctly, I still had to pay for a day’s parking.
At either end, the ridge is across the valley from the road, and there is a long, flat, green walk to the base of the Range, rising steeply from the edge of the lake. At the Village end, the path across the fields is narrow and bounded. It felt like a long way to go just to get to the bottom of the walk, especially as I was eyeing cautiously the cloud level, sweeping about at just below the top of High Raise.
I’ve done this before, setting off for a walk that might take me under cloud cover, anxiously raising my eyes but ploughing on determinedly, daring the cloud to still be there when I get up with it. Helvellyn, that time I went round by Sticks Pass, Raise and White Side, ending up sitting in a wind-shelter too crowded to get into the lea side, watching people arrive out of the cloud at least every thirty seconds. A first attempt at the Coledale Horseshoe, having driven up Friday night during the 1994 World Cup, and having to descend to Coledale Hause after feeling my way to Hopegill Head, the water droplets catching in my beard. Bowfell the first time, via Rossett Gill, Rossett Pike and Ore Gap, nearly coming to grief on Bowfell Links when we lost the path down. I should know better by now, or then, but I pressed on.
The walk didn’t really begin until we reached the further lake shore, and then the lines of walkers turned towards the head of the valley, until a gate at the foot of a long, diagonal path. And it was through the gate and up, up and up, single file, through the woods on a long, narrow route that kept to the same gradient and never ended, left, right, left, right, nowhere to turn aside and take a break without holding up a continual procession behind.
That’s exactly what it was like, a procession going up the stairs. I’ve never had an experience like it on the fells, before or since.
Not until the route emerged from the woods did the way widen to enable people to settle to their own pace. And after a short section directly up the broad fellside, the way turned right, and we could enjoy an extended level section, dashing or strolling, all across the face of the fell, below Bleaberry Cove, on rock. I couldn’t resist the urge to stride out and overtake a lot of the stair-climbers who had preceded me, whilst allowing the younger and fitter to burst past me.
The openness and the levelness was like a rush of fresh air, especially after the confines of the woods. I have never liked not being able to see where I am in height at any time on a climb.
At the far end of this extended terrace was the confused and tumbling outflow of Bleaberry Tarn, white water to hop across to gain the far bank and turn back uphill, scrambling into the lip of the cove, the tarn bright under a heavy sky, and High Stile’s buttresses beyond it.
The cloud was still hovering, this time around the top of Red Pike, my first destination. The path moved away to the right, onto the saddle separating the Pike from its subsidiary, Dodd. I wondered, on the saddle, about turning towards the latter, but it would be a strenuous day and Dodd was a literally backwards step, a few hundred feet of climbing I would have to repeat when I got back to this point. An actual Wainwright, of course. A subsidiary summit, no.
So I committed to the long, straight ascent towards Red Pike, and to the lowering cloud cover that was making the day grey, and doing the same for my mood. For the first time today, the walking was tedious, and I found wisps beginning to float around me and across me.
Red Pike was almost exactly the same height as the cloud base. I did get a full view, but it was from under a very low roof and through grey air that robbed the panorama of its richness. And as the clouds were unshifting, I had before me the prospect of crossing to High Stile in complete invisibility.
The ground underneath was not too difficult, though the path was far from being as distinct as I would have liked, and the presence to my left of steep and dangerous cliffs had me like a cat on hot bricks all the way to High Stile’s summit cairn. There was nothing to see, not through the swirling grey. I had Wainwright’s word for it that the supreme viewpoint was down the slope towards the lake, at the end of a rocky nose.
I went in that direction with ultra-caution as to what might lie beneath my feet or, rather, what might suddenly not lie beneath my feet. This viewpoint was lower than the summit, maybe it might, just, peep beneath the cloud, but as ever my optimism was merely hopeful. For a moment only, a swirl of wind blew away the screen, and I caught sight of the lake and the Village and the deep valleys opposite, but it was literally a moment only, and then the enclosure again.
I made my way back to the summit cairn, collected the rucksack I had, trustingly, left there, and started towards the rough descent to High Crag. It was still a bit nervy: I do not like cloud on the tops. But I came out below the cloud level, the ridge started to narrow, and then I was walking the narrow path along the top of Burtness Comb, and behind me the cloud had burned out and it was all sun and afternoon glory, and I was alone on this narrow, level ridge, with steepness on both sides, and behind me High Stile bare, proud and clean of cloud.
Not that I was going to turn round and add that extra climbing to my day. There’s a psychological dimension to descending from a summit, and I have found that once I have gotten more than a token distance from the top, steps retraced are heavy and draining. Onwards, ever onwards, not backwards. Though I regret not summoning that extra energy now, and going back for the view that now was unobstructed.
I was now above Burtness Comb, on a flat ridge that felt as narrow as a rail, and the sun was now burning down on my exposed position. It was one of those crossings that felt endless, with little change in the scenery to suggest I was getting much further forward, High Crag not seeming to loom at all, and care required in view of the lack of width.
But at last I reached the third fell, and made the short climb to its little top, bare of summit furniture on which to sit.
With nothing to wait for, and the sun slowly dehydrating me, I set off down the unremittingly steep ridge towards Scarth Gap. This was a strain on the knees throughout, and I quickly made a mental resolution that when I came back to the High Stile Range, I would not reverse the order of ascent. This ridge was not merely steep, but well-scraped, and hard underfoot.
By the time I got down the worst of it, to the base of Seat, the soles of my feet were burning. I had the option of the easy route, bypassing this long, subsidiary upthrust to the south, and joining the Pass lower down but, purist that I am, insisted to myself on crossing it along the ridge, before finally reaching Scarth Gap.
This made the third time I had dropped down off that particular Pass, to the Buttermere valley, but this time there was the matter of returning to the Village, not Gatesgarth. However, rather than the road, I had left myself the lakeshore path, which was cool, and quiet, and level, and uncrowded. There was no need for hurry, and the presence of the Lake lifted the spirit of my feet, even if I couldn’t physically plunge them in it for cooling.
In the end, I met the gate where the diagonal stair debouched onto the route, and not too much further was the turn across the valley to the Village, and the little quarry car park where I could relieve myself of my boots and transfer to soft-soled trainers for the drive over Honister and back to Borrowdale.
Given my current status of fitness, not to mention the stability of my right knee, I’m reliant now on my memory for the kind of long, peak-heavy walk I used to organise for the last walking day of my twice-annual holidays. When it came to peak-bagging, the Fairfield Horseshoe was one of my best tallies, eight summits in the course of a day, but that didn’t set my record. There was one walk on which I went one better, visiting nine summits in a single walk that was better than I’d originally planned. And a walk that had at least a claim to being semi-original.
By that I mean that it doesn’t appear anywhere in the Wainwrights as a recognised walk, unlike the Fairfield Horseshow or the Mosedale Horseshoe. It is a horseshoe, of its kind, but when I came up with it myself, from a study of the Far Eastern Fells, I actually called it the Hayeswater Round.
It was an obvious piece of design and I calculated that I could reach eight tops, none of which I had previously climbed, starting and finishing at the village of Hartsop, tucked away in its little valley off the side of Patterdale. And, in keeping with my basic instinct about such things, I proposed to walk anti-clockwise.
This meant starting off by scaling Gray Crag, a narrow, steep-sided, steep-nosed fell at the end of a flat-topped ridge emanating from Thornthwaite Crag.
The direct assault on Gray Crag from Hartsop was steep and long. This kind of ascent did not seem the most sensible for the start of such an ambitious day, and especially one that promised to be very sunny, so after studying the relevant chapter, I decided to approach the ridge a little more obliquely. This meant leaving Hartsop by the track to the filter house, crossing the beck there and completing the ascent to the shores of Hayeswater, where the path petered out into nothingness.
The early stages of this were hot and dusty and a bit of a grind, but by the time I was in Hayeswater’s narrow valley, there was fresher air, the grass was sweet underfoot, and the sun sparkling off the water was delightful.
There were no paths on this flank of Gray Crag, so I simply took a sighting on the skyline behind me, at a suitably gentle upwards angle, and set off across the grass, trying always to angle up. Once I gained the prow of the ridge, there was nothing for it but to start the serious climbing, scrambling between outcrops, until the gradient eased and the rest of the ascent was just an uphill stroll.
Gray Crag’s shape is that of a promontory. I had a long, lazy gentle stroll, crossing a disused wall three-quarters of the way along, until the final rise onto the top of Thornthwaite Crag, whose summit lay half right, distinguished by its monumental cairn, Thornthwaite Beacon. This was an ideal spot to take lunch, under the sun, with a gentle breeze and gentle slopes all around, especially when my next top was going to be the highest point of the walk.
From Thornthwaite Crag, it was an easy, mostly flat or very gently graded, grassy walk to High Street, along High Street. I strolled back from the massive cairn, descending into the grassy bowl that lay back from the head of the Hayeswater valley, and onto the whaleback of High Street.
This was the old, the famous Roman Road, high above the world, the place where troops in armour, with red cloaks and leather sandals, had once marched, from Ambleside to Penrith. This is the place where the walker of imagination, with romance and history in their souls, can close their eyes and hear the jingle of metal, the creak of leather, the murmur and tramp of the Legions, out above the world.
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t conjure them into my mind, to trick my eyes and ears. It was just me, curiously alone, on a broad path that leveled out below the summit, by-passed it on the west by some distance, that I had to leave and struggle up featureless grass to the broad, flat top. The Legions would not come to me in the Twentieth Century.
I had left the Legions behind, and the history that should have swept around me at this point was that of the countryfolk of the valleys, Racecourse Hill and the annual meet of the dales folk, climbing out of their valleys for three days of revels, of conversation, games, racing, courting, trading and all those things we take for granted, but which then was denied by the daily struggle to earn a literal living.
That should have been evocative too, but once again I couldn’t conjure the visions in front of my eyes. It was just a flat, green top, with a cairn on the highest point, and an edge to the panorama that was a long way away all round and revealed nothing of those adjoining valleys and little of the fells beyond.
It ended up being a long walk east from the cairn before I got a glimpse of Haweswater lying deep in the curve of Mardale. Because this was the last lake I got to see, years after first visiting the Lakes, because I had to badger my family into holidaying in a completely different part of the Lakes than usual before they’d even drive out there, because it is remote and distant and it feels as if you have to drive out and back in to even visit Mardale, I’ve always had a fascination for Haweswater above all the other lakes, and it was essential that I see it on this walk. It didn’t look in the least impressive from that angle. I couldn’t even see the distant dam because the valley curved so much.
I decided I didn’t need to return to the summit so angled back to meet the wall just above the surprisingly steep descent to the surprisingly narrow Straits of Riggindale, beyond which it was a long haul up to the summit of Rampsgill Head, with its splendid view of the wide-open, very straight but not particularly interesting valley of Ramps Gill.
My next destination was Kidsty Pike, whose odd, angular peak was not far distant. It was similar to crossing from Swirl How to Great Carrs in the Conistons, except that wainwright had set no time trials on this ridge route. I ticked off Kidsty’s top having really seen little of the best of the fell. I assumed I would one day make a return visit from the valley, on a more entertaining ascent, but though I did that for High Street, and had a brilliant day of it, I never got back to Kidsty.
Technically, like Wandope in the Coledale Horseshoe, this was not part of any geographic Hayeswater Round, but was too close to pass up. However, it was the furthest point of my planned route: except that it was still only early in the afternoon, I had gained a lot of height, and it was only three-quarters of a mile up the ridge to High Raise. This was a fell I needed to claim at some point, but which appeared to be quite a distance away from valley – or more pertinently road – level.
It meant an extra mile and a half I hadn’t budgeted for, but on the other hand I was here, I had the time and it was too convenient to ignore. I tramped north on the continuation of High Street, along an open, empty, rounded ridge, without incident or excitement, until I was level with High Raise’s top and diverted off to the right.
It was, or so I thought at the time, my 100th summit. When I checked my records on returning home, I discovered I had miscounted. No. 100 had gone uncelebrated, back on Kidsty.
Having diverted so far out of my way, I needed to get back on track, so I tramped, with a slight bit of trudge creeping in, back to Rampsgill Head. There was no need to return to its cairn, so I contoured pathlessly across its northern face, aiming to pick up the path for Patterdale, descending from its summit.
This brought me out at the foot of the Knott, and another Wainwright time trial: anyone full of the joys of spring should be able to make it from the wall corner in two minutes, a test I passed, just, though as I was full of the joys of early September, I claim a special exemption.
I still had two more tops on my round, the first of which was Rest Dodd. This is the key to The Nab, deep in the Martindale Deer Forest which was, in those days, firmly out of bounds. I had no plans to make an attempt on the hidden fell from its reasonably innocuous rear, not that day and not after the miles I had covered, though I would come back several years later and collect The Nab.
But on both occasions I quickly found Rest Dodd to be a tedious and draining ascent. Some fells are like that, with no seeming reason. they do not have steeper flanks, or rougher ground, but the walk drags, and the energy is depleted quickly.
This first time, I was dropping down from The Knott’s little top and heading straight across the Patterdale path, downhill in a straight line, to a deep dip in a small dell, with virtually no level ground, just an immediate climb, still following that straight line, to the top of the walls angling across Rest Dodd’s Hayeswater face. Even the short climb up unmarked grass, where the two wall ends form an angle that, for no apparent reason, do not meet, was tiresome, and i spent little time on the summit of Rest Dodd, enough only to study the ground northwards into Martindale, before retreating down the other wall until I regained the Patterdale path.
It had been a long day and a long walk, and I had been under a strong September sun the whole day. I was growing leg-weary and welcomed the gentle gradients of the path as far as Satura Crag. After that, it was a case of leaving the path for the trackless ground to the left and picking Brock Crag’s summit out of the indefinite outcrops on the edge of the valley.
Unfortunately, the day had just been that little bit too long and that little bit too sunlit. The valley wall down towards Hartsop was steep, and the tracks zigzagging exposed to the sun, and I was sudfdenly out of the breeze that had kept everyuthing cool. It was stuffy and unpleasant and I wasn’t more than a third of the way down before I was struck with a blinding headache, a good old-fashioned razor blade across the eyeballs job, which tended to blur my recollection of the final stages.
Of course, I swallowed a couple of tablets the moment I had got my boots off – nothing but nothing precedes removing the boots at the end of a long day in the fells – but it made for an unpleasant drive back to Keswick, with the headache still paining, and my stomach starting to churn, sufficiently so that at one point, exiting the Matterdale valley, I had to pull up and crouch in the verge in the belief that that days sandwiches were making a break for it.
But such misadventures are all part of days in the fells. The inclusion of High Raise may, in retrospect, have been ill-judged, but it took my tally for the day to nine summits, and I have never had some a productive day before or since, and I have never been in a position whereby I could have revisited it. So I regret nothing and remember with glee my own, self-designed, Hayeswater Round.
Back to work today for the first time in half a week, courtesy of something viral that had me feeling extremely light-headed at my desk (and more so when I stood up to let my team manager know how I was).
En route to work, I had to visit the post office to post two outstanding eBay items, long overdue despatch, but there was a lorry blocking the narrow section beside the Redrock development so my bus had to go the long way round and into the Bus Station from the back.
So I walked slowly from my point of disembarkation to the Post Office, and slowly back from there to the Sandwich Pound, and MacColls for my paper and something to drink, and then the Steps out of Mersey Square: 54 of them, my daily grind that, in the five plus years I’ve been working here, I have always done in one, no breaks, no halts, and still do.
And getting to work to discover that one lift is out of commission and the other, whilst supposedly working, is on the ground floor and not responding to any button presses whatsoever. I work on the Fifth Floor. I walked all the way. Five flights. I only needed three stops for breath.
I’m not going into this on the assumption that you’re all inherently fascinated with my every moment and will drink this in like some super-effective energy drink. Events over the weekend had me thinking about screensavers on laptops. I’ve previously used different Rick Geary cartoons as screensavers but on my current, and less than perfect machine, I’ve used a classic photo: Scafell Pike and Ill Crag, rising above Upper Eskdale.
You’ve seen it before: I’ve used it at least twice on this blog. It’s a classic scene, one of my favourites views in the Lakes, something I have seen half a dozen times in the high atmosphere, the long walk in from Eskdale via the Cowcove zigzags.
If you were to transport me this instant to Eskdale, to the mouth of the farm road to Taw House, to the start of that walk in that takes me back to that very spot, with boots on feet and rucksack on back, and to the beginning of the middle morning, 10.00am, a dry, clear, warm day, if you were to give me the freedom to set boot on that route back into the heart of the Scafells, my own heart would swell, with delight, with the air that tastes so very different to anything the streets of Stockport can offer, and I would step out on the way home into the fells.
Or would I?
My exertions this morning, both on the (relatively) flat and on those stairs, suggest an unwelcome conclusion. My short ramble on the lower flanks of Loughrigg Fell, back in 2012 aside, I have not done any fellwalking since the very early days of my marriage. I have been out of the fells for more than a decade, for close on fifteen years. I have known for a very long time that if my fortunes changed, and the chance to return to the Lakes for holidays and weekends was once more available to me, there would need to be a long period of retraining and recovery.
But I was so slow in walking, and even the 54 steps were a trial to ascend. I wanted nothing more than to get to sit down. There is a massive difference between Mersey Square in Stockport and the Cumbrian Fells, and that difference is heartening and warming: I would want to walk in the Lakes and I would want to walk uphill.
Do I have, would I have the energy and the strength to get there? The idea of reaching the Pike itself on a one-off expedition like that is out of the question, but to get far enough to be in sight of the highest fells: am I still physically capable of walking that far?
I’m not feeling at my best today. But I haven’t felt at my best for a very long time. I don’t get enough exercise and I feel weary enough that I don’t do any more exercise. My second Museum trip to London this year is probably the longest sustained walking I’ve done in years, and long before it was over, I was hot and drained, and strolling slowly enough that an arthritic slug could have overtaken me.
Suddenly, I’m starting to wonder whether my exile from the fells is going to be permanent, if I’m going to be fit for nothing more than the Outlying Fells.
One thing’s for certain: my retraining programme is going to have to be at least twice as long as I’d previously thought and it might take me a month to get back above 2,000 feet again. If ever.
I’d been looking forward to tonight’s BBC4 Nature Documentary for half the week, thanks to the official sub-title: Escape to Swallows and Amazons Country. You know my lifelong enthusiasm for Arthur Ransome, and if that were not enough, it’s impossible to do anything with the real landscapes without going to the Lake District, and I’ll watch any TV programme that does that.
Though the Swallows and Amazons books provided a thematic link, in the end the Ransome connection was not much more than a hook to draw together three entirely disparate kinds of waterlands: the natural, glacially-formed Lakes of Cumbria, the man-made, ancient flooded peat-cuttings of the Broads of Norfolk, and the tidal waters of the Orwell Estuary and Hamford Water on the Suffolk/Essex border.
The programme was jointly presented by Dick Strawbridge, engineer, sailor, and occasional presenter on the long-running Coast and naturalist, anthropologist and Coast mainstay, Alice Roberts. Strawbridge evidently drew the long straw, dominating screen-time (he was the only one of the pair to be let loose on the Lakes, more’s the pity) as he pursued the sailcraft, the engineering and the people whilst Roberts brought up the rear, revelling in the countryside and the wildlife.
It was a shame, not because she was far better looking than Strawbridge (who was at least possessed of a moustache of truly Ransome-esque proportions) but because she’s incomparably the better presenter. Strawbridge was all enthusiasm and expostulation, greeting everything as fantastic, but his larger-than-life approach came over as tv puff rather than natural, like ITV commentators desperate to convince you that the bore-all draw you’re watching is the most exciting football match ever played. Roberts, on the other hand, is much quieter and calmer, and less extravagant in her choice of words, yet her genuine love for what she sees and her endless fascination with nature shines through at all times.
Like I said though, the Ransome connection was little more than an excuse. Strawbridge had the Lakes to himself, progressing from sailing on Coniston Water (with one sly, unadvertised shot of the Fairfield Horseshoe from Windermere, a subtle nod to how Ransome’s Lake was an amalgam of the two) to mines in Coppermines Valley, reaching high into the Coniston range.
But there was no pointing out of any places connected to the Swallows and the Amazons, and Pigeon Post, which was directly connected to Coppermines Valley, was only mentioned in passing, without its context being identified.
There was more of a Coot Club theme to the Norfolk Broads section, which taught me things I didn’t know about the landscape, and which had a couple of quotes from Coot Club itself. I have been to the Broads a very long time ago, when I was very young, too young to associate any memories with it. One thing that impressed me was the sheer scale of it, the breadth: I have always seen the landscape in the two Broads books as narrower, more confined than it really is.
But what moved me most was the final section. Not Strawbridge, arriving in Pin Mill, the start of the epic We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, nor his evident belief in the reality of that experience, but Alice Roberts at Hamford Water, the Secret Water, the hidden lagoon, as she called it, a place I’ve never been nor seen before, a place lacking in fame beyond its locality and this equally splendid Ransome book. She, here, was the only one to really relate the landscape to the book that was supposedly the cause of her presence, and for the only time, the programme acquired that additional layer of significance, and seemed to stretch across time to Ransome’s days, to his ‘children’s days.
An interesting hour, though I for one could have done with far more of the landscape and the waters than we got, and certainly less of Dick Strawbridge.
I’d gone away in March, I’d got back into my boots for the first time in nearly a decade, and it hadn’t killed me. Let’s do this again.
I was enjoying myself at my new firm, settling into place. I’d started at a very busy time, too busy basically for anyone to properly speak to me that first week, or rather four days since it ran up to Good Friday. The firm’s principal client was the Housing Corporation and it had £7,000,000 to disburse on various Refurbishment and Newbuild schemes by Housing Associations in the North of England. It had to all be spent by Easter, or the budget for 1983/4 would be cut, and my new colleagues were working every hour God sent to get this done, and a newby who didn’t know the procedures couldn’t take any of the strain from them.
I had no interest in the conventional sun and sea holidays, I had no children restricting my holiday times to school holidays, I was happy to let my colleagues take the prime weeks as long as I got the days here and there for Roses Matches and the Old Trafford Test, and I booked my real holiday for the beginning of September, and went off once more to the Lakes, after the crowds had started to thin.
It was the same as before: set off on Monday for Ambleside, but this time I stayed two nights there, and two nights in Keswick. And from Ambleside on Tuesday, I set off to the Tilberthwaite Valley.
We’d visited once in the Seventies, the post-Dad family, changing into our boots, setting off into the gorge, heading for Tilberthwaite Gill falls. Which were about five minutes away. I can’t help but be amused by it: a complete failure of planning by my Uncle and Mother. Given the number of times I’d read the Wainwrights by then,I was far better prepared than anyone else to plan a walk in new country, but of course I was still part of the ‘children’, which meant that my voice counted for absolutely nothing.
We’d barely begun and here we were, sat around on the banks as if we were stopping for a much deserved drink, nothing to do and nowhere to go, since the gorge stopped there. Having not used up even the least amount of energy, I prowled around, discovered a path under the trees, scaling the flank of the gorge behind us and received official permission to see where it went. I scrambled uphill, under the trees, to where it debouched onto a wide, well-made track rising from right to left, just inviting exploration.
I descended, reported my discovery and, with a certain degree of resignation among the adults that seemed to be based on this being my idea and not their’s, led them up into the open air and along the track. Not far ahead, it would round to the right, into a shallow, upland valley, walled off by a green ridge at its further end.
The path – an old miner’s track to their mines – was beautifully graded. It skirted the edge of the valley to the old, abandoned mines, at the valley end, and we followed the track as it continued upwards, to the ridge, with Wetherlam rising majestically to the left.
I was all in favour of going for it. We hadn’t expended that much energy getting here, and we had ample time, but the adults were not in favour (I had gotten too much leeway today as it was). So we walked back, following the miner’s track all the way down, then round to the car parked at the foot of the Gill.
I walked ahead, all the way, separated from the rest of the family. I had begun to do that since my Peak Forest Canal sponsored walk in 1972. I didn’t go too far distant, but I was fitter and a faster walker than the rest, and I suppose that subconsciously I was demonstrating how I was continually straining at the leash.
As a family, we never went back to Tilberthwaite but I remembered the miner’s route and kept it in mind, and now I was in charge, it seemed a perfect opportunity to follow my interest, and not to stop at the foot of the ridge again. It was a sunny day, unlike my two expeditions in March, and after sweating a bit to get up the first climb out of Tilberthwaite – these miners really walked to work this way every morning? Cor! – I got into the upper valley and made good time round its rim and onto the ridge.
With the exception of my brief, rocket-fueled powering up Helvellyn from Striding Edge, Wetherlam Edge was the roughest thing I’d tackled thus far. It was a broken route, without a consistent path, and sometimes it took me to the literal edge. I was tense all the way, worrying about getting into a position from which I couldn’t retreat, but I negotiated my way to the summit, with its impressive views over towards the Scafells, and I had reached my first substantial, serious top on my own.
But it was the same as Helm Crag in the March: now I was here, what did I do next? Once again I hadn’t thought further than the summit I’d set out to attain and it was still far too early that day to just turn back and head for my car. It certainly wasn’t going to rain that afternoon.
So, because it was still early, not even 1.00pm, I ploughed on to the next obvious destination, Swirl How, across Swirl Hause. This meant facing the Prison Band or rather, at this early stage in my career, taking the path avoiding the crest and the scramble, to its right, until I was on the summit. I had completed my first ridge route, I had climbed two fells in the same day for the first time ever!
And from Swirl How’s summit, the ridge curved around the head of Greendale, to nearby Great Carrs, whose summit cairn was entirely too near for me to ignore it. A seven minute stroll, Wainwright called it, which was a challenge worth taking up. I didn’t exactly saunter, in fact I strode out enthusiastically rather than stroll, and I was at the cairn in exactly seven minutes.
Then it was another case of what next? Grey Friar was in sight, it was still only 2.30pm, what was to stop me? It was a consciousness of my inexperience, not in the sense of potential lack of competence, but a genuine lack of any understanding of my stamina. I could go on, but at what point was I going to start to flag? Thanks to my lack of foresight, every step forward was carrying me further away from my car, would be a step back I had to cover when I reach the limits of my stamina.
Reluctantly, because it was still a lovely afternoon, sunny and bright and hours of it to come, I turned back. Back round Greendale head to Swirl How – definitely not a seven minutes stroll that way – down beside the Prison Band and a somewhat wearing scramble back onto and towards Wetherlam.
The ascent of Wetherlam Edge had left me eager to avoid it on the way back, and the chance came when I was on the ridge, still climbing towards the summit. Grassy flanks opened up to my right, pathless but inviting. No need to climb any higher, I could detour across this flank, work my way onto the Lad Stones ridge, down towards the valley and, lower down, when the ridge began to bend west towards Coniston, and the path from Coppermines Valley to Tilberthwaite was visible in open country, I could divert eastwards to pick it up.
There were a couple of walkers camped on the path. It seemed churlish to aim to avoid them, though they were a pair of middle-aged women who’d stopped for a brew. And my inexperience had shown in my having carried insufficient liquid that I was dry and parched. Kindly, they poured out for me a cup of tea, though the milk was heading rapidly towards the turn and little bits of it floated in the cup, which made me feel a bit ill (which I tried to both ignore and not show).
And then it was the final leg, descending into Tilberthwaite Gorge, steeply beside the invisible falls, and out into the car park, approaching my car from the opposite side to that I had left six hours or so previously.
The next day, I moved on to Keswick, using the day to relax and move about. For some absurd reason that I wouldn’t grow out of for another couple of years, I had the impression that I wasn’t fit enough to go walking more than every other day, so I had no plans to do any more walking until Thursday.
As I’ve mentioned many times, my family was rooted in the southwest quarter of Lakeland, the Southern and WesternFells, with an expedition into the Central Fells, and I had dragged us into the Eastern and Far Eastern Fells on that final holiday near Ullswater. But none of us had done any walking in the North Western Fells, and Wainwright’s obvious love of that region had attracted my attention a hundred times when I had been reading the books.
Now was the time to break that duck, beginning with the attractive oddity of Causey Pike.
It looked seriously steep as I approached it from the road across the valley, parked in a corner of the road that didn’t obstruct anyone’s way. I was tossing over in my mind how to proceed, right up to the foot of the fell: did I take the narrow, exciting route over Rowling End, or did I play safe and take the boring, steady route to the base of the fell? Well, duh!
It was Rowling End, then a steep ascent, although I did bottle out on the short scramble over the final few feet of rock just below the cairn (this first time). And here I was.
And there was Scar Crags, further back, higher, much less distinctive, mind, so I set off in that direction. By the time I reached its whaleback top, the clouds were gathering and rain was no longer merely an option, so I passed straight on, there being nothing to detain me on the top, not even a decent cairn.
Down to the col and, the conditions being what they were, turning down on the right, into the narrow valley that would lead me back to the road and the car. Except that it didn’t come on to rain that quickly. It grew dim and grey, and there was a parallel ridge that wasn’t all that high above the valley, so I crossed over, across the damp, green-looking bed of what must once have been a tarn, and contoured my way awkwardly up to the top of Outerside.
I was now on a roll, down Outerside’s steep, long southern ridge, by-passing Stile End – it did not count as a Wainwright – and up to the top of Barrow: only two days and I had already exceeded my record number of fells in a single day. I had also, more by luck than good judgement, found the kind of walk I would specialise in in future. I had ascended by one ridge and descended by another, minimising to the point of almost obliteration, the ground I had to tread twice in a day (hence my use of the term ‘trodden ground’ for that part of the walk I had to tackle twice).
There being no direct way down from Barrow towards my car, I retreated to the col below Stile End and took the diagonal path heading back up the gill that would merge, further up, with the path descending it. Just where the two met, the heavens opened. I sat down and pulled on my waterproofs, and then walked back down the gill to the car.
Seven summits in two walks, but more importantly I had begun to accustom myself to the fells. To longer walks with more tops than my family had ever planned, to forward planning, so that I could arrange my walks to avoid repeating or retreading my steps. To realising that I didn’t need company on the fells, that solitude and autonomy were brilliant, and that I wasn’t maybe a liability to myself after all, who had to have someone around to tell me where to walk and get me out of the problems I’d inevitably stumble over if I was left to take responsibility for my clumsy, useless self.
I was already addicted to the fells. It hadn’t quite come to me that I could go on and climb all of them. The desire had been there, in every page of every Wainwright that I’d read and re-read, over and over. I needed to start to believe in my capacity for doing so. March had seen me get into my boots again, but September had start to build my never sturdy confidence that I could physically do it. The road to anywhere starts with a single step, but getting there requires understanding that you can indeed put one walking boot in front of another enough times to get to the end, and I was already looking forward to next year, and more places I’d never been, more paths I’d never followed, and more views that I would reach under my own steam.
The channge meant never going back to Throstlegarth from Brotherilkeld, or Goatswater from Torver again. It meant that climbing Mill Gill to Stickle Tarn was a means to an end, not a destination itself.
Why my mother,and my Uncle, weren’t interested, why they wanted only so many things and nothing more when there was the whole of the Lakes to be taken in and enjoyed, I never knew nor understood. My mother would enjoy the photos I brought back, but even if her slowly deteriorating health would have allowed her, she would never have dreamed of walking in those, to her, alien places (I do her one injustice: in the second Drought Summer, in 1984, she drove herself to Mardale, walked through the revealed Village of Mardale Green. But she wouldn’t even have considered little Latrigg, because it didn’t lie between Ambleside and Wasdale.)
We are all strangers to each other, no matter how close we are. I always imagine that my Dad would have followed ever footstep I made in the fells (except the stupid ones) if he’d had the opportunity. On Earth-2, I like to think that he did. Solitude and autonomy are one thing, but I’d have welcomed his company every single day.
We had New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ on the radio yesterday, when it was tuned to an Absolute Eighties channel that, for the most part, seemed doggedly determined to ignore the fact that we did have good music in the Eighties as well. It brought back a memory of a specific play on Radio 1, in the days when I still listened to it, on the car radio heading north on the way to the Lakes.
It was 1983, of course. I had finished my first post-qualification job as a Solicitor on the Friday leaving unnoticed, and the following Monday I would take up my new job at a City Centre firm that would be a delight to work for for three of the next three and three-quarter years, but my last twelve months at my old firm had been stressful in the extreme, and the first signs of grey hairs were visible in amongst the dark brown, even though I was only 27, and I’d arranged to leave a week’s gap between jobs and take a few days out to go on holiday in the Lakes.
It wasn’t my first solo trip. Some eighteen months earlier, in October 1981, having not long since bought my first car, I had taken off for a couple of days in the late Autumn. It was cold, it was grey, I had my walking boots with me but had no real intention to use them, and I had spent a couple of days moving round, seeing places I had not seen since my last family holiday, six years previously, that had ended with my solo climb of Helvellyn.
A night in Ambleside, a night in Keswick, establishing bases that I would return to several times until their inflated prices for singles would make them prohibitive, and then home. Useful for refreshing memories, reawakening my attachment, and learning the technique of driving on narrow, winding, undulating roads and lanes, when they were all but empty.
That time I’d just gone straight up the A6, stopping off in a pub in Preston for some lunch and a dreary pint, Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ high in the chart and impressive on the radio. Jump forward eighteen months and I was determined to follow our old route northwards, Manchester to the Lake District avoiding the A6, as solicited long before from the AA.
There was a change, near Rawtenstall, a new, short motorway section, diverting me away from the town onto dual-carriageways across the moors, by-passing the road over the hill and into Burnley. As I came upon the choice whether to follow this new, previously untried route, or not, New Order stole out of the speakers, that precise, metronomic beat that was a world away from the Joy Division they’d been and who I had loved so much.
I took the motorway.
In Ambleside, I stopped at the same Hotel, overlooking the park, ate at the same old restaurant we’d patronised in the past, and which I would visit unfailingly on each holiday, until it was taken over and disappeared. I was still restless, and booked out the next day, heading north towards a night in Keswick, but I stopped in Grasmere and, with a sense of adventure, donned my boots and proceeded to walk out on my own for the very first time.
It was a few months short of eight years since I’d last walked, last worn these old boots, romped up the face of Helvellyn from the end of Striding Edge. I played squash every week, five a side football semi-regularly. I was nearing my physical prime and I was only setting out to climb Helm Crag, and I was ashamed and angry about how much I struggled getting up its steep prow, on that old path long since closed and relaid elsewhere.
But I got to the summit, climbed to the top of the official Lion and the Lamb, but not the rocks that are Helm Crag’s real highest point. I didn’t have the skills then, nor the nerve, and I never have had the nerve.
The ridge towards Gibson Knott stretched out before me and I contemplated it dubiously. It was windy, the weather was uncertain. I had made no plans beyond Helm Crag. Every step was further away from the way back, the car. It was early yet, not even midday. And this was the first time I’d been on the fells in eight years, and the first time I’d been completely alone, my own master, answerable to no-one in my course. And completely unprepared.
So I turned back to Grasmere, back at the car for about 12.30pm, stepping out of my boots and anorak and locking these in the boot just as the heavens opened and the rains came down: the right decision, then, by accident.
And it rained nonstop from then until Thursday morning.
I stayed two nights in Keswick, wandering around in the wet on Wednesday, driving from place to place, and coming back to the hotel I’d used before, which, like my choice in Ambleside, overlooked the Park.
Thursday dawned dry. I booked out, intent on moving on. It was dry and clear and I had another walk in mind, an intriguing fell, the Northern Fells outlier, Binsey, with its views south. Wainwright had praised its unique situation, the unexpected vista, and I followed his recommendation on a dull, unexciting ascent from small lanes and hamlets at the back, keeping the view to the last moment on crossing the crest of the hill.
It was dark in the interior, so I wandered back and removed my boots for the day, lunchtime again, so early. I motored off to Cockermouth, had lunch in a pub, a strong cheese and onion sandwich, with a strong, reddish cheese that I wasn’t entirely happy about, and then off, southwards down the coast.
Via Buttermere and Loweswater, the mouth of Ennerdale, the Cold Fell road, Nether Wasdale, gradually moving towards Ravenglass. I’d planned to stay there overnight, but there wasn’t a guest house that felt right, that didn’t look too costly or too comfortable.
Speaking of which, I wasn’t feeling too comfortable myself. My stomach was beginning to feel off, and it only got worse. Ravenglass didn’t feel right: I pressed on, growing weaker and more painful as I drove, set on Coniston, and when I got there I checked into the first Hotel I could find, went to my room, undressed and curled up in bed.
Unless it was the cheese, I don’t know what brought it on, but I was in pain all evening. I knew it couldn’t be the onset of appendicitis, because I’d had that, and my appendix removed, in the summer of 1977, but in all other respects it was a familiar sensation. I didn’t tell anyone, didn’t seek assistance, didn’t even have aspirin on me. I just suffered it through the night, barely slept, but reached the morning feeling weak and empty but free of my gastric difficulties.
The hotel were solicitous when I refused breakfast, just a cup of tea, and I went home quietly, the holiday marred by my experience – and my inexperience in dealing with it.
But I had gotten my boots on again, twice. I had walked out and reached two more summits, taken my collection of Wainwrights into double figures. I had walked alone and I had come back. I had begun.
‘Blue Monday’. How does it feel? Sick to my stomach, but bloody wonderful.