Great Walks: The High Stile Range


A fish-eye lens view of the Range

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.

As not seen from High Stile today

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.

The ridge to High Crag

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.

On a Sunny Day: a Hayeswater Round


Hayeswater: to be rounded
Hayeswater: to be rounded

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.

Thornthwaite Beacon

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.

The Straits of Riggindale
The Straits of Riggindale

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.

High Street and Kidsty Pike from High Raise
High Street and Kidsty Pike from High Raise

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.

Tarn on Satura Crag
Tarn on Satura Crag

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.

Walking Blues


scafell-pike

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.

Britain’s Lost Waterlands: An Arthur Ransome Excuse


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.

Joined-up Walking


Wetherlam Edge

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 Western Fells, 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.

How does it feel?


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.

Another Day Out: The Lakes (part 1)


I’m writing this not from my usual base but from the Lake District, Penrith to be exact, and I’m here not just for the day but the night: sleeping over and going home tomorrow, leisurely.

I’m here for Life of a Mountain: Blencathra at the Rheged Centre, a report on which will follow later in the day. This is my first visit to Cumbria this year, and since the dreadful floods of the turn of the year, and it’s the best weather I’ve seen in all my previous visits. From the 6.00 am alarm, it’s been blue sky and cotton wool clouds, though they did sort of amass at one point en route, suggesting less dry weather ahead, which so far has not only failed to materialise, but also to look likely.

The travel has, as usual, been the torture. It usually is but today’s programme has been particularly fraught with traps for my usual paranoia: bus to Piccadilly Gardens, walk to Victoria Railway Station, train to Preston and Rail Replacement Coach, all to arrive four hours earlier than I need, but this is the only way into Penrith by public transport from Manchester today, hence the insanely early start.

The last changeover was the one giving my nerves most to work on but it was smooth as butter: four of us on a single-decker coach, bound for Penrith. Actually, it’s all gone well, with the only hitch being right at the start: the bus was five minutes late. Of course it was: it’s only the first bus of the day, four stops out of the bus station, 7.19am, what on Earth made me think it might be on time?

I was feeling a bit frazzled then, and a lot more now as yesterday didn’t go well. Between the dreadful news about Darwyn Cooke and an unexpected exchange of texts in the evening, the implications of which I’m still trying to analyse (private stuff, people, not unrelated to a recent post), I lost it last night, couldn’t even summon up the energy to watch the Eurovision Song Contest, or even the voting (I haven’t missed that in over a quarter century and I still don’t even know the answer as I write), and of course fretted about waking up in time today.

As a result of which I beat the alarm by at least fifteen minutes, hence the feeling a bit fuzzy round the edges by now.

But the drive up was greatly enjoyable. From Lancaster, Morecambe Bay and the southernmost fells came into view, and from a coach you can see much further than the near ground level of a car. I could soon see from friendly old Black Combe through to Dow Crag and the Old Man, whilst north of Lancaster, more and more fells and valleys became visible, until I could see the whole panoply of ridges across South and East Lakeland from Dow Crag to the fells east of Longsleddale. Not all of it all at once (bloody trees fringing the M6) but it’s the longest and widest panorama of the fells that I’ve been in much too young.

North of the M6 summit there was another vista to survey (not that I am denigrating anything east of Tebay Gorge, which was looking very attractive as well, but it’s not the Lakes, is it?) Again, it’s a long time since I’ve seen these fells so clearly and so well lit. I quickly identified Swindale and Mardale (always a breeze when Kidsty Pike is visible), only to realise that I couldn’t properly see the former from the south and that what  I was looking at was Wet Sleddale, which I have never visited. It looked good from this angle for once.

The cloud was high enough that not of the tops were obscured, yet the air made everything look pale,  low and distant. Glad as I was to see so much after so much time, I couldn’t help but feel a certain sadness. There was no intimacy to the views, and that is what I’ve lost. The fells and I are no longer intimate friends but former neighbours, mindful of our past closeness, but gone our separate ways.

Enough of that! I’m here now, and in fifteen minutes time I’m out to the bus to the Rheged Centre. Time to find out what really happened to Stuart Maconie and Edd Byrnes on Sharp Edge…

Lakeland Regrets: Things done and undone


Scafell Pike

I have been very lucky.
That doesn’t apply to everything in my life, and I’m frequently guilty on dwelling too long and too often on those things that have not gone, or are not going as I would wish them. But I have been very lucky to have been introduced, at a suitably early age, to the Lake District: to its Lakes and Fells and Mountains and Tarns, and to the incalculable joy of wandering among them.
I was lucky to be born of parents who knew and loved the Lakes, to have a grandfather who was born in Cumberland, who provided me with a foothold in that county, and to have been introduced to the fell country by those parents. I was given the chance to learn to love the open country and the high skylines, and to be affected by the urge to explore and see everything that could be seen.
I have also been lucky to have had the time, the freedom and the fitness to have dedicated myself to completing the round of the 214 Wainwrights, and the luck, ability and skill to have avoided injury in doing so.
It wasn’t so at the beginning. You’re read this litany before: It’s too hard, it’s too far, it’s too steep, my boots hurt. I said all those things, and more, the very first time I was asked to walk uphill, and I was not an instant convert to walking. But the day we set out to climb Sty Head from Wasdale was the day that changed things: I had a target, to see Green Gable at last, and when my mother and sister turned back, I had my Dad’s expectations to live up to.
The men went ahead. I measured myself against what my Dad expected of me now that it was just the men, and I was not found wanting. It’s an old-fashioned attitude, and a chauvinistic one that I’m glad has not persisted into later life, but it was the attitude of an eleven year old boy in the middle-Sixties: I was, and to some extent still am, of my time.
As I grew, far from being reluctant to don boots and climb, I became the opposite, wanting, almost demanding to be out walking, increasingly frustrated and resentful of the obstacles to that, to the delays. My Dad was gone, I was into my middle teens, slimmer than I’ve ever been. I wanted to walk. Unconsciously, I think that to some extent I was living up to my Dad’s expectations of me, following in his footsteps, or rather the footsteps he was no longer able to take.
It took a long time. My teenage energy, my urge to look outwards to sights unseen, was confined by holidays with an ageing mother and an Uncle who was, after all, my Dad’s elder brother. A long gap ensued when family holidays became just too constrictive: I never regretted dropping out, even when they climbed Scafell Pike without me.
And once I could afford a car, could free myself to be my own master on the fells, there seemed to be nothing else that I wanted to do than to get back to the Lakes, to the beauty, to all the places I could go because I chose to, without being held by my family to where they were content to return, year after year.
At some point, I said to myself, why not? Why not climb all the Wainwrights? I’m only in my mid-twenties, I have the years ahead of me. Again, I look back from all those years later, and I can see the unconscious element driving me. Dad would have done it, had he been allowed the years cancer denied him. We were alike in more ways than I properly learned, never having had the chance to have adult conversations with him. In the back of my mind, very rarely aware of it, I knew that when I climbed Eagle Crag direct, crossed Sharp Edge, ascended Lord’s Rake, traced the old pony route down Rossett Gill, that he would have relished these days as much as I did. He couldn’t do it, so I did it for more than just me.
But it would never have been in me to do it without his spur to begin with. His father, his aunts and uncles drawing him to Cumberland, his love of the fells, his desire to get among them. I inherited his intelligence, I inherited his dry wit, I inherited the Lake District and the high fells, and I am proud of all these things.
And my health and fitness and freedom lasted long enough to complete that journey, to conquer my own insecurity with pride that I have done this, that despite all my fears and self-doubt, there is one thing that would have made my Dad proud of me in the way any small boy wants (for I never got to be anything but a small boy with my Dad: there wasn’t enough time).
Completing all the Wainwrights like that was an achievement, but it was a personal one. It wasn’t done for credibility or kudos in any way, but simply because I wanted to see everything and go everywhere. It surprised me, once I had finally completed the round, that open, hot, hazy, viewless March Saturday morning on the broad summit of Seatallan, to learn just how few people seem to have done what I did.
Not that we’ll ever know, because not everybody has recorded it somewhere where it can be seen and acknowledged. It’s estimated that there’s not much more than a thousand of us, though I find it hard to believe that I am in a group that is that exclusive.
It doesn’t get me anywhere to have done this, I haven’t established a reputation. I have brought it up on occasions, because, hell, I haven’t that much that I can boast about, and it sounds good, even to people who don’t know or understand what it’s about. The only person to whom I would offer it as any kind of self-validation died forty-six years ago this August coming.
But it is an integral part of the luck in my life that I have been able to do this, that I can look at myself and say that I did it, that I have all these wonders and glories and memories. There isn’t a single fell in any of that 214 that I cannot bring to mind, some image that instantly replays, that is in my mind because I got off my far arse, and I put in the hard yards, and I did the things that millions, yes, millions of people haven’t done, couldn’t do, would never be able to do, would be too scared to try.

A view unseen

But this piece is entitled Regrets. Even with everything I’ve done, there are regrets.
The first and biggest of these is that I am now effectively exiled from the fells, from the Lake District. I have no car, I can only go where public transport will take me. Only certain areas can be seen. And I am older, less fit, a long way from being in the condition to tackle the open fells.
These are not insuperable barriers. Circumstances may change: I may once again be able to afford a car, to take me to Wasdale, Ennerdale, Mardale, to Seathwaite: to all the places beyond Ambleside, Grasmere and Keswick.
To restore my condition will be a harder, less certain job. There are things that cannot be reversed, such as my painful knees, and at sixty I am never going to recapture the agility and flexibility I had when I was thirty. Perhaps the stamina that enabled me to cover up to 14 miles and 4,500 foot of climbing in a day isn’t going to be achievable again. But given the access, given the time, I would make it my business to get back everything humanly possible.
Because although I stood at every summit, there were tops from which I didn’t see views, and there were walks that I didn’t get to do, and anyway, with very few exceptions throughout the whole of the Lakes, I would want to do each and every one of those fells all over again: in sun instead of under cloud, or just to go back and re-experience the fun another time.
After all, I’ve done the ascent of Grisedale Pike from Braithwaite four times and I’d hop out of the car in that little quarry/car park en route to Whinlatter Pass any time, and just because I’ve climbed Scafell Pike four times, from different directions, doesn’t mean that I don’t feel wronged that I might never stand there again, on the rooftop of England.
There are four fells, four tops out of the 214, that I have to climb again, because my ascent was incomplete. In ascending order, there is Dodd, the outlier of Skiddaw, the fell in the forest, there is Sale Fell, one of the sentinels of Wythop, there is Seat Sandal, that I walked in cloud, fine-guessing my way directly to its cairn, choosing to walk without seeing rather than waste a day to idleness, and, high above them all, High Stile, crossed in cloud, just the most fleeting swirl of clarity looking down upon the lakes and valleys opposite.
To me, the Wainwrights aren’t completely closed until I’ve been back to each of these, until I’ve seen that view, unobstructed by cloud or rain or, in the case of Dodd as it is now, tree.
I climbed that on a day of rain and low cloud, wandering the forests roads, a fell without a view being ideal for a day without views. It was dark and dank, especially under the trees, and then I marched all the way down from the col below Long Doors and along the road in the rain, taking pleasure in the steady, even pace. It was one of the few occasions Wainwright’s routes let me down: I ascended from Dancing Gate by a path that was much less visible that Wainwright identified, and which Chris Jesty acknowledged was difficult to follow: I am sure I lost it.
Access to the top was no longer by the somewhat dodgy firebreak of Wainwright’s days: there was a road, and a path onto the top, which had been fitfully cleared, but the last time I was in that area, Dodd had been shaved of trees, to its head, and its views were open for all to see. It would make an ideal start to a resumed walking career: not quite ready for the Outlying Fells yet!
And then there’s Sale Fell, lying between Wythop and Basenthwaite. This was another fell where I was denied the view by rain, but, unlike Dodd, it was not a day when I expected no views. It was a Sunday afternoon, after driving up in the morning, with the two Wythop sentinels as my target for the traditional leg-stretcher walk in the afternoon.
There’s no actual ridges between the two – there are no ridges of any kind on Ling Fell – so I planned to ascend this first, walk up the valley to Sale Fell, and add this. Conditions seemed fine, and I enjoyed what view Ling Fell offered and descended to Wythop with Sale Fell, smooth and serene under a bright sun.
I made the approach easy, following the road all the way up the valley and cutting back on a gently graded diagonal path, instead of the direct route up by the wall. From there I was onto the saddle and setting off along the grassy ridge, but the weather was suddenly gray, the cloud was closing in, and it soon began to rain.
And by rain, I mean a cloudburst, and within moments visibility was down to about five to ten yards. On a higher fell, without so broad a green path up an easy, well-defined ridge, I might have turned back. Instead, determined not to let such a little fell beat me, I removed my glasses and ploughed on. Five yards visibility was of no moment to someone whose natural vision deteriorated before it got that far.
The summit was a handful of stones on a rounded, grassy dome. I walked up to it, circuited it and set off back down without breaking stride. Nothing to see, and it was still battering it down, so nothing to stop for. The rain had passed by the time I reached the little saddle at the bottom of the ridge, and the sun came out again, but I have yet to go back and see what it is I missed. I shalln’t bother with Ling Fell next time.
Seat Sandal I chose for a day that was dark and wet, when there were going to be no views. It wasn’t raining so hard as to be a persistent nuisance, but the cloud was down on that broad whaleback, to the east of Dunmail. And there were no difficulties about route-finding, with clear paths all the way.
So rather than spin my wheels in the valleys, or hole up somewhere, read and waste the day, I got into my boots and set off up Grisedale Pass, to that lower col, just before the basin holding the Tarn itself. The cloud was that low, drifting in the rocks above. The Tarn was invisible, as were the Dollywaggon Zigzags, but the wall to the top was plain and clear, and I scrambled up beside it, glad to be doing something rather than nothing.
I knew the wall didn’t visit the actual top and that I’d have to cross the wall at some point and cast about a bit. When I crossed the wall, I found I’d done it at exactly the right place, and the summit cairn was just about visible: it was an easy crossing to it, and back to the wall, and descent, without the slightest risk of losing my way, but there was nothing to see.
So I owe myself a return, in clear conditions. I’d ascend the same way as before, but I might descend the south-west ridge, pathless and broad as it is, for the variation, and the views over Grasmere that it carries.


But I would definitely need remedial, retraining walking for High Stile. It’s one of the high fells, the serious and austere fells, and I would happily, eagerly repeat the original expedition, which crossed the full range.
Which means basing myself at Buttermere, climbing through the woods on that astonishingly straight, diagonal route, leading to that long, level terrace back to the entrance to Bleaberry Comb, and the route to Red Pike.
Then the rising ridge to High Stile, only this time without the lowering cloud that consumed the top 200′ of the fell, cancelling out those views. An onwards, along that narrow but flat ridge to High Crag, by which time the sun was out, the sky was clear, the cloud had evaporated, and I could descend to and by Scarth Gap and the stroll along the shore of Buttermere. There’s a day I would repeat any time, for the fun of it, but I want the middle fell on that ridge to be in the clear.
But more than the places I need to return to to make that first round of Wainwrights unimpeachably complete, more than the return to places I want to see again, is the list of those things I’ve not done, and that I want to do before it’s impossible for me to go into the high places ever again.
Leaving aside such fanciful things as wanting to tackle Caw Fell from the Cold Fell road, simply because it’s six miles each way and I want to experience the loneliness and silence, there are three walks that would complete my Lake district experience for me.
Taking these in order of severity, the first would be an ascent of Pen, the rocky little peak on the Eskdale flank of Scafell Pike that is hailed by practically everyone who has had an encounter with it, but which is curiously ignored completely by Wainwright.
Though there are no paths or routes plotted in either of the first two editions – Clive Bratby’s (grit teeth) ‘Walker’s Edition’ of The Southern Fells will probably repair this omission – the approach is clear. I would approach from Taw House, via the Cowcove Zigzags and that lonely, empty, shallow valley in the sky, towards the horizon over which the Pike and Ill Crag rise, my favourite sight in the whole of the Lakes.
Then I would descend into the uppermost part of Upper Eskdale, that great, wide, flat-bottomed bowl in among the hills. But instead of turning aside at Cam Spout, scrambling up alongside the falls, bound for that upper valley leading to Mickledore, I would walk on, towards Esk Hause, some part of that final section of the Pass that I have never walked.
Until I was beneath the mouth of Little Narrowcove, into which I would turn, working my way upwards in this still, narrow valley (whether it is any thing like as still as it was when Wainwright first drew attention to it is yet to be discovered, but Wainwright’s depiction of the old pony route to Rossett Gill didn’t save that path from disappearing, according to Chris Jesty). I would then study the ground to my left, relying on my years of expertise to determine the right place to scramble up above Pen’s isolated outcrop and make my way down from above.
And back to Little Narrowcove, through the valley’s head onto Broadcrag Col, and an approach to the Pike I’ve never used in ascent before, only descent.
I doubt that adrenalin can carry me as far as it did the day I scaled Lord’s Rake, so it would be down by Mickledore, and Cam Spout, and the long reverse of the approach, one walk I don’t mind repeating in the same day.

West Wall Traverse
Speaking of Lord’s Rake: the second of my walks is the West Wall Traverse. When I ascended Lord’s Rake itself, I was so busy concentrating on the steep scramble up to the first col that I didn’t even see the track to the left. Back then, literally all I knew of the West Wall Traverse was Wainwright’s page, but since then I have seen photos of the Traverse that thrilled me to the sight on the spot.
Had I known it was like that, I would have done the Traverse a long time ago.
So that day would be a day like the one on which I ascended Lord’s Rake: Brown Tongue and Hollow Stones, that slow, slithery ascent of that great scree fan, and the bottom of the Rake. No concerns about whether I can squeeze my bulk beneath the fallen rock, for about ten yards below the col, I would be concentrating on identifying the path onto the Traverse, and then the steep scramble up Deep Gill onto Scafell’s summit again.
Of course, I’d have to return via Foxes Tarn, but whether I’d still be able to divert to the Pike again is very much a question to be determined once there. It would be great. But it would probably be a bit much, unless I have really regained my stamina.
By now, you’ve probably worked out which is the ultimate walk, the one I never tackled when I was young and vital, the ultimate walk that would crown my entire walking career, that would make my Dad go green with envy. I speak of course of Jack’s Rake, on Pavey Ark.
And to tackle this now, I would need to regain a peak of fitness and agility corresponding to my peak of performance. It’s probably beyond me now.
I’ve studied that page in Wainwright a hundred times, in all three editions. I’ve watched a half dozen YouTube videos depicting the ascent (it’s always bloody windy up there, isn’t it?), and noted that not one of these is a continuous record of the ascent, so there are places where it isn’t safe to film, where you have to concentrate on life and limb. I think, looking at it coldly and calmly, I could once have got up it: Stickle (Mill) Ghyll to the tarn, round its shores, work up to the base. It’s only 225 yards in length, and 225 yards is less than an eighth of a mile. That was about a quarter of the way from our house in Burnage to the bus stop at Lane End: I used to need no more than ten minutes to catch the bus, but then that was flat all the way.
But I do look at the book, and I listen to the comments, and I take particular note of the one that says there’s a point where you have to basically take hold and swing yourself up and around, relying on momentum, and whilst I’ve body enough to create momentum, I’m not too certain about whether the arms can hold up that bulk long enough for me to swing up as opposed to out and down.
To be truthful, I think this is going to be beyond me, even assuming I get the chance to restore my old strength. Since dealing myself out of family holidays, I have in all but a handful of cases walked alone, gladly. Nearly all of those few exceptions have been easy, non-strenuous expeditions with girlfriends/wives who were inexperienced and less strong than I. But given my age, I would now only think of tackling Jack’s Rake as part of a group, with people to go ahead and demonstrate safety, and, if it became necessary, to reach back and help if we hit a stretch that I simply cannot face on my own.
Stickle (Mill) Ghyll, the tarn, the walk around its shores, the scramble up to the foot of the Rake. Perhaps a return by the North Rake, and Bright Beck and Stickle Tarn again.
Or maybe I should just hope to get back to Stickle Tarn, and gaze on Pavey Ark’s face as of old, tracing that thin diagonal line and the spots of colour moving along it, doing something that once I might well have been capable of doing but which is beyond my capacity.
A supreme regret to forever cast a shadow over a lifetime doing what I loved.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Thank you, EricBloodaxe


There’s a lengthy piece today in the Travel section of the Guardian web-site about 20 Superb UK Walks.

I read it, out of interest in the selection in their own right, and also to see what Lake District walk had been selected. I am fiercely protective of my spiritual home and my lips were pursing with greater and great disdain the longer we went out without visiting Cumbria.

But fret not, the Lake District has not been excluded, although given the number and variety of superb walks available, it was a little disappointing that the one singled out was Catbells, via the Derwentwater steamer.

I was not the only one to think that an opportunity had been scorned. Second comment, BTL, from EricBloodaxe, sang the praises of the Mosedale Horseshoe and linked to a site showing great pictures of the route and its views.

I never turn down the chance to look at photos of the Lake District so I followed the link.

It was to my own blog, and my own piece on the Mosedale Horseshoe, the sixth most popular all-time blog on this site. I certainly wasn’t expecting that!

Thank you, Eric.

 

Rain Days 2


Skiddaw from Sale Fell

The view I didn’t see

The Guardian ‘Country Diary’ used to be completely reliable, a fortnight cycle, with the late Harry Griffin every alternate Monday. Since the last reshuffle, it’s impossible to anticipate when Tony Greenbank will appear. It’s certainly not once a fortnight, that’s all I’m sure of.
He was in the paper yesterday, on a bus ride from Keswick to Grasmere, via Thirlmere and Dunmail Raise. Since the storms of December washed half the road away, there’s been no direct route north, but now, three months on, the service has been restored. Not the main road, but the roundabout route via Thirlmere Dam and the rougher road down the western shore.
It reminded me that, in December, I wrote a piece for this blog, inspired by the rains and the floods, about rain days of the fells. But the sheer,  awful devastation of the storms made such a piece inappropriate, and I put it by. Now it can appear.

Reports of floods in Cumbria, and especially at Cockermouth, which suffered so severely only a little more than half a decade ago, inevitably bring up recollections of rain days on the fells, so long ago.
I’ve written about most of the significant occasions when I’ve been caught out in the rain: the long long ago trek to Burnmoor Tarn, coming down by Sour Milk Ghyll after conquering Great Gable, circumnavigating Yewbarrow, and the long, slow retreat along Langstrath.
These aren’t the only times I’ve been out alone on the fells when the rain has closed in, in enveloping form, and I have found myself a long way from the car, with a silent trek broken only by the thrum of the rain on my kagoul hood, and a sense of complete loneliness. Time elongates, even as I stride on, confident and untroubled. However far I have to go, time resolved into a perpetual now, a moment in which I walk, shrouded, attempting to remove myself from the effects of the universe around me.
There was a Sunday afternoon starter walk one year, Manchester to Keswick in the morning, park at the northern mouth of the Vale of St John, the steep climb out of the valley towards Clough Head, the convex slope above the crags and the ever receding skyline, with rain closing in, and time closing in too. United were on Sky, playing the 4.00pm kick-off at Leeds, I think, and I had plans to be back in Keswick, find a pub showing the game and sink myself in the despised Murdochian debasement of our culture.
I had no intention of descending the direct route back. As the rain grew closer, I walked north over easy ground to White Pike, the very end of the Helvellyn range, and down to the old Coach Road, wandering the northern edge of the high lands, and I tramped in rain-silence home to the car and Keswick, and the ironic frustration that debasement had not yet penetrated so far as nowhere with a Sky TV was open at that hour of Sunday afternoon!
But I remember the sodden tramp along the coach road more clearly than I do Clough Head’s top, or the long vista along the drenched grassy ridge back to Great Dodd. Rain, and the cold, hemming me in.
There was another Sunday starter, this time from Ambleside, where I booked in in the village and set off to stretch my legs on a climb up Loughrigg Fell. This wasn’t on my ‘Wainwrights’ list, as I’d climbed the fell, from Rydal, many years earlier with my family, descending to and returning along Loughrigg Terrace and exploring the famous cave. No such treats on an ascent directly from Ambleside Village, starting by crossing the park, and no difficulties in the walk, and things were still clear on the summit, but as I began to descend, repeating my outbound route, the sky began to close in very rapidly from the east. I was still some ways above the old golf course, and it was already clear that this was not a case of whether I would get back ahead of the rain, but how soon it would hit me. And it hit hard, drenching me through my waterproofs, which were so wet that they and my outer clothes beneath had to be hung over the shower rail to drain into the bath to be of any use to me the following day.
Rain in Ambleside also brings back recollections of a brief two day break my wife and I spent there, some years ago. We woke on our last day to drenching rain, pouring down ceaselessly on the Village. By the time we had enjoyed our breakfast and wandered out it had taken on epic proportions. The streets were running with rain, the walls were running with rain, there were gutter waterfalls everywhere, the beck was swollen, Bridge House looked as if it could be in serious danger if it went on like that. We covered ourselves up well, enjoying the unusual spectacle in a crazy way, happy.
Where else have I been in the Lakes when it has been so wet? There was a midweek day when I was based at Keswick and it was so rainy that serious walking was out of the question, but I still had little, tree-choked Dodd on my list. It was the ideal fell for such a day, the trees preventing a view from the summit in even the best of conditions, so I fought my way up a very indistinct path that must have changed a lot since Wainwright’s days, happy to break out of the trees and into the rain because at least I could see where the hell I was.
So I wandered across the face of Dodd on shallow-angled forest roads, the rain coming down steadily, until I got to the path that led to the little summit. Then back to the roads and down to the col beneath the high side of Carl Side, from where I marched home, all the way down to the road at the northern end of the fell, and all the way back down the road to my car at the southern end. Hardly what you would call fellwalking, but oddly enjoyable in its lone, wet way.
But Dodd was a rare case of setting off in the rain, knowing my enjoyment of the day was going to be limited from the start and determined to make the minimal most of out conditions. There was an occasion, on the other side of Bassenthwaite Lake, on Sunday afternoon starter where expectations were drastically different.
It was a fine, indeed sunny September afternoon, and I’d booked in for the first half of my week in Keswick. My plans involved me going ’round the corner’, following the Cockermouth road on the way past the foot of Bass Lake, and cutting into the narrow little roads among the trees, to cross the foot of the Wythop valley. I was planning on climbing one of the two small Wainwrights that stand as outliers to the mouth of the valley.
Which of the two it would be was to be determined by the availability of parking. Space in Wythop village being tighter than the proverbial duck’s arse, I wound up on the upper road into the valley, on the flanks of Ling Fell. At this point it was sunny.
Ling Fell is an unlovely fell and an unlovely climb, an upturned pudding without ridges or shape. One path circles its lower flanks, but you have to strike out uphill to reach its summit. There are no special features, no special views and no special reason ever to go back there again.
All of which meant I was back at the car far too early to take my boots off so, the weather still being sunny and hot, I took the road up the valley, crossed over to the lower road on the Sale Fell flank and took a gently angled green ride back to the wall that crossed the ridge north of Sale Fell’s summit. There were only the broad rudiments of a path so I set off uphill, confident that the fell was too small and the ridge too innocuous to pose any problems.
This was only too true, until, no more than a third of the way up, I was overtaken by a storm, a ferocious, lashing, wind-bestrewn storm, right in my face. Visibility was rapidly reduced to no more than five yards, not counting that I had to drag off my glasses and stick them into a waterproof pocket. It was an incredible reversal, but I was mulishly determined not to be beaten on a fell as small as this one, so I kept ploughing on uphill.
The wisdom of this course was exemplified by the news that, several miles to the south, in this same storm, a walker on Great Rigg was struck by lightning and killed.
I’ve never seen anything like it, the speed and ferocity of the storm, the complete obliteration of any view, and out of almost nowhere. Ahead of me, the ground eased, the small cairn appeared. I approached it at a brisk march, walked round the far side and started downhill the way I’d come without breaking stride. By the time I was back at the ridge, the rain had gone and I walked down to the village and studied the mill race in its centre in sunshine again.
Rain days in the Lakes. Given that I’m only getting up there one day in November every year, that seems to be my lot. But some of those days were memorable, and being out alone with the rain on the fells was an experience I wouldn’t sacrifice for anything.