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…
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
On a wet January Friday afternoon, when work is not actually overwhelming, a man’s thoughts naturally turn to the Lake District, to the fells and mountains, and lakes and tarns of the most lovely corner of this Earth. This is even more so when memory is the only means by which I can access the vast majority of Cumbria. The increasingly grey sky of Stockport is rightly displaced by all the varied colours of a Lakeland day’s walking.
Ever since the funeral I attended last week, my late father’s been in my mind an awful lot. Nor can I think of Dad without thinking of the fells: after all, it was he who introduced me to walking in the first place, very much against my will and comfort. Nor was I the kind of child to keep such a thing as discomfort to myself, in stoic fashion.
We only got a couple of years fellwalking in together, before the pains in his shoulder led him to the Doctor, and to the long illness that ended in his death from cancer. At least I have the satisfaction of knowing that he’d seen me come round to fellwalking without complaint before he lost his own access to the high country.
Because our first walk, indeed several of our first walks, took us to the tops of various of the Lakes’ official Passes, I’ve always had an affinity with Passes as an acceptable destination for a day’s walking. Not in the same class as summits, of course, but any ascent that included a trip to the top of one of the recognised Passes had the extra cachet of following directly in my Dad’s footsteps.
Over the years, I’ve managed to ascend all the Official Passes, and in the case of those that carry roads, this hasn’t always been behind the wheel either.
Obviously, if we’re going to be technical about it, the first Pass I reached the top of was Dunmail Raise, and I have crossed it dozens upon dozens of times, as passenger and driver and, most recently on a double-decker bus (lower storey) in pitch black conditions, to the point where not only did I not see a single glitter of Thirlmere, I did not know we’d even set wheel on the Raise until we were roaring past Dunmail’s cairn.
But really Hard Knott was the first, and it was our first walk. It’s a motor pass, true, and one with which my parents had been familiar in their courting days, when my Dad’s method of transport was a motor-bike, and the actual condition and gradients of Hard Knott weren’t a concern. Neither he nor his brother, my Uncle, would ever take a car over Hard Knott, no matter how improved the surface.
It seems an odd choice, but it should also be borne in mind that it was not just I who was a fellwalking virgin, but also my sister, then aged five, albeit a very sturdy example of the five year old girl. Distance was an issue, and height.
We ascended from the Eskdale end of the Pass. It would be a few years yet, and beyond Dad’s time before I was able to exert what little influence I ever had to get my Uncle to drive through the very narrow bit of the Duddon Valley road, by Wallowborough Gorge, and enter the massively flat and empty bowl of the upper Valley. Cars would zip up and down the road, but Dad wanted grass under his boots, and so we took a line, or rather a series of lines, from the foot of the pass in Eskdale, and walked uphill, the tarmac and its manifold bends well to our left.
Dad would use a compass to take a bearing on a landmark ahead of us, a prominent rock, a bit of a bluff, and keeping to the bearing, would guide us to that mark, whereupon he would repeat the procedure. Although Hard Knott was a motor pass, the tarmac replacing the rough routes that pony ( ) had followed over the centuries, it was unusual geographically in not standing at the head of the valley, but crossing at an angle a low saddle on its southern flank. This left ample opportunity to make a gentle scramble over grassy fellside, slowly angling towards the col that completed the climb.
For the route home, we simply walked down the road. I was in a thoroughly petulant mood by then and when they proposed a detour to the Roman Fort, I refused to join the family and sat by the roadside, until I got bored sitting on my own and went in search of them. I couldn’t find them anywhere, but instead they found me, creeping up from behind and surprising me with a shout when I was stood in the middle of the bathhouse or something similar.
We did climb the Pass from the Duddon, though this time it was via the tarmac, and it wasn’t with the Pass as our destination, but rather as an approach to Hard Knott fell: the first summit we reached after Dad died. There was no alternative to the road on the east side of Hard Knott.
Despite the older generation’s reluctance, I have driven the Pass once, from east to west, as part of a very short cut from Ambleside to Wasdale: it felt very strange to enter Eskdale from that direction and have such a long drive down the valley so early in the day.
The last time I was at Hard Knott was in the relaxed circumstances of being Mr 214, and no longer seeking out Wainwrights. I parked at the foot of the Pass, in Eskdale, took a new line of approach to Harter Fell, then trudged the long, unfamiliar and, yes, rather dull ridge down to the Pass, crossing the tarmac and ascending the fell, before making my way home down the Pass.
From Hard Knott, we turned to Wrynose Pass, where the object of the walk, at least as far as I was concerned, was to see the fabled Three Shires Stone, marking the point where three counties – Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire – met. Wrynose was another of those Passes with which my Dad and Uncle were well-acquainted, from past days of the bike, and the convenience with which Hard Knott and Wrynose could be combined for a quick return from the coast.
Indeed, Dad told a wry story of returning over Wrynose one Sunday, out of the Duddon Valley, and finding a motorist pulled up short of the top, his radiator drained, and unable to move. Having assisted in getting him water, Dad leant a shoulder to push the car up to the top. Whereupon the driver took one look at the descent into Little Langdale and insisted on turning round and going back to the Duddon.
Unlike Hard Knott, there was no option for us to leave the tarmac and make our own idiosyncratic way to the top. So there we were, a family of five, all dressed up in proper walking gear, walking up the road to Wrynose. I sometimes wonder what the drivers who passed us, ascending and descending, thought of us, for of course just as there was nothing but the tarmac up, we had only the road for our retreat.
My only other visit to Wrynose came many years later, by car. From Ambleside, I used both Passes as a quick way through to Wasdale. Admittedly, the car I was driving was better than any my Dad or Uncle had access to, but whilst the roads are narrow, and some of those hairpin bends on the Eskdale side of Hard Knott, coupled with 1 in 3 gradients, are a bit dodgy, I found them nothing like the fearsome experiences they were made out to be.
With two successful walks under our belt, we set out to conquer our third Pass, this time a ‘proper’ Pass, being one that you could only reach with your boots on. Of course, it had to be Sty Head, and that gave me the objective of getting far enough around Great Gable to see something of its shyer neighbour, Green Gable.
We were without my Uncle on this occasion, just the nuclear family, and we set off from Wasdale Head, as we would do time and again, angling for that narrow valley below the long fall from the Napes ridges, leaving the level path along the valley, rising across those slopes, and reaching the edge of the scree field that the path has to manage at a constantly rising angle.
Here, my mother, not for the last time, took one look and decreed that my little sister wasn’t going across that. But the men of the family, a boy and his Dad, were entitled to continue alone, whilst the memsahibs retreated to the valley, and an extended spell of paddling their feet in the beck. Dad and I went on alone.
There’s nothing a small boy loves more, especially if he only has a sister/sisters, than to be alone with his Dad. There aren’t that many opportunities to be in a purely masculine atmosphere, and it’s an important part of your life to be tested only against Dad’s expectations, and to live up to that. It was especially so with my Dad, who never gave quarter, never played down in any game, always made sure that if I won, it was because I had deserved it, not had it handed to me, and that I knew the game hadn’t been thrown.
I wish I remembered more of that day, but that upper stage of Sty Head on the Wasdale side is simply an extended walk, often with little to see beyond the immediate horizon on a convex slope. I remember dozens of little cairns, at intervals, and Dad encouraging me to add a stone to them along the way: little markers for walkers caught in cloud that they were still on the correct path, though even then Sty Head’s slopes were as good as unloseable.
We got to the summit of the Pass, overlooking the Tarn, even advanced far enough for me to see a sliver of green fellside, peeking around Great Gable’s bulk, that was all I was going to see of Green Gable today. Dad was concerned about not leaving Mam and my sister on their own for any longer than was necessary, so we hustled back down to find them at the beck, their feet not too cold yet to stand more immersion whilst we had our turn.
I’ve returned to Sty Head on several occasions, though I’ve never again taken that slanting path across the scree. There was a later occasion when the four of us set off to trace the Valley Route to Sty Head, as revealed by Wainwright, only to give up when we ran out of flat valley, and another when we started that way only for Dad to divert us up alongside Piers Gill, an unplanned expedition that turned into an impromptu ascent of Lingmell: our second summit, and Dad’s highest point.
On my own, I’ve twice ascended Sty Head from Seathwaite, each time using the much more exciting Taylorgill Force variation. The one time I travelled by the true Sty Head route, from Stockley Beck Bridge, it was for the purpose of ascending Seathwaite Fell, in the company of a maybe girlfriend, and we broke off the path before reaching the point where the Taylorgill variation ends. We did return by that variation that day, the only time I’ve descended that side of the Pass.
There was one more example of father and son exploration that was Pass related, though I can’t really count this as a success. One of our regular, relaxed expeditions was into Mickleden, although we would rarely go further than the weir on the beck, just after the accompanying wall from the Hotels had ended. This once, we had wandered on, through that vast flatness, to the foot of Stake Pass. Dad, feeling energetic, proposed a fast ascent with me, whilst Mam and my sister strolled back towards the weir.
And it was indeed a fast ascent, faster than my liking, especially as Dad insisted on using the proper zig-zags whilst I would have headed for the shortcuts that still littered the slope, on the grounds that they were, well, shorter.
But Stake Pass is an exception to the rule that Passes cross ridges at low points. Once we hit the end of the climb out of Great Langdale, we were faced with an undulating moorland, not noticeably lower than the indefinite lands to either side. How far it was to the highest point was impossible to guess and, just like Sty Head, Dad was determined not to abandon the ladies any longer than it needed, so we shot back down again.
It would be many years until I finally reached Stake Pass’s top, when it would be the last Pass summit I hadn’t previously reached. I’d completed all the Wainwrights and was in that comfortably relaxed state of being able to choose my walks just for the fun of it, so I decided to take a long way round circuit of the Langdale Pikes, gaining the heights by Mickleden and Stake Pass, and it’s not that far distant after all high point, before turning west towards the Pikes.
There would be few other occasions when we would set out to reach the top of a Pass as the objective of our day, and this would not be until after Dad was gone. But he did lead us up one further Pass, in an unexpected corner of the Lakes, as a means of ascending our third fell, and his last: his last walk in the Lakes.
I never understood why my family insisted on confining themselves to so small a part of the Lakes. Almost without exception, our walking was done in the arc between Langdale and Wasdale. In the car, we’d go as far as Grasmere and Keswick, and there was that rainy day when, just to appease my desire to see some of the more remote lakes, we did that tour of the western side of the District.
And on our last holiday with Dad, we wound up at Buttermere, intent on climbing Wainwright’s favourite fell, Haystacks, for which we would first ascend Scarth Gap Pass.
Scarth Gap’s reputed to be one of the easiest Passes to ascend, and it must be on the Ennerdale side, since there’s only about four hundred feet drop to the Black Sail Youth Hostel. I’m bound to say that I didn’t think, in 1968, that it was as easy as it was cracked up to be, but then the general family consensus those days was always that if Wainwright said it was easy, it was hard, and if he said it was hard it was bloody difficult!
Like Hard Knott, the Pass doesn’t lie at the head of the valley, but crosses the southern ridge, between the irascibility of Haystacks and the prestigious High Stile range. By my later standards, it isn’t a difficult ascent, though I’ve only ever after used the Buttermere side of the Pass for descents, coming down off the ridge on either side after great walking days.
Back in 1968, my Uncle was unwell, so he went no further than Scarth Gap, but we went on to the summit. It didn’t impress Dad as much as he hoped: for him, Lingmell was a far better summit, but he never had the chance to explore further. I would have to do all that for him.
Of course, there was one other Pass in that sector of the Lakes with which I was by now familiar, and this was Honister Pass. I had heard some horror stories about it from Dad and his brother, so it came as a massive surprise, that day of the rains and the tour of the Western Lakes, that when we reached the dark and damp end of Buttermere, my Uncle should so blithely follow the road half left, into Honister bottom.
My memories of that first visit colour all my experiences of Honister, even the ones in good weather. There was the long, slow, almost interminable approach along the valley, with little or no gain in height until the road leaps across the bridge and starts to furiously ascend, among narrowing cliffs, the winding line laid out above, the clouds drifting in between the crags, the gradient worsening at every twist, until it’s a struggle just to keep going long enough to get to the top.
The first time I tried Honister in my own car, I failed. I was driving a Datsun Cherry that had problems and it simply couldn’t take the first slope beyond the bridge, and the traffic kindly waited whilst I turned round and retreated. I’ve never had problems since, but I have also never been able to reach the top without dropping down into first gear for that final rise.
I haven’t tackled the Borrowdale side of the Pass, which is where the steepest gradients lie, just above Seatoller. I’m fine driving down them, but in this instance, I have always adhered to familiy advice and never tried to get up there.
The one time I have had to ascend Honister out of Borrowdale, I had to do it on foot. I was climbing Great Gable, from the Pass, working my way up over Grey Knotts, Brandreth and Green Gable, but in order to sweep round and include Base Brown, I parked at Seathwaite, and walked back to the main Borrowdale road, on a lovely September morning of golden delight.
My original intention was to catch the Mountain Goat bus service to Honister, except that such a service did not then exist. I then proposed to hitch a lift to the Pass, except that the only drivers who did not studiously ignore my existence were the ones with full cars, who could afford to pretend regret. So I ended up walking it, just like Wrynose. It wasn’t too painful, especially once we had cleared the steep bit, through the trees, and I was wandering almost at leisure through the hanging glacial valley above, but it made for a long and wearying prelude to a long, strenuous walk on a hot day, and was not to be recommended, and certainly not repeated.
I break my walking career down into three unbalanced phases. The first of these are those brief, initial years with my Dad, who I remember being the one who took most of the initiative, even though his brother was six years older than him (though that might be the boy in me speaking: at that age, your Dad is always the one in charge). These were the years of being just a boy: your parents decide and you go along with it without complaint (ahem), because that is what life is. You don’t get an opinion, and you don’t expect to.
His falling ill put an end to the Lakes and walking for the next couple of years. We did manage a week away in September of 1970, four of us now, not five, with my mother and Uncle as collaborative powers in charge: a necessary break after the stresses of a horrendous summer in which Dad’s condition deteriorated badly and the last week was nothing but chaos. It meant a chance to put on boots again (and anoraks and waterproofs, for it was cold and very very wet).
The second phase began in earnest the following year. It was business as usual, only with Dad no longer part of us. I was growing into my middle teens, and I was starting to have opinions and wishes of my own. I had read and re-read the Wainwrights so often that it no longer surprised any of my family when I recognised photos of places in the Lakes we had never seen. And after my high-speed sponsored walk for school, I was starting to feel confined by the slow pace and limited ambitions of the older generation.
In short, I was becoming a teenager.
But to be honest, the family’s ambitions were extremely limited. We had proven ourselves capable of reaching the summit of fells over 2,000′ in height, and there were ample below that level, but somehow or other, we could never manage the energy to climb more than one top in a week’s holiday.
I wanted to do more, I wanted to go further afield. There was three-quarters of the Lakes out there that we were deliberately ignoring. Indeed, we were not even getting the most out of our regular haunts. It would take until 11.30 most mornings to even get out of the cottage, and there was an obstinate refusal to even consider where we might then want to go before that point.
And I was slowly growing tired of being treated as if I were still ten, instead of closing in on the end of my teens. I left school, I went to University, I was still being told what to do, where to go and where to stand. We set out to climb Coniston Old Man one day, by the Quarry Path, but the clouds closed in below the summit. I was sent ahead to see whether we were near the top: we were no more than one hundred yards away so I dutifully returned to say how close we were, only to find everyone packing up to go down.
A few times, we reverted to our old type and set off to climb a Pass. One of these was Grisedale Pass, which we approached from the Grasmere end (naturally: Patterdale, no matter how beautiful, was beyond our bounds). It was a greyish day, and I remember some rain and cloud in the upper stages, as we worked our way up by Little Tongue Beck. Technically, we didn’t even reach the top of the Pass, going no further than the col overlooking Grisedale Tarn, where the highest point of the Pass lay beyond it, at the head of Grisedale itself.
We crossed over the top of Great Tongue to return, an extremely rare instance of our not simply turning round and going back the same way we have climbed. For some reason, I took myself out in front, leading the way, letting the other three tramp on behind me, ten yards to the rear. I enjoyed the descent, indeed I came down with so much spare energy to burn that I could seriously have turned round and gone back up again.
Since then, I’ve enjoyed better times with Grisedale Pass, on my own. The only other time I’ve climbed it from Grasmere was in identical conditions to that long-removed family expedition,, and by the same ascent and descent, but in between I scrambled up the cloud-shrouded slopes of Seat Sandal, aware I wasn’t going to get any view, but still getting some enjoyable walking in on a day when views were never going to be part of the parcel.
But I’ve both descended and ascended the Pass, to its true summit, on the Patterdale side, which is much more lovely and, in its views of the Hellvellyn range, and the chance to visit the Brother’s parting, more exciting approach. I do wonder about my family at times. There was a long, slow descent after walking in the Hellvellyns, the day I met Harry Griffin, a day when I took the long stroll to the south side of the valley back home, under a burning sun, glad of the frequent patches of shade from the clumps of trees down that flank, and a Saturday morning ascent, aiming for Fairfield and St Sunday Crag: this was the day of the Manchester Bomb, about which I knew nothing until the 4.00pm radio news, driving towards Shap and the M1 home.
Ennerdale from Black Sail
We were in more familiar territory in Wasdale when, probably as a result of the little influence I could bring to bear, we foresook Sty Head one day for Black Sail. I was allowed to lead the way for most of that: the little climb over the lip of Mosedale, the zig-zags to pass the moraines at the bottom of the upper valley, the long, smooth ascent between grassy flanks and the gate in the ruined fence on the top that I insisted on using, because, of course, I was that kind of person.
I went back twice on my own, both times with the same purpose, of using Black Sail as a starting point for the ascent of Pillar, and some limited form of the Mosedale Horseshoe. The first was a breathless, airless day, hot and stuffy, guaranteed to drain energy like pouring out a bucket. I was already having serious doubts about my ability to progress when, in the upper stages of the Pass, I twisted my ankle, the weak one, the left one, which put paid to it. I just about got to the top of the Pass, and its lonely gate, and after a good rest limped on as far as the top of Looking Stead, though the view of Ennerdale was small consolation. But it was only getting hotter: I remember the slow, dismal return with Yewbarrow, directly ahead, looking like a cardboard cut-out in the flat air.
I had better luck next time, going on to a magnificent day visiting Scoat Fell, Steeple and Red Pike, although I lacked confidence when it came to descending Dore Head and ended up circuiting Yewbarrow to get back to Wasdale Head. One thing that amazed was that, despite seeing a few people on Black Sail, I had the entirety of Pillar’s magnificent east ridge to myself, not a soul in sight on that long ascent, until I reached the sturdy summit.
Given my family’s natural gravitation towards Coniston, it’s both unsurprising and surprising that we should find ourselves setting off to the top of Walna Scar Pass, the surprising element being that we left it as late as we did.
We were very familiar with that side of the Old Man, Torver to Goatswater being one of our regular repeated walks, and we had once used the first part of the Walna Scar Road, from the gate above the lane descending into Coniston Village, to reach Cove Moor and find the tarn that way. But one time we simply crossed our old route, and continued onwards, passing Cove Bridge and gradually approaching the towering wall of the ridge descending from Dow Crag. The final, sweeping pull up onto the col was steep and eroding, though much firmer underfoot than it would subsequently become. I was eager to go on, head up the ridge towards Dow Crag, or at least one of its subsidiaries, but no go: back to the car and the Village.
I would make my way back to Walna Scar for one of my earliest walks once I began to visit the Lakes alone, this time eagerly pursuing that ridge, and rounding Goatswater for the Old Man at last. This was the early part of the infamous day when I found myself very carefully descending that very steep slope into Boulder Valley.
And when I summoned up all my energies and did a complete round of the Coniston range, starting with Wetherlam and ending with Dow Crag, I came down onto Walna Scar and turned for Coniston with relief that had to be tempered by the badly eroded, loose state of the upper slopes of the Pass. Sadly, I have never experienced the Duddon side of Walna Scar.
In the end, family holidays came to an end the moment a concession was made to me. In August 1975, for the first, and only time, we moved our base of operations to the north east of the Lakes, taking a cottage between Penrith and Ullswater. This was specifically to indulge me, by taking us into regions I had never been before, but had been asking to see for, literally, years. I was nineteen, about to go into my final year at University, and I had been away, only two weeks previously, on my first holiday with ‘the lads’: a week in Blackpool, making decisions for myself.
On our first day after arriving, we climbed sweet little Hallin Fell, overlooking Howtown, and returned via a bustling Pooley Bridge. My mother, who I think was resentful at not seeing the same old familiar places, acted horribly towards me, in public, treating me as if I were younger even than my sister, only just turned twelve the previous month. Later that day, having been in the Lakes for little more than twenty-four hours, I took her on one side and told her that I would not be going on any family holidays in future.
Yet even with that undercurrent bubbling away, we had our most successful week ever, at least with me in tow. It would end up on Helvellyn, at the far end of Striding Edge, with Mam deciding that my sister was not going to be risked climbing down the ten foot chimney that gets you off the Edge. I was thunderstruck at the walk ending so limply, but Mam surprised me by releasing me to go on alone, to reach the summit and return on my own recognizance, and I swarmed up the face to the edge of Helvellyn’s top in ten minutes without even breathing hard.
But even by then, we had collectively climbed another fell, and what’s more we had ascended and descended by different routes, both of which involved recognised Passes: the first time we had climbed two fells in the same week, and I had finally added the last Lake to my list of sights.
On the Wednesday, we went to Haweswater, at long last no excuses about it being too far to drive. To justify the drive, we actually set off to climb Harter Fell, from the car park at the head of the valley. To ascend, we used Gatescarth Pass, ascending through grassy valleys, angling around the bulk of Harter. Disappointingly, Longsleddale was not visible behind its gates, and we used the now-abandoned trackless route following the fence over Adam-a-Seat to reach the third cairn and that spectacular view of the lake. It was blowing a howling gale by then, and the summit was so far along the ridge to the south that I think Mam and my Uncle decided it was easier and quicker not to retrace our steps, but to descend onto Nan Bield Pass, and follow the lovely, winding route down by Small Water.
I certainly had no inkling until the summit of Harter that we were not just going to turn round and go back, so this was an added bonus.
I have, of course, been back to both passes on my own, funnily enough to the blander Gatescarth more often. Once I had a car, and the freedom to drive anywhere I chose, I paid that visit to lonely, sweet Longsleddale, wandering along its eastern ridge, the very edges of Lakeland, and coming down to Gatescarth Pass off Branstree, to return to Sadgill.
That was the day I’ve previously spoken of, when the path direct from Gatescarth to Harter Fell’s third cairn appeared out of nowhere, when the eternity of the fells presented itself to me in a new and unconsidered sense. And one of my best days ever, when I ascended High Street by Long Ridge and Rough Crag saw me swing round by Mardale Ill Bell to the top of Nan Bield, but instead of descending there as I’d planned, time and energy combined to carry me on over Harter, to Gatescarth, and a return to Mardale Head by the way I’d only before climbed.
The only other time I’ve walked Nan Bield was, in a sense, a failure. I had planned to walk the Kentmere Horseshoe, but found myself with only the energy for the eastern ridge, and had to descend Nan Bield into the long, empty valley. Yes, I have descended both sides of Nan Bield, without ever ascending it once.
After the end of the family holidays, I didn’t return to the Lakes for six years, paying a brief, October visit in my first car, getting used to negotiating Cumbrian roads whilst they were quiet, and not getting into my boots until 1983, and even then for just a couple of short, individual walks.
But being master of my own motor meant that I could explore the motor passes that Dad and my Uncle had refused to go near. The main one that this left me was Kirkstone Pass, which I tackled impromptu one week, when I had booked out of my Keswick room on the last day. I drove leisurely down Patterdale, seeking one last visual feast, and sort of seduced myself into tackling Kirkstone, from its steepest side, in a fully-laden car. There’s been a couple of times when I’ve needed first gear just to cover the final slopes, especially when the car’s packed, but I’ve crossed the Pass multiple times by now, from either side, without difficulty. Indeed, there’s absolutely no reason to worry at all about the Troutbeck side, where the gradient isn’t steep in even one place. But my family…
On the other hand, there were Whinlatter and Newlands Passes, in the North Western Fells, routes from Keswick (more or less) to Lorton in the one case, and Buttermere in the other. Whinlatter is a pussy cat, and I have criss-crossed it over and again, and stopped at the Visitor Centre at the top on several such visits (and been through the human-sized artificial Badger Sett twice, which played merry hobb with my mild tendency to claustrophobia).
Newlands is a different kettle of fish, though it has a lovely approach through the low, wooded mouth of the Newlands Valley, before the road itself takes off along the valley of Keskadale Beck. It’s a bit of a bugger to drive from the Newlands end, thanks to a ninety degree right hand bend just below the final pull up to the Hause. A car with a decent engine that is not following a driver scared out of their mind can get up a good deal of useful momentum for that final slope, every bit of it it has to relinquish in order to get round that bend without overturning his car. I have yet to be able to get back into Second Gear to reach the Hause, and have always taken this as a signal to pull in to let the engine have a breather.
I have never attempted to cross Newlands from Buttermere. It’s bad enough going down something so unremittingly steep as that, with brakes fully locked at every moment in order to stay in control: I do not need to force my car up that.
Once I settled into being a lone walker, going where I chose, when and at what pace, I grew ever more ambitious in my walking, and set out to visit all of the Wainwrights. In due course, this would involve visiting the very small number of official Passes that I had yet to experience.
The doyen of them all is, naturally, Esk Hause. It’s not just that it’s the highest of them all, though it’s very rarely walked as a pass from Eskdale to Borrowdale (so little so that, after centuries, there is still no actual path from the cairn at its highest point into the fastness of Upper Eskdale itself). Esk Hause is a walker’s Mecca, the hub for so many adventures on the highest of highest ground in this country, the rough and wild heart of the Lakes
I have never climbed the pass from Eskdale, though I’ve frequently trodden its first section, on family expeditions to Throstlegarth, and once beyond, above Esk Gorge, to within sight of the Scafell massif. The Borrowdale arm of the Pass is much more familiar, though I’ve only ever climbed Grains Gill from Seathwaite, on the day I nearly got heat stroke on Glaramara, and descended by that route once, after visiting all three of the Pikes.
It’s a magnificent route, either way, appropriately rough underfoot, in classic rock conditions, a narrowing, straight-edged valley aimed at the heart of Great End.
The highest path in regular use as a Pass in Sticks Pass, between Legburthwaite, near Thirlmere Dam, and poor unfortunate Glenridding in Patterdale. Oddly, unless you allow the Taylorgill Force variation on Sty Head, Sticks is the only Pass I have climbed from both directions, ironically within less than six weeks of each other in the late Summer, early Autumn of 1993.
The first of these was a frustrating day. I was planning to end my regular September holiday with a Big Walk: the Helvellyn Range from Sticks Pass to Grisedale pass, from Glenridding. The day started sunnily, though the cloud was blowing briskly across Raise as I approached: long, straight, airless walk to Glenridding Lead Mine, the zig-zag scramble up the slag heap behind, the eerie emptiness of the still-damp basin that once housed Sticks Reservoir, and the overlong winding in the confines of Sticks Gill East until reaching the long, open top.
But the cloud never blew off the tops, Helvellyn was in deep cloud, but nonetheless receiving a continuous stream of visitors, so I had to retreat. And a month or so later, planning a Sunday on the Dodds, I used the other side of Sticks – which is frankly bland and featureless – as a stepping stone to Stybarrow Dodd. I remember virtually nothing of the ascent.
Long before that, and in a back-handed way, I had introduced myself to Coledale Pass, the fourth of those Passes to cross my beloved North-Western Fells. Though it’s a brilliant access to the highest fells in that smooth, clean-lined area, I’ve never ascended either side of Coledale, though I’ve used it as a means of descent from the fells after glorious days.
The first of these was decidedly unintended. I had planned for a full Coledale Horseshoe, one August Saturday when I planned to weekend in the Lakes, but low cloud interrupted me on Hopegill Head after a stunning climb of Grisedale Pike and, with droplets clinging to my beard, I was forced to abandon my plans and drop down to the Hause.
I was sufficiently far beneath the cloud to get an idea of the geography, though it was not until I could descend in sunlight that I began to properly understand it. Instead of the usual single path from one end to the other, the ascent out of Coledale turns out of the Hause and into the shallow upper valley that leads to the plateau between Eel Crag and Grasmoor, whilst the continuation of the Pass is a turn-off, towards and into the confines of Gasgale Gill.
The Coledale descent involved two wide swings round the twin Force Crags before crossing the beck and following the old miner’s road to the diggings. It at least gave me the most perfect circular walk, since the mine road ends at the little roadside quarry turned car park, and I even ended up arriving at the other side of my car from whence I started.
In contrast to the spaciousness of Coledale, Gasgale Gill is a place of confinement, winding, quiet, in places almost ravine-like. I’ve returned along it twice, on the second occasion managing, on level grass a hundred yards from my car, to turn over my left ankle so painfully that it took two years to clear up fully, and effectively put an end to my squash playing career in the process.
I didn’t go anywhere near Greenup Edge until the last but one walk at the end of the Wainwrights. With Ullscarf as the destination, I set off from Stonethwaite. This is not the most exciting of approaches, although Standing Crag is a bit of a fun scramble en route.
Above it, Greenup’s most infamous characteristic starts to make its presence known and just gets worse. It is wet underfoot, and stays so. There would seem to be absolutely no drainage of surface water, in defiance of everything known about geography. A short cut can be made, cutting out a substantial corner and the actual top of the Pass, which is as close as it comes to walking on water without being the head of a major international religion, but given my family background, that option was never tenable. I did not stay long at Greenup’s top, in fact I didn’t stop moving, and neither would you. Nor have I returned.
I’ve saved Scandale Head until last because it was the last Pass, even though I had visited its top as long ago as the late Eighties. Scandale Head – which is also known as Caiston Pass, after the steep beck that guides the path on the Patterdale side – is pretty much an unnecessary pass, especially for the walker. It runs parallel to Kirkstone, separated only by the bulk of Red Screes/Middle Dodd. And it took unusual circumstances for me to find the need to use it.
I did collect the little group of fells around that side of Kirkstone, making a horseshoe out of Caiston Beck. Up by High Hartsop Dodd and Little Hart Crag, a traverse across the top of the pass to Red Screes, and down by Middle Dodd. So, in counterpart to Sticks where I’d ascended the pass from both ends, I had been at Scandale/Caiston’s summit without ascending – or descending – it from either direction!
An impromptu chance to rectify that came up in 1997 when I’d driven up to the Lakes for a day’s walking, with Blencathra and Narrow Edge as my goal. Unfortunately, it was too cloudy at that end of the District, so I pounded south over Dunmail Raise, in search of better weather.
I’d not long since completed the first draft of my Even in Peoria, which climaxed with a fight in cloud on Red Screes, so this seemed a chance to do some research for the Second Draft. I checked a few things about Grasmere and the road to Ambleside, and then set off for Red Screes via Scandale Head.
I was familiar with the lower section, having used it a couple of times previously to access the Fairfield Horseshoe, but this time I avoided the temptation to cross the High Sweden Bridge and continued up the increasingly drab and featureless valley to its top. From Hard Knott to Scandale Head had taken just over thirty years.
The ascent to Red Screes from the pass was interrupted by a descent of the cloud onto the top 2 – 300′ of the fell, but then I was probably the only walker on Red Screes that day who not merely didn’t mind having no view but who was positively delighted. My summit fight scene took place in low cloud: the scene was perfect.
My eventual trip to the moorland top of Stake Pass came a year or so later. Walking Passes had begun as a stopgap activity, an easy breaking in to none-too-strenuous routes suitable for two young children (not that one of those children agreed). Collecting the Passes was never an end in itself, yet my instinct towards completism, that has never left me throughout my life, demanded that one day I should visit all of them.
And now I have.
The final stage of the Grand Tour is the simplest and easiest, which is always the most befitting for the homeward run. Basically, it’s the Keswick-Ambleside road, with a single possible variant along the way.
Actually, this is the point where the circular Tour ceases to be circular for it’s a more or less straight line back, down the Central Rift throughout the centre of the Lakes.
Before embarking on the route back to base, there may be some who, having decided against the ‘high road’ along the western side of Derwentwater, and who, having entered Keswick from Borrowdale, made a pit stop for loos and cups of tea or coffee. Those travellers have not yet seen Bassenthwaite Lake so, in order not to miss out, begin the final stage by heading north on the main street.
At the little roundabout, turn right as signposted for Carlisle, crossing the A66 at the big roundabout and continuing onwards through level, green country that, in older days, when the two Lakes were one major body of water, was submerged. Bass Lake is close at hand at its foot but the Carlisle road drifts further away, running under the shadow of tree-bound Dodd.
At the Castle Inn, turn left, follow the road around the foot of the Lake and shoot back down the A66, along Bass’s western shore, heading back to Keswick.
The road out of Keswick climbs to escape the Vale, before cutting through the valley of Naddle Beck, lying almost parallel to the Vale of St John. The Vale lies on the line of the rift, and the waters of Thirlmere used to drain along it in a perfectly logical, geographic manner, until the former Armboth Water and Leathes Water were submerged and its waters sent south over Dunmail Raise, for the benefit of the citizens of Manchester, myself among them.
Thirlmere used to be incredibly difficult to see. It’s long been Forestry Commission territory, just as is Ennerdale, but the Commission were even more officious here, guarding its privacy by thick plantations along the eastern shore, so that even when the main road ran by the lake itself, only the briefest glimpses of water were visible between the screen.
It’s always been possible to circumvent this by talking the old, rough road round the western shore of the lake, and even though the Commission has long since mended its ways, this is still the best for views.
There are two approaches to the west shore, the first of which can only be accessed from the northbound carriage, this being a section where, in the Sixties or thereabouts, a new smooth section was laid, and the old, narrow carriageway retained for south-bound traffic. Southbound travelers emerge from the end of the dual carriageway in time to take the second approach, which has the added bonus of crossing the dam itself, though you shouldn’t try stopping to look on the way.
At the head of the Lake, the two routes join, at the foot of Dunmail Raise. This is a complete doddle to drive, and on a sunny day there’s a lovely picture of Grasmere, in its Vale, below.
The road follows Grasmere’s shores anyway, before descending through wooodlands to pass it’s little sister, Rydal Water. Rydal is the thirteenth and last lake of the Tour, and all that remains is the short, but no doubt busy run into Ambleside. You may wish to schedule a day of minimal or no driving for the morrow.
For those not yet cramped out from all those hours behind the wheel, there is a slightly longer variation near the start of this leg, using the A66 to escape eastwards from Keswick in order to turn into and drive down the Vale of St John, instead of the main highway via Naddle Beck. Those who take this option should be aware that the St John’s road emerges south of the dam road to the west side of Thirlmere, requiring you to turn back on yourself if you plan on taking that route.
There’s bound to be those who will ask if it’s possible to tour all sixteen Lakes in a single day, but the geography is against it. East of the central rift, the valleys don’t fall into the spoke pattern of the west. Ullswater lies in Patterdale, on the far side of a ridge stretching to over 3,000′ high, and Haweswater can only be reached by car from the ‘outside’, coming in, and is as much of a cul-de-sac as Ennerdale Water and Wastwater.
It’s perfectly possible on the last leg to take a more circuitous route via Matterdale and Patterdale, arriving midway along Ullswater’s middle reach and returning to Ambleside via Kirkstone Pass and The Struggle, all of which cuts Thirlmere, Grasmere and Rydal Water out of the round, which rather defeats the object of the exercise. Of course, if you could somehow work out a way of starting the tour in Keswick and finishing in Ambleside of a second lap…
When time and personal motorised transport allow, this is the route I’m going to drive. In the meantime, the memories will have to satisfy me.
Here I am, lying around feeling sorry for myself with a nasty, griping throat and a head that feels like another thought will never cross it again and I stumble across brilliant news.
I have twice praised Terry Abraham’s stunning film, Life of a Mountain – Scafell Pike, both in the edited version broadcast on BBC2 in the early part of this year and the full-length version available on DVD. Now, idly browsing a feature on ‘The Ten Greatest Walks in the Lake District’ on the website for The Great Outdoors magazine, the profile of David Powell-Thompson alerted me to the news that Terry is currently researching a sequel about the magnificent Blencathra.
The new film is set for release next year, giving me at least one thing to look forward to in 2016.Premier scheduled for the Rheged Centre, Penrith, on 16 May.
Sight unseen, I’m prepared to plug it to everyone who loves the Lakes and its mountains, even if it appears that Terry has decided to involve ‘celebrities’ in at least one part of this piece. The clip on the TGO site is about the infamous and nerve-wracking Sharp Edge, and features Stuart Maconie and Ed Byrne.
Maconie I can stand but as for Byrne, well, I’m not going to watch the clip, I want to experience the whole thing as a pristine, fresh, experience, so I can only hope he fell off. Not necessarily on that bit, but I shall be very interested to see how that section gets filmed and if Abrahams has worked out a method of filming that captures the experience, I would prefer to watch that little sequence behind several sofas, with someone else’s hands across my eyes, and maybe in a different room in a different house.
(I got across intact but, even if I were suddenly back at my peak, I would think long and hard – possibly until I was well off my peak again – before going that way a second time.)
One hopes that this is merely the second in a long list of such films…
Back in those dim, distant days when my only knowledge of the Lake District came from family holidays, we would occasionally be tripped up by rainy days. At first, these would only occur on Fridays, which meant the almost traditional drive north, over Dunmail Raise, to wander around Keswick, slickered up in raincoats, before it cleared after lunch and we would park for a couple of hours by the Derwent, down the valley.
A couple of times, however, the rains would come on other days of the week, and on one memorable occasion, my family gave way to my ceaseless clamour to see Lakes I had not previously visited, and we went driving. At first, it would be the old familiar route via the Wycham Valley to the coast, and Ravenglass, as if for Wasdale or Eskdale. But instead, we followed the coast further north, as far as Egremont, and then turned off towards Cold Fell, and the moors to Ennerdale, and beyond that to Loweswater and the Buttermere Valley and, to my astonishment, given how my Uncle guarded his car, over Honister Pass and down into Borrowdale.
I remember this for being my first sightings of Ennerdale Water, Loweswater, Crummock Water and Buttermere, and the efforts my Uncle made to find temporary stopping places that enabled me to take black and white photos of these new Lakes.
This was long ago, and in the years following, I have driven all these roads, and seen these Lakes and Valleys several times over. But I never did the Grand Tour for myself. The days were usually too good not to be walking, and those days when the fells were impossible were so bad for rain and cloud that the Tour would have been no more than driving for the sake of it, with little to see.
For the past six years I have not had access to a car, and once you are reliant on public transport to reach the Lakes, let alone navigate about it when you are there, the Western Lakes and these valleys that face the Irish Sea are far beyond the possibility of visit.
That doesn’t deprive me of the memories, and when fortunes and mobility change for the better, one of the first things I have promised myself is to spend a day doing the Grand Tour. I’ve thought about it many times, and I’ve devised it so that, in a single day, it’s possible to see thirteen of the traditionally Sixteen Lakes, without much backing, filling and contrivance.
I’ve mentioned before that my family used to confine themselves almost exclusively to the south west quarter of Lakeland, from Grasmere round to Wasdale. I’ve always been much more cosmopolitan, splitting my holidays between Ambleside and Keswick when it came to bases, and making sure of going everywhere I could. So many sights of which my family deprived themselves, and I don’t just mean the fells I’ve climbed.
Our tour, my Tour, goes round in a circle. The whole point of a circular tour is that you can join it at any point on its circumference, but my instincts always lead me to start and finish in Ambleside. On the other hand, whilst I tend to the opposite in horseshoe walks, the Grand Tour progresses gloriously clockwise.
Remember, there’s thirteen Lakes to be collected, and the first of these, Windermere, appears almost immediately. On the Coniston road, less than a half mile out of Ambleside, the trees thin to reveal a long vista down the Lake, almost to the islands opposite Bowness. I’ve never seen this view without a forest of white masts and sails.
I’ve probably travelled the Ambleside – Coniston road more often than any other in the Lakes, passenger and driver, enough to be familiar with every bend and bump in the road, enough to drive it in ten foot visibility fog if I needed to. So I know that when the road passes the mouth of Great Langdale, crosses Skelwith Bridge and begins to climb through the trees, that as soon as it emerges into the open, Elterwater is visible below in the lower valley. It’s hard to see, both because the lake has shrunk considerably in my lifetime, from a small, tarn sized lake with facing promontories, to three connected pools that, within the next fifty years, will no doubt seize up and disappear.
It’s also very difficult for a driver to see it, since it lies downhill at a backwards angle on the right, so it’s sensible to pull into the first layby on the other side of the road and get out for a proper look.
Next stop is Coniston, entering the Village from the north. It’s far too early in the day to stop, but at this point I want to backtrack and refer to an alternate start to the route, that sacrifices the distant glimpse of Elterwater for a much more up front encounter with pastoral Esthwaite Water.
Personally, Esthwaite Water has never done anything for me. It’s a secluded Lake that lies among fields and hedges rather than on the fringe of the hill country, and it is the hill country that always enthrals me. Whilst it’s not far away in miles, nor obscure of access, Esthwaite feels as if it is much further away from the fells than it actually is. Bringing it into the walk involves sidestepping the familiar Ambleside-Coniston road entirely, in favour of the road to Waterhead and Bowness.
This has its advantages in extended and more intimate views of the upper half of Windermere, including the classic view of the Langdale Pikes, always looking much closer than they are in real geography. On the other hand, this approach risks considerable delays, both in driving through Bowness Bay and crossing the Lake on the ferry. Especially if you pull up on the Bowness shore just in time to see the boat cranking away on its chains on the slow journey towards the western shore, with the return journey yet to come.
Once across the Lake, the road winds through idyllic country lanes, the signposts to Near and Far Sawrey invoking the inevitable associations with the late Mrs Heelis – that’s Beatrix Potter to you – and eventually the alternate routes round Esthwaite Water itself, which is calm, peaceful and beautiful, but it’s a beauty that doesn’t below to the Lakes, a beauty from which ruggedness of any kind is absent. You might as well be down south.
Hawkshead lies at the head of the lake. It’s a very expensive place to visit as cars have been barred all my life, and the car and coach parks have set their prices on the exclusive rights basis, and to be honest, even if this is Midsummer’s day and you’ve set off at sparrowfart, there isn’t enough time to stop off and visit, so continue driving north.
This road leads back to the Ambleside-Coniston road, only a couple of miles outside the village. You could still include Elterwater by doing this, and increase the number of Lakes to fourteen, but it really does mean a bit too much faffing around for something that’s supposed to be a roughly circular tour, so let’s not. Instead, a mile or so north of the village, a road turns off towards Coniston, rising gently to cross the low ridge east of the Lake, and descending in steep bends to round the head of Coniston Water, whilst offering some spectacular views over the lake. From the lake head, follow the road on into the Village from the East, to rejoin the main route.
Which, despite the relatively short distance traveled, is a suitable point to say that Stage One, from East to South, has been completed.
Earlier this year, without fanfare or review, except perhaps in places I tend not to visit, Frances Lincoln Ltd published the first in a new Edition – the Third – of the Wainwrights.
For those still unfamiliar with the term, I’m referring to the series of seven guidebooks to the fells and mountains of the English Lake District produced between 1950 and 1965 by the late Alfred Wainwright (who also gives his name to the 214 fells and mountains covered therein). Wainwright’s books were a comprehensive guide: geography, maps, features, ascents, descents, ridge-routes and views. More than just guidebooks, they were works of art: hand-written, hand-drawn, hand-mapped. One man’s hand, one man’s eye, one man’s mind.
Of course, from the date of publication, each book grew steadily out of date, as the fells changed, walls and fences were put up or taken down, paths fell into disuse or were walked into being. Wainwright would have withdrawn them after a few years, when their inaccuracy became too much for his pride, but their slow-burning yet phenomenal popularity prevented this fate from occurring, and I for one have spent nearly fifty years walking with the originals in hand, literally, without once getting lost or confused (for any reason attributable to the books).
Had Wainwright had the idea earlier in life, he would have gleefully begun revisions, but completion of his Guides more or less coincided with retirement.
Eventually, a Second Edition did appear, from Frances Lincoln, revised by former taxi-driver and map-making enthusiast Chris Jesty. Jesty’s round of Editions were completed between 2005 and 2009, and he deserves a thousand rounds of applause for his superb work (if only to deflect the waves of jealousy from those who, like me, would have killed for the chance to take his place!)
Now, only ten years later, Lincolns have commissioned former newspaper editor and Lakeland enthusiast Clive Hutchby to start again. A decade has gone by since Jesty’s work, and the latter has admitted that, not being as practiced a walker as Wainwright himself, he had not checked all of the unmarked routes in the seven books, a task which Hutchby has determined to accomplish.
And now the first fruits of Hutchby’s labours is with us, as Book 1, The Eastern Fells, is available. And the first thing to be noticed is that there is a vast difference of intent between the Jesty and the Hutchby Editions. Jesty’s Second Edition was about Continuity, about Preservation and Respect. His books were Wainwright’s books, updated as required to reflect the changes wrought by forty to fifty-five years of life in the Lake District, but otherwise kept as close to the original as possible.
Sometimes, this meant changes to Wainwright’s text. Since the old boy was no longer here to apply his hand, Lincoln’s took advantage of the advances of technology and had Wainwright’s letters scanned in to be formatted as a Wainwright font. Thus, new sections, new paragraphs, could be inserted in Wainwright font, to keep the look of each page as consistent as possible, and as close to the original as possible.
It doesn’t entirely work. There is a difference, a discernible difference, between the human hand and a computer text. No matter how meticulous Wainwright was in the forming of each letter, how regularly it was formed, the weight of each pen-stroke, the amount of ink on each nib, the minute fractions of discrepancy in the spacing of letters, these are all an intrinsic part of his work, and the reader can sense these, can detect the organic nature of the work.
A computer is too mechanical. It is too regular, too even. Every ‘r’, every ‘k’, every capital ‘T’ is identical, over and over, every space between letters is exact and equal to a microscopic degree. The eye sees, and the mind registers.
So its use was as sparing as necessity required. Jesty kept everything he could of Wainwright. That’s not the case with Hutchby.
The difference is immediately noticeable. Gone are the dust jackets: the book is glued directly inside the glossy covers. And the book is slightly narrower, slightly taller. These are perhaps sensible changes, making the book physically more convenient for rucksack and anorak pockets.
But that’s not all. The title has changed. These books are no longer A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells: they are Wainwright’s Walking Guide to the Lakeland Fells. And, to distinguish this latest version from the previous two, this is not the Third Edition. It’s the Walkers Edition.
Walkers Edition? What the hell do Hutchby/Lincoln’s think the original books were? Embroiderers Editions? Police Detectives Editions? Japanese Calligraphers Editions? At the sight of those words, my hackles rose, and they have remained in a risen state ever since.
Because this is the edition in which the publishers (who are no longer led by Frances Lincoln herself) have decided that it’s going to change. And one thing that has changed once you get inside is that these books are no longer Wainwright’s. Except where it is impossible to intervene, in lettering entered onto maps, Wainwright’s hand has been removed from the vast majority of the book. Everything has been reset in Wainwright font, no matter how exact the original wording remains. Alfred Wainwright is halfway out of the door of his own Guides.
After that, the Hutchby Edition has built up a prejudice in me that is impossible to overcome. I have read the originals so often that, if the printing plates were to be destroyed, the whole series could be recreated, intact, by scanning my memories. They were neat, precise, sometimes almost lyrical, and Wainwright knew how to let a page breathe. Hutchby suffocates pages, adding and adding lines and paragraphs of font, changing as he goes.
It’s one thing if these amendments are updates, removal of obsolete and irrelevant references, updating details, even adding descriptions to paths in places that didn’t exist for Wainwright when he walked. This is Hutchby’s job, his purpose, and generally he does a decent job of it.
But too often, too intrusively, too self-importantly, Hutchby cannot resist making changes that exceed this remit. He cannot resist swamping pages with additional information, cross-referring to other chapters, paragraphs of etymological construction of fell names, changes to Wainwright’s opinions to substitute his own, adding information to one page that duplicates Wainwright’s existing statement of the same thing on the next!
It begins to look as if the book is taller so that Hutchby can cram all these titbits into page bottom paragraphs without distorting the maps.
The majority of this additional information is unnecessary. If Hutchby were doing his own guide, it might be interesting background material, but it’s offensive to me because of the way in which it detracts from the source material. It’s no longer Wainwright’s guide, not with this guy Hutchby running round the edges, sticking his stuff on all over the place with drawing pins, and chopping bits out just so he can write his thoughts instead.
And it’s against the whole purpose of the enterprise, which was to be purely and cleanly about the fells, focused upon what the walker wanted – and needed – to get them to the top of a fell and, what’s more, safely down again. Hutchby’s clutter is antithetical to that spirit.
To take one random example, go to Hart Side 8, showing the view. Wainwright makes the comment, ‘The view is disappointing. Although Hart Side has a considerable altitude, it does not overtop the main ridge to the west, which hides all the high fells beyond. Intervening ground to the east conceals most of Ullswater’. There are no updates which alter or qualify that brief statement, but Hutchby still feels the need to alter it, by changing the first line to, ‘The view is generally disappointing.’ (italics added).
That’s Hutchby’s opinion. This is Wainwright’s book. Hutchby should be keeping his damned nose out of things and not trying to set up his own opinions.
The Helvellyn chapter is the first to be seriously molested, with some of the changes sensible and necessary, whilst others are just more examples of Hutchby’s obsession with making changes. An extended section on Striding Edge is introduced, complete with new maps and drawings, covering two full pages, which is very useful, and it’s paralleled by giving Swirral Edge a half-page – no maps, no drawings – that is achieved by cutting Lower Man’s page in half in a decidedly perfunctory manner.
Elsewhere, Hutchby rejects the gradient plans of the respective Western and Eastern Approaches, is curiously obsessive about forcing an ascent over Catstycam in as a ‘new’ approach and, for no discernible reason whatsoever, swaps the order of the Eastern and Grasmere approaches pages.
Actually, this Catstycam issue is typical of another distinct difference in approach. Wainwright treated his readers with respect. He was performing a useful, invaluable task for them, but (contrary opinions noted) he was not leading anyone by the hand. He trusted his readers to make connections, and to plan and think for themselves. Hutchby doesn’t. Anyone with half a brain can look at the Helvellyn chapter and work out that there’s a route of approach over Catstycam. Hutchby pushes it repeatedly, clogging up a scene where there are already several approaches, making the book even fussier.
Only when reaching the final pages is there any relief: Wainwright’s original Personal Notes have been preserved intact, his handwriting now a jarring contrast to the mechanical print. No doubt, at some future point, these too will be reset in the font, to preserve the unity of the Volume, but for now they are a small mercy.
No, I do not like this Third Edition. Indeed, I am opposed to almost all the new ideas that have gone into it, and unless someone of true taste and enlightenment comes into authority at Frances Lincoln, I can only see this trend worsening in future Editions.
Nevertheless, I will be buying them, and when I get back to the fells, I will be carrying them. Whatever the faulty aesthetics, it must be remembered that these are Guide Books, and their principal concern is accuracy and fidelity to the fells as they are in 2015 and the immediate future.
In that, I have no doubt that Hutchby can be trusted to have done the right job – and if he hasn’t, disgruntled and misled walkers will be flooding Frances Lincoln’s with complaints and criticisms, and Mountain Rescue will undoubtedly have things to say as well. And armchair walkers like myself would get all smug, which I firmly do not want to see.
Re-acquainting myself with the library last month, for the first time since before Christmas, my eyes happened to light upon Martin Edwards’ The Frozen Shroud, the sixth and, to date last, in his Lake District Mysteries series featuring Historian Daniel Kind and Detective Chief Inspector Hannah Scarlett of the Cumbria Constabulary Cold Crimes Squad.
Thinking it was a new book, I thought I’d give it a peruse, but I had in fact read it before, but simply not commented upon it. Feeling in the mood for a bit of malicious chastisement, and suffering from sufficient a degree of anal retentivity as to be faintly disturbed at leaving one book out, I thought I’d pass a few comments on the same.
It’s possible that this may be the last book of the series: after all, it ends with the two will-they-won’t-they-oh -get-on-with-it protagonists finally planning a shagging weekend in Wales after assiduously spending over two-thirds of the book avoiding each other rigidly on the grounds that now all complications keeping them from getting it together have been erased that they aren’t actually interested in each other at all. So, bang goes the sexual tension, which is more than the sexual tension had been going in the first place.
Plus Hannah’s publicity-seeking Deputy Chief Constable has legged it out of the Force, no longer blocking Hannah’s route to further promotion.
And, on a more sobering note, the present day murder victim is Hannah’s best friend and polar opposite, Terry, her face battered in in a brutal crime intended to echo two similar incidents – one deeply historical – which have given rise to rumours of a ghost. The killer is the least likely person, naturally, until a motive common to the present killing and the one of five years ago with which Edwards opens the book, presents itself as the closing pages approach.
The setting for this crime is once again Ullswater, in the shape of a fictional peninsula on the east shore of the lake, south of Howtown, which forms an effective closed community, inhabited by flamboyant, arty types. The book’s title is not linked to any pseudo-Cumbrian place or thing, but rather the brutal crime, which is less offensive, but mostly the book’s plus points are negativities: that it doesn’t try too hard to persuade you that it is taking place in the Lakes.
The same old criticisms apply: a complete absence of sense of place (it takes a bit more than placing Helvellyn ‘opposite’ and having Hallin Fell ‘loom’ over the scene at convenient moments when the latter is only a small fell to begin with and far too far north of Helvellyn to be in any meaningful sense opposite). Nor does anyone in the book talk remotely Cumbrian. But I repeat myself. And really, the out-of-place names for places and things are just trite this time instead of unreflective.
As a by the by, this is not the only crime fiction story I’ve read of late to set itself in the Lake District. When I’m after undemanding, easy-to-read fiction that I can just breeze through without being tempted to blog, I’ve read several of Edward Marston’s Railway Detective series: polite, mid-Victorian crime, very professional, slightly formulaic stuff whose selling point is that the crimes are all, in one way or another, connected to or facilitated by the burgeoning rail network of the 1850s. Former Barrister Robert Colbeck of the Metropolitan Police is the go-to guy for any train crime, much to the disgust of his stuffy, ex-Army Superintendent Mr Tallis and his home-loving, train-fearing Sergeant, Victor Leeming.
Marston’s most recent contribution to the series, which now includes a dozen novels, is a collection of short stories, a dozen indeed, spanning the whole country and including, in one tale, Ravenglass Station. Now that’s what you call personal, not merely on behalf of my spiritual county, but my great grandfather, who was Stationmaster at Ravenglass Station. Probably not quite as far back as the Railway Detective’s celebrated visit, but that’s not the point.
Honestly, Marston must have done no research whatsoever into Ravenglass Village, because the kind of community he plonked down for Colbeck to investigate made Edwards’s efforts look like a documentary. If you’re going to be that casual about your subject, bloody well make something up instead, so it doesn’t matter.