Yewbarrow in October


Deep blue sky from visible horizon to visible horizon. A glowing yellow sun. Diamond sharp air. Hard edged sun-cast shadows.

Today’s weather takes me back over twenty years to a similar week in a mid-Nineties October. Day after day it was cold and blue and crystal clear, and I was anxiously eyeing the sky for signs of it changing before I could get to the Lakes on Sunday for a day’s walking (United were at home on Saturday).

With the night drawing in from about 4.30pm, I couldn’t plan a long expedition, and I’d already been frustrated at Yewbarrow on a rainy, cloudy Saturday in the summer, so that former my plan. I was away up the motorway, crossing the south of the Lakes and cutting out the corner behind Black Combe on the Corney Fell Road. This gave me my first surprise.

I breasted the ridge, about 900′ or so, and saw the Irish Sea appear before me. It was amazing.

The sea spread out from side to side, and was a deep turquoise blue that I have never seen before or since. The Isle of Man lay in the middle of this, looking bigger and nearer than I have ever seen, before or since, as if the sea on the western side of the island were also visible. Further along the coast, there was a white circle, like a silver coin laid down on the turquoise, which puzzled me until I realised, from its position, that this was the estuary at Ravenglass, and that the white had to be the fresh water, pouring out into the sea, a different colour from the seawater and not yet merging.

It was stunning to see, but the first thought I had was frustration, at not having foreseen just how clear the air would be. Had I realised it would be, could be like this, I would have set the alarm a couple of hours earlier, and aimed to be at Wasdale Head in time to get up Scafell Pike: they say that it is possible from there to see the mountains of Ireland, and if they weren’t visible in those conditions, they never would be!

I motored on to Wasdale Head, parked at Down-in-the-Dale, and headed for the Hotel, cutting through its grounds and across the Packhorse Bridge for the path into Mosedale.

On my previous visit, kit had been a grey day, with cloud swirling about all the Wasdale tops, but I had set off with my usual grim determination optimism, banking on it clearing by the time I got that high. It didn’t. What was worse was that I had taken the broad green ride that rose from the Mosedale path, meeting the Dore Head scree run about halfway up, only to find when I got there that the scree-run had been dug into a scree-less rough channel, with ten foot overhangs guarding it, and no possible way across to the path on its further side.

I could have descended four to five hundred feet to the valley floor, and tried going up the far side, but I was not prepared to make that kind of retreat. This side of the channel was pathless, but studying what lay above, I figured I could get up that, especially if I angles over left, towards the base of the crags. Since I’m still here to write this, it obviously worked, but I’d not take that decision again.

I climbed carefully, a few steps at a time, studying the ground immediately ahead, and once I had got to the cliffbase, clinging on to it for comfort and support. It was slow progress, a couple of steps at a time where needed, working my way back towards the scree run at the centre.

The worst part was discovering there was no way onto the safety of the ridge on that side, not without climbing the base of Stirrup Crag itself. To get onto ground from which I could complete the ascent, I had to contour across the top of the trench, deep, scraped bare, no support under foot. It wasn’t as bad at Sharp Crag, but only Sharp Crag was a worse moment.

I’d reached the ridge safely, but the cloud hadn’t departed in the meantime. It was swirling around Stirruip Crag: no going on, no going back. My only option was to retreat down Over Beck, to circumnavigate Yewbarrow instead of climb it. And I hadn’t gone more than about four hundred yards before it started raining.

It rained hard. I’d gotten into my waterproofs as soon as it started but after a certain point, when it sluices down like it did then, waterproofs become waterlogs: I tramped back to Down-in-the-Dale, got behind the wheel and drove as close to the Hotel as I could and sprinted for the gents. By some incredible chance, I’d brought a change of clothes with me. I never did that, but I had that day, so I could get into dry things even if I wasn’t perfectly dry.

The only drawback was that I had not thought to bring replacement underwear. I was not prepared to go commando, though I really wish I had: my wet y-fronts immediately soaked through my jeans and I spent the rest of the day, returning via Cockermouth and Keswick, looking like a superhero around the loins.

But there would be no such occurrences this October Sunday. All well calm and crystal clear, bright and dry.

I passed under the broad green ride, and beneath the debouchment of the old scree-chute, after which I started looking for a path bearing upwards. The first I found was a narrow trod, on grass, gaining height through a sequence of minor dells, in which the grass underfoot sparkled with  miniature frost.

This played out after about three hundred feet and I contoured left, across the top of a prominent bluff, to reach a more firmly defined, but still narrow path near the edge of the trench. This was one of those superb, will-o’-the-wisp paths, never heading in the same direction for more than about six or seven steps at a time, zig-zagging to and fro, gaining height comfortable, before emerging in a little dell, dominated by a boulder in its centre/ I rounded the boulder, pulled myself up to the top and found myself on the ridge, about ten yards north of Dore Head.

Stirrup Crag was black against the sun. I tackled the scramble, hands and feet, twisting backwards and forwards and having a glorious time of it. It could have lasted at least twice as long as far as I was concerned, I was enjoying myself massively and sorry to come out on top of the Crag, on the rooftree of Yewbarrow, with an easy stroll to the summit rocks.

Many years ago, with my Dad and Uncle Arthur, we’d gotten close to here, leaving my mother and sister behind at Great Door and going ahead enough to look across and see Burnmoor Tarn on its boring moor. The western wall of the Scafell range looked magnificent: I usually gravitate to the eastern aspect, above Eskdale but this day the Wasdale front was worth every atom of daylight.

And then a slow descent, via Great Door, and down into Over Beck and, for the third time, the long slow walk back along the lake road. It was not as good as the first time I’d finished a walk that way, completing the Mosedale Horseshoe on a brilliant day, not being prepared to descend Dore Head, sight unseen, and coming this long way round, tramping the road at a September 6.30pm, the Pike and Scafell looking close enough across Wastwater that I felt as if I could reach out and touch them.

There was a long drive back, and it was dark before I was in Manchester, but the preternatural clarity of the weather had made it a magical experience for me. Today has brought it back, and I have wallowed in it!

Obscure Corners – Miterdale Head


MiterdaleThat in this day and age, almost sixty years since the publication of The Southern Fells, it is still possible to call Miterdale Head an Obscure Corner is a telling comment on the vast majority of Lakeland visitors in that time. Miterdale is a shy, overlooked side valley with no obvious features, save for its unusual dale head, yet it borders upon and is easily accessible from the ever-popular Eskdale, its whole length being possible to walk in little more than an hour, and sweet in every yard. It’s been talked about continually. And still they do not come.
Isn’t that absolutely brilliant?
I first visited the valley in the late Sixties, a brief, evening excursion before the long drive back to Broughton-in-Furness. Wainwright describes there being two ‘roads’ into the valley, neither of them sign-posted. We parked in Eskdale Green, at a corner in the road, where what looked like a private road, between walls, led uphill. In reality, this was a rough track, climbing up and down across the low ridge guarding the valley mouth.
Once in Miterdale, we followed the path about half way down the valley, until the way grew wet underfoot and the sky began to dull.
All my later visits have been under my own steam, by car, using the actual road into the valley, which looks equally private (may it never acquire a signpost or, if it ever does, let it be torn down instantly), which leads to a rough car park at the road end, just short of the first farm.
The path is, initially, a tractor track on the north of the beck – or rather, the River Mite, one of the three rivers coming together to form the Ravenglass Estuary, once the busiest port in England. Further up, the way becomes a track, crossing back to the south of the beck, bordered by a wall, sometimes crossing wet ground, mostly under the shade of trees.
It’s a level walk without difficulties, though there is still an air of sadness about the middle valley, in the form of abandoned farms, working establishments in the most recent century, now empty.
The character of Miterdale changes abruptly at the end of the middle valley. The enclosing fells close in, the Mite is a winding beck carving a bubbling channel through a narrow, grassy divide, impossible to discern ahead for more than twenty yards or so at a time. The path is narrow and sporty, hugging the beck, dancing up and down.
Slowly, a low line of grassy bluffs forms a horizon, growing nearer, until this shy ravine broadens out into the wide, flat cirque of Miterdale Head.
It’s a completely unexpected sight, a grassy bowl, flat and wide, terminating in miniature grass cliffs down which a waterfall really ought to decently tumble. It is silent, even the rush of the wind diminished. There is the immediate urge, even in those who only ever sleep in beds, to start a camp here. It is a place to be alone, where it feels as if you will never be disturbed.
Several people have suggested that Miterdale Head forms part of the inspiration for Arthur Ransome’s Swallowdale, in the book of the same name. It’s a romantic notion, and the valley head supports the suggestion, but it is far and away from the Furness features that Ransome built upon to create the fictional landscape of his sailing children, and the honour more properly lies in the environs of Beacon Tarn, on the moorlands west of Coniston Water’s lower reach.
But to find a neat row of tents here, and a very practical 12 year old girl boiling a kettle over a fire between two stones and cutting slices of pemmican would seem very appropriate.
Miterdale Head’s unique structure can be explained by a simple climb out of the valley, up the slopes on the south side of the cirque, to gain the lip of the valley. Ahead, a half mile distant, the flat and uninteresting waters of Burnmoor Tarn lie, invariably looking miserable. Only a low, green swell of land prevents Burnmoor from doing the geographically orthodox thing of draining into Miterdale (instead, its outflow is at the north-eastern end of the tarn, side-by-side with its main infiller).
But if nature had done what it ‘should’ have done, we would not have Miterdale Head, which would be a real loss.
It’s difficult to incorporate Miterdale into a larger expedition, the only feasible approach being to ascend to Whin Rigg from the foot of Miterdale, walk the ridge of the Screes and, descend from Illgill Head, either to the Wasdale Corpse Road or else avoiding the complete circuit of Burnmoor Tarm by taking a short cut across trackless and dull grasses to make your way to the lip of Miterdale and back from its wonderful Head.
May the millions never decide to get out of their cars!