A Day on the Roof


Where it begins and ends

Once again, this is a walk I outlined a long time ago as a Great Walk, but which now I want to recall as one of my finest days out in the Lake District. This was the second of four occasions on which I climbed Scafell Pike, and of my four expeditions to the highest point in England, by far and away my favourite.

I was still steadily working my way through my diminishing list of Wainwrights in the summer of 1994, in a run of sunny weekends when I went walking on six successive Saturdays. It was a July Saturday and I planned to drive up from Manchester, undertake the longest and hardest walk of my life, and return home all in a day, and a day of sun throughout.

These Saturday expeditions worked to a strict timetable: the alarm clock at 6.00am, into the car at 7.00am and look to be crossing the Cumbria Border by 8.00am on the M6: my record time was 58 minutes one Saturday. From there, it depended where I was going: I could be in Ambleside by 8.30am, but a walk out of Ennerdale took considerably longer.

And when it comes to parking at Seathwaite on a sunny day, you really do have to start early. This is not a scientific assessment, because to be a scientific assessment, I would have had to have hung around Seathwaite counting cars and wasting good walking time, but my estimate was that for every minute after 9.00am, you ended up parking two more car lengths from the farm.

Which is alright at 9.20am, full of the joys of summer, but something different at 4.30pm.

I love Seathwaite on a sunny morning. It’s the gateway to possibility. There is literally nowhere you can go from here that does not lead to a great day, and if you can’t be excited setting foot in the farmyard, you should give serious thought to spending the day with a good book instead.

This was the first of my visits to Seathwaite to see me turn under the square arch in the farmyard and walk across the fields to a little stone bridge over the young Derwent. I’d returned by this route on two previous visits, starting in wildly different directions but ending up in the same place. The last time had been when I took a never-quite-was girlfriend to climb Seathwaite Fell: we’d returned from Sty Head via the Taylorgill Force variation and now I wanted to climb that because it looked a lot more interesting than the main drag.

Taylorgill Force

The west bank of the Derwent was soft and grassy, and in spots a bit damp after I crossed the bridge. I set off brisk and purposeful, taking advantage of both the pleasant ground underfoot and the initially level ground. The main path to Stockley Bridge, and the crowds already progressing along it, were in clear sight after we’d passed the farm. Then the path started to angle uphill, still gently but at an increasing rate, until I was well above the river and looking for that moment when it would turn directly uphill, towards a gate visible on a rocky bluff above. Through the gate and I was inside the gorge.

From our descent before, I knew that to find the path round the ravine I had to duck under the extended tree branch directly in front of me. Ducking wasn’t a problem back then, even with a rucksack. The sun was beating down and there was no breeze at close confines. This was warm enough for me to strip off my sweatshirt and go bare-chested (ooh er, missus!) until I was out of the ravine and into the breeze again.

I worked round to the right, scrambling along the path into the little wooded defile above the falls, and from there emerging onto the long, flat gravel-lands on the lead-in to Sty Head Tarn. I knew from before that the path beside Sty Head Beck, here running in a narrow grassy channel, came and went on my side and all I need to do refind it was to walk on and not slip into the water, but at the first gap I thought, ah, to heck with it (or something similar), and hopped over the beck, scrambled up the bank and settled myself on the main drag.

It was only the mid-morning, the sun was still raising itself, and I had the opportunity to stride out on all but level ground, amid wide green walls, with Great End lazily rearing its massive head before me at every step. This kind of lazy walking is rare in the lakes and should be appreciated. I bowled along happily under the sun, my shirt restored as the breeze was once again decidedly breezy, and before long I was strolling the shores of the Tarn, and coming to the stretcher box at the top of Sty Head.

The official summit is beside the blue stretcher box but the highest point is about a hundred yards further on, at the lip of the downfall towards Wasdale Head. I settled myself down for a bite to eat, a pitta bread crammed with ham and Mediterranean vegetables, crunched happily, and healthily as I savoured the view.

The Corridor Route

Momentarily replete, I wandered back to begin the next leg. I was really looking forward to this bit. I remembered Mam and Dad talking about the Corridor Route enthusiastically. Neither of them had done it, and Mam had not lasted long enough for me to tell her that I had, and to describe it to her.

I set off in the direction of Esk Hause, keeping my eyes open for the thin track that led right, to the edge of the downfall and beyond it, on a broad, loose slope down which I worked. This didn’t cost me much height, in the scheme of things, and from the bottom I set foot on the Corridor Route.

It used to be called the Guides Route, which is understandable, but why it became known as the Corridor Route when it’s actually a series of linked ledges, angling across the flank of the massif, I don’t know, but it was a brilliant walk in itself, and it could have been twice as long and be twice as great. It was good, rough walking, full of mini-scrambles round corners, hard underfoot, demanding awareness, with the massive downfall of Great Gable over the right shoulder any time you wanted to slow down and just relish where you were. I am and always was summit-oriented, but things like this were worth the day itself.

As Lingmell Col came into view, I was a little worried to see the path apparently turn sharply uphill towards Broadcrag Col, but when I got to the end of the Corridor route, this was actually a long tongue of grey scree, descended the eroded slope, and no official route whatsoever.

To my right was the top of Piers Gill, and a steep glimpse into his forbidding surroundings. The only other time I had been in this place was with my family, when we had somehow turned a walk towards Sty Head via the Valley Route into a full-scale ascent beside the Gill, led by my enthusiastic father, about which I had been very doubtful. And here I was again, looking into that great shattered ravine and thinking myself very glad not to have come up that way again, especially not on my own.

But the continuation of the path looked to be angling up onto Lingmell Col on the Pike side, which I didn’t want. The descent to the lowest part of the Col might be minimal but on a walk of this length and scope, I did not want to lose any height, no matter how minimal. I was looking around for an alternative when I happened to catch sight, on my right, of a path crossing a little dell about ten feet lower, and I quickly dropped down to this to take me onto the Col where I wanted to be, with the added bonus of the first grass beneath my feet since the banks of the Derwent.

Lingmell – the classic cairn

There was no path up Lingmell for the first fifty feet, but then one sprung into being, entire, as if it had forced itself up through the ground. The summit had the same magnificent views of Gable and Mosedale, but the spire-like summit cairn had long since been replaced by an untidy, sprawling pyramid of stone. The original cairn had been demolished before we ever came here, but we had seen the rebuilt version that features in The Southern Fells, thicker at the waist, like me, than above or below.

Lingmell was the second, and highest, of three fells my Dad had climbed. I couldn’t not return. A day like this would have been the perfect day to have had Dad accompany me into the high country. It would have meant as much to him as it did to me.

Twenty five years earlier, or thereabouts, I had looked at Scafell Pike from this angle, convinced that we could climb it without difficulty. The adults pooh-poohed me. In the Nineties, I was vindicated. This approach isn’t the most exciting way of reaching Scafell Pike, but I walked up it without the need to halt.

It was the second of four times I climbed the highest peak. Despite the number of people on the path above and below me, I came to that band of stone where the path becomes nothing but scratches on rocks, where I seem always to be crossing alone. It makes the final steps into even more of a pilgrimage, and I not religious. Once the summit is reached, the scene becomes almost obscene with visitors, many of whom are clearly not here because they’re fellwalkers, but all of whom are here because this is where it is, the highest point. There is nowhere higher than here without getting into some flying machine.

You can tell they’re not fellwalkers because they don’t give way for you to visit the cairn, spoiling their momentary image of themselves as higher than anyone in the country. I just walked past them anyway and surveyed that incredible view, in which all is brilliant, but most of all Bowfell. This is the only place from which you can look down on it, and it’s amazing how the fell seems to twist its shoulders in embarrassment.

But crowds like that on a summer Saturday lunchtime are not what I put the effort in for. After making my duty visit, I headed downhill, south east, towards the unoccupied south cairn, with its vista of the wilds of Upper Eskdale and its grandstand seat for Scafell Crag from the gully to Foxes Tarn round to the the shadowed channel of Lord’s Rake. With my back to the masses, and the wind blowing from me to them, I could sit back and enjoy my lunch in the deceptive silence, pretending I was on my own.

Broad Crag- where intense care is needed

Nothing last forever. I angled across the stony top, steering to the right of the cairn to pick up the downhill route to Broad Crag. It was my first close-up sight of the second Pike (as we all still believed it to be then), a rounded, aggressive dome of stone. The path led steeply downhill into the narrow col, and just as steeply up out of it to cross Broad Crag’s Eskdale shoulder. This was challenging walking, hands supplementing feet, no looking at the view below without stopping and anchoring oneself.

I was going to climb it, of course I was going to climb it, despite everything Wainwright said by way of warning. I had nearly thirty years experience under my boots and I was not going to be here often and this day was about cramming in every good and exciting thing on the way.

Once I got close up, it was clear the way was going to be every bit as difficult and dangerous as Wainwright had said, but being being sensible and careful, ensuring each step was firmly anchored before I put my way on it, and balancing every step onto a knife-edge, I got up without difficulty and, after admiring the Pike’s rocks from this previously unseen angle, down to the path again in complete safety.

Ill Crag, where it pays to be cautious

Next was the drop into and climb out of Illcrag Col, and the turn right for the third Pike. For the first time that day, I began to feel the walk in my legs. Ill Crag lies a long way east of the main ridge, and I was surprised to find that, once I’d crossed its shoulder, the last stage was like a miniature of Broad Crag. By the time I’d got there, the sun was beginning to descended towards the far side of the massif: the light was hazy and golden, the crags dark, and the day started to feel as it time was running. I walked back to the path and down into Calf Cove.

Finally, I’d come to the point of the walk, in Wainwright-collecting terms. All of this was about ticking Great End off the rapidly shrinking list of unvisited summits. The final ascent was gently graded and surprisingly grassy. I arrived on the edge of the top with two cairns in sight.

The further and leftmost looked to be the highest, but the actual top was the nearer and rightmost. I made a careful beeline towards the first top, conscious that Great End is named for what it is and having no wish to accelerate over the cliff-edge. I then worked my way back along the line of the cliffs, as near as I dared step, which wasn’t all that near at all, until I reached the actual summit, and then back down to Calf Cove and the way to Esk Hause.

This was the second time I’d been here, and the third would follow within a matter of weeks. As always, I found it strange that the only direction there was not a path was down into Eskdale, but then the uppermost feet of the valley are so narrow, a path is unnecessary. I looked around, trying to commit routes to memory, then strolled down to the wall-shelter.

Esk Hause, where every path is glorious

All that was left now was return, and I felt tired but wholly satisfied. Nor was the last stretch a disappointment: Grains Gill is a wonderful route of ascent but it’s not that bad going down.

The final part of the walk, after the last summit, is always some kind of a dying fall. The achievements are usually over and all you’re doing is heading back, and it’s more often than not a trouble-free walk downhill. Grains Gill is a splendid route, but it was winding up and winding down. The lower valley was a long, narrow funnel, with Stockley Bridge in view all the way, getting slowly nearer.

Even arriving at the Bridge didn’t ease things up because that path from Seathwaite might be broad and generally level, but it’s been battered by billions of boots and it’s no picnic stroll. I got back to the farm sore-legged and weary. The farm cafe was still open and, for once I had some cash on me instead of locking my wallet in the glove compartment, I stopped off for some natural, farm-grown food and drink, an entirely natural Mars Bar and a locally-grown Diet Coke (what? You mean these weren’t farm produce?)

And then the stroll back to the car. This was the 4.30pm that was so different from 9.20am. I’d have liked to have been nearer, and got my boots off and into lightweight trainers that little bit sooner, but to be honest it could have been much worse, and the glory of the day tided me over and gave me a glow that lasted all the way down the motorway.

Tarns – Foxes Tarn


Foxes Tarn is a place to savour. Not so much for the waters, but for their context. No walker will set out with it as a destination, or even as a highlight of his or her day, but it is nevertheless a wonderful place to be, because when you are on the shore of Foxes Tarn, you are either on the threshold of the highest heights, or you have begun the return to the ground but are still touched by the majesty of the summits.
The tarn is the highest named body of water in the Lake District, as well as being one of the smallest. It hides in a hollow in the north-western flank of Scafell, invisible from outside to anyone lacking the vision of a Clark Kent. I’d estimate its surface area to be not much more than that of a good-sized family lounge, and one that is occupied by a boulder the size of a three-piece suite.
Foxes Tarn’s importance is as a route of ascent to, or (in my case) descent from Scafell, for those whose limitations preclude the direct approach from Mickledore via Broad Stand. A steep, stony gully that almost chokes the streamlet running from the tarn’s outflow gives a way to bypass the crags on the Eskdale flank of the fell, and it occupies the narrow bed of a fold in the fellside, out of which a steep, loose path (remade once already by the National Trust and now as abominably loose as before), climbs almost vertically onto the back of the summit.
As I said, one comes here en route to the top of the second highest fell in England, or in the very first stage of descent.
I’ve never ascended Scafell via Foxes Tarn: both my visits have been in retreat from the summit, and I’ve never paused by the water. This, I think, is the likely fate of Foxes Tarn when anyone visits it from above: after leaving the saddle on the back of Scafell, the land rapidly steepens, the way is enclosed on both sides and the tarn is visible for a long, slow time, from above. The hollow looks to be completely enclosed from above: escape by water or foot looks impossible. It has the feel of a secret chamber, accessible only by some means revealed only to a very few.
By the time you reach the bed of the hollow, and the brief shores of the tarn, it has been in sight for long enough to take in all its glories, such as they are. There is no temptation to wait beside it, no need for rest. The outflow opens around a corner, the hollow is not as sealed as it looks. There are miles to go and, in the case of walkers who have conquered Lord’s Rake earlier in the day, I can attest to a heightened adrenalin that incites you to devour as much as you can whilst you’re up here.
I rather imagine that it would be a very different matter in ascent. Given that the stone-chocked gully requires careful negotiation in descent, I rather think that by the time the Tarn is reached, unseen and unsuspected until that moment you stumble ‘around the corner’ and find it beside you, the temptation to sit and take a breather would be very high. Especially when you look at the next stage to get out of there!
I think it would be nice to rest there, out of sight of everyone except those few birds that circulate. It’s always nice to sit by a tarn and contemplate its waters. Even through a boulder on which you could seat a family of five.

Tarns – Burnmoor Tarn


As flattering a view as it gets…

The beauty of the Lake District lies not in its Lakes, nor its mountains, but rather in the combination, the amalgam of them: water and wood and stone.
But when it comes to bodies of water, the Lakes boast more than just its Sixteen Lakes. There are over 200 hundred bodies of water, tarns of every size and shape and elevation, decorating pastoral valley floors, or perched in rocky cwms. These too are essential to the beauty and drama of the Lake District.
During the course of my wanderings, collecting all 214 Wainwrights, I’ve seen tarns by the score. How many, I don’t know, I never kept a check upon them the way I did on summits. But whether at close range, or via the panoramas of 214 summits, I’ve probably laid eyes on all but a few.
Some are more memorable than others. One such is Burnmoor Tarn.
Personally, I find Burnmoor Tarn a dull, tedious, featureless sheet of water in a dull, tedious setting. Given how much I dislike it, it’s no doubt ironic that I have seen it at close quarters more often than the vast majority of Lakeland tarns. And I’m prejudiced because of my first visit to it.
This was way back in the Sixties, in the very early days of walking, when I was not yet in my teens and my sister six years younger, and our expeditions were correspondingly limited. The adults decided that we’d combine a day out on the ‘Ratty’ with a walk out of Boot as far as Burnmoor Tarn, a decision in which I was not involved.
A trip on the ‘Ratty’ was more or less mandatory on our early Lake District holidays and our stayover in Eskdale usually meant a walk up the road to Boot, the ‘capitol’ of Eskdale. There’s only a short road into the village, terminating at the footbridge over the river, which was guarded by a telephone box painted grey: the first non-red kiosk I ever saw. Three paths led onwards: that through the gate on the right, before the bridge, was a sandal-friendly rough lane which climbed windingly up beside the Whillan Beck. We never went far, just up to where low but safe falls were easily visible in the Beck and we children could play.
Across the bridge, two footpaths ascended steeply out of the village. We would, at my urging, take that directly ahead one day in the seventies, leading to the foothills of the Boat How ridge, but this day, Dad led us onto the path ascending to the right, beside a wall, angling across the wooded, scrubby fellside.
It was steep, or so I remember it being: too steep, at least, for my liking, so I was not best happy to start with. I don’t remember the conditions under which we started, but probably they were dull to begin with. Certainly, that’s the way it was going.
At the edge of the valley, the path leveled out, leaving behind the woods and the wall, and opening onto a shelving green moorland, the path leading towards the brow of the nearby slope.
Given that Burnmoor lies between foothills to the west, and Scafell’s grassiest, least interesting and completely unphotogenic flank, I don’t think there would have been much to look at on the best of days. But the sky was getting greyer, the probability of rain growing ever nearer as we walked on, across an undulating moorland of little grassy ridges, interminable.
We’d trudge up a ridge to reveal a shallow grassy dip to cross to trudge up the further ridge to reveal a shallow grassy dip to cross, over and again, and it got colder and duller, and the rain got closer and the mood got gloomier and Dad kept encouraging us by saying it was only over the next ridge, probably far less often than memory now suggests but still too often for any of us to retain any faith that we would ever get there.
Then, at last, it was just over the next ridge, a flat, low-shored, spreading body of water, steel grey, with no features visible around it either close to hand or at distance, and we trudged down to the shore, which was the exact moment the rain chose to start, so we didn’t stay above a few seconds, just turned round and started back over that same undulating moor and the equally distant valley edge.
That first visit has coloured every subsequent visit to Burnmoor Tarn, or even the mere sight of it in a view. It has no appeal.
I’ve been back several times. The route we’d walked was, though I’m not sure if we knew it at the time, part of the Wasdale Corpse Road, a relic of the days before there was a church and consecrated ground in Wasdale, when bodies had to be carried across the fells by horseback for Christian burial in Eskdale. There is a Ghost Story associated with this route: in centuries past a young man of Wasdale Head died and was taken on the Corpse Road, his grieving mother following. It was a day of rain and low cloud and, in the vicinity of Burnmoor Tarn (where else?) the horse took fright at something and galloped off into the cloud. Despite desperate searching it could not be found.
The heartbroken mother returned to Wasdale but died herself within the year. Her body was carried along the Corpse Road on another day of rain and cloud. But in the vicinity of the Tarn, her horse was similarly spooked and ran off. This time the search was even more intensive, for no-one could accept the loss of two members of the same family. And a horse carrying a body was found. But it was that of the son, the previous year. That was taken to Eskdale and interred, but the mother’s body was never seen again. And it is said that, sometimes, travellers crossing the moor in low cloud, will hear the pounding of hooves and see a shadowy horse shape gallop past then with a coffin on its back.
There were no such conditions on the day we decided to climb the other part of the Corpse Road, out of Wasdale on a sunny, clear afternoon. The ascent from the valley was nothing like as steep as at the Eskdale end, but the views were considerably better. Wasdale Head lay behind, ringed with fells that looked at the more impressive from the climb. The saddle at the lip of the valley was at that exact mid-height point that gives the mountains heft and substance, a stunning proportion impossible to capture in a photo.
The Tarn lay ten minutes walk beyond the saddle, in its shallow and, this time, green bowl. Its waters were almost blue, almost sparkling. There could not be a greater contrast to that long ago walk out of Eskdale, but Burnmoor was still flat and dull, and we were on the way back within ten minutes, enjoying far more the views into Wasdale.
Since then, I’ve seen the Tarn at relatively close quarters three to four times, twice after walking to, and out of Miterdale Head to again examine the geographical curiosity that separates the two.
My last ‘close encounter’ was another Miterdale expedition, but this time a more ambitious one: ascending from the lower valley to the ridge on a day of low cloud, following the top of the Screes with will-o’-the-views into Wasdale, and descending from Illgill Head towards the saddle on the Corpse Road.
A formal route would require me to descend as far as the Corpse Road, follow this around the head (and foot) of Burnmoor Tarn, then break along it’s eastern shore as far as Miterdale Head. In short, I was supposed to walk around three sides of this big, dull, tedious tarn in dull, overcast conditions, right? Not likely!
Contouring across that flank of Illgill Head on pathless, tough, grass, sometimes softish underfoot, was in no way a pleasant experience, especially with the Tarn down there on my left, spread out as if it were on a map, but it was far better to get it out of my sight sooner rather than later! I dropped down into Miterdale with gladness in my heart.
So that’s Burnmoor Tarn, and why I don’t like it, and why it’s one of the few places in the Lakes where, given the complete restoration of my walking abilities, I am far from eager to return. On the other hand, I am tickled by the recollection of that rotten day so long ago, and it might be instructive to climb once again out of Boot, just to see if my memories of the walk accord with its reality. I am, after all, prejudiced.

Great Walks – Scafell via Lord’s Rake


Scafell and Pike

Aerial shot of Scafell (right) and the Pike (left). Brown Tongue is in the bottom left corner with Hollow Stones above

Scafell is the second highest summit in England, and was clearly regarded as the dominant peak in Wasdale, as its higher neighbour derives its name from being The Pikes near Scafell. Despite that, it’s seen as a lesser fell, and on the occasions I have climbed it, I have never found more than one other party on the top with me: Scafell – a 3,000 footer on which you can easily find yourself alone.
The principal reason for Scafell’s relative unpopularity is that, with the exception of the cirque of crags overlooking Mickledore, and the approaches to either side, it is a relatively ungainly and, frankly, somewhat dull mountain. There is a fine, high, ridge approach from Eskdale and Slight Side that is well worth a day of anyone’s life, but in the main the excitement of conquering Scafell lies in surmounting its massive, often terrifying crags.
For those who are not climbers, this rules out a direct approach from Mickledore, and necessitates a massive diversion downwards from the ridge, to gain the summit indirectly by one of Foxes Tarn, Lord’s Rake or the West Wall Traverse. Walkers with red blood in their veins will find themselves needing, at one time or another, to test themselves against one or other of the latter.
Walkers bound for Lord’s Rake must first find themselves a space in the small car park just off the road to Wasdale Head. After passing the head of the Lake, turn right on a road crossing the valley floor, and slip off this left into a parking area well-concealed by trees and hedges. Ensure you are well-supplied with food and liquids, return to the road and march on towards the looming fells, until a Public Footpath sign, marked Scafell Massif, points an eroded way over a stile to the right.
The approach from Wasdale is the shortest route of ascent, and thus the most unrelievedly steep. Nevertheless, there are no difficulties in the first hour of the walk, which follows the beck uphill through woodlands, before emerging in the bare valley a couple of hundred yards short of the foot of Brown Tongue. The beck gushes lustily, and this is a good spot for a five minute break. Long ago, the curve of the underlying rock formed a superb waterchute, down which stones could be propelled with great vigour, but time appears to have eroded this little feature, which I was unable to identify when I last passed this way
Another change to the landscape is the path from the foot of the Tongue, where two gills meet. Originally, this headed directly up the Tongue, following its watershed, at least to the extent that was possible on eroded and crumbling ground that had created a loose scar. This was, in my memory, one of the earliest paths to be given attention by the National Trust, with the old route fenced off in the Seventies and a new route constructed along the flank of the Tongue, just above the right-hand gill, gently climbing onto the flat back of Brown Tongue to reach the upland valley known as Hollow Stones, lying beneath the massive buttresses of the crags of Scafell and the Pike.
This allows for some easy progress on gentle gradients which allow plenty of time to be given to the massive structures around and above. Somewhere in every fellwalker, no matter how much he or she is afraid of the prospect, or is convinced lies utterly beyond their skill, there is a flame that lights up at the sight, that taps at the door of imagination and asks for the courage to enter into that forbidden world. If only…
But Lord’s Rake is one of the few places where a walker, albeit an experienced, and preferably agile one, can stand on the edge of that world, can see the crags at the kind of range climbers do, can pass among them and all in perfect safety. Or rather, not perfect safety, there being nothing of the sort when out on the fells, but enough of a degree of safety as to make the experience not just worthwhile but essential.
At this point, a cautionary note should be injected. My ascent of Lord’s Rake took place in 1996 but, about a decade ago, a piece of rock fell from the crags above and has come to rest on the first col. It has remained wedged in place, across the route, ever since. For some years after, the route was closed, and whilst it is now in use again, the dangers of the ascent have substantially increased. Furthermore, it is noted that where the base of the stone rests is gradually crumbling. At some point, the stone will become unstable, and will fall down the first pitch. Anyone climbing the same when this happens will, almost certainly, be killed. This is not an ascent that anyone can ever think of taking lightly.

Lord's Rake - the first pitch, showing the fallen stone on the first col
Lord’s Rake – the first pitch, showing the fallen stone on the first col

From Hollow Stones, paths diverge. To the left, a well-marked track climbs to Lingmell Col, and provides the easiest route to Scafell Pike on this side of the mountain. Ahead, an increasingly stony, loose and steep route scrambles up to Mickledore, though this is effectively only a route once more to the Pike, as the direct ascent would be by Broad Stand, which is climber’s territory. Instead, turn right, towards the great cliffs, shadowed by the sun glimpsed over the dark tops.
The path leads to the base of a massive scree fan, up which an indistinct route scales. The scree-fan rises at a steep angle, and is loose underfoot from bottom to top. Walk slowly, walk carefully, test each step for durability and don’t look around at the views, or if you must, stand still, and make it quick. The crags above grow ever darker as you move under their shadow, but it is possible to use these to gauge your progress. Finally, the width of the scree shrinks, until you reach firm ground at the top, directly under the base of Scafell Crag.
A narrow trod rises to the left and provides a traverse along the base of the Crag as far as Mickledore, but for Lord’s Rake, bear to the right, on surprisingly level ground, rounding the buttress directly ahead and entering the base of a direct and steep gulley rising into the rock above. This is Lord’s Rake.
The Rake cuts across the crag in a dead straight line. It is three hundred yards in length, from beginning to end, with three rises and two descents, and two narrow cols to pass. The first pitch is confined by high rock on both sides: beyond, the Rake is exposed to the right, with steep slopes immediately below.
The first pitch is surprisingly wide, but increasingly steep, so much so that its upper third, and especially the final ten feet or so of the ascent to the col, could not be achieved without using both hands. At that time, the loose scree had been scraped pretty much bare: there were rocks underfoot and care needed to be taken in placing ones boots, but provided this was done, there was little risk of starting a slip that might imperil climbers below, and ample room to move from side to side to gain the best purchase.
One should not take this walk lightly, but at one point, about half way up, I wanted to take a picture of the view behind, only to discover that I needed to change the film in my camera. To do so, I clambered off the Rake, into a crevice on the right, found something flat enough and secure enough to sit on and calmly changed the film, marvelling all the time at my coolness in such elevated places.
The fall of the standing rock has complicated this section. There is again a profusion of loose stone underfoot, to an extent that not only should this ascent not be attempted in anything but good weather conditions, but that if someone is above you, you should wait for them to reach the col before setting off yourself: this is not a slur on their abilities but rather a practical reflection of the danger of their dislodging stones of quite some size that would then start to bound downhill: wear a helmet.

West Wall Traverse

The West Wall Traverse, from Deep Gill

I can give no advice to those who wish to climb the West Wall Traverse. Its entrance is a terrace, reached by a short scramble up the left hand wall of the Rake. The narrow terrace crosses a shelf on the rockface before debouching into the upper section of Deep Gill, which requires then a frantic scramble upwards to Scafell’s broad summit. I have sadly not taken this route and, indeed, was concentrating so hard on the Rake that I completely failed to see the entrance en route. Apparently, the base of the entrance is crumbling, and the risk of it too collapsing, making the Traverse inaccessible, must be faced.
As to the col, I was bloody glad to each it, though it marked a point of no return: there was no way I was going back down that last, terribly steep section below the col. Now, progress is complicated by the need to squeeze beneath the standing stone, a process troubling in itself but holding extra concerns for the more generously built walker.
Beyond, the comfort of the right hand parapet vanishes within a couple of steps. The second col is visible, at the same level, with a steep descent and reascent in between. However, the worst of the Rake, at least as far as I was concerned, now lies behind, and the ground is firmer underfoot than imagination makes it from a distance. Cling to the cliffs at hand, take short steps and the second col can be comfortably attained.

Scafell Lords Rake col 2

Lord’s Rake, looking towards the second col

A similar scene presents itself another steep descent and reascent, on a narrow path clinging to the cliffs, stretched over a longer distance, with a longer climb to the far side. This, however, is not a third col but the end of the Rake: safety beckons. Again, take short steps, be careful, cling to the cliffs rather than hug the unsupported edge, and before very long Lord’s Rake falls away behind, and you are on the Green How flank of Scafell. The summit is a mere 300′ above, and most walkers will be so adrenalised at their safe passage through the fearsome Lord’s Rake that there will be no stops on the final run up the fellside.

Scafell Lords Rake col 3

Lord’s Rake, looking over the third pitch to the exit

The path emerges into a saddle, where four paths meet. The upper ramparts of Deep Gill buttress lie to the left, with the prominent notch beyond that is the top of Deep Gill and the exit from the West Wall Traverse. The summit itself lies up a gentle slope to the right, a litter of stones surmounted by a prominent cairn.
How best to descend? Exhilarating as it may be, the thought of reversing the approach along Lord’s Rake does not appeal. I am not talking here about that ten feet down from the first col, nor the fact that the the scree-fan would be many degrees more unpleasant to descend than ascend, but merely the thought of going over ground already trodden so very soon, let alone in the same day. The Green How ridge is an obvious line of descent to Wasdale Head, and is easy, but it is equally obviously tedious, and should be avoided.
Whilst this is not a course I would normally encourage, having the experienced fellwalker’s horror of the unnecessary loss of height and requirement to regain it, the best descent from Scafell in these circumstances is via Foxes Tarn. This involves a descent to a point some 400′ below Mickledore, on the Eskdale side of the ridge, and a 400′ climb that is not the easiest part of the day. However, the adrenaline of Lord’s Rake should still be evident, and the route is fascinating enough to be worth the additional effort.
Return to the saddle and, after a diversion to the top of Deep Gill to encourage the development of your vertigo at the depths revealed, turn down on the right. The path crosses easy grass towards a narrow cleft in the fellside. Within no more than fifty feet of descent, a National Trust constructed route appears underfoot (though I am told that now the path is difficult to trace under loose scree) and the cleft open into a fold in the fellside, at the bottom of which, appearing to be almost vertically down, is a tiny tarn, approximately the size of a standard living room, occupied by a boulder the size of a three-piece suite. There appears to be no exit from the fold.

Foxes Tarn

Foxes Tarn, from the descent

Only as the path nears the Tarn itself can it first be seen that the outflow drains around a steep grassy bank into a heretofore unseen exit. There are a dozen or so steps that can be taken on level ground before the outflow disappears down a stony gully, littered with fallen stone. Like Lord’s Rake, this gully is also straight, with its exit always visible. Descend with care: I prefer the four point method if descending face first – that there be four points of contact with the rock at all times, and only one limb is moved at any time. For those whose anatomy is uncertain, the fifth point is your backside, an invaluable anchor on the way down.
Once the narrow valley of Mickeldore Beck is reached, brush any accumulated debris from your useful backside and turn uphill to the ridge, relying on the adrenaline to make this passage more comfortable than its steepness, the late stage of the day and the loose ground underfoot would otherwise make it.
That ongoing adrenaline surge must be taken into account on achieving the ridge. Head for home, by all means, descending on similarly loose stone from Mickledore, the ground easing slowly until you reach Hollow Stones and can make a leisurely return over trodden ground. But having got here, having undergone all that toil, having done Lord’s Rake fur hilven! (one for you fans of The Killing, Borgen, etc.) it would be a terrible shame not to turn right, scale the cap of stones, and add Scafell Pike’s summit to the day. You are so close already, and as Wainwright says, the only ridge route in the Lakes that is harder than this is the same route in reverse. Do it, for the greatness of it.
From the summit of the Pike, descend north, onto the stony descent to Lingmell col. There is no requirement to include Lingmell itself at this point, but stronger walkers who have not yet counted this top may divert themselves across the col for the additional 300′ of climbing. Everyone else will curve around to the left, over gentle slopes with a superb, grandstand view of Scafell’s Crags throughout its length, until dropping to the head of Brown Tongue.
Descend peacefully and, if you feel like it, smugly. Lord’s Rake is an Achievement in anybody’s book.

Series 2 – 34: Ongoing Ascents


I’d had my chance. I didn’t have to still be at a firm where I was slowly beginning to hate every working day, where there was no future for me. I could have refused a five year Partnership contract in 1992. But then I’d have had to go looking for something better, in the middle of the 1992 recession, when Conveyancing Solicitors weren’t even ten a penny but rather several dozen. And this time I had a house and a mortgage: the kind of break my 1986 redundancy had offered was not an option.
So I was stuck for five years, approaching the age of 40, without a reliable partner. Not everything was bleak: I had accidentally become an Old Trafford regular, albeit in those last few years between the dismal seasons and the day the sky came off and the future turned Red. And I had the Lakes and the fells, almost at my fingertips.
In that sense, my cup was close to running over. Though winter months (November to February) and short days made walking inaccessible, the Lakes was still virtually on my doorstep every nice weekend that United were away, and I still had my regular two weeks away, and two-thirds of my quest already achieved.
It’s at this point that the story ceases to have a shape, though each walk still held memories to bring to the table. I had become a very experienced fell-walker, unafraid of, indeed seeking long days in country where no-one else might be seen, to the extent that I would get intensely resentful of the distant figure of another walker coming across the other ridge and ‘trespassing’ in “my” valley.
Lessons had been learned. I had complete confidence in myself – except in the brief, trepidatious moments of crossing steep and unsupported places – and a clear sense of my capacities and limitations, whilst at the same time beginning to test those supposed limitations in the suspicion that I might actually have been underrating myself all these years. That some of the more demanding ascents might be within my grasp.
Yet these were not always among the 52 fells that remained. Beda Crag was a lone summit, a low top reached along a narrow, fascinating ridge in sufficient time for me to cap the day with a long sweep round over Angletarn Pikes – where I looked in vain for that little grass dell of five years before: hardly surprising, given that I was distracted – but I remember it for being the first walk of the year: sun and March clarity, the sparkle of Ullswater, the elation of being back.
Tarn Crag above Grasmere was another loner, busy in approach and retreat along tourist paths and roads, but quiet on its ridge. A mass audience of boys gathered by the shore of Easedale Tarn, looking like a revivalist meeting, dispersed by the time I got down to the Tarn itself, puzzled me for a decade until I had a stepson at Manchester Grammar School going on holiday to their camp at Grasmere.
I remember the loneliness between Walla Crag and Bleaberry Fell, on a walk where I didn’t even need to move the car from outside my guesthouse, continually refinding an intermittent path because I knew where it would be next. Then, a blazing day above Buttermere, struggling under severe sun up the steep ridge to Fleetwood Pike, with its postcard view of Buttermere and Crummock Water, but I remember it more for the winding way round the old quarries and onto the back of Haystacks: giving my heart to the perfection of Black Beck Tarn, in its concealed hollow, rediscovering the cairn of the last fell Dad ever climbed, and descending Scarth Gap Pass with a One Man and His Dog being filmed in the fields below me: all sheep and dogs and cameras dispersed before I could get myself into a background shot.
Two fairly undemanding and unphotogenic fells gave me a good strenuous walk west of Ullswater, and rewarded me with magnificent views of the lake at a corner on the way back.
But if you want to hear of an impressive day, that first week away concluded with me finishing my collection of 3,000’ers.
There are only four fells in Lakeland, and therefore in all England, that extend above the 3,000′ contour (the metric equivalent of 914 metres is so much less impressive). I had climbed my first in 1975 and, even allowing for the interruption to my walking career that immediately followed, it really wasn’t favourable for me to take eighteen years to complete the set.
There are many ways of climbing Scafell, and I would have been tempted to go all out for Lord’s Rake were I not still collecting as many tops per walk as I could – sometimes the best route had to give way to the handy-for-two-other-summits route. The Scafell Range’s southernmost outlier, Slight Side was also on my list so I chose to approach and return from the south.
Then again, no major route out of Eskdale fails to be worth walking, and this was my chance to experience the Terrace Route, the lonely environs of Catcove Beck and the stiff scramble to Slight Side’s top before the ridge rising to Scafell, in the midst of Eskdale and Wasdale rose before me, inspiring the feet onwards.
It was delightful. I have never been so alone on a 3,000’er than that ridge to Scafell. It was astonishing to find the path in its early stages so intermittent, but again I unfailingly picked it up, over and over. There were rocks and rises, but it was a mainly green ridge for far longer than you’d expect, and at last I was negotiating little screes and short uplifts, blind and winding, knowing I was near but never yet there, until I finally reached the summit cairn. With no-one around. You don’t get that on the Pike.
I didn’t remain alone. I was joined by a family, which seemed a good time to go. I descended to a saddle, beyond which two separate buttresses arose, between them the head of Deep Gill. Deep Gill is a legitimate ascent of Scafell: me, I couldn’t even get myself close enough to look down. That’s one bloody steep gill – and that’s the navigable part of it.
Short of climbing down Broad Stand, or of returning via Slight Side, my only descent was into the little hidden hollow in the hill that holds Foxes Tarn. What a magnificent escape: the tiny tarn, overwhelmed by the boulder, seemingly no way out, until you round a corner and find a deep, stony channel down to below Mickledore.
And then the long, glorious retreat as if from the Pike: down Cam Spout, around the Esk, the diminishing scene of the Pike and Ill Crag, that long, empty upland valley, descending via a series of rocky gateways and the Cowcove Zigzags, and the long walk back.
The photo is of Ullswater from that corner with magnificent views, or rather it’s half the view. The Brown Hills stand above the corner between the upper and middle reaches of the Lake, and this is only the middle reach. But it’s an easy place to reach if you don’t go round the long way as I did.