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.

Storm Devastation


Gone

A couple of days ago, the outline news of the storm that has caused so much destruction and devastation to my beloved Cumbria prompted me to write a post that reminisced about those of my experiences of being caught in rain on the fells that I haven’t already spoken of previously on this blog.

That post isn’t going to appear for a while yet, because I’ve read more about the awful things that have been happening, and I’ve seen photos that fill me with a mixture of awe and horror, and lightweight tales of walking in the rain are wildly inappropriate right now.

News that Pooley Bridge, that lovely old bridge over the outflow of Ullswater, my favourite Lake, has been swept away. Stockley Bridge, in the Seathwaite Valley, was washed away by torrential floods in the great storm of 1966, which happened on the Saturday as we drove home after a week’s holiday (I remember the darkness and the thunderous rain on Buckhaw Brow, just before Settle). It was rebuilt, and eyes like mine who never saw it before would not be able to tell had I not known. But that was the Sixties, and a time of prosperity: from where will come the money to reconstruct Pooley Bridge in these times of austerity, depravation and criminally incompetent doctrinaire Government. It has to be rebuilt: it’s a 32 mile round trip to avoid it. But will something other than a functional bridge be built? Can it be afforded?

News too that, for a couple of days, Glenridding Village has been cut off, that Mountain Rescue have only today got through. Glenridding’s more than just my beloved Ullswater again. There’s a story of a woman whose husband is stranded there, gone to a stag do at the Inn on the Lake for the weekend and unable to return. Giving up his bed to elderly people who would otherwise have had to sleep on sofas.

The Inn on the Lake used to be a more old-fashioned kind of hotel. They closed it for refurbishment and rebranding in November 2000. The last function there before it closed was a wedding. It was my wedding.

I’ve seen photos today. One is of the Vale of Keswick, seen long-distance through a wide-angled lens. Once upon a time, in a younger era of the world, there was no Derwent Water and Bassenthwaite Lake, just one uber-lake, stretching from the Jaws of Borrowdale to the beginnings of the North Cumbrian Plain. That uber-lake is all but with us again.

And I’ve seen a photo of the A591, the ‘Kendal-Keswick’ road, below Dunmail Raise, where the road is narrow at the head of the Thirlmere Valley, and almost half that road is washed away, a great, jagged ripping away of the western side of the carriageway, replaced by a massive earthen ditch along which water roils. This is not CGI. This is a road I have driven hundreds of times, north and south, the main central road through the Lakes and in that section it’s impassable.

Record amounts of rain have fallen, literally. The record has been broken, on, of all places, Honister Pass, not even Seathwaite, traditionally the wettest place in England. Seathwaite, out-rained! What is this world now?

I’m nowhere near and I could be of no help if I were. I’m in no danger, to life and limb and property and possessions. But my heart breaks along with those people to whom I am in spirit a brother, and this is no time for words that celebrate rain and rainfall.

When a Sweatshirt was a Turban


                                                                          Allen Crags from Esk Hause

Rain, cloud, snow and wind: what other extreme weather experience can you have out on the fells? That leaves sun, or heat, and I’ve a story to tell about that as well.
Ordinarily, this wasn’t a problem. I scheduled my holidays for April and September, just outside the holiday season either way, spring and autumn, away from the extreme weathers, and I nearly always got what I planned for.
Besides, if the day happened to be sunny and hot at valley level, it was rare for me not to find cooler air and breezes once I got above a thousand feet, where even gentle ones were all that were needed.
But I did get caught out once, and it could have gone very badly.
This happened in 1990, at the beginning of my April week. For reasons I can no longer recall, I had booked a very late holiday, late enough for the latter half of the week to roll over into May. That made it a good fortnight later than my normal practice, and there was a consequent effect on the base weather conditions, for this was to be a very sunny week, more so than I usually got.
In keeping with my usual practice, I motored up leisurely on Sunday morning, booked myself into Bridgedale, in Keswick, and spent the afternoon stretching my legs on something local and low, just to get warmed up. I can’t now remember why, but for Easter Monday I had chosen an unusually strenuous walk for so early in the week.
My plan was to drive down to Seathwaite, park as close to the farm as I could manage, climb Esk Hause via Grains Gill, and return along the northernmost extension of the Scafell massif, over Allen Crags and Glaramara.
This was going to be a day of firsts: though I had been to Seathwaite previously, I had not been as far as Stockley Bridge, nor had I seen Grains Gill or Esk Hause, and it went without saying that I had climbed neither fell before.
I’ve returned from Stockley Bridge a number of times and, fittingly, it’s still a rough, undulating walk, but on a morning approach, contemplating the steep-sided valley ahead, it’s a rousing start.
At Stockley Bridge, which shows not the slightest sign of being almost washed away in the great flood of 1966 (in which we were caught, driving home from a week in the Lakes in the most appalling, drenching conditions that I remember of my young life), the path crosses the infant Derwent and divides into two famous paths, both of which will take you onto a glorious days in the fells. Directly ahead, scaling the fell-side in well-graded sweeps, the scars of the clumsy walkers now healed, is the main route to Sty Head Pass, but on this occasion I turned left, for the only time, into the narrowing valley ahead, with Great End dominating its ultimate skyline.
Though I’ve since descended Grains Gill on a couple of occasions, this was still the only time I’ve used it in ascent, much to my regret. Of highways into the hills, it ranks amongst the finest in the Lakes: straight and narrow, rough underfoot but without danger for the experienced walker, between high fell walls and heading directly for Great End’s terminal cliffs.
The day was hot, the Gill enclosed, though strangely I cannot remember conditions being particularly onerous, or experiencing any difficulty in proceeding. The sun was high and hot, unusually so for early April. The serious mistake that I had made was that this wasn’t really the best walk for a Monday.
This was only the second walk of the year, and the first had only been the afternoon before, on Gowbarrow Fell, an overland stroll on primarily level ground from The Hause, on a route subsequently locked, barred and bolted against walkers. It wasn’t much preparation for a rock-based walk encompassing two fells over 2,500′, in the Scafell range.
As Grains Gill progressed, the valley narrowed yet further, the gradients increased and the path crossed to the left side of the gill. I was now moving into more enclosed surroundings, as rock gathered around me. There was certainly no breath of air on this section, and I toiled upwards, focusing my attention upwards, on the figure of a walker making a direct assault on Great End, carefully picking his way up virgin slopes, looking to find a way around/through the cliffs.
Where he went, I don’t know, because I finally emerged onto the Sty Head – Esk Hause path and turned left for the latter, turning the face of Great End between me and this intrepid scrambler, doing something I’d never have the nerve to do.
The path I’d gained would, I knew, bring me only to the wall-shelter, the highest point on the west-east route from Sty Head to Great Langdale that, before Wainwright came along, was what was usually spoken of as Esk Hause. Properly educated years before by The Southern Fells, I was after the real thing, the Head of Eskdale, and the easiest way to do this was to break off along the ‘short cut’ path, angling upwards across the base of Great End. It was a graceful, stony, well-graded route that I thoroughly enjoyed, and it emerged at the top end of the wide plateau of Esk Hause, by the cairn that is the crossroads for so many routes, all of which save only the unmarked descent into Eskdale I would go on to walk in one direction or another.
I then descended from the watershed to the wall-shelter and contemplated what I should do next.

                                                                              Glaramara and Grains Gill
By that time, I did not feel at all good. I was hot and thirsty, there was no wind or breeze to cool me, and I felt not just heavy-legged but heavy-bodied. Under this sun, I had already used up more of my strength than was generally good for me, and the logical, indeed only sensible thing to do would be to head back to Grains Gill and descend.
But I have always been extremely stubborn when out walking. I could be flexible when the circumstances permitted, or demanded,but when I had started a walk, I thought of nothing other than reaching the summit I had targeted, and I did not give up lightly. Before now, I had only turned back once without a top, that being the day of snow on Pavey Ark’s North Rake.
There’d been good cause for that, a practical fear, but this was a sunny day! There was no wind, no rain, no prospect of interference from the weather. And I was at Esk Hause! Esk Hause, that mecca for all true fell-walkers. I could hardly turn round and go back from there with nothing conquered, especially not when Allen Crags was so near at hand, a mere one hundred feet of climbing, on easy ground. I couldn’t give up when I was that close, surely not?
So I headed uphill, though my legs felt like lead, and I duly reached my chosen summit, though I remember nothing of it: Allen Crags, hurrah! What next? Well, I’d only committed myself to climbing Allen Crags, nothing more, so I could drop back to Esk Hause and head down, honour fulfilled. But now that I was here… Well, it was actually shorter, and more direct, to go back over Glaramara, instead of down and around, and given how I felt, surely the less distance I had to force myself to cover, the better. Ok, onwards.
By such arguments do the stubborn convince themselves that it’s right to do what they wanted to do all along.
It was, like continuing to descend directly off Brim Fell when I’d clearly gotten myself into a rough corner, like ascending Dore Head under the shadow of Stirrup Crag, a stupid idea and one that was putting me into peril that anyone with my intelligence would normally shy away from, no problem. I look back at times like this and wonder how someone who was, for so long, unnecessarily conservative about his expeditions could so blithely ignore the obvious signs and plunge on.
And I try not to read too much into the fact that, every time, I got myself out of it, alone, without lingering consequences.
So I walked on, or more correctly stumbled on, along what Wainwright describes as one of the most delightful and enjoyable ridge walks in the Lake District and I cannot remember a thing about it, not even Glaramara’s summit, nor anything of the views, because I was now in a very bad way. My head was aching from the unrelenting sun, my eyes were hurting from the glare, my stomach was roiling and churning, I was horribly dehydrated and sickeningly thirsty, but unable to drink as the only liquid I had on me was a single can of Coca Cola, badly shaken about, warm and fuzzy, that I didn’t dare drink because I would end up vomiting all over the place.
And my legs had no strength and I couldn’t think, because I was using all my concentration to keep  them moving, step after step, without stumbling and falling, because there was a fairly good prospect that if I fell down – or even sat down – I would lack the energy to get back up again. And I had no sense of time, all movement from past to future gone, I was in a bubble of the present, focussed only on the necessity to get down, to get back to my car in one piece.
Medically, I’d gotten a big dose of heat exhaustion that was bordering upon heat stroke. How closely, I don’t know: I wasn’t in a position to observe clinically. My condition was being made worse at every moment by the lack of shade or shadow. Apart from a period in the mid-Seventies when I became attached to a John  Lennon Serious Young Poet Denim Cap, I have never gone on for hats, so I had nothing with which to cover my head. Except the hood of my anorak, and there was no way that I was going to struggle into another layer of clothing, not when I was as hot as I was already.
So I improvised, desperately. I’d set off in sweatshirt over something light, probably a t-shirt, and, as usual, once it had gotten hot enough, I’d whipped the sweatshirt off and tied it around my waist. With my head throbbing from the sun, at some point along the way to Glaramara, I had undone its sleeves and tied it together, over my head, as some kind of makeshift turban that, thankfully, stayed in place more or less, as I forced myself along.
Eventually, I reached the end of the fell, and the path began to seriously descend. It turned outwards, towards the Stonethwaite valley, giving me at last some shelter from the sun as the bulk of the ridge intervened. I still needed to take care: the path was narrow, slightly grooved, and the descent reasonably steep, and it was still all to easy to put a foot wrong.
And my throat had reached the point where, regurgitation or no regurgitation, I was going to have to drink that last fuzzy coke. The whole of my mouth felt as if it had been painted with glue. I came to a halt, cracked the ring pull and chugged it down. The liquid was definitely warm, and there was a strange furry taste to it, as if the bubbles had half-dissolved, and to my amazement, instead of inspiring me to spew all over the fellside, its effect was to settle my turbulent stomach and leave me feeling considerably more at ease than I’d been since at least Esk Hause.
It didn’t make me feel any less wiped out, or my legs less leaden, or the remaining half-a-fellside any less steep, but I got down to level ground in safety. In the Stonethwaite valley, admittedly, not Seathwaite, and the road walk still far longer than I wished to contemplate.
But there was a field path, curling around the toe of Glaramara, avoiding the road and the hard tarmac, avoiding the avoiding of cars, in pastoral silence and solitude and best of all, shorter. It still took me ages to negotiate. I was no longer so bad that I was at risk of falling at every step – the dehydration had obviously been the worst element, and I was ruefully furious with myself that I hadn’t had that last coke ages before – but my legs were still shot and I was rarely more grateful to get my boots off when I reached my car.
I never put myself through that again, though I never again encountered conditions where there was just no wind on a hot day. Instead of carrying cans to drink, I switched to the large bottles, enabling me to spread my hydration out in smaller doses. And I was a bit more circumspect about what I would and wouldn’t tackle that early in the week.
Though I’ve climbed both Allen Crags and Glaramara in clear weather, with the full arc of the view available, I’ve no recollection of either, the latter especially. Nor have I been back. But times will change, and once I am fit again, I’m coming back here. With something better than a sweatshirt for a turban.

Great Walks – Great Gable from Honister


Great Gable from the north

There are multiple ways by which one can climb Great Gable, and to my shame I have used only two of those routes, in only two visits to that famous summit.
The best route for the peak-bagger who is still counting off Wainwrights is from Honister Pass, in the rear of the fell. It’s an ever-changing route, with many merits, although there are no sightings of the Napes and the other crags on the famous face of the fell, and the walk is well-advanced before foot is even set on Gable itself. But the views offered throughout, towards Buttermere and Ennerdale, and the sight of Gable’s less-celebrated but still very impressive northern crags, at close quarters, is worth the expedition in itself.
A simple up-and-down from Honister offers the priceless advantage of a 1,167′ boost on the departure point. On the other hand, there is little opportunity to vary the walk on the return route, and the peak-bagger will be looking longingly at the nearby Base Brown, off any direct route from Honister and disturbingly isolated: omission would require a separate expedition, and the fell does not really justify being the sole objective of anything but a rain-affected half-day.
So what contrivance makes this set-up into a viable walk?
The simplest one might seem to be making Base Brown a there-and-back from Green Gable on the return trip. But even if there’s no actual need to return to a summit that’s to be crossed twice already, the retreat is more than I’d contemplate so late in the day. Either Base Brown must be the first top, or the last, with an ascent from or descent to Seathwaite as part of the plan. Which means bridging the gap between Seathwaite and Honister top at either the start or the end of the day. How would you rather end the walk? With a long, steep descent among trees from Gillercomb to Seathwaite, or the road to Honister foot and another, albeit sylvan mile to Seathwaite? I thought so.
So park at Seathwaite in the sunny morning hours, the earlier the nearer to the farm itself. Once in boots, with rucksack fully loaded, turn your back to the hills and walk back down the Seathwaite lane, a tree-shadowed delight on a morning such as this, until reaching the Borrowdale road, a half-mile from Seatoller.
These days, the Honister Rambler bus runs from Seatoller to Buttermere, allowing easy passage to the top of Honister, but on that long ago day there was no such facility. My plan involved hitching a ride to the summit, but a half hour at the Seathwaite road end, where the only passing drivers indicating a willingness to pick me up were those whose cars were safely full, I had to take to the road and haul myself up on foot: not a recommended start.

Honister top: the drumhouse route is the leftmost path

The walk proper doesn’t start until Honister top. A few years ago, the owner of the Slate Mine planned to install a zip-wire from the top of Honister Crag, across the valley. A BBC documentary followed his efforts to get Planning Permission which, thankfully, was refused, although this was sadly posthumously, he having lost his life in a helicopter crash before the decision came up. He was passionate about his plans, which would have irreparably changed the scene here, but incapable of understanding that he might not be allowed to do what he wanted.
Honister is a scene of industry, and always has been, but slate mining (and tourism!) is a Lakes industry, and long may it stay that way.
Start along the level towards the Honister Mine, as far as the foot of the old tramway, which has been visible from lower down Honister, scaling the flank of Fleetwith Pike. It’s steep throughout, until it eases off on reaching the back of Fleetwith, and an eroded middle portion, just short of the old cutting, has been fenced off, with a path constructed to bypass it on the right. It’s hardly what’s wanted by anyone who has been forced to walk up Honister, but it’s the gateway to the fells, and it leads over easing ground to the old Drumhouse.
Here, the scope of the coming walk becomes visible. The distant fell appearing over the immediate skyline, looking impossibly distant to the average walker, turns out to be Pillar: Gable lies much closer at hand, still looming darkly, at the end of a long, mainly grassy ridge, the middle ground of which is not immediately visible. A path bears left from the Drumhouse, towards the ridge, turning in a wide curve to follow the base of the higher ground.
If Gable were the only concern, this path would provide a smooth, fast highway, only gaining the ridge at the back of Green Gable. However, it is much more satisfying in all respects to leave the path, after it has straightened out, taking one of the easy green rides towards the ridge, and gaining the old post and wire fence that runs from Honister top, across the summit of this first fell.
Appropriately, the top is one of two knotts, with no immediate indication of which is the highest, so visit both before following the infallible fence onwards.
As Grey Knotts falls behind, the ground broadens and flattens. The next top, Brandreth, skirts the wide bowl of Gillercomb to the left, offering nothing of excitement, but all eyes that are not directed towards Great Gable’s cliffs will instead be turned northwards, towards Buttermere, High Stile and Grasmoor. The view towards the lake, across Haystacks’ back, looking down on Innominate and Blackbeck Tarns, is magnificent despite the dull foreground.
Beyond the cairn marking Brandreth’s highest point, the path declines gently towards the low dip at the back of Green Gable. The direct route from the Drumhouse appears on the right, converging gently, leaving only an uphill walk on rising ground to the grassy, but neat and narrow summit of Green Gable.

Approaching Green Gable

The lower Gable is forever subordinate to its higher and more famous neighbour, but it has a better summit, and it is the perfect place from which to look up to those northern cliffs. It will now be afternoon, and the sun will be casting a halo over the dark face.
Another great thing about this approach is that, if you are feeling heavy-legged, and doubting your ability to make it as far as Great Gable, the subsidiary summits are a brilliant device to keep you going, there being such a short distance from one to another, until by Green Gable it would be a dull fellow (or lady) indeed who could not sum up the extra effort to cross to Great Gable.
There is a short, steep descent to Windy Gap, a true narrow-sided col, and beyond, a stony path wastes no time in ascending to the left of the crags ahead, a well-graded zigzag route making the most of the slope as it patiently ascends onto the broad, domed top of Gable, so unexpected to the first time visitor who has only known the fell from its classic aspect above Wastwater. Walk south to the summit cairn, into which is set the memorial plate for the Fell & Rock Climbing Club fallen in the First World War.

The summit on Remembrance Day

The view from Great Gable is excellent, and is best of all in its close range of the western wall of the Scafell massif. This held my focus on my first visit as the texture of the air made it plain that the sun of morning was fading away, and that there would be rain coming. So it was not until a second visit (direct from Seathwaite, via Sty Head and the Breast Route), that I wandered towards the view of Wasdale and descended to Westmorland Cairn, which should be on anyone’s programme.
This not only offers a superb full-length view of Wastwater, but also the chance to study the tops of the Napes Ridges, and the scree-laden routes upwards between them. This being a clear day, these slopes will be ‘wick w’foak’ toiling upwards, already in need of a Boots full of deoderants and antiperspirants
A return via Windy Gap is unavoidable. and the simplest route from there is up and over Green Gable again, veering to the right as Gillercomb begins to open out, for the neck of land leading to Base Brown. If you’re starting to feel tired, and want to avoid what appears like unnecessary climbing, it is possible to contour around the flank of Green Gable, high above the Sty Head route, crossing the upper part of Mitchell Cove, but the way is pathless and isolated, and the effort of walking across a tilted slope is not worth the energy saved.
Descend by the route taken in ascent, as far as a fork, where take the right hand branch down to the head of Gillercomb ignoring the turning down into the valley. There are no difficulties between here and Base Brown’s summit.
The difficulty now is how to proceed. There is a route down the ridge but the terminal rocks are likely to prove so, and unless familiar with the route in ascent, it is probably wiser to turn back as far as the head of Gillercomb, and descend through that spacious bowl. The early stages are steep but a long, level section follows until the route starts to descend again towards the open mouth of the glacial valley, where the path loses itself in sight of the terminal wall.
I arrived here with the day cooling, and the rain massing, and struggled into my waterproofs twenty yards from the wall, just in time for the deluge that fell.

Seathwaite when it isn’t raining

The descent into Seathwaite, steep and dark and winding, with the farm tantalisingly in view below and seeming never to be growing nearer, was my first experience of a National Trust relaid path. With the rain pouring and the stones underfoot shining, it resembled nothing so much as spiral crazy paving, and I moved slowly and carefully down. There were no difficulties on that occasion, but on a later visit, in the dry and the sun, I found the path vanishing midway, and a precarious climb necessary down a steep slope to regain the route.
Whatever the conditions, the path eventually reaches the valley, and the young River Derwent. Cross the footbridge laid by the Ramblers Association, cross the fields and enter the Farm under the square arch, from where we shall once again prove the wisdom of my advice about getting there early to park near.