The Literal Back O’Skiddaw


The mouth of Southerndale

The first time I climbed Skiddaw, I was in unadulterated peak-baggers mode: maximum summits feasible. This meant the Long Side ridge, coming from the north, in parallel to the western flank of the main summit ridge, and climbing up from Carl Side col. It also meant coming back down to Carl Side col which, given my tendencies towards vertigo and the severe nature of the slope as it actually reaches the ridge, was a test of my nerve. Once I got back down, I didn’t fancy taking the Long Side ridge back, not out of any concerns about safety, but because I just didn’t want to go back exactly the same way I had climbed. My family did that: I covered more ground.

So I chose a line, a necessarily steep line, off the col and directly down into Southerndale. I took my time, stepped out cautiously, switched my line when it looked like getting involved with anything like scree, and arrived at the empty valley head with an easy walk home again. The absence of any paths was a trifling matter.

Time came and went. I climbed Skiddaw again via the Tourist Path, returning over Little Man and Lonscale Fell. I would do that walk once more, omitting Lonscale Fell on the descent, the summer I set out to climb all the 3,000’ers in one season (I fell one short by forgetting to bring a drinks bottle the day I reserved for Scafell).

But my favourite day on Skiddaw was a much more expansive version of the ascent from the Long Side ridge, a longer walk that in earlier days I thought beyond my stamina, which introduced me to lonely parts of the massif that weren’t in the least bit exciting, but which I had to myself for long hours. And that’s always worth having on Skiddaw.

For its first half, the walk was more or less identical to my first visit to the Long Side ridge. I parked in a layby on the Orthwaite Road that conveniently holds nearly half a dozen cars, walked up to the gate giving access to the fields, and strolled towards Barkbeth Farm, at the mouth of Southerndale. Here, as the valley mouth narrowed, there was a gate giving access to the valley, and an immediate ascent on grass to the low ridge.

But between then and then I had acquired Bill Birkett’s Complete Lakeland Fells. Not a book to carry around when walking, unlike Wainwright, but nevertheless containing many more points to visit than the Blessed had considered.

So, on achieving the ridge, I turned in the ‘wrong’ direction, following the pleasant little switchback of grass hummocks known as Watches, with its charming views towards Bass Lake, until I reached its highest point, on the furthest hummock. It was a diversion that only added to the length of the day, and I had to walk all the way back to start my circular course, but it was an enjoyable ridge to follow, gentle underfoot, and well worth the small effort it took.

Ullock Pike rose steeply above. It’s a true steep, straight approach, with a narrow crest along which the path ascends, occasionally changing sides between Southerndale and Bassenthwaite. The angle is unremitting, though the slope is not long. It was here that, quite by chance, I fell into an effortless comfortable rhythm, that ate up the slope with almost no expenditure of energy. All it required was a deliberate, slow pace, and I could climb and climb and climb without the least amount of weariness, nor need to stop. It felt like I could have gone on forever.

The Long Side ridge from Ullock Pike

Ullock Pike’s compact little top is a lovely place to halt, but it is better as the prelude to Longside Edge, a ten minute walk along a narrow but completely safe ridge, with steep slopes to either side. It’s a bit like a monorail, without the actual monorail, and it’s only flaw is that it is too short. It literally is no more than ten minutes when it is so enjoyable it should be at least twice the length, and there is the real temptation to turn back to Ullock Pike for the pleasure of doing it again.

From Long Side itself to Carl Side is equally enjoyable to begin with, but I’d barely left the former’s top before the ridge started to curve inwards towards the main body of Skiddaw. Carl Side itself is a rounded, flattened lump, much less inspiring as a target than Long Side, and the ridge loses itself in the final pull-up onto Carl Side itself. The path turns inwards, heading for Skiddaw, and to visit the summit it is necessary to divert over a low horizon onto the spreading heap.

From here, there’s a bit of a dip over a gravel field, and then it’s straight uphill, up the side of Skiddaw, on an increasingly steep path. This is at best a tedious climb and at worse an exhausting one, with nothing but stones beneath and no views to attract the eye unless you stop and look behind you. I was ever so glad that I had found that rhythm on Ullock Pike, for I was able to settle into it again, and the climb was an absolute doddle. I just stepped upwards, ever upwards, without the slightest sense of strain or weariness, without needing even to pause until I came out over the steepest stage and found myself on Skiddaw’s summit ridge.

Skiddaw top

The hard work done, I wandered along the ridge to Main Top, the highest point, and visited the cairn. Like all my previous visits, the place was crowded and I had to wait my turn with the viewfinder. It wasn’t like fighting my way to the cairn on Scafell Pike: crowds seem to be a bit more tolerable on Skiddaw and Helvellyn, which are more easily accessible by the casual pedestrian. Anyway, I didn’t intend to stay any longer than to register my presence, and I wandered on to the North Top to leave the crowds behind, enjoy an uninterrupted panorama, and scoff my sandwiches.

It was already quiet at the North Top, but as soon as I left it, moving forward, and down a long green slope, I was on my own, and I stayed that way from that point on. It felt strange after Skiddaw’s summit to so swiftly step into isolation. It felt as if I was stepping out of the world.

I walked away down an easy and broad incline that I quickly realised would have been hellishly tedious to walk up, and that without a look back or two towards the retreating skyline. It wasn’t long before I was at Broad End, an elevated platform on Skiddaw’s northern slope, of no great shape or significance save in its emptiness. It wasn’t even a pretence at a subsidiary summit, with virtually no downfall behind it to the path I’d walked down.

Broad End

This flank of Skiddaw is not necessarily steep, but it doesn’t take long to realise that you have lost enough height that you really wouldn’t want to turn round and climb back. Before you know it, the path is levelling out, and there is a mini-crossroads, at which the return route turns left, into a broad grass valley that starts to narrow the further along you get.

The crossroads is on the back of Bakestall, another of those features that are geographically only a part of a larger mass, Wainwright chose to treat individually, and we are better for it. I’d visited Bakestall already, the hard way, from the head of the Dash Valley, thinking thoughts that had gone into that day on Lord’s Seat when I’d unsuspectedly begun writing a novel, and this was a bit of a cheat, a short walk up the slightest of slopes to the summit cairn, an undeserved summit visit, but I did it. Then back to the crossroads and down that valley.

This was a quiet walk between increasingly enclosing walls, until the valley debouched upon a miniature replica of the scene above: a tiny crossroads, marked by a five stone cairn, the path onwards turning left into another green valley, a miniature top a few yards directly ahead, to be approached from the back, this one named Cockup, and vaguely parallel near the mouth of the Dash Valley to Great Cockup.

Bakestall face

Then down the second valley, between gradually encroaching walls, until I came out in the open, and onto a long path making its way around the northern boundary of the massif, above the intake walls.

Nothing now but distance to negotiate. The heights, and the heights of excitement, were a long way behind. The bottom of Southerndale was a long way ahead. The sun was sliding down the afternoon. There was no-one to see, nothing to do but follow the trail, a long march in unfamiliar surroundings, quiet and peaceful.

I’d rejected this particular route in the past, because of the long walk home round the northern perimeter, but I was a hardier walker now, with greater stamina, or at any rate greater confidence in it and I  strode along unconcernedly. The walk, in the terms I normally define walks, was long over and this country stroll a mere extended coda, under a high sun, in perfect peace.

My only moment of doubt lay in the crossing of the mouth of Barkbethdale, where the path dipped to the beck, then had to climb a low incline of its far bank on ground that was wet and soft. This short climb, so many hours after I’d last had to go uphill, proved more wearing than it normally would have been, but once I crossed the miniature watershed, the familiar skyline of Watches appeared directly ahead, with the narrow ridge of Ullock Pike beside it, and a short walk across the fields back to the car, and my cassette copy of The Distractions’ Nobody’s Perfect to repeat whilst I removed my boots.

A Day in the Lakes: 2018


I’m sitting in a railway station.

No, this is not a late attempt to become Paul Simon, though if someone offered me the chance to turn into the man who wrote and arrange “Bridge over Troubled Water”, I would, in the traditional manner, snatch your hand off.

I’m here at Piccadilly Station for my annual day out in the Lakes, full of carefully calculated plans and forty-five minutes ahead of departure time because, as you know, I am paranoid about public transport and, long before the day is over, that paranoia will again be proven justified.

The plan is foolproof: train to Windermere, bus to Glenridding, steamer to Pooley Bridge and back, reversing the route. Massive turnaround margins at all points, and the sun’s a clear, pale blue, promising ideal conditions. Admittedly, there are tannoy announcements about delays and cancellations, but I’ve got things under control.I’m going to Ullswater, my favourite of the Lakes, and one where my memories are very much my own, with little intrusion from my family.

There’s a lovely surprise as, nose in my book, I am greeted by my name being spoken with surprise and delight. It’s a former team-mate, who left my employers to go into Nursing Training, oh my god is is fifteen months ago already? She’s on her way to Salford University and is really pleased to see me, which gives me a boost. She’s really enthusiastic, absolutely loving it, and as lovely as ever. As usual, I wish I was half my age.

Her train leaves before mine but we have time for a good chat and, when hers is delayed I catch up with her on the platform and we resume nattering. Ironically, she’s commenting about hos the Government want us to save the environment by using public transport more, and just how bad it is: you can tell what’s coming, can’t you?

Her train delays mine a handful of minutes, and there are fits and starts as we escape Manchester. I haave my headphones on, my book open and as far as I’m concerned, the day starts now.

This stage of the journey is too familiar by now to demand attention until we reach Lancaster at least, and come into sight of the high country. I’m reading Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Labyrinth of the Spirits”, the final part of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books Quartet, bought as soon as published in English but saved for an occasion such as this because it is just over 800 pages long. But eminently readable@ I an a quarter of the way through it by Preston, where the train splits. The sky is unchanged, as empty as a Tory’s heart.

The two back carriages are to go on to Blackpool North, the front two to Windermere. That’s what they announced at Piccadilly, and that’s how I’m sat but I listen alertly for confirmation, because I am, as I say, paranoid.

Despite this being the mid-point of November, there’s a softer edge to this pellucid sky that’s suggestive of a heat-haze. The perfect clarity of distant vistas looks improbable. As we nar Lancaster, I’m looking north more and more, eager for that first hillside.

We’ve made up all but a minute of the delays by now, but we generously give it another six or seven minutes headstart before moving on. I’m still not concerned: I have forty-five minutes at Windermere before the Patterdale bus. I see cows in a field, standing in a patient line at an open gate, like ticket holders awaiting an invisible doorman’s permission to enter the theatre.

But paranoia never sleeps but fitfully. On the approach to Oxenholme, it’s announced that the service will terminate there. Passengers for Windermere will have to wait for the next train, at 11.18.

And at that moment, the Patterdale expedition is, if you’ll pardon my French, fucked. There’s enough leeway built into the schedule to cope if the Patterdale bus is an hourly service but whilst I can’t be categoric, I’m pretty bloody sure it’s two-hourly. So the connection to the Steamer is irretrievably lost. I’m not even there yet and the day is ruined.

I can’t even improvise because, according to the guard, the bus from Oxenholme will arrive at Windermere after the next train. For every good omen it seems there is a bad step.

I can’t begin to plan an alternative day until I do reach Windermere, and when i get there I can’t even find a timetable for a Patterdale service.

I’ve done Gfrasmere/Ambleside too often now for that combination to hold much appeal in the circumstances but, given that my reurn train isn’t until 6.30pm, I figure that gives me time to hit Keswick.

There’s a second good omen in Booth’s to which I repair for a cardboard ham sandwich, as I investigate the November/December issue of Lakeland Walker and discover an article by Alan McFadzean about a walk from Wet Sleddale to Gatescarth Pass and back, via Mosedale. Alan’s blog Awkward Roads is linked to here but he hasn’t posted there since February, and I’d begun to fear the worst, so this is an encouraging discovery.

Heading towards Ambleside, the usual sights parade themselves in the usual order, enhanced by my being upstairs on a double-decker. But cloud rests on the shoulders of the Langdale Pikes and, despite it being perfect at valley level all along the Lake, by Ambleside it’s clear that the interior is going to be cloud-hooded.

The best of today is now going to be Dunmail Raise and Thirlmere. I came this way as recently as 2014, when I visited Keswick, but that was a return journey, after dark, in which the lake was invisible and I couldn’t even tell we’d started climbing Dunmail Raise until we were actually crossing its summit.

The ‘No Vacancies’ signs are in full flower as we navigate our way out of Ambleside, and the streams and becks are in spate. The Brathay outflowing serene Rydal Water is wider than I’ve ever seen it.

It’s odd not to be getting out at Grasmere Village, where the sun has broken through in patches, lighting up the northern wall of Far Easedale, with Helm Crag for once standing clear of the cloud.

The rains that have left the roads wet have made Thirlmere as full as I ever remember seeing it, without a trace of the ugly stripped-bare tidemark. It dreams alone, heedless of the traffic that can only race past, with precious few places to stop. I remember the Thirlmere of the Sixties, when the roadside trees were planted so thickly that it was next to impossible to see the Lake, no matter how close the road came. North of the invisible dam, the sun is once more out. The Vale of St John is illuminated by a celestial lighting director, its backcloth a sunlit Blencathra with an isolated cloud-cap I’m more used to seeing on Skiddaw. Ironically, the great cloud magnet is proud of all but a few wisps on Lonscale Fell. Bassenthwaite Lake lies placidly beneath Dodd.

By the time I’ve ‘done’ the town, the sky has collapsed and Skiddaw resumed its usual aspect, with only Latrigg visible. The Market’s busy: I inspect half of it going down towards Lake Road, leaving the other half for the way back. There’s still some light over Newlands, but nothing for Borrowdale, making the camera a waste of space.

There isn’t much left to do until 4.30pm when I’ll catch the bus back, so I decide to find a pub and hole up with a pint and my book.

Frankly, I know I’m sour, but I’m glad to get off the street, and out of the way of people who seem oblivious to this being a public place, with other people around them, and who are continually stepping out in random directions, all of then directly in front of me. I appear to be the only person in Keswick paying attention to where folk are heading and trying to avoid them.

A pub in Keswick means the Oddfellows Arms, where I order hot food. Haddock, chips and peas, garden not mushy, arrives with almost supernatural speed, or am I just used to shitty service? There’s background music by Fleetwood Mac, all of it from Rumours but not Rumours: the playing order’s wrong and ‘Silver Spring’ wasn’t on the album, it was b-side to ‘Go Your Own Way’: it may be forty-one years ago but I remember these things.

And then there’s nothing left but to wander back to Booth’s and the bus stop.

The light’s failing as we climb out of Keswick but it says long enough for me to catch sight of Thirlmere on the way back, but no other Lakes. Then a coffee in Booth’s Windermere, and a most unsatisfying square of Victoria Sponge – I thought home-made was supposed to be best – and then the train and the dark and the slow return.

On a train to Manchester Piccadilly that, suddenly, becomes a train to Preston. This is too much. The guard reassures me that we’re merely being attached to another train at Preston, but I’m right and he’s wrong and he’s marvelling at how I knew. We really are being terminated in mid-journey. Very decently, he writes on my ticket that I should be allowed onto the next Manchester train free of charge. It’s being run by Transpennine, and the guard diesn’t even demur when I explain. “I’m used to Northern” he says. I have no intention of getting used to Northern.

The only upside is that this train gets me back to Piccadilly fifteen minutes earlier than I otherwise expected and I only have five minutes to wait for a 203 home.

It’s been a day in the Lakes, for which I ought to have been happy, but the plain fact is that I wasn’t. I was shafted. But that’s what you get when you have to rely on public transport in a third-rate country that’s spent the day I’ve been cut off from all news descending into a fourth-rate country.

Of course, I can try again, in 2019, when it’s lighter and things like buses and steamers might ply a bit more often. But dare I? How can I trust Northern Rail not to fuck it up for me a second time? Or actually a third, because they got me going and coming.

Bastards.

A Day in the Lakes – 2014


016It’s becoming a bit of a ritual. I take this week off each year, for my birthday, and on the Thursday I go up to the Lakes for the day.

This is the third year now. The last two have seen me go to Windermere, Bowness and Ambleside, and last year i even got back onto the fells, in a small way, for a small time, to a small height, but enough to bring back to life all those wonderful years of spent with my boots on and to give me perhaps the only truly, unalloyedly happy day I’ve had in several years.

This year I wanted to be a bit more ambitious. I wanted to see Keswick again, Skiddaw and Blencathra, the North Lakes, to go down to the lakeshore at Derwentwater and gaze into the Jaws of Borrowdale.

Such things are not easy from Manchester by public transport, on a limited income. There’s a substantial leap in fares between Windermere and Penrith on the train, and the bus service to Keswick is by no means as aligned to the trains as it is at Windermere.

But if you start early enough, it can be done, if planned along the lines of a military operation. Piccadilly to Penrith. A half-hour wait for the bus to Keswick. To return by the same route would mean nearly two hours hanging around in Penrith for the economical train, but a bus to Windermere means only 40 minutes wait for an earlier – and cheaper! – train.

The problem with military operations is that they’re dependant upon being on time for each leg, and when the first of them involves the 203, Greater Manchester’s most consistently unreliable service, the day starts fraught. There were many moments on the rush hour ride that had me nervily checking my watch: miss the train at Piccadilly and the day would be fucked and my tickets wasted.

But speed picked up, stomach issues subsided and I was easily on time for my train, in which Coach A naturally proved to be the one at the back.

The weather of last week, or even yesterday afternoon, would have been ideal: cold, crisp, clear blue skies. But of course it had changed. It was overcast, a thick layer of dark cloud, louring. It didn’t look helpful. Mind you, the further north we travelled, the more this dark underlay dispersed, though it only revealed a higher level of white, flat sky.

There were no views of the fells until beyond Lancaster, looking across Morecambe Bay and trying to find the distant Black Combe. It looked dark further in, and it stayed that way. As we passed the periphery of Lakeland, our air was relatively clear, but all the glimpses inwards showed the clouds low and in command.

From Oxenholme, I abandoned my Crossword and Killer Sudokus in favour of what views I could: Longsleddale’s narrow slit, the looming Howgills above Tebay Gorge, the expansiveness of Wet Sleddale (which I’ve never visited). Kidsty Pike was visible over the line of Mardale, but High Street was consumed.

I left the train at Penrith. Nature called so I used the nearby MacDonalds for the only thing it’s useful for and waited for the bus opposite the ruins of Penrith Castle. It was the first time I’d ever seen it: my only other trip to Penrith Station was in the dark, to collect my shortly-to-be sister-in-law and her son.

When I got on the bus, I settled on the driver’s side, thinking to enjoy the views of Blencathra close up. From the east, the saddleback to Foule Crag that gives this fell its unwanted second name – pretty much its first name until Wainwright came along – is most obvious, and despite the scant difference in height, the top was hidden by cloud but Foule Crag stood clear.

The bus didn’t just barrel down the A66, but made side-trips to Stainton, Penruddock and Threlkeld en route. The first of these was the scene of the first holiday I persuaded my family to take on the eastern side of the Lakes, which turned out to be the last one I went on.

Still, the best views were inwards, not outwards, even if the air was lightening in the north. Inwards and forwards: when it came into view, the Vale of Keswick was majestic but satanic. The familiar fells crowded round but cloud hugged Eel Crag and Grisedale Pike, lending a threatening aspect to the scene that was all the more dramatic for discovering that Skiddaw, that perennial cloud magnet, was free and clear and bright.

Four hours after I left my flat, I touched down in Keswick. But the moment of arrival was also the onset of leaving: I only had four hours and twenty minutes to go. No time for excursions onto the fells, not unless I wanted to pay for a taxi to take me to the Latrigg roadhead and wait whilst I shuffled my way up and down it.

Food first: when in Keswick, I always eat at the Oddfellow’s Arms and I did not intend to make an exception today. Roast beef, unstinted, new potatoes, carrots and peas with gravy, all in a plate-sized Yorkshire Pudding, for only £5.95. Pity the lager and lime was nearly £4 on top of that.

Derwentwater was nearer – much nearer – than I remembered it. I wandered across Crow Park, finding the ideal place to look down the Lake. A sunny Saturday on this spot came into mind, when the fells were full of light and looked enormous, but I ruthlessly tuned that memory out. From here I could see fells that spread across five Wainwrights, all of which I’ve climbed and some more than once, and but for the interior cloud, I could have claimed the Southern Fells as well. Out of reach for now.

On the other hand, somewhere else famous was not. Maybe I was at last old enough to visit Friar’s Crag. So I strolled slowly along to this famous viewpoint, which was everything that has been said about it, conditions permitting (see the photo above), but on the other hand the essential me hasn’t changed one bit and there were too damned many people about for my liking, and none of us had put in the hard yards to deserve this.

On the way back, it started raining, whispering in the woods. I contemplated the Crazy Golf in Hope Park, trying to remember what my course record was: something in the low Thirties, I’d played it that often and regarded a three-shot hole as a personal insult. The Pitch-and-Putt course was something else. I’ve never been round it in less than 42 or more that 49 strokes.

But the rain was getting harder, I have a recalcitrant shoulder bag that refuses to stay on a shoulder unless nailed on (no thanks) and besides, the shop was shut.

Keswick’s changed. So many familiar places, most of which offered books, have closed and gone. So too has the Cars of the Stars Museum, removed to Miami in 2011. The building and sign are still there, just not the exhibits I wandered round with awe and amazement, telling myself I’d died and gone back to my childhood.

I decided upon a coffee. I’m a straightforward white Gold Blend with one sweetener sort of guy, but of course they don’t sell that kind of coffee anywhere. The filter coffee gad run out, and as they were closing at 4.00pm, they weren’t making any more. So I scanned the list and decided on Espresso, but that was because I’d forgotten how small the cups are and that I don’t actually like Espresso, so the stop wasn’t exactly a success.

By the time I started drifting towards the bus station (a mere layby: I remember when this place had a proper Bus Station), it was raining like no bugger’s business and Skiddaw had disappeared, along with the whole of his massif, and indeed every fell it’s possible to see from the streets of Keswick.

The bus wasn’t due for another twenty minutes, but instead of holing up in a warm pub with a cold half-pint, I sat outside Booths. It was the old military operation bit again, and these days I’m far too paranoid about being late to feel in the least bit comfortable at being anything other than awfully early.

When the 555 arrived, I led the general charge from shelter, but courteously stood back to let the Keswick-bound passengers stream off. There’s always one though, one who’d rather stand on the platform and natter to the driver, completely oblivious to how many people are being kept standing in gusting winds and sheeting rain whilst he’s dry and warm, but a concerted psychic blast hit him and he shifted out of the way.

The bus climbed out of Keswick, heading south. I looked back across the town but in that gloom, that rain, there wasn’t an earthly chance of glimpsing Bass Lake under Dodd, not without Superman’s powers of vision. For me, it then became a race south, losing the light rapidly, to reach Thirlmere whilst it was still possible to see the Lake, but that was a forlorn hope.

In the dark, we could have been anywhere. Indeed, it was only when I saw the Dual Carriageway sign in the bus headlights that I realised we’d climbed Dunmail Raise and were now heading down into the Vale of Grasmere.

A couple of walkers in their early Thirties got on in the village and sat in front of me. I mention them because she was having a brilliant day, one of those days that’s too good to be contained, and she was grinning and chatting, and snatching little kisses at the side of his face. For the time being, her world was everything it was possible to be and she was elevated, and I was envious of him and found myself hoping he could be what she saw him as being at that time. You didn’t want to think of that sort of delight being brought down. Thankfully, they got off at Ambleside, before I could no longer resist recollecting times when I was the lucky recipient of joy like that.

Grasmere and Rydal, and even with the lights at Waterhead, there was no more lakes to be seen. I got off a Windermere with time for a much more palatable coffee before waiting for the train home. What shall I do next year?

Little Gems – Latrigg


Keswick, Derwent Water and Borrowdale from Latrigg

Latrigg is the Little Gem of Little Gems, an easy to ascend, grassy and gentle fell with views of such beauty that they are almost obscene in the reward they give for such little effort.
Latrigg is the cub of Skiddaw, a low, sprawling, rounded fell overlooking Keswick, a Sunday afternoon fell par excellence, free from risk or difficulty, and blessed with a car park at 1,200 feet that usually serves as a massive leg-up on the Tourist Route to Skiddaw itself, but which turns Latrigg into a veritable pussycat.
Leave Keswick on the main road north through the Village, but turn right at a mini-roundabout, following signposts for Carlisle. Go straight across the A66 at a major roundabout, and immediately turn right onto a side road signposted Underskiddaw and Latrigg. Follow this for a mile, before turning sharply back right, onto a narrow fell road leading uphill at a steep angle.
This is a route for cars with good suspension, although it may have been upgraded since I last passed this way (it needed it!). The road is narrow, and steep, uphill through trees, juddering and shaking and trying to avoid the worst of the potholes. It emerges from the woods into a narrow valley between the adjoining swells of Skiddaw and Latrigg.
The car park is at the head of the road, with room for about 15-20 cars, depending on the courtesy or selfishness with which they have been parked. If there is no room, turn round carefully and start back to find an off-road place where you can leave your car without blocking anyone’s passage.
There are two routes from here. The simplest and most direct is from the further end of the car park: leave via the gate, skirt some reedy and slightly soft ground in the bed of the depression, and bear towards the broad green path rising above the immediate skyline.
This route of approach has nothing to recommend it from a walking point of view. It is enclosed between two grassy convex slopes, and feels a touch claustrophobic as a consequence. There is nothing of interest on the way and the walk is nothing but a monotonous trudge, but the great appeal of this approach is that the stunning and expansive view from Latrigg’s miniature crest comes in the last couple of steps, as an enormous revelation, sudden and enthralling.
A much better walking alternative, longer but infinitely more entertaining, does show its hands over the view from a relatively early stage. At the bottom end of the car park, on the right as you arrive, a gate gives access to a broad path heading downhill and curving away quickly out of sight around the corner of Latrigg.
The path gently descends and it would be easy to develop a fast walking pace, but instead keep an eye open for a grassy ride descending from the left to join the path. Turn back upon yourself, gaining height in a series of gentle zig-zags on the side of Mallin Dodd, until the path levels out, turning south and contouring around the broad swell of the fell. Bassenthwaite Lake, below and behind, is already in view, and the vista is opening up towards the Newlands Valley, and as you progress, further east towards Derwent Water as well.
This high level terrace curves into and out of a sweep of land before rising to a small platform about 100′ below the, now-visible, crest of the fell. A park bench has been placed here, in the perfect position on the corner of the fell, where the view towards the lake and Borrowdale first opens out. It only accommodates two people, or three if they’re friendly, and most walkers, knowing how close they are to the summit, will not feel the urge to stop, but this route is for the leisurely at heart.
When ready, follow the path up the surprisingly steep edge to the crest for the fullest effect of the view.
After this, the direct route is a simple, easy, downhill march, back to the car.

Great Walks – Skiddaw by the Long Side ridge


Skiddaw from the unfamiliar north – Long Side ridge to the right

By far and away the most number of walkers who scale Skiddaw every year use the Tourist Route from the car park at the back of sweet little Latrigg. This is an enjoyable walk in itself, especially if it is elevated by a return over Skiddaw Little Man and Lonscale Fell, the former of which offers one of the very best views in the whole of Lakeland. But the masses who confine themselves to this route see little of the fell – England’s fourth highest peak – that they cannot see from the streets of Keswick itself, the route being in the open from beginning to end.
Another, and far more interesting approach, introduces the walker to the much less familiar western and northern slopes of the mountain, giving a more rounded picture and a longer, satisfying walk. It will also give the walker a taste of something that seems almost unimaginable to those who toil up from Latrigg – solitude.
Leave Keswick by the Carlisle road, east of Bassenthwaite, which lies at a low, placid distance from the route. At a fork signposted Orthwaite, bear right for a quarter mile before reaching a parking space on the right, with room enough for half a dozen cars if not parked selfishly. Follow the road to a gate giving onto fields. The bulk of Skiddaw towers ahead, with a separate, sharply rising ridge to its right. The path meanders through the fields towards the foot of that ridge, avoiding the small farm of Barkbeth and rising to cross the toe of the ridge and turn into the narrow-sided valley of Southerndale, opening up ahead. A gate leads into the valley proper, which hides around the curve of Skiddaw.
The walk begins just beyond the gate into Southerndale. Take to the grassy slopes above on the right for an easy ascent into a wide saddle on the ridge. The path to Skiddaw rises steeply and immediately on the left but, especially on a sunny morning, divert along the ridge to the right, over an amusing little switchback of outcrops known as Watches. Have a leisurely wander to the highest point at the far end and stroll back, taking in the towering and narrowing steepness of Ullock Pike directly ahead. It looks tempting.
The long climb to the ridge is one of only two steep sections in today’s ascent. It’s a succession of narrow twists and turns, on a well-made, well-graded route, switching from side to side of a tapering slope.
It’s certainly steep, but it’s a pleasure every step, and it was here that, by accident, I fell into the ideal fellwalker’s rhythm. It’s a deliberately slow, one-two, with the steps of even length and the body held straight, the centre of gravity above the middle of each step. I’ve very rarely managed to find that rhythm, but when I have it’s been effortless. Height, distance, everything gives way to that solemn, steady tread, without need of a single break to catch breath.
As height is gained, the views outward, and downwards to Bassenthwaite Lake, grow ever more spacious and gorgeous. Newlands’ green opening into the North Western Fells is almost directly ahead, a vision of calmness and beauty, and the one-two step allowing ample opportunity to watch the widening vista.

Skiddaw across Southerndale

Ullock Pike’s narrow top is a lovely site, but it’s only the beginning of the most delightful part of the day, the high, lonely, narrow ridge to Long Side, the fell that gives its name deservedly to this line of approach. The walk takes ten minutes at most, ten minutes of loveliness and openness, ten minutes that will leave most people wanting far more. It’s tempting to turn round, go back and do it again, and the effort that would cost, even without the steady tread, is so little that it could be accomplished without undue cost in the later stages.

Long Side from Ullock Pike

If this eccentric option is ignored, there is still the continuing ridge to the head of Southerndale, where Carl Side looms, lumpy but massive, at the foot of the wall of the west flank of Skiddaw. This is initially narrow and elevated, a continuation of the walk from Ullock Pike, but gradually the ground begins to mass beneath your feet, the ridge to merge into the back of Carl Side and the path to level out across the head of Southerndale itself. Carl Side lies off the direct route, and offers nothing but a rounded flat-topped mass with no great views, but do not leave it out.
Ahead lies the second and final piece of steep and serious walking in the day, a slate covered trod, well-established but steep and tedious, up the side of Skiddaw. It lacks the beauty and airiness of the ascent to Ullock Pike, and in its highest sections begins to get looser underfoot. Here is definitely where to recall that steady, effortless rhythm: it got me three-quarters of the way up that section without a halt, and even then it wasn’t tiredness that brought me to a brief halt.
The final yards are not well-defined as the path goes, and they are the most abrupt ground of the day, but they are mercifully short, and the ground suddenly levels as you pull onto the beginning of the summit ridge. Before joining the Tourist Path, and the hordes climbing from Keswick, look back to see exactly how quickly the ground falls away if we were being called to return by this route…
Skiddaw’s summit holds four tops in a straight line, over a high, bare, slatey ridge, in order South, Central, Main and North. Main is the highest point, identifiable from its trig point, the steel viewfinder set into its flat top, and the two or three dozen tourists sitting and lying around. Relish the views over the breadth of Lakeland from South Top before moving on, as this is the only place from which you can enjoy them, and think kindly of the pedestrians surrounding Main Top who, as on Helvellyn, seem far less incongruous here than on Scafell and the Pike. Join them for a prolonged, sun-drenched lunch.

Trig point and view-finder, Skiddaw Main Top, with Bassenthwaite Lake beyond

When the time comes to move on, continue north to North Top, which will have the fewest pedestrians along the whole summit ridge. This is quite possibly the last point of this day when you will see other walkers.
From the North Top, the route enters its third and final phase. Be warned that it offers nothing spectacular or exciting, but instead something entirely rare on Skiddaw: extended solitude, and country that feels unexplored.
Pass beyond North Top and start down the big, long, broad grass slope behind that descends to the ill-defined and wide top of Broad Stand – a very different place from the Broad Stand of Scafell Crag. There is a profound silence on this flank and a sense that a fractured ankle here will involve a long crawl before getting anywhere near anyone else. Skiddaw looms high above, silhouetted against the sun, suggesting that whilst you may be descending with ease, it would be another matter entirely to trudge silently up this long, featureless slope.

Looking back towards where all the people are

From Broad Stand, there is another sweeping descent, losing height steadily, culminating in a shallow saddle decorated by a small cairn. Here, the route turns inwards, to the left, descending into a narrow valley tending westwards. The path itself gains a short amount of height and veers to the right: if followed, this will descend Birkett Edge at the side of Bakestall, to the Skiddaw House Road at the head of the Dash Valley, offering a long long walk back to the car, with a lot of tarmac, but at least providing the walker with the spectacular views of Dead Crags.
Better though to divert across grass to Bakestall’s small top, the final recognised Wainwright of the day. Back at the saddle, turn down the fold in the land, which develops into a hidden, grassy channel complete with beck, and shut off by high walls from without.

Bakestall as not seen on this route

This too emerges in a little saddle, complete with even smaller cairn, and the path again tending away left, into a small hollow that develops into a tiny, hidden valley, closed off by high sides. Before taking this repeat route, take the short walk up the far side of the saddle and reach the summit of Cockup.
This time, the tiny beck leads down to the outskirts of the Skiddaw massif, to the intake wall above the fields beyond. There is a path above that intake wall, frequently bracken-choked, a long and mostly level tramp around the northern extent of Skiddaw. It takes a wide sweep and descent into and across the mouth of Barkbethdale, and a flat, soft, wet, low ridge to cross before, a good, long time after departing Skiddaw’s summit, the distinctive outline of Watches appears ahead, and the path descends towards Southerndale Beck and the short climb back to the gate. Had you left Watches until the end, the length of the retreat from the top, through the lonely country, would have drained you of the urge for any further ascent, no matter how short and easy, which confirms the wisdom of that early diversion.
From the gate to the car is an easy stroll. By this time, you’ll be feeling the miles in your legs, and you’re unlikely to want ever to climb Skiddaw from the north, but in its silence and solitude, it has opened up the mountain to your exploration.
And it’s a decided change from the Tourist Path.

Series 2 – 31: The Revolution


The revolution began on Sunday.
I set the alarm, got up, chucked my rucksack and boots in the car and drove north. By mid-morning, I had gone past Keswick and up the rackety, steep road through the woods, jolting up to the back of Latrigg and the start of the Tourist Route to Skiddaw.
Yes, I’d already conquered Skiddaw but it wasn’t my primary destination of the day. I was now close to the three-quarter mark in collecting the Wainwrights, and there were fells in awkward gaps between longer routes I’d followed. It would be dull, and a waste of good walking if I restricted myself only to them. Today’s goal was Skiddaw Little Man, which, according to Wainwright, possessed one of the widest, deepest panoramas in the whole Lakes, best seen if approached from the back so that the view appeared at the last moment. To leave out the highly adjacent Skiddaw would have made for a half-assed walk, obsession rather than the joy of walking.
But Skiddaw is the greatest cloud magnet in the whole Lakes, able to attract a covering no matter how clear a sky may be, and there was grey stuff shielding the summit. Still, I set out in my traditional determination not to be deflected until it became too obvious I could go no further.
This moment arrived at the fence beyond the top of Jenkin Hill, at the end of the easy stroll that follows the initial stern 900’ of ascent. Yet again the cloud had not blown away. Rather, it had descended, and Little Man was firmly in the murk. Indeed, the underwisps of the cloud were visible in the air above my head. No point in climbing a fell for its view if that view is rendered invisible.
But no need to waste the day. I was below the cloud, just, and the fence could lead me over a long, level course, to Lonscale Fell, the blocky eastern end of the Skiddaw massif. My 150th Wainwright, in fact. And from there a steep, direct descent, over trackless grass, steering myself as best as I could to find the path that led to the wall corner that was the key to the final and very steep section of descent. At the bottom, I joined a path rounding the corner out of the Glenderaterra valley, and followed it back to the car.
As the planned walk had been cut short, I had ample time, so I decided to finish off with a wander over Latrigg: not, this time, by the tedious whaleback whose main merit is preserving the view to the last minutes, but by a longer, idle route, initially descending towards Keswick, before turning back, up a series of splendidly graded zigzags, to a gentle stroll around the flank, the view opening ahead, and the unexpected opportunity of a sit-down on a park bench, less than 100 yards from the top.
And then I headed home, long cool miles to the M6, long long miles down it. There was a tailback of almost 10 miles to the end of the M65, the Blackpool motorway, the weekending trippers flooding onto the motorway to go home, and I crawled through them until I was free, and finally got home and could read the Sunday paper.
A fortnight later, I shot off again, this time to Eskdale, in pursuit of unfinished business. Green Crag sits at the northern edge of Birker Moor, the most southerly fell in the Wainwrights, whose boundary is closed off with a solid line. I’d made an attempt on it previously, but been driven back by bizarre forebodings.
I’d climbed out of the valley easily enough on one of two old peat roads, only to find myself unaccountably spooked once onto the moor. It wasn’t just the threat of cloud bringing rain to this lonely scene, but an eerie sense of emptiness and isolation. I progressed very reluctantly to the bottom of the grassy ride that led to the summit ridge, where the minimal comfort of a path expired, looking for an excuse to give up and go back.
Which I found in a dead sheep, fallen from a small bluff, landing on its back with feet in the air, rotting away. It was enough: I fairly hurried back, justifying my decision by the rain that set in before I got to the bottom of the peat road, but knowing that that was not why I’d backed away.
On a sunny midsummer Sunday, such feelings were inexplicable: I scrambled up to the sharp peak, made my way down behind the coxcomb crest of the subsidiary Crook Crag, located the other peat road from above, where it wasn’t easy to find, and found it a tremendous highway down, a gem of twists and levels.
My next expedition nearly didn’t happen: I’d set aside another Sunday to shoot off to Thirlmere, climb Raven Crag, the tree-covered rock-climbers haunt above the Dam. But Sunday dawned dull, cloudy, wet. Deprived of purpose, I rattled about, trying to read the paper, find something else to do. Until the sun broke through at 10.30am, I screamed a loud soddit, raced through getting dressed and flung myself out onto the road north. By midday, I was parked up by the Dam, and just discovering that, in my haste, I had left behind not only my camera but my walking socks.
It felt strange to climb in ordinary M&S socks, but I got away without blisters, ploughing a steep uphill course, ignoring easy diversions onto the zigzagging Forest Road that I crossed multiple times. Then, from the fringe of a deserted logging camp on the ridge, a winding, overgrown trail into a little dell that, with the assistance of chicken-wired duckboards in wet spots, led me to the tiny, tree-fringed summit.
I even walked to the furthest end of the ridge before descending, enjoying a relaxing break on the top of The Benn, a subsidiary top ignored by Wainwright. Sometimes there could be more than what the master had advertised.
My last summer outing was more ambitious, and required an earlier start, though its starting point was just across the valley from Raven Crag. With no difficulties except initial steepness, I walked up Sticks Pass – second only to Esk Hause among foot passes, but more frequently used as a Pass – and then onto the grassy, rounded but impressively high tops of the three Dodds: Stybarrow, Watson’s and Great.
Had I not been due home before dark, ready to face another week in my loathsome work environment, I might have added the range’s most northerly peak, Clough Head. More grass, miles of it, presenting no difficulty but distance, but that distance was two miles there and two miles back, all of it over terrain that was clearly deeply dull.
So I made my way down a sea of grass, into the valley, and headed home for the Blackpool Motorway Tailback, one last time.
To find the Lakes put within my reach for concentrated little expeditions, several of them walks that were just a little too short for days that could begin as soon as the bacon and egg was washed down by the only cups of tea I drank each year (I drink coffee, instant though it is, but I wasn’t prepared to face the possible variants these people would serve up): this was a delight, and before very long it would become a vital relief from the weekly grind of the job that I came to loathe with a passion, that nearly destroyed my ability to work at the profession I’d now followed for fourteen years, and until recently with distinction.
All I had to do was work out how to miss that bloody Tailback.
The photo is of Green Crag. It’s far easier to find shots from Green Crag, over Eskdale, to the Scafells, than of the fell itself. This scene is from Muncaster Head Farm, at the eastern end of the lowly Muncaster Fell, and it shows, from left to right, Harter Fell, Crook Crag and Green Crag, though it doesn’t show quite how far back is Harter from the other two. Beautiful setting, mind you.