Tarns – Goatswater

I’ve written about Goatswater before, in the context of it being one of the family’s ‘stock’ walks, repeated from holiday to holiday. Tarns were just some of the easily-achievable destinations to which the family was limited by the respective strength and stamina of its two youngest members, my sister and myself. Targets like Throstlegarth and Mickleden were flat, but walks to places like Goatswater introduced us to the uphill climb that was neither too distant nor too strenuous for little legs.
On the main road from Broughton to Coniston, on the approach towards the Village, there were a number of Public Footpath signposts, pointing fellwards towards Coniston Old Man. On a rare holiday without my Uncle, the four of us tried one of these, only to have it peter out in the open on the moor east of the Old Man. We wound up in the Village, three of us hanging around in the sun whilst Dad walked back to retrieve the car: I still have a vivid memory of a crowd of lads walking up the road chorusing the Lovin’s Spoonful’s big hit, ‘Daydream’ a song perfect for the conditions.
Though I’ll never know, perhaps that experience is what prompted Dad to first buy a Wainwright: the Southern Fells would have been the book of choice, given our habit of limiting ourselves to the south western quarter. Certainly, when we next tried a walk from the Coniston Road, it was from much further away, near Torver, it was along a route described by Wainwright, and it took us to Goatswater for the first time.
The approach is gentle enough, starting along a farm lane at a bend in the road, and easing upwards through woods to gain a path following the beck that descends from the tarn, high above. There’s not much to see in the early part if the walk, between the trees and the outwards swell of land from the edge of Cover Moor, but it’s quiet and a gentle uphill walk.
The first point of interest on the walk is Banishead Quarry. It’s developed a certain degree of fame now, but in the Sixties it was completely unheralded, despite the spectacular waterfall pouring into the unnamed ‘tarn’ in its bed. Even Wainwright passed it by with nothing more than a cursory mention.
Admittedly, both tarn and waterfall are artificial, but they’re no less a sight for that. Dad and I tried to find the source of the waterfall and, despite obstacles, squirmed round just far enough to see that it actually fell sideways out of an otherwise untroubled beck. And clearly there must have been an underground outflow as the water level never increased over the following years when we passed: no danger of the quarry filling up and spilling over.
Banishead Quarry was the true beginning of interest in the walk beyond its exercise. From here, the way came out into the open, still below the lip of the Moor, but only a short distance below the line of the Walna Scar Road, rounding the foot of Coniston Old Man’s south west ridge. But the section up to the road, and again beyond it, was on steep grass, the steepest gradient of the walk.
When it was done, we were let out onto the upper part of Cove Moor, on a path that hugged the wings of the ridge, in a wide, fractal curve around the edge of the moor, aiming for the turn into the corrie that holds the tarn. A little bit of uphill scrambling to round the final outcrop and take that first sight of Goatswater’s rocky shores, where we would fetch up.
For my sister and I, Goatswater was the destination: the intrinsic fascination with water, and shores, where we would stand, compulsively throwing in any stones that would fit our little hands. Goatswater was long and narrow, contained within its steep-sided hollow, with the rough, wall-like flank of the Old Man behind us and, across the tarn, the cliffs of Dow Crag.
That was what drew Dad and his elder brother. They’d stand side-by-side, twin binoculars fixed on the crags, sometimes calling me over and trying to direct my trembling hands to find little flashes of red or blue that were cragsmen, suspended by rope on vertical stone. My Dad and Uncle would have been up there themselves if they had the chance, the equipment, the experience: instead, they would find miniature climbs on the rocks behind us, rope up and scramble up.
One year, at least, they roped my sister and I in, literally. One would stand above, with the rope belayed, whilst we would make our way up stiffly, the other to one side, filming our endeavours with the cine camera. I heard Dad praising my sister to her mother as a natural, commenting on how she would clean handholds out with her fingers. When it was my next turn on the rope, determined to win the same praise, I spent so much time digging the moss out of a spectacularly easy crack that the whole sequence of the film is of me stood there, making no upwards progress.
For all that it was so easy to access from easy country, Goatswater was a rough place. It was always cold, the surface of the tarn white and choppy from the wind hissing through the corrie. Dow Crag leant a great tone to the atmosphere, but we were so regular in our visits.
We never went further than the shore beside the outflow, the path petering out yards from there. There were no heights from which to get a perspective on the tarn so I always think of it in that first sighting, as I ’rounded the corner’.
A couple of times I suggested going further on, following the shores of the tarn, then heading up the trackless wall of Goats Hause. That would have enabled us to look down upon Goatswater as a whole, and also to see out the other side. I was always curious to see what could be seen on the other side: it was the foundation of my urge to climb all the Wainwrights. There was no path, but there were no difficulties, and it wasn’t too steep, but my suggestions always fell upon deaf ears. Eventually, we’d pack up and set off back, down the way we came, to Torver and the car. Until the next time.
Since those days, I’ve never been back to Goatswater itself, though I have twice seen it by the view from Goats Hause that my family wouldn’t stir themselves to see.
Both times I was crossing the Hause as part of a walk between summits.
My first occasion was years ago, at the very beginning of my solo walks, a day spent in the southern part of the Coniston Range. There was no visit to Torver, nor any diversion to Banishead Quarry, just a crossing of Cove Moor on the Walna Scar Road, to the top of the Pass, and then the switchback route along the ridge of Dow Crag and its subsidiaries, before descending to cross the Hause en route to the Old Man.
And, a decade and more later, in the bright sun of a late afternoon of a glorious day, the tail end of a walk along the whole range, from the Old Man to Dow Crag, and Walna Scar Pass and back.
To be honest, from the Hause, Goatswater is nothing much to look at, though for once the sun glittered on its waters the way it never did from the shore. It belongs to Dow Crag’s crags, sombre and dark, as if on the edge of a storm. Sun does not suit it. The view from the Hause is not the view I remember when I think of Goatswater.

Obscure Corners: Green Crag

                                                                    Green Crag from Harter Fell

Green Crag is the beginning and the end of Lakeland in the south: in Wainwright’s Southern Fells the great man rounds off his map of the fell’s territory with thick, black, straight lines: this is an edge, and beyond there is nothing.
That’s not the case on the ground, and twenty years later, when Wainwright did prepare The Outlying Fells, he devoted several pages to the smaller fells lying between the coast and the Birker Fell Road, but there is a massive gap between the two, with no high ground to link them. Green Crag is the edge.
The fell itself consists of Green Crag, a stylishly conic, steep-sided peak separated by a wide col from the subsidiary Crook Crag, a coxcomb ridge of several smaller upthrusts. It is seen well from the Birker Fell Road, where the declining foreground enhances the proportionality of the view. Increase the ridge by another thousand foot throughout its length, set it down in a more mountainous area, and this would be a classic fell that all would queue to climb.
Without a long walk from the Duddon valley, near Grassguards, Green Crag is only realistically approachable from Middle Eskdale, where there is a choice of peat roads to the edge of the Birker Fell plateau. Any walk should ascend by one and descend by the other.
The approach to the peat roads is within walking distance of the Ratty at Dalegarth, making this an expedition that can be fit in between trains: four hours is not too much to leave between arrival and departure for a fit walker. Start off up the valley, ignoring the turn for Boot, and taking a farm road on the right when in sight of the Woolpack Inn. The lane leads to Doctor Bridge, where a choice must be made.
The first time visitor should always turn right, towards Low Birker, passing through the farmyard and bearing left through a big, walled intake. The path climbs diagonally towards the far corner before escaping onto the peat road itself, a well-graded route, tacking backwards and forwards and offering smooth passage up the flank of the valley, with excellent views of Middle Eskdale.
Once you cross the lip of the valley, the path around the edge of Birker Fell is clear and unmistakable, but the change in atmosphere and setting is total. Eskdale and its verdant fields disappears immediately: the ground to your immediate left slopes upwards to an undistinguished skyline, whilst to your right, a grassy, silent, somehow forbidding wilderness stretches. In cloudy, damp and atmospheric conditions, there is the sense of clinging to the hillside and creeping along the edge of a trackless waste: tales of ghostly horses carrying unburied coffins on the Eskdale-Wasdale Corpse Road could be transplanted here with utter believability.
The path winds its way along the low, green base of Crook Crag, passing Birker Pool on its way. It’s circuitous route, clinging to the contours of the fellside and following its base throughout are unusual, and there is little to see ahead until the path draws level with the col between Crook Crag and Green Crag. Here, it turns uphill, but only for a short distance before petering out. Route-finding is not an issue, however. Just climb on until the col is reached, and Harter Fell and the path up its flanks, rising out of the Duddon Valley, right, is clearly visible. The col is surprisingly low above this matching depression, and energetic walkers for whom the traverse of Green Crag is insufficient exercise, will look to that direction. However, be warned that Spothow Gill is difficult to cross safely and it may be necessary to traverse a long way in the direction of Eskdale before even reaching the Harter path.
Green Crag towers above, looking far too steep to be tackled from the col, but work around behind it to discover a grassy channel, up which an ascent can be made that brings you, safely, to the narrow top.
If the day is windy, it will be windy here, with the wind racing in off the Irish Sea without anything to hinder it. The views into the Lakes are not extensive: everything north and west of Green Crag is higher, but the head of Eskdale and the Scafell massif will the the cynosure of most eyes, losing little for the additional distance over the classic view from Harter Fell. And on this summit, you will be alone and uninterrupted.
The seascape’s not bad either, and Devoke Water is seen across the wilderness of Birker Moor, whilst those who, for some reason, might be carrying a personal radio, ought to be able to pick up Manx Radio from out there in the Irish Sea.
Return to the saddle, cross this and take a close look at Crook Crag, the ‘coxcomb’ ridge that Wainwright describes. Its crest may be sportingly followed, or you may follow its base, sticking to the Harter flank, though the view on this side is far from inspiring and does not tempt to cross over and add Harter to the day’s programme. Gradually, Crook Crag begins to decline, and the way emerges over a hinterland between the high ground and the lip of the valley, here dominated by the back of Kepple Crag.
The other peat road can be traced to the left of Kepple Crag, though there is no path originally. Keep looking backwards to fix the scene in your mind, remembering where you descended from, so that if you decide to ascend this way, you will know your path from the lip of the valley.
And once you are on this peat road, with its easy walking, its constant change of directions, the endless pleasure of it, you will no doubt decide it to be a better route for next time.
The peat road passes the path to Harter Fell, winding back up to the right, and eventually descends to join the foot route to Brotherilkeld. Ignore it, reluctantly, to turn left for Penny Hill, and beyond it a long, flat farm road back to Doctor Bridge. Is that the Ratty in the distance? Or did you leave enough time to call in at the Woolpack as well?

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.