A Patterdale Expedition

When you book rail tickets four weeks in advance, to get the cheapest prices, you play pot luck with the weather. According to the forecasts, I am going to come up snakes eyes, to mix a metaphor. Thunderstorms all day, England’s World Cup semi-final to be pushed into the reserve day, this is what is promised. Given the weather most of the time since I bought the tickets, sunny, dry, hot, it’s feeding my never very deep-lying paranoia.

Which, given that I am booked on the 7.26am train from Piccadilly, and I am relying on the 203 bus, the only bus to win a Booker Prize for its timetable, is always hyperactive at times like this.

Everything started well. I responded to the alarm at 5.30am. It had been raining until quite recently, for everything outside was wet, but when I got out, ahead of time, it was dry and getting drier, and there was a freshness in the airthat the suggested the grey skies would slowly peel back to reveal the blue beyond.

I’d barely gotten twenty yards when there was a ping in my left calf, suggesting not so much cramp as a pulled muscle. I walked it off gently but this was going to be a true omen for the day.

The 203 upset my model of the Universe by being on time. Indeed, I was inside Piccadily Station, in the ‘Departure Lounge’ for Platforms 13 & 14, by 7.02am, the only hitch being a minor and quickly resolved panic over whether my rail tickets were in my wallet. It was a long time wait but these are the marginsI prefer to work with.

The train was on time, my seat was by the window, albeit looking backwards, and no-one turned up to claim the reserved seat to Glasgow Central next to me so that was my shoulder bag sorted.

There was nothing I could do about the weather so I paid the cloud only occasional mind as we ploughed north, devoting myself to a second attempt to read The Illuminatus Trilogy without stopping, though still without understanding.

This was an express train, stopping only at Preston and Lancaster and due in Penrith after only ninety minutes. Once we reached the shores of MorecambeBay, I switched to scanning the Lakes skyline. It was unpromising: dark, wispy, fragile clouds with a base below 1,000′: not good.

I was hoping for better north of the equivalent of Dunmail Raise but there was a thicker, darker, more pregnant band of cloud, and then suddenly it seemed lighter. Skylines became clearer, sharper. The message was mixed: sunlight on the lower slopes of Mardale, pockets of low cloud around the valley head. Kidsty Pike stood proud but Rampsgill Head was deep-capped.

Out at Penrith for five to nine with an hour to kill, or so I thought. I walked down to the Town Centre. The main street was smaller than I remembered and all the touristy shops seemed to have left. There used to be a  good bookshop somewhere round the back, where I spent a half hour on the morning of my wedding, having run my sister-in-law-to-be and my wife-to-be’s best friend in for last minute essentials. Where it is, if it still exists, I had no idea and I decided against searching for it, the air being an odd mixture of fresh and stuffy.

Thank Heaven I didn’t! I got back to the Rail Station in time to catch the slightly-delayed 9.20am bus, whose driver was in a chatty mood, and who told me tht thee 9.50am bus I intended to catch doesn’t run until theTimetable that comes into force on the 26th!

If I’d missed this bus, it wouldn’t have been fatal to my plans, but as the next bus was 11.20am, I’d have been stuck in Penrith for two hours. Then again, I do have a partly-completed novel with a scene in Penrith, so I could have spentthe time in research.

The sky was a fractal mixture of dark cloud, light cloud and blue spaces. The bus was riding between high hedgerows so it took a while before I could get some sense of the air in Patterdale. When I could see, it looked clear around Ullswater’s lowest reach but cloudy further back. Given the forecast, this was good going.

But when I got off the bus in Pooley Bridge, it was trying to rain, fine, light, sprinkly lane. The Steamer Shop in the Village was closed despite its advertised opening time of 9.15am.

There was nothing to do here either so I strolled on to the steamer landing. This took me across the temporary bridge that stands in the place of the beautiful stone arches destroyed forever by the floods of 2015/16. It’s an ugly, practical thing of steel cross-girders, an eyesore, where the old bridge was a thing of grace and beauty. It’s absence is a pang.

Ullswater, looking down to Hallin Fell

There’s a superb viewpoint just before the landings, by the Birkett Memorial. We came down here on the Saturday evening, for our first view of Ullswater, that holiday, and I took a photo of the lake, looking towards Hallin Fell, with the family at the forefront. I took another one now, in colour, but without anyone to grace it.

Ullswater is my favourite lake, its beautiful curves and bays, and this only the least-interesting reach of it. I haven’t seen it in, probably, about fifteen years and I felt a tremendous sense of contentment. All the visible hills remind me of walks gone past. PlaceFell was capped and dark, so it was Hallin Fell and Beda Head that stood out for me then. The lake chuckled and bubbled past me into the River Eamont.

I narrowed my eyes. Something long and white was crossing below Hallin Fell, turning into Howtown Bay. In a moment’s silence between the passing cars, I heard a distant bell. If I’m not mistaken, that’s my steamer from Glenridding.

This would be my fourth trip on the Ullswater Steamer but the first for this end of the Lake. My first was an impromptu decision on a rainy, cloudy afternoon, when walking was out of the question, Howtown and back. Twice since, I’d taken a one-way trip to Howtown and walked back, the first a solo over Place Fell, the second a family walk down the lakeshore path, which is as lovely as they say it is.

Eventually the steamer emerged and headed towards us. I paid for my ticket (which included 50% off the Ratty for the next twelve months, which gave mean idea…)

‘Raven’ approaches

As soon as the Steamer docked, I was on to it and dodging through the saloon to the foredeck. The commemorative plaque confirmed this was Raven, and in five days time it would be 130 years to the day since it was first launched.

We seemed to race up the lake into the teeth of a flapping wind, Hallin Fell dead ahead, the zigzags of the Hause visible to its left. As we started curving into the Bay, Beda Head became our pointer and little flecks of rain started to flick against my face.

Leaving the Pier at Pooley Bridge

It wasn’t until we started to slow down for Howtown the the magnificent middle reach of the lake, and the fells at the end of it, appeared as if out of nowhere. Sheffield Pike stood proud and sunny but there wasn’t much to see behind it except dark cloud.

We drifted into the Pier, no-one waiting to board us, though two walkers appeared from the direction of the road, only to stand and watch us leave. Twenty-eight people, one baby carriage and two dogs  disembark. I looked at Steel Knott’s steep prow and asked myself, did I really go up that? (yes, I did).

Howtown and Steel Knotts

Off on the next leg. A massive convoy of ducks sat on the surface of the lake on our left bow as we headed outround Hallin Fell. This was the bit I’dreally come here for.

The taped message for the tourist informed us of what to look out for and only made two egregious mistakes in three facts. It places Birkett Crag (no, it’s Fell) on the wrong side of Ullswater and claims Helvellyn is the second highest mountain in England. I don’t dare look up what it said about Donald Campbell.

We took a rather more leisurely turn down the middle reach. Some part of the High Street range, still cloud-clagged, appeared in the gap between Hallin Fell and Place Fell, whilst on the other side, the Hellvellyn range was similar, but someqhat lighter, as if it might finally blow clear.

The middle reach, looking to Sheffield Pike

Approaching the turn into the upper reach, we passed Lady of the Lake on the port bow. Saint Sunday Crag and Dollywaggon Pike, either side of Grisedale, are firmly cloud-blocked, though there’s masses of blue sky above the lake itself. I’ve always felt these names to be strange and foreign-sounding to the Lakes, ever since I first heard my mother mentioning them, way back in the early Sixties. They’re just not Cumbrian to me. Things looked very dirty at the head of Patterdale, where we could see straight into Threshthwaite Glen.

Over to starboard, there was a big hotel on the lakeshore that I tried not to look too closely at. Under an older name than it currently bears, this was where I was married, and there are too many memories in that.

It was still not yet quite midday when I got off the steamerand walked round into Glenridding Village. My plans were flexible enough to give me either two hours or three and a half here, which would be fine if I felt in any way fit for a walk. Indeed, I’d half picked out Keldas, at the foot of Birkhouse Moor, and brought The Eastern Fells in my bag, but I’m achey and creaky and have been all day.

I was trepidatious about what Glenridding might look like, bearing in mind that the floods did a real number on the Vilaage, but the repairs here seemed more complete and nothing appeared to be out of place. I settled into a picnic table and got out my lunch.

The best plan seemed to be to kick back, relax, and enjoy just being here, but I did wander a bit in the direction of the path to Lanty’s Tarn, just to see how far I might get if I went at it slowly. All that got me was some spotty rain, a buzzy insect with an obsession with my right ear and some stomach cramps that suggested I might be better off keeping the Public Conveniences in closer proximity so, despite some increasingly encouraging blue skies, I strolled back.

Sunshine over the Glenridding valley

Down in the valley, the soft breeze was very welcome, and I took root at another picnic table, enjoying the passing pedstrians and returning to my book. I could have dome some writing if the energy possessed me but overall this was not the day for creativity, so I socked up relaxing in Patterdale. Mind you, I noticed a lot of references to ‘The Ullswater Valley’: another Stickle Ghyll in the making?

St Sunday Crag

There was another, slightly more serious spot of rain when I wandered back off to the Pier. We were on Raven again, though this time I headed for the stern for the best views. There was a ton of worrying grinding from the engine, turning to face back down Ullswater, but the mountainscape was at last wonderful, St Sunday Crag sunwashedand magnificent, Dollywaggon dark andslope-shouldered and even a glimpse of a cloud-free Helvellyn as we retreated.


Howtown was the beginning of the end.  Everything after this was journeying back. Waiting in the sweltering heat for the bus in Pooley Bridge. Fifty-five minutes to kill at Penrith Station with nothing to do and nowhere to go, unless you count McDonald’s, so back to my book.

With the exception of the bus to Pooley Bridge, all the travelling’s gone smoothly, all day, but then I go and blow it. My travel notes have me catching the18.06 at Penrith, change at Preston. My ticket was for the 17.50 direct to Manchester Piccadilly, but I didn’t realise this until a mini-argument over who has reserved seat A11. On the 18.06. Oops.

That could have been very expensive, but the ticket inspector on the Virgin train was decent enough to stamp my ticket anyway so my only loss was to get stuck in an aisle seat on a gloriously sunny evening, and unable to see out of either window. And Northern Rail surprise me twice at Preston, first by being dead on time, and then by not coming to check my ticket at all. I was even blessed with sitting opposite a nice-looking young woman, with long brown hair almost the shade mine used to be, and a lovely smile.

I got back to Piccadilly nearly fifteen hours after the alarm woke me, and I didn’t half know it by then. One bus-ride later, and I got off in the only sustained rain I experienced all day, despite the forecasts, and the evening still sunny, offering up a full-arch rainbow above my flat. Mind you, everything that could ache did ache by then, and I’d missed England beating Australia to reach the Cricket World Cup Final. But I’d had a grand day, and I’d been back to Ullswater. Where can I go next?


It was twenty years ago today

The view I couldn’t capture

It was a blazingly hot June Saturday. I was still at the firm I loathed, but I was less than twelve months away from the end of my contract and release from what I had already been counting down, like a sentence in Strangeways, for over a year and a half. I had, after starting as long ago as 1968, with my family, completed the Wainwrights, and was thus free to climb wherever I wanted, for no more than the fun of it and the joy of choosing routes that didn’t have the primary purpose of collecting as many new summits as possible.

I set my alarm for 6.00am, was on the road for 7.00am, crossing the Cumbria border around 8.00am, and into Patterdale via Kirkstone Pass from the easy, southern approach, quick enough to grab a slot in the very limited parking space available at the mouth of the Grisedale Valley. All was well, all was fine, except that I had forgotten to shove my camera into my rucksack, so there were going to be no photos on this expedition, which was a great shame as this was ideal photography weather: hot, bright, but also clear: without haze.

My planned walk was to ascend Fairfield from the top of Grisedale Pass and return to Patterdale over St Sunday Crag, a fell whose summit I had previously only visited in sudden cloud and rain. I remember starting along the lane into Grisedale, rising and falling, the treeshade cool and deep green, and making the most of the bouts of shade available along the southern side of the valley itself.

Not until the path started to rise, by the Climbers Hut, was I fully out in the open, under the sun, not that it bothered me. I had the good fortune to tan, not burn, and between time spent at Old Trafford, where I was a Lancashire member, and out on the fells, I got pretty brown all summer (excluding the white patch on my left wrist, where I wore my watch, which I kept for contrast with the rest of my arm).

On the ascent towards the top of the Pass, I had my eye open for ‘The Brother’s Parting’, the memorial to the final meeting between William Wordsworth, ‘the old sheep of the Lake District’, and his sea captain brother John. The rock isn’t really visible on the descent, unless you’re keeping a special watch for it, and this time I had time to divert to it and strain to read the carved words most visible if approached almost parallel to the rockface itself, from the left side.

From there it was a steep slog up the flank of Fairfield, made bearable by taking all the time I needed over it. Because it was a Saturday, I could leave the Lakes as late as I wanted without fear of hold-ups at the end of the Blackpool Motorway, driving home. So I did what I always did, and tried to establish that steady, unhurried, rhythmical gait that eats up slopes like ice cream (for which I would have been very glad of at the time).

The path emerged close to Fairfield’s summit cairn, some distance from the southern edge of the plateau, where the downfall into Western Lakeland begins, and the views are the broadest and most magnificent in the Lakes. I idled over lunch, visited the southern edge, forced myself to accept  that I wasn’t going to descend by that route, into that view, as I had when I’d climbed the Fairfield Horseshoe, then turned my attention to the steep, narrow, interesting route off the north-eastern corner of the summit, eroding and dramatic, towards the obtrusive upthrust of Cofa Pike, and beyond that up the back of St Sunday Crag itself.

It was superb walking, airy, difficult, the ideal thing for a Saturday away from the tribulations of everyday life. I vividly remember, even twenty years later, the view back off St Sunday Crag’s ridge, over the top of Grisedale Pass to the tarn itself, in its sheltering bowl, and kicking myself, seriously kicking myself, for forgetting my camera, because this was a glorious sight.

Then it was St Sunday himself. The last time I’d been here, the cloud had been down over the top 200′ of the fell, but the rain, sharp, needle-like, started the moment I reached the cairn, forcing a hasty retreat down-ridge towards Patterdale. No such worries: I could stretch, look around, take my time, relax, capture the beautiful view… oh, no, couldn’t do that, could I?

Nevertheless, onwards, down-ridge, through the most celebrated sight of Ullswater, and its higher two reaches. At the foot of the ridge, I eschewed the chance to descend knee-crackingly steeply through Glemara Park in favour of a stroll across the flat depression to the summit of Birks, and then down through the park on an equally knee-crackingly steep path, down to Patterdale. Just a walk through the Village, back to the mouth of Grisedale and the car.

It was about 3.10pm, still a beautiful afternoon. I changed back into trainers, enjoying the lightness around my feet and, with nothing in particular to detain me, decided on a leisurely return to Manchester. Not by the direct route, over Kirkstone, but a roundabout drive: Ullswater, the back country south of Penrith, the Lowther valley, crossing to the A6 at Shap and take the high road back over the fells rather than the motorway.

There was a cassette in the player in the car. It reached its end about 3.50pm and, rather than pop another in straight away, I let the radio run for ten minutes, waiting for the four o’clock news. See what had been happening in the world.

When the news came on, I nearly drove into the wall in shock. A bomb had gone off in the centre of Manchester. In Manchester. I had not been there to know about it, I had been wandering the fells, having a glorious time, in all sorts of innocent ignorance whilst my home city had been attacked, while damage had been caused and, for all I then knew, injury and death.

Though some people had mobile phones in 1996, I was not so technologically advanced. I had a girlfriend who might have gone into the City centre to do some shopping, who might have been involved. I had a sister who lived in Warrington, not all that near but who knew? Maybe she had popped into Manchester with her husband and children, to do some shopping. What the fuck had happened? Were they ok? Did I have enough coins for the nearest telephone kiosk, in Shap Village?

I put my foot down and drove furiously for Shap. Once I parked, I ran for the kiosk at a speed that belied the fact I’d just climbed two 2,800′ plus mountains that day. My girlfriend first: nothing but the ansaphone – no such term as voicemail back then – and more hours of worry. My sister was at home and happy to reassure me that she had not been anywhere near Manchester.

Instead of the Shap Fell road, I got onto the motorway and raced home as fast as possible. This time, my lady was home, and I could reassure myself that whatever damage the bomb had done, those closest to me were intact.

So that was my experience of the Manchester Bomb, that went off twenty years ago today. Absence of mind and body until the excitement was all over. Even now, a part of me, on my shallow side, still has the childish reaction that this big bad thing happened – and I missed it!

I have never yet been back to that ridge between Fairfield and St Sunday Crag. I have never captured that view over Grisedale Tarn, except in my memory. It was a brilliant day.

Great Walks: Fairfield to St. Sunday Crag

Grisedale on a Summer’s morning

Fairfield is usually climbed as the head of its Horseshoe, and a fantastic day’s walking that provides if, as I have previously explained, the choice is made to traverse anti-clockwise.
But to do so is to see only those expansive and grassy but somewhat dull and tedious parts of the fell, and to deny yourself sight of the cliffs that overlook Deepdale and Fairfield’s north-eastern flanks.
An alternate aphproac, preceded by a lot of comparatively gentle walking, does repair quite a lot of that omission and, once the climb from the valley is completed, offers a beautiful and enthralling high level traverse from Fairfield to St Sunday Crag to return to Patterdale.
The start for this walk is once again Grisedale, and all the usual warnings about an early arrival so as to take advantage of the very limited parking available at the mouth of the valley applies equally here. On the other hand, if forced to park at the opposite end of Patterdale Village, there is an alternate, slightly contrived ending to the walk that brings you back almost directly to your car.
Assuming arrival at Grisedale in sufficient time to claim advantage, take the road into the valley. This is quiet and shaded, and its dips and rises help get the legs into shape for the heavy work to be done later. Where the road emerges into the valley and turns ninety degrees right, leave it at a gate directly ahead for the start of the long walk to Grisedale Pass.
The route along the valley is wide and level, and offers frequent patches of shading from what will hopefully be a very yellow sun in a clear blue sky. A good marching pace can be maintained until the valley begins to narrow and the path to rise, emerging from its accompanying fence and following the beck as it climbs towards the summit of the Pass, on the very lip of Grisedale. Once a clear, low skyline makes itself apparent, look rightwards for a flat-faced rock, angled slightly towards the north side of the valley. Cross to this when you see it, to inspect the famous ‘Brothers Parting’.

This marks the point at which the poet William Wordsworth last parted from his sea captain brother John, the latter dying at sea five years later without seeing his brother again. The lettering is very weathered: indeed, the last time I was here, it was only possible to read the inscription by looking across the rock from left to right at a very tight angle. The time will come, if it has not already, when the inscription will fade into complete illegibility.
Opinions vary on the best way to start a walk. My own preference is to start gaining height as soon as possible, to get above the valley and start to experience the breezes and the expanding horizons. But a walk like this offers the opposite experience, the appeal of tracing a valley to its head, as the high fells surrounding it enclose the narrowing space, and the ridge is reached, offering a view into a different landscape.
The head of Grisedale is the summit of the Pass. It reveals the glacial bowl that holds Grisedale Tarn, below, to the west of the ridge. An initially ill-defined line leads forward and round to the foot of the Dollywaggon Zigzags, the classic foothold onto the Helvelyn Range, butFairfield lies in the opposite direction, and the way is not particluarly attractive.
This is because from here to the summit of Fairfield, there is a lot of height to be gained for a relatively short movement forward. In short, this section of the walk is a grind, an unremittingly steep ascent with little to interest but getting it over. It’s sole merit is that all the worst of the climbing is concentrated into one single session, and once Fairfield’s broad and flat top is reached, you can relax in knowing that everything ahead is delightful.
Glimpses will already be had of the continuation of the walk, northwards back to Patterdale, and most walker’s eyes will have been drawn to the outcrop of Cofa Pike, high and steep-sided on a clearly narrow ridge. For the moment, take a breather at the cairn, the highest point on the walk, rehydrate with the liquid of your choice, and have a bite to eat.
St. Sunday Crag lies northwards, but first time visitors are urged to wander towards the south, descending gently to the edge of the plateau, until they emerge above the Afternoon arm of the Horseshoe and can take in that extraordinary broad and deep vista of the west of Lakeland (previous visitors will need no urging to renew acquaintance with the sight). Plans to walk the Horseshoe will be accelerated immediately.
But now the best part of the walk is ahead.
Leave the summit cairn due north, towards the one point on Fairfield’s top that narrows to a defined ridge. It’s rocks, and the steep upthrust of Cofa Pike, only a short distance down the ridge, will have most walkers looking forward intensely to the next half hour. The ridge demands concentration, especially on the approach to Cofa Pike, which looks formidable and difficult to pass. The experienced walker will take this in their stride, though it’s a place to be avoided in high winds or snowy and icy conditions.

Cofa Pike and St. Sunday Crag.

The adrenalin burn continues down its further slopes to the broad and easy col at Deepdale Hause, from which Fairfield’s cliffs, unsuspected from the Horseshoe, give a new impression of the fell to those only familiar with its western and southern aspects. Deepdale lies to the right, drawing attention.
Ahead lies St Sunday Crag, offering a wide and comfortable ridge to ascend. It offers no difficulty except to stamina in older walkers, and time should be taken to appreciate the superb views back to Griasedale Pass, and the Tarn beyond, nestled in its sheltering hollow. It’s a view that begs to be photographed, and I am still kicking myself that in my eagerness to get out to the Lakes that June Saturday I forgot to grab my camera case and have no record of it.

Grisedale Tarn, looking to St. Sunday Crag

The slope eases as it rises, but the back of St Sunday Crag is broad enough to conceal all sight of Ullswater until reaching the summit cairn.
The best views are from the north-east ridge, including the classic scene of the upper reach of Ullswater, rich and blue among the fields of Patterdale, which comes into prominence only a short way down the ridge. This remains in view ahead during a long descent that is a delight at every step.
At the foot of the ridge, those walkers who have had enough (a stance justified only by injury, complete fatigue or a soullessness that I can’t believe) may continue downwards, on the northern flank, descending to cross Glenamara Park (which readers of the First edition Wainwrights will always know as Glamara Park). But it is better in every respect to follow the flat ridge directly ahead, which has been fully exposed on the descent, to the summit of Birks, the primary outlier of St Sunday Crag, itself with an excellent, more intimate view of the head of the Lake.
Descend directly from Birks to join the path into the lightly wooded Glenamara Park, though be warned that this is a bit of a knee-cracker. All that is left is a gentle stroll towards Grisedale Beck, which is crossed by a bridge at the mouth of the valley, returning to the valley road for a short walk back to your car.
Those who were not early enough to park in the limited spaces on the valley road face a walk of half a mile or more, either to the other end of Patterdale Village or, in extremis, the car park in Glenridding Village. The former can avoid the necessary tramp down the road by a slightly contrived diversion off the route described, starting fro Birks’ summit.
Instead of descending north towards Glenamara Park, leave the summit in the opposite direction, scrambling down a largely pathless slope towards the company of a broken wall. At its foot, an intermittent path can be picked up, bearing left, which leads to the oddly-shaped Trough Head, an enclosed dell at the head of the tiny valley of Hag Beck. Drop round and into Trough Head and take a rambling path from its further flank that leads to the miniature outcrops of Arnison Crag, a second and much-removed spur of st Sunday Crag’s north-east ridge, whose main claim to fame is that it is the first fell in the first Wainwright, The Eastern Fells.
Descend from the summit alongside the wall, to pick up a path at its foot that follows the edge of Glenamara Park past Mill Moss – once a rubbish tip but now delightfully restored to beauty, according to Jesty – before emerging from behind a block of Public Conveniences to the only other parking area in Patterdale.
It all makes for a memorable day and a memorable walk, but I hope that any who take this way will walk it without the memories that indelibly attach to my visit. I set off to return home by rounding Ullswater and heading for Shap and the M6. I had a cassette in the player, which ran out about 3.50pm so I decided to have ten minutes of radio and take in the 4.00pm news. The news lead with the item that had been occupying the broadcasts since mid-morning, of which until that moment I knew nothing: The IRA Bomb in the centre of Manchester.