It’s been a long time since I last gave myself the pleasure of recollecting a day out in the Lakes, at least, not one I haven’t written about before. Currently, I’m picking up the threads of a part-completed novel set in the Lake District. The place where I left the book the last time I worked on it is actually set somewhere I never actually walked. Nevertheless, there is a fell the scene’s associated with, and that’s triggered a recollection of one of my oddest days fellwalking.
Every year, from the Eighties to the Nineties, I would budget my holiday time for two weeks away, walking in the Lake District (the remainder of my allotment would be carved up by whatever days I wants for the cricket: the Roses Matches, the Old Trafford Test).
I would choose weeks in April and September, just before and just after the full-blown tourist season. These usually proved to be best for good walking conditions, and the fells were rarely so crowded that I couldn’t find convenient parking for my base for walks.
One year, for reasons I can’t remember, I managed to get enough time to go away a third week, in the last week of October. The hour hadn’t gone back so I wasn’t prejudiced by early darkness, but it was colder than I was used to, and darker overall, the skies greyer and more overcast, though not noticeably worse for cloud on tops.
I remember an excellent walk up Steel Fell from Grasmere, rounding the head of wet Greendale, all its little streams and becks backlit and looking like veins of quicksilver, before returning along Calf Crag, Gibson Knott and Helm Crag, a nice little low-level ridge round.
The next day, I moved on to Keswick. It was a dark day, the sky and the air mostly grey and overcast, though the cloudbase wasn’t actually hanging on the fells, not even Skiddaw, the cloud-magnet. There weren’t going to be any sparkling views wherever I walked, so I decided I’d repeat my visit to Latrigg.
There was no problem parking at the roadhead, where spaces abounded, and I let myself out the gate, crossed the slightly rushy region in the base of the hollow and set off up the back of the fell.
Climbing Latrigg this way is one of the dullest walks you can make. It’s literally nothing but an uphill trudge, without a glimmer of a view. You are confined between Latrigg’s sprawling slopes and the rising wall of Skiddaw behind. The only benefit of this approach, apart from conservation of time, is that the view only arrives with the last few steps. Even under that sky, it was a thing of beauty.
But once you reach Latrigg, you’ve nowhere to go but back, especially to a car at the roadhead. And it’s quicker downhill, so much so that it’s difficult to stretch the overall round trip out to an hour, and I still had much of the afternoon to go before nightfall. It was then that I hit upon a crazy idea.
With so little time used, why couldn’t I climb another fell? Another low fell, requiring not very much in time and effort? Another isolated fell upon which I wouldn’t to waste a better day? It didn’t even need to be in the same book of Wainwright.
So I set off down the Underskiddaw road without changing out of my walking boots, back to the big roundabout, and turned towards Penrith. I left the highway at the turn for Matterdale, but instead of wandering through that lovely reserved valley to Ullswater, I turned off left, onto narrow lanes and valley routes, until I pulled up at a corner and hopped out again, handily placed to start a walk up the back of Great Mell Fell.
I’ve always said that I retain memories of every fell I’ve climbed in the Lake District, but Great Mell Fell hasn’t troubled the memory banks by much. I remember that, instead of the direct and steep route from the south, where I was, I took a circular path round the west side and worked upwards gently, before using the direct route for descent. My one solid memory is disturbing three or four slightly shamefaced people, rooting around by the side of the path. They were searching for mushrooms, they told me, and one said, in pointed tones, ‘Magic mushrooms’.
Of course I’m now well aware what they meant, but back then I’d never heard of Psylocibin and, apart from guessing they were hinting at something pharmaceutically stimulating, had no idea what they were talking about. I’ve never met anyone else looking for natural highs in the Lakes, except from the scenery.
Overall, Great Mell Fell used up not much of an hour, and daylight was already checking its baggage and starting to consider moving on, but if you’re going to have to do both Mell Fells, why save the Little one for another day? I got behind the wheel, drove the short distance up onto the Hause and set off for my third fell of the afternoon.
Once more, the direct ascent from the Hause was a short and uninteresting uphill trudge, and the summit was less that two minutes walk from the ‘crest’. With a view over Ullswater, despite this being only the lowest reach, it at least offered better views that its higher neighbour, and the effort expended in ascending it was minimal (it was so easy that, two decades later, my then wife and I sent two small sons up the path on their own: they were only out of sight on the summit for five minutes, no longer and they had fun being independent).
After that, I got out of my boots, dumped them into the boot, and returned to Keswick, to contemplate what to do about an evening meal. As walking days, or half days go, it was nothing to write home about, but the weirdness of the experience of climbing three fells in the same afternoon, without any ridge routes between them, was great fun, and there are worse things to think about in these latter days.
As the day has worn on, it’s turned sunny and bright outside, with the clouds seeming to be collected over the far, Yorkshire side of the not-so-distant Pennines. Despite this, in the moments work allows my mind to wander, it is wandering to the Lakes, and to rainy days and setting out to walk.
With one exception, I never set out to walk in the rain, though there were occasions when, before I got back to the car, I ended up in various kinds of rain, most often pretty heavy.
For some reason, I can see myself setting off, out of Buttermere Village, on the low-level path bound for Sail Pass, though on the two previous occasions I’ve been that way, my destination has been Whiteless Pike and Wandope, with a diversion to Rannerdale Knotts. They was grey cloud and wind on the first occasion, and sun on the second, so I’ve never walked that route in the rain, but it’s impressing itself upon me as I write.
I’m projecting myself there, along that narrow track, deep in that steep-sided valley. There’s a fresh smell in the air, wet grass, wet bracken, wet leaves. The gentle drumming of the rain on my kagoul hood drowns out all other sounds, enhancing the feeling of solitude and isolation. The rain is steady and there is no wind so it’s falling without force as I move through it. The hood protects my face and my glasses from the worst of it.
I’m not just happy to be alone, and to feel alone, in the fells, I like it that way. Some routes you have to resign yourself to just being a part of the traffic, but there are other days when your isolation is so wonderfully complete that the appearance of another walker on the ridge on the far said of the valley arouses grumpy resentment and has you muttering, “Get out of my valley.”
Some of this is a reaction to sitting in work, away from those colleagues with whom I would usually swap friendly conversation. I’m mentally gravitating towards a welcome isolation, a self-sufficiency, walking in the rain unhindered in the dream of being in the fell-country again. Up above are the heights, even if, like Rannerdale Knotts or Whiteless Pike, they’re not extreme heights. But they’re still a world above and beyond the mundane one, and a world that I can enjoy as my own, my private world, reduced to the space around my head and my body and my legs as rain closes in and shrouds.
And there is a massive difference between isolation in the midst of other people and isolation in a place where you go to be the only one for miles.
There’s only a few minutes before I have to get moving and go to work. It’s been raining all morning, sometimes hard, but I feel as if my brain is finally starting to work properly again after a week of listlessness. So, after last week’s successful Patterdale Expedition, I’ve started thinking about where I might be able to get to next.
Do you know that it’s possible to get from Penrith to Buttermere village in just over two hours by bus, change at Keswick and via Borrowdale and Honister? And I already know it’s possible to get to Penrith by train early enough…
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.
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…)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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?
Once upon a time, I set out to collect a bunch of summits, the Uldale Fells, that form one half of that green and nebulous country known as ‘Back o’Skidda”. There’s nothing out there that’s exciting, just a group of five fells that require a little bit of back-and-forthing to include in a single walk, and which required no especial effort or skill to collect. The walk took four hours from start to finish at Longlands Farm.
Yet I enjoyed my little grassland odyssey enough that, in those few post-Wainright years, I repeated the exact same walk, and took the exact same four hours, from Longlands Farm and back. And whilst there were some other walkers out those days, on some or other parts of the fells, we were never close enough to exchange words, not even the conventional greetings in passing.
Which endeared the walk(s) to me.
Longlands Farm lies on the road round the back of the Skiddaw/ Blencathra massifs. One day when low cloud put the fells out of reach, I drove this road, starting from the Penrith end, through Mungrisedale towards Caldbeck. The cloud was so low that, for the major length of it, from just after Hesket Newmarket until the serious descent to cross the foot of the Dash Valley, I drove invisibly, foglamp on, in a grey corridor of silence and solitude. It felt as if I was crossing a high moor, on a raised causeway.
I came back through Longlands Farm, though I can’t remember whether it was visible to me then. Certainly, I didn’t recognise it for what it was, and I only came back, from the Keswick end, when I wanted to take this route. The Farm lies in a steep dip, where a nameless beck crosses the road, and I had to be abrupt in pulling up for the available parking, on the fell side of the road, is just before the bridge, flattish land that can accommodate three to four cars but which is hardly ever likely to turn anyone away.
Be warned that this is not an exciting walk, nor a demanding one, and there is precious little rock to be seen and almost none to be put underfoot. The path takes a narrow, reedy course alongside the beck for the first couple of hundred yards before emerging into the open and starting to veer towards the right, across a very low ridge separating the beck from the valley of the infant River Ellen.
This is the first vista of the day and the low line of fells above the valley are almost all of those that will be crossed in the next few hours. The Ellen crosses the way ahead at a diagonal, from left to right, and the way is a broad way, declining at a gentle angle to cross the river, and rising beyond, across the lowest flanks of Great Cockup, to enter the day’s first, and primary highlight, the ravine of Trusmadoor.
This early in the walk, I found it impossible to saunter, and there was nothing to hinder me from striding out, except perhaps for the slow rise towards the entrance to Trusmadoor, which was set at that tedious angle that lies half way between level and interesting.
Once Trusmadoor is reached, the walk (except for exercise) really begins. Wainwright describes this, accurately, as a great natural railway cutting, and it’s a deep, steep-sided channel through the hills that catches the eye and the imagination, but which suffers from being completely unnecessary: it lies between two insignificant hills and leads from nowhere to nowhere. Uproot, it, stick it in the Scafells, and it would be magnificent. It’s magnificent as it is, but with an overlooked, in-a-corner grandeur that receives only a fraction of the visitors it deserves.
I say Trusmadoor is the real highlight of the walk and most people would agree, but I have a soft spot for the lawns below, fringing Burntod Gill just before it narrows to progress through its long, serpentine ravine. This comes from a completely different walk carried out between these two rounds, when I set out to collect Knott and Great Calva, and found myself scrambling up the ravine of Burntod Gill, beside the rushing beck, and having a glorious time of it. This had been an impromptu variation on my planned route and I wasn’t completely oriented to where I would emerge until I got there, and if I hadn’t a long way to go, I’d have stretched out for a long relaxing stop here.
The lawns lie off the line of ascent but demand a visit anyway, before returning to the near lip of Trusmadoor and starting the first serious climbing of the day.
Great Cockup, a name that makes 93 percent of adult male walkers snigger, is a low and unlovely lump forming the western wall of Trusmadoor, which is accessed along the stony, narrow ridge on the edge of the channel that is its best feature. The top is mostly grassy and the cairn is quite a distance from the corner at which the ridge debouches. When you get there, it offers no spectacular views over the North Cumberland plain, and there is nothing to do but to walk back the way you came.
At the bottom, it was only necessary to walk straight across and start up a similar narrow ridge on the opposite side, which was the key to the ascent of Meal Fell, which has one of the tiniest geographical footprints of the whole Wainwright guides.
There is a big difference between the two ribs: that on Meal Fell doesn’t rise to the summit, but instead levels out to contour across the back of the fell. I abandoned the path once this became plain, and worked my way up onto the summit, which has three individual ridges, elevated like causeways, one after another, with a near ninety degree zig-zag between each one, at the end of which the summit cairn arrives.
This offers an informative view of the ridge from here to Great Sca Fell, the highest point of this walk, a grassy ridge of increasing elevation to a summit hidden by the top itself, with Burntod Gill offering an interesting line in parallel, suggesting another route of approach, albeit with what looked like a very wearing ascent out of the upper Gill.
I descended the east ridge of Meal Fell onto that easy and broad grassy route towards Great Sca Fell, marching out unrestrictedly. The slope up to the invisible summit was straightforward, but being on grass it was not very interesting and was more tiring than a route on rock at the same angle or even steeper would have been. I settled at the cairn to eat my lunch, facing north, for there was nothing but higher fells and mountains crowding the near skyline in every other direction.
The first time I was here, I set off walking northwards, over the broad edge of the summit, and down across the sprawling Little Sca Fell (nothing around here is remotely reminiscent of any other Scafells). I’d got down about a hundred feet when I realised I’d left my camera behind and had to go charging back: there was no-one about and I found it at the foot of the cairn, where I’d left it.
The two remaining fells of the day lie north of Great Sca Fell, but at the end of different ridges. I’d chosen the furthest first, Brae Fell, alone at the end of a long, placid grassy ridge in a grassy nowhere devoid of people. The path, which surprised by being even one person wide, led directly to its little summit, overlooking the plain and distant Carlisle.
There was little to stay for, and nowhere to sit except on the grass. I turned on my heel and headed back into the grassy plain. On neither of my visits was there any sign of a track in this emptiness, other than the one underfoot, so I relied upon my judgement as to when to start veering over toward the half-concealed but surprisingly fast-running Longlands Gill. I was looking for somewhere to cross safely that didn’t involve me going too far back out of my way because as soon as I was across the beck, I was turning back north again, on a distinct path along the base of the ridge.
Oddly enough, it was in this widespread grassy bowl that I have one of my most vivid mental images, from that second round, when the weather was a little warmer and the skies a little brighter. I was heading inwards again, towards the fells, and there was a silence in the long grasses, and where there had been no markings all those years before there were faint tracks that suggested people came here, but not today, and the surrounding fells were grassy hills only and I might have been anywhere, but I was in tried, tested and true country of which I felt a part. I was alone but not lonely, and relaxed on my own two legs.
The first time round, I stayed by the beck until turning up onto the col behind Longlands Fell, but second time I was marginally more adventurous, and gained the ridge at its first col, going up and over the rather broad-beamed Lowthwaite Fell, which is higher than Longlands but doesn’t count as an independent summit for Wainwright.
I crossed it nonchalantly, re-ascended Longlands and then carried on down its long ridge to gain the low country less than a quarter mile from Longlands Farm. There was nothing but a short stroll, and I was back at the car in pretty much exactly four hours on both occasions.
It was peaceful and quiet, and the walking was unstrenuous except in very short sections around Trusmadoor, and although the scenery deteriorates rapidly once you leave it and the lawns around Burntod Gill, that silent grassy plain at the back of Brae Fell, with its sense of exposure and its lonely country made an impression I’ll be long in forgetting.
And all to be had in half a day without even working up a sweat. Now I’m old, and arthritic, I could probably still get round the whole walk, and I wouldn’t like to bet that it would take me significantly longer than it did in my prime. It’s that sort of place, and I’ll bet it would still be empty like twice upon a time.
Once again, this is a walk I outlined a long time ago as a Great Walk, but which now I want to recall as one of my finest days out in the Lake District. This was the second of four occasions on which I climbed Scafell Pike, and of my four expeditions to the highest point in England, by far and away my favourite.
I was still steadily working my way through my diminishing list of Wainwrights in the summer of 1994, in a run of sunny weekends when I went walking on six successive Saturdays. It was a July Saturday and I planned to drive up from Manchester, undertake the longest and hardest walk of my life, and return home all in a day, and a day of sun throughout.
These Saturday expeditions worked to a strict timetable: the alarm clock at 6.00am, into the car at 7.00am and look to be crossing the Cumbria Border by 8.00am on the M6: my record time was 58 minutes one Saturday. From there, it depended where I was going: I could be in Ambleside by 8.30am, but a walk out of Ennerdale took considerably longer.
And when it comes to parking at Seathwaite on a sunny day, you really do have to start early. This is not a scientific assessment, because to be a scientific assessment, I would have had to have hung around Seathwaite counting cars and wasting good walking time, but my estimate was that for every minute after 9.00am, you ended up parking two more car lengths from the farm.
Which is alright at 9.20am, full of the joys of summer, but something different at 4.30pm.
I love Seathwaite on a sunny morning. It’s the gateway to possibility. There is literally nowhere you can go from here that does not lead to a great day, and if you can’t be excited setting foot in the farmyard, you should give serious thought to spending the day with a good book instead.
This was the first of my visits to Seathwaite to see me turn under the square arch in the farmyard and walk across the fields to a little stone bridge over the young Derwent. I’d returned by this route on two previous visits, starting in wildly different directions but ending up in the same place. The last time had been when I took a never-quite-was girlfriend to climb Seathwaite Fell: we’d returned from Sty Head via the Taylorgill Force variation and now I wanted to climb that because it looked a lot more interesting than the main drag.
The west bank of the Derwent was soft and grassy, and in spots a bit damp after I crossed the bridge. I set off brisk and purposeful, taking advantage of both the pleasant ground underfoot and the initially level ground. The main path to Stockley Bridge, and the crowds already progressing along it, were in clear sight after we’d passed the farm. Then the path started to angle uphill, still gently but at an increasing rate, until I was well above the river and looking for that moment when it would turn directly uphill, towards a gate visible on a rocky bluff above. Through the gate and I was inside the gorge.
From our descent before, I knew that to find the path round the ravine I had to duck under the extended tree branch directly in front of me. Ducking wasn’t a problem back then, even with a rucksack. The sun was beating down and there was no breeze at close confines. This was warm enough for me to strip off my sweatshirt and go bare-chested (ooh er, missus!) until I was out of the ravine and into the breeze again.
I worked round to the right, scrambling along the path into the little wooded defile above the falls, and from there emerging onto the long, flat gravel-lands on the lead-in to Sty Head Tarn. I knew from before that the path beside Sty Head Beck, here running in a narrow grassy channel, came and went on my side and all I need to do refind it was to walk on and not slip into the water, but at the first gap I thought, ah, to heck with it (or something similar), and hopped over the beck, scrambled up the bank and settled myself on the main drag.
It was only the mid-morning, the sun was still raising itself, and I had the opportunity to stride out on all but level ground, amid wide green walls, with Great End lazily rearing its massive head before me at every step. This kind of lazy walking is rare in the lakes and should be appreciated. I bowled along happily under the sun, my shirt restored as the breeze was once again decidedly breezy, and before long I was strolling the shores of the Tarn, and coming to the stretcher box at the top of Sty Head.
The official summit is beside the blue stretcher box but the highest point is about a hundred yards further on, at the lip of the downfall towards Wasdale Head. I settled myself down for a bite to eat, a pitta bread crammed with ham and Mediterranean vegetables, crunched happily, and healthily as I savoured the view.
Momentarily replete, I wandered back to begin the next leg. I was really looking forward to this bit. I remembered Mam and Dad talking about the Corridor Route enthusiastically. Neither of them had done it, and Mam had not lasted long enough for me to tell her that I had, and to describe it to her.
I set off in the direction of Esk Hause, keeping my eyes open for the thin track that led right, to the edge of the downfall and beyond it, on a broad, loose slope down which I worked. This didn’t cost me much height, in the scheme of things, and from the bottom I set foot on the Corridor Route.
It used to be called the Guides Route, which is understandable, but why it became known as the Corridor Route when it’s actually a series of linked ledges, angling across the flank of the massif, I don’t know, but it was a brilliant walk in itself, and it could have been twice as long and be twice as great. It was good, rough walking, full of mini-scrambles round corners, hard underfoot, demanding awareness, with the massive downfall of Great Gable over the right shoulder any time you wanted to slow down and just relish where you were. I am and always was summit-oriented, but things like this were worth the day itself.
As Lingmell Col came into view, I was a little worried to see the path apparently turn sharply uphill towards Broadcrag Col, but when I got to the end of the Corridor route, this was actually a long tongue of grey scree, descended the eroded slope, and no official route whatsoever.
To my right was the top of Piers Gill, and a steep glimpse into his forbidding surroundings. The only other time I had been in this place was with my family, when we had somehow turned a walk towards Sty Head via the Valley Route into a full-scale ascent beside the Gill, led by my enthusiastic father, about which I had been very doubtful. And here I was again, looking into that great shattered ravine and thinking myself very glad not to have come up that way again, especially not on my own.
But the continuation of the path looked to be angling up onto Lingmell Col on the Pike side, which I didn’t want. The descent to the lowest part of the Col might be minimal but on a walk of this length and scope, I did not want to lose any height, no matter how minimal. I was looking around for an alternative when I happened to catch sight, on my right, of a path crossing a little dell about ten feet lower, and I quickly dropped down to this to take me onto the Col where I wanted to be, with the added bonus of the first grass beneath my feet since the banks of the Derwent.
There was no path up Lingmell for the first fifty feet, but then one sprung into being, entire, as if it had forced itself up through the ground. The summit had the same magnificent views of Gable and Mosedale, but the spire-like summit cairn had long since been replaced by an untidy, sprawling pyramid of stone. The original cairn had been demolished before we ever came here, but we had seen the rebuilt version that features in The Southern Fells, thicker at the waist, like me, than above or below.
Lingmell was the second, and highest, of three fells my Dad had climbed. I couldn’t not return. A day like this would have been the perfect day to have had Dad accompany me into the high country. It would have meant as much to him as it did to me.
Twenty five years earlier, or thereabouts, I had looked at Scafell Pike from this angle, convinced that we could climb it without difficulty. The adults pooh-poohed me. In the Nineties, I was vindicated. This approach isn’t the most exciting way of reaching Scafell Pike, but I walked up it without the need to halt.
It was the second of four times I climbed the highest peak. Despite the number of people on the path above and below me, I came to that band of stone where the path becomes nothing but scratches on rocks, where I seem always to be crossing alone. It makes the final steps into even more of a pilgrimage, and I not religious. Once the summit is reached, the scene becomes almost obscene with visitors, many of whom are clearly not here because they’re fellwalkers, but all of whom are here because this is where it is, the highest point. There is nowhere higher than here without getting into some flying machine.
You can tell they’re not fellwalkers because they don’t give way for you to visit the cairn, spoiling their momentary image of themselves as higher than anyone in the country. I just walked past them anyway and surveyed that incredible view, in which all is brilliant, but most of all Bowfell. This is the only place from which you can look down on it, and it’s amazing how the fell seems to twist its shoulders in embarrassment.
But crowds like that on a summer Saturday lunchtime are not what I put the effort in for. After making my duty visit, I headed downhill, south east, towards the unoccupied south cairn, with its vista of the wilds of Upper Eskdale and its grandstand seat for Scafell Crag from the gully to Foxes Tarn round to the the shadowed channel of Lord’s Rake. With my back to the masses, and the wind blowing from me to them, I could sit back and enjoy my lunch in the deceptive silence, pretending I was on my own.
Nothing last forever. I angled across the stony top, steering to the right of the cairn to pick up the downhill route to Broad Crag. It was my first close-up sight of the second Pike (as we all still believed it to be then), a rounded, aggressive dome of stone. The path led steeply downhill into the narrow col, and just as steeply up out of it to cross Broad Crag’s Eskdale shoulder. This was challenging walking, hands supplementing feet, no looking at the view below without stopping and anchoring oneself.
I was going to climb it, of course I was going to climb it, despite everything Wainwright said by way of warning. I had nearly thirty years experience under my boots and I was not going to be here often and this day was about cramming in every good and exciting thing on the way.
Once I got close up, it was clear the way was going to be every bit as difficult and dangerous as Wainwright had said, but being being sensible and careful, ensuring each step was firmly anchored before I put my way on it, and balancing every step onto a knife-edge, I got up without difficulty and, after admiring the Pike’s rocks from this previously unseen angle, down to the path again in complete safety.
Next was the drop into and climb out of Illcrag Col, and the turn right for the third Pike. For the first time that day, I began to feel the walk in my legs. Ill Crag lies a long way east of the main ridge, and I was surprised to find that, once I’d crossed its shoulder, the last stage was like a miniature of Broad Crag. By the time I’d got there, the sun was beginning to descended towards the far side of the massif: the light was hazy and golden, the crags dark, and the day started to feel as it time was running. I walked back to the path and down into Calf Cove.
Finally, I’d come to the point of the walk, in Wainwright-collecting terms. All of this was about ticking Great End off the rapidly shrinking list of unvisited summits. The final ascent was gently graded and surprisingly grassy. I arrived on the edge of the top with two cairns in sight.
The further and leftmost looked to be the highest, but the actual top was the nearer and rightmost. I made a careful beeline towards the first top, conscious that Great End is named for what it is and having no wish to accelerate over the cliff-edge. I then worked my way back along the line of the cliffs, as near as I dared step, which wasn’t all that near at all, until I reached the actual summit, and then back down to Calf Cove and the way to Esk Hause.
This was the second time I’d been here, and the third would follow within a matter of weeks. As always, I found it strange that the only direction there was not a path was down into Eskdale, but then the uppermost feet of the valley are so narrow, a path is unnecessary. I looked around, trying to commit routes to memory, then strolled down to the wall-shelter.
All that was left now was return, and I felt tired but wholly satisfied. Nor was the last stretch a disappointment: Grains Gill is a wonderful route of ascent but it’s not that bad going down.
The final part of the walk, after the last summit, is always some kind of a dying fall. The achievements are usually over and all you’re doing is heading back, and it’s more often than not a trouble-free walk downhill. Grains Gill is a splendid route, but it was winding up and winding down. The lower valley was a long, narrow funnel, with Stockley Bridge in view all the way, getting slowly nearer.
Even arriving at the Bridge didn’t ease things up because that path from Seathwaite might be broad and generally level, but it’s been battered by billions of boots and it’s no picnic stroll. I got back to the farm sore-legged and weary. The farm cafe was still open and, for once I had some cash on me instead of locking my wallet in the glove compartment, I stopped off for some natural, farm-grown food and drink, an entirely natural Mars Bar and a locally-grown Diet Coke (what? You mean these weren’t farm produce?)
And then the stroll back to the car. This was the 4.30pm that was so different from 9.20am. I’d have liked to have been nearer, and got my boots off and into lightweight trainers that little bit sooner, but to be honest it could have been much worse, and the glory of the day tided me over and gave me a glow that lasted all the way down the motorway.
The sun is shining again, and my head is in the high fells, which is where the rest of me wants to be. I’m remembering another walk, and remembering a moment where I didn’t take an opportunity that presented itself, under the sun.
It was the last day of the holiday, the one I always reserved for the Big Walk, something that covered miles and thousands of feet of ascent, and took me to the major mountains, the ones that attract walkers every day. Usually, this would be the Thursday of my week away, and I would make a leisurely return the following day.
But for once this was a Friday walk: United had had a European Champions League game in mid-week, and I had darted back to Manchester for the match on Wednesday night, and back to the Lakes the next day, but into a day of incessant rain. But it was September High Summer the next day, and I was going to pile into my car once I got back to the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel car park, and aim for the M6 and sleep in my own bed that night.
My walk was a cracker in prospect and in actuality: Crinkle Crags from Oxendale, Bowfell and Esk Pike, returning by Esk Hause, Angle Tarn and Rossett Gill. Long, difficult, demanding of strength and stamina. Satisfaction all but guaranteed.
I’ve written about this walk before, in a rather more impersonal manner, as a Great Walk (insert link). Ascending out of Oxendale’s narrow confines, the long approach along Crinkle Crag’s shoulder, gradually nearing the first red meat of the day but for the moment enlivened by the views backwards towards Windermere, or south into the Duddon Valley.
I was operating by Radio 4 when it came to time-keeping: I’d taken my watch off at home on Wednesday night but left it on the couch, and returned to Cumbria without a timepiece. Oddly, it disturbed me to be potentially out on the fells for a long walk with no means of keeping track of time, but I’d bought a Test Match Special cap radio the summer before, with a built-in miniature Long Wave/Medium Wave radio and earpieces on curly cables. The only channel I could decently get was Radio 4. This timed me round the fells, and was my longest ever exposure to the channel.
So when I got to the Bad Step on the Second Crinkle, I knew it was 12.30pm and of all things they could have been featuring, it was a programme about Manchester Town Hall!
I did what you’re supposed to do about the Bad Step, visited as if to size it up for next time, not that you’d have had me trying to go up it if there had been a next time, not without a certified rock-climbing companion to guide my every step and support me on a rope. Instead, I contoured across the broken ground at the back of the Crinkle until an easy semi-scrambling route was available, and semi-scrambled easily up that to the summit.
Of course, it was mandatory to visit each of the Crinkles in turn, especially as they were so close at hand. Then the long walk over Gunson Knott to Three Tarns, with the parallel scars of Bowfell Links directly ahead, and the long shattered tongue of scree-stone curling around its right hand side and onto the top.
Bowfell was the only one of the three fells I had previously climbed, from Mickleden and Rossett Pike, to Ore Gap. At that point, the cloud that had been teasing Bowfell’s topmost couple of hundred feet all day came down with some finality. I fell in with two walkers from Trafford Ramblers who were just coming down off Esk Pike, and we picked our way up onto Bowfell’s summit and found its highest point.
This was where it got sticky. We thought we’d picked up the path, but before very long found ourselves crawling out along a rocky route with an obvious steep downfall to our left. I gave in first, told them I was working back. I would find a path downwards, even if it wasn’t into Langdale.
I was very lucky. The number of times I have been lucky would make a less atheist person wonder if there wasn’t someone looking out for him. I immediately found a path and, despite my voice sounding thin in the cloud, I attracted the guys’ attention. We headed down, and of course it was the route to Three Tarns, and the Band, that river of stones I now regarded from below, in perfect sunshine.
It was a drag to ascend, but I found myself on the summit in clear daylight, the views to enjoy. Over to one side I could see the head of the Great Slab. But I didn’t divert over to look at it then, missing another chance I should really have gobbled up. Instead, I made for Ore Gap and beyond it onto Esk Pike.
Shamefully, my memories of Esk Pike are more fragmentary than of most other summits. It was an energetic, enthralling walk, and the summit itself lay off to the right of the main path, which crossed a shoulder about fifty feet below the summit, and I diverted to it and over it to tag it and return. And I remember the slow descent to Esk Hause, the path sometimes using rock ridges for short distances.
It was my third, and last visit to Esk Hause and I came to the cairn at the top of the Pass from the diametrically opposite direction to my previous visit, a Saturday outing not more than six weeks earlier, Scafell Pike from Seathwaite via the Taylor Gill Force variation and the Corridor Route, and along the spine of the Pikes to Great End. From the cairn down to the wall-shelter, and then the retreat began towards Angle Tarn and Rossett Gill.
Every step from Bowfell summit onwards had taken me further away from my car, and it’s a long journey in itself from Esk Hause to the Old Hotel car park. It was still a glorious sunny day, and the views were superb. As far as Angle Tarn, dark and sinister in its bowl despite the weather, things were fine: three descents, two levels.
But from the Tarn there was a late on the day climb of 300 feet or so to reach the top of Rossett Gill. And my legs were as heavy as lead and the last thing I wanted to do was to go uphill any more today (unless it was my stairs at home to my bedroom). Radio 4 was relating an interesting programme about a man who wrote biographies for people, not famous people or celebrities, but ordinary folk who wanted to leave behind a record of their life, for their children and their family. I listened interestedly as I gritted through every tortuous step.
At that time, the top pitch of Rossett Gill was still a hellslide of erosion. I started down carefully, eyes open to my right so as not to miss the escape onto the upper leg of the higher zigzag. This was safe and secure, re-laid crazy paving, essential to preserve the fells, but unlovely in idea.
I can’t remember if this was part of my planning all along, or an on-the-spot opportunistic decision, but when I reached the outermost point of the zig-zag, I checked the relevant page in Wainwright, girded my metaphorical lines and continued across the pathless fellside, maintaining the angle of descent that I had been following, in pursuit of the old pony route.
I’d crossed three of the ten highest fells during the day, but looking back my proudest moment is that I found and followed the old Pony Route, which according to Jesty and Hutchby can no longer be traced on the ground. I crossed the fellside on the correct line, arriving exactly at the little natural weir Wainwright identifies, working down the tongue of land on intermittent grass channels, appearing and disappearing, escaping onto the main body of Bowfell before the tongue narrowed too much, following the level path on the border of Mickleden and finding my way across the soft valley floor, through the moraines, to the main Mickleden path, though this last part was slightly marred by my stepping up to the ankle in too-soft ground, and as a consequence the final march was step-squelch, step-squelch all the way home.
But I described this walk as a case of missed opportunity. For the meaning of that, let us go back to the vicinity of Three Tarns, below Bowfell Links. Let me return to my memory of a young, enthusiastic, bubbly, bright female fellwalker, who’d just come down off Bowfell, and who stopped to talk to me.
And I don’t mean just saying hello in passing. I don’t remember how our conversation started, but it must have come from her because I would never have tried to start anything extended with someone that young and that attractive. I was thirty-eight, and I’d have been surprised if she was older than twenty-three, with curly blonde hair and a slim figure emphasised by electric blue cycle shorts.
Boy, she was talking to me enthusiastically, telling me that she was staying in Ambleside – the very place I had been the night before – and not giving any indication that she was part of a group, either here at Three Tarns or down in Ambleside. She was really cheery and she seemed to like talking to me, and this was the sweat-shirted, shaggy brown-haired, bearded and bellied me.
I had the ideal set-up to suggest meeting her later than night in Ambleside, for a drink and whatever else we might have agreed upon afterwards. You who are reading this are no doubt way ahead of me in realising that I signally failed to take advantage of this opportunity. True, I’d have had to find another guest house for another night, which on a Friday night might have been a bit difficult, with people arriving for weekends away, but I didn’t even think to suggest it until I was far away, on Esk Pike, when it was much too late.
In my defence – no, strike that, I don’t believe I should be defended – I was away on holiday in the Lakes, where sex and related subjects was not uppermost in my mind, especially not on Bowfell, nor was I automatically attuned to the idea that an attractive and bubbly cycle-shorted hottie about fifteen years younger than me might be interested in my company, let alone my body.
I let her go. I didn’t suggest a drink later on, I didn’t try to get her number (I’d have had nothing to write it down with, even if I had something to write it down on), and I didn’t even think to ask her her name. Like all fellwalkers, especially the ones going in the opposite direction to me, she was a passing ship.
And who knows, she might have been enthusiastic about talking to me because she was enthusiastic about talking to people and the suggestion of meeting up at the Sportsman later on would have had her shying away in loathing. That’s what I tell myself when I remember this brief encounter. Romance (or earthier things) and the fells only ever mixed on those rare occasions I took an already girlfriend (or wife) out walking.