It’s freezing cold, cloudless and blue skies: why not slip off to the Lake District for another Imaginary Holiday.
This time, we’re definitely heading for Keswick for the start of the week, the early Sunday drive up the Penrith section of the M6, Blencathra’s profile overlooking the A656. I’ve had my return to the hotel overlooking the park, let’s update my nostalgia and rebook for two nights on good old Bridgedale, on the main street, just past the mini-roundabout.
The name of the game is to not use the same book of Wainwright twice in the same week, and to try to go to as many different areas as I can from last time. So, since I didn’t actually do any Patterdale walking last time out, let’s do that.
I’ve climbed Gowbarrow Fell a couple of times in the past, from the Hause, below Little Mell Fell. It’s a lovely, low, rural fell, of gentle gradients. The first time I did it, I parked at the Hause on a Sunday afternoon of gentle sun. There was a wide path leading directly from that spot that Wainwright didn’t mention. I strolled along it, checking my position by his map, curling round a low, green bump and picking up a path onto the summit from behind. Then I returned by the same route.
When I came back with an old friend, recently separated from her husband and children and in need of distraction, we had a Sunday out. I thought of Gowbarrow, but in the meantime, the landowner had padlocked the gate and put up signs very fiercely forbidding access. Instead, we took the car down a bit further towards Patterdale, parking near Watermillock Church.
There was a mostly level path along the flank of the fell, overlooking Ullswater, and we wandered along, chatting. There’s only been a few times since I broke with my family that I’ve gone walking with a companion, and Linda wasn’t a girlfriend (or wife). Indeed, given her current frame of mind with her husband, I was sternly warned about making a pass!
At the ruins of the former refreshment hut we sideslipped up towards the broad back of the fell, and made our way up its back, from a different angle than before.
I could choose an ascent from a direction I’ve not walked before, via Aira Force and Yew Crag, but I’m in the mood for a lazy and undemanding stroll, and the route from Watermillock Church will remind me of older times and a long friendship long broken.
So I’ll stroll along the flank of the fell, through the increasing plantations, until the route via Yew Crag joins from the left and then turn uphill, through an easy tuck, and those who have chosen to assert their rights to roam under the Countryside Rights of Way Act would arrive here over untracked ground, having passed behind the hummock of Great Meldrum, and nothing left but the easy ascent up the back of the summit.
There are three ways back: by the same route, by the farmer’s route, or the longest way round, by descending towards Dockray and following a path above the intake wall, until it reaches a quiet road leading back to just below the Hause. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t give myself so much road walking, but this quiet hinterland behind Gowbarrow Fell is beautiful, perfect for a Lazy Sunday afternoon stroll (‘ere, mustn’t grumble…), when the exercise is minimal and the atmosphere is the point of the day.
Of course, I’ve still got to get up and over the Hause. but it’s neither high, nor steep, nor far before I’m trotting downhill again. I think I’ll sit in the car with the door open and all the windows down for a while before driving off.
There should be time for another stroll, back in Keswick, though the town and down towards Derwent Water, turning into the Park and finding a little hummock from which to gaze down the lake towards the Jaws.
But let’s do some serious walking on Monday. My pursuit of the missing views kept me out of the North Western Fells, but there’s a matter I’d like to clear up just to the west of Newlands that should make for an entertaining day using the leg muscles seriously.
I finished off one holiday with an extended Newlands Round – Maiden Moor, Dale Head, Robinson, Hindscarth – in which I rather over-extended myself. I started a nasty headache, under the sun, struggling up the final slopes onto Robinson’s top, and by the time I’d circuited Little Dale to Hindscarth, I was completely drained. The long descent over Scope End was wasted on me as all my focus was on not falling over.
So let’s go back. But rather than repeat the walk, let’s just restrict it to those last two fells, for I wasn’t in the best state to take in Robinson by the time I got there. Call it a circuit of Little Dale, about which Wainwright was so negative, though it looked alright to me on the day. Ridges run in parallel from Newlands. Well supplied with barms and liquid, I’ll hunt out an offroad space close to the lane to Newlands Church, convenient for both.
Re-imagining what it’s like to go up (or down) a ridge I’ve never walked is far from easy. Studying Wainwright, or internet walking sites, or photos of the ground cannot make up for grass and rock under your boots, nor can it tell me what views I will enjoy along the way.
And which way do I walk? Surely Scope End demands ascending? It may be familiar territory, though by the time I descended it I was blurred by headache and exhaustion. But the thought of a new ridge, and one that Wainwright recommends as the best way up Robinson (as well as being anti-clockwise) is almost irresistible, and the thought of having to repeat that tedious, draining slog to the summit off the ridge from Hindscarth settles it.
There’s an easy, pedestrian route into Little Dale, and a trackless climb onto the ridge beyond High Snab Bank, but I have never been inclined to soft ways round, so once I reach the end of the road past Low High Snab, I take to the open fellside, cutting upwards steeply on a well-defined path. This is the way of the North Western Fells: short, steep ascents on grass to gain long, airy ridges, and I curve leftwards into High Snab Bank itself, where the gradient is gentle and the walking can be brisk, until I near the edge of Blea Crags.
Here are three rock steps in succession, across the path, each twenty to thirty feet in height and requiring my scrambling head to get up. I wonder what real-life exertions they’d require, but I think of Stirrup Crag and Lining Crag, and the fun I had on these, and get up them.
Above lies the meat of the ridge, following the edge of Robinson Crags, overlooking the neighbouring valley of Keskadale Beck, where care is needed with an unfenced edge. There’s a rock step on this, just below 1,800 feet, but I think I’d do what I tended to do when I could, and hove a little ‘inland’, far enough not to let my incipient vertigo turn me into a bag of nerves.
As the ground eases, the prominent cairn that suggests it’s the summit is revealed to be a third of a gentle mile off the actual, somewhat sprawling top. This time, I arrive in the same kind of sunshine but without the grinding headache that marred my visit.
It’s a fell-filled view, if the wide top shuts off valley sights, and Floutern Tarn is visible just beyond Hen Comb, but apart from the eating of those barm cakes, this isn’t a summit to inspire an extended stay. Hindscarth is the nearest thing, just across Little Dale, and once refreshed, I am back on actual trodden ground, crossing the top towards the Littledale Edge fence, and following it around east, to the choice of paths: whether to bear left and shortcut across the depression, or continue to the highest point on the ridge to Dale Head and approaching Hindscarth from behind with the benefit of being a purist.
This time, I’ll take it easy, take the ‘shortcut’, avoiding the unnecessary regaining and losing of height.
Let me imagine now that Hindscarth, reached much earlier in the afternoon than before, has other walkers in its summit. Usually, I refer my summits in solitude, when I can get them, but I had that last time, and it felt unwelcome and frightening. No necessity for conversations, perhaps, but a bit of company would restore a psychic balance.
Then off, downhill, on a clear, almost grooved path, with Newlands to the right and below. I can take my time, walk with ease and regularity, enjoy the view rather than concentrate ferociously on where my feet fall, until I cross Scope End and turn downhill, remembering how relieved I was to have gotten here safely.
At the very foot of the ridge, I have a choice: a long contour back left into the valley of Scope Beck, to cross and regain the lane past Low High Snab, or the lane ahead from Low Snab to Newlands Church and, somewhere close by, my car. I think I’ll do it the easy way.
Tuesday begins by packing the car and heading south over Dunmail Raise to lodge in Ambleside until the week ends: where to today?
I’ve already used The Eastern Fells, so how about somewhere Central? I park at somewhere like the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, in the little car park on the opposite side of the Great Langdale Road. The black wood of the Hotel stands out away from the road and behind it, Mill Gill tumbles joyously down the fellside. I know they call it Stickle Ghyll these days, but we are walking inside my head now. The sun sparkles down from above, I change into my trusty boots, tuck my walking jeans into my socks and shrug my Dad’s old rucksack onto my back.
I couldn’t begin to work out the number of times I have been up and down Mill Gill, above the New Hotel, Dungeon Ghyll. The first time goes back to the middle Sixties, when we used the path to the west of the Gill, before it was closed due to erosion, and the last would have been somewhere during the Nineties, maybe even for the original walk of which this imaginary ascent is an extended repeat.
The only highest fell in any of the Wainwright books that I never visited a second time is the Central Fells’ High Raise. Most of the available routes are from the top of Greenup Edge Pass, reached from three different valleys, but no-one wants to go up Greenup Edge if they can help it. When the time came to collect High Raise, I approached from Great Langdale and I propose to do that again.
From the New Hotel, that means crossing the beck by the footbridge to gain access to the east bank of Mill Gill. This is the route I have taken more often than I can remember, but on that last visit, knowing the congested stony stair ahead of me, I was intrigued to see a narrow path head away to the right that was not in Wainwright. Out of curiosity, I followed it.
It proved to be another path, running in parallel to the main drag, about ten yards up the hill. It was narrow and unspoiled and I was completely alone. The walking was a little easier, because the ground had not been broken by overuse, and instead of the walking in this section being a grind, I felt refreshed and cheerful.
The path’s now marked in Hutchby’s Third Edition Wainwright, and it may no longer be the quiet alternative it was when I found it for myself, nor as discrete underfoot, but that’s the route I plan to tread, away from the numbers, as Mr Weller once put it, in his youth.
Given that I’m not aiming for the Langdale Pikes in any way, it would be completely legitimate to take the short cut zigzag route to the east of Tarn Crag (not the one beneath Sergeant Man), but that would be to do myself out of the supreme purpose of climbing to Stickle Tarn: the sight of Pavey Ark rising gradually but majestically over the lip of the final channel, and providing the glorious backdrop to the Tarn itself. No amount of climbing saved can justify passing this sight by.
For High Raise, it’s necessary to follow the shore of the tarn round, paralleling the great cliff-face, and following its feeder, Bright Beck, around the end of Pavey Ark. The crossing to the North Rake on the Ark is passed, and any first time visitor here will mark where it diverges, as did I.
But we are bound for ahead. Wainwright is not impressed by the ascent after Stickle Tarn, but before too long the route drops into the channel of Bright Beck, and there is a long straight scramble beside the water. I can’t recall, but this may have been my first extended scramble, and I had a whale of a time, hauling myself along by hand and foot.
Ahead, at the top of the channel, was a strange white thing. I was climbing in either late April or early May, a bright, sunny day, but it was clear from a long way down that this was some deposit of snow, sheltered from the spring sun. When I finally got to it, the snow was extensive in depth, at least some ten feet and nearly six feet wide, and it was supported by a mass of long grasses. It looked like a natural ice igloo, that you could wriggle under, though I wasn’t about to try that, because it looked easily fatal if the damned thing collapsed on me.
Actually, the worst part of the walk was getting out of the gully on trackless grass. This brought me out into the open, onto the wide plateau that stands behind the front of the Langdale Pikes, filling the horizon from Grasmere to Langstrath. The sun was high and there was nothing left but an uphill walk to the bare top of High Raise.
In terms of the sheer extent of the flatlands, there isn’t another place in the Lakes that feels so exposed and yet so secure. The views are limited so far as valleys are concerned, but there is nothing for a long way around that overshadows High Raise and diminishes its isolation.
Sergeant Man, a rocky outcrop on the edge of High Raise’s top, is not geographically a separate fell, any more than is Pavey Ark, but on the same basis that Wainwright separated the Ark from Thunacar Knott, he divorces the Man to make it a separate destination, though it would be odd for anyone climbing either fell to ignore the other. The crossing is nothing but a downhill walk, without features, and indeed Sergeant Man is one of the very few Wainwrights about which I have no easily available mental image to call upon when I think of it.
From here, it’s a cross-country walk, downhill all the way, to the edge of the basin that contains Stickle Tarn, and that’s the way I retreated, because I was still bagging Wainwrights and I had already added all those around. But the point of these imaginary holidays is not to simply repeat what I’ve done.
So, instead of bearing off for Stickle Tarn, I shall turn my steps towards the broad ridge between Langdale and Easedale, until I reach the walkers crossroads on the moderate skyline, where the path beyond Easedale Tarn crossed the watershed. I came this way from Easedale once, gaining the ridge here aware that I was actually higher than the next summit along, Blea Rigg.
There’s nothing particularly exciting either at Blea Rigg or on the way to it, but it’s a variation on a walk done, and a change is always welcome. Blea Rigg then, and a slow stroll back, until paths start to lead down towards the Tarn, and then the short cut that doesn’t matter on the return journey, into the channel of Mill Gill, and back along the old familiar path, where twice I was headachey and sick in the same place, on the day of my O-Level results, and the day of the O-Level results two years later, when I’d already had my A-Level results.
For Wednesday, I want to head east, into the lonely country that’s as far away as Lakeland gets. This isn’t going to be an exciting walk, and neither will Thursday’s be, but there’s a thematic continuity between the two that link them. And these are places I have only been once, and thus are territory I want to revisit.
I’m planning a trip to Longsleddale, rounding from Kendal onto the Shap Road, and slipping off into that narrow road along that long, straight, unspoiled valley, as far as Sadgill. Once, there used to be a small parking space, easily filled on a busy day, but the last time I looked into Longsleddale, it looked as if this has swelled into a full-scale car park. Convenient though that would be, I’d rather I was wrong.
Walks along one ridge of a valley have the drawback of ending a long way from where they start. Revisiting Grey Crag and Tarn Crag means a long walk, either way, from the Head of Longsleddale to Sadgill, unless I want the walk to take place in a very small compass. Given the attraction of the Head of Longsleddale, I’d rather not.
This time, in the peace and quiet, I’m putting the long valley walk first. The farm lane rolls on, between drystone walls, level and straight, with the narrowing jaws of the valley and the rising packhorse track visible all the way. Up cobbled steps, where the horses hauled carts to the quarries, the steepening way into that quiet hinterland, that indefinite country where Gatescarth Pass continues to its summit, and the Mosedale valley opens up on the right, suggesting a country far removed from human habitation.
This is the way to go. Not into Mosedale itself, which on my one visit here struck me as a place where the miles are far longer than a mile and where people could disappear forever, melting into the landscape. For Tarn Crag, take the Mosedale path, with an eye to where the ascent of Branstree, left, begins alongside a mounting fence, and instead turn right, over featureless slopes, increasingly pitted with peat-bogs, through which the path threads until it reaches the lonely cairn.
There is only one site in Lakeland, as defined by Wainwright, that lies east of here, and that summit it a half hour on, at best, along a dull, damp, peaty ridge, before we reach Grey Crag.
There is no other distinction to this fell that its geographical position. It’s a flat, grassy top, with good views down into Longsleddale, but insufficient height to look at fells beyond the valley rim. Eastwards, the ground dissolves into rounded ridges, where at some point the Lake District comes to an end and indeterminate ground separates the walker who braves this isolation from the Howgill Fells, on the other side of Tebay Gorge. There is no real looking out, only the knowledge that you are looking out, out and away where nothing stirs the eye or the mind.
Descent to Longsleddale is marked by a patchy path, first west across the summit on a slow gradient to find the fence and the stile that permits progress, then a turn almost due south on a clear line descending the shallow green ridge to Great Howe, with its survey pillar off-route to the left, and its Longsleddale views, up and down. The escape off Great Howe isn’t worth risking in mist, with scarps and rock to thread through, as the ground gets steeper and the path a little less clear. But I should be able to safely get to the second stile, where wall and fence meet, and follow the wall towards the valley head until the path breaks and descends the easy gully that leaves you in the upper field. One more stile, and just the lower field to cross to the gate opposite the Sadgill parking facilities.
There was one curiosity I observed, ascending here long ago that should be clear to see in descent. Across the valley, on the flank of Shipman Knotts, I saw an intriguing path, a thing of zigzags, angles and reversals, snaking up the fellside, about halfway between the Kentmere ‘pass’ and Kentmere Pike’s Goat Crag. I instantly wanted to walk it, test it underfoot, but I couldn’t see where it went, up or down. I don’t believe so defined a route can only exist halfway up a fell, but neither Jesty nor Hutchby have teased it out, so either I suffered a sustained optical delusion or it’s a purely private farm path. This one attracts but frustrates the imagination.
From Longsleddale in the east to the furthest west. For the final day of this imaginary holiday, I’ve selected for myself a long walk, of the kind I used to reserve.
It’s long-distance in two senses, first in the drive from Ambleside to reach the starting point, on the crossing of Cold Fell, from Calder Bridge to Ennerdale Bridge, and in the walk itself, twelve miles, there and back. I’ve done longer walks, even on days when I’ve driven from Manchester first, and been returning the same day, but Wainwright warns that the miles are long on this ascent, long and empty. This is more of an endurance test than a walk for pleasure, because I intend to climb Caw Fell.
Six miles there, on the skyline south of Ennerdale, and six miles back, a long way from anywhere else. My only previous visit to Caw Fell was as an adjunct to ascending Haycock from Nether Beck, Wasdale, the nearest point involving the shortest incursion onto this unloved, wide-spreading fell.
And I’ve walked the beginning of this route, when I set out to collect the westerly group of Grike, Crag Fell and Lank Rigg, parking on the Cold Fell road and setting off along the old miner’s road through the forests. That was easy underfoot, although badly slutchy in at least one point, and if I’m going for the big one, there’s no need to waste time and effort on visiting those first two summits again.
So I can make good time over the first two to three miles of the exercise, on easy gradients that end up dipping to the bottom of the first serious rise. This is where the real walking starts.
And as with Robinson, I can’t recreate a walk never walked. I can only look at Wainwright’s map, and his contours. The dip at the end of the mine road, after passing beside Crag Fell, can’t realistically be called a col, but this is the first of two depressions to be passed as a Ridge Route from the fell. At this point, I’d be about halfway to my destination, with little or no difficulty walking to date.
From here though, I’ll be passing into the unoccupied open, the bare, grassy, unfrequented ridges that prompted me to class this region, from Nether Wasdale to the Loweswater fells, as the Western Margins. From the depression, the path starts to climb, initially quite steeply but then merely inexorably, as I start to scale Iron Crag.
The path is broad, and if it were needed, there’s a wall to the left that runs all the way to Caw Fell and beyond. It’s not a near neighbour as you grind out the ascent onto Iron Crag’s bareback top. I saw that part of the route from Caw Fell, Iron Crag running pretty much south to north, wide and empty. It looked lonely, and paradoxically something that might trigger my incipient vertigo. It’s the building roof/aircraft carrier syndrome, wide flat places with no walls or fences guarding their edges, leaving me uneasy about going over them, no matter how distant I am from anything I can fall over.
Across Iron Crag, there is another dip, a depression to cross, with streams descending westwards towards the grasslands of Whoap and Lank Rigg. Above that, the ridge is gained, and Caw Fell’s final bulk, lying on an east – west axis, the wall still the guide to the flat and exposed highest point. Where exactly that is is a matter of trusting the cairn builders: the cairn is north of the wall, which can be easily crossed to touch it. One half of the job is done.
All that remains is to return. Six miles have got me there, six more will get me back. On peak form, which is always the case in Imaginary Holidays, I’ve a couple of miles and a bit more in reserve, and a couple of thousand feet of untried, and this is not the kind of demanding walking as is involved in Scafell Pike from Seathwaite ascending via Sty Head and the Corridor Route and returning over the other two Pikes, Esk Hause and Grains Gill. Just stride out, ignore the monotony of the walking and the scenery, and who knows: by the time I’m back at the foot of the ascent to Crag Fell, I’ll have enough energy left to vary the return by traversing Crag Fell and Grike again, or maybe even Whoap and Lank Rigg.
Or maybe I’ll just maintain the purity of the only kind of walk I went out of my way to avoid, the pure There and Back Again, where every step of retreat is over the ground crossed in ascent. Back to the Cold Fell road, back to the long drive home by dying sunlight, and into Ambleside. Chicken and chips, eaten out of the paper on a bench beside the Park? It’s been a brilliant week.