Frustration and the Wet Dishrag Effect

Helm Crag as I didn't see it
Helm Crag as I didn’t see it

It’s four months after my visit to Ambleside, and the lower buttresses of Loughrigg Fell, and feeling more alive and happy than I’ve done in a long time. Having done it once, I could surely do it again, and with more ambition.

The great and gorgeous weather on Monday put the idea in my head, and the crappy morning I had at work on Tuesday cemented it there. The sky was clear, the sun was out and the forecast promised it would last until Friday, which I’d already booked off as holiday.

So I bought a return to Windermere and laid my plans. I would arrive about 11.40 am, catch the bus through to Grasmere and tackle Helm Crag, which would surely not be beyond the capability of my worn-out body and knackered knees. A few hours up and down – surely three would be enough? – and a free choice of trains back come the evening.

And a proper expedition this time, like the old days, no floundering around in trainers and coat, shoulder bag bumping all over the place. I dug out one of my rucksacks (I say ‘my’, but these are fifty years old, bought by and for my Dad and his elder brother: I am their inheritor). I even bought new (though cheap) boots, my last pair having been uncomfortably cramped when I wore them last, a decade ago.

I’ve only once before gone straight onto the fells in new boots, without having any chance to break them in first, having discovered on the morning of a drive to Ambleside for a week’s walking that the soles had caved in on my old pair, requiring me to book in and race round the climbing shops as soon as I arrived.

But the years have taken more than my stamina. First, I forgot to recharge my mp3 player (for the train) overnight, so I dug out my old portable MiniDisc player, scrabbled for a replacement battery and pushed it into a rucksack pocket, only to find, when we were pulling out of Piccadilly, that I had no headphones.

I’d already realised, halfway into Manchester, that I’ve forgotten to pack Wainwright’s Central Fells. Mind you, if I can’t get up and down Helm Crag without needing a guide, I really do have to give up on the idea of getting back to real walking again!

However, there are worse problems. One is that, almost as soon as I’d paid for the train tickets, a very familiar soreness had settled into the back of my throat and, over the last couple of days, it’s been building into a serious nuisance that hot Lemsip and paracetemol is doing nothing to shift. The other is that, between Tuesday and Thursday, the weather forecast for the Lakes has practically reversed itself.

But I’ve paid for the tickets, and surely just being in the Lakes again is worth it?

It was not too bad a start in Manchester, but as the train approached Preston, we ran into a land-fog that accompanies us all the rest of the way. There was no Black Combe over Morecambe Bay – there was no Morecambe Bay visible.  There was no Kentmere Horseshoe overlooking Kendal. Passing Staveley, the cloud lifted far enough to see 3 – 400 feet of lower slopes, but even that was gone by Windermere. When I got off the train, it wasn’t actually raining.

I bought a Dayrider, still determined to pursue my plans, and the bus headed north alongside the Lake. Things got a little better: just before Troutbeck, the dingy clinginess of the mist seemed to go out of the air, though nothing more was visible of the fells.

The first pale glitter of the Lake was visible at Brockholes, but despite a surprise of sun, there was no Black Fell, let alone the Langdale Pikes. The most I could see was Todd Crag, that part of Loughrigg that had given me so much pleasure last November.

The fact that Loughrigg’s flank overlooking Ambleside was free of cloud aroused a skein of hope in me that was dashed when we emerged by Rydal Water and the all-pervading insubstantiality returned. The tin hat was finally fixed on things on the first sight of Grasmere’s chill waters: No Lion, no Lamb, no climb.

In Grasmere Village, it’s not actually raining slightly harder. The Village is as I remember it for all my life. Sam Reid’s bookshop still sits on the corner of the Green, and whilst it’s now the Grasmere Tearooms, and correspondingly more expensive, there’s still the cafe on the other side of the beck, opposite the church, with the terrace we occupied many a time, for teas ‘n’ fizzy oranges, the adults smoking and talking, my sister and I watching minnows flick and dart in the contained bed of the beck.

The terrace was shut, so I ate inside, cheered by the accompaniment of a brief burst of Fleet Foxes, sounding as ever like ritual chanting by men of the deep woods, a sort of forest Beach Boys. Perfect for a tuna melt panini and an Americano (though as I drank it, I was already looking forward to a Gold Blend back home.)

Naturally the moment you abandon hope, the cloud starts messing with your head. The Lion and the Lamb slid into view beneath the cloud: not by much, a tall man on the Lion’s head might still be enveloped. All the time I was in the tearoom, it grew steadily lighter, though the sky never changed. Silver How and Stone Arthur, on opposite sides of the Rothay Valley, also slipped into view, suddenly restoring the planned walk to feasibility.

But the food suddenly started to weigh heavily on my stomach, and the head-cold chose to turn my head fuzzy and drain my legs. I’m not the 38 year old with a stubborn streak and a gaggle of Wainwrights to collect, who’ll put his head down and determine to walk it off, and I’m not in practice for struggling, and besides, Grasmere is as close to empty of visitors – walking visitors – as I’ve ever seen it. And I’m supposed to be back to work at 9.00am on Saturday.

I couldn’t leave Grasmere without paying a first visit in years to the Heaton Cooper Studio. I admired new copies of prints that hung on our walls for years, and which are in a cupboard right now, waiting for a place with enough walls to hang them upon. Looking round, I realised they were all William, not Alfred, though a colourful print by the latter caught my eye. But I’ve already spent enough this month, nor could I have fitted it into my rucksack without damaging it, and I don’t need any more things to not go on the walls.

What did surprise me was that there were no prints by, nor mention of Julian Cooper, the third generation, and ‘my’ Cooper, nor of his mother, Ophelia Gordon Bell, both of whom used to be featured here. My own, latter-day acquisitions from the Heaton Cooper Studio have almost exclusively been of his work, starting with my favourite, Reading the White Goddess above Windermere, whose setting must be at, or close to, you’ve guessed it, Todd Crag.

(c) Julian Cooper

With my head getting slowly worse, and feeling more and more like a wet dishrag every minute, I returned to Ambleside. The day was turning from frustration into a disaster. I joylessly tramped around my usual haunts, tentatively negotiated in Fred Houldsworth’s bookshop about the possibility of their taking my three Lake District novels on a Sale or Return basis (I’ll make a loss on them, but the exposure may be worth it, and I didn’t get into writing to make money off it – not that I wouldn’t rip your hands off if you offered it).

But I’d gotten so bad now that sitting in the Sportsman’s Arms over a pint was unwelcome. I just wanted to get home and lie down, and wrap the walls around me. Which I did, along with fish’n’chips, though it took nearly four hours to do so.

All in all, probably one of my worst days ever in the Lakes, the only real bright point being that I spent the best part of eleven hours tramping around in those new boots without feeling any discomfort at all, although their uphill capabilities were tested by nothing worse than Ambleside main street. The weather was frustrating, but it was the cold that really irritated me, coming along at this exact time, in beautiful weather, just when I’d planned something I meant to enjoy for a change. No wonder I have a certain paranoia about my relationship with the Universe.

Little Gems: Helm Crag

The Lion and the Lamb, with Grasmere beyond

If you’re staying in the South Lakes, and it’s a sunny day, and there’s an afternoon before you, and you want to take advantage and yet not be committed to anything too strenuous, the Lion and the Lamb is ideal for you.
It’s mainly the fellwalkers who use the name of Helm Crag. Those less urgent to be up in the sky, and those with children to delight, will tell their youngsters to look up to the small, but steep-sided fell, in the centre of the view across Grasmere, from the main road from Ambleside, to the peak where the rocks take the shape of a Lion Couchant, and a smaller outline just below it may be imagined into being as a trusting Lamb, sheltering between the Lion’s paws.
It’s a childish myth, passed on generation to generation, though there is no record of how many eager young kids, dragged by or dragging their parents to the top, have been horribly disappointed by the absence of a summit menagerie. Only the short but daring scramble to the Lion’s head, and its perfect view of the Vale of Grasmere, may placate them.
I’ve climbed Helm Crag three times, one of them as the natural end to the descent of the low, curling ridge of which it is the terminus, which meant a dull approach from the back, and a descent the same route, to my car. For an expedition in its own right, only one approach is possible.
Cars should be parked in Grasmere Village, preferably at the north end. Begin along Easedale Road, leading away from the green. There is a small car park a quarter mile along, the only place cars may be left, but unless you are doing this walk in the early morning, it is not worth even visiting in hope of a space.
Easedale Road marches steadily on towards the fell. It is a shady, tree-lined affair, for much of its length, going beyond the gate where many turn off for the equally popular route to Easedale Tarn, just after the narrow road itself veers right. Carry on ahead, coming out into an open stretch, as far as Kitty Crag, and leave the road where it turns sharply left.
Half the distance of the walk has been covered for no significant gain in height, so what follows is unavoidably steep. The path turns uphill, through trees, and emerges on the rock-overhung fellside via a gate.
Originally, the path bore right at this point, rising gently before making a direct turn uphill alongside a wall, which curved round to reach the prow of the fell after a short, but intense struggle. The way then followed the ridge uphill at a slightly easier gradient, veering to the right of White Crag, before traversing to the left to bypass the rocks gathering on the eastern flank of the fell. I came that way a long time ago, cursing myself at how unfit I was.
Not long after, that path, badly eroded from the years, was blocked off by the National Trust, and a new, purpose-made path was created to divert the hordes over easier, and undamaged ground. Instead of turning right at the gate above Kitty Crag, turn left and, after a short distance, take a set of steep-zig-zags uphill, again accompanying a wall. This section is less strenuous than the old path, but still takes the breath away.
Once above this, the path takes a wide loop right, along the Far Easedale flank of the fell, crossing above Jackdaw Crag, and zig-zagging broadly onto a higher level for a long swoop out in the open, before doubling back towards the prow on an easy gradient, and joining the old path at 1,050′, and thence to the summit ridge. Path-finding will not be an issue.
The rocks constituting the ‘official’ Lion and Lamb are the first to be met on the summit ridge. The Lion’s head is the official summit and can be reached by an easy, but not reckless scramble. Keep children under a watchful eye.
However, the highest point is a black finger of rock, also known as the Lion and the Lamb form some viewpoints, but more appropriately the Howitzer in views from the descent of Dunmail Raise Pass. Beyond this is a further set of striated and broken rocks that are known, in views, as the Old Woman Playing The Organ.
I’ve no advice on reaching the highest point, at the peak of the Howitzer, and whilst it is actually reachable without specialist skills, few who have come here for an easy afternoon will tackle it, and none will allow kids to make the attempt.
Return by the same route. There is an alternative: by following the ridge north, and descending to the col, a narrow, curving path can be found turning down eastward. When you come to the road, turn back towards Grasmere, and you will, after a long walk, rejoin Easedale Road. It has nothing to offer but variety, whilst the route of ascent has Grasmere ahead in descent. The case is conclusive.