The Silence of the Uldales


The Uldales from a distance

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.

Trusmadoor from afar

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.

Meal Fell to Great Sca Fell

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.

Longlands Fell looking back

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.

A Duddon Fell


A Duddon Fell

I have always loved the Duddon Valley, ever since first discovering it as a ‘secret’ valley, when I was still a child.
As I’ve mentioned before, for years we used to stay at Low Bleansley farm, on the west flank of the overlooked Lickle Valley. Low Bleansley was at the end of a narrow road from the hamlet of Broughton Mills, connecting all the farms on that side of the valley. The tarmac road ended there, but a cart-track continuation continued, through a gate and into woods, leading up the hillside. One night, after our evening meal, Dad and I went for a walk along this track. It lead us up to the top of the low fell, and down again into another valley, one I hadn’t suspected existed. It was heavily forested and we followed the track down far enough to see the road below.
Back at the farm, Dad traced the map and identified our newly-discovered valley as the Duddon, and it wasn’t too much longer before we explored it for the first time. I don’t know if this was our first visit, but I vividly remember my Uncle driving us along the valley to Seathwaite (6 miles) and a bit beyond, as far as a forked junction, but refusing to go further since the valley road, at that point, became extremely narrow, with no possibility of two cars passing each other. We explored a short distance on foot, but all this was late afternoon: perhaps a side-visit when returning from Ravenglass.
We did go further, into the surprisingly wide openness of the upper valley, though this came after Dad died, in the early Seventies. There were two such trips for I remember two walks from Cockley Bridge, at the foot of Hard Knott and Wrynose: up Hard Knott on foot on the tarmac, and then the short walk to Hard Knott fell, and, at my suggestion, into Mosedale, almost to the valley head, where it would have been possible in theory to look down on Lingcove Beck, but this petered out, like the path, on increasingly wet ground, causing an abandonment.
These excursions aside, since the Duddon was not a convenient base for walks my family preferred, more often we would see only the lower valley, the pastoral, forested three miles from Duddon Bridge to Ulpha, where my Uncle would increasingly often risk his engine on the steep, zigzagging road behind the Traveller’s Rest to cross the expanse of Birker Moor and take a wide corner off the drive to Eskdale.
Sometimes, he’d compromise, by going over Corney Fell, from which, in ascent, there was a superb view over the Duddon Valley.
When I started going on holiday alone, free of the need to compromise to my family’s physical limits, and able to choose my own walks, I covered most of the Coniston Range in my first full year. I did Wetherlam – Swirl How – Great Carrs in the spring, and Dow Crag – the Old Man – Brim Fell in the early autumn. Later, as described here . I would do the whole Round in a single walk, but before that, I needed Grey Friars to complete the Range. And, so as not to cover ground already trodden, and because I’d never done a serious walk out of the Duddon, I made a point of a climb from this direction.
The obvious approach from the Duddon Valley was by the south-west ridge, which gave me a choice of starting points. The longer route was to base myself at Seathwaite, take the right hand fork from that long ago narrow junction and make a gradual ascent to Seathwaite Tarn, or to choose a base further north, near Troutal, and ascend across the base of the ridge to gain the valley of the Tarn on a more direct route. This latter enabled me to use the extensive car park at Birks Bridge, a short stroll along the road.

Seathwaite Tarn

This was a bitty, twisty ascent to begin with, under the lee of the ridge with no view of the way ahead until I was descending to the Tarn’s outflow. The ridge itself was pathless in those years, as Wainwright originally indicated, and it was a question of correctly identifying the grassy ride he recommended for access to the ridge. In the end, it was not difficult to spot, and I started to gain height steadily, in the centre of a wide channel.
Wainwright described the ridge as ‘a bewildering succession of abrupt craggy heights and knotty outcrops’, though there now appears to be a continuous path to the summit, but even then I found no great difficulties: just keep moving upwards, and eventually the summit crown comes into sight and it’s an easy ascent onto the round top and to the cairn. The highlight of the view is the Scafell range, seen in a great ring from Slight Side round to Esk Pike, but this was a greyish day, with the cloudline cutting across the range, so that was somewhat disappointing.
You should know by now that I find ascending and descending by the same route an anathema. There’s not much geographical alternative, so I decided to vary my route of descent by crossing the top and dropping down to Fairfield, the wide open plateau between Grey Friars and the wall of Swirl How. There wasn’t a path but by angling round to the right, it was easy to find the head of Seathwaite Tarn’s valley and turn down that.

On such a day…

I hadn’t seen anyone throughout the course of the walk which, even then, was how I liked it. The upper valley was lonely and empty, and the slope was easy and uncomplicated. I marched out steadily and confidently, and at a pretty fast rate. It curved to the right, and there was still no sight of Seathwaite Tarn, when I found my rapid course approaching a curious patch of light green standing out from the reedy grass around. It made me curious as to what it was, but my near headlong march took me to it, and upon it rapidly. Without thinking, I planted my right boot down on it. And kept going down.
My boot plunged through the nearly non-existent surface and kept going until I was in above my knee. And, between my insouciant momentum and the natural imbalance caused by having one leg shoot down about two and a half feet below where it should be, my left boot, like night following day, crashed down on the sickly-green patch and didn’t stop until it was almost at the knee.
There I was, in a bog, with no-one in sight and no-one remotely likely to come in sight in the foreseeable, up to an average of both knees in the muck and well and truly stuffed.
If you’ll permit me a brief digression: in those days I still owned a short satirical comic story by Howard the Duck creator Steve Gerber, using his experience in writing for TV of having his scripts submitted to Standards & Practices, i.e., the censors. Systematically, they gut every point of tension, drama and natural human response to crisis from his scene. There is a glorious moment when they instruct, ‘instead of the pilot reacting to his spaceship going out of control by banging his fit on the dashboard and shouting, “dammit!”, have him demonstrate a positive coping reaction.’
Positive Coping Reaction! What a gem! You cannot make things like that up, only real life can produce something so astonishingly perfect.
So here I was, in my own little real-life crisis, my opportunity to demonstrate a Positive Coping Reaction. And how did I positively cope? I panicked and, by main, fear-fuelled strength, wrenched my right leg far enough out of the bog to get my knee onto the firm ground on the bank immediately before me, and use that as a lever to drag my left leg out after it.
Now, look here, kids. I know that the likes of Douglas Adams and actual responsible adults will advise you Don’t Panic, but trust me and be flexible. There are circumstances where panic is your friend and you should be prepared to embrace him fervently.
Nevertheless, though I was now safe, and determined to give all spots of bright green the legendary wide berth, I was pretty much sopping wet, and sedgey from the knees down to my socks and boots, which had thankfully emerged with me. Make sure you tie secure knots in those laces.
So I resumed my downhill progress in a somewhat more circumspect manner, eager to see the curve of the valley expose Seathwaite Tarn, though this was still some way below. Walking its shore was calming and gentle, but I had one further obstacle to pass as I neared the outflow and recognised the point where I had to regain the lower part of the ridge to drop down to Troutal.
To get there, I had to cross a wide expanse of wet and soft ground. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have given it too much thought, but I was still rattled by my sinking experience, and was wary of any treacherous repetition. There was no way round it, I had to cross it, but how should I do this? The answer was ridiculous, but unexpectedly practical: a Groucho Walk.
Yes, I do mean the bent-kneed, half-crouch of the late Julius ‘Groucho’ Marx, and no, I am not joking. If you examine the movement, it has clear advantages. For one, the bent-knee stride means more ground is being covered at each step, and consequently a more rapid movement across the ground, whilst by splaying the stride, the centre of gravity is supported by a wider area, and only passes directly over the boot for a split-second. Of course, I didn’t have one fist clenched in the small of my back, nor another wielding an imaginary cigar, but in every other respect I adopted the position and made a very rapid transition to drier and firmer ground.
I don’t know how the theory stands up aerodynamically, but if it was all a load of gubbins, it was nevertheless a very effective placebo. I heaved a sigh of relief, descended to Troutal, the road and the car, and yanked my soggy socks and boots off. I could do nothing about my tide-marked jeans until I was back in Ambleside, however, and that called for a shower too.

The beautiful Duddon Valley

Despite all this, I have never lost my love for the beautiful Duddon Valley, though the only other time I returned to Grey Friar, I stayed firmly out of that valley. No more bog-trotting for me.

A Newlands Day


Newlands Valley
Newlands Valley

I have the terminal by the window today which means that, despite the double-glazing, I have the faint sensation of cold on my right hand side. The past few days of spectacular blue-sky clarity have greyed over, and I’m once again drifting elsewhere.

Monday was the anniversary of the first of the storms that devastated Glenridding. The damage the Lakes suffered that day, and in the weeks that followed, is by no means resolved: I understand that of over 550 bridges damaged or swept away by the floods, no more than about 150 have been repaired.

I missed my annual November trip, to places like Ambleside and Grasmere. My outing in sunny May never went further than Penrith, and whilst the fells surrounding Ullswater looked good in the spring sun, it wasn’t the fells that were damaged.

More and more, I find myself dipping into my recollections of walks, good walks, long walks, walks I’ve not yet gone into on these blogs. One such, an extended circuit of Newlands, landed me in a fair amount of potential trouble before the day was over.

I used to organise my weeks away on the progression from a leg-stretching short walk on the Sunday afternoon of arrival building up to a big walk on the Thursday, involving either one of the Lake District’s major fells or at least something that went on for miles with multiple summits I’d never previously collected.

A circuit of Newlands, starting with Maiden Moor, going round to Hindscarth, with a permissible diversion to Robinson and back, was perfect to wrap up this week. I planned to start and finish in the Newlands Valley, parking near to Little Town, at the foot of the Catbells approach to Hause Gate.

Though there was a shortish, pathless alternative route to the ridge, it was a nice day and I was happy to follow the orthodox route, steep though it was, to the ridge. Fellwalking isn’t about the shortest route, especially not at the beginning of the day, and it was sunny.

I reached the ridge after some decent exercise, and automatically looked in the Catbells direction. It was tempting to pay a visit, not having claimed Catbells before now, but sensibly I decided to save it until later. Indeed, I ended up saving it far later than I ever intended, since I was determined to take my lady to its summit and wouldn’t spoil the moment of discovery.

Dale Head from Maiden Moor
Dale Head from Maiden Moor

Once on the Western Wall of Borrowdale, which is steep and difficult to access, the way is easy and gentle, with no gradients to be concerned about. Maiden Moor’s top was a tilted field whose highest point was another of those that can’t be identified without sophisticated measuring equipment that didn’t exist that far back. I strolled along its upper edge, not hugging the edge, in order to lay a realistic claim to hitting the top, then dropped slowly down to the col that bridged the gap to High Spy.

That section of the ridge was surprisingly narrow for two such broad-based fells, but High Spy, as well as being higher, was also a bit more orthodox in shape, with a defined summit.

This was still more of a prelude to the highlights of the walk, which were going to be the triumvirate of Dale Head, Robinson and Hindscarth, three fells of similar height and design, throwing long ridges into Newlands. Borrowdale’s Western Wall was an approach, leading up to the business part of the day.

From High Spy there was a roundabout descent on pathless grass, curving to the west to come down to Dale Head Tarn, the only tarn in the whole of the North Western Fells, and that right in its lowest corner.

Across the outflow lay the direct ascent to Dale Head, famously tedious and looking from here as if its reputation wasn’t built on exaggeration. I had no intention of tackling that corner, not when an easier route was available, but that easier route proved to be a very odd experience in itself.

A faint track lead away from the head of the Tarn across grasslands. I say track, but there was little more than flattened grass to indicate that people ventured this way, and within a few moments I was out of site of the tarn and feeling as if I had passed into another world.

The route led through a shallow valley, barely describable as a valley. The way was silent, and the ‘path’ progressed a series of short levels, broad swathes of grass defined only by shallow growth of grass. The path twisted and turned gently, in stretches of fifteen to twenty yards. But for the evidence of this route underfoot, barely discernible except when you had your boots on it, I might have been the first person ever to come this way. I had the sense that if I were to have an accident here – which would have been very difficult to contrive – I would never be found.

For a fellwalker as enthusiastic as I was, I did have a few incipient fears: an inclination towards vertigo, a touch of claustrophobia. I had not previously demonstrated any susceptibility to agoraphobia, but on this one occasion, I felt awfully exposed. My pace increased, subconsciously, to get me out of here as soon as possible.

Eventually, the fence posts marking the route from Honister Pass to Dale Head summit, and a few people ascending that way, came into view ahead. I made directly for it and turned uphill on a famously easy ascent, to the summit.

dale-head-rangeDale Head dominates its immediate scene, and the head of Honister. It has a brilliant, massive cairn, directly above the full-length view of the Newlands valley, its only flaw being that it is right above that vista, with very limited traversing room round the cairn to get an uninterrupted photo. Given my incipient vertigo, I didn’t even think of trying. But it was a great view.

After a break for lunch, I resumed the trail. Dale Head, Hindscarth and Robinson lie in parallel, in that order east to west, but Hindscarth’s top lies off the ridge, projected further towards Newlands. The ridge, which narrowed quite sharply at one point, coinciding with a burst of rather fierce wind, crossways of course, that had me stepping carefully, dips and rises to the back of Hindscarth, and then curves away further west, to swing round to Robinson.

I’d planned to use Hindscarth, and the ridge over the remarkable Scope End for the descent, so for now it was on again, dipping to the low point on the ridge and then climbing a rather flat, broad-based and somewhat tiring ridge to the summit of Robinson. It was hotter than before, the walking was not inspiring, and by the time I reached Robinson, I was suffering the beginning of a headache and starting to regret including it in the round.

There was nothing to do from here but to turn back, cover trodden ground and regain the back of the Hindscarth ridge. A direct descent to Newlands would mean omitting a summit that would then end up isolated, not to mention leaving me with a lot of road-walking in Newlands to get back to the car. Nor was the ridge descending from Robinson anything like as an appealing walk.

So I trudged on. My head started getting worse but, more than that, I was starting to move very sluggishly. Looking across the curve at the head of Little Dale, there was the possibility of contouring across, avoiding the climb to the midpoint of the ridge, but taking into account how heavy-limbed I was getting, and the absence of any track, it didn’t seem worth the minimal gain it would make.

Hindscarth, Scope End, Robinson
Hindscarth, Scope End, Robinson

So I plugged on, joined Hindscarth’s ridge, made its cairn and sank down thankfully. But in doing so, I had used the last of my energy. It was four o’clock, and though there were still hours of sunlight ahead, the air had changed. Evening was slowly making its presence felt and I was alone. Conspicuously, everybody else on the fells – and there had been plenty about all day – had suddenly vanished.

I contemplated resting. I could afford a half hour or so, a bit of sleep, refresh myself a little. But there was nowhere to lie, to shelter but the stones of the summit and, to be truthful, I was only too conscious of the risk in falling seriously asleep, hours of it, and waking in twilight or darkness. So there was nothing for it but to move on.

Like the traverse of Glaramara under my sweatshirt turban, I have very little recollection of the descent, which is a terrible shame because, even in my exhausted state, I could tell this was a cracker to walk. But I just couldn’t take in my surroundings, not when at every point I was focused on my boots and where they were being placed. Scope End came and went, and the descent grew steep once more, sliding towards Newlands.

Eventually, I got to ground level, and trudged wearily back to the car. It was blazing hot, having been in the sun all day and accumulated such a concentrated dose of heat that, when I opened my cool box to extract a drink, the carton of milk had turned through about 540 degrees, and the tub of margarine was a sloppy brown liquid that nobody in their right mind would dream of imbibing. Back to Keswick, having poured away and wiped up everything I possibly could.

I never got round to repeating the main part of that walk, and enabling myself to properly experience the Scope End ridge. The Dale Head group were collected, and whilst I was still collecting Wainwrights, there were no walks that could be extended to reincorporate any of those summits.

Once I’d reached the end of that particular road, and was free to just wander where I would, circumstances, as I’ve previously said, combined to limit my prospective walking years to only a handful. I walked the Western Wall once, basing myself at Grange, following the mining track that ran under the walls of Castle Crag and turned up to the heights, returning over High Spy, Maiden Moor and Catbells (which I’d finally got my lady friend to the top of), and back via Hause Gate to Grange.

But despite the straits I found myself in, it was still a brilliant day and a great walk, and a good thing to remember on a slow, grey December day in Stockport.

Life in another country


After a day like yesterday, much of which I spent riding the edge of my nerves, the reaction sets in today. I’ve done enough thinking for one week, I could do with a day off, to not think about things, to just mindlessly watch undemanding TV or listen to personally compiled CD collections.

I’m at work now, waiting for the start of my shift, when I will make myself available to listen to, and resolve, the problems of people whose telephone and/or broadband is not working correctly. Many of these people will be ordinary, decent folk, frustrated that things aren’t working correctly, understanding that I am there to help them, to the best of my ability, in the fastest physically possible fashion. Some of them are self-entitled gits, convinced that they are entitled to perfection in and around them in every way, and that the failure of their service is a personally directed breach of their human rights that you, personally, have organised with the intent of causing them harm.

It’s never easy dealing with this type of customer, but I have nearly forty years experience of talking to people unhappy about one thing or another, and I have long since learned to stay calm, to not mirror their aggression, to project empathy with their frustration, and to apply myself to what is needed to make their issue – and them – go away.

It’s not going to be any easier dealing with that kind of call today. I’m mentally drained, mentally less flexible than I normally am and have to be.

I’m still watching Person of Interest. The final episode is broadcast in America next Tuesday night, but I’m still working my way through the back half of season 3: episodes 15 and 16 this morning, fast-paced, tense stories, one a standalone that I found very effective but which was slagged off by the idiot who’s pulled the job of reviewing the series on tv.com, the other a thoroughly absorbing episode that tinkered with the mythology of the series: ninety-five percent an extended flashback that filled in a lot of background, and the final scene a contemporary tip towards the series’ future.

It’s ideal stuff for my state of mind: it’s not dumb, it’s not mindless. It requires attention to detail, it invites thought about where it might go, but the crucial difference is that I’m not blogging this, and I am watching it just for fun. I can devote my full attention to it without having to give screen-time to that part of me that is analysing what I’m seeing for the purpose of commenting upon it.

That’s the kind of stuff today demands. Things that make time pass without my really being aware of it, things that only demand my attention in the here and now, things that don’t require interaction.

I’m sat on my own, at the end of a row. Most of my colleagues are arsing around to one extent or another. The bay is being decorated with England favours in honour of the European Championships and the football will be on later on the overhead screens. Three games, but I have sat away, can only see the nearest screen at an acute, picture-invisible angle, whilst the next screen down is sufficiently distant that the reading glasses I wear for computer work won’t allow me to see what’s happening.

Later: I’m not as obsessive today about keeping up with the news. I have learned that, as a mark of respect, the Tories are not going to offer a candidate in the bye-election to find a successor to Jo Cox. On the one hand, I find their refusal to try to take advantage of situation both decent and human, not things I normally think about that party (though as the suggestion has come, publicly at least, from Grant Shapps, it should be examined for absolutely everything).

But I have to disagree. The bye-election should be contested. Jo Cox’s killer was afraid of democracy, of people having a choice. The biggest refutation of his evil is to give the people the choice he has denied them. Do everything we would have done if she had chosen to step down for personal reasons. Don’t let the bastards win, not by a single degree.

Later still: I’m functioning ok when I’m working but, as is only too often the case when I’m receiving inbound calls, there are long waits between calls into my speciality, and insufficient new things on the Internet to fill in time whilst I’m sitting there.

I came out early today to book train tickets to London for another visit in July. Stockport to Euston means booking at least four weeks in advance and booking separate singles. This has the disadvantage of tying you to specific trains, which means guessing at when I’m going to be ready to come home, but an all-day return is literally almost exactly twice as expensive.

But there was some sort of muddle at the booking office, when the woman told me that Saturday 23rd was actually Saturday 25th. And I had this horrible suspicion that the exhibition I’m visiting ends 24th July. Which, when I checked back at work, it did. So that meant Saturday 16 July instead (which in turn meant £5.00 extra on the fare.

Just in case the ticket office closed, I had my lunch half hour swapped 30 minutes earlier and went back to the station (the approach to which is currently being reconstructed at endless waste of time, making it hardly easy to reach). This time, a different lady tells me that Saturday 23 is a Saturday, so I can book the tickets I originally chose, for the original cheapest rate.

Go figure.

Evening: For one reason or another, it’s at least a month since I last worked past 7.00pm on a Friday evening. It’s quiet, I’m waiting again for incoming calls, and I’m counting the time down to 9.00pm and going home.

I still keep checking the news and my regular politics-oriented forum, though not with the same anxiety as yesterday. I’ve had a 1-2-1 Session over my current performance which, statistically, checks out better than I was expecting. On all but one of the touchstones, I’m way above the minimum standard demanded but I still couldn’t bring myself to self-assess my month’s performance as better than ‘Good’ (the higher options were ‘Great’ and ‘Outstanding’ and I’m sure ‘Great’ wouldn’t have been challenged), but I have had issues with self-belief all my life and these won’t let me award myself the higher accolade.

It goes back to the years after my Dad died. I speak far more often of him, or rather the massive hole that he represents, than I do of my mother. I was much older, in my mid-thirties, when she died, and I had issues with her about many things that went unresolved. One of these was the way she acted towards me in those difficult years of growing up without a father at the most important time to need one.

I was made to feel clumsy, and useless so many times and in so many ways, that I have never been able to take pride in something I have done. It doesn’t matter what it is, or what it represents, there is the automatic assumption that if I can do it, then whatever it is is of pretty minimal value in the first place.

The thing I’m most proud of in life – excluding certain personal relationships – is completing the Wainwrights. I am proud of that, genuinely proud, because I know of all the time and dedication that went into it, and because it is a genuine personal landmark that isn’t diminished by the fact that other people have achieved it.

I know that most people around me couldn’t do it, not physically, not mentally, that I have done things on the fells that would bring a touch of fear to the eyes of people around me. It’s the only thing I recognise as an achievement.

This has been a despatch from another country, the one into which we were all pitch-forked yesterday.

It was twenty years ago today


The view I couldn’t capture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Generation Wainwright


Earlier this year, without fanfare or review, except perhaps in places I tend not to visit, Frances Lincoln Ltd published the first in a new Edition – the Third – of the Wainwrights.
For those still unfamiliar with the term, I’m referring to the series of seven guidebooks to the fells and mountains of the English Lake District produced between 1950 and 1965 by the late Alfred Wainwright (who also gives his name to the 214 fells and mountains covered therein). Wainwright’s books were a comprehensive guide: geography, maps, features, ascents, descents, ridge-routes and views. More than just guidebooks, they were works of art: hand-written, hand-drawn, hand-mapped. One man’s hand, one man’s eye, one man’s mind.
Of course, from the date of publication, each book grew steadily out of date, as the fells changed, walls and fences were put up or taken down, paths fell into disuse or were walked into being. Wainwright would have withdrawn them after a few years, when their inaccuracy became too much for his pride, but their slow-burning yet phenomenal popularity prevented this fate from occurring, and I for one have spent nearly fifty years walking with the originals in hand, literally, without once getting lost or confused (for any reason attributable to the books).
Had Wainwright had the idea earlier in life, he would have gleefully begun revisions, but completion of his Guides more or less coincided with retirement.
Eventually, a Second Edition did appear, from Frances Lincoln, revised by former taxi-driver and map-making enthusiast Chris Jesty. Jesty’s round of Editions were completed between 2005 and 2009, and he deserves a thousand rounds of applause for his superb work (if only to deflect the waves of jealousy from those who, like me, would have killed for the chance to take his place!)
Now, only ten years later, Lincolns have commissioned former newspaper editor and Lakeland enthusiast Clive Hutchby to start again. A decade has gone by since Jesty’s work, and the latter has admitted that, not being as practiced a walker as Wainwright himself, he had not checked all of the unmarked routes in the seven books, a task which Hutchby has determined to accomplish.
And now the first fruits of Hutchby’s labours is with us, as Book 1, The Eastern Fells, is available. And the first thing to be noticed is that there is a vast difference of intent between the Jesty and the Hutchby Editions. Jesty’s Second Edition was about Continuity, about Preservation and Respect. His books were Wainwright’s books, updated as required to reflect the changes wrought by forty to fifty-five years of life in the Lake District, but otherwise kept as close to the original as possible.
Sometimes, this meant changes to Wainwright’s text. Since the old boy was no longer here to apply his hand, Lincoln’s took advantage of the advances of technology and had Wainwright’s letters scanned in to be formatted as a Wainwright font. Thus, new sections, new paragraphs, could be inserted in Wainwright font, to keep the look of each page as consistent as possible, and as close to the original as possible.
It doesn’t entirely work. There is a difference, a discernible difference, between the human hand and a computer text. No matter how meticulous Wainwright was in the forming of each letter, how regularly it was formed, the weight of each pen-stroke, the amount of ink on each nib, the minute fractions of discrepancy in the spacing of letters, these are all an intrinsic part of his work, and the reader can sense these, can detect the organic nature of the work.
A computer is too mechanical. It is too regular, too even. Every ‘r’, every ‘k’, every capital ‘T’ is identical, over and over, every space between letters is exact and equal to a microscopic degree. The eye sees, and the mind registers.
So its use was as sparing as necessity required. Jesty kept everything he could of Wainwright. That’s not the case with Hutchby.
The difference is immediately noticeable. Gone are the dust jackets: the book is glued directly inside the glossy covers. And the book is slightly narrower, slightly taller. These are perhaps sensible changes, making the book physically more convenient for rucksack and anorak pockets.
But that’s not all. The title has changed. These books are no longer A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells: they are Wainwright’s Walking Guide to the Lakeland Fells. And, to distinguish this latest version from the previous two, this is not the Third Edition. It’s the Walkers Edition.
Walkers Edition? What the hell do Hutchby/Lincoln’s think the original books were? Embroiderers Editions? Police Detectives Editions? Japanese Calligraphers Editions? At the sight of those words, my hackles rose, and they have remained in a risen state ever since.
Because this is the edition in which the publishers (who are no longer led by Frances Lincoln herself) have decided that it’s going to change. And one thing that has changed once you get inside is that these books are no longer Wainwright’s. Except where it is impossible to intervene, in lettering entered onto maps, Wainwright’s hand has been removed from the vast majority of the book. Everything has been reset in Wainwright font, no matter how exact the original wording remains. Alfred Wainwright is halfway out of the door of his own Guides.
After that, the Hutchby Edition has built up a prejudice in me that is impossible to overcome. I have read the originals so often that, if the printing plates were to be destroyed, the whole series could be recreated, intact, by scanning my memories. They were neat, precise, sometimes almost lyrical, and Wainwright knew how to let a page breathe. Hutchby suffocates pages, adding and adding lines and paragraphs of font, changing as he goes.
It’s one thing if these amendments are updates, removal of obsolete and irrelevant references, updating details, even adding descriptions to paths in places that didn’t exist for Wainwright when he walked. This is Hutchby’s job, his purpose, and generally he does a decent job of it.
But too often, too intrusively, too self-importantly, Hutchby cannot resist making changes that exceed this remit. He cannot resist swamping pages with additional information, cross-referring to other chapters, paragraphs of etymological construction of fell names, changes to Wainwright’s opinions to substitute his own, adding information to one page that duplicates Wainwright’s existing statement of the same thing on the next!
It begins to look as if the book is taller so that Hutchby can cram all these titbits into page bottom paragraphs without distorting the maps.
The majority of this additional information is unnecessary. If Hutchby were doing his own guide, it might be interesting background material, but it’s offensive to me because of the way in which it detracts from the source material. It’s no longer Wainwright’s guide, not with this guy Hutchby running round the edges, sticking his stuff on all over the place with drawing pins, and chopping bits out just so he can write his thoughts instead.
And it’s against the whole purpose of the enterprise, which was to be purely and cleanly about the fells, focused upon what the walker wanted – and needed – to get them to the top of a fell and, what’s more, safely down again. Hutchby’s clutter is antithetical to that spirit.
To take one random example, go to Hart Side 8, showing the view. Wainwright makes the comment, ‘The view is disappointing. Although Hart Side has a considerable altitude, it does not overtop the main ridge to the west, which hides all the high fells beyond. Intervening ground to the east conceals most of Ullswater’. There are no updates which alter or qualify that brief statement, but Hutchby still feels the need to alter it, by changing the first line to, ‘The view is generally disappointing.’ (italics added).
That’s Hutchby’s opinion. This is Wainwright’s book. Hutchby should be keeping his damned nose out of things and not trying to set up his own opinions.
The Helvellyn chapter is the first to be seriously molested, with some of the changes sensible and necessary, whilst others are just more examples of Hutchby’s obsession with making changes. An extended section on Striding Edge is introduced, complete with new maps and drawings, covering two full pages, which is very useful, and it’s paralleled by giving Swirral Edge a half-page – no maps, no drawings – that is achieved by cutting Lower Man’s page in half in a decidedly perfunctory manner.
Elsewhere, Hutchby rejects the gradient plans of the respective Western and Eastern Approaches, is curiously obsessive about forcing an ascent over Catstycam in as a ‘new’ approach and, for no discernible reason whatsoever, swaps the order of the Eastern and Grasmere approaches pages.
Actually, this Catstycam issue is typical of another distinct difference in approach. Wainwright treated his readers with respect. He was performing a useful, invaluable task for them, but (contrary opinions noted) he was not leading anyone by the hand. He trusted his readers to make connections, and to plan and think for themselves. Hutchby doesn’t. Anyone with half a brain can look at the Helvellyn chapter and work out that there’s a route of approach over Catstycam. Hutchby pushes it repeatedly, clogging up a scene where there are already several approaches, making the book even fussier.
Only when reaching the final pages is there any relief: Wainwright’s original Personal Notes have been preserved intact, his handwriting now a jarring contrast to the mechanical print. No doubt, at some future point, these too will be reset in the font, to preserve the unity of the Volume, but for now they are a small mercy.
No, I do not like this Third Edition. Indeed, I am opposed to almost all the new ideas that have gone into it, and unless someone of true taste and enlightenment comes into authority at Frances Lincoln, I can only see this trend worsening in future Editions.
Nevertheless, I will be buying them, and when I get back to the fells, I will be carrying them. Whatever the faulty aesthetics, it must be remembered that these are Guide Books, and their principal concern is accuracy and fidelity to the fells as they are in 2015 and the immediate future.
In that, I have no doubt that Hutchby can be trusted to have done the right job – and if he hasn’t, disgruntled and misled walkers will be flooding Frances Lincoln’s with complaints and criticisms, and Mountain Rescue will undoubtedly have things to say as well. And armchair walkers like myself would get all smug, which I firmly do not want to see.

When a Sweatshirt was a Turban


                                                                          Allen Crags from Esk Hause

Rain, cloud, snow and wind: what other extreme weather experience can you have out on the fells? That leaves sun, or heat, and I’ve a story to tell about that as well.
Ordinarily, this wasn’t a problem. I scheduled my holidays for April and September, just outside the holiday season either way, spring and autumn, away from the extreme weathers, and I nearly always got what I planned for.
Besides, if the day happened to be sunny and hot at valley level, it was rare for me not to find cooler air and breezes once I got above a thousand feet, where even gentle ones were all that were needed.
But I did get caught out once, and it could have gone very badly.
This happened in 1990, at the beginning of my April week. For reasons I can no longer recall, I had booked a very late holiday, late enough for the latter half of the week to roll over into May. That made it a good fortnight later than my normal practice, and there was a consequent effect on the base weather conditions, for this was to be a very sunny week, more so than I usually got.
In keeping with my usual practice, I motored up leisurely on Sunday morning, booked myself into Bridgedale, in Keswick, and spent the afternoon stretching my legs on something local and low, just to get warmed up. I can’t now remember why, but for Easter Monday I had chosen an unusually strenuous walk for so early in the week.
My plan was to drive down to Seathwaite, park as close to the farm as I could manage, climb Esk Hause via Grains Gill, and return along the northernmost extension of the Scafell massif, over Allen Crags and Glaramara.
This was going to be a day of firsts: though I had been to Seathwaite previously, I had not been as far as Stockley Bridge, nor had I seen Grains Gill or Esk Hause, and it went without saying that I had climbed neither fell before.
I’ve returned from Stockley Bridge a number of times and, fittingly, it’s still a rough, undulating walk, but on a morning approach, contemplating the steep-sided valley ahead, it’s a rousing start.
At Stockley Bridge, which shows not the slightest sign of being almost washed away in the great flood of 1966 (in which we were caught, driving home from a week in the Lakes in the most appalling, drenching conditions that I remember of my young life), the path crosses the infant Derwent and divides into two famous paths, both of which will take you onto a glorious days in the fells. Directly ahead, scaling the fell-side in well-graded sweeps, the scars of the clumsy walkers now healed, is the main route to Sty Head Pass, but on this occasion I turned left, for the only time, into the narrowing valley ahead, with Great End dominating its ultimate skyline.
Though I’ve since descended Grains Gill on a couple of occasions, this was still the only time I’ve used it in ascent, much to my regret. Of highways into the hills, it ranks amongst the finest in the Lakes: straight and narrow, rough underfoot but without danger for the experienced walker, between high fell walls and heading directly for Great End’s terminal cliffs.
The day was hot, the Gill enclosed, though strangely I cannot remember conditions being particularly onerous, or experiencing any difficulty in proceeding. The sun was high and hot, unusually so for early April. The serious mistake that I had made was that this wasn’t really the best walk for a Monday.
This was only the second walk of the year, and the first had only been the afternoon before, on Gowbarrow Fell, an overland stroll on primarily level ground from The Hause, on a route subsequently locked, barred and bolted against walkers. It wasn’t much preparation for a rock-based walk encompassing two fells over 2,500′, in the Scafell range.
As Grains Gill progressed, the valley narrowed yet further, the gradients increased and the path crossed to the left side of the gill. I was now moving into more enclosed surroundings, as rock gathered around me. There was certainly no breath of air on this section, and I toiled upwards, focusing my attention upwards, on the figure of a walker making a direct assault on Great End, carefully picking his way up virgin slopes, looking to find a way around/through the cliffs.
Where he went, I don’t know, because I finally emerged onto the Sty Head – Esk Hause path and turned left for the latter, turning the face of Great End between me and this intrepid scrambler, doing something I’d never have the nerve to do.
The path I’d gained would, I knew, bring me only to the wall-shelter, the highest point on the west-east route from Sty Head to Great Langdale that, before Wainwright came along, was what was usually spoken of as Esk Hause. Properly educated years before by The Southern Fells, I was after the real thing, the Head of Eskdale, and the easiest way to do this was to break off along the ‘short cut’ path, angling upwards across the base of Great End. It was a graceful, stony, well-graded route that I thoroughly enjoyed, and it emerged at the top end of the wide plateau of Esk Hause, by the cairn that is the crossroads for so many routes, all of which save only the unmarked descent into Eskdale I would go on to walk in one direction or another.
I then descended from the watershed to the wall-shelter and contemplated what I should do next.

                                                                              Glaramara and Grains Gill
By that time, I did not feel at all good. I was hot and thirsty, there was no wind or breeze to cool me, and I felt not just heavy-legged but heavy-bodied. Under this sun, I had already used up more of my strength than was generally good for me, and the logical, indeed only sensible thing to do would be to head back to Grains Gill and descend.
But I have always been extremely stubborn when out walking. I could be flexible when the circumstances permitted, or demanded,but when I had started a walk, I thought of nothing other than reaching the summit I had targeted, and I did not give up lightly. Before now, I had only turned back once without a top, that being the day of snow on Pavey Ark’s North Rake.
There’d been good cause for that, a practical fear, but this was a sunny day! There was no wind, no rain, no prospect of interference from the weather. And I was at Esk Hause! Esk Hause, that mecca for all true fell-walkers. I could hardly turn round and go back from there with nothing conquered, especially not when Allen Crags was so near at hand, a mere one hundred feet of climbing, on easy ground. I couldn’t give up when I was that close, surely not?
So I headed uphill, though my legs felt like lead, and I duly reached my chosen summit, though I remember nothing of it: Allen Crags, hurrah! What next? Well, I’d only committed myself to climbing Allen Crags, nothing more, so I could drop back to Esk Hause and head down, honour fulfilled. But now that I was here… Well, it was actually shorter, and more direct, to go back over Glaramara, instead of down and around, and given how I felt, surely the less distance I had to force myself to cover, the better. Ok, onwards.
By such arguments do the stubborn convince themselves that it’s right to do what they wanted to do all along.
It was, like continuing to descend directly off Brim Fell when I’d clearly gotten myself into a rough corner, like ascending Dore Head under the shadow of Stirrup Crag, a stupid idea and one that was putting me into peril that anyone with my intelligence would normally shy away from, no problem. I look back at times like this and wonder how someone who was, for so long, unnecessarily conservative about his expeditions could so blithely ignore the obvious signs and plunge on.
And I try not to read too much into the fact that, every time, I got myself out of it, alone, without lingering consequences.
So I walked on, or more correctly stumbled on, along what Wainwright describes as one of the most delightful and enjoyable ridge walks in the Lake District and I cannot remember a thing about it, not even Glaramara’s summit, nor anything of the views, because I was now in a very bad way. My head was aching from the unrelenting sun, my eyes were hurting from the glare, my stomach was roiling and churning, I was horribly dehydrated and sickeningly thirsty, but unable to drink as the only liquid I had on me was a single can of Coca Cola, badly shaken about, warm and fuzzy, that I didn’t dare drink because I would end up vomiting all over the place.
And my legs had no strength and I couldn’t think, because I was using all my concentration to keep  them moving, step after step, without stumbling and falling, because there was a fairly good prospect that if I fell down – or even sat down – I would lack the energy to get back up again. And I had no sense of time, all movement from past to future gone, I was in a bubble of the present, focussed only on the necessity to get down, to get back to my car in one piece.
Medically, I’d gotten a big dose of heat exhaustion that was bordering upon heat stroke. How closely, I don’t know: I wasn’t in a position to observe clinically. My condition was being made worse at every moment by the lack of shade or shadow. Apart from a period in the mid-Seventies when I became attached to a John  Lennon Serious Young Poet Denim Cap, I have never gone on for hats, so I had nothing with which to cover my head. Except the hood of my anorak, and there was no way that I was going to struggle into another layer of clothing, not when I was as hot as I was already.
So I improvised, desperately. I’d set off in sweatshirt over something light, probably a t-shirt, and, as usual, once it had gotten hot enough, I’d whipped the sweatshirt off and tied it around my waist. With my head throbbing from the sun, at some point along the way to Glaramara, I had undone its sleeves and tied it together, over my head, as some kind of makeshift turban that, thankfully, stayed in place more or less, as I forced myself along.
Eventually, I reached the end of the fell, and the path began to seriously descend. It turned outwards, towards the Stonethwaite valley, giving me at last some shelter from the sun as the bulk of the ridge intervened. I still needed to take care: the path was narrow, slightly grooved, and the descent reasonably steep, and it was still all to easy to put a foot wrong.
And my throat had reached the point where, regurgitation or no regurgitation, I was going to have to drink that last fuzzy coke. The whole of my mouth felt as if it had been painted with glue. I came to a halt, cracked the ring pull and chugged it down. The liquid was definitely warm, and there was a strange furry taste to it, as if the bubbles had half-dissolved, and to my amazement, instead of inspiring me to spew all over the fellside, its effect was to settle my turbulent stomach and leave me feeling considerably more at ease than I’d been since at least Esk Hause.
It didn’t make me feel any less wiped out, or my legs less leaden, or the remaining half-a-fellside any less steep, but I got down to level ground in safety. In the Stonethwaite valley, admittedly, not Seathwaite, and the road walk still far longer than I wished to contemplate.
But there was a field path, curling around the toe of Glaramara, avoiding the road and the hard tarmac, avoiding the avoiding of cars, in pastoral silence and solitude and best of all, shorter. It still took me ages to negotiate. I was no longer so bad that I was at risk of falling at every step – the dehydration had obviously been the worst element, and I was ruefully furious with myself that I hadn’t had that last coke ages before – but my legs were still shot and I was rarely more grateful to get my boots off when I reached my car.
I never put myself through that again, though I never again encountered conditions where there was just no wind on a hot day. Instead of carrying cans to drink, I switched to the large bottles, enabling me to spread my hydration out in smaller doses. And I was a bit more circumspect about what I would and wouldn’t tackle that early in the week.
Though I’ve climbed both Allen Crags and Glaramara in clear weather, with the full arc of the view available, I’ve no recollection of either, the latter especially. Nor have I been back. But times will change, and once I am fit again, I’m coming back here. With something better than a sweatshirt for a turban.

Wind-Walking


                                                                                    Carrock Fell

Apart from low cloud, the worst obstacle I’ve usually faced when out fellwalking has been rain, a natural hazard for someone who’s worn glasses since he was seven.

Not that I was ever in the habit of setting out in the rain, but then there are always occasions when you simply have nothing else you can do and any walk in any conditions is better than slumping in the car at the beach at Silecroft, or other natural resting places. But there have been many occasions when rain has come to plague me during a walk, and when that happened, my solution was simple: take off my glasses and stuff them in a pocket.

This isn’t too much of a problem: I’m not that tall that I can’t see the ground around my feet with enough clarity to proceed safely, and when it sets in, that’s all you need. I’ll live with peering into a blur that’s as much of my making as it is the weather.

However, rain and cloud are not the only adverse conditions with which I’ve had to deal, though they’ve been by far and away the most frequent. But everybody who goes into the high hills comes face to face – literally – with wind, and sometimes that can be on the excessive side.

I’ve only once had extreme winds interfere with my walking, though I’ve experienced some pretty hard breezes from time to time. I can’t remember the walk but I did have a day of very high winds early in a week’s holiday, the kind that hammer at your eyeballs even through a set of thickish plastic lenses. At the end of the week, I was doing the Dale Head – Robinson round and that exposed and fairly narrow section of ridge, descending off Dale Head above the Buttermere side of Honister Pass. It was more than breezy along that bit, not enough to trouble me, but enough to prompt lurid thoughts of what it would have been like if I’d been trying to cross here a few days back.

My worst experience was one of the last few proper walks I had. Real life had intervened in the shape of an attempt to successfully work self-employed. For two years I had worked without a holiday, and I needed a few days break, so my partner agreed to cover my workload and I closed my office for a few days and headed off to the Lakes.

I’d completed the Wainwrights by now and, apart from a brief burst of visiting places I hadn’t been in twenty years, so that for a few months I could proudly say that I had done all the 214 in a ten year cycle, I was concentrating upon interesting routes, or routes that had had to be bypassed in trying to construct circular walks incorporating as many fells as possible. I’d done Carrock Fell six years earlier at the end of a roundabout route from the east, starting with High Pik. Now, I wanted to tackle the direct, sporting route, up the ragged, rocky end of the fell, crossing above its terminal cliffs.

It was a great ascent, well-defined paths and some steep downfalls to the right as I was working my way across the cliffs, then out onto easy slopes as I approached the ancient hill fort that surrounds the highest point.

The plan was to, effectively, reverse my walk of a few years earlier, along the somewhat scrubby ridge behind Carrock Fell, and round onto the smoother, grassier slopes of High Pike. It would have been a case of putting the best and most exciting walking first, but Carrock’s position on the edge of things mitigated against other ways of extending the walk. But I hadn’t taken into account just how hard the wind was blowing.

I’ve walked in winds that, even through my glasses, feel like something is hammering constantly at my eyeballs. I’ve faced gusts that, for a few urgent moments, literally stop me in my tracks. But this was an unwavering wall of wind, a constant roar into my entire body. It wasn’t so strong that I had difficulty standing in the face of it, but it was also a few increments from that point. Walking into that would have been the equivalent of shouldering your way through the face of the Stretford End when packed, at every step. And that was when I was standing still, anchored to the ground. Lift a foot, lose an anchor, and I wasn’t sure what might happen!

I put up with it for about five minutes. There wasn’t the slightest intimation that the wind might ease even a fraction. It was just unending pressure that would exhaust with incredible rapidity if I tried to force my way through it, and to be honest, the ridge from Carrock Fell is nothing like interesting enough to undergo that for. I abandoned all thoughts of going ahead.

Returning by the route of ascent was not on. I hate doing that anyway, and the crag-crossing route was one I would ordinarily be wary of on a descent.

On my previous visit, I’d accidentally discovered a route of descent that didn’t appear in The Northern Fells (and which wasn’t picked up on in the Second Edition by Chris Jesty). It was a better way off in all the circumstances, so I started to drift down towards the northern slopes of Carrock, slanting towards the head of the valley until I picked up the line of the path.

This descends in a series of steepish but perfectly navigable grass ledges, zig-zagging down to the edge of the grasslands in the valley below, down to Carrock Beck, from where it was an easy walk back to the road, and a somewhat longer and less interesting one back to the car.

Obscure Corners – The Fellbarrow Range


Crummock Water – a highlight of the view

Obscure Corners exist on the edges, the margins of Lakeland, where the fells decline towards the Cumberland plain, or the Furness District of old Lancashire-across-the-water, or remembered Westmorland.
One such corner, though easily accessible, remains obscure and quiet. This is the low-lying wedge of land lying to the west of the Vale of Lorton, between the Lake District and the Plain, known as the Fellbarrow range from the northerly of the two Wainwright summits it boasts. The Fellbarrow Range, like the entirety of the Northern Fells is geographically isolated: by Lorton in the east, by Loweswater in the south. Wainwright chose to include these two tops in the Western Fells and anyone who has climbed them will know that, in nature and in atmosphere, this range belongs spiritually with the rest of the lowering heights that comprise the Western Margins.
The range is broad and deep, though it only just rises above 1,300′ in Fellbarrow itself, lying in the northern half of the range. There are a  profusion of small tops scattered everywhere, and a tour of the range, visiting each miniature, would admirably occupy a quiet afternoon when morning rain and cloud has put paid to longer expeditions.
Those who prefer a more economical approach, travelling to and from a parked car, are best served by accessing the narrow, quiet road along the western side of the valley, reached from the north by crossing the bridge just below Lorton Village. This is a delightful, little-known route that deserves to stay little-known for its own sake.
The walk starts and ends at Thackthwaite, but the best parking is about 200 yards north of the farm, where there is ample off-verge space in a quiet dip. Turn in at the farm gate, feeling as if you are trespassing, though no-one will pay you any attention, and start up a lane across the fields, towards the green skyline.
Above the hamlet, this opens into fields. Ahead is a double line of trees, flanking what must once have been a beautiful avenue, though only two hundred yards along it is blocked off by rampant undergrowth, and progress can only be made by exiting to the left and following a parallel path towards the intake wall.
This lets out onto a splendid, wide drove road, ideal of gradient. Bear right, around the fold of the grassy fellside, with Fellbarrow coming into view once round the corner. The drove route is an ideal route of ascent on a summer Sunday afternoon, graceful and sweeping, its zigzags carrying you effortlessly upwards and onwards. It’s perfect for ambling strolls or effortless marches, but the only drawback is that it is a route of ascent for Low Fell, the Wainwright of the southern half of this miniature massif.
Very well then, why not follow this route to Low Fell, and return over Fellbarrow? But the ‘ridge’ route between the two fells and the preponderance of the views are biassed to the south, and it is never good practice to walk away from the good views, not when one can so easily walk towards them.
So tear yourself away from the drove road as it starts to swing back towards the south, strike a line over pathless grass towards Fellbarrow, crossing the swampy hollow that lies around the meeting of the two feeders of Meregill Beck, and trudge uphill.
Hopefully, your navigation will be better than mine: the skyline is undistinguished at this point and I got too far north, arriving on a summit clearly overtopped by its immediate neighbour south. This was Hatteringill Head, and the walk back to Fellbarrow was simple.
A wire fence leads south, along a switchback, grassy, slightly damp ridge, over Smithy Fell and a couple of smaller bumps before trending east alongside Sourfoot Fell to meet the drove road at its head The path continues wide, over a distinct number of rises and falls, the view improving by the step, until it reaches Low Fell’s northern (and unofficially higher) top from behind.
Do not leave the summit without continuing to the southern top, which is a magnificent and spacious viewpoint, sited at that exact halfway height that makes the higher fells, such as the adjacent Grasmoor, loom immensely. Eastwards is a spectacular view of the Buttermere Valley, with Crummock Water sparkling all but underfoot, but this is all but equalled by the south-eastern aspect of the view, of Hen Comb, long and narrow and isolated in the rich green of sodden Mosedale, exposed to sight in all its ‘glory’.
Unless prepared for a steep descent and reascent, followed by a long tarmac trudge, which can be provided by heading west to Darling Fell and dropping off from there to the Loweswater road, this is a walk on which a long stretch of trodden ground is unavoidable. But the walk back to, and down the gracious sweeps of the drove road, despite turning away from those superb views, is enough of a pleasure underfoot to make the journey a comfort.
This is Sunday afternoon country, close enough to the popular valleys, but overlooked by all but those in search of th peace and quiet that used to be endemic from the Lakes. And those views over Crummock Water are both icing and cherry to a solitary afternoon.

Sunday on the Dodds


Great Dodd – Sunday stroll

Height in a fell is not always what it’s cracked up to be. For every additional foot above sea level that a summit boasts, there’s an assumption that the task of getting there becomes more demanding, requires greater effort, and will be proportionately more satisfying. That’s what you get with Scafell Pike, Great Gable, Bowfell, Blencathra, to name a few. But it’s not a guarantee. Great Dodd, and the Dodds range north of Sticks Pass, may include one of the twenty highest  Wainwrights, but their ascent is nothing more than a Sunday stroll.
I was running out of Wainwrights, happily, thanks to the greater freedom I enjoyed with my Golf. A 1600cc engine made the trip to the Lakes for a day’s walking consummately easy, and on a sunny weekend day, I could be into my boots and setting off into the fells earlier than when I was actually staying in Cumbria.
The Dodds were familiar figures on the edge of sight, great grassy slopes looming above the northern end of the road to Keswick, forming the eastern border of the Vale of St John. Unlike the Helvellyn range to the south, the Dodds group turned a rockier face to the west, albeit only in the form of rock that rises to about 1,600′, above which there is nothing but swelling grass slopes.
The easiest access to the Dodds is via Sticks Pass, the high level crossing between Thirlmere and Glenridding that’s second only to Esk Hause in height, but which is far more frequented as I’ve always been led to believe. As a Pass, that is, crossing from side to side of the range: Esk Hause is so much more popular as a platform to reach the highest mountains than as a crossing from Eskdale to Borrowdale. Given my family history with Passes, it was a given that I would ascend this way.
It seemed very strange to be donning my boots at Stanah. I associate the Thirlmere valley, and its northern offshoots, with rainy-Friday expeditions to Keswick, and with my midweek transfer of base from South to North Lakeland, or vice versa. This valley was for transit, not stopping. I have only ever done three walks from here.
Truth to tell, I remember almost nothing of the ascent. It begins at Stanah and, above the intake walls, follows the line of Stanah Gill zigzagging steeply until above the rocky outposts, when it breaks south, across the western ridge of Stybarrow Dodd. The gradient is easier, the walking untroubled, the direct route up the ridge unappealing, and it’s only a matter of time before you reach the broad col of Sticks Pass.
Even the water race was not the surging thing Wainwright seemed to imply, but a dead-still metal channel, crossed in a step.
The sticks that lent the Pass its name are long gone but, in the absence of deep snow cover, they are no longer necessary. Having taken so long to get to the top of Sticks Pass, it was somewhat ironic that I should have been back less than a month later, ascending this time from Patterdale, as part of the Helvellyn range walk I call the Outer Circle.
Stybarrow Dodd lies due north of the Pass. A track, looking tedious but instead surprisingly easy, leads directly to the official cairn, though the highest ground is another hundred yards uphill.
All walks change once you reach the tops. The hardest work is done, you are elevated, in spirit as well as body. There’s a sense of release, a sense that for so long as you remain up here, you are in another world, one in which the demands of life below are suspended whilst you enjoy the freedom and openness of this other existence.
The Dodds range consists of four summits, though I was only concerned with three today. Great Dodd, the highest point, lay directly north, separated from Stybarrow by the deep cut of Deep Dale, marching eastwards, visible only as a high-sided, grass-lined declivity. But the next Dodd was Watson’s Dodd, lying well west of the direct line of the ridge, overlooking St John’s.
I already knew of its peculiar geography from thirty years of reading Wainwrights. Watson’s Dodd has a front to St John’s, but no back. Away from the valley, twin wings sweep back, forming ridges that rise to Stybarrow and Great Dodd. Long paths sweep effortlessly along these ridges, a flying ‘V’ that flanks a valley that clearly divides the two bigger Dodds. From Stybarrow Dodd’s top, you look at the non-existent back of Watson, like looking behind the Magician’s mirror.
Chris Jesty reports a certain amount of confusion at the end of the paths that lead to and from Watson’s Dodd, but a the time there was nothing to it: just a straightforward walk, veering west, along a wide, level wing, to the summit at the apex, then back again, with little reason to stop, along the other wing, aiming for Great Dodd.
Once again, the path is grassy and looks tedious, but is easy underfoot. As with Stybarrow, there was an official cairn, with a higher point beyond.
All told, though I didn’t have my eye on my watch at the time, I had collected my three summits in a ridiculously short space of time, something between half an hour and an hour. But Great Dodd was above 2,800 feet: to be able to collect so high a fell with so little effort seemed fundamentally wrong. I didn’t usually try to climb fells of that height on a Sunday expedition, when I needed to be on my way home soon after 4.00pm to avoid getting caught up in the tailbacks that could run for ten miles o the way to the junction with the Blackpool Motorway and the trippers pouring home and a weekend’s fun. But height was irrelevant: the Dodds were Sunday afternoon fare.
I could, of course, carry on and collect the other fell in the range, the outlier Clough Head. The whole of the way was clear to see from Great Dodd’s summit: a broad-backed grass ridge, free from complications, free of interest save for the out-of-place rock outcrop of Calfhow Pike, halfway there. A mere stroll.
But a two mile stroll there was also a two-mile stroll back. I hated retracing my steps for more than the most unavoidable of brief distances, and besides there was the seven hundred foot plus climb back up to Great Dodd that, that far into the day, certainly would be tedious, no matter how easy. Of course, there was no real need to regain that lost height: I could contour levelly across the flank of Great Dodd, join my intended route of descent, down the western ‘ridge’. But two miles: and two back: not on, not for me.
A wise choice: Clough Head proved to be more enjoyable as a solo expedition, a stretch-the-legs beginning to a week away than any such ridge route could have been.
So I began to walk west and down, down pathless, thick grass, gradually steepening as I got below the 1,600′ line. Mill Gill lay to my left, but I didn’t seek out its line, which proved to be a mistake. As indicated in The Eastern Fells, I planned to cross the Gill below the ravine and above its steep rock-lined fall. I could pick up a path crossing behind the Castle Rock of Triermain, descend to the road at Legburthwaite.
Instead I missed it. I came down to the intake wall, facing a sign saying that shooting may be going on behind the wall. I turned right, south, hoping to make my way along the wall, bt was soon stopped in my tracks by Mill Gill, impossible to drop down to and cross.
In an ignominious manner, I retreated north, along the wall for about a quarter mile. There was no sound of shooting, and I had lost enough height to be able to see the road across the pastures beyond the wall. There was a gate visible, so I shinned over the wall, made a bee-line for the gate, and let myself out into legitimacy before anyone could see me.
For once, the road walk to the car was fairly pleasant.