Yewbarrow in October

Deep blue sky from visible horizon to visible horizon. A glowing yellow sun. Diamond sharp air. Hard edged sun-cast shadows.

Today’s weather takes me back over twenty years to a similar week in a mid-Nineties October. Day after day it was cold and blue and crystal clear, and I was anxiously eyeing the sky for signs of it changing before I could get to the Lakes on Sunday for a day’s walking (United were at home on Saturday).

With the night drawing in from about 4.30pm, I couldn’t plan a long expedition, and I’d already been frustrated at Yewbarrow on a rainy, cloudy Saturday in the summer, so that former my plan. I was away up the motorway, crossing the south of the Lakes and cutting out the corner behind Black Combe on the Corney Fell Road. This gave me my first surprise.

I breasted the ridge, about 900′ or so, and saw the Irish Sea appear before me. It was amazing.

The sea spread out from side to side, and was a deep turquoise blue that I have never seen before or since. The Isle of Man lay in the middle of this, looking bigger and nearer than I have ever seen, before or since, as if the sea on the western side of the island were also visible. Further along the coast, there was a white circle, like a silver coin laid down on the turquoise, which puzzled me until I realised, from its position, that this was the estuary at Ravenglass, and that the white had to be the fresh water, pouring out into the sea, a different colour from the seawater and not yet merging.

It was stunning to see, but the first thought I had was frustration, at not having foreseen just how clear the air would be. Had I realised it would be, could be like this, I would have set the alarm a couple of hours earlier, and aimed to be at Wasdale Head in time to get up Scafell Pike: they say that it is possible from there to see the mountains of Ireland, and if they weren’t visible in those conditions, they never would be!

I motored on to Wasdale Head, parked at Down-in-the-Dale, and headed for the Hotel, cutting through its grounds and across the Packhorse Bridge for the path into Mosedale.

On my previous visit, kit had been a grey day, with cloud swirling about all the Wasdale tops, but I had set off with my usual grim determination optimism, banking on it clearing by the time I got that high. It didn’t. What was worse was that I had taken the broad green ride that rose from the Mosedale path, meeting the Dore Head scree run about halfway up, only to find when I got there that the scree-run had been dug into a scree-less rough channel, with ten foot overhangs guarding it, and no possible way across to the path on its further side.

I could have descended four to five hundred feet to the valley floor, and tried going up the far side, but I was not prepared to make that kind of retreat. This side of the channel was pathless, but studying what lay above, I figured I could get up that, especially if I angles over left, towards the base of the crags. Since I’m still here to write this, it obviously worked, but I’d not take that decision again.

I climbed carefully, a few steps at a time, studying the ground immediately ahead, and once I had got to the cliffbase, clinging on to it for comfort and support. It was slow progress, a couple of steps at a time where needed, working my way back towards the scree run at the centre.

The worst part was discovering there was no way onto the safety of the ridge on that side, not without climbing the base of Stirrup Crag itself. To get onto ground from which I could complete the ascent, I had to contour across the top of the trench, deep, scraped bare, no support under foot. It wasn’t as bad at Sharp Crag, but only Sharp Crag was a worse moment.

I’d reached the ridge safely, but the cloud hadn’t departed in the meantime. It was swirling around Stirruip Crag: no going on, no going back. My only option was to retreat down Over Beck, to circumnavigate Yewbarrow instead of climb it. And I hadn’t gone more than about four hundred yards before it started raining.

It rained hard. I’d gotten into my waterproofs as soon as it started but after a certain point, when it sluices down like it did then, waterproofs become waterlogs: I tramped back to Down-in-the-Dale, got behind the wheel and drove as close to the Hotel as I could and sprinted for the gents. By some incredible chance, I’d brought a change of clothes with me. I never did that, but I had that day, so I could get into dry things even if I wasn’t perfectly dry.

The only drawback was that I had not thought to bring replacement underwear. I was not prepared to go commando, though I really wish I had: my wet y-fronts immediately soaked through my jeans and I spent the rest of the day, returning via Cockermouth and Keswick, looking like a superhero around the loins.

But there would be no such occurrences this October Sunday. All well calm and crystal clear, bright and dry.

I passed under the broad green ride, and beneath the debouchment of the old scree-chute, after which I started looking for a path bearing upwards. The first I found was a narrow trod, on grass, gaining height through a sequence of minor dells, in which the grass underfoot sparkled with  miniature frost.

This played out after about three hundred feet and I contoured left, across the top of a prominent bluff, to reach a more firmly defined, but still narrow path near the edge of the trench. This was one of those superb, will-o’-the-wisp paths, never heading in the same direction for more than about six or seven steps at a time, zig-zagging to and fro, gaining height comfortable, before emerging in a little dell, dominated by a boulder in its centre/ I rounded the boulder, pulled myself up to the top and found myself on the ridge, about ten yards north of Dore Head.

Stirrup Crag was black against the sun. I tackled the scramble, hands and feet, twisting backwards and forwards and having a glorious time of it. It could have lasted at least twice as long as far as I was concerned, I was enjoying myself massively and sorry to come out on top of the Crag, on the rooftree of Yewbarrow, with an easy stroll to the summit rocks.

Many years ago, with my Dad and Uncle Arthur, we’d gotten close to here, leaving my mother and sister behind at Great Door and going ahead enough to look across and see Burnmoor Tarn on its boring moor. The western wall of the Scafell range looked magnificent: I usually gravitate to the eastern aspect, above Eskdale but this day the Wasdale front was worth every atom of daylight.

And then a slow descent, via Great Door, and down into Over Beck and, for the third time, the long slow walk back along the lake road. It was not as good as the first time I’d finished a walk that way, completing the Mosedale Horseshoe on a brilliant day, not being prepared to descend Dore Head, sight unseen, and coming this long way round, tramping the road at a September 6.30pm, the Pike and Scafell looking close enough across Wastwater that I felt as if I could reach out and touch them.

There was a long drive back, and it was dark before I was in Manchester, but the preternatural clarity of the weather had made it a magical experience for me. Today has brought it back, and I have wallowed in it!

The Lakes: Rain Days

I always had a great deal of luck with my holidays in the Lakes, with many more good days than bad, good here requiring only that it be dry and clear, with cloud no lower that the upper rocks of, say, Bowfell (unless, of course, I was heading out to Bowfell). Rain didn’t always stop me walking, and I have some very vivid memories of being out on the fells when it started pouring down, in that solid, unhurried, here-for-the-week-folks manner.

These were occasions when the weather turned on me whilst I was already in the high country: when I was coming down off Gable, descending through Gillercomb whilst the skies greyed and then blurred, and an impish mood saw me leave down my hood when I scrambled into kagoul and waterproof trousers just in time, letting the last afternoon rainfall wash through my face and hair: my first approach to Yewbarrow by that desperate scramble up the wrong side of Dore Head’s screes, the cloud on Stirrup Crag and the long retreat via Over Beck and the road back to Wasdale Head, hood drawn up but the persistent pressure of the unending rain turning waterproofs after a certain time into waterlogs.

Or when I got caught on the ridge between Eagle Crag and Sergeant’s Crag, necessitating a careful and slow descent of the soaking grass slopes into Langstrath, and the silent walk back, silent but for the drumming of rain on my hood, my glasses washed clean of spots and streaks by the sheer volume of water. Or the sudden storm that blew up out of nowhere on a Sunday afternoon leg-warmer in Wythop, and determinedly struggling into the face of an absolute storm, to the miniature cairn and round it and straight back down without a pause, refusing to be beaten on so small a fell.

But when it rains in the Lakes, that for me is usually the signal for a day in the valleys, a day of villages and tiny towns, of shops and windscreen wipers, and often a long, slow holing up in a cooling car, somewhere off the road, somewhere with a semblance of a view to glimpse occasionally when I flicked on the wipers, briefly, curled up over a book, without distraction.

When we stayed at Lower Bleansley, in the long-ago Sixties, it only ever rained on the Friday. It was the cue for the only journey into the Northern Lakes that my parents and Uncle would sanction: beyond Ambleside, beyond Rydal and Grasmere, over Dunmail Raise (they would not drive over any other Pass), by Thirlmere, still mostly invisible through the dense screen of trees planted by the Forestry Commision to keep even the great road north from the Lake they had seized. We wander round Keswick, all determinedly swathed in waterproofs better suited to the fells, look in the shops, eat bread and butter in a cafe and, when it would inevitably clear after lunch, go down Borrowdale, find a place to stop by the banks of the Derwent, ‘picnic’ until it was time to head back for our evening meal.

I also remember a brutally wet Rain Day in September 1970, an impromptu, escape from the stress holiday just a few weeks after Dad died, after a long illness and a terrible last week. We were in Ulverston for some long-forgotten reason, and there’s little enough reason to visit in fine weather, but this was the hard and determined rain that fell without pause, and I remember hiding from it in the Covered Market, where clothes steamed and my glasses fogged over constantly, and I was allowed to buy the last DC comic of my childhood.

Years later, I remember a day when it rained unmercifully, a day of kagoul, when I found myself in Windermere Village, outside one of those small record shops that you no longer see. Record shops were the same kind of magnet to me as book shops, and there were always things that attracted me then, though my practical and prudent side forbade me to buy LPs in the Lakes. Older readers will instantly understand, will remember the nervous moment of first playing your buy, fearful of the click, scratch, jump etc. that forced you back to the shop, enthusiasm greatly diminished by the record being damaged.

It was bad enough when that meant a half hour trek back into the City Centre, getting worked up over the coming battle with the shop assistant over bringing it back, but a three hour drive each way?

The shop’s been gone for decades, but whilst I didn’t buy anything there, it entranced me for ages, with five rows of old singles to go through. Five rows out of which practically the entire Top 30 from 1970 to 1975 could have been reconstructed. Singles that had been played to death on Radio 1 and hadn’t made (it was a different world then, people). Records that had been played half a dozen times over as many weeks, but I’d heard it. Records that had never been played on the radio since they had slipped below no 23 in the charts, and never would be played again, not by the most nostalgic of programme controller.

A treasure trove of memory and recollection. One I would never have discovered but for the Rain.

These reminiscences have been sparked by Manchester rain – or should I say Stockport rain? – an hour or so ago. I had finished my shopping, was waiting at the bus stop to get home, and down it came, even and steady, deep and darkening. It was cool and quiet and it sparked a memory of Rain Days: of sitting in the car facing the beach at Silecroft, or in the car park at the head of Coniston Water, book in my hands, hours of the day remaining. The fells out of reach, the bookshops of every village I could possibly reach exhausted of perusal. The Lakes dark under cloud and the weather.

But not bored, or at least not often. More often, the frustrations came on days when it was dry, but low, unshakeable cloud barred me from the fells. Rain Days were another state of being, a time out even from the time out of normal life, of the Law and Property, Leases and Wills. Just as, in my turbulent teens, in the years immediately after Dad’s death, I would often stand in my bedroom, looking out into the rain, the back garden, mesmerised almost by its constancy, watching pools slowly form in the flowerbeds, watching it drive down, letting it feed what I felt inside, a shock I was more than slow to deal with, yet forbidden to express.

Just so was I prepared to spend hours, watching the rain, determinedly cut off from everything else, but connected to the Lake District. It was not how I wanted my day to go, but it was still part of a world that lay outside my ordinary, often so frustrating life. Instead of the big turning circles for the busses outside of Tesco, it would have been deeply soul cleansing to sit and watch the rain form patterns on the lapping shores at Coniston.