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!

Cloud and Isolation in the Western Margins


Some places in the Lakes are simply not easy to get to. Most of the main valleys have roads of some kind or another in which the walker who doesn’t want to spend hours tramping the roads can get to within reach of the fells, the major example of which being Ennerdale, which has been out of bounds to non-Forestry Commission traffic for decades.

In more recent times, lovely, remote Swindale has been made access only, thankfully after I had enjoyed the ascent of the only Wainwright that can only be directly approached from its distant valley head.

Grisedale is another valley that has long been denied access for the tourist driver, but the road only extended a mile into the valley before the ways took to the fellsides, and if you can’t manage a walk of a mile on the way to the fells, you should hang up your boots in shame.

Some fells, however, are just a long way away, even in such a compact area as the Lakes. But if you consider the geography in the west, in that green and grassy domain I call the Western Margins, the valleys spread particularly widely towards the sea, and there are silent and empty hinterlands that make access from the coastal side a long and slow business. And don’t forget Blengdale.

Working towards the end of the Wainwrights, I had to find a way of getting to Haycock and Caw Fell.

Their relative inaccessibility had been obvious to me for years, having been reading the books since the early Seventies, long before the mad ambition to climb them all had ever come into my head. Wainwright himself had picked out Caw Fell as a long distance trod, six miles there from the Cold Fell Road, and six miles back. This still came over as intimidating, even when I had demonstrated the ability to cover longer distances, over rougher and much more interesting ground without collapsing in my tracks.

I’d even walked the first part of that approach, on another day n the Western Margins, Grike round to Lank Rigg, and it didn’t looked remotely difficult underfoot, and yet Wainwright made it feel like a major expedition into extremely lonely and isolated country, just waiting to trip you up.

And it wasn’t as if the ‘shorter’ approach, from Ennerdale, looked in the least bit appealing.

If it were to be done, it looked as if it would have to be done from Haycock and back. And that looked as if it would be best done from Wasdale, via Nether Beck.

This was something of an unusual walk for me. I was unfamiliar with Nether Beck, except for the fact that it and Over Beck debouched into Wastwater in a very short space. Most expeditions involved a fairly immediate climb into the hills, up some sort of ridge aimed for my first fell of the day, but Nether Beck, as emphasised in the long, thin map extension in the Haycock chapter, had little to do with Haycock. I would be starting along a narrow, confined beck valley, with a long way to walk before I even came near to, let alone saw my first target of the day.

Nevertheless, this made the early walking quite easy. The path was distinct, the valley mostly straight, and whilst I didn’t gain much in height, I was swallowing up distance easily. Though I did have some concerns about the cloud line, which was showing signs of hovering on or about the ridge. There was little to show me where I was, the valley being quite enclosed, and any view back to Wasdale soon hidden by the curve of the valley.

At Pots of Ashness, where the valley took another turn, I has the choice of a steepish ascent to the flatlands above and approach haycock directly, or to take the more roundabout route, further up the valley, to gain the ridge at the col between the fell and Scoat Fell, further east.

Being in no rush, I took that route, which began to steepen after the outflow from Scoat Tarn. I kept looking out to my right, hoping to catch a glimpse of the tarn in its bowl, but never gained enough height to see it.

The clouds were threatening above and, by the time I got to the col, the last twenty feet or so had been within their folds.

No matter how experienced I got, I never liked walking in clouds. I never escaped the underlying fear of not being able to see where I was, and potentially falling down a cliff, but even in areas of clear tracks and guaranteed easy route-finding, I always felt enclosed, hemmed in. I walked to be out in the open, up in the hills, to see ahead and behind and all round, and in cloud on the tops, I lost the sense of being on the tops. The cloud was a ceiling above me, pressing down.

Nevertheless, the cloud had drifted clear once I reached the summit, and I had the uninterrupted view that I wanted. Despite its height, Haycock’s distance from the surrounding valleys means it doesn’t offer the greatest views, except over Blengdale which, paradoxically, was the main thing I wanted to see.

After my Dad died in 1970, I inherited his membership of the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway Preservation Society. His dad was born in Ravenglass, the youngest child of the Station Master on the main line, and in the early Seventies, our name was still recognised in the Village. We never let a holiday go by without a trip on the Ratty.

The River Mite had been added to the Rivers Irt and Esk as the Ratty’s third steam engine, and in the early Seventies, there was talk of building another engine. It was suggested that, in order to fit in with the other engines, any new train be named the River Bleng. I’d never heard of this river before, and on asking discovered it to be a tributary of the Irt. Reading the Western Fells identified its whereabouts to me, and its valley’s size and reputation. It had remained a point of curiosity to me ever since, but I had never been anywhere before from which I could see Blengdale for myself, until now.

I was both impressed and seriously unimpressed. Haycock was the ideal viewpoint, standing at the very head of the valley, which was broad and green. But my instant response, which I can reproduce more or less verbatim was “my God, what flaming idiot let the Forestry Commission into Ennerdale when this bloody useless waste of space was available?”

There is a Blengdale Forest much further down the valley, and which has a surprisingly favourable reputation, especially among cyclists, but I defy anyone to look upon the open, empty, featureless spaces of the long upper valley, fill it in their imagination with dark, dank straight lines of trees, regimented across the valley and not conclude that it looks so much better like that.

I was now as close to Caw Fell as I was ever going to get in normal circumstances, and especially when I was still working towards completion of the Wainwrights. The traverse was a mile each way, an inescapable there-and-back-again, and especially after the initial steep descent on rough ground, the walk deteriorated with every step. I pulled myself up onto the flat top of Caw Fell, wandering along in parallel to the fence, but the actual highest point was as impossible to determine without military-grade surveillance equipment as it is on Branstree.

Strangely, the view from caw Fell, circumscribed as it was by the breadth of the summit, was more memorable than that from Haycock. I could see how the ridge declining towards the Western Margins turned abruptly north after Caw Fell’s top, rising over the equally ungainly Iron Crag, whilst behind me the highlight of the view was of Haycock itself.

It was a fortunate trick of geography that Caw Fell’s top was situated at that point where perspective makes the fells look their grandest. Haycock soared, a massive dome, raised above the head of the valley, it’s summit wreathed again in clouds, preventing me from taking the photograph I wanted. Seen from that angle, Haycock was noble and grand, and looked a damn sight higher than in reality it was.

The cloud was now lower and thicker than before, and I had to go back that way to return to Nether Beck. I contemplated contouring around the head of Blengdale, keeping below the cloud-line, and below any of the crags. But there were no tracks and whilst the ground looked to be without difficulties from afar, I knew from past experience how wearing it was to traverse angled ground for any length of time. And having the emptiness of Blengdale for company did little to recommend it.

In the end, I climbed back up to Haycock, though I found that I could bypass the summit rocks and skirt round to the long descent towards Pots of Ashness and the damp looking plateau between Haycock and Seatallan.

The latter had actually been part of my initial plans for the day, thinking to sweep up three relatively unprepossessing fells in a single walk. However, on looking across towards the long ascent necessary to reach Seatallan, I have changed my mind. My rule of thumb is that if a ridge route involves 500′ of additional climbing, it should be classed as a separate ascent, and factored accordingly.

Omitting it today actually worked to my advantage. It was not all that long after that, in conversation with a fellow walker, he asked which Wainwright I was saving for last. I hadn’t even considered that before but a short review of the two dozen or so remaining made it clear that, for purely personal reasons, Seatallan would be the ideal choice.

Descending towards the flat (and wet-)lands, with the long and tedious rise of Seatallan beyond confirmed the wisdom of omitting that part of the walk. At that time of the day, setting out on a 700′ ascent was the opposite of wisdom.

There were no paths across the wetlands, but I had picked out the point where I would need to descend to Nether Beck and kept that in sight once I was down to the level. Crossing between the streams and rivulets was slow-going but without problems.

And then it was down the steep slopes to the beck, and the narrow path down the narrow valley, reversing the sights I’d seen behind me in the morning. Once again, I was in confined quarters, and it was just a retreat, with the car and getting my boots off as the goal.

It was a strange day, in a part of the Lakes which held no intrinsic appeal to me, yet despite the interference of the cloud it was a very satisfying and memorable day. Caw Fell in particular was very strange to visit, the sense of being so very far away from anybody else, and that gently curved but flat top on which, despite the nearby wall, I felt a tremendous sense of exposure, as if I were at risk of being swept to the edge of the top and over it and down.

Needless to say, I’d love to repeat that walk, and see if the same sensations affect me.

The Grand Tour of the Lakes: Stage Three – West to North


One last look back

Stage Three of the Grand Tour takes us from Wasdale to Keswick, West to North. This was the great unknown, the unexplored territory of that rainy day back in the Sixties. My family walked in this sector only a handful of times, less even than that, but over time I have driven these roads many times over, and climbed all the fells to be had in this distant quarter.
In Wasdale, we’d only got halfway down the lake, as far as Greendale, where the only other road in the valley escapes northwestward. Wasdale Head itself is not so far away that it’s a bind to drive on, but the valley is a cul-de-sac and there’s no option but to drive back. And this is a long drive to begin with. So, with a diversion or not, drive away from the lake, towards and through Gosforth, back to the coast road and continue north.
At Egremont, it’s back to the moors, Ennerdale 7m and a long ascent out of the village, onto the long grassy slopes of the area I’ve taken to calling the Western Margins, where the ridges descending from Wasdale, Blengdale and Ennerdale grow rounded and green, and expand like a Weight watcher at Xmas. The road passes the Kinniside Stone Circle, a fake circle created by an archaeologist as a demonstration for a class, and the forest road that provides access to the ridge that, long miles hence, leads to Pillar.

Ennerdale Water and Pillar

Once, parked on this road whilst setting off for a walk along the forest road, I returned to my car and, whilst removing my boots, put on the radio. It must have been Radio 4, for some obscure reason, because I found myself listening to a programme about Russian history, back far enough that it was still the Grand Duchy of Muscovy. The programme proved so fascinating that once I’d got rid of my walking gear, I sat up there listening through to the end, before descending, long and straight, to the mouth of Ennerdale.
Ennerdale Water, low and dark, fills the mouth of the valley and is seen, though not well, on the descent from the moors. On that first visit, the Anglers’ Rest Hotel still stood on the lakeshore, and my Uncle drove down to the hotel, on the worst and most rutted road I ever knew him to take. A few years later, in anticipation of the raising of the water level, to provide water to Whitehaven, the Anglers’ Rest was demolished, only for the plans to be rejected. Ennerdale Water is as it is since the days before the Forestry Commission moved in.
The valley is forbidden to cars, but it is still possible to drive to within a decent view of the lake without taking yourself out of the way for the next leg. There is no stable route: a number of little roads, fell roads that don’t get too high, twist and turn in the loop around the outside of the Loweswater Fells. Just follow the signposts to the village of Lamplugh, and from there signposts towards Loweswater.

Shy little Loweswater

Loweswater is the Odd Lake Out, the one that flows inwards, deflected from the coast by a low bar of green, wooded land over which the road slides, finding the lake unguarded among its fringes of trees. Loweswater’s never going to give anybody palpitations, but it’s an oasis of quiet.
A glance at the map inclines the casual visitor to think of Loweswater as one of a group of three Lakes in a single valley, but the geography is not so. Loweswater drains north into the wide Vale of Lorton, as do the two linked Lakes of Crummock Water and Buttermere. The road veers north towards Cockermouth, along with the beck, and there is a sharp turn back at a Y-junction to head towards the Buttermere Valley. Crummock Water is already in view before reaching this point, filling the mouth of the valley, and away beyond its head is the unexpected sight of Great Gable, from a completely different angle, this time complete with its younger sister, Green Gable, forming the high skyline beyond the irascible Haystacks.
The road is tight to the shore of Crummock, and there is nowhere to stop and relish the sight across the lake to Melbreak or the High Stile range. Next up is Buttermere Village and, almost before Crummock Water has disappeared out of sight, tranquil Buttermere, a simple, almost geometric shape in the head of the valley.
The escape from Buttermere is by Honister Pass, a side valley into which the road turns, with a long, flat bottom lead to a steep, narrow climb more severe than anything my Uncle had set his car to before. I’ve crossed Honister myself now, more than once, and I’ve yet to reach its crest in anything above First Gear, the upper stages being so strenuous. It’sa steep and unnerving climb from the bridge, after the long, long approach through Honister Bottom, the road hemmed in by cliffs and rocks as it heads ferociously up.

Crummock Water and Buttermere

But it has to be done: the only other escape is to go back to Buttermere Village and tackle Newlands Pass, and the Buttermere side of that is so unremittingly steep that I have only ever crossed the pass from Keskadale, over the Hause.
Besides, whereas Honister drops you into the head of Borrowdale, Newlands emerges in the Newlands valley, which then requires a bit of contrivance to go back and see Derwent Water.
In any event, a drive through Borrowdale is hard to resist, even in the worst of conditions, though the day I came over Honister behind a woman too scared to go at faster than 20mph all the way to Grange was something of a trial. Even my passenger got frustrated!
Derwent Water comes into view just beyond the bridge at Grange. The orthodox route would be to go straight ahead, along the east shore of the lake, to Keswick and a welcome break, not to mention the end of the stage. It’s more fun though to cross the bridge into and through Grange and ascend to the unfenced road high above the western shore, with it’s broader vistas. And, as you’re on the side away from the edge, it’s completely safe too.
This route is much more useful given that the Grand Tour also needs to take in Bassenthwaite Lake before heading for home. The high road descends into the lower Newlands Valley, where quiet roads can be used to navigate back to the main A56 on its way to Cockermouth. The road runs along the western shore of Bass Lake (as it is locally known), though the road runs in two channels. Northbound is the old, undulating road, now a single track highway, whilst the southbound carriage offers the better, closer views. When the route merges, carry on a short distance to the Castle Inn and turn right, to cut across to the Carlisle road, which should be followed back to Keswick. A drink – non-alcoholic for the driver – can be enjoyed now.

Derwentwater and Bassenthwaite Lake

The Grand Tour of the Lakes: Stage Two – South to West


Coniston Water and its Old Man

The Second Stage of the Grand Tour covers the quarter from South to West, my family’s old home territory. It’s a long drive round from Consiston to Wasdale, and whilst there’s a Lake at the beginning and a Lake at the end, there’s none in between. On the other hand, there are enough variants on the route my Uncle would have taken to keep the fertile mind amused in planning.
The way forward is the Broughton road, from the south end of Coniston Village. The lake is soon visible, dark in its narrow valley on the left, for those who haven’t come round via the Ferry option. I have traveled this road more times than any other in the whole Lake District, all the way round to Ravenglass, and pleasant as it is, the option for variation is frequently uppermost.
The first of these comes just after Torver, where the main road bears left to follow the shore of the lower end of the Lake. A short while after the roadfork, a steep, narrow, unwalled fell road, signposted Broughton Moor, leaps steeply off to the right, leading to a narrow, high-level route with interesting views, and pleasant solitude. It’s as difficult to imagine meeting another car along here as it is easy to imagine the problems of trying to get past one.
Meanwhile, the main route follows the valley until emerging suddenly on the lip of the Lickle Valley and bearing left towards Broughton. No need to pass through the village: a mile before it, bear right to come out by a fine pub. There is a double right turn, and suddenly you’re hurtling down the hill on a wide highway, picking up speed in happy fashion towards the Duddon River. Don’t get too enthusiastic: the bridge in single-tracked and traffic-lighted, and in any event there are double ninety degree turns to cross from one bank to the other, so the inrush of speed is only ever going to be a brief one, but exhilarating while it lasts.
Back to the Broughton Moor variation. This ends at an unsignposted T junction where a left turn quickly brings you back to the main route, on the lip of the Lickle. However, a right turn heads along the valley wall before descending to the tiny hamlet of Broughton Mills, in the heart of the valley. The road forks, the left branch visiting all the farms along the western side of the valley and culminating at Low Bleansley, of long ago memory, but the right fork quickly begins to rise, along a narrow valley between low ridges of fells.

The Lickle Valley and Duddon Bridge

There are gates at two points on the ascent, to be opened and closed which, apart from the possibility of pleasant company, is a good reason for bringing along a passenger, and the road rises to a fresh, narrow, grassy col with room to park on the verges. I mention this solely because, if the weather is good, and the ground dry, a delightful mini-expedition lasting all of ten minutes, even in trainers, can get you to the little peaked top of Stickle Pike. Take the path on the left, but don’t be too long.
With or without a halt for peak-bagging, the road now descends into the Duddon Valley, emerging just north of Seathwaite: turn left and drive three miles, almost as far as Ulpha.
Pause here and return to the main route. At the foot of the hill running down from the pub, is the road into the Duddon Valley. If you haven’t fancied the Broughton Moor/Broughton Mills variants, you can always turn right here and enjoy a leisurely ride along to the Lower Duddon, as far as Ulpha where, at the Travellers Rest, just beyond the hamlet, drivers who have gone over the moors will be found proceeding towards you. Let both of you here turn onto the Birker Moor Road.
Meanwhile, back on the main route, having crossed Duddon Bridge, the road hugs the riverbank for a quarter mile before veering left and starting to gain height to cross the low pastoral country descending from the Black Combe massif. This is another, beautiful country drive, as long as you ignore turnings towards Millom. The road wends its way down the Whicham Valley towards the Irish Sea, meeting this just north of Silecroft. Turn right, and speed northwards. The route passes through Bootle, after which you should, in decent conditions, be able to see the Isle of Man out in the Sea, but this will have slipped behind by the time the route is joined by a road on the sight, signposted Corney. Funnily enough, there was a road on the right signposted that way, just as we turned away from the Duddon…
This variation is an enjoyable exercise on its own, having no connection with any other short-cuts or fell roads. It cuts off a massive corner by crossing the moors behind Black Combe, instead of going all the way round it. The turning follows the Duddon initially before climbing through woods onto the open moorland. This reveals a stunning view of the Duddon, which the driver is especially placed to observe, so make sure any passengers see it. The road crosses the watershed at about 900′, immediately revealing the Irish Sea, and the Isle of Man is soon in sight on the long, slow descent to rejoin the main coast road just as it descends to cross the River Esk and the mouth of Lower Eskdale. One final variant comes up as the road sweeps toward the bridge, an unsignposted, country lane. This is a haven of peace and solitude, sliding up through the unfrequented Lower Eskdale, and joining the road coming down off Birker Moor at its further end.

Birker Moor, looking north

Travellers by that route have also cut off a massive corner in this leg of the Grand Tour, and whilst drivers will not have enjoyed the steep, zig-zagging ascent up the fellside immediately behind the Travellers’ Rest, once the road reaches the fringes of the Moor, the driving is easy. Directly ahead are views over Burnmoor on the far side of Eskdale, offering an unusual angle on the mountains at the head of Wasdale. And there are expansive views over the northern part of the Moor, to the rocky turrets of Green Crag, and the peak of Harter Fell beyond it, before the road starts a much more gradual descent into Middle Eskdale, picking up drivers who have come via Lower Eskdale just before reaching the valley proper.
This is almost the end of this long, lakeless quarter. The main route crosses the Esk and races towards Muncaster Fell, with Muncaster Castle appearing and disappearing behind its screen of trees. Behind the fell, the road descends towards Ravenglass. This is the advantage of the main route, apart from the generally better and wider roads, for Ravenglass is an ideal spot to stop for tea and buns.
Leave it for the coast road north. If you can time your departure to get just ahead of a train leaving the Ratty, you can beat it to the bridge over the track at Muncaster Mill and hang over the fence as the train steams below.
With or without that bonus, continue north until hitting the signs to turn off for Eskdale and Wasdale. This quickly leads to a long, arrow-straight stretch of road over a mile in length along which, in deserted conditions, you can utterly bomb along. The beginning of the ridge separating the two valleys rises directly ahead, and it hardly needs signposting to direct you to the left when the road forks. Those still following the variations are not far away. They will have turned left onto the main valley road, by Eskdale Green and, at the next fork, borne right, to join the coast road stalwarts just short of Santon Bridge.
Across the bridge, turn right as signposted for Wasdale. Great Gable almost immediately fills the entire sky ahead, its most popular aspect rearing up majestically. The road disappears into trees until, with the shadow of the Screes growing large on the right, Wastwater itself comes into view through the trees. The road emerges on the shore and follows this along the other shore of the lake as far as a junction, at Greendale. From lake to lake, the second leg of the Tour has been completed.

Wastwater

Life of a Mountain revisited


Back in January this year, the BBC aired a beautiful hour long documentary, directed by Terry Abrahams, about a year in the life of England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, and I watched it and raved about it here.

At the time, I mentioned that this was an edited-down version of the original film, available on DVD in a two hour length. I have now put my hands upon this DVD and watched it, and I can only recommend it all over again, only even more.

For anyone who loves the Lakes, this is an absolute must. It’s gentle, thoughtful, unpretentiously lyrical, and the filming is some of the most beautiful and enthralling I have ever seen about the Lakes country. Abrahams has imposed no personal vision on his film, nor given it any set course. It’s organised around the four seasons, and these four sections can be viewed separately, but who, given the possibility of 126 minutes of heavenly absorption, would want to watch only a part?

Given that this is just over twice as long as the original, it’s strange to report that it doesn’t feel as if there are masses of additional material. With the exception of another interlude with the Wasdale shepherdess at the end, book-ending her introduction to the televised version, the additional material is mainly more of the same things, more conversations with the natural talkers I referred to previously, relaxed, delighted just to be where they are, as much a part of the landscape as the mountains we return  to, over and over.

My two criticisms previously are resolved in the extended original. Whilst the film itself is still Wasdale oriented, there is much more material on the Eskdale flank of the mountain, and the music, second time round, comes over as much more in tune with the whole piece. It seemed nothing like so obtrusive, and it was a fitting companion to such scenes of beauty, grandeur and enthrallment.

It was interesting to contrast pronunciations. The proper pronunciation of Scafell Pike was spelled out to be with a long ‘a’, Skaw-fell, echoing the former spelling of the title, which is what I was taught as a land, though a majority of those referencing the name did so with a short ‘a’, as in Scar – fell. On the other hand, I have always been brought up – by a Cumbrian grandfather, no less – to pronounce the valley as ‘Wast’l’, whereas people who ought to know were universally pronouncing it ‘Wass-dale’.

Too late to unlearn now.

Lovely film, and a poignant reminder of places to return to and places still to go. Worth every penny you pay for it.

 

A Walk Along The Canal


The Peak Forest Canal at Marple

As I’ve written before, when my parents first decided that we would henceforth spend our Lake District holidays in walking, I wasn’t the most receptive of children. My boots were too tight, too heavy, it was too far, too steep, I didn’t like it, and the fact that my younger sister seemed perfectly happy wasn’t helping any.

I got over that stage when we set out to climb Sty Head out of Wasdale Head. I had a purpose, a cause: ever since I had learned of its existence, I wanted to see Green Gable. Everybody could see Great Gable, but its slighter, hidden cousin fascinated me, and Sty Head was going to be my first chance.

And my enthusiasm was confirmed when we reached the point where the path slid across the great scree fanning down from the distant Napes Ridges, and my mother took one look and decreed that my sister would go no further, not across that. They would retreat to the beck, paddle their feet, whilst Dad and I would go on alone, the men of the party.

I have far too few memories of being around my Dad alone: father and son together without interruptions. I wanted to see Green Gable, I was trusted to go ahead with him, I wanted to live up to his expectations, I wanted to be the son we all want ourselves to be at that age, and so we went on, and I didn’t grumble, moan or complain, and we came out onto the top of the pass, saw Sty Head Tarn, ahead and below, saw a sliver of green slope out beyond the curve of Great Gable’s breast that meant I’d fulfilled my aim, and then we set off back, to get our share of paddling.

That didn’t mean I was cured. There was a visit to Mill Gill, an attempt of Harrison Stickle via Pike How, on a day that began with blazing skies before transmuting into low cloud that imprisoned us perhaps no more than a hundred feet below the summit until we gave in. That early part of the day was scorching, the fellside unbelievably steep, my whole body unwilling to proceed. Doubtless I whined again.

The pains in Dad’s shoulder, that would eventually lead to a diagnosis of terminal cancer, kept us away from the Lakes for almost eighteen months. After he died, the end to weeks and months of strain as his body failed, an impromptu holiday was set up, a week away that involving taking we children out of school, no objections raised. It wasn’t a success, we chose a poor week for weather, I’d gotten hooked on pop music by then and Medium Wave reception in the Lakes was pants.

But holidays continued as they always had, just without Dad. We chose self-catering cottages, got away twice a year, went walking. It was still the same.

In 1972, in pursuit of fundraising for something of which I have no memory, Burnage High School held a sponsored walk. It was on a Tuesday, and the School would be closed for the day and everyone would participate. It wasn’t compulsory: those who didn’t want to walk, or couldn’t, could withdraw, but that amounted to maybe three boys out of a School of 700.

We would walk the length of the Peak Forest Canal, from Denton in Manchester to its terminus at Whaley Bridge, in north Derbyshire, a long way down the A6, sheltered under the moors that protected Buxton. It was an awkward, uneven length that, for official purposes, was designated to be 20km. We were issued with sponsorship forms and duplicated diagrams, breaking down the route.

I looked forward to it. I was sixteen, young and fit, and I was already a walker. True, this was not walking as I knew it, 99% flat (there was a section, approximately midway, where the canal ran through a long tunnel, either in too poor a state to negotiate, or else deemed too long to risk boys not falling in, which was by-passed by a brief diversion off-route, steeply uphill for maybe 150′, and just as steeply down again). But I had a bit of a rivalry going on with my mate Brian, aka Zack, one of only two boys whose nicknames pursued them into the Sixth Form, where we started using first names for the first time, who was loudly boasting of how he’d walk my legs off and finish miles ahead of me.

We had to turn up at School at more or less the usual time, then mill around until the coaches shuttled us off to Denton and the start. Zack and I ended up on different coaches – we were in different forms – and I was five minutes ahead of him when we were discharged on this back street in Denton, racing down to the towpath and turning left for Whaley Bridge.

I had my boots, and walking socks on, a good thick pullover, and my anorak in my rucksack. I set off with a will and didn’t stop. It was the first time I’d been let off the leash, allowed to walk at whatever pace suited me, and I took full advantage.

For a flat canal, it was an interesting and varied walk in the morning hours. We passed through tunnels where once bargemen would have walked their craft along, their feet to the tunnel roof. We crossed a high brick aqueduct, one of us quite gingerly. It rained two or three times. None of it stopped me. I pulled my anorak on and off on the march, ate my sandwiches whilst stomping along. Some of it was the desire not to have Zack catch me up and overtake it, but most of it was the sheer freedom to do so. I didn’t stop because I didn’t have to, I didn’t have to wait for anyone else, or gear myself to their frailties. I was sixteen and I walked on because I could, and I liked knowing that.

When I reached the lunch place, hundreds of boys lazing around, I didn’t stop. I wasn’t tired (besides, I’d already eaten all the butties) and it was back to the towpath and through New Mills, passing the backs of factories, having missed the women coming out to eat their lunch snap in the open air. Then a short rise to cross the main road, and all the towns were behind us.

The latter half of the walk was a bit more tedious. The weather had settled, grown warm, enough to be just slightly stuffy. My legs were beginning to ache. And we were out into the country now, following the curve of a long, slow, green valley. It ought to have been more my style but it wasn’t. Nothing changed. I stared at the same wooded hillsides, with nothing new entering the view.

The last diversion was to cross a road, join the final stretch of the Canal along what seemed like a spur, into the barge-filled basin that marked the end, beyond which sweaty boys of all ages set up a barrage of chatter. A check of my watch, four hours, almost to the very minute, twenty kilometres in four hours, non-stop. I settled to wait for Zack, already smug.

It was a long wait, forty-five minutes before he rolled into sight. Deduct the five minutes between coaches at the School, I had been forty minutes faster than him. Which, by the strangest of coincidences, was exactly as long as he’d spent at the lunch-place, or so he said. I had little enough chances for superiority back then, I wasn’t going to accept that.

It had been a great day. Unfortunately, it was to do me no good at all when it came to holidays in the Lakes. Nothing had changed, except me. I had had my eyes open as to what I was capable of doing, and having that limited to the slow progression and frequent halts of the elders chafed. I wanted to get off ahead, see the next horizon, and the one beyond it as well, not spend all day in the same valley. I wanted summits, and once I reached one (which was usually our limit in a seven day holiday) I saw no reason not to go on to the next one, instead of returning by the identical route we’d used to ascend.

I was at University now, eighteen and older, but still I counted for nothing, was a child to be told what I would do and where I would go, and that wasn’t going to change. There were other things that frustrated me: the day over, the evening meal consumed, the pots washed, I would persist in asking where would be going tomorrow, despite the answer being some minor variation on ‘you haven’t finished with today yet’.

Yes, the mere idea of thinking ahead, of setting a destination for the next day (if the weather’s decent, we might go down Eskdale and walk to Throstlegarth), seemed to be an anathema. In my mother it was a complete  difference of personality: she could never understand me working out what walks I wanted to do on a week away, didn’t know why I bothered walking them if I’d already worked out where I was going, couldn’t understand the joy of planning, anticipation, the satisfaction of a plan working coupled with the complete freedom to do something totally different if I felt like it, or the weather changed.

It wouldn’t have mattered as much if they hadn’t been so bloody slow in the morning about deciding where to go. Breakfast, and pots, cups of tea, making butties and an absolute refusal to consider where they might take us until they were ready to get into the car, and even then it would take ages to make a decision. As the next couple of years progressed, it got so slow that it would usually be 11.30am before we even left the cottage, hours of good walking time wasted and me bored skullless, waiting for something to happen.

I may be projecting what I want to think on my absent Dad, but to me he was the driving force. He’d wanted to go fell-walking, he was thrilled by the Wainwrights, he looked ahead. He only ever reached three summits, Middle Fell and Lingmell in Wasdale, and Haystacks, and I credit him for the fact that we actually climbed a fell outside of that quarter from Wasdale round to Langdale. My mother even said that she was only interested in that part of the Lakes, a claim I still cannot comprehend. How can you love the Lakes and not want all of it? Not want to gulp all of it down and see all the beauty it can offer? I believe my Dad felt that, that he wanted to see new things, not only the same old places over and again, that he was only waiting for my sister and I go be old enough…

There was one more thing on top. My Uncle developed some kind of stomach condition, I know not what, that meant that once he had eaten, further uphill progression became painful. He’d go on as long as he could, but eventually he’d have to eat… One more governor, one further limitation.

Somehow, I have no idea how or why, I got my own way for once. In August 1975, we foresook South West Lakeland for the North East. A cottage in Stainton, a base for Ullswater, the long awaited chance to go and see Haweswater, now it wasn’t ‘too far to drive’. August 1975, a prelude to the following year’s Drought Summer. I wanted to revel in it, in all these new views around me, but I had made another mistake.

You see, I’d just been away on holiday. With the lads. A week in Blackpool, six days at home, a week in the Lakes. I’d had a week of doing things for myself, taking responsibility. One of four, like in the Lakes, but one with a voice, a say, an equal share in what we chose to do. Saturday to Saturday, then, a Saturday later it’s off to the Lakes, nineteen years old, staring down the barrel of my third and final year at University, but still a kid, still nothing, still to be told what to do and where to do. Even when we were on the holiday that was chosen for me.

It was ironic that, by early-evening on the Sunday, I was telling my mother that this was the last family holiday I was coming on. And it was.

As I’ve already said, the week endied in an appropriately symbolic fashion. We set off to climb Helvellyn, significantly higher than anything we’d ever climbed before, and by Striding Edge. We got to the far end of the Edge, the bit where you have to climb down a ten foot rock chimney, and just as on Sty Head, almost a decade before, my mother took one look and decreed that my sister wasn’t going down that.

It was the ultimate frustration. I was furious, though I knew better than to let any of it slip. But Mam surprised me. We never talked about it, but I think it was because this was my last day with them. It was a gesture, or apology, or understanding, of release, but she stunned everyone by saying there was no reason I couldn’t go on on my own, reach the summit, meet them back at the Hole in the Wall.

Of course I had to be roped up to be let down the chimney (there were always strings attached, literally in this case) but after that I was on my own, trusted. I forgot all of them. I was so adrenalised by my freedom that I shot up the screes from Striding edge to the summit plateau in ten glorious, furious minutes of scrambling. Look what I can do!

The next year, and the years that followed, they went away and I stayed home, enjoying a week of freedom. Without a car, or the money to own and run one, the Lakes were out of reach for years. My next visit was the only other time I went to the Lakes again with my family: a Bank Holiday Monday day-out with my sister’s boyfriend and future husband making up the party. We went to Wasdale Head: it was baking hot, the lake shone like a silver coin, we had nothing to do and Department S’s “Is Vic There?” was playing on the radio.

Two months later, I bought my first car, to get to the Roses Match at Headingley. In October, I went up to the Lakes to practice driving round narrow, winding roads. The next time I went there, again on my own, encumbered by no-one, I took my boots. I put them on for Helm Crag. A lot followed.

Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike


And what a mountain

BBC4’s Wednesday night documentary about Scafell Pike, Britain’s highest mountain, came with favourable previews, although I’d have raced home from work to catch it if it had been promised to be a load of old boots, because there just aren’t enough television programmes about the Lake District. The last documentary I recall seeing was about the late owner of the Honister Mine and his attempts to get Planning Permission to instal a zip-wire across the Pass, which was a much less comfortable experience on several levels.

But this hour long documentary, produced and directed by Terry Abraham (who if he isn’t related to the Abraham Brothers of Keswick, who were pioneers of rock-climbing, still had a perfectly apt surname), deserve all the credits it got.

It took a beautifully simple approach to its subject, which was a year in the life of the Pike. Delightfully, there was no voiceover narration or ubiquitous presenter forcing a fixed viewpoint on the film. Instead, Abraham simply created the space for people who live and work and walk and climb to talk about what the mountain and its solid presence meant to them. Some of these people were working professionals, shepherds and farmers. Others were men who were drawn to the Lakes as photographers, guides, artists and guidebook writers, professional hillfolk.

All of them were natural talkers, unfazed at being in front of a camera, ready to open up on what the mountain meant to them, each in their own way. The camera didn’t worry them, the director let them talk, and the genuine love they all, in their differing ways, felt for just being there did not need any smartarse to sum up for them.

Two people in particular caught my eye and ear. One was the legendary, and phenomenal Jos Naylor, Wasdale farmer, fell-runner and simply unbelievable performer of feats that you and I could not imagine achieving in a year, let alone a month of Sundays. The film didn’t wallow in what Naylor had done, it just allowed one casual fact to stand, as Naylor recalled the time he set off on an impromptu run from Wasdale Head to the top of Scafell Pike and back. He asked a friend to time him, almost as an afterthought: it took 47 minutes. 47 minutes from Wasdale Head, up and down Scafell Pike. It’s hard to think of Jos Naylor as being merely human after things like that.

The other was David Powell-Thompson, a cheerfully laconic northerner who has spent the last twenty five years as a researcher for walkers, walks and television programmes about the Lakes, doing what he loves every day and being paid for it (lucky dog!). Powell-Thompson’s finest moment came at the annual Wasdale Show, winning the Best Beard rosette. To be taken home and put with the one he won last year!

The film didn’t just content itself with the ‘professionals’, but made room for the visitors to talk, a dozen or so walkers climbing the Pike and being invited to chat on camera. The closest to a dissenting voice was a teenage girl, dragged up the Pike for the first time by her Dad, who confessed to not liking the wind, but voice of the night was the voluable Scot, filmed with the glorious northern vista behind him, who couldn’t get over being where he was and the brilliant views.

Along with the talk, the film produces an array of brilliant pictures showing Scafell Pike and the Wasdale scenery in different shades and colours. We began with stars and a sunrise over valleys streaming with thick, roiling clouds, like a massive white-topped sea, and towards the end, a backpacker camping out rapturised about the night sky, unaffected by light spillage whatsoever, whilst the sky above teemed with more stars (and meteorites) than I have ever seen in cities with the naked eye.

And if that wasn’t delicious in itself, there was the time-lapse shot of the Pike throughout a night, astonishingly lit by night-climbers with head-torches, scaling the summt and rushing down, their torches unbelievably bright, like distant cars on a night-time hill, only more so.

One climber, familiar with Everest and K2, confessed to preferring rock climbing on the Pike, though we watched him start to tackle Broad Stand – not a walker’s route – on Scafell, getting quite some way up before showing his command of extreme good sense by stopping because the rock and the handholds were just too wet and slippery, and heading back.

If I’ve any critcism of the film, it would be less about the near-ubiquitous background music (quiet, suitably pastoral, but still over-indulged) than the fact that it was so Wasdale-oriented. Scafell Pike is more than a Wasdale fell, which was acknowledged quite some ways into the film, but the Eskdale flank – which I find to be more spectacular in both appearance and approaches – got very much short shrift. Some superb vistas, some conversations with guide book writers and backpackers exploring this side, but the preponderence of talkers were part of the Wasale scene.

No, this was quite the nicest thing that’s been on television so far this year, and I suspect that distinction will last quie some time yet. I’d urge you to catch it on the iPlayer whilst it’s available, and an early repeat would be welcome, especially if the BBC decide to re-show the film at its original two-hour length. I could have stood a lot more of that.

Great Walks – Scafell via Lord’s Rake


Scafell and Pike

Aerial shot of Scafell (right) and the Pike (left). Brown Tongue is in the bottom left corner with Hollow Stones above

Scafell is the second highest summit in England, and was clearly regarded as the dominant peak in Wasdale, as its higher neighbour derives its name from being The Pikes near Scafell. Despite that, it’s seen as a lesser fell, and on the occasions I have climbed it, I have never found more than one other party on the top with me: Scafell – a 3,000 footer on which you can easily find yourself alone.
The principal reason for Scafell’s relative unpopularity is that, with the exception of the cirque of crags overlooking Mickledore, and the approaches to either side, it is a relatively ungainly and, frankly, somewhat dull mountain. There is a fine, high, ridge approach from Eskdale and Slight Side that is well worth a day of anyone’s life, but in the main the excitement of conquering Scafell lies in surmounting its massive, often terrifying crags.
For those who are not climbers, this rules out a direct approach from Mickledore, and necessitates a massive diversion downwards from the ridge, to gain the summit indirectly by one of Foxes Tarn, Lord’s Rake or the West Wall Traverse. Walkers with red blood in their veins will find themselves needing, at one time or another, to test themselves against one or other of the latter.
Walkers bound for Lord’s Rake must first find themselves a space in the small car park just off the road to Wasdale Head. After passing the head of the Lake, turn right on a road crossing the valley floor, and slip off this left into a parking area well-concealed by trees and hedges. Ensure you are well-supplied with food and liquids, return to the road and march on towards the looming fells, until a Public Footpath sign, marked Scafell Massif, points an eroded way over a stile to the right.
The approach from Wasdale is the shortest route of ascent, and thus the most unrelievedly steep. Nevertheless, there are no difficulties in the first hour of the walk, which follows the beck uphill through woodlands, before emerging in the bare valley a couple of hundred yards short of the foot of Brown Tongue. The beck gushes lustily, and this is a good spot for a five minute break. Long ago, the curve of the underlying rock formed a superb waterchute, down which stones could be propelled with great vigour, but time appears to have eroded this little feature, which I was unable to identify when I last passed this way
Another change to the landscape is the path from the foot of the Tongue, where two gills meet. Originally, this headed directly up the Tongue, following its watershed, at least to the extent that was possible on eroded and crumbling ground that had created a loose scar. This was, in my memory, one of the earliest paths to be given attention by the National Trust, with the old route fenced off in the Seventies and a new route constructed along the flank of the Tongue, just above the right-hand gill, gently climbing onto the flat back of Brown Tongue to reach the upland valley known as Hollow Stones, lying beneath the massive buttresses of the crags of Scafell and the Pike.
This allows for some easy progress on gentle gradients which allow plenty of time to be given to the massive structures around and above. Somewhere in every fellwalker, no matter how much he or she is afraid of the prospect, or is convinced lies utterly beyond their skill, there is a flame that lights up at the sight, that taps at the door of imagination and asks for the courage to enter into that forbidden world. If only…
But Lord’s Rake is one of the few places where a walker, albeit an experienced, and preferably agile one, can stand on the edge of that world, can see the crags at the kind of range climbers do, can pass among them and all in perfect safety. Or rather, not perfect safety, there being nothing of the sort when out on the fells, but enough of a degree of safety as to make the experience not just worthwhile but essential.
At this point, a cautionary note should be injected. My ascent of Lord’s Rake took place in 1996 but, about a decade ago, a piece of rock fell from the crags above and has come to rest on the first col. It has remained wedged in place, across the route, ever since. For some years after, the route was closed, and whilst it is now in use again, the dangers of the ascent have substantially increased. Furthermore, it is noted that where the base of the stone rests is gradually crumbling. At some point, the stone will become unstable, and will fall down the first pitch. Anyone climbing the same when this happens will, almost certainly, be killed. This is not an ascent that anyone can ever think of taking lightly.

Lord's Rake - the first pitch, showing the fallen stone on the first col
Lord’s Rake – the first pitch, showing the fallen stone on the first col

From Hollow Stones, paths diverge. To the left, a well-marked track climbs to Lingmell Col, and provides the easiest route to Scafell Pike on this side of the mountain. Ahead, an increasingly stony, loose and steep route scrambles up to Mickledore, though this is effectively only a route once more to the Pike, as the direct ascent would be by Broad Stand, which is climber’s territory. Instead, turn right, towards the great cliffs, shadowed by the sun glimpsed over the dark tops.
The path leads to the base of a massive scree fan, up which an indistinct route scales. The scree-fan rises at a steep angle, and is loose underfoot from bottom to top. Walk slowly, walk carefully, test each step for durability and don’t look around at the views, or if you must, stand still, and make it quick. The crags above grow ever darker as you move under their shadow, but it is possible to use these to gauge your progress. Finally, the width of the scree shrinks, until you reach firm ground at the top, directly under the base of Scafell Crag.
A narrow trod rises to the left and provides a traverse along the base of the Crag as far as Mickledore, but for Lord’s Rake, bear to the right, on surprisingly level ground, rounding the buttress directly ahead and entering the base of a direct and steep gulley rising into the rock above. This is Lord’s Rake.
The Rake cuts across the crag in a dead straight line. It is three hundred yards in length, from beginning to end, with three rises and two descents, and two narrow cols to pass. The first pitch is confined by high rock on both sides: beyond, the Rake is exposed to the right, with steep slopes immediately below.
The first pitch is surprisingly wide, but increasingly steep, so much so that its upper third, and especially the final ten feet or so of the ascent to the col, could not be achieved without using both hands. At that time, the loose scree had been scraped pretty much bare: there were rocks underfoot and care needed to be taken in placing ones boots, but provided this was done, there was little risk of starting a slip that might imperil climbers below, and ample room to move from side to side to gain the best purchase.
One should not take this walk lightly, but at one point, about half way up, I wanted to take a picture of the view behind, only to discover that I needed to change the film in my camera. To do so, I clambered off the Rake, into a crevice on the right, found something flat enough and secure enough to sit on and calmly changed the film, marvelling all the time at my coolness in such elevated places.
The fall of the standing rock has complicated this section. There is again a profusion of loose stone underfoot, to an extent that not only should this ascent not be attempted in anything but good weather conditions, but that if someone is above you, you should wait for them to reach the col before setting off yourself: this is not a slur on their abilities but rather a practical reflection of the danger of their dislodging stones of quite some size that would then start to bound downhill: wear a helmet.

West Wall Traverse

The West Wall Traverse, from Deep Gill

I can give no advice to those who wish to climb the West Wall Traverse. Its entrance is a terrace, reached by a short scramble up the left hand wall of the Rake. The narrow terrace crosses a shelf on the rockface before debouching into the upper section of Deep Gill, which requires then a frantic scramble upwards to Scafell’s broad summit. I have sadly not taken this route and, indeed, was concentrating so hard on the Rake that I completely failed to see the entrance en route. Apparently, the base of the entrance is crumbling, and the risk of it too collapsing, making the Traverse inaccessible, must be faced.
As to the col, I was bloody glad to each it, though it marked a point of no return: there was no way I was going back down that last, terribly steep section below the col. Now, progress is complicated by the need to squeeze beneath the standing stone, a process troubling in itself but holding extra concerns for the more generously built walker.
Beyond, the comfort of the right hand parapet vanishes within a couple of steps. The second col is visible, at the same level, with a steep descent and reascent in between. However, the worst of the Rake, at least as far as I was concerned, now lies behind, and the ground is firmer underfoot than imagination makes it from a distance. Cling to the cliffs at hand, take short steps and the second col can be comfortably attained.

Scafell Lords Rake col 2

Lord’s Rake, looking towards the second col

A similar scene presents itself another steep descent and reascent, on a narrow path clinging to the cliffs, stretched over a longer distance, with a longer climb to the far side. This, however, is not a third col but the end of the Rake: safety beckons. Again, take short steps, be careful, cling to the cliffs rather than hug the unsupported edge, and before very long Lord’s Rake falls away behind, and you are on the Green How flank of Scafell. The summit is a mere 300′ above, and most walkers will be so adrenalised at their safe passage through the fearsome Lord’s Rake that there will be no stops on the final run up the fellside.

Scafell Lords Rake col 3

Lord’s Rake, looking over the third pitch to the exit

The path emerges into a saddle, where four paths meet. The upper ramparts of Deep Gill buttress lie to the left, with the prominent notch beyond that is the top of Deep Gill and the exit from the West Wall Traverse. The summit itself lies up a gentle slope to the right, a litter of stones surmounted by a prominent cairn.
How best to descend? Exhilarating as it may be, the thought of reversing the approach along Lord’s Rake does not appeal. I am not talking here about that ten feet down from the first col, nor the fact that the the scree-fan would be many degrees more unpleasant to descend than ascend, but merely the thought of going over ground already trodden so very soon, let alone in the same day. The Green How ridge is an obvious line of descent to Wasdale Head, and is easy, but it is equally obviously tedious, and should be avoided.
Whilst this is not a course I would normally encourage, having the experienced fellwalker’s horror of the unnecessary loss of height and requirement to regain it, the best descent from Scafell in these circumstances is via Foxes Tarn. This involves a descent to a point some 400′ below Mickledore, on the Eskdale side of the ridge, and a 400′ climb that is not the easiest part of the day. However, the adrenaline of Lord’s Rake should still be evident, and the route is fascinating enough to be worth the additional effort.
Return to the saddle and, after a diversion to the top of Deep Gill to encourage the development of your vertigo at the depths revealed, turn down on the right. The path crosses easy grass towards a narrow cleft in the fellside. Within no more than fifty feet of descent, a National Trust constructed route appears underfoot (though I am told that now the path is difficult to trace under loose scree) and the cleft open into a fold in the fellside, at the bottom of which, appearing to be almost vertically down, is a tiny tarn, approximately the size of a standard living room, occupied by a boulder the size of a three-piece suite. There appears to be no exit from the fold.

Foxes Tarn

Foxes Tarn, from the descent

Only as the path nears the Tarn itself can it first be seen that the outflow drains around a steep grassy bank into a heretofore unseen exit. There are a dozen or so steps that can be taken on level ground before the outflow disappears down a stony gully, littered with fallen stone. Like Lord’s Rake, this gully is also straight, with its exit always visible. Descend with care: I prefer the four point method if descending face first – that there be four points of contact with the rock at all times, and only one limb is moved at any time. For those whose anatomy is uncertain, the fifth point is your backside, an invaluable anchor on the way down.
Once the narrow valley of Mickeldore Beck is reached, brush any accumulated debris from your useful backside and turn uphill to the ridge, relying on the adrenaline to make this passage more comfortable than its steepness, the late stage of the day and the loose ground underfoot would otherwise make it.
That ongoing adrenaline surge must be taken into account on achieving the ridge. Head for home, by all means, descending on similarly loose stone from Mickledore, the ground easing slowly until you reach Hollow Stones and can make a leisurely return over trodden ground. But having got here, having undergone all that toil, having done Lord’s Rake fur hilven! (one for you fans of The Killing, Borgen, etc.) it would be a terrible shame not to turn right, scale the cap of stones, and add Scafell Pike’s summit to the day. You are so close already, and as Wainwright says, the only ridge route in the Lakes that is harder than this is the same route in reverse. Do it, for the greatness of it.
From the summit of the Pike, descend north, onto the stony descent to Lingmell col. There is no requirement to include Lingmell itself at this point, but stronger walkers who have not yet counted this top may divert themselves across the col for the additional 300′ of climbing. Everyone else will curve around to the left, over gentle slopes with a superb, grandstand view of Scafell’s Crags throughout its length, until dropping to the head of Brown Tongue.
Descend peacefully and, if you feel like it, smugly. Lord’s Rake is an Achievement in anybody’s book.