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.

Great Walks – The Mosedale Horseshoe


Mosedale, dominated by Pilar

Not all Great Walks are Horseshoes, and not all Horseshoes are Great Walks, but the epithet certainly applies to the Mosedale Horseshoe.
There are no less than six Mosedales (one being spelt Moasdale) in the Lake District, and the name means dreary valley. In theory there could be six Mosedale Horseshoes, but in reality there is only one, and that circuits the valley least deserving of the name it has been given. That Mosedale lies at the head of Wasdale, and its Horseshoe is a grand day out.
Technically, the Horseshoe should encompass five fells: Kirk Fell, Pillar, Scoat Fell, Red Pike and Yewbarrow, in anti-clockwise order, although it would be a hard-hearted and extremely purist walker who could resist a diversion from Scoat Fell to Steeple en route. The full Mosedale Horseshoe is an enormously draining experience, and most everyday walkers will leave one or other of the outlying fells off the agenda. When I tackled this walk, I ended up leaving both outliers out, but the walk was still a fine experience, on a gloriously sunny day, and I ended up with a long walk home round Yewbarrow, instead of over it, but that’s not compulsory.
The walk begins from Down-in-the-Dale, the triangle of green land at Wasdale Head where the cars have parked since time immemorial (since well before I was a lad, basically). The choice of starting route varies as to whether Kirk Fell is to be incorporated into the day’s plans. If it is, take the rougher, right hand fork towards Great Gable and Sty Head, relishing the morning sun. This crosses the beck, and subsequently a gill bubbling rapidly downhill from the flanks of Kirk Fell, and gains a foothold on the lowest slopes of Gable, at which point a track springs off left, uphill.

Kirk Fell, flanked by Black Sail Pass, left, and Sty Head Pass, right, from Dore Head

Much collar work is required to gain height. This route ascends towards Gavel Neese, the direct route to Gable via the Hellgate screes and Westmorland Cairn and, as such, it is demanding work, especially at the very start of the day. The Kirk Fell bound pedestrian is allowed to escape left, on a gentler gradient, towards Beck Head, but the first stage is a draining experience at a point when the body is first drawing on its reserves for a long day.
Beck Head is wide and littered with stone, and Gable does not present its best face to this flank, but we are not concerned about that today. Kirk Fell offers a broad and flattish top, but the access from either side is steep and treacherous. If anything, the descent to Black Sail Pass is the rougher of the two approaches, and extreme care is required to ensure you are in a fit state to proceed once you reach that point.
It’s not necessary to go as far out of the way as Gavel Neese to ascend Kirk Fell from Wasdale Head, as this can be accomplished direct from the approach to Black Sail. This utilises the road as far as the Wastwater Hotel, and beyond, past the last buildings in the valley. The track makes a short leap up to the intake wall, and once through this, turns left and descends slightly to enter Mosedale. At this point, the direct ascent goes up the grassy fellside.
I’ve never taken that route, but Wainwright advertises it as a virtually straight line on a consistently steep gradient, with only two places along the way where the walker can stand upright. If you’re going to expend energy on Kirk Fell, don’t do it this way: Beck Head is far more interesting.
Unless you are a very strong walker, I would recommend leaving Kirk Fell out of it and gaining the ridge via Black Sail Pass. Unlike its more famous neighbour, Black Sail rises on grass for almost all its length. A wide path descends into the openness of Mosedale, offering a round of views to the steep, plain-sided fells surrounding the valley. That directly ahead is Pillar, though it shows its best features to Ennerdale, over the ridge. Leave the valley walk at a fork, right, heading straight towards a prominent gate, beyond which the walk turns inwards, rising to cross the beck below some high moraines, and zigzagging around these to enter the upper valley. The path offers no great difficulties on the way to the shallow col, and on my last visit a gate still stood on the very top, though the fences to either side had long since gone.

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Those walkers who started with Kirk Fell will also come to this point. Pillar beckons, a long, rocky and, on my visit, surprisingly lonely route of ascent, incorporating three ascents and two levels between. First comes the subsidiary lump of Looking Stead, offering views down into Ennerdale Head, which should be visited before tackling the main route.
Strong walkers have another option open to them. The average walker will mount the long ridge with a rising tide of anticipation, but the exceptional walker will, just beyond Looking Stead, look for a narrow track turning away on the right, towards Ennerdale. This is the High Level Route to Pillar Rock which begins with a splendid traverse across the Ennerdale flank of the mountain, ending at Robinson’s Cairn, below the full majesty of the Rock’s eastern face. From here, a zigzag path scales the rocks above, crossing Shamrock Traverse, a tilted groove in the rock face, before arriving above the Rock itself, in ravaged and magnificent surroundings. From here, proceed up the long scree slope to the surprisingly broad and flat summit of the fell, joining the walkers who have stuck to the ridge.
Pillar is the highest, and most magnificent point of this walk, offering stunning views of the high mountains, but that does not imply a falling off in interest when you are sated and move on.
The path continues down the west ridge of Pillar, requiring a mini-scramble to cross the subsidiary top of Black Crag, before settling to the task of gaining the top of Scoat Fell. Routefinding is not an issue, a substantial wall accompanying every step of the way and, in fact, occupying the highest point of Scoat Fell, the summit cairn being consequently built on the wall itself.
Here is the point to break out of the strict Horseshoe to Steeple, which lies north of the summit and wholly over the ridge. The parent fell’s top is so wide open and level that it is difficult to think of it as an actual top, but Steeple offers a classic contrast: an elegant rocky spire with a summit on which no more than two people could stand together, and even then if already intimately involved. Ten minutes from Scoat Fell should be enough, and fifteen minutes back because the ascent is longer.

Steeple from Scoat Fell

The wall and the ridge, indefinite as it may be at this point, continues westward towards Haycock, but the Horseshoe executes a ninety degree turn here, away from the wall. At the edge of the top, the line of descent comes into view, a clear, broad path dropping to the col before Red Pike, and continuing across the green back of the fell, whilst a side route rises along the edge of the shattered crags overlooking Mosedale. The summit balances on the edge of the downfall, with superb views of the valley.
As the ridge declines, heading for Dore Head and Yewbarrow, the views stretch and grow. The walking is easy, on a well-defined path: two may walk abreast, talking the whole way down. For a long stretch, the walk overlooks the whole length of not merely Black Sail, but also Sty Head. It’s impossible to squeeze into a single photograph though.

Red Pike

In the end, the enjoyable downwards tramp comes to an end under the rocks of Stirrup Crag, on Yewbarrow. Three options are available. The best is to continue across the col, following the path towards Stirrup Crag. This looks fearsome, especially in the late afternoon sun, which will cast it into shadow, but the way is distinct and whilst it involves hand and foot scrambling at every step, it involves nothing worse. For an experienced walker, the only realistic danger in dry conditions is exhaustion at the end of a long and demanding day. If going this way, bear in mind that whilst the walk from Stirrup Crag to the summit rocks, a quarter mile or so distant, is easy, the only realistic descent from Yewbarrow is along the long prow of the fell, walking away from Wasdale Head at every step. A return to Dore Head by descending Stirrup Crag is not recommended.
The next best option is to descend Dore Head to Mosedale. Once upon a time, this would have been a gleeful romp, for Dore Head was one of the greatest scree-runs in the lakes, and walkers would plunge down the fellside, head arched backwards, running/sliding through the scree in a controlled manner, dropping 1500′ feet in something like twenty minutes. But the years and the runs have made their toll, and no scree remains: indeed, for a long section, the channel of Dore Head runs in a wide trench, scooped more than ten foot deep into the fellside.

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I baulked at a descent by that route, not prepared to risk starting down a scraped-clean channel where progress was invisible after only ten feet. Following two contrasting later ascents, I would know now to retreat a short way towards Red Pike, look over the Mosedale edge until I could see a shallow dell with a boulder in it, and look for a narrow path going round behind it. This path turns into a delightful twisting descent, often on the edge of that horrendous trench, that doesn’t peter out until about 300′ above the valley bottom. When this happens, contour left above some small bluffs and use sheep trails to finish the descent to the ground, after which follow the Mosedale path out of the valley, and ultimately across the packhorse bridge behind the Hotel. The car is only a couple of hundred yards away.
My own walk, frightened off by the impossibility of setting myself at Dore Head, was the least favourable, but utterly safe option. Over Beck leads down from the back of Dore Head, a shallow, green valley behind Yewbarrow. To find the path, aim for the Yewbarrow flank and you’ll soon find it. It’s an unexciting march, even when the descent from Yewbarrow, dropping dangerously from the Great Door, joins from the left. It ends on the prow of the fell, following the wall down to ground level, and leaving a mile and a half of road back to Wasdale Head.
I walked it in a gloriously sunny early evening, the air so clear and bright that I felt that I could reach across the lake to touch Scafell and the Pike. Even this unwanted diversion still felt like a welcome part of a superb walk.