Categories
LAKES

A LAKELAND LOVE AFFAIR.

A life changing walk reveals a wonderland on my doorstep, I escape from the Scouts.

My lifelong love affair with the Lake District began inauspiciously. Wandering through a dripping forest in torrential rain collecting firewood, when we had some perfectly good primus stoves – although clearly meant to be character building – seemed pointless to me. The 3am evacuation of our tents as a result of the inept decision of our hapless scoutmaster to pitch camp by the rising waters of the river Duddon should also have made me vow never to return to those misty hills again. This woefully wet week at a Scout camp in Dunnerdale, said to be Wordsworth’s favourite valley, shouldn’t have captivated me, yet it did.

Two things brightened the gloom of a wet week spent under canvass cowering under the iron discipline of the Scouts.

Firstly, the lurid adolescent fantasies about just what our scoutmaster got up to with a guide leader camping on the same site, with whom he disappeared to the pub every night. We suspected a bit of “dyb dyb dybbing” was going on and possibly even some heavy “dobbing” too.

The second and in this case life changing highlight for me was a walk from Coniston back to Dunnerdale along the Walna Scar track. This old pathway contours the lower slopes of Coniston Old Man and passes close to Dow Crag, a place I would later get to know as a rock climber. It’s also not not a million miles away from Grey Friar, which I would finally climb over 50 years later to complete my “Wainwrights”: my aversion to “peak bagging” and just why it took me so long to tick off all of the great man’s fells will be explained in a later blog. This walk opened a window on a previously unknown world-a world where I immediately felt I belonged and one I wanted to get to know better.

On the Walna Scar track, where it all began a long time before my hair went white.

As I fell in love with the Lakes, I fell out of love with the Scouts and soon escaped the discipline and militaristic ethos promoted by the first Chief Scout, Robert Baden-Powell. Baden-Powell seems to have been a pretty odious character: racist, homophobic and with well documented fascist tendencies, despite allegedly being a repressed homosexual himself – if some of his biographers are to be believed he was a man for whom “Scouting for Boys” was not just a classic instruction manual but also a lifestyle choice.

Continuing the military tradition, the current Chief Scout is former SAS (TA) soldier, Old Etonian and evangelical Christian, the hugely popular, but to me rather irritating, Bear Grylls, who always sounds less like a man and more an Alaskan fast food outlet.

The call of the wild, I get my kicks on route 555, lovely Langdale.

My first taste of the wild also saw me climbing Caw, my first Wainwright, though I didn’t know that at the time. This trip was such a contrast to my previous experiences of the Lakes, which had been confined to the odd visit to Bowness or, as a special treat, the “8 Lakes Tour” coach trip from Morecambe, where we, like thousands of trippers before us, were invited to gawp at the evocatively shaped “Lion and Lamb” (AKA Helm Crag) looming above Grasmere as the coach slowly wheezed its way up Dunmail Raise.

Mountains were not my parents’ first choice for a holiday or day out. Their idea of a good outing usually involved a trip to Blackpool, Llandudno, or some other seaside resort: the idea of walking up and down hills for pleasure was beyond their imagination. My dad eventually accepted my obsession with mountains and supported me in it, buying my first climbing rope and ice axe, but my mum never understood and even in her nineties would respond to my tales of a wet day on the fells with a curt and unsympathetic “you’re mad” or “stop moaning, no one’s forcing you to do it”. True enough.

The 555, passport to freedom.

Today, sitting in the cafe at Booths supermarket in Keswick, watching the long line of perambulating pensioners clutching their bus passes and queueing for the service down Borrowdale or the 555 towards the southern fells, I’m always reminded of my early trips to Lakeland. After I and a few mates had escaped from the Scouts our adventures were facilitated by the 555 (nearly the devil’s bus?). It took us to Keswick and the northern fells, dropped us off at Wythburn church, by Thirlmere, for the easy ascent of Helvellyn, or we changed at Ambleside for the Langdale service – a passport to a verdant valley which to me, 50 odd years later, is still a nirvana.

Langdale, stunning from any angle in any season;

One of my favourite and oft repeated walks is the classic circuit of Crinkle Crags and Bowfell, descending via the broad ridge known as the Band. If you’re feeling fit, the 7.7m circuit can be extended by adding Pike of Blisco. Much of the route can be seen in the main picture above, taken from below Side Pike, although my wife Pat is thoughtlessly obscuring the view. On the day that picture was taken we deemed it too icy for a safe passage of the Crinkles and stayed below the snow line.

Crinkle Crags and Bowfell.

Learning from the best, student ramblings, discovering pubs.

As I struck out alone on the hills I was fortunate to be encouraged by a school teacher who shared my enthusiasm and arranged for a few of us fell-fanciers to attend a series of “mountain craft” courses run by the Lake District National Park Authority (LDNPA). These courses were held at various youth hostels, providing us with a good overview of the national park.

Another stroke of luck was that the courses were led by John Wyatt, the first Ranger to be appointed by the LDNPA and a man passionate about the conservation of Lakeland and its safe enjoyment. Wyatt went on to write a number of excellent guide books along with more personal memoirs of his experiences.

John Wyatt, guide and inspiration.

My dad’s ill health meant that I chose to stay close to home and attend Lancaster University. Although I moved out of the family home I possibly missed some of the benefits of living in a different town; although, against this I was still close to my beloved mountains. I also enjoyed introducing mates who’d never visited the Lakes to the object of my desire: some of them couldn’t see the point, but in others our Lakeland expeditions – covering many of the well-known “rounds” and ridges – triggered a lifelong affection.

Around this time I was inducted into another great Lakeland institution -its old pubs and fine ales. As Langdale tended to be my home valley, naturally the “Old Dungeon Ghyll”, situated at its head, became my “local”. The pub’s climbers’ bar is usually very busy, but I recall two remarkable occasions when I had it to myself. The first, after a very wet and desolate solo wild camp up at Sprinkling Tarn many years ago involved me sharing the cavernous bar with just one other camper, also drying out his clothes and tent by the open fire. As the beer flowed the steam rose along with our spirits and voices as the other guy played his guitar and we shared our repertoire of folk songs. As referred to above, more recently my wife and I ended up entirely alone in the same bar after choosing to stay off the snowy tops and take a lovely circular walk into Little Langdale (pictured above).

The ODG, busy as usual.

I’d first tried rock climbing on a crag in Longsledale, a valley just north of Kendal and the inspiration for Postman Pat’s home patch (John Cunliffe, the books’ author, having worked for a time as a teacher in Kendal). Despite this well documented literary connection I never once came across a black and white cat in the valley.

After enjoying climbing many undemanding routes in Langdale, Borrowdale and the Coniston fells, I accepted that I would never progress beyond “entry level” as a crag rat (more of a “mouse” given the grade I achieved) and after a few years decided mountain walking was more my thing.

A tenuous link with Wainwright, the Lakes remains my anchor, out to grass (and Grasmere).

After University a job as a graduate trainee in the glamorous, fun-filled world of local government finance took me to Merseyside and led to qualification as a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), the same institute ( then the Institute of Municipal Treasurers) that boasts one Alfred Wainwright as a former member.

My first boss in the District Audit Service (later the Audit Commission) used to tell tales of auditing Kendal Borough Council and how much he’d admired the wonderful pen and ink drawings adorning ledgers compiled by the “odd ball” Borough Treasurer: the “odd ball” in question being none other than that doyen of Lakeland fellwalkers, Alfred Wainwright. This was during the 13 years that “AW” was researching and writing his labour of love, the beautifully illustrated and frequently lyrical seven volume “A Pictorial Guide To The Lakeland Fells”. My boss spoke of AW’s eccentricity and elusiveness as he disappeared, missing in action on the fells, at every opportunity to research his mountain masterpiece.

Wainwright’s labour of love.

Living on Merseyside was still handy for the Lakes and also opened up the possibility of adventures in the Peak District and Snowdonia. The camp site at Capel Curig became a home from home for a time as I explored the lofty peaks and crags around the Llanberis Pass and Ogwen Valley, but Snowdonia, or the less frequently visited Peak District, never came close to replacing the Lakes in my affections.

In my late twenties work took me from Merseyside to the far South West, where I have lived ever since. Despite the distance I rarely made one of the regular visits to my mum in Lancaster without escaping to the fells for at least a day.

I’ve now been retired for over 10 years and in that period have been an even more frequent visitor to Lakeland, thanks to buying a log cabin situated conveniently on the edge of Keswick in the shadow of Skiddaw, the mountain whose iconic profile looms above that delightful town.

While the cabin is very convenient for walking once we’re there, many would think that a 350 mile drive from home makes it anything but convenient. It is a long haul to our lodge on increasingly busy motorways, but it’s always worth it when I’m sat on the deck, sipping a Loweswater Gold and marvelling at the setting sun reflecting off the distant and at sunset, equally golden Helvellyn range. Our lodge is called ” Whiteside”, after the close neighbour of Helvellyn that is seen in the picture at the far right of the distant ridge.

Keeping it special, Wordsworth as both hero and villain.

We all want to protect what we love and the place I’ve loved all my life is under constant threat. The Lakes is our most highly populated national park and also the most visited. Tourism is the main industry and source of work, but the influx of around 50m visitors a year ( now almost certainly more with the invasion of “staycationers”) puts immense pressure on local services and landscape.

We are fortunate that the environmental movement, which was arguably started in the Lakes by Wordsworth and evolved through John Ruskin and the National Trust (founded in 1895 by Sir Robert Hunter, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and Octavia Hill who had campaigned to protect the Lakes from industrial development), fiercely defends Lakeland. This movement now encompasses a range of public bodies and voluntary organisations, such as Friends of the Lake District, all committed to controlling development and protecting this special place: there are however tensions and differences of opinion on what’s good for the national park.

Recently, a concerted effort by conservation groups has prevented the implementation of a ludicrous scheme to string zip wires across tranquil Thirlmere, but a similarly high profile campaign opposing the LDNPA decision not to stop 4×4’s from using green lanes in Little Langdale and elsewhere has so far been less successful. The LDNPA were conspicuously ambivalent during the zip wire fiasco and many are surprised at their stance during the ongoing 4×4 controversy, with many observers wondering which side it is on. The Authority has a difficult job discharging its often conflicting responsibilities and balancing the interests of different stakeholders, but to many of us it appears these days to err too often towards putting business interests before the environment and to conveniently overlook or misinterpret some of its statutory responsibilities.

The LDNPA’s position in the debate around 4×4 safaris in Little Langdale is clearly explained on their website, where the authority sets out why they are not imposing Traffic Regulation Orders to control 4x4s. The websites of the National Trust and pressure group “Save the Lake District” explain why they are both seeking to persuade the authority to change its mind.

It is only right that Wordsworth should have felt moved to campaign against unwanted development since, ironically, he had done much to popularise modern tourism in his 1810 “Guide to The Lakes”. Wordsworth, along with his fellow Lakes Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge are, with some justification, often also said to have invented fell walking. Wordsworth’s journals and letters document many epic treks around the mountains and Coleridge described his adventures in his 1802 “Walking Tour of The Fells”, which includes a vivid description of a descent of Scafell via the perilous Broad Stand, considered by the Fell and Rock Club to be England’s first recreational rock climb;

And now I had only two more to drop down – but of these two the first was tremendous. It was twice my own height, and the ledge at the bottom was so exceedingly narrow, that if I dropped down upon it I must of necessity have fallen backwards and of course killed myself. I was beginning according to my custom to laugh at myself for a madman, when the sight of the crags above me, and the impetuous clouds just over them, posting so luridly and so rapidly northward, overawed me… O God, I exclaimed aloud, how calm, how blessed am I now.”

Simply the best pick-me-up.

Lakeland has been with me through every phase of my life and I think it is simply the best place on earth. I’ve been lucky enough to walk in many of the worlds high places, but I’ve never found anywhere to beat it for scenic splendour: it just seems that, by some happy coincidence of weather and geology, everything is in “just the right place”. I’ve been challenged and sometimes ridiculed for expressing this opinion, but was encouraged a few years back when I heard eminent mountaineer Alan Hinkes make the same claim for the Lakes. As the only British climber to have summited all 14 of the world’s 8,000 metre peaks, I guess he speaks with some authority! I also find it reassuring to have confirmation that size isn’t everything.

The Lakes has provided some of my highest “highs”, but whenever I’ve felt low I’ve found that it’s rugged fells, placid tarns and meandering streams and rivers have always been there for me like a good friend to offer comfort and support and remind me that however bad things seem to be, there’s always a place to escape the madness and gain some perspective. I’ll leave the last word to Wainwright who typically captured perfectly what the Lakes means to so many of us;

The fleeting hour of life of those who love the hills is quickly spent, but the hills are eternal. Always there will be the lonely ridge, the dancing beck, the silent forest; always there will be the exhilaration of the summits. These are for the seeking, and those who seek and find while there is yet time will be blessed both in mind and body.’

The Western Fells
“………the exhilaration of the summits.”
Categories
DARTMOOR

MAGICAL MOORLAND MEMORIES

– heaven in a boggy bit of Devon

Swapping scouse for pasties, misguidedly dissing Dartmoor and a stroll up the Cowsic.

When I was 28, work took me from Merseyside to Cornwall: I traded a lively metropolis with easy access to the mountains of Wales and the north west, for the dramatic, breathtakingly beautiful coastal scenery and pristine sandy beaches of the West Country. It was a long way from my beloved Lake District, but there proved to be real compensations.

After cutting my hill walking teeth in the Lake District, I initially considered Dartmoor very tame by comparison. Being a stubborn sort, it took me a long while to acknowledge this silly error of judgement.

At every opportunity I’d harp on endlessly about how Dartmoor is so inferior to the Lakes, but eventually I realised that I was being very harsh (as well as not a little stupid) – the two national parks are just different, so much so that such daft comparisons are really meaningless. I will always regard the Lakes as the best place in the world, but that doesn’t mean that Dartmoor isn’t special and I now appreciate that the features that differentiate it are not weaknesses, but rather represent some of it’s strengths. In what follows I’ll acknowledge the similarities but will also try to highlight some of the differences that make Dartmoor so dear to me.

I first set foot on the moor when a friend took me for a couple of walks up the desolate River Cowsic valley and along the exhilarating ridges enclosing it. A few miles north west of Princetown, the area around this valley struck me as a genuine wilderness.

Introduction to the wild west (of Devon) – The Cowsic Valley.

Anyone wishing to explore this peaceful valley will find a good spot to park the car at OS ref SX 591765, reached along a straight track that leaves the B3357 just west of Two Bridges. From here you can drop down to cross the river and follow a path which eventually joins the Lich Way for a while before leaving it and heading north up the Cowsic towards the decidedly boggy Cowsic Head. The Lich Way is an old coffin route and makes a fine linear walk from Belever to Lydford and is celebrated in a lovely, haunting song from Devon folk super-group, Show of Hands. After passing the site of an ancient settlement and some hut circles I’d suggest turning right to head east before you get your feet wet and climb out of the valley to Devils Tor. Just before the Tor you can marvel at Beardown Man, a huge standing stone erected over 4000 years ago. This old pillar of granite is a longstone or “menhir”, the second tallest standing stone on the moor and the the highest.

Beardown Man

This modest 5.25m hike, involving 235mtrs of climbing, is a splendid introduction to the moor and its spectacular scenery.

The route of the River Cowsic valley walk.

I visited the moor on a fairly regular basis after those first jaunts: the frequency of visits increasing dramatically after I crossed the border and moved to Dawlish, in Devon. I count myself lucky to now live 5 minutes walk away from the South West Coast Path and around 40 minutes drive from the majestic rock scenery of Haytor.

Haytor Rock

The well-travelled C19th Dartmoor resident, Anglican priest and prolific hymn writer, Sabine Baring-Gould, did not share my reservations and placed the moor at the top of his personal pecking (or perambulating?) order ;

“I have wandered over Europe, have rambled to Iceland, climbed the Alps, been for some years lodged among the marshes of Essex- yet nothing that I have seen has quenched in me the longing after the fresh air and love of the wild scenery, of Dartmoor.”

Sharing an ancient, lonely, wet, but special place with the military.

Dartmoor’s barren uplands are tremendously atmospheric and feel far more remote from roads or human settlements than they actually are. This is partly due to the dearth of other walkers (a refreshing change from the Lakes) but also because of its featureless terrain.

The wild desolation of the moor is embodied in its extensive areas of bog, which are so pervasive because of the combination of heavy rainfall and the fact that the layer of peat covering most of the higher ground absorbs the water quickly but distributes it slowly.

Happily, despite the efforts of Conan Doyle, misty, murky mires are not the defining feature of Dartmoor’s high places. A more attractive aspect is presented by the many tors and other granite outcrops, which have been weathered over the millennia to give us an endless variety of attractive, sculptured shapes that Henry Moore would be proud of.

Heading into the River Taw valley, with boggy Taw Marsh at its head.

Apart from the tors, the undulating terrain and lack of distinct features make Dartmoor the toughest place I’ve ever navigated: far harder than the Lake District, where the more prominent crags and other pointy bits provide helpful landmarks to aid navigation. Of course, a GPS and the ability to use it overcomes these difficulties and – after many years claiming to be a purist – I finally succumbed to temptation and invested in one. I confess that I do enjoy playing with it, although I still love the satisfaction of using map and compass to find my way about. Given the rough topography and challenging route finding, it’s perhaps not surprising that the military have annexed several areas of the moor for training exercises and live firing.

On Dartmoor there is a big army training camp near Okehampton and three firing ranges – Okehampton, Willsworthy and Merrivale – amounting to 11% of the national park area, on which access is freely allowed apart from the periods when live firing is taking place. The army get a lot of stick from moor lovers, but they seem to me to do a good job liaising with the public and try their best to minimise restrictions, particularly during weekends and school and public holidays.

The presence of the army on Dartmoor is another difference with the Lakes, where there is much less of a military presence on the ground. Although the deafening daily fly-past of fast jets screeching overhead and frightening the sheep is a reminder that Lakeland is also a valuable training resource.

A glance at a map of Dartmoor reveals a plethora of “antiquities”, confirming that there is far more evidence of early man’s settlement on the Moor than there is in the Lakes. The walker soon realises that the moor is well endowed with attractive and often mysterious standing stones, stone circles, cairns, and hut circles: presumably this is due to the fact that Dartmoor was more accessible and therefore more inviting to early man than the rocky heights of Lakeland?

That said, it’s hard to fathom why anyone would want to live in some of the out of the way spots where antiquities are found, until one considers that the valleys were full of impenetrable forests and wild animals in prehistoric times, so the higher places offered safety. In later periods, isolated settlements were created in the harsh moorland environment to accommodate those making what must have been a desperately tough living from tin mining, quarrying ( London Bridge, the British Museum and the National Gallery were all built with Haytor Granite) and wool. All of these testimonies to mans endeavour add great interest to a moorland ramble.

Myths, legends and pubs.  

While there are differences, there are also many shared characteristics between my two favourite national parks: to name but two – both are home to a slew of mysterious legends and both have a fine selection of pubs to slake your thirst after a long day on the hills.

Myths and legends abound on Dartmoor: my own personal favourites being those surrounding “Jay’s Grave” and the “Hairy Hands”.

Jay’s grave.

Kitty Jay was a young housemaid who took her own life after being wronged by her lover, who left her pregnant and destitute. As was the tradition in those cruel, unenlightened times, a person committing suicide could not be buried in consecrated ground and to prevent her spirit coming back to haunt those left behind she was buried at a crossroads. Now the “legendary” bit: whatever the season there are always fresh flowers on her grave. I have walked past Kitty’s grave many times and confirm that this is the case. As a faithless humanist with no belief in the supernatural I know there must be a rational explanation for this, but even if the explanation is less mythical and local people are going out of their way to respect the memory of this poor unfortunate girl it’s still a pretty special reflection of the better side of humanity. Kitty gave celebrated Dartmoor-based folk singer Seth Lakeman one of his “greatest hits”.

My other favourite legend concerns the “Hairy Hands”. Since the early 20th century, there have been many reports of a pair of disembodied, often invisible, hairy hands which wrest control of a steering wheel or handlebars along a stretch of the B3212 near Postbridge, causing the traveller to lose control and sometimes career off the road. Scientists have come up with plausible explanations of the phenomenon, related to the camber of the road, but despite this an otherwise very sceptical friend of mine is unconvinced. Driving (sober) home to Tavistock one evening he insists he felt a very strong pull on the wheel and while refusing to believe it was a result of supernatural intervention, he admits to being shaken and is at a complete loss to explain it.

Another thing I love about Dartmoor are the many fine old pubs dotted across its landscape. My three favourites are;

  • The Plume of Feathers 
  • The Warren House Inn
  • The Rugglestone Inn

The Plume of Feathers, in Princetown, plays host to an eclectic mix of hikers, sightseeing locals, holidaymakers, residents of the pub’s camp site and bunk house and off-duty warders from the grey, monolithic prison that dominates the small town. At the time of writing (July 2021) I have just heard the sad news that this fine pub will be closed indefinitely, another victim of the pandemic. I hope new owners can be found who will manage to revive this once thriving Dartmoor institution.

The Warren House Inn, owned by the Dutchy of Cornwall, is on the B3212 near Postbridge close to where the Hairy Hands terrorise unwary travellers (and perhaps provides a possible explanation for some of the reports?). This pub enjoys a fine remote setting and is said to be the highest in southern England. It was once at the centre of a large, thriving tin-mining community, as the many interesting old black and white photos in the bar illustrate. The pub has its own legend in that it is said that the fire has never gone out since 1845. My exhaustive and selfless research in all four seasons can vouch that this does appear to be the case.

Finally, The Rugglestone Inn, Widecombe, is one of two grand pubs on Tom Pearce’s manor: the Old Inn being the other. It is a traditional, stone-floored hostelry with local beers and ciders from the barrel and a lovely big garden. A peaceful, secluded place for quiet reflection after a hard day’s walking.

Going to extremes and manoeuvres in the dark.

Another similarity between the two national parks is that they both provide demanding, long distance challenges for the fittest walkers and runners.

Some of the Lakeland events, like the Lakeland 3000’s or the Bob Graham Round, might be better known nationally, but Dartmoor can hold its own. The annual “10 Tors” event, organised by the army for teams of teenagers is a superbly well organised and inspiring challenge, while the 30 odd mile North-South walk , though not happily transformed into an organised and oversubscribed “event” is also a formidable challenge: so much so that a North-South route is considered suitable for the Royal Marine’s endurance march, the final part of the selection process for that elite Corps.

There are various “North -South” routes and I’ve done a few of them, both walking and speed marching (mixing walking and running), with a mate who’d been a Royal Marine and had trained recruits at their base at Lympstone. After one long traverse across the moor I commented that I hadn’t found it too bad, but was brought back to earth with a bump when my friend observed that I should try it carrying a heavy rucksack and rifle.

Another daft thing I got up to on Dartmoor was night hiking. I’ve been caught out once or twice in the Lakes and had to complete a walk as the sun was sinking, but never set out there to deliberately start a walk at dusk and complete all of it in the dark.

There was a time when, even in the depths of winter, me and a friend would frequently drive onto the moor after a day’s work in Exeter and wander around for a few hours, later appearing from out of the gloaming to surprise aghast locals in a pub. As well as being a pretty good test of navigation, night hiking introduces you to a totally different moor than the daytime one you see, a moor where distances are distorted and familiar views transformed, often magically. I’ll long remember two incidents. Firstly, the night I walked straight into a bemused and shocked cow slumbering on Saddle Tor (she seemed shocked, but not as much as I was). Secondly, an enchanting snow covered, moonlit evening near South Hessary Tor, on the track leading from Princetown to Nuns Cross Farm, where we dispensed with torches for the entire walk and delighted in the twinkling lights of Plymouth and the shimmering, silver sea far beyond the city.

My idea of a perfect moorland autumn evening is to wander through the ancient, mystical and rather eerie Wistmans Wood, one of the highest and oldest oak woodlands in the UK nestling above the West Dart River just north of Two Bridges, as the sun sets and the wood and surrounding moor turn the colour of Dartmoor IPA. In such glorious, but spooky, surroundings you can well believe in the Hairy Hands.

Keep on keeping on.

I’ve spent a large part of my walking-life wandering around Dartmoor and amassed a heap of happy memories. At 68 I’m still able to do most of the longer walks, albeit at a slower pace and with a few more aches and pains afterwards. I count myself very lucky: none of us know what’s round the corner, which is all the more reason to try and keep going and make the most of it while we can. Given a fair wind I’m hoping Dartmoor will be my companion for many more years to come: it is special, as another eminent visitor confirmed;

“I have never before, in my long and eclectic career, been gifted with such an abundance of natural beauty as I experienced filming ‘War Horse’ on Dartmoor.”

Stephen Spielberg
Perfect end to a perfect day.