Wednesday, 24 July 2013

One fine day in the Lake District

I'll make this the last of my holiday travelogues for now. Presumably those interested in the glorious Lake District scenery will have already absorbed all they want from my Flickr site. There will however be groups of nomads in Outer Mongolia who like to have it in words. So this is for you especially.

The English Lake District, a National Park, is that area in the north-west of the country which is full of mountains and lakes. It is celebrated as possibly the best walking country anyone could wish for, certainly by fans of the late Alfred Wainwright (1907-1991) whose books on how to walk up each peak, and then what to see there, have been venerated for decades, and in recent years made even more famous by Julia Bradbury's Wainwright Walks on TV. But of course the area attracted the much earlier attentions of the Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century - famously William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey - all of whom found sublimity in what they saw. Since they were all tortured souls, there must have been something about the scenery that could lift them out of depression. Alfred Wainwright was far more down the earth, and not plagued with the same dark mental overburden, but he too conveyed the ability of the high fells to banish all despair in these words about Haystacks, his favourite summit:

Haystacks stands unabashed and unashamed in the midst of a circle of much loftier fells, like a shaggy terrier in the company of foxhounds, some of them known internationally, but not one of this distinguished group of mountains around Ennerdale and Buttermere can show a greater variety and a more fascinating arrangement of interesting features. Here are sharp peaks in profusion, tarns with islands and tarns without islands, crags, screes, rocks for climbing and rocks not for climbing, heather tracts, marshes, serpentine trails, tarns with streams and tarns with no streams. All these, with a background of magnificent landscapes, await every visitor to Haystacks but they will be appreciated most by those who go there to linger and explore. It is a place of surprises around corners, and there are many corners. For a man trying to get a persistent worry out of his mind, the top of Haystacks is a wonderful cure.

You can feel his love and respect for the place. He goes on, speaking now of the actual summit:

Haystacks fails to qualify for inclusion in the author's 'best half-dozen' only because of inferior height, a deficiency in vertical measurement. Another thousand feet would have made all the difference. But for beauty, variety and interesting detail, for sheer fascination and unique individuality, the summit area of Haystacks is supreme. This is in fact the best fell-top of all - a place of great charm and fairyland attractiveness. Seen from a distance, these qualities are not suspected: indeed, on the contrary, the appearance of Haystacks is almost repellent when viewed from the higher surrounding peaks: black are its bones and black is its flesh. With its thick covering of heather it is dark and sombre even when the sun sparkles the waters of its many tarns, gloomy and mysterious even under a blue sky. There are fierce crags and rough screes and outcrops that will be grittier still when the author's ashes are scattered here. Yes, the combination of features, of tarn and tor, of cliff and cove, the labrynth of corners and recesses, the maze of old sheepwalks and paths, form a design, or a lack of design, of singular appeal and absorbing interest. One can forget even a raging toothache on Haystacks.

But he gives a warning about being caught on Haystacks in bad weather, when you can't see where you are going and might stray near the dangerous north edge of the summit:

The only advice that can be given to a novice lost on Haystacks in the mist is that he should kneel down and pray for safe deliverance.

Wainwright nevertheless felt that Haystacks was the right place for scattering his ashes after death. In Memoirs of a Fellwalker (1990) he wrote this:

All I ask for, at the end, is a last long resting place by the side of Innominate Tarn, on Haystacks, where the water gently laps the gravelly shore and the heather blooms and Pillar and Gable keep unfailing watch. A quiet place, a lonely place. I shall go to it, for the last time, and be carried: someone who knew me in life will take me and empty me out of a little box and leave me there alone. And if you, dear reader, should get a bit of grit in your boot as you are crossing Haystacks in the years to come, please treat it with respect. It might be me.

It was a remark perhaps inspired by or based on the final sentence of Book Seven of his renowned Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells, The Western Fells (1966), the last of the Guides in a series that was the fruit of a detailled personal programme of mountain-walking, note-taking and sketching that began  in 1952 (when I was born) and was completed, one week ahead of schedule, in 1965. Here is the sentence:

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. I wish you all many happy days on the fells in the years ahead. There will be fair winds and foul, days of sun and days of rain. But enjoy them all. Good walking! And don't forget - watch where you are putting your feet.

All this is heady and inspirational even for people like me who love driving powerful automobiles though snaking mountain passes, pausing only to photograph some splendid view. I am not the same as Alfred Wainwright. I prefer water to rock, lakes and sea to mountains, roads to tracks, and while I will renounce everything for a life of freedom and solitude, I will not put up with excessive discomfort or inconvenience. So Wainwright, if still alive, would gruffly despise me and banish me from his sight. He would do so anyway, of course, because he had a low opinion of women. In his Pictorial Guides he always seems to assume that the people who surmount the more challenging summits use the pronoun 'he'. Thank goodness the likes of Julia Bradbury have demonstrated that women can make it to the top too.

For the record, I own three 'original' Pictorial Guides, 'original' meaning that although they are by no means first editions, they are entirely Wainwright's original writing, and predate the 'updating' of the series from 2005 to 2009. Here they are:

Book Four - The Southern Fells - first published 1960. I have a much later impression from the 1990s, bought at a secondhand bookshop in Swanage in September 2009. It contains a handwritten note that says: 'To Tony, from your walking companion, Hazel'. Ah, where are they now? I think Tony did use the book: it has lost its dust jacket.

Book Six - The North Western Fells - first published 1964. I have a much later sixtieth impression, again from the 1990s, bought at a secondhand bookshop in Worthing in January 2007.

Book Seven - The Western Fells - first published 1966. I have a later twenty-fifth impression from the 1980s, also bought at a secondhand bookshop in Worthing in January 2007.

The updated edition is readily available to buy new, but the old edition seem to have vanished from the shelves of secondhand booksellers, and I doubt whether I will ever now be able to expand my own little collection, unless I wish to pay through the nose on eBay - which I don't. Clearly all those who could, snapped up at least one copy while they were available; or else an international syndicate decided to buy up all that there were, sending its agents all over the land, with the intention of stashing them in a hidden warehouse, and then leaking them onto the market for a ridiculous asking price.

Setting aside his slight misogyny, Wainwright's writing style, his dry sense of humour, and indeed his personal philosophy and reflections, are all beguiling and rather appealing. He was also brilliant with a sketchbook. But of course I like photographs, and what follows is the best of the bunch I took on my first full day in the Lake District on 1 July, the day before the weather turned wet, and my caravan suffered an electrical fault, events that together made me cut my stay short and head for home.

So first, peaceful Ullswater, my favourite Lake:

You can see how the sun comes and goes in the space of a minute or two! Typical of the changeable Lake District weather. Next, the Kirkstone Pass, the highest in the National Park:

And Little Langdale, with Horse Crag, Blea Tarn and views of the Langdale Pikes:

You really can't reach much of this scenery just by car. There aren't many roads, and not many stopping-places where you can leave a car and set off on foot. The roads are generally narrow and twisty, and busy enough with people like me to ruin any sense of having the place to yourself. Cars chug by all the time. At this time of the year, so do lumbering agricultural vehicles, and Fiona had a few narrow escapes as they charged down lanes that offered no easy place to pull in. As regards ordinary traffic, it's frequently necessary to stop and reverse for long stretches, so that an impatient string of cars ahead can get by. In short, you need to be alert when driving about in the Lake District, and often it's not much fun.

Not that it would be a laughing-party on foot. I saw plenty of rather hot and weary couples who looked in dire need of a nice cup of tea and a piece of cake. I also saw plenty of folk in saturated clothing, having been caught by a sudden shower. A hot bath and a tasty meal was probably much in their minds.

The geography of the Lake District is all wrong for seeing it by car. Fine for Ice Age glaciers, but not for cars. You can travel with some ease around the edge using the A66, the A595, the A590 and the A6, but not across it. The only 'fast and easy' routes through the area, the A591 and the A592, run north-south, and even they mean encountering heavy summer traffic at Ambleside or Windermere. I went to both places. I could imagine being caught in a really grotesque snarl-up at Ambleside.

There is no good east-west road of any description, unless you count the very minor road full of extreme gradients that runs westwards from Ambleside through the Wrynose and Hard Knott Passes. I did consider letting Fiona rip along that road, but realised that I'd simply end up hustling lesser cars on the verge of overheating and breakdown, or burning their clutches out, and in any case arriving on the west coast of Cumbria with a long, long journey back to Troutbeck Head in the north-east. Not worth it. Better to pitch somewhere near St Bees or Ulverston on another occasion, and see the western fells and lakes from there.

And when will that next occasion be? Not next year. If I can afford to go North, I will devote my attention to Scotland. Maybe 2015, unless I decide that Wales, the Land of Song, my country of birth and early upbringing, finally deserves a Grand Tour. There are huge chunks of Wales I've never yet seen. I'd say I actually 'know' Scotland better than I 'know' Wales. Which has my heart? Ask me once I've taken Fiona to the the most northerly car park on the most northerly island of Shetland, or spent a whole day on Hoy in Orkney, or slowly explored Mull, or the lesser-frequented parts of Aberdeenshire, or called to the cattle on the Sands of Luce.


  1. There are so many things I never got to see during my visits to the UK back in the early 1980's. The area you mention is one of them...

    Unfortunately, it's doubtful that I'll return any time soon, but I have many fond memories (and a bunch of pictures) to help me remember the sights I was privileged to see!


  2. What, only one fine day? Or did you mean you could only spend the one day there? Ah well Lucy, the area is notorious for spurious weather patterns, it comes with the territory. The best way to see The Lake District is probably by walking/hiking/camping but it takes a very fit person to do that for the couple of weeks needed to do it any sort of justice. I have been there quite a few times, simply because it is almost on my doorstep. I've not been there for some years now. I used to encounter many folk from the Netherlands and similar places who don't have hills or mountains of any sort at home. Something of a novelty then for them.

    Shirley Anne x

  3. Ah! The smell of urning clutch going up the Wrynose, what memories... I had cadged a space in an extra room when family rented a house on Ambleside, three sisters sharing was hilarious! Their husbands just silently melted away and left them to it! I thought it would be fun on the steep passes with them but three in a Triumph was too much so I quickly jumped out and directed them to a safe place to cool down...

    Much better was three weeks wild camping wandering the high tops and hardly ever seeing a road except to cross it. I arrived home only to find that I did not get a place at my chosen university and everyone had spent the weeks I was away begging for places, that is why I was sent to the frozen north... No other places left!


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