It will be a walk in the park, I said, or so I thought when I planned the route. After last week’s blasting near the summit of High Pike, we were looking forward to a nice easy stroll, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, it turned out to be a long, challenging and tiring day.
I never expected that three little hills – all just over a 1,000 foot – would turn out to be so demanding. And after 7 hours 20 minutes of walking, we returned to the car and collapsed, just as it was going dark.
A stroll in the park
On the map, the three wainwrights, Great Mell Fell, Little Mell Fell and Gowbarrow, with their commanding views over the area, seemed like a stroll. After all, they weren’t major fells.
We decided to walk them as a circuit, linking them by the footpaths that crisscrossed the valleys. We could have ascended each one individually – to tick them off – but I felt that would have just been logistical instead of enjoyable.
Shadowy skeletal trees line the path as we leave Matterdale End and head towards Great Mell Fell (537), the first of our summits. Small coppices of trees chequer the valley floor; looking bare without their summer coats and exposed to the winter winds. They patiently wait for spring, when their black, finger-like, branches will suddenly bud, and the area will once again echo with birdsong and life. Today, we walk over broken branches and fallen fractured trees that cross our path; before fording Mellfell Beck and head up the lane to meet the bridleway. After turning right for about 100 yards, we climb the stile over the fence and head up Great Mell Fell.
The trees grow at 90 degrees to the ground here, a strange sight. As saplings, they must have found it impossible to grow straight, bowing under the force of winds blasting up the hillside. Patches of snow still cling to the ground, sometimes deep, reminiscent of last week when temperatures plummeted and blizzards raked the ridges.
Sunlight and showers
The Matterdale valley, below Gowbarrow, comes alive, lit by slanting early morning sunlight. I reach for my camera. Sharp shadows thrown onto green fields crisscross the valley floor. The sun blasts through heavy, black clouds forced apart by the wind. Strong shafts of brilliant sunlight sweep across the fields. Clouds, blown along like dark, ethereal shadows chase patches of sunlight.
From the summit, the Lake District fells sit underneath caps of mist and dark clouds. Raindrops splatter my face, and then dissipate, blown away by the wind, melting away into the atmosphere.
We celebrate our sixth wainwright, and descend past walkers who are just completing their ascent. In front of us, Little Mell Fell looms. I had mentally traced our route across the connecting valley; pretty sure that I knew where we were going.
Bogs, bogs and more bogs
Fields span out in front of us; there is no obvious path. We cross a boggy field to a bridge over a little stream. Then another boggy field. Then mistakenly turn left towards a gate. If I had looked at my foot, which I don’t always do when crossing stiles, I would have noticed the waymark sign under my boot that pointed right. Retracing out footsteps and head across a massive bog. At Greenrow Great Barr, there are new signposts pointing in all directions, but none pointing to my hat!
We had turned left and after half a mile I discovered I had lost my hat. I had also lost my lens cap somewhere in the bogs. Retracing my steps, I retrieved my hat, then walked back. Looking at the map, again, I discovered that we should have turned right instead of left. So back we went, passing the spot where I had found my hat. After passing Greenrow, where the signposts were, and after about another 200 yards we went through a gate onto the fell. It marked the start of Little Mell Fell, and the beginning of my irritation with this walk.
Irritation sets in
I became a little concerned about the time. We were taking too long. It was 1pm. We still had Little Mell to climb. Then the long route to Gowbarrow Fell, this left us with just three hours. It would be quite a push for experienced walkers, but for a ten- year-old, it may be too much. We had lunch while discussing it, and also to let Hannah rest and eat. For about fifteen minutes, while the wind blasted into our backs, we relaxed, recovering from our battle through boggy fields, lost items, and lost direction.
On the summit of Little Mell Fell, we decided to go for the third wainwright. Hannah wanted to go on. She was up for it. The great lump of Great Mell sat beside us, like a slumbering giant. The sun ran up its flank. I grabbed my camera and waited. Expectant that the sun would light up its top against dark clouds. It didn’t happen. The sun didn’t have enough puff. The clouds caught it, as they raced up the fell. Got you!
As we left the summit, we passed a couple of walkers, and began the steep descent to the road that runs between Gowbarrow and Little Mell. I am glad we took that route to the summit. We could have been plodding up this slope – stepping into a giant’s footprints – where hundreds of pairs of boots have dug deep into the top soil.
For most of the route I had followed the directions in Mark Richard’s FellRanger guidebook, and a combination of his, and Wainwright’s guidebook gave me good route choices. The prospect, of completing a full circuit of these three hills was now a distinct possibility.
Then we met our first real obstacle, ‘Private No Right of Way’ stated the sign stuck to the gate that led onto Gowbarrow Fell. It was forestry land, and private. Mark had mentioned that the route could be a great ridge continuation of Little Mell to Gowbarrow should access be allowed, but even the gate was tied shut. The only option was turn left, head down the road for half a kilometre to join the path that led to Little Meldrum by the side of a plantation. I wasn’t happy about this. The extra descent and the distance annoyed me and added to the complicated route finding earlier in the day between Great and Little Mell; I was becoming increasingly annoyed.
Thankfully it was winter; otherwise we would have needed machetes to cut through the bracken on the path to Little Meldrum. I was irritated at the loss of height. Hannah was tired, the ups and downs, and the walking through bogs and farmland had taken their toll on her. Now the prospect of fighting through pathless tracts, amongst looming conifer trees, was sapping her strength. I needed to gain the high ground, give her some hope, show her that the walk was nearly over.
We turned uphill and plodded along sheep trods to the top of Little Meldrum.
“Is that the summit?” asked Hannah expectantly, looking at Great Meldrum. I could see the trig point on Gowbarrow. I looked at the map to be sure, never having been here before. I was thankful that we were not walking in mist and rain, and following a compass bearing. I knew where we were, but not quite sure how we were going to get to where we wanted to go.
On the way to Great Meldrum, Hannah looked tired. I shall never forget her face as I had to tell her that we were not on Gowbarrow, but Great Meldrum, and that the rounded peak in the distance was the end of our walk.
We told jokes and jumped about being silly, dancing into the wind, and pretending to fly to the summit. I stared at white spots that speckled the side of Gowbarrow.
“Look at those,” I said, pointing. “That’s a lot of sheep. What d’you think they are?”
The look she gave me would have turned milk sour.
“Dad.” she said, “really … they’re not sheep; they’re lumps of snow … honestly!”
Perhaps the walk was taking its toll on me as well. Maybe, I was hallucinating. It’s happened before, but many years ago.
We laughed; fatigue now forgotten for a while.
We climbed the stile and stopped, both of us in a state of shock: a man-made footpath crossed our path. I thought we were in a garden centre. We couldn’t believe it.
“Look, Hannah,” I said. “They’ve made a footpath for you, all the way to the top.”
So our final ascent was on a ‘red carpet’ of slate chippings. I expected a few garden gnomes to appear, and perhaps the odd pond or two. But the ferocity of the wind, reminded me that I was not sat in the garden having a glass of wine – although I wish.
The wind blew us against the trig point. We could see over all that we had walked. We did high-fives on the summit, and after a few pictures, turned and descended to Dockrey.
‘Fix the Fells’ the conservation team that restored the footpath, are also working on this side of Gowbarrow; they have a lot of work to do, and do a great job.
It was just going dark by the time we got back. Cars already had their headlights on. We didn’t race to the car, we had no energy left, we staggered. Hannah touched the car first. ‘I won,’ she said and collapsed into the seat, half asleep.