Standing in the footsteps of Alfred Wainwright we gaze upon Innominate Tarn. From among rocks on an unidentified crag we eat lunch and brew mango tea in an old camping kettle. I’m not a great fan of mango tea but yesterday it was the only thing I could find in a tea bag. Hannah wasn’t too impressed with it and happily sipped hot chocolate while eating ham and cheese sandwiches.
Across the Buttermere valley, Robinson and Hindscarth reflect beautifully in the tarn, or at least for they did for a second, before the wind blew and their inverted images were lost beneath irregular ripples and shadows.
Into the western fells
We are again making inroads into the western fells and – as A.H.Griffin once wrote about them – we have discovered that they are becoming a place of pilgrimage. On our map the unclimbed western peaks stand out like flag-less summits. Others, previously climbed, through snow, blizzards and warm, sunny days proudly display an assortment of coloured pins. But time stops for no man and we are just under half-way through our walks with still over 129 to go.
As we have no car to reach these western peaks, I am beginning to sense an affinity with the early pioneers of fell exploration. A.H.Griffin, Wainwright and other early climbers reached these fells by train, bicycle and on foot. It is a while since I walked these hills and have forgotten how impressive and tantalisingly challenging they can be.
Veteran hill walker on Grey Knotts
Today we travelled by Stagecoach (the bus) to the summit of Honister Pass. On the steep ascent of Grey Knotts we chatted with a veteran hill-walker from Halifax. Our friend, now in his 80’s – probably – recounted to us how he used to walk over 20 miles exploring all the Lake District fells. His route today will take him over Green Gable and Great Gable and Pillar before dropping down to the Black Sail Youth Hostel (which is a place we may need to visit in the not too distant future) before returning to Keswick tomorrow.
I watched him climb for a few hundred feet then stop for a rest – to catch his breath – as he told me.
We would pass him, then Hannah would have a snack stop – only a second as she always says – and he would pass us again. “Hello”
“Hello again,” we reply.
Stage show on the western fells
On the rocky outcrops of Grey Knott we stop, transfixed and stare in wonder. Curtains open and the mighty western peaks take centre stage and stand to applause in their full glory. Hard, black peaks punch into the sky, Gable, Kirk Fell, Pillar and in the distance Scafell. Sitting on a rocky outcrop – front row seats – we watch the show. The panorama tugs at my heart strings and we notice our friend wandering over Brandreth before disappearing backstage into the hollow of Gillercomb Head. I hope I am still walking as strong as him when I reach my 80s.
Grey Knotts is confusing. Where is the actual summit? The cairns don’t help. By the cairn on the fenced-off section it appears that the westerly top is higher. From there the first one seems higher. We can safely say we reached the summit, though I’m not sure which one it was.
Brandreth, a flat plateau sprouting many outcrops, is the continuation of Grey Knotts and just as confusing. I choose the most photogenic cairn for my photograph, against a backdrop of the remote Ennerdale Valley that, as the clouds break, is bathed in half-light while the mighty imposing crags of Pillar hover above the plantation.
On the way to Seavy Knott the peaks seem to rise exponentially faster than our descent. Behind them lies Scafell, a mountain we need to climb in the next month. Our plan to reach its summit is by way of a bus to Barrow, then the train to Ravenglass, followed by an invigorating trip on La’l Ratty to Eskdale. After walking The Screes we will camp by a ‘secret’ tarn on Scafell and the next day walk into Seathwaite and catch the bus to Keswick – something those early fell-walkers would have accepted without blinking an eyelid.
Alfred Wainwright on Haystacks
The proliferation of knolls and tarns on Haystacks means that we can avoid the tourist route from Blackbeck Tarn. After a lot of twists and turns, jumping bogs and landing in bogs, we discover an unnamed crag just south of Alfred Wainwright’s final resting place Innominate Tarn (According to AW this was the best fell top of all the Lake District’s hills and it is where his ashes are scattered).
Today it isn’t at its best. Heavy clouds blot out the sunlight and apart from sporadic intervals of breaking cloud, the sun never gets to shine on his resting place. Nevertheless, even in the dullness of an overcast sky it is a captivating place and we can understand why it was his favourite.
The summit of Hay Stacks – I think it is the westerly one – looks over Scarth Gap, but the view is better from the lower, easterly cairn which gives a grandstand view into Buttermere with the impressive climb of Gamlin End onto High Crag rearing up ahead.
“We’re not going up that, are we?” exclaimed Hannah.
“Hope, so,” I said, looking at my watch. “I’ll let you know when we get to Scarth Gap.”
Today’s route should go over High Crag, High Stile, Red Pike, maybe Starling Dodd, before descending past Scale Force (the Lake District’s highest falling waterfall at 125ft) and catch the last bus out of Buttermere at 1818. I don’t think we are going to make it.
Running out of time
High Crag towers above us. It looked impressively steep from the summit of Grey Knotts – it looks much steeper now. The path climbs just over 1200ft in a near vertical ascent from the Gap.
Our intention is to follow the path over Seat and continue along the ridge to Red Pike, but a quick calculation shows me that we will miss the last bus and be stranded in Buttermere if we attempt it. I can’t think of a better place to be stranded, but with only £10 in my pocket and no bivvy gear it would be an uncomfortable night in the open. The cloud is breaking and the forecast is for a warm, sunny afternoon, but with the foreboding of heavy rain later.
Hannah declares, “We won’t make it. We can come back later this week and finish the ridge.” She is right. We can. I put away the map and stop wishing that the fingers would slow down on my watch.
As we descend, the views from the path towards Buttermere are stunning. It is ironic that we are going to walk the same distance albeit without any ascent. The path by the side of Buttermere has got to be one of the most picturesque lowland walks in the Lake District.
Fish, sun and Hobgoblin
We are heading for the Fish Inn – where the bus stop is, and coincidentally, the beer. Racy shadows sprint up the side of Robinson as the sun breaks through the clouds. Like ink spots on a bright green canvas of rock and grass they resemble jigsaw pieces striving to fit together before moving apart.
Clouds dissipate as the suns heat turns them into vapour. In the blink of an eye we are standing beneath a blue sky and the heat
beats down on us. Horsetails of water crash down the fellside from last weeks rains, escaping with a vengeance from mountain tarns. The waterfalls of Comb Beck are inviting and we take off our boots and plunge into the icy, cold water. Within seconds my feet are numb. Swimming in mountain tarns is attractive, but better enjoyed in a warm, shady pool than in these freezing turbulent waters. Hannah didn’t seem to mind and it was certainly invigorating especially after tramping over the hills for six hours.
The Fish Inn is a welcome sight and so is my refreshing pint of Hobgoblin Gold. Hannah’s suggestion to wait for the next bus must certainly rank as the best comment of the day, following her decision not to go up High Crag.
“Fantastic idea,” I replied, as I sat on the bench under a full sun downing the golden nectar.
Fragmented clouds scud over Red Pike and along what would have been our descent route on the Ling Comb ridge. It was the perfect end to an interesting day.