If Skiddaw can be described as whale-back, then Blencathra, its neighbour, must be described as the shark that stalks it. At 3,054 feet, Skiddaw looms over Keswick and behind its bulk lie a conglomeration of mountains – a mixture of sedimentary slate and volcanic gabbro. Carrock Fell – which Wainwright described as the second most exciting and interesting fell in Northern Lakeland, after Blencathra and before Skiddaw – lies six miles to the north east and is the only mountain within the Lake District that is predominantly gabbro: the rock which makes up the Black Cuillen Ridge on the Isle of Skye.
Wake up call
Today is an impromptu visit. Hannah was dreaming of a restful day at home when I awoke her at 7am. Last night I had told her that we wouldn’t be going walking today. After all, she was exhausted from swimming and canoeing around Coniston for her friend’s birthday party, so she needed a rest.
Unfortunately, at 6am, I looked out of the window and thought, this looks like a good day, a tremendous day on the hill – too good to miss. You know the rest!
“Come on, we’re going walking.”
“What!” Through bleary eyes she protested.
“But you promised . . .”
“Well, I changed my mind. It’s a nice day so I think we should get out. Make the most of it.”
“Ooooh . . . Go away . . . Why? I’m not getting up . . . you promised.”
An hour later we were in the car and heading for Keswick, trying to beat the tourists to Latrigg.
Hannah, with the seat laid back, was asleep. That was okay, she’d made it.
The choice was hers. Fantastic girl!
“Wake me when we get there.” she muttered, through eyelids that stubbornly refused to open.
I couldn’t promise her fish and chips this time because we would be home before tea. She opportunistically reminded me though that I had promised to buy her a phone case.
Oh well, fair enough, deal then, I suppose.
She set out from Latrigg while I was still packing and putting my boots on. I don’t think she was still mad at me, maybe just needed some time to be alone.
“You can catch me up, can’t you?” She asked, non-rhetorically.
I was starting to feel guilty.
“Okay, you carry on, no problem.” I muttered.
Moments later there was no sign of her. Pangs of guilt twisted deeper. Perhaps she had gone up Latrigg by mistake. I looked for the distinctive yellow Tearfund t-shirt, but there was only green grass and a few sheep.
I was expected her to jump out from behind a rock, or throw stones at me, or something.
Two walkers that we had met in the car park meandered up the broad path ahead. Above them were more indistinct figures and a few sheep. I wasn’t worried, but pleasantly perplexed at how she could have covered so much distance in so short a time – maybe she had woken up, or maybe, fuming with anger, she had stormed ahead.
At the dip just after the memorial cross I spotted her – half way up the path that led directly up the fell – I was impressed. She spotted me, waved, turned and carried on. Everything seemed okay, so I quickened my pace and caught her up.
Skiddaw Little Man
Our first Wainwright today, Skiddaw Little Man (865m), rose ahead of us. The path wound towards the stile at Jenkin Hill. Clouds were beginning to build. Big black things that spoke ominously of wind and rain. The wind was biting, after all it is the middle of July, our summer!
Just before the top of Little Man the wind smacked into our faces with cold hard fists. Skiddaw hid under a cap of dark-grey cloud, ashamed, hiding its face because of the inclement weather around it. Cloud crept stealthily towards us, hoping we wouldn’t spot it, covert like, stopping when we looked at it. Wispy strands dragged heavier clumps over the summit. Rusting iron fence posts, rammed into a makeshift cairn, whistled in the wind, announcing our arrival and, as if called, the wind increased as we put on our jackets and hats.
Storm clouds over Skiddaw
Bashful Skiddaw detached itself from what was going on and sank deeper into the cloud. I don’t think I have ever been up here when it hasn’t been cold, windy or snowy. This mountain seems to attract fierce weather. I have no doubt that people have sunbathed on the ridge that now lies obscured before us – that would be nice.
The clouds obligingly lift as we reach the summit cairn. From here we can see Keswick and Derwentwater, while in the distance the fells recede towards Wasdale and the mighty peaks of Scafell and Gable. But glowering above them, like a poised tsunami, a wave of malevolent, black, triangular clouds float just above the tops. The base of these vapour mountains is rimmed by a line of sunlight and looking underneath we can see Whitehaven and the coast. They tower over Skiddaw, waiting for us to make our move, like some gigantic spaceship.
A Kestrel soars
A Kestrel soars on these gusting thermals, hunting, watching. It is amazing how it can sit on wind as strong as this and remain completely motionless. It would dive, disappear, and a second later rise high into the air and stop, paused, like a spot in the sky. We watch this performance as it hovers above our heads, unperturbed by our presence, until it glides seeking more lucrative hunting grounds.
Cairns mark the way along the wide track that leads to the summit of Skiddaw – obtrusive and unnecessary. There are only two ways to walk on a ridge, forward or backward. If you start to descend then you are heading the wrong way.
Even in mist, a compass bearing will either lead you along it or back the way you have come. Cairns can be helpful, but when scattered all over the place they can destroy the adventure of mountaineering.
Shielded by the stone shelter we eat our sandwiches. The mass of black clouds start to move, creeping ominously towards us. Raindrops foretell their arrival. Already my fingers are freezing. Is this July? It feels like October. As we descend, the cloud drops and chases us down the path. It soon envelops us in grey mist.
At Jenkin Hill we drop out of the cloud and follow the path towards our final Wainwright, Lonscale Fell. It is a joy to be walking over grass – just what the fells used to be like. Although boggy, they put a spring into our steps. An interesting promontory to the north of the summit juts out over the Glenderaterra Beck. It reminds me of when Hannah and Georgia serenading the theme from Lion King on Knott Rigg a few months ago.
From the plateau’d summit I let Hannah lead the way down. An indistinct path, more trodden grass than stone, leads south from the cairn. It is great to walk over grass. The path soon turns east, but she decides to keep heading down. There is still a path, which I soon realise is a sheep trod. It then becomes a re-entrant, which thankfully is dry, but very steep.
“Let’s just imagine we’re orienteering,” I said.
“Orien . . what,” she replied. We stumble through ankle-gripping bracken.
“Watch out for the ticks,” she warns. Thanks – I have my shorts on.
A group of sheep watch curiously as we crash towards them. They soon recognise us as lost and fumbling walkers and nonchalantly drift away to leave us to sort out our predicament.
A fence baa-ed our way – sorry, couldn’t resist the pun – above a gorge through which water thundered en-route for the River Greta and Derwentwater. No way forward, no way back, no way right – that was the wrong direction anyway.
The only way left – literally – was to follow the fence through shoulder-high, or head-high bracken for Hannah.
Under our feet the sheep trod continues. Clever things – sheep – they know the best way up a fell, or down it, so we follow their trail, until we emerge out of the jungle onto the path like long-lost explorers and startle a couple of walkers.
We called it Hannah’s Route, but I doubt anyone sensible will follow it, except sheep and they’re not generally considered the brightest of God’s creatures. I have an inclination that we may start to create our own routes up the mountains in future, that way we can avoid the detriment of tourism and discover what remains of the Lake District wilderness. There are still miles of fellside that hardly ever see walkers.
Hannah did get her treat in the end, when we visited the Tearfund stand at the Keswick Convention. They made her a hot chocolate mountain (hot chocolate with a Skiddaw-sized dollop of whipped cream covered by marshmallows to resemble the rocks we had been walking over). I must admit it was the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had. Yes, I also had one. Maybe we can do another Keswick walk next week, it’ll be worth it just for the hot chocolate!