Postcards from the Lake District: Helvellyn via Striding Edge

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My decision to tackle Helvellyn via Striding Edge was, I think, made some time in my childhood.

On a family holiday to the Lakes as a young boy, we climbed Helvellyn, possibly from one of the gentler Western approaches – perhaps the old pony route. I’d heard mention of Striding Edge as a fearful way to tackle the mountain, and not one we’d be doing.

Our time on the summit was, as I recall, brief, and shrouded entirely in cloud. We were on the top – no mistaking the sudden, wide plateau of rock after a few hours of ascent – but the thick cloud provided no further clues.

Ever since that childhood walk, I think Helvellyn has stood out in my mind as a mountain I must tackle again, alone, and the allure of Striding Edge had been implanted long ago. If nothing else, its name conjures the kind of activity and spirit I imagined would be necessary to traverse it. Not just walking or even ‘climbing’ this mountain would be enough for me, but striding – along an edge! It had always sounded to me so romantic and adventurous.

*****

The phrase ‘not for the faint-hearted’ is perhaps overused these days. It’s so often attached to things which, really, the faint-of-heart wouldn’t worry too much about. A forgotten book of Lake District walks I’d been using described the ascent of Helvellyn via Striding Edge as just that. It also, I believe, mentioned girding one’s loins at a crucial point. This had given me pause to consider what I had chosen to embark upon, but then I turned instead to Wainwright, who describes this route as:

The best way of all, well known, popular, and often densely populated in summer. The big attraction is an airy rock ridge, very fine indeed. Good path throughout.

Not for the faint-hearted? Wainwright made it sound like a walk in the park. Good old Wainwright.

I’d made it up from Helvellyn YHA so far with ease, before turning back on myself at Red Tarn to join up with the path to Striding Edge. A short backtrack towards ‘the hole in the wall’ afforded marvellous, hitherto unseen views down the other side of the valley. From here, I was walking back towards Helvellyn once more, with this mythical ‘Striding Edge’ somewhere in my near future.

I was left in no doubt of the point at which Striding Edge begun.

My experience of other walks – even other mountains, like Kinder Scout at Edale – is generally that paths tend to be clear, well-worn and sort of nestled in a safe furrow. Even on the edges of sheer hillsides, there is often a fence or some other barrier between path and sharp drop.

Not so, on Striding Edge. Not so at all.

The surface changed quickly from grassy and well worn to a kind of scattering of jagged rocks with smooth faces. And although I’d known I would be traversing a ridge, this was made abundantly clear by suddenly seeing the two sides drop away at my left and right to depths of many hundreds of metres. Even the relative proximity of Red Tarn to my right seemed a formidable drop, but the sheer slope on the opposite side wasn’t even worth considering.

It was at this point that I put my camera away and tightened my backpack straps. Although I’d normally be reluctant to put away my camera in such starkly beautiful scenery, I felt no remorse as I had a genuine need for the use of all four of my limbs. And even the shifting counterweight of my small backpack forced me to re-assess my centre of gravity as I began the scramble.

It was also at this point that I became aware that I was alone. I had been alone all the way up, enjoying a sunlit stroll through meadows and past streams. Now I was beginning to wish for, if not company, then at least some other people relatively nearby. Luckily, casting my eyes back to the hole in the wall, I spotted two distant parties of walkers heading my way. This gave me the reassurance I needed, and I proceeded across the ridge, loins suitably girded.

I’d already scratched a mental pencil line through Wainwright’s proclamations of Striding Edge as “densely populated,” (although in his defence, it was early April), and a “very fine,” “airy rock ridge.” It was indeed an airy rock ridge, though “fine” wasn’t the f-word jumping to my lips as I crawled, crab-like, across shattered boulders, occasionally allowing myself to glance down the sheer drops at either side.

There was indeed a path – occasionally. At times, the rocks naturally gave way to a muddy path or an obvious ledge to follow. At others, the only way appeared to simply be directly up and over the rocks themselves – literally scrambling or climbing up boulders the size of cars.

I also noticed that while there was occasionally a clear path, there were also occasionally clear paths – several options to consider, and no indication as to whether one would be preferable to the other as they always led behind another rock. I also realised that ever since the small cairns shortly after ‘the hole in the wall’, I had not seen any signposts or clear indications of the ‘proper’ route. I reasoned that, on a narrow ridge like this, there really is only one direction you can head.

I somehow made it across the bulk of Striding Edge without any mishap, and I stopped to take stock, catch my breath, and drink some water. But as I looked around, it slowly dawned on me that I had absolutely no idea where to go from here. Nothing like a clear path presented itself, and all I could see between me and the summit of Helvellyn was a wall of shattered rock…

Postcards from the Lake District: Helvellyn YHA

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The ride up from Glenridding was a slog. Coming at the end of a trying couple of hours tackling heavy rain and steep hills, it was surely put there to finish me off.

I’d gleefully turned into Greenside Road from the main drag of the village, but I knew from the contour lines on the map that a fairly sharp incline lay ahead. I barely made it to the pub halfway up the paved section before having to concede defeat, get off and push. I plopped down on a strategically placed bench and consulted the map some more, buying my tired legs some time, before using a second wind (Third? Fourth?) to round the next bend and pass the remaining houses of Greenside Road.

Where the houses stopped, so too did the Tarmac. From there on, the surface was rough gravel with the occasional teasing strip of ancient concrete. Where the road levelled out, I’d hop on my bicycle and pedal for a time, until having to get off and push once more.

I was well aware of the remoteness of the youth hostel I’d booked, located as it is not in the village but an hour or so into the walk to Helvellyn. But this didn’t comfort me much as I staggered on towards my home for the next few days. I was also struck by the realisation that the village would remain distant for the length of my stay, with this long track separating my bed from the nearest shops.

Reaching Helvellyn YHA was, therefore, a wonderful feeling. I found a pretty stone building set among trees, alongside a roaring beck. Inside, reception staff checked me in and I was quickly out of my soaked gear, and unpacking to find that the carrier-bagging of my luggage had paid off. My map was a little worse for wear – brand new a week ago and now rough and damp at the edges, already losing its shape as I’d re-folded it multiple times to follow my current route. Another mental note to only purchase laminated OS maps from now on: they’re worth the extra cost.

Having changed into warm, dry clothes and filled up on a decent enough meal at the hostel’s restaurant – maybe the remoteness of the shops would be less of an issue after all – I headed out for an exploratory wander.

The day’s showers had given way finally, leaving misty, wispy clouds hugging fellsides, and transforming becks and streams to roaring torrents as they tumbled down the valley to the lake.

All around me were signs of the area’s lead mining past – from small stone foundations and rough tracks to vast workings further up the valley. But these ghosts of opportunistic industry were all that was left to distract me from the remote nature of my base for the week.

That solemn, final trudge up Greenside Road had been worth it as I looked back down Glenridding Beck towards Ullswater: I’d paid for this sense of remoteness and, amid the silence, I was already very pleased that I had.

Postcards from the Lake District: Ullswater

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After a trying ride from Penrith, the way the road wound down to the shores of Ullswater was a real treat. The curves in the serpentine road as it threaded its way downhill kept giving glimpses of the body of water that lay below, leading me right to its edge.

Once at the valley bottom and alongside Ullswater, the rain had stopped and the road, though busier, was smooth – and flat. Pushing on from this point felt easy, almost dreamlike, as the views across the lake revealed mist-shrouded fells, lone trees, and vast woods. The usual view was across Ullswater’s narrow middle, but as the road followed its curves, I could occasionally see up most of its length to far, sunlit reaches in the distance.

Although my proximity to the lake’s edge meant I could easily see the clarity of the water, the low, gloomy clouds and dull, muted colours of the surrounding fells gave Ullswater a black, oily appearance.

Following the road to Glenridding from this point was easy. The road mostly hugged the water’s edge, making for a flat ride that only occasionally rose to tackle a rocky outcrop before leading down to the level of the water once again. The mid-afternoon traffic heading towards Glenridding, Patterdale and onwards was steady, but not busy.

There’s something wonderful about a route that follows water. Roads and paths that hug rivers, canals and lakes feel very natural and organic – like the route wasn’t decided by a man with a measuring stick. Instead these routes feel obvious, direct and ancient. We are drawn to water’s edges and, where bodies of water are long and narrow, rather than wide and round, it makes sense to follow those edges from one point to another. And where a long narrow lake is hemmed in on both sides by steep hills, crags and mountains, this narrow strip of land becomes a habitable sanctuary – a thin ribbon granting passage to those who seek it.

But it’s easy to let your mind wander as you push on and on, your bike feeling heavier and heavier at each rise. One of the best ways to snap out of such meditations is the appearance of the sign welcoming you to your destination. Glenridding greeted me with the sight of a handful of hotels, a small shop or two, and the requisite tourist information centre.

The rain had long since stopped, and my swift progress meant I was well on the way to drying off – which was a bonus, because although I’d reached the village, my final destination lay a few kilometres further on, up Glenridding Beck.

Postcards from the Lake District: The road from Penrith

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The route I’d picked to get from Penrith railway station to Ullswater and Glenridding wasn’t Google’s first suggestion. I’m a little suspicious of the cycling option when using Google’s route-finding tools – I’m still not sure how much it takes into account the rider’s legs, arse and mood.

Having managed to get myself and my two-wheeled machine on a train from Milton Keynes to Penrith, my hands trembled slightly with the anticipation of the unknown that lay before me. I’d checked the map carefully, but no route can be truly ‘known’ until it is actually used.

The ride out of Penrith was as uninspiring and swift as any exit of a town can be when new delights await. I was very quickly off the main road though, and following quiet lanes between fields and farms. The earlier portion wasn’t too hilly, and I enjoyed the gentle undulations and remote feeling. I stopped occasionally to check my map, and on one of these stops, a stray raindrop reminded me of the forecast I’d seen, and I pulled on waterproof overtrousers and fastened my raincoat. It was fortuitous that I did so at that point, because a torrent of rain suddenly appeared and stuck with me for much of the rest of my ride. I was at that point rather pleased that I’d carefully wrapped the contents of my backpack and pannier bags in individual carrier bags.

Pushing on from my layby changing room, I stashed my map in a zipped coat pocket. My decision to go rogue from Google’s first suggestion meant I now had to briefly join a dual carriageway. The rain was falling quite hard now, and it took some gritted teeth to pull out across the two opposite lanes into the one I needed, and a shallow incline meant I just had to push on and on, occasionally being passed by vast juggernauts. I was very quickly about as wet as it would be possible for me to get, which helped as the vertical spray from speeding motorists added to the horizontal downpour.

It’s safe to say I was pretty thrilled when it came time to leave the carriageway, and the sight of a narrow lane winding down the valley to Sparket Mill, though damp, was a lovely one. It wasn’t until I was at the bottom that I allowed myself to contemplate the necessity of climbing back up the other side. I managed it, but soggy shoes and heavy pannier bags made it hard work.

The roads were quieter than I’d expected – the only vehicle I remember overtaking me on this stretch was, of all things, a UPS truck. The ride was therefore a solitary one, but not a lonely one.

Once over another small ridge, I was greeted to the view seen above. The rain was abating, and the lush green hills were cloaked in mysterious swirling cloud. Most of the roads were now reduced to gullies, but I also knew that my route from the above point to Ullswater was almost completely downhill.