Postcards from the Lake District: a recap

Over the past fortnight I’ve been sending some postcards from a recent trip to the Lake District. If you’ve already seen some of them, I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them. In case you missed any of the posts, they’re collected below, along with some photographs from the trip.

The full set of photographs can be seen here.

Thanks for looking. Meanwhile, I’m off to Cornwall for a few days…

Postcards from the Lake District: Dacre

Having found my little excursion to Barton to be a great success, I was confident that another side trip to Dacre would be worthwhile.

My main route back to Penrith was along a direct road to the north-east, pointing like a finger from Ullswater’s northern end. The turn-off for Barton had been to the east, with the Dacre leg to the west. The contour lines on the map around Dacre were slightly off-putting, but by now I’d decided that any side-trip was both manageable and worthwhile, especially with time to spare.

As with the jaunt to Barton, as soon as I turned off the main road towards Dacre, all was quiet and remote. I passed a sleepy farmhouse or two, but little else until I found myself looking down a rather steep hill. I paused at this point, with the incline giving me only one initial concern: coming back up the same way. But by now I was committed to Dacre, and I knew I’d regret not paying the village a visit. With that, I set off again, determined to enjoy the whizz downhill despite the sting in its tail.

The bottom of the hill brought me to a modest, attractive stone-built bridge which took the road curving over Dacre Beck. Once over the bridge, it was a short spin up a slight incline to Dacre itself. I pressed on, looking around the various cottages and other buildings until I found my destination: the tower of St Andrew’s Church.

I parked up my bicycle near the gate, and entered the churchyard to have a closer look. It’s a pretty church, dating back to the 12th century, set in a churchyard on multiple levels which hug the natural contours. Sheep graze in adjacent fields and, as usual, I seemed to have the place to myself.

While the church was rather attractive, it was a little unremarkable, so having given the building a circuit, I was heading back to my bike when I glanced back to take a photograph. As I lifted the viewfinder to my eye, I was startled by the sudden sound of the bells striking one o’clock. Even more startled as the clock on the tower said it was only five to…

Having snapped the church, I made for the gate again. This time I noticed that perhaps I wasn’t alone after all. Besides a couple of squirrels I’d seen scampering about, I noticed one or two stone columns, each one about the height of a child, looking very old and weather-worn. I didn’t know what to make of them at the time, but I could discern that they were some sort of crude animal.

Much later I read about these figures: they are the infamous ‘Dacre bears’ – or possibly lions – which stand, the four of them, at each corner of the original churchyard. They’re thought to be medieval, are of red sandstone, and are Grade II listed – but that’s about all that is known of them for sure.

As I left the churchyard, it turned out that the bears were not the only treat Dacre had hidden in plain sight. I sat for a minute on a bench marking the coronation of the Queen under a large tree. Studying the map, I noticed the word castle, in the Ordnance Survey’s own stylised font.

As usual, this was enough to pique my interest, so I scoffed some flapjack and headed off to look for it. I started down a farm track which specified no cycling. I got off and pushed, deciding I’d give it a minute or two to see if this castle materialised before turning back.

I soon encountered a ewe with two lambs sat lazily in the middle of the track. I edged closer and allowed them to get up slowly and saunter over to a patch of shade. To my right, suddenly, was a very large building. Dacre Castle! At 2-3 storeys high and roughly cubic in shape, it’s admittedly not the vast size one would expect from a castle, but it has all the box-ticking features: (empty) moat; towers/turrets; crenellations.

In checking my terminology, I stumbled upon something that sounds rather like a steampunk James Bond that I’d never heard of before: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Licence_to_crenellate.

 

Dacre Castle is now a private home so, short of taking too many photographs of someone’s house, I was happy enough to have merely found the thing after seeing it on a map. I’d have easily missed it. Satisfied, I pushed off, back through Dacre, down the road to the old bridge, and back up the steep hill I’d whizzed down earlier.

This, of course, brought my bicycle and I back onto the main road for Penrith, and I was left with fewer and fewer options for procrastinating and prolonging the end of my journey home.

The country house of Dalemain stood alongside the road, but I’d seemingly chosen the only day/afternoon/hour of the week that it’s closed to shoot past. Unfortunately-named Stainton had only an alpaca centre(!) to distract me, but I was able to resist its charms.

I paused by the village hall at the only bench I could find to stop and catch up on my journal. From there it was just a brief zip under the dual carriageway which had irked me on my way out of Penrith earlier in the week, and then I suddenly found myself on familiar roads, meaning I was just a mile or so from my destination.

As I got settled under the awning of Penrith station and opened up my Guardian, I heard the first few drops of rain falling – the showers that had been threatening my ride ever since Barton. I’d managed to avoid them all morning, and now all I had to do was sit and wait for my train home, my mind filled with memories of a lovely few days exploring the Lakes.

Postcards from the Lake District: St Michael’s Church, Barton

Knowing I’d be making the return journey to Penrith, I wanted to come back via an alternative route – as much to vary the scenery as to try and stay on as level ground as possible.

My route from Penrith to Glenridding had taken me via a dual carriageway and down, then up, a valley. I wanted to avoid the dual carriageway on the way back, and I studied the contour lines on the map a little more closely this time too.

I found that I could follow Ullswater to Pooley Bridge, then zip up a pretty direct road towards Penrith, taking a little excursion under the dual carriageway at Stainton, then back the way I’d come before. I also knew that I had something like five hours to kill this time, so I wanted to find some places to visit along the way. There’s nothing worse than the last day of your holiday simply turning into the journey home. Why not steal another half day’s exploring?

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Having checked the map for possible places to stop off, I noticed little Barton, above. How could I resist tracking down this tiny settlement with its own church? Lately I’ve discovered I have a bit of a thing for old churches in little villages. I like to locate them on a map, cycle to them, and take photographs of them. And here was the perfect opportunity for me to go and find another.

I left Glenridding and followed the lakeside route along the length of Ullswater, and made good progress. Although I was repeating some of my route from the previous days, I was doing it this time with fully loaded pannier bags, so progress was slower, but still smooth. It helped that I knew when to expect the low rises in the road surface, and how long I had between them.

Having reached the head of the lake, I took a right-hand fork through Pooley Bridge, which seemed like a pretty little place to stop. A small village centre with more than its fair share of cafes and other places to refresh oneself. I also noticed it was very popular with cyclists – some whizzing through to other destinations, others pulling in for a bit of cake.

My destination was just beyond Pooley Bridge, but I still stopped for an hour or so to update my journal before pushing on towards Barton. It wasn’t long before I realised what a brilliant decision this excursion had been. The roads were quiet, mostly flat, and the scenery was just lovely. Farms scattered around, and the odd pretty little house just off the road.

I was even more impressed when I found the turn-off to the church. Slightly cheapened by a modern sign proclaiming the building’s 12th century history, but the view down the lane was of a sturdy, low building of dark stone set amid a copse of trees not yet fully in leaf. St Michael’s Church stood alone in this sparsely-populated landscape, the trees having formed a ring around it as if in defence of something quite special.

Riding down the lane, the wind had dropped and I was very much alone – save for two beautiful horses loitering mischievously in the field that bounded the road. I nodded a greeting their way.

I parked up, leaning my bike against the stone wall of the churchyard. I had the place to myself, and I felt a bit of a thrill that the intriguing-looking feature on the map, above, had transpired to be just as idyllic in real life as I’d hoped.

Passing through the ornate lychgate, I enjoyed the cold weight of the heavy, iron gate latch in my hands. The churchyard was just perfect, and the church itself sat low, almost modestly, among the stone memorials. I spent some time wandering around the yard, observing the building from various angles, before heading back towards my bike.The sky was clouding over, and a breeze picking up, but the visit had been well worth it.

Something clicked in my head as I rode away from St Michael’s – this excursion had confirmed for me the value in scanning the map for interesting features and landmarks and setting out to find them. I’d long since known this, of course. But there was something so pure and unsullied about this particular experience that really cemented the worth in doing such a thing.

I left Barton – I hadn’t actually even seen Barton, if indeed there is a Barton beyond the church – and rode back towards Pooley Bridge. I had time on my side, and although my ultimate destination was the railway station at Penrith, I had one final stop to make on my way back…

Postcards from the Lake District: Catstye Cam

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I’d read in a book of Lake District walks that the ‘bonny peak’ of Catstye Cam*  was not to be missed when tackling Helvellyn. At 890m, it’s a pretty sizeable fell, and it has a rather wonderful shape to it. As Wainwright wrote, “if Catstycam stood alone, remote from its fellows, it would be one of the finest peaks in Lakeland.” Praise indeed from the man himself.
* On the naming: Catstye Cam seems the most common, but Wainwright favoured Catstycam, while also citing Catchedicam.

 

The ascent of Helvellyn from Glenridding is very much in Catstye Cam’s shadow. Indeed, for much of the route up, Helvellyn itself remains hidden behind its lower relative, and only reveals itself when turning the corner to the wide plateau on which sits Red Tarn.

Once on the summit of Helvellyn, Catstye Cam’s presence is unmistakeable. As one tends to do when on the top of a mountain or big hill, your eyes cast around for recognisable landmarks: lakes, valleys, other distant peaks. But there, right in front of you, along the narrow, rocky ridge of Swirral Edge, is a bonny peak indeed.

It’s a lovely sight, sat on Helvellyn’s top, to see this pudding bowl scooped out by glaciers – the centre of which filled by the waters of Red Tarn – and both sides, sheer and craggy, providing adventurous routes to the top. On one side, the formidable Striding Edge, and on the other, the mildly less hair-raising Swirral Edge.

It’s Swirral Edge that leads the walker to Catstye Cam, and this stone staircase – don’t lose your footing on the smooth rock – takes a bit more concentration than you’d perhaps expect. It’s partly to do with that unexpected realisation that the descent can often be as technically challenging as the ascent. But it’s also because, as you tentatively place one foot beneath the other and lower yourself down, your eyes and attention are relentlessly swept upwards by the views: all distant hills, lakes and sheer fellsides slipping away.

For the walker who maintains their footing down Swirral Edge, Catstye Cam is mere minutes away – although the conical peak, which looked so neat and achievable from atop Helvellyn, is now rather more impressive as it once again towers above.

But progress is steady as the worn path climbs Catstye Cam’s grassy slopes. Even if the fell’s shape wasn’t such a pronounced peak, you’d still feel yourself closing in on the summit as the grass gives way to rock, from which point it’s a brief scramble to the top.

Those who choose to include Catstye Cam in their dealings with Helvellyn are treated to a small cairn and panoramic views – the sharp peak of the fell providing, as Wainwright says, “no doubt,” as to the highest point.

If you’re lucky enough to have Catstye Cam to yourself, it’s wise to take a few minutes to drink in the scenery and appreciate the plucky little peak. Back up Swirral Edge, dots move along Helvellyn’s summit as walkers converge from the various routes up. The dark waters of Red Tarn sparkle in the sunlight, looking rather like an oasis amongst sharp rocky crags and the various greens, reds and browns of the surrounding vegetation. And, a long way down the valley to Glenridding, Ullswater is seen snaking its way between sheer fellsides.

Postcards from the Lake District: On the summit of Helvellyn

Having crossed Striding Edge, I was now presented with a conundrum I hadn’t expected. The way across the ridge had been a little hairy, but ultimately clear. Where the sheer sides drop away, the only clear route along the ridge is defined by being the only route – across the top.

I had assumed that the ridge would continue all the way to the top; that this ‘Edge’ would be visible and clear, running like a spine all the way to the relative sanctuary of the summit. Alas, the scene I was now presented with was nothing more than a wall of shattered rocks, seeming almost vertical, and offering no obvious route to stick to.

At least with the ridge, the route had been obvious. This time I had no choice but to begin scrambling up rocks, hoping to follow my footing to another suitable scramble point, and repeat this process to the top. Where was Wainwright’s “good path throughout” now?

Although I had up to this point been alone, I’d recently become aware of a lone walker quickly gaining on me. His confidence along Striding Edge had reassured me, along with his mere presence, and I paused to allow him to reach my position. At this point, we greeted each other. He seemed dressed for the occasion, and his swift progress led me to ask, somewhat sheepishly, if I could follow him up the next section as I wasn’t at all sure of the route. His calm demeanour reassured me further, but unfortunately he said he had no idea either.

However, in the end we both just started up the rock wall, finding foot and hand holds, and just taking a few metres at a time before looking up and deciding on the next bit to scramble to. In this manner, slowly but surely, we made it up to ground which could be traversed merely on two feet. I remain very grateful to this anonymous companion, as his presence and moral support gave me the extra push I needed to not just sit and stare at nondescript rocks, but to try and tackle them instead.

As the Gough Memorial came into view, we shared a crack about false summits, but I realised then that the rest of the ascent would be easy. The summit plateau lay before me as a gentle slope up to a few more man-made landmarks: a stone X-shaped wind shelter, the Ordnance Survey triangulation pillar at a height of 949m, and the cairn of rocks marking Helvellyn’s highest point at 950m.

My companion and I naturally drifted apart at this point, to allow us both to enjoy the summit alone. And alone we were: it was almost 11am, and we had the top completely to ourselves. What’s more, the clouds were fast moving and we had sunshine and views for miles around. The air was noticeably cooler on the summit and the pretty white patches I’d seen from the distance now appeared as large slabs of packed snow clinging to the sheer slopes. I wondered how long these patches would remain, sparkling as they were in the bright sunshine.

These glorious conditions kept bringing to mind my previous memory of the summit as a bizarre experience of being inside a cloud. This time I was left in no doubt at all of being on top of England’s third highest mountain: the scenery laid out in all directions beneath me was testament to that.