A few days in the Lake District

Spring is here. It’s still quite cold first thing in the morning, but the longer evenings are suddenly back, and nightly constitutionals are making a return. When the sun shines and the wind drops, the warmth on one’s skin is very welcome.

M and I spent last week in the Lake District – just what the doctor ordered. We even spent an unseasonably warm warm afternoon at Kew Gardens the day before we travelled. A mini-holiday prologue.

I have a few little strands to mention about this trip to the Lakes (not quite Postcards, as per my last visit), which I will try to do over the coming week or two. But for now, just a handful of snapshots from Windermere, Blackwell, and a few other spots thereabouts.

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Have returned to London with something of a thump.

Giving myself a few days’ buffer at either end of the holiday was a very good idea. But whether it’s the deafening traffic of Finchley Road or the gloomy grime of certain streets around my neighbourhood, the transition from country to town has hit me quite hard. The existential ennui of the local and global political situation isn’t helping much. But perhaps it’s just post-holiday blues.

Anyway. Photographs.

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Blackwell, a Baillie Scott Arts & Crafts house nestled in the hills above Windermere
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On Windermere
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I like a good stile – but a dry stone wall stile? Marvellous.
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Sketching at Blackwell
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I loved Blackwell. I’d like to have spent much more time there.
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Towards Orrest Head

Isle of Wight Coastal Path – photographs online

Last May, M and I walked the Isle of Wight Coastal Path. This 70-mile circular path can be started anywhere along its length (and indeed, done in any number of stages).

We decided to start and end in Cowes (12 o’clock on the embedded map below), and we gave ourselves 4-5 days to work our way round the island going clockwise. This was based partly on what we felt we could manage in a day, and partly on where it was possible to stay on our way. Just like the island’s geography, its distribution of accommodation is a little bit lop-sided.

Anyway, the full story of our walk is best saved for another day (it involved broken footwear, mixed weather, backpack sores, and snakes both venomous and non), but I’ve only just got round to putting the photographs online. So here they are. Below is a map showing the route, and below that is a Flickr slideshow, or you can click here to see the full set on Flickr.

Isle of Wight Coastal Path - Day 1

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.

Postcards from the Lake District: Helvellyn via Striding Edge

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…