My heart was set on Cross Fell, ‘Fiends Fell’ they call it. The highest point in the Pennines. Reputed to be the home of demons and evil, a reputation probably gained from the shrieking Helm Wind that blows across its slopes. It has been calling me for a while and is first on my list of relatively easy day-hikes to continue cutting my teeth on the Northern Hills.
However, upon an admirably early arrival – by my standards – at Kirknewton, the quiet little Eden Valley village at the foot of the great rearing mass of the Pennines, I found the uplands entirely enveloped in a dense, freezing fog, which combined with high winds, snowfall and a dose of superstition led me to the conclusion that it might be unwise to climb a place of such repute in these conditions. So I dejectedly carried on along the A66 to the Lakes, chastising myself that a real walker – the ones sporting luminous waterproofs, bumbags filled with flapjacks and 4 walking poles each – would not baulk at such things.
To the Lakes then. Everyone has heard of how beautiful the Lake District is, it is a trope, its scenic virtues extolled by people for centuries. It’s weaved into the fabric of English life, ‘Oh, yeah, I heard it’s beautiful there’. But then, everyone also says that Game of Thrones is good so I was pretty blase about it as I passed Penrith, that curiously Cornish sounding town, and still pondering as to when the devils of Fiend’s Fell’s will allow me passag and generally not really anticipating what lay ahead.
The first Lakeland fell that greets you on the A66 is, I think – I am not well versed on the Lakes topography of course, ‘Blencathra’. It was so sudden and shocking that I had to pull into a layby and watch it for a while, stare at the thin grey clouds swirling away down its slopes, showing snow thick on the summit, thinning as it reached down the saddle. I was suddenly transported back to Snowdonia National Park when, in 2015, pootling about in my van, I was equally shocked discovering for the first time, actual, real mountains so close to home.
As a child I longed to see mountains more than anything else. Staring at obscene length, with the kind of rapt attention I struggle to muster now, at the distant places in my dated Readers Digest ‘Book of Natural Wonders‘. The Andes, the Hindu Kush, Denali, the Matterhorn, the Trango Towers. I became increasingly obsessed with seeing ‘real’ mountains first hand. Mountains that had snow, that were high, jagged, remote and harsh. This lasted until my parents were good enough to take me to the French Alps at fourteen and I remember silently and intently watching the mountains and forests as we drove from Geneva, waking up the next morning and seeing a fresh snowfall on the wooded peaks around the village of Saint Jean D’Aulps, feeling the feeling of being somewhere very European, the faint fear that there might be wolves in the woods.
Thus the urge was slaked somewhat and slowly ebbed away as the inevitabilities of being a teenager took over. Yet mountains remained in my mind, always a dull longing to walk in the more wild places from my childhood book; the Carpathians, the Albanian Alps, traverse the Caucasus and hike the Atlas. But like so many longings for distant places and things, I just haven’t done it, other things happened instead. That said I am lucky, I have seen the Southern Alps of New Zealand, spots of the Himalayas, the Western Ghats, Mount Athos, Mount Etna, the Alps and the Pyrenees first hand, which is a wonderful thing to be able to say, yet I still feel like I haven’t really engaged with them, climbed them, a slight dissatisfaction in not being the intrepid mountaineer I imagined myself as a boy.
Mountains still feel remote and mystical. They still stop me in my tracks, I hear a certain call from them when I see them, enticing me, entreating me to climb them, risk death on them. Perhaps this is why the Fiend’s Fell is calling me, they make me superstitious and wary, perhaps I did the right thing not climbing her.
So here I find these mythical things in my own country and somehow, despite the most vocal, public and voluminous admiration possible, it still felt like a secret kept from me. Hidden until I come across it for myself, known but not realised until watched from a layby of the A66 in January.
As I travelled further, trying to keep my eyes on the road and not on the great buff and yellow fells on every side, capped with the previous few days snow, I was put in mind of the road from Haast Pass to Wanaka in the South Island of New Zealand but with the peculiar Englishness I had missed. Less raw, fresh and wild beauty than there but compensated for by the old stone cottages and farmhouses, the sense of ancientness and connection to the of generations of lakelanders that made this home. A homeliness in the hemmed in density, every bit of land known and managed. A place so palpably conscious of its own identity and beauty, quietly but fiercely proud of its uniqueness.
The brown sign reading ‘Castlerigg Stone Circle’ pointing down a side road was of course going to be obeyed. I had read of it before but detachedly, abstractly and academically as one reads of Golden Eagles or Pine Martens, their existence interesting but not likely to be experienced first hand any time soon. Here I was though and there Castlerigg was.
The sign hooked old memories of disparate things read at some point, of Cumbria having its own language, its own separate identity and history just as Cornwall does. I was reminded that Castlerigg is often chosen as the photographic representation of stone circles in general because of its incredible situation and the uniform completeness of its structure.
Hideous isn’t it?
Actually, although the photo above might portray a romantic sense of remoteness and solitude, just out of shot was a string of tourists filing back to their coach. Castlerigg is literally 200 yards from a layby and generally the closer a beautiful place is to a car-park the busier it will be. Not that I scorn such people for clearly I am one of them.
I am not used to such places being so crowded, the only other megalithic structure I have seen with more than 3 people at one time was Stonehenge, which is both heaving and an exception to the above rule, being a good mile from the car park of course the pesky distance is offset by being one of the most famous ancient sites in the world. The circles of Cornwall, of which there are an abundance, are, by contrast nearly always devoid of people, a situation I both like and lament.
Castlerigg is very close indeed to the town of Keswick which must hold the record for the highest concentration of outdoor shops in the world. It is an undeniably pleasant place, bustling with weekend strollers and possessed of many buildings that have a grand Victorian air; three storeys with turrets, white ornamented gables and small, tight verandas, presumably all constructed at the zenith of the 19th century tourist boom (that is clearly still doing fine) and fostered by various great public figures of the stature and integrity not to be found in our own times; John Dalton, Coleridge, Wordsworth and the industrious Hardwicke Rawnsley. Coleridge himself wryly expressed curiously modern sentiments when he wrote to his mate J. Wedgewood, in 1800, that for a third of the year Keswick is the province of “swarms of tourists of all shapes, and sizes. It is the very place I would recommend to a novelist or farce writer” (ref).
The town centre is a slightly better than average mix of local business rather than bland chains but it is abundantly clear that, apart from being able to readily purchase rustly waterproof garments and walking poles of all sizes, colours and prices, Keswick’s grace is its position, its scenic situation at the northern end of Derwentwater and surrounded on all sides by lakes, fells and vales.
There was something else about Keswick that reminded me of New Zealand, particularly the South Island. A sense that those who live here are deliberately outdoorsy and adventure orientated. I get the feeling that those who have relocated here have done so in some large part because of a particular keenness for mountains, climbing, cycling or hiking and those who lived here already had this in their veins by osmosis. I felt the same notion if things were different that I could be one of them, who dedicates all waking time to arduous outdoors pursuits but of course I’m not. If I was just slightly more dedicated, single-minded or pro-active (successful perhaps?) then I would be one of the gore-tex clad, beany wearing, retriever owning instagrammers, supping coffee over my macbook and lentil soup in a Keswick cafe. I say this with affection and slight envy. Besides I counted two Pasty shops and a Seasalt clothing outlet up here in the far norf so perhaps the Cornish are infiltrating.
I took a suitably small looking road leading southwest from Keswick to Buttermere and enjoyed every moment of the drive through what I know now was Newlands Valley. It was all rather beautiful and impressive, the road curved up to a high pass where a few cars had parked, loomed over by forbidding walls of mountain with their peaks now obscured by low, cold clouds. On the way up I had clocked a long, white ribbon of water cascading down a cleft in the hill and a path clearly led there so that is where I went. For some reason now lost to me, I didn’t take a photograph of it.
Recently I had read that the ancient Britons had believed the earth to be a goddess and water her blood. Hence springs, wells, streams and rivers were sacred places, they were the life blood of the goddess and in turn gave us life. Veneration of the thing that we need most to live, particularly clean, non polluted sources, makes such obvious sense that I was surprised by realising I had never really thought about it. Such obvious sense even the Christian faith adopted water – and the pre-existing Pagan springs and wells – as their own. This might be a large part why clean watercourses are so beautiful, why there is something primordially pleasing about seeing and being in or near clear, clean water. To punctuate this, at the side of a pool where the racing cold meltwater briefly slows, there was a touching colourful stone monument to a recently deceased woman of the lakes left by a fond family.
Above me I noted two vibrant, matching rustlers coming down a precipitous, slightly hidden path from the plateau above. I waited for them to descend with their eight walking poles each and set off up it with a smile and nod that was unreturned – probably disgusted by my lack of poles. I really had no idea where I was or what was to be found beyond and it was actually a relatively strenuous climb, essentially a steep, irregular, mossy, icy, 400m flight of stairs.
I was fully expecting the view over the ridge to reveal yet more climbing but instead I was met with an expanse of moss, grass, peat and heather and unknown fells on all sides. I felt a creeping sense of adventure.
The large, bulky and as yet unnamed Fell that dominated everything to my left was obscured now and with mist, snow, no real experience, knowledge of the area, weather proofing or ever important walking poles I decided against strolling up the actually fairly easy looking slopes. I had baulked again but this time I was content with where I was, alone, in England, surrounded by unknown giants in a high, misty, cold and mysterious world.
It is difficult to call this wild, these fells are not truly wild, they are farmed, well-trodden, grazed and humanised but still there was some sense of being alone in nature. The lowering cloud and encroaching darkness adding to the sense of being there, in a moment, the idea of an even wilder world beyond the mist pulling strongly on my imagination.
I watched the clouds getting heavy over Buttermere lake, thickening, light dimming, wind increasing and veils of light rain sweeping through the valley towards my position.
Despite wanting to linger in awe of the fells, I had done my part and with daylight failing and the weather closing I turned and walked back, making a beeline across the peaty, bog-like land to the Beck which ran onwards over the ridge. Submerging my pink hand in respect to clean water, earth-blood, thinking about the wisdom inherent in its veneration.
Upon my return to my quiet room in Durham, I discovered the names of the places at which I had first tasted the Lakes and the Fells properly, first hand. I had ascended past Moss Force waterfall from Newlands Hause – the pass upon which I had parked – to grassy, boggy expanse of Buttermere Moss, looking back over Newlands valley through which I had motored, from there I had decided against going further up the stately, massive Fell which goes by the name of ‘Robinson’ but instead I had stood at High Snockrigg, staring at the rest of the as yet unknown Fells as they moved in and out of the clouds. I suspect I may have also glimpsed the giants of Helvellyn and Scafell through the murk, they are now on my list.