Posts Tagged ‘Hartsop’

hartsop barn

When he was writing his iconic guidebook series, Alfred Wainwright gave the region east of Ullswater, Patterdale and Kirkstone, the rather exotic title: the Far Eastern Fells. It has something of the romance of old Empire about it, suggesting a region both aloof and mysterious. For two years he explored it in his characteristically painstaking and solitary manner, finally penning the last full stop of this, his second volume, in the Autumn of 1956. On its completion, he said, he felt like a man who had just come home “from a long and lonely journey”, describing a land in which he had walked from morning till dusk without sight of other human beings. It’s not quite so lonely a place now, but still a good choice for anyone wanting to escape the queues on Striding Edge.

“They are for strong walkers,” these fells, he says, “and should please the solitary man of keen observation and imagination”.

far eastern fellsIn the 50’s this region was very difficult to get at, especially for anyone, like Wainwright, without a car, and that means most people. Overnight accommodation was sparse, still is, being mostly restricted to the Patterdale valley. He relied on bus services from Kendal, and wild-camps overnight. But over-nighting on the fells for Wainwright did not involve a tent, just a blanket and endless smokes until first-light. He walked in tweeds and hobnails, and his waterproof was a button-up plastic Mackintosh. Today’s mountain rescue teams would feel obliged to consider him mad and deliver a stern lecture, but his was a more rugged, unassuming, and self-reliant generation, one that brushed off hardship. It was thus, lightly attired, he explored every nook and cranny, and of an evening he would settle down at home with pen and ink and fashion for us entirely by hand these neatly intricate and fastidiously detailed guidebooks which, like no others, are a timeless love-song to the land of the lakes. They are also of course a lasting inspiration to the generations who have followed him up the English mountains.

As he wrote his guides he worried they would soon become dated beyond use, but many an experienced fell-walker still defers to them when planning an expedition. They provide a wealth of detail, all of it conveyed with great charm. For once though, I found Wainwright of little help. I was planning a walk over Satura Crag by way of Hayeswater, then on to Angle Tarn, but the crag only manages a footnote in book two, it being really neither here nor there, just a neat little crown of crags on the way from one much bigger place to the next. It’s more notable for the view than for the climb – as we shall see – but let’s pocket our Wainwright for company anyway, and off we go.

We begin in Patterdale, at the beautiful little hamlet of Hartsop. And it’s here, I read with some sadness the notice beseeching visitors to take their bags of dog-poo home. It seems the plague of bagged-and-scattered dog-poo has reached even Hartsop now! I have imagined the spread of a crass urban greyness in many ways over the years, contaminating the sublime green with something unwholesome, but discarded bags of poo were not anticipated, nor even imagined, yet they do sum up this socially degenerate phenomenon very well, both in its physical manifestation, but also metaphorically, and even spiritually.

The climb begins at once on an unrelentingly steep track by Hayewater Gill, which, after an hour or so, leads us to the somewhat troubling revelation that is Hayeswater, a post-glacial lake, nestling in a valley at nearly 1400 feet. Why troubling? Well, it’s hard to say, but I’m not the only one to have thought so:

ENFOLDED in the mountain’s naked arms,
Where noonday wears a drearier look than night,
And echo, like a shrinking anchorite,
Wanders unseen, and shadowy strange alarms

Visit the soul ; there sunshine rarely warms
The crags, but only random shafts of light
Flit, while the black squalls shrilling from the height
Shudder along the lake in scattering swarms.

Cradle of tempests, whence the whirlwind leaps
To scourge the billows, till they writhe and rear
Columns of hissing spray ; the wrinkled steeps

Scowl at the sullen moaning of the mere ;
And luminous against the dale-side drear,
Ghostlike, the rainstorm’s scanty vesture sweeps.


Hayeswater from Satura Crag

So wrote Alfred Hayes of it in 1895. And the watercolourist, Heaton Cooper, writing in 1960, agrees it can be rather a sombre place. Heaton Cooper also writes of an abundance of wildlife here but that seems nowadays lacking: deer and pine-martens and birds, including cormorants, fishing for the lake’s salmon. Indeed it has an altogether more barren look about it this morning – not even sheep. There are sketchy paths that trace its shore, but it’s not a place that invites closer acquaintance and I have never been tempted by it. So we avoid the “sullen moaning of the mere” and keep to the sunnier path that winds its way up by The Knott. Here at around 2000 feet, we encounter the path connecting with the Roman Way on Highstreet, and head north. Far below us now, Hayeswater still broods, while the southern sky thickens and dissolves the warm, cloudy-brightness of the morning into something altogether more gloomy. The Met office forecast rain for 15:00, and it looks like they’re going to be right.

I realise that, like most of my walks in the Lakes, I last did this route many years ago. I also remember it as being rather easier than it feels today. As we age, we trade our fitness for “experience”. Yet it’s experience that enables us to savour places such as these all the more and it’s unfortunate then it’s this lost fitness that’s required to carry us up here, thereby curtailing our opportunity for over-indulgence in the Lake country’s mystical delights. But such convolutions aren’t getting us any further along our path, are they Michael? On we go then, the hard work of ascent behind us now, so we can enjoy an undulating and entirely unambiguous path all the way to Satura Crag. From here, northwards we get a view of one of Lakeland’s most secret valleys: the seldom seen and ever so lonely Bannerdale.

It’s a mostly deserted place, just the one lone farm at Dale Head, a white sentinel against the green, and around the corner, at the opening of Rampsgill, there’s the historic hunting lodge, built in 1912 for a visit by our game-mad cousin, Kaiser Willy. The lodge is for hire. It boasts “interesting plumbing” and costs £1400 per week at peak. As a base for exploring this remote region, I can think of nowhere finer! However, I do admit to preferring my plumbing as boring as possible.


Angle Tarn

Continuing our way, we come down to Angle Tarn for lunch, an altogether cheerier prospect than Hayeswater. Indeed Wainwright declared this to be one of the finest tarns in Lakeland. Even in gloomy weather, it never fails to make me smile. There is something truly heavenly about it, un-shadowed by soaring crag, it reflects the mood of the sky perfectly, speaking of which, as we settle by the shore, the sky darkens, and a wind stirs the surface to an animated silver.

I was probably twenty five when I first came this way, living at home with my mum, and just a rusty old Cortina to my name. Now I’ve got kids as old as I was then, my mum’s gone, and my whole life down there in the mad churn of the world is completely different, yet right now, and from this elevated perspective, I’m reassured a vital part of me remains the same, that there is little to separate that earlier walk from this one, for such is the magic of the fells, always stripping away the egoic delusions of who and what we think we are, and dismissing too the imaginary constraints of linear time.

The best walk is always the next one, and all walks are equally memorable, yet remembered in no particular order, so for a time, we are indeed ageless. Wordsworth wrote of this in more penetrating form in his “intimations of immortality”, that it is indeed possible to recover what we feel we have lost to time. But for that to mean anything to us personally, I think we need to have a spent a life-time wandering the high-ways, among these gaunt cathedrals and echoing amphitheatres, listening to, or rather feeling, what it is they have to say to us.

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, its fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give,
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Thank you William.

But we’ve burst seventeen hundred words now, which puts us considerably to the north of verbose, so far as this particular medium goes, and here we are still, up by Angle Tarn, munching on a butty like we’ve not a care in the world. It’s also looking like the rain’s going to catch up with us any second. We don’t mind that, though we might give the Pikes a miss, and just shamble our way down to Boardale because, although we’ve only done about four miles so far, it feels more like eight, and we’ve another three back to the car which are going to feel like six. And maybe it’s time we bought a better pair of boots, maybe even a pair of Scarpas like our old ones. But it took us twenty years to wear those things out, and they still weren’t worn in by the time they fell apart, and have we even got another twenty years of blisters in us?

Sure we do.

A fish leaps, lands with a splosh and focuses down our attention to the mindful moment. Then the rain comes on, its “scanty vesture” advancing earnestly, across the fells, raises a hiss from the clear waters of the tarn. Hat’s off to the Met office; they forecast this five days ago, and they’re only half an hour out. How do they do that?

It’s a firm rain, but soft on the skin and warm. Then comes that rich scent from the earth, something fecund and exhilarating about it, like a fine malt whiskey. Sure, there are worse places to be than the Far Eastern Fells in June. Even in the rain.

Three miles still to the car, did you say?

They can wait.

Hartsop vire to threshthwaite



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Easter was a bit strange this year with schools finishing a clear two weeks before the festive weekend, which meant those of us who work outside of the education system had a problem fitting our modest allocation of holidays around the more generous leasure time of our offspring. It also meant the hotels and hostelries in the Lake District had a full two weeks to charge a hundred pounds more than they do normally.

As in previous years my destination for an early break in the Lakes is the little hamlet of Hartsop, and a Scandinavian style cabin set in a bowl of craggy hills. As usual these days, when I travel more than twenty miles from home, I wondered if old Grumpy was going to make it without literally blowing a gasket or slipping a disc, but we made it in one piece, the final section of the run being over the Kirkstone pass on a beautiful sunny Friday evening – which bore much promise for the weekend ahead.

As usual I packed up a load of gear I thought I might need, most of it battery operated, so I had to lug all the chargers as well, and as usual the only thing I actually used was my camera. I’d put a copy of my current work in progress on the iPad, thinking I might crack the problems I’m having with it, but in the end I didn’t touch it – becoming bound up in the detoxifying feel of this heavenly place instead, and simply letting the everyday details of my life dissolve back into a state of pure being.

The first reminder you get, when you come to a place like this, that you’re living in an unnatural way is when the sun goes down and the stars come out. You see more stars, and you are better able to perceive their colours, so that the heavens shine and glitter as they should. Also, the cabin being generously overhung by its eaves, tends to be a shady sort of place, so that when the lights go out the blackness is like that of the deepest cave. I remember waking up in the small hours and opening my eyes, but the action made no difference so that I wondered if I’d gone blind and had to grope for my watch which lay under the bed so its luminous dial could reassure me.

There are some massive walks converging on Hartsop, all of them stunning in what they reveal of the mountainous nature of this corner of Westmorland, but there are also plenty of modest hikes that give you an opportunity to view the mountains at a safer distance. I tend not to walk the high-fells when I’m with the family, as I seem to be alone in my hill-fever, so it was the modest jaunts I sought out fro this weekend and none can be finer than the circuit of Brother’s Water. This is a couple of hours of perfectly flat walking on good paths. Setting out mid-morning, you can plan the perfect pitstop at the Brother’s Water Inn for a drink or an excellent bar lunch. On our walk we were especially lucky in spotting this little creature:

He’s only about six inches long, one of our native common lizards, just woken up from hibernation and looking for a sunny spot to bask in – he just happened to pick the same spot I’d chosen for a rest, and was dozy enough from his long winter sleep to pose for photographs. At any other time of year they’re hard to spot, and faster than greased lightning.

I have to admit to feeling a bit rubbish this year. It was a grim winter, old grumpy’s set me back a thousand pounds so far in repairs, petrol is becoming truly, frighteningly expensive, and there have been some unsettling changes with the day-job as well. All told I’ve not been as bright and positive as I’d like, so I was ready for a break. I think the negatives have been affecting the writing too, refusing to allow me the peace of mind to blast through the block I’m having on the work in progress. I scanned through it briefly on the Sunday of the weekend, but set it aside, untouched, and took a short hike from the cabin to sit an hour beside the most sublime waterfall instead.

It takes a place like that to remind you of the truly elemental things in life. For an hour everything was stripped away and I was just this human being tuning in to the white noise of the crashing water while the sun shone and the spirits of this delightful place gave me back my sense of self and sent me home the next day with the feeling that all was right with the world.

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There is a secret place called Hartsop. Most people are aware of it only as a signpost glimpsed briefly in passing on the A592,  between the Kirkstone pass and the obligatory tourist halt of Glenridding. It’s better known to hill-walkers, there being a small car-park here at the far end of a tortuous little lane, and valuable as a starting point for exploring the fells in this area. The road into Hartsop is narrow and leads nowhere, which has perhaps helped to spare the village the more usual fate of such places, and thus far it remains entirely unspoiled by the trinket shops and the other dubious trappings of the tourist trade.

There are an increasing number of holiday rentals here, quaint 17th cottages restored to a state of modern countryfied chic  but it is still a place where people live, and farm. Thankfully there are as yet no “leisure facilities” of any kind. The only facilities here are the stunning scenery, the fells, the lakes, the taste of the air and the sound of running water. If your thing is walking, climbing, fishing, or writing, Harstop is the place for you.

I’ve been exploring the Lakes since I was a teenager and old enough to drive up here in my first old banger – a rickety, rusty old Honda N600. There’s hardly a fell I’ve not stood on, and barely a ridge I’ve not traversed by now. I love the Lake District’s compact diversity,  and I’ve stayed in many of its more famous towns, but I keep coming back to Hartsop. There is for me something uniquely beautiful about it, about the valley it nestles in, the valleys that branch off it, and of course the fells that dominate it.

Alfred Wainwright, our most famous authority on the Lake District once described Hartsop Dodd, the most prominent protuberance hereabouts as resembling a child’s drawing of a hill – a great bell-shaped dome of a thing – not quite real, not quite believable. I think that sums up the charm of the area.There is something of fairy land about it. It’s no doubt a hard place to live in winter, as the shattered state of the A592 this February would suggest, but it’s become for me a place of dreaming.

I spent the weekend here at the beginning of February. The events of my daily life ebb and flow, the trivialities that define my outer world change, all be it in trivial ways, grow old and flimsy and break off into new directions. But Hartsop changes slowly, rendering the impression of a place outside of time for me. I come here as often as I can, to think, and to breathe.

It was here I wrote Ghost Horses, back in 2007 – basically a poem about being unable to write – something of a contradiction, I know, because I was obviously writing as I wrote it. But the timelessness of this place blurs memory and 2007 could easily have been 2010. I blink, years pass, I’m older, my children are older,… but Hartsop remains the same.

The snow has cleared from the lowland ares of the UK now but the hard weather continues on the fells, where snow still lies above 2500 feet. Local intelligence informs me walkers have been caught out ill-equipped for snow and ice. It seems fresh generations are forever re-learning the lessons of their fathers, still coming to grief on Helvellyn’s Striding, and Swirral Edge, still falling through cornices, and getting swept away by avalanches.

Not for me the High Fells in this weather. Indeed the High fells are becoming strangers to me now even in the summer months. I can remember every walk I’ve ever done here, and there’s a sharpness about them, as if the memory was cast in a cleaner stone, to emerge jewel like and sparkling with the intensity of a rare emotion. I smell the air. I taste the waters of the beck, feel the ache in my legs as I climb. Striding Edge, hot and dusty under the sun of a summer’s Sunday. Hartsop Dodd, lush and green with Brother’s Water sparkling below, the massive beacon on Thornthwaite Crag,…

Then I blink free, amazed I’ve been retracing steps from twenty years ago, and that the last peaks I bagged here were the Angletarn Pikes in 2006.

Ghost Horses

What makes me think the words will come today?
That by some magic not yet understood,
This place can somehow show to me the way,
So words might then pour freely from above?
Or well up from that secret place inside,
From whence all thoughts come clear and ready made,
To slide into the puzzle of my mind:
A sense of something learned, of distance gained.
But now the mist obscures the mountainside,
And idly seeks the hollows of the vale:
Ghost horses on whose backs my lost thoughts ride,
Too lame to hunt and yet afraid to fail.
A greyness takes the shape of what I knew:
Fair hills of hope, all lost to memory,
Days of sweet grass and glory all too few,
So I am rendered blind to what I see.
Snow falls like ashen moths into the mud,
While making no impression on the land.
They are my thoughts those moths and do no good,
Quite useless in their flight to understand,
What makes me think there’s any point to me.
But still I sit with fingers lightly poised,
O’er keys worn smooth from times words came with ease,
Words whose faint traces now bring little joy.
But no wise creature hunts on days like these,
So I must turn within and seek the warm,
And stir the glowing embers of my dreams,
In whose soft whispers all is granted form.

February 2007

Michael Graeme

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