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The little roads of the Lakes are more demanding on the vehicle and on the nerves than those of the Dales. They zig-zag into the sky and follow tortuous routes, hugging the fells with steep russet and rock on one side, and fresh air on the other, not always fenced. The gulleys are deep. Drop a tyre off the tarmac and you’re going to struggle to get it back on. Do that at speed and you’ll damage the car, do it on the fresh air side of the road and there’s a chance you’re going to roll down the fell. Perhaps I exaggerate, but that’s the impression these roads leave you with, that you’d better be sharp about your wits.

They are among the most sporting routes for the recreational motorist, also for the motorcyclist and the cyclist. They are also “get-to” routes for the hillwalker, delivering him deep into the heart of the Lake’s more splendidly mountainous regions. They seem even narrower to me now than when I first drove them thirty years ago. It’s as if the fells are trying to squeeze them into impassable threads, erase them with the passage of time and harsh winters. They’re busier too, and cars these days are much bigger, much heavier, much fatter than they were. And basic motoring skills have been replaced with electronics that’s useless in these off-grid places.

Even with a proliferation of pull-ins for passing, you’re going to struggle at the busier times. You’re going to find cars parked in them, rendering the way impassable. Meet a blimp-like SUV coming the other way and it’s going to gawp at you like a zombified wildebeast, unable to go forwards or back, so you’ve got to remember each passing place as you pass it, and be prepared to back up, let these dumb creatures safely by, since they are incapable of working out how to do it for themselves.

I speak of course as the only perfect driver in the world.

Maybe I’m just older, but the narrow Lakes roads are not as much fun as they used to be, mainly on account of the usage they’re getting now. They’re also in poor shape. I took the Mazda over the little route from Great Langdale to Little Langdale recently, found the road frost-broken and deeply potholed. I bottomed the car in one hole, scraped the sill. Then I got stuck behind a bulbous Focus ST too, boy racer at the wheel, going at a walking pace, afraid to scratch his car. If you’re wanting to drive these routes, come early, keep your fingers crossed you meet nothing coming the other way and come in a well sprung, small car with lots of guts.

But for all of that they’re very beautiful roads to travel, allowing for many an intimate contact with the sublime nature of the Lake District mountain landscape. It’s better by far of course if you can muster the energy to put your feet on the ground and haul your bones up the paths, get yourself in among the secret folds of the hills, but the little roads give you at least a taste of it.

I remember a week in Austria, surrounded by mountains on an awesome scale, like in a depiction of fairy-land. The following week I was in the Lakes, thinking it would seem tame by comparison, but I discovered all it lacked was the vertical scale, having lost nothing whatsoever of its visceral power. The impact of somewhere like the Austrian Tryrol is obvious in its scale and sheer vertical brutality, while the Lakes engages at a deeper lever.

The power of the Lakes is in part in its age. These are among the oldest of mountains. They are hard rock, worked by weather on a geological time-scale that’s as near to infinity as makes no difference to mankind. They are also worked by mankind who has beetled among them for ten thousand years. And their impact on the senses is in their compactness, so much beauty and drama, darkness and light, fell and field and lake, all of it encompassed in the graceful turn of an eagle’s wing*.

The road threads its way by Blea Tarn, a shallow depression nestled in the palm of the land, fingers and thumbs of crag curling skywards all around, then it dips into the Little Langdale Valley, affording its most spectacular views of a sublime loveliness. A hairpin-junction at the bottom grants the choice of ways: left for the village, and escape to the broader routes through Elterwater, or right for the long and equally narrow road up by Three Shire’s Stone, then Cockley Beck, Wrynose, and Hardknott, all the way to Eskdale if you’ve the nerve for it. Many drive these ways for the challenge, for the sheer exhilarating thrill and beauty of it. They are the ultimate test of confidence in yourself and in your machine, but I wouldn’t recommend it on a weekend afternoon, or a Bank Holiday.

The Mazda escaped its rough treatment on the Little Langdale road with only cosmetic abrasions, easily mended, and my love affair with open-topped motoring enables me to put this minor wounding into perspective. It was a pleasurable drive, somewhat spicy, a drive I imagine could only be topped on a thundering old English motorbike, or a fly-through by Tornado jet.

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ingleborough

Ingleborough

After the last couple of posts on the subject of mindfulness, it seems reckless now to talk of the egotistical conquering of a mountain, but such is the duality of man. Still, my excuse is that if we remain mindful, we might proceed without physical or psychological injury. I have a friend who says that after spending hours slogging up a big hill, and coming within sight of the summit, one should deny the ego by not quite reaching the top. That the top is attainable is, by this point, self evident, so why go the whole distance if it’s not to simply feed the illusion of one’s own self worth? I used to think he was a mad, but these days I’m pretty much of the same mind.

It seems I am no longer a peak bagger.

I last attempted Ingleborough at New Year. It was a very wet, stormy day and the experience was discouraging. Ingleborough sent me packing, dripping wet and shivery-cold, seeking the sanctuary of a Clapham tea shop. I had become unfit, not walking the hills anywhere near enough, so, from ignominious defeat, I was motivated to exercise a little more, to climb at least one modest hill every week, come rain or shine, and then to test myself on Ingleborough again, and hopefully bag the peak. I know – I’m not a peak bagger – but there’s that duality thing again.

Anyway, today was the day.

Ingleborough was still a stiff climb, but the training had worked; I had greater reserves and was able to make the summit without serious difficulty – plus sunshine and blue skies always help to lubricate the grind. I made the top with a smile but, thinking of my friend, I was careful to avoid the trig point.

When I attempted the climb at New Year, I met few people on the path. Saturday was different though; the climb from Clapham, once beyond the nick of Trow Gill and up Little Ingleborough was more of a procession. But the people I met were friendly, unhurried and enjoying the day, eager to share a bit of passing banter and all of this added to the buoyant mood as I climbed. If you want a quieter walk, you go at a different time, or you pick a different hill. Ingleborough is what it is. And what it is is very beautiful, when the sun shines.

Entering Trow Gill

Trow Gill

Returning to a hill can also reveal the flaws in one’s memory. It’s probably ten years since I last made the summit by this route. I have a memory of a fairly flat upland plateaux, and that the route, after gaining Little Ingleborough, was thereafter fairly level, with only a short climb to the stepped summit. But today I discovered it wasn’t flat at all and that the final climb to the top was ten times what I had imagined. It was a wonderful walk all the same though, full of scenic variety and clear views all round. If you’re visiting the Dales and you’ve not done Ingleborough yet, I highly recommend it. It’s a moderate climb from Clapham. Allow two or three hours up and an hour or two down.

Return was by the High Dales Way and a short section of the popular Three Peaks Route. If I thought the ascent was busy, this section was positively crowded, and the fraternity was not so easy going.

I’ve decided there are two types of walker. There are those who do it because they get mystical in the mountains. And there are those who do not see the mountains. I know I’m risking an argument here, and hasten to add that not all Three Peakers fall into the latter category, but I met a good many today who clearly did. “Met” is not quite the right word, however. It would be more accurate to say I obstructed them in their purpose by virtue of my mere presence on the path.

limestone pavement

Limestone pavement, Sulber gate, Yorkshire Dales

The Dales National park is an area of outstanding beauty. Its dramatically stepped hills, its weirdly weathered limestone pavements, its waterfalls, its caves, its beautiful unassuming little villages, and even its dreaded shake-holes, are all things of wonder. They invite one to amble and to pause. But on the Three Peaks route, that would make you the little old man in his Morris Minor tootling along in the fast lane at thirty, with big parties of peak baggers crowding you from behind and squeezing through the gaps, pedal to the metal.

They were making their way, hell-for-leather, down the home stretch to Horton and the clock that would time them in. Three peaks in twelve hours: Penyghent, Whernside and Ingleborough. 24.5 miles. It’s a tough challenge, and I have never attempted it, partly for fear of permanent injury – because I just don’t think I’m hard enough – and also because I keep telling myself I’m not that kind of walker.

To complete the three peaks route is a worthy achievement, but it would be wrong to think of it as a measure of one’s personal prowess. Success in the mountains is always won in part with the cooperation of the mountain, and there will always be an occasion when the mountain turns you back. Pressing on regardless invites insult or injury. The call-out books of the mountain rescue teams are ample witness to that.

I remember at one point, pausing by a ladder style to take in the vista, and finding myself in the way of a guy who was busy yakking into his mobile phone. We were in the midst of a sublime wilderness, not a farm, not a telegraph pole, nor power-line, nor wind-turbine in sight. It was all quite breathtaking, but there was this guy, hurrying along, entirely unconscious of it, yakking into his phone.

I apologised for blocking his way, but he was too busy to reply. He crossed the stile, almost stumbling over it in his haste to make the clock. Others, similarly time-pressed, piled after him. I remember another occasion where I had felt just as crowded by unconscious hoards swarming at my heels – but that was on London’s Euston Station, and me a yokel from the sticks, blinking wide eyed amid all that city-slick bustle. There’s a time and a place, and for me, the Dales is not it. The green is what keeps us sane. It’s where we come to decompress, to recover our sense of stillness. Making a time-trial out of it just doesn’t add up. You might as well do it on a treadmill in a gym.

I was therefore glad to escape the peaks route by turning off at Sulber Gate. Here the way became suddenly empty, and for the first time I could feel the space. This was the start of the route that links up with the appropriately named “Long Lane” and which leads us arrow-sure, back to Clapham. Coming usually at the end of the walk, Long Lane always feels a bit too long for me, but today, it floated me down to Clapham, feather light, and I was able to savour the steps. It helped that I was a little high on sunshine and the success of the walk, grateful too that the hill had allowed me to feel like a half competent walker again.

I repaired to the same little tea shop I’d sat in at New Year. This time though I sat outside, under a clear blue sky in the late afternoon warmth. The laburnum tassels were in full bloom and the hawthorns were shedding blossom like confetti. The only thing that was the same after five months was the giant pot of tea, which, after ten miles in the heart of Limestone country, is the elixir of the gods.

tea at clapham

I seem to be getting my legs back, and that’s good. I’ve just not to let it go to my head. I’ve a few more mountains ahead of me yet it seems, but I’ll be doing it mindfully, which means not being a peak-bagger, and not getting too het-up any more if, now and then, the mountain turns me back.

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dipper

White throated dipper

I drove back in time at least two weeks yesterday. Around my home village, on the sleepy plains of West Lancashire, the harbingers of Spring are maturing nicely – hawthorns greening and the first crop of daffodils already looking spent. But an hour north, in the Yorkshire dales there was a colder, harder feel to the air. Here, the hawthorns were bare and frigid, and the watery sunshine I’d woken to had become more of a watery grey with spitting rain and a sleepy clag hugging the hills.

I was bound for Ingleton, a little dales village which has been drawing tourists since the 18th century. I was en route for the famous waterfall trail. Largely unknown outside of Ingleton until the 1860’s the waterfall trail takes in a series of some of England’s finest falls – a four and a half mile circuit of breathtaking beauty, and an absolute must for anyone visiting the Dales on holiday. There is a catch though – it’s not free. At the time of writing there’s a £6.00 per person charge. I’ve noticed a lot of grumbling about this in various forums, and while I wouldn’t normally condone the private ownership of our natural heritage, and the charging of fees to see it, I think the waterfall trail is special case.

Difficult of access and in places downright dangerous, this trail couldn’t possibly cope with the visitor numbers it sees without special attention to the paths, or they’d be churned to slime in a season, and people would be lost regularly – drowned, swept away or dashed to bits in the rocky ravines that truly are the stuff nightmare. As a walk it might be classed as easy to moderate, meaning anyone who can put one foot in front of the other and climb a flight of stairs is probably up to it. However, without those well maintained walkways, this would be a serious scramble and off limits to all but the hardiest and footsure.

So I paid my £6 with a glad heart and drove onto the carpark. Huge carpark, and I was the first one on it. I therefore had the luxury of choosing my spot and picked out a fairly private bit with a nice view of the river. I was pulling on my boots when the second car arrived. He had almost as much choice as I, but decided to squeeze his car in next to mine with barely a wafer between them, then opened his door clumsily. Bang!

“Oops, sorry mate.” He checks his door. “No damage.” He pulls on his coat and bumbles off to the toilets.

Had it been me I would have preferred to park some distance away; with so much room available it makes no sense to crowd others, or maybe I’m more of a misanthrope than I think, and others more naturally gregarious. People confuse me, and while I think I have made some halting headway over years in analysing myself, a lifetime of observing others has taught me nothing. I moved the car before the clot came back and delivered old grumpy another crack.

money tree

Money tree, Swilla Glen

The walk begins by following the river Twiss upstream through Swilla Glen, a beautifully mossy, wooded ravine. The first feature of note here is not a waterfall, but a fallen tree-stump covered with an armour plating of copper coins that have been knocked into it. It’s a custom you see a lot in Yorkshire. If this were Lancashire there’d be someone with a pair of pliers pulling the coins out. I’m not sure of its origins but suspect something pagan, a distant folk memory perhaps of paying ones respects to the water-faery, for good luck or healing – or so my romantic imagination insists. The real reason is probably far more prosaic.

Apart from the clumsy clot on the carpark, my luck was holding and the heavy rain that had been forecast was so far limiting itself to a light drizzle. There was still a lot of water coming down the glen though and I could hear the Pecca falls thundering long before I saw them. I have stood by the Pecca falls when the air has been shuddering and the ground shaking. The volume of water and the energy behind it is an awesome spectacle – one of the attractions of falls worldwide of course, but none more so than here. The walkways and bridges manage to get you in really close to these falls and you’ve only to imagine tourists scrambling over lichen slick rock to appreciate the sense in paying for a bit of maintenance, some steps and a stout barrier between yourself and certain death.

pecca falls

Pecca Falls

But the most famous and picturesque of the falls lies further on. This is Thornton force. Unlike the Pecca falls, which are squeezed in raging white torrents down a deep rocky ravine, Thornton force spills its thunderous way in the wide open. Take my picture it says, or paint me. But photographs can’t do it justice – they shrink it to a fraction of its true size, and they silence its throaty roar. I have sat and stared at Thornton force on a summer’s day and lost myself in it. A fine, double cascade – no one passes by here without a feeling of wonder – yet all it is water falling.

thornton force

Thornton force

We leave the ravines of the Twiss above Thornton force and climb to the Twistleton scars. This is the exposed bit and if you’re going to catch the weather it’ll be here. And it was. I caught a cold wind and a stiff back hander from the rain which gave me a good soaking, until I was able to dip down into the valley of the Doe and the down-stream leg of the walk. The falls here I think have a more subtle beauty about them. The vale is more densely wooded, more intimate, more sylvan, the rocks more heavily lichened, the water white and more dancing, as it makes its jolly way.

beezley falls

Beezley falls

The upper falls here – the Beezley falls, are a photographer’s delight, with such a fascinating number of twists and turns, every step revealing a new and ever more dramatic picture, but again the camera shrinks them to an atom, robs them of every spark of life. The pictures I’ve included here must be enlarged in the imagination a hundred fold, to the accompaniment of a deep, rumbling roar, and the song of birds.

The last of the falls on this spectacular trail is Snow Falls, another impressive and powerful cataract, though hidden at first by the deep ravine through which it passes, and one views it almost in retrospect. Before this towering curtain of white water, I noticed a bird, perched upon on a low rock, surrounded by leaping torrents. Binoculars showed it to be a dipper, rather a beautiful, playful little thing, mostly black, white throated, with a russet cap and waistcoat. It would occasionally go wading, swimming in the eddies, diving, then bobbing back up to its rocky perch. The dipper is a well named bird.

The gorge which ends with Snow Falls struck me as something akin to the gates of hell, a terrifying place where only madmen would venture voluntarily, but here was this beautiful little bird, unafraid, undaunted by the din. Perfectly adapted to its environment, it did not see the falls as I saw them – magnified and personified through the imaginative apparatus.

after twistleton

It’s significant, I think that people have flocked to Ingleton, and places like it, for centuries. We come and gaze wide eyed at the scenery, blinking as if at some alien world. We are amazed by it because we are not quite one with it. Were we ever to become truly one with it, we would become like the dipper, a thing of innocent beauty in itself, gambolling amid great beauty, but entirely unconscious of it. Like the tree that falls alone in the forest and makes no sound, because there is no one to hear it, it is mankind who lends an eye to show the world how beautiful it is, and a heart to reveal what mysterious joys such beauty can inspire.

So, two significant encounters – the clot on the carpark, and the dipper. I learned much more from the dipper, but then I’ve never been very good with people.

Graeme out.

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clapham cottages

Ingleborough is one of the loveliest of England’s mountains. The summit forms a large plateau which boasts the remains of an Iron Age fortress. At around 2400 feet, this must have been quite a place to retreat to. It would certainly have had the advantage of leaving your enemies breathless by the time they came within range of your arrows – unless of course, your assailants were a hardy breed, and certainly a lot hardier than I was the other weekend when I made an attempt on it.

No matter which way you approach, the walk up Ingleborough is always a delight, but my favourite route starts from the village of Clapham. Dales villages are magical places, unspoiled by tourism, to say nothing of the usual plague of millionaires seeking to snap up quaint, rustic abodes for the weekend – these are still places that are lived in. I noted more gift shops in the village this time than on my last visit, but there’s still something very homely about Clapham.

My photograph of the cottages is the best I managed to take that day because the weather higher up the dale was challenging to say the least, and the light very poor. I would have like a picture of the summit, but you’ll have to link to Wikipedia, because the summit was hardly photogenic that day.  Sheltered in the deep of the dale, following the course of Clapham beck, the wind roared overhead, teasing the bare trees, tugging at black winter branches, hinting at the challenge to come, but my first real sign of trouble came as I climbed through the narrow nick of Trow Gill – a feeling of bone-weariness, yet with the main part of the ascent still to go.

I paused at Gaping Gill to munch an uninspiring cheese butty while watching with a morbid fascination as Fell Beck, running high and roaring boisterously with lots of white water, simply vanished down that infamous little hole. Gaping Gill doesn’t look much from the surface, but as pots go, it’s stupendous – the stuff of nightmares, really – a hidden cavern about the size of a bathtub on the surface, but which opens out to the girth and the height of a Cathederal, below, and into which the beck tumbles and sprays out like rain, deep into the dark of the earth.

Gloomy thoughts on a cold day, shivery cold, about 3 degrees, and a wind that would be gusting sixty knots across the summit. And the mist was down to about 1000 feet. In another ten minutes, I’d be in the teeth of it then, and blind.

From Gaping Gill, the path rises with an unremitting steepness to the summit of Little Ingleborough, and the first hint of a mountain proper comes undefoot – shattered rock and a moonlike sterility. The ascent was tough – not enough slack in my springs to maintain balance against the gusting wind, and the rain, coming at me horizontally, managed to find its way with dispiriting ease through the taped seams of my walking jacket. I was bottomed out and struggling pitifully.

I’ve been in worse conditions, but not very often. I remember a wild bit of weather like this on the summit of Helvellyn. We had ice too, that day, though it was late March – men appearing out of the mist, their beards thick with ice, and weird dendrites growing out of the rocks, into the wind. And me, much younger then, untroubled, and perfectly balanced on slick rock, without the geriatric aid of poles or crampons.

Inglebborough was another matter, tackled at a point much later in life, when life has drained much of the energy from me, left me staggering in the face of its occasional brutality. I never tackle a mountain in one big chunk – not my style at all. Instead, I pick a series of objectives along the way, set my sights on the next one, and care nothing for what follows, until I’m ready for it. Thus, piece by piece, I make my way, and have thus explored most of my nation’s high ground, though many would think my approach timid. I apply the same method in much of my life, and my legs usually carry me through. But not this time. This time I was going to fail. Or worse, I was going to fall.

So,… Little Ingleborough, I told myself. And then we’ll see.

From the summit of Little Ingleborough, the path continues North, across a stony plateau, then breaches the fallen walls of the old encampment on the summit. It’s just a few hundred feet of ascent and much less than a mile away, but in strong winds, and with visibility down to only a few yards, it was looking too far. Leaning into the wind, I could feel it biting my ear. Then the wind would drop suddenly and I’d propel myself off the marked way, or it would gust a little higher and overbalance me in the other direction. A man’s life is nothing when the earth has its dander up like that. The best we can do is crawl, insect-like into the crevices, and wait for better weather.

On Little Ingleborough, I took the circumspect option and hunkered down a while in a depression, let the wind roar over my head while I caught my breath. But my weariness that day was coming from a deep place, like Gaping Gill, a thing of seemingly immeasurable depth, and one that could not be filled by any amount of ragged breathing. I did not quite crawl away, but made my way carefully, back bent, centre of gravity low, the last dregs of energy to set me on the downward route, where I let gravity do the rest.

Later on, I sat in a tearoom, in homely Clapham, dripping wet from outer shell to skin, and cold, still shivery, with chill-swollen hands wrapped around a scalding hot teacup. I’d not been up to it – not up to a lot of things these days. I’ve raided myself empty, hollowed myself out, so when the wind blows, I have not the strength to face it down any more, to maintain a proper balance. Mountains of the mind and, all that.

I’m regrouping now, getting my breath, building stronger legs, then I tell myself I’ll be back. Ingleborough smiles, not unpleasantly, promises sunshine next time, tells me not to hurry, that it’ll be waiting.

 

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