A cathedral in the hills

The Langdale Pikes from near Colwith

“We just need some cloud,” he declared petulantly, looking forlornly at the iridescent blue sky overhead. There was none to be seen.

“You could always add some,” I suggested hopefully, “artist’s prerogative and all that?”

The painter and his partner were sat in the late afternoon sunshine in Little Langdale, enjoying a substantial picnic whilst he waited for his recent brushstrokes to dry. He had started a Turneresque picture of Slater’s Bridge and, amidst a kaleidoscope of rich arboreal greens and heather browns, had chosen greys to wash in the surrounding hills on the paper. Clearly the day was too colourful, and he needed clouds to add to the cold, wet scene he was preferring to create at his easel.

Five of us had chosen the delightful low-level circuit that embraces Skelwith, Colwith, Tilberthwaite, Little Langdale and Elterwater. With views across the Langdale and Coniston fells and punctuated with various cafes, pubs and pop up tea gardens, it is a well-resourced easy route for anyone who wishes to gain as much from the Lake District as they can in an 8-mile walk. The sun blazed a trail across a sky that no cloud dare cross and walkers and cyclists were out in force as a result. It was lovely to see.

For a route that we have all walked some sections of in the past, it transpired that not everyone knew it in its entirety, and we all found something new to experience as a result. Water levels were high in the becks and we marvelled at the torrents cascading over falls in Skelwith and Colwith. In the morning sunshine, diamante spray sparkled above deafening tumults that rendered us speechless behind camera lenses.

Our target was the Little Langdale Quarry tucked high up in one of the spoil heaps that fill the valley. Slate and copper have been mined from the fells for centuries, with a particular boom in the Victorian era when the invention of compressed air drills made blasting a breeze. Much of the landscape is crafted out of the waste as a result and, with trees still wearing a full summer canopy, it is difficult to see where manmade and natural contours meet. A short path from the main bridleway between Tilberthwaite and Little Langdale, winds covertly uphill to an Alice in Wonderland tunnel. The White Rabbit didn’t appear with an offering of Shrinking Potion so that we might enter. He was replaced by a couple in their later years who appeared at its entrance, blinking in the bright sunshine.

Entry tunnel

“Please don’t tell me you have only just found your way out after ten years in there,” I queried, pointing into the tunnel’s dark passage. The gentleman was rubbing his head ruefully.

“The roof is a bit low and I’ve just hit my head. And yes, we were 25 years old when we went in,” he bantered, picking up my cue. We laughed.

His wife explained how the tunnel carved a short path through the rock and that we would see light at the end of it within a minute or so of walking. Thus encouraged, we ducked slightly, entering the darkness, and trod carefully along a damp stony corridor illuminated by our torches’ dancing white shadows.

Sunlight drowned our beams as we found ourselves in a quarry enclosed by high rock walls and trees stretching up the banks either side. A cable handrail suggested a pathway along the wall to our right and we followed it, finding ourselves looking down through a huge glassless window into a large cave.

The Cathedral

“The Cathedral”, an enormous chamber blasted into the slate, reaches 40ft in height and is supported by a central pillar. Its acoustics and size would lend itself to any corporate act of worship and we weren’t the only pilgrims whose jaws dropped in wonder at its discovery.

Behind us was a damp scramble down to the chamber floor and we defied fears of heights and rock climbing with a judicious use of bum slides and shouts of encouragement to drop the 15 feet or so into the moss and fern liberally decorated entry hallway.

There is something about particular spaces that engender an associated behaviour. Football stadiums, large supermarkets and theatrical spaces are some that come to mind as I envisage my own response to being at a footie match, shopping in Sainsburys or sitting before live opera. The Cathedral saw silenced women, constantly gazing upwards, drawn to the play of sunlight on the chiselled walls, before testing its echo quality finally got the better of us.

Our exit – looking back in from the outside

The path back took us over Slater’s bridge, a 16th century pack horse bridge of three spans that includes a clever use of a mid-stream boulder. For what could be thought to be a quiet spot, Langdale means ‘far away wooded valley’, the crossing point served one of the routes into the valley’s Piccadilly Circus of thoroughfares. The Three Shires Inn in the village would have done very well, acting as a central hub to roads from Ravenglass, Whitehaven, Keswick, Penrith & Carlisle, Ambleside, Hawkshead, and Coniston, Ulverston, Broughton-in-Furness and Barrow in Furness.

Not much has changed really. Cars still amble their way along narrow lanes towards Wrynose Pass and we shared our track over into Elterwater with mountain bikers, walkers and a Land Rover. And, of course, we made the most of another travellers’ hostelry, the Britannia Inn, before marvelling at the Langdale Pikes bathed in the remainder of the day’s sunshine.

The Langdale Pikes and Elter Water

I popped into Ambleside on the way home, in search of some replacement walking trousers. Mine need, after around 15 years of regular use, consigning to my gardening wardrobe. The town, dubbed the Anorak Capital of the World, has an overwhelming choice of shops from which to choose their successor but I didn’t have enough time to find them this time round.

As I walked through Ambleside’s slate clad streets, I reflected on The Cathedral and the route out of the chamber. The light filled monochrome tunnel would have been a worthy route into Tolkein’s Rohan or Gondor and Frodo could easily have been satisfied with the sunlit jewel tones of Little Langdale as his home in The Shire.

There is something profound in the vivid vibrancy that colours the fells’ soft contours hiding a carved and enduring ode of rich greys to industry. From out of this cavernous space has come the building blocks of homes and buildings; all that we hold dear protected by the mountain’s heart.

Which hopefully includes the Holy Grail of walking too – a pair of trousers that fit.

The River Brathay begins its journey from Elter Water

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