I completed my last summit in Alfred Wainwright’s Book Five yesterday.
It can easily be forgotten by walkers, a mere foothill to Carl Side, Ullock Pike, Little Man and their big brother, Skiddaw.
I clearly came into that category, regularly marching my way up the ‘proper mountains’ and blissfully ignoring the beauty of the small.
Dodd, Latrigg and Cat Bells also serve the Keswick visitor superbly. Just big enough to boast “I climbed a mountain” on return home but sufficiently small to warrant the minimum of kit, time and food. They are notoriously busy as a result, so I avoid the crowds, heading for the higher places with their solitude and space. Which maybe explains why these fells have been of little personal priority and Dodd left til last.
It has been to my loss.
I’m not sure who gave me the complete set of “A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells” nor am I aware of how long I have had them sitting silently on my bookshelves. I don’t recall either what inspired me to dust them off and explore their contents either. But I am extremely grateful that these events occurred because, otherwise, I would not have been introduced to fells that were, until that point, well off my radar. The books, written by Wainwright over a period of eleven years from 1955, are a collection of detailed descriptions, ascent and descent routes and exquisite drawings about 214 fells that he curated into seven geographical areas of the Lake District. I spent an agreeable afternoon recently ticking off those summits I have visited and noting those that were still to stand on. There are seventy three still to visit, now that I can cross Dodd off the list.
However, I refuse to join the group of “Wainwright Baggers” simply because the summit is not the prize.
It is the walk. And that too is invariably more than the simple summation of the route, weather, time of year and companions. I have revisited many peaks over the years and can say that every ascent has been memorable, and for different reasons. It’s the reason why mountain climbing is never boring and wandering up Blencathra, yet again, is still delightfully and wonderfully pleasurable. But I digress slightly.
The Wainwright guides, my new found walking companion, have encouraged me to try pastures new as have Book Club friends who do for armchair explorations what Robina and Shirley did this week when they took the rest of us Wednesday Walkers into unfamiliar paths around their home in Brough Sowerby. We have all been walking during lockdown; individuals making the most of the daily exercise allocation and local footpaths to keep sane and perspective during what still are uncertain times. Being able to gather together more now, we are sharing these joys with each other and my world is enriched and inspired by the new places and views that my feet are being led into. And in my mind too, as new literature does exactly the same. I am currently rowing from Seattle to Berlin in the company of “The Boys in the Boat” having toured New York’s theatreland of the 1940s with “A City of Girls” and subsequently brought home by “The Maid of Buttermere”.
Wainwright’s Book Five highlighted one summit left to climb, so I continued reconnoitring the novel in fell walks this week with Alfred as my guide. I’m not sure if the curmudgeonly misogynist would have made a particularly agreeable walking companion. His written comments have seen me gasp and giggle in equal measure as the acerbic and astute run a fine line between rude and offensive. But he does have a talent for identifying interesting routes and conditions to avoid. Heed those and a good day is indeed in prospect. Although I should add a caveat. The 50th anniversary editions show the original descriptions that were accurate at the time of first publication, so much of his writing, opinions included, needs more than a pinch of salt to render them currently viable. To be fair, walkers have faithfully followed his directions for half a century and footpaths that were, at the time of writing, faint and barely sheep trod, are now resultant bastions of the rambling motorways crisscrossing the hills and valleys. In that regard, his legacy is a mixed one.
He comments regularly on the Forestry Commission activities across the region, in tones varying from the scathing to obvious admiration. Forestry activities on Dodd were seen in a favourable light and that, in part, influenced my own route choice. The hill is clad in trees and, in Alfred’s day, the summit too. Woodland walking is a joy when views are cloud hidden and the wind sweeps unrelenting below grey skies. The forest becomes the eye’s peaceful sanctuary from the meteorological storm above and it is a special place as a result. But the forecast for me suggested a developing sun blue afternoon so I decided on the path up Carl Side to take in the views before heading into Dodd Wood.
I found the last parking spot on a narrow layby in Millbeck and took the public footpath that heads straight up the ridge to White Stones. Wainwright suggests the initial climb is tedious, but I found the gradient, zigzags and some micro scrambles to be interesting with some marvellous views to fill my ‘catch a breath’ stops. Having the brisk southerly at my back and the warm afternoon sunshine lighting the contours certainly made for a morale boosting ascent. White Stones is where the path splits and the place I was offered a Ferrero Rocher chocolate by a chap lounging on the rocks with his friends. I had no hesitation in accepting – who says no to chocolate? – but I did find myself wondering about whether I needed to wipe the whole wrappered thing in hand sanitizer first. How much has changed.
At this point Dodd is easy to see and, rather than be enveloped in forestry as Wainwright described, it now has a tonsured summit where I did not need to resort to “standing on tiptoes, craning the neck, leaping in the air and miscellaneous gyrations of the body not normally indulged in by people in their right senses” in order to see the view. Instead, I joined a family of four talking with an Egyptian visitor and two couples enjoying the Bassenthwaite vista with their snacks. Wainwright’s summit sketch shows pines and a rather apologetic cairn. Today’s summiteer gets a memorial and 360 views encompassing the Skiddaw and Helvellyn massifs, Keswick, Derwentwater, Braithwaite, Bassenthwaite, the Coledale and Newlands Rounds, Borrowdale and glimpses of Gable and Scafell. Oh, and don’t forget the Solway Firth and Criffel either. It is a remarkable spot.
The wander back to the car through the forest was a delight. Alfred is rather disparaging of the descent route I chose but it proved to be the highlight of my ramble. The forest that has garnered his hard-won approval is a rich mix of deciduous trees intermingled with Scots pines, larch, Norway and sitka spruces and Douglas fir. The planting is not dense which means the woodland floor is alive with foxglove, heath bedstraw, lady’s mantle, ferns, ripening bilberries and heather amongst others. The height of the pines brought me to a halt on a few occasions. With foxgloves reaching 4 to 5 feet in height at their feet, these pines, stanced easily over 100 feet tall, turned the flowers into a mere carpet and I marvelled.
Walking in woodland is, unsurprisingly, good for the health, with various studies pointing to reasons why. For me it wasn’t just the oxygen, immersion therapy or breathing in monoterpenes, it was the fragrance. In the warm afternoon sun, the forest smelt gorgeous; a subtle mix of sweet pine and herbs reminiscent of hot Mediterranean tree-lined promenades and gardens. When I wasn’t craning heavenward at tree tips I was getting giddy in their perfume and it all made finishing the walk so much harder.
Alfred dedicates Book Five to those “who find contentment in the companionship of the mountains”.
I’ll take that but I do have to give the closing credit to Dodd.
Whilst the final fell to be ticked off in Book Five, I had inadvertently saved the best until last and this Dodd, Wainwright’s ‘Skiddaw whelp’, has reminded me, even in the small, that mountain companionship is not just my contentment.
It too is my inspiration.