I’d expected the Stickle Ghyll carpark to be busy on what looked like a fairly good weather day for the hills. So, I arranged to meet Graham at 9am. Even then I did wonder if parking would be tight. With various social media portraying folk out and about in droves due to the sunshine and further loosening of lockdown measures I felt that the Langdale Valley, a notorious Lakeland visitor honey pot, would be buzzing.
The place however was quiet. A handful of cars littered the National Trust parking area near the New Dungeon Ghyll hotel and I had the pristinely clean ladies loo all to myself. Graham decorated our climb up the solidly built path alongside Stickle Ghyll with a very hot account of a walk he had experienced the day before with a friend in the Howgills. They had ascended The Calf in near tropical conditions which had been made bearable by the stiff breeze. Our temperatures, just hovering in the low twenties, were perfectly summery but there was no relief from the humidity. Graham cooled off in the tarn while I sat in the rain, happily showering the heat away.
We found the ten other walkers of the day at the tarn. The majority had camped overnight. A dad and daughter combo had popped over from Kendal for the day for an ascent of Pavey Ark and Harrison Stickle whereas four lads in tents were up for Jake’s Rake and a scramble on Pike of Stickle. We were headed for the five other fells, those that surround the iconic Pikes which adorn many a Lake District guide book or fudge box. Despite living in South Lakeland for over twenty years I hadn’t stood on Sergeant Man, High Raise, Thunacar Knott or Pike of Stickle.
The rain kept our walking temperature to a very pleasant one for an hour or so as we wove our way along Blea Rigg and onto the first top, Sergeant Man. The view may have been limited to my feet by the reduced visibility but I discovered there is a lot more to small yellow flowers than I thought. To my very untrained eye, speckles of yellow across the fell sides could be mistaken for buttercup or tormentil. However, with the botanic Graham alongside, I was introduced to a delightful microbouquet of yellow mountain saxifrage, bog asphodel, spearwort and bladderwort. The detail in each tiny bloom was exquisite and I blessed the weather that had turned my focus downwards.
The rain began to move on and left a trail of clouds wafting smokily between the fells and down in the valleys below us. We joined them, wandering ‘lonely as clouds that float on high over vale and hill’ towards High Raise and Thunacar Knott. Both are generally flat summits providing a central watershed and, even with the muted atmospherics, offered unparalleled views to the east and west mountain ranges.
Colours were subtle, lifted from a palette of blues and greys more synonymous with Dulux paint. Dove, steel, pale, pebble and pewter greys filled the fell silhouettes to our east whilst the western fells had a bluer softness about them. White clouds drifted, playing hide and seek behind the lower hills. The newly washed sky appeared as they followed the rain clouds north. A palest duck egg blue, it sat above remaining goose grey clouds brush feathering themselves across the tops before disappearing under the sun’s afternoon gaze.
From a distance, the ostensibly cold grey crags of Pike of Stickle and Loft Crag became warm rocks under our feet, glowing copper in the tentatively resurrected sunlight. Tones brightened and warmed considerably as the sun took charge. From the late lunch summits, Mickleden and the Langdale valley bloomed emerald green under a sky whose blue intensified as the temperature rose.
Over Grasmere Gingerbread, I told Graham about my first trip to Loft Crag. Gimmer Crag sits below the top and was the site of my introduction to rock climbing up Ash Tree Slabs. A classic V Diff, it was the first of many routes I went on to second over the years and prompted too a love of scrambling. The day is also remembered for another reason. My college friends and I camped at Stickle Tarn that night as the first rains fell torrentially after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The only radiation we experienced yesterday was that of the newly soaring UV levels but it was a salutary reminder of a dreadful event. I recalled that we had enjoyed a substantial breakfast at The Apple Pie Eating House the following day and wonder now if we already had a Ready Brek glow before we started eating.
The car park was still virtually empty as we set up the camp stove for a post walk brew. A couple of dog walkers arrived and a family who had been cooling off in Stickle Beck dripped away, air drying in the heat.
It had been a surreal walk where, with expectations of Bournemouth busyness we were, instead, far from the madding crowd. The surprising space and fluid weather had brought a remarkable and beautiful novelty to what is normally familiar ground. We had considered aborting the walk the afternoon before, due to the threat of thunderstorms. However, with a last-minute relaxation of the weather warning we had, instead, gone with carpe diem and seized the day.
I’m so pleased we did.