I’m in the process of mopping up the Wainwrights that are still to be visited. Mopping up feels a fairly derogatory term, aligned as it is with either clearing up a mess or dealing with the least favourite. My three summits on Sunday didn’t really come into either category. They were lower on the list due to the ease of access, or rather lack of it, and associated journey time. Harter Fell, Green Crag and Hard Knott sit the furthest away from my home town than the other Lakeland fells and, with being some of the smaller hills in Alfred’s collection, I’d made the mistake of prioritising their bigger siblings in the similar region. I mean, if you’re going to spend a good few hours in the car, you want a proper mountain day out, don’t you?
Well, of course, as I have now realised, all three summits proved me wrong.
With parking at a premium in Eskdale due to the increased number of visitors, I knew I needed to be in the valley as early as possible. Even my 9am arrival wasn’t early enough. Maybe I should have left at 6 rather than 7am? I had found what I thought to be a space at the National Trust Wha Farm carpark and settled to a late and very welcome picnic breakfast whilst I gathered my foggy travelled brain. I must have tripped a wire somewhere because a woman appeared on a quad bike within minutes, gesticulating that I needed to move. She came alongside as I wound the window down.
“You can’t park there, this is my car park and it’s full” she announced
“Oh, are you the National Trust?” halfway through a mouthful of muesli, I pointed at the NT sign behind us.
She got a bit flustered.
“No, I rent this land from them,” she explained
“I see, well, I thought there was plenty of room between me and these cars. They can get out.”
And there was easily enough space to manoeuvre, I’d made a point of checking and I was tired, hungry and not too keen on having to try and find somewhere else.
She wasn’t having it.
“No, there isn’t enough space here. You’ll have to move.”
There didn’t seem any point in arguing so I just nodded.
“Don’t worry, I’ll look elsewhere.” I smiled, “do you have any suggestions where there may be space. I’m new to the valley,”
Once she realised where I’d driven from and I’d made all the ‘you must have had a frustrating summer with all the visitors’ noises, she relaxed.
“Oh Appleby eh, you’ll know all about the parking then? Well, there may be some spaces just along the road.” She pointed behind me towards the pass.
“That’s fine,” I replied, relidding my picnic, “I’ll see what I can find. Thanks for your help and sorry to have bothered you.”
It felt as though we parted amicably.
I found a verge a little further on, finally settled to my breakfast and watched the low sunlight craft shadows on the hillsides. It was, even after this little hiccup, already looking to be a good day. My drive round on the empty A66 and A595 had been under clear blue skies and the Starbucks coffee at Cockermouth had also added to my very satisfied smile that had begun, even at 7am.
I had the path alongside Spothow Gill onto Harter Fell to myself. It wasn’t much more than a cairned sheep trod in places so route finding took a bit of concentration. Wainwright believed Harter Fell to be beautiful with its softly conical shape, belts of heather and bracken and rock ramparts on the summit. I had to agree with his observations about the views; they were indeed glorious, even more so under crystal clear cerulean skies. Gaining the summit brought me into a much more sociable world though.
The rocky pyramid of the top had hidden all the other walkers who had come up the main drag from the Duddon valley. My solitude was replaced by some good-natured banter with various folk on their way up as I was heading down. A couple stopped to chat about their 7 month Airdale Terrier, another chap warned me of slippery paths ahead and I could hear the laughter of lads bouldering on a crag a little above me.
One group of ten, average age seventy, were chatting their way up the path and immensely proud of their two 80 something ladies who were leading the way. I have to say neither looked their age and both had a inspiring mischievous independent spirit birthed apparently in World War 2 that explained their complete avoidance of the Rule of Six. Another group of ten sat not far away, chatting teens with house music bass blaring across the hillside. One walker popped over to have a chat and requested the music was turned off. Everything went quiet until he left whereupon the music resumed. I wondered if they had the same attitude to hand washing; only do it while watched?
My next target was Green Crag, a rocky outcrop standing tall above a boggy sea over which stretched a black thread of footprints tracing the driest route across. I’ll use the term ‘dry’ advisedly. Eskdale does not have a body of water in its valley, there is just the River Esk running westwards. Despite the lack of lake, after recent rain the valley was distinctly wet, dotted with tiny tarns, pop up puddles and inland seas of shimmering bogs. My feet stayed dry as I gained this second summit but my boots were working hard in the process. I met a young man on the top who was in the middle of doing all 214 Wainwrights in one go. Well, over 40 or so days anyway.
“I’ve done 65 in the last 11 days,” he explained
A slim reed clad in the lightest of kit, he carried a rucksack that didn’t look like it was big enough to carry camping equipment and six days’ worth of food.
“You completely self-supported then?” I asked.
“Yes,” he nodded
“No secret stashes of supplies stored in advance?”
“No, but that’s not a bad idea though,” he grinned
He was using a combination of wild camping, bothies and pubs in his overnights and I saw the freedom in just being able to stop where you fancied and set up camp.
“Well, the weather is set to be dry over the week, except for tomorrow,” I added, “maybe time for a rest day?”
“Yeah, maybe. I had hail and sleet a few days ago. It wasn’t pleasant! And my knees are grumbling a bit already.”
He gestured to his poles.
“I don’t think I’m using these properly,” he pondered
We traded notes on keeping knees healthy and the rest of his route before he bounced off towards Seathwaite and the Coniston Fells. I headed in the opposite direction.
Where Harter Fell is a nicely crafted conical hill, Green Crag is where all the remnants and off cuts were dumped in its creation. Getting to the peat road by Kepple Crag was an adventure with heather clad rocky tors sprinkled randomly along the broad ridge and no path through their midst. I decided it didn’t matter as I weaved my way along and around and over and generally down to the Esk absorbing the wide-ranging views lit fully in the afternoon sunshine.
My final summit was Hard Knott. The ascent is started at the top of Hardknott Pass and, as a result, virtually all the climbing is done by car. I’d chosen to go at the end of the day on the assumption that there would be somewhere to park. On the tight hair pin bends and narrow road there are small pull ins where two or three vehicles can park without obstructing traffic. But these are few and far between. Maybe 7 or 8 spots altogether near the crest. A space was there with my name on it as I pulled up to the start of the path. I was much relieved.
I didn’t actually have much hopes for the walk; I’d felt I’d had my day out and this one I was climbing simply because I was literally going past it. It is just under a mile to the top and I was the last one to arrive, having passed two couples on their way down. I’ll also own up to being a little weary after the early start and seven miles of hills already under my belt. I was in Wainwright bagging mode; let’s just get the thing ticked off and I can go home.
The thing with Hard Knott is it has the unexpected ability to astound, especially in the last of the autumn sunshine when colours are at their most vivid. I am not sure how the Romans felt about living in their Mediobogdvm fort on its wild and windswept hillside but one thing they did have was one of the best views in the country from the office.
The wind had dropped, I had the place to myself and that rush to head home evaporated as I took in the mountains around me; fells I now know better from following Wainwright’s guides. And if Hard Knott hadn’t been in his guide to The Southern Fells, I would have missed a little piece of heaven. Which felt appropriate for a Sunday.
I am always humbled by these hills, my homeland for so long. They stand the test of time, weather and millions of boots treading their paths yet stand, still glorious, still gorgeous, come rain or shine. In the last of the day, as they emptied their visitors into cars, bikes and campervans, my tardiness in leaving was gifted with a glimpse of peace and beauty unsullied by human voice or brightly coloured walking attire. I love meeting folk on my walks and am delighted at how accessible and available these fells are to anyone with an interest but that moment, when I’m alone without a soul in sight, when it feels like it’s all mine, just for a minute, is beyond words.
As I honed my driving skills on Hardknott and Wrynose Pass and Red Bank, I was reminded of how results of competitions are announced. It’s always done in reverse order.
I’m now wondering if these final few tops on my ‘still to do’ list are actually the Top Twenty. Have I inadvertently saved the best til last?