I awoke after a restful sleep to a light drizzle fizzing on the sides of my tent. I opened the flap and studied the outdoors trying to judge the extent of the potential rain. I decided to better be safe than sorry and pulled on my rain shell and bag cover after packing away the tent and traipsed over the lane to deposit my milk bottle.
The day before I had found that this teeny, tiny village had a milk vending machine at the dairy along with a selection of milkshake syrups paid for via honesty box. I had ecstatically filled up, and subsequently consumed, a litre of banana flavour milk and it was all I had hoped and dreamed.
A light mist was starting to shift as I headed out at around 0600, turning briefly through sheep fields and fumbled around a bit, attracting a farmer’s attention.
“I’m heading south on the Cumbria Way, just trying to figure out the lanes”
“You just head up yonder”
“Is that left?”
“Is this particular yonder left?”
It was left. I’m also clearly not quite Northern enough yet to discern my yonders.
So I headed yonder up a lane until High Pike started to come into sight.
Today was a day where there was a choice of roads – one could choose the traditional high level route over High Pike, round the Back o’ Skiddaw, and the sights of some of the district’s most famous peaks, or opt instead for a slightly longer, less strenuous route westwards around the Uldale and Caldbeck Fells. I decided the mist was lifting enough off the summit of the pike and the drizzle had eased up, so headed east.
Now, I’m not sure if the way I went up High Pike was THE way I was meant to go up High Pike. There were so many footpaths, grassy trails and desire paths on the ascent that there wasn’t an easy way to tell. However, with the top in view there was only so wrong I could be.
As I got higher and farther away from Caldbeck, the views behind stretched into intricate green and golden vistas. The climb was constant, but not particularly strenuous. I was somewhat disappointed; this was the highest point on an otherwise fairly low level route and I had kinda wanted my lungs to burn and to really feel it like a well won achievement. This, however, might be misplaced disappointment that the panorama of summits expected from the top was still only visible through a veil of haze. A haze that would have lifted halfway down my downwards clamber.
It was on the ridge path round that I bumped into a gentleman. There hadn’t been a soul around until now. It transpired that he was a retired GP, retired to these here hills, and was out for a morning hike around and towards Carrock Fell, a distinctly nipple shaped mountain amongst the skyline. The trail was barely a trail, rutted by the exposure and the grazing sheep, I’m sure only a local would recognise it – I was skeptical that we really were heading towards the Lingy Hut where our paths would part. I asked about the abandoned and disused mines I had passed on my way up; dilapidated, muddy gorges, broken stone and faltering wooden structures.
It seems the fells were rich in a variety of ores and minerals; from copper and lead to haematite, tungsten and fluorite. Coal, of course, and graphite, from which all the Derwant pencils are made. In fact, the ‘wad’ graphite from the mines of Borrowdale was the purest in the world (which explains the price of the pencils), but was used for many centuries for other purposes; the casting moulds for musket balls, mixed with wine as a cure for gallstones, polish, glaze and an industrial lubricant. When I asked why they all seemed abandoned, he said they pretty much all were – the industrial age had risen but alternatives had been found and need decreased. There were up to 1,400 abandoned mines, sealed off and left to the elements to consume as they saw fit.
The Lingy Hut saw him go east, but not before he thankfully pointed out which area of slightly flat grass was my onwards trail. The small hut had once been run down and neglected, covered in graffiti, and pretty unloved. The Mountain Bothies Association had taken over responsibility for it three years ago and now, frankly, it was adorable. A welcoming sign above the door, and a large window out to the southern view down the valley. Weathertight and cosy, it had enough space in it for three or four weary travellers to take a break or spend the night.
I had need of neither, so I continued until I was walking on the beck that would, once again reunite me with the Caldew. It wasn’t long before I shed not only the rain shell, but my down jacket as well and strolled in the sunshine.
The now abandoned Carrock Mine was the only UK tungsten mine outside of Cornwall. From 1906 until its closure, it was managed by German miners – like most of the mines in the area (it is the Germanic influence that brings the nutmeg and the ginger into traditional Cumbrian food).
Tungsten was much desired in the manufacture of munitions and suspicions grew high around the time of WWI with miners capturing a roving geologist at the mine insisting he was a spy.
The five veins that were mined here apparently glistened and gleamed with minerals. But tungsten was the hero. The managing Germans called it ‘wolfram’, as it ‘ate up the tin among which it was found like a wolf eats up sheep’
On meeting the Caldew again, I turned west on the path towards Skiddaw House. I was firmly in the area known as Back o’ Skiddaw now, the northern end of the Lake District, far less frequented than the lakes further south and the area around Scafell. In fact I felt incredibly alone and remote for much of the walk down the valley.
It was the Ordovician Age that saw the formation of these fells as the Laurentian and Avalonian landmasses collided and shot up the sea floor sediment to create the great mudstone and siltstone bluffs. Great Calva soared, pyramid like, to my right above some dozy sheep and up away from me was Skiddaw. Like a dustcloth placed over furniture in many an abandoned attic, its side shimmered, wrinkled and grooved over so much time that whatever might be hidden was long forgotten.
The valley in which I walked was formed by the glaciers that came after the sea spat out the mountains, and the ice creaked and cracked away as it stubbornly took thousands of years to dissapate, scraping the sides of the land leaving the ribboned flanks of the mountains under their dark and rugged summits.
So quiet now, as breeze rustled the grasses, I made my way up to Skiddaw House, an incredibly off the grid youth hostel that has no road access. It has had many lives; as a hunting lodge, a gamekeeper’s hut, shepherd’s home and a bothy before becoming part of the YHA. Heavy and brutalistic, it stands up to the battering of exposure right out in the open on the side of Skiddaw; the Little Man like a sharp and angry tooth behind it.
I was still alone, as far as I knew, and I sat for a moment looking back the way I had come and the hundreds of thousands of years worth of geological history prominently in front of me. How much more will it change in another 450,000 years? Will these peaks be flattened, or torn further apart, or will new ice break them in twain or the sun create a desert?
The Caldew and I parted ways for the last time as it disappeared up Skiddaw. Or rather flowed away from it; up there lies the tiny stream that is its source.
I rounded the beautiful Lonscale Fell on a partly cut path that offered new surprises with every small adjustment. The waters of the lakes were seen on the horizon and greenery of woodland started to appear with the path around Latrigg and on into Keswick.
I wouldn’t be staying in Keswick tonight, I was further out at a camping barn recommended to me. I had placed down fifteen of my good English pounds and got a whole eight person barn to myself with a wood stove and a solid table that I sat at and wrote postcards on. The owner was a relatively mad woman that kept bringing cake to me and took me enthusiastically to see the baby turkeys. Have you ever seen baby turkeys? They are weird. And cute. But very weird. I hung my tent up inside to dry from the morning drizzle and scribbled happily in front of the fire before making my way upstairs, flinging my sleeping bag on a mattress and crashing out for a well deserved night’s rest.
- Distance: 14.5 miles (plus six miles to the camping barn)
- Ascent: 900 metres
- Terrain: Steep mountain tracks over High Pike and valley paths over grass, gravel and rocks – very exposed in bad weather. Whilst paths are well managed, there are undulations, heights and rocks to be aware of. Woodland approaching Keswick.
- Toughness: 6/10
- Maps Used: Harvey Maps XT40: Cumbria Way
Food of Cumbria: Sticky Toffee Pudding
I have long complained that our British desserts do not get the international attention they deserve. A prime example of this is sticky toffee pudding, developed here in the heart of the Lake District, and the subject of an intense rivalry.
The traditionally steamed dessert, sweetened and moistened with dates, and served with ice cream or cream whilst still hot, is said to have been developed by Francis Coulson at the Sharrow Bay hotel in the 1970s, but there are arguments she got the recipe from another party.
To throw more shadiness into this sticky (toffee) situation,there is a competing claim that Jean Jones, who ran the Cartmel Village Shop at the same time is the real creator. Then there are truly scurrilous claims that it is, in fact, a Yorkshire dish. But we shouldn’t even consider that an option.