Having a miserable time at work, I couldn’t wait to get away for my annual Lake District trip. Black Combe and Eskdale were sitting there egging me on, and so I planned a trip to take in the far south west corner of the lakes.
Genesis of the Trip
I’d been staring at the bottom-left hand corner of my homemade Lake District mountain chart for ages and I decided to do something about it. Being right in my eye line, the profusion of unfilled circles on that part of the chart refused to be ignored, despite me trying to focus on the areas where Wainwrights were concentrated. Long had I fantasised about a walk from the coast over Black Combe and the ridge that extends north towards Eskdale. Indeed, other than the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway it was the obvious route to Eskdale without a car. But one other thing had stopped me doing this walk – accommodation. You see, there just isn’t any, and I knew that the full ridge walk from Black Combe to Eskdale was too much for me in a single day. So it seemed destined to stay in that category marked “fantasy walks”.
Until, that is, the yearning to scratch the itch became too much. I looked more assiduously into overnighting options and came up with Woodend Cottage, close to Devoke Water. I booked a couple of nights there and formed my plan: On the first day I’d take La’al Ratty into Eskdale, then walk up to Devoke Water by way of Water Crag and Rough Crag. On the Sunday I’d do an out and back route from Devoke south along the ridge and simply see how far I got. But Black Combe itself may be a bit of a stretch. (But that could easily be done, and may be better done, from the coastal end). Then I’d have 3 nights in Eskdale YHA and tackle the other side of Eskdale.
I formed my plan, but a week before the trip, it was dealt a big blow. Due to a family emergency at the B&B, I couldn’t stay there, but the landlord had made an alternative arrangement, if I was willing, with a friend down in Dunnerdale. My walk plans for the first two days were in tatters, unless I could salvage something fast. Certainly the trip was going ahead as I’d paid for the hostel and travel already.
I looked at the maps again and quickly pieced an alternative itinerary together. Now I’d walk from the coast over Black Combe to the fell road on the first half day. The second day I’d resume there and head north along the ridge, seeing how far I got. On my third day walk over to Eskdale proper, I’d simply pick off whatever I had missed, making sure that I left the fells nearer to the Birker Fell road. What swung it was the offer of a pick-up from the fell road on the Saturday and the promise of being dropped back there on the Sunday.
The other key issue I had to resolve was my pack. This trip depended on me carrying everything I needed into/out of the area, and so I needed to be ruthless. By ditching proper shoes for the evening and just going with flip flops, by only packing exactly what I needed in terms of food and by questionning every item of kit, I managed to get it all in my trusty Berghaus Freeflow III 35+8. This really was my first go at a more lightweight approach.
Day 1: Saturday 3 July 2010 – Scratching The Itch
I arrived at Silecroft station battle-scarred from the rigours of my train journey, with my primary wound being a giant coffee stain in an embarrassing area, caused when the people opposite me got on the train clumsily swinging their luggage and limbs in all directions. This was soon forgotten though, as I crossed the main road and crossed fields to the base of Black Combe.
Black Combe is a bit of an anomaly amongst the fells of Lakeland. Ten metres short of being able justifiably to call itself a mountain (Nuttall), it’s perfectly obvious to anyone looking upon it that if fells like Binsey, Black Fell, Loughrigg and Castle Crag are accorded that term by virtue of being Wainwrights, then Black Combe more than qualifies. Hell, even Mungrisdale Common, which is just a bog on the side of Blencathra makes the list. Yet Black Fell isn’t a Wainwright, as AW seemed to completely forget that the extreme south western part of the Lakes exists when writing his 7 guides. Clearly, he had to make some judgement calls about where to draw the line when producing the main guides, but I have to say I just don’t understand how he came to the decision that everything south of Green Crag and Dow Crag didn’t belong. I firmly believe, although the great man isn’t around to confirm my assertion, that it was partly guilt at this omission that drove him to write the 8th book – The Outlying Fells of Lakeland. A book which itself massively undersells these fells by virtue of combining several good fells into walks rather than giving them the individual “full treatment”. It’s such a shame as the South Western fells, as I’ll call them, are numerically about right (35) to be a volume in their own right, and more than worthy.
But I digress, and no amount of wishing will make the South Western Fells a Wainwright group in their own right. But what it does mean is that they don’t get the footfall that the bigger name areas do, and for that I’m thankful as it means I get them to myself, which is much the best way to fully appreciate them.
I began the climb up the Moor Gill bridleway, finding it hard going as the first walk with significant ascent for a while, and of course fully laden with supplies at the start of my trip. But about 300m up the steepness eased and my legs enjoyed the flatter section that followed, whilst my eyes enjoyed the views back down to the coast.
The path climbed gradually up to the summit knoll, and there were many stops to turn around and gaze back at the beautiful blue sea and sky behind me. As I neared the top of the knoll, I struck right off the path to take in the south summit and then walked past the tarn that nestles between the two summits, and up to the main top.
I stood there for a few minutes while I noshed on a cereal bar and perused the rest of the day’s walk. In the hazy distance, a panorama of the western and southern fells spread out, and I could pick out many including Great Gable, the Scafells, Esk Pike, Bowfell, the Crinkles, the Coniston Fells and Harter Fell to name but a few. With a deadline to meet, I had to cut the staring short and get on my way though.
I descended north east over Hentoe Hill, heading for the next Outlying Fell, Stoupdale Head, but skirted below the summit to walk out to pick up White Combe first. This also gave me a chance for a decent look into Blackcombe Screes and Whitecombe Screes.
White Combe is also a good viewpoint for a good look at the Black Combe that gives the fell its name.
I followed the line of the hill back up to the top of Stoupdale Head, which isn’t that remarkable in comparison to the two Combes. Now with the back of the walk broken and a looming 5pm pick-up from the fell road, I needed to get a move on. I followed the fence down over Swinside Fell and squelched my way through the bog that is Black Dub, this retarding my progress to such an extent that I ran out of time to finish off the fence-side walk over Stoneside Hill, and so instead I just made a beeline for the road.
I sat by the road and waited for the lift I’d been promised from my B&B landlady. And while I was waiting I looked at the next stage of the walk for tomorrow – over Buck Barrow and Kinmont Buckbarrow.
Today’s Walk: 7.22 miles, 2,378ft ascent, 3:38 duration.
Day 2: Sunday 4 July 2010 – My 1st Tweet
The lovely blue skies and touch of warmth in the air that had characterised Saturday were gone. I emerged from my B&B into a world of grey. Grey rock on the hills above, the grey of the tarmac taking me back to the point I left off yesterday. And most importantly grey everywhere in front of my face. It was just as well that I’d taken my pictures of Buck Barrow the night before, as I couldn’t even see Buck Barrow today, let alone compose a decent photo of it.
The sort of day that filled me with trepidation. Not of the walk itself, but of the landlady’s attitude. Whenever I’ve seen a forecast for a wet, windy and gloomy day, the behaviour of my very first Lakes B&B landlady came back to haunt me. Was I about to get a lecture on the irresponsibility of going outside on a day like this ? Refreshingly, she stayed silent about my proposed foray, and I set off secure in the knowledge that I now exuded experience and capability to an outsider.
I set off following the fence line all the way up to the top of Buckbarrow, shrouded in low grey cloud. The wind clawed at me as I got higher and I sheltered in the lee of the summit rocks for a brief pause and to attempt (and fail due to poor signal) to send a tweet or two.
I set off again trying to find Kinmont Buck Barrow in the mist. I think I found it, but it’s hard to be totally sure, although the pile of rocks I ended up on top of seemed like a summit. But I was also conscious of not wanting to get lost, and much compass work was undertaken to get me back to the main path. I continued north for Burn Moor, a big, flat-topped and featureless moor which meant the second difficult to find summit of the day. In the wind, rain and gloom it also wasn’t somewhere to linger and the compass came out again to get he heading just north of east for Whitfell, the high point of this group of fells.
Being the high point, it was of course also the most exposed point, and with relief I spotted a darker grey shape looming through the mist. I plonked down in the shelter and ate some lunch in the cold.
I had wind, but I also had a mobile signal and my first tweet made it safely to my timeline.
By now the novelty of being out by myself on a wind-and rain-swept hillside was starting to wear thin and walking in those conditions always feels more tiring than when the weather is good and spirits are that little bit higher; and so I decided to call it a day rather than carry on over Stainton Pike and Yoadcastle. Besides, from their description in Wainwright, and the potential views over Devoke Water and Eskdale, I’d rather actually see them.
I made by way down north to the path running just below the fell top, turned right and followed it down below the cloud to the valley.
Today’s Walk: 7.23 miles, 1,160ft ascent, 4:53 duration.
Day 3: Monday 5 July 2010 – The Creature from the Swamp
Overnight, the rain and general greyness had lifted to give me a clear day once more. I’d need the little extra boost that this would give as today I had to get to Eskdale YHA, fully-laden, and my planned route was a lot more demanding. Today, I didn’t just have to get to Eskdale, I also had some ground to make up on the day before.
I set off towards Ulpha, turning right onto the Birker Fell road and climbing up beyond the trees. I reached Baskell Farm and turned left to head for the fells, taking the direct route across the open field rather than the slightly longer way by the track itself. This was a mistake as I found to my cost when I went thigh-deep into a bog. A brief flash of panic and visions of being slowly sucked under to be rediscovered in 5,000 years and put on display in a museum, went through my head, but a deep breath and a concentrated effort saw me pull clear, although not clean. I regained the track and followed it alongside a wall heading for The Pike. I got to the top and then had to negotiate a fence with no obvious way over.
I rested at the summit and looked out over the Dunnerdale Fells to the east and Hesk Fell, my next target, to the north-west.
Navigation was now quite easy with the wall to guide me down to the saddle and back up onto Hesk Fell. But with no paths on Hesk Fell to guide me to the top, I made my own way heading for what seemed to be the highest point, resulting in a series of dog legs as more of the top of the fell came into sight. The summit was marked by a cairn comprising 3 stones, and so I’m sure there are plenty who miss it. Hesk Fell gave me an even better view all round, and in particular of my next target – the continuation of the line of Outlying Fells that runs north from Whitfell.
I descended down the grassy fellside to the low point between the fells and then slanted south-west for Stainton Pike, finding the summit as the furthermost of the various rocky outcrops. I sat and enjoyed the 360° views while I had my lunch.
Yoadcastle next and before I knew it Woodend Height was in the bag too. I found a way down the rocky west side of the fell to head for White Pike and then onto The Knott. I headed off the summit of The Knott with the aim of descending over Birkby fell to Devoke Water and then to go the other side of the tarn and pick off Water Crag and Rough Crag. But a tortuous way down with no obvious paths and big patches of dense bracken and bog sucked the energy from me and meant I arrived at Devoke Water soggy and tiring.
I still had a decent amount of walk ahead of me, it was 3:30 already and I reluctantly (but also happily) decided to leave Water Crag and Rough Crag for another day. I followed the path down to the Fell Road and now had a choice – the road route which was longer but safe and predictable, or the shorter and more direct route cross-country over Birker Fell. I took the path to Birkerthwaite Farm, then paths to Whincop and a “discreet” route through the bracken to Low Birker. A simple but hard underfoot walk out to the hostel completed the day, and I arrived with aching feet.
Today’s Walk: 12.48 miles, 2,916ft ascent, 8:18 duration.
Day 4: Tuesday 6 July 2010 – My 100th Wainwright
Last night I had a pleasant surprise – an 8-bed room all to myself at the hostel, which meant I secured the pole position spot on a lower bunk by the window with views south over the south of Eskdale. This made £16 a night look very reasonable indeed. And the food wasn’t bad at all either.
After a long, gruelling day yesterday, it was nice to just be down to the weight of a day pack, and although not exactly bright and sunny, it was nevertheless clear as I walked along the road to Wha House Farm and headed up through the bracken and rocky outcrops on the long drag up to Slight Side. I wasn’t really up for the full Eskdale ascent of Scafell today, and opted for the straightforwardness of the Terrace Route. I meandered amongst the crags – passing Hare Crag, Goat Crag, Bull How and Catcove Beck, wondering whether there would be any features today not named after animals.
One or two other people were out too, all moving faster than me and most heading straight for the main ridgeline. But I stayed a bit lower, sticking almost like glue to the 360m contour for a bit longer, before joining the main ridgeline path a bit further along. This turned out to be a bit of a slog on feet still smarting from the previous day, and my progress was stately, if not downright slow.
I scrambled up to the summit of Slight Side, and then took the rocky path up to Scafell itself. All the time the views of the mountains forming the head of Eskdale becoming clearer – Scafell, Scafell Pike, Ill Crag, Esk Pike, Bowfell and Crinkle Crags.
And sometimes I turned to look back, and in particular down the other side of the ridge where the views over Wastwater were something else.
The path undulated over and around rocks and eventually deposited me on the top of Scafell. A few moments stood there marked my 100th Wainwright, then I dropped the few feet off the other side skipped across the rock-strewn plateau and up onto Symond’s Knott. I found myself some rocks conveniently placed to give a comfortable perch where I was out of the worst of the intermittent breeze but also had a decent view.
I took in the views to be had: Great Gable, across to Mosedale, further north to Skiddaw, the head of Eskdale and, of course, straight ahead to Scafell Pike. I sat there with a fell to myself watching people queuing to stand on the top opposite.
I could truthfully have stayed there all day just taking in the fells all around me, but I’d seen the weather forecast, and could see signs of a change coming. The sky was darkening, the wind was rising and I could hear faint rumbles in the distance. And so it was time to call it a day, before the weather deteriorated.
The quickest way down seemed to be the direct descent off the western side of Scafell to Burnmoor Tarn, and then a more gradual walk out to Boot. I made my way gingerly down the scree path and arrived at the tarn. Louder rumbles of thunder and flashes seen from the corner of my eye heralded the approaching storm. Foregoing any ideas of picking off Illgill Head and Whin Rigg or even the more modest Boat How, I ploughed along the bridleway, or rather tried to as the path was indistinct in places leaving me slogging through rougher ground than was ideal. This saw me arrive at Boot without much left in the tank, and with nearly a further 3km of road walking still left to do.
My desire to get off the hill before the weather hit left me with a disappointing walk out and part of me wished I’d just followed the ridge down and enjoyed the rocks and tarns en route. But I also knew that I was more tired than I thought from the day before, and ultimately had to be satisfied with the choices I’d made, and that these had seen me avoid the storm.
Today’s Walk: 10.9 miles, 3,665ft ascent, 8:20 duration.
Day 5: Wednesday 7 July 2010 – A New Favourite
I stepped out of the hostel to be greeted by low cloud obscuring the tops of Hard Knott and Harter Fell, but at least it wasn’t raining, and I also set out with deliberately low expectations for the walk. With just Hard Knott as my objective, I’d see how I felt after I got there, although if I was feeling up to it I’d really like to do Harter Fell and Green Crag too.
I slogged up the road towards the thick bank of low cloud, ambling my way and with frequent stops to look at the landscape. For some reason, I just wasn’t in a hurry today. A stop off at Mediobogdum (or the roman fort for the “plebs”) conveniently broke the ascent to Hardknott Pass into two, but I couldn’t avoid the slow winding slog up the road for long.
I reached the crest of the pass, and turned left onto Hard Knott itself, attempting to follow Wainwright’s route up a grassy rake. The terrain flattened out slightly and I came across a stile, attached to no fence and serving no useful function.
Now the path blurred a bit, but a combination of reading the terrain, my altimeter and snatches of actual path led off to the right around and over a number of rocky tors to the summit itself. I paused for elevenses and a man turned up with an enormous aerial and proceeded to set-up his pirate radio station.
I made my way back down to the pass and continued across the road to begin the climb up Harter Fell. Feeling that today may be some sort of dream, or an exhibition of failed Turner prize entries, I came upon this, and it was clearly no accident:
The path ran alongside a burned down wood and then I veered off to head directly up the fell, along another indistinct path, using my altimeter and Jelly Babies as primary motivation to get me up. The hill firmed up into a definite ridge and this took me to the summit and my lunch stop, where I enjoyed good views of Eskdale, the Coniston Fells and my next target, Green Crag.
I descended roughly west to the main path between Eskdale and Dunnerdale, with a misguided attempt to cut the corner leaving me thwacking through heather and bracken for no apparent gain. On the path, I headed for Dunnerdale and rather than cross a fence and walk through the wood to join the actual path onto Green Crag, I went for a direct frontal assault. This wasn’t the brightest idea I’d ever had as the fell side rose gently but with hidden dips near the streams running down its side. I forged a lonely path across the rough and damp terrain, startling sheep and drained the tank further in doing so. It seemed to take ages to make appreciable progress, but the end destination was never in doubt. I made it out of the depression and climbed amongst the outcrops searching for the actual summit, curving my around to it. I scrambled up onto the summit and sat to take in the view and rest.
There’s something about Green Crag that I really like, and despite the lateness of the day and the effort expended to get here, I’d just loved the last part of the walk exploring the top part of the fell and now, sitting here on the summit. It seemed like the sort of place I’d like to return to with the tent some day.
Not wanting to retrace my steps, I chose an adventurous route straight off the western side of the summit outcrop to put me on the main path below that would take me down to Low Birker and Eskdale. This made for a short, steep and at times scrambly way down. I marvelled at the crags rising above to my right and the path of blue sky that had appeared this late – after the rest of the day had been so grey and murky. I may have had to work harder than expected on the east of the fell, but I absolutely loved the west.
Of course, the adventure wasn’t over for the day. The path became faint and having lost it, I tried to cut a corner off which just made me go in a big circle through the bracken, as I first tried to forge a path, then decided to cut back to where the path should have been. Next time I’ll just hug the base of the crags, path or no path. But I eventually made it to Low Birker Tarn, picked up the path again and after turning around for one last look at the line of crags, I headed down the path into the valley.
Today’s Walk: 11.22 miles, 3,805ft ascent, 8:58 duration.
The End of the Trip
Thursday dawned and it was time to go home. I walked down to Dalegarth and hopped on La’al Ratty to meet the real train at Ravenglass. Another grey, but dry day, but clear enough to enjoy the sight of the fells I’d explored as the small slow local train wound its way along the coast, taking me away from the hills once more.
Pressure at work had meant I really needed this trip; on the penultimate night I’d made a decision about the future, and this helped make the last day more relaxed and enjoyable, even if my route choices had contrived to mess the day up. But I left the South Western Fells with a real love for this part of the Lake District, and whenever I now need to escape in my head to the hills, it’s terrain very much like this area that I’m visualising. The simple fact that I’m working my way through the Wainwrights and Nuttalls naturally means it’s likely to be a while before I’m back, as I concentrate on the areas and fells I’ve not been to yet, but frankly a return visit can’t come too soon.
The route and Stats
Total distance: 49.05 miles
Total ascent: 13,924 ft
Total walking time: 34 hours 7 mins
Outlying Fells: 14