From Gable???s South Traverse to the Breaker???s Yard

THIS image of Napes Needle was taken in the late 1970s on a Zenit E camera using Kodachrome 64 slide film. The image was then transferred to print by Maurice Roberts, of Barrow, framed and hung on a wall for many years in order to attain a faded effect. It was then thrust in a cardboard box to spend several years in an attic before being tracked down this week and scanned into my computer to purposely blur the faded effect and give it an air of age and respectability. The original slide is, believe me, quite stunning, but it???s in a drawer with about 3,000 others and there it will remain for the foreseeable future

IT???S 7.45am on Friday morning and I???m standing on the flight deck of HMS Invincible, watching the sun rise over a scarlet Morecambe Bay. I shouldn???t be up here; I should be down in the aircraft carrier???s aft engine room banding cables with a gang of itinerant Glaswegian and Geordie electricians. But it???s such a beautiful dawn that I feel drawn to it like a moth to a lamp. So I stand motionless, cold but thrilled, as seagulls wheel between shipyard cranes and the sky turns gold above 1970s Barrow . . .

To the north, behind the town hall clock, there???s a scattering of snow on the Lakeland fells. Not much. Just the faintest of dustings. Black Combe is bathed in rose light streaming from the Pennines. But, by God, the air is chill. I can feel the iron deck sucking heat from my body through the soles of my boots.

Frank Blackburn???s standing next to me smoking a roll-up. Frank???s one of my best mates. He???s also an artist, wildlife expert, and EETPU steward for the Buccleuch Dock electrical workshop.

???You off up the fells this weekend???? he says as we peer into the sun.

???I???d planned to camp in the paddock at the Wasdale Head Hotel and have a couple of days up there,??? I answer. ???Do the South Traverse on Great Gable. But I???m full of cold so I might just give it a miss.???

???Nay lad,??? he says in his Bolton accent. ???Get yourself up there. It???ll do you good. Blow that cold right out of yer system.???

I???m warming to the subject. I like the idea of blowing a cold from my lungs with fresh Lakeland air.

???If I???m going,??? I say, ???Then I need to take advantage of this perfect day and bugger off through that shipyard gate before I can change my mind. Sod a day???s wage. What do you think????

???That???s the spirit,??? says Frank. ???Money in the bank of health, my lad. Money in the bank of health.???

So I clatter down the gangplank with my bass bag slung over my shoulder, chuck some gear in the Mini Estate, hare up to Wasdale Head and spend a weekend in the fells. I return home on Sunday night with acute bronchitis. Money in the bank of health, my arse.

HMS Invincible being fitted out in Buccleuch Dock, Barrow-in-Furness, during the late 1970s. Picture courtesy of A Denholm Collection ??? for more details see link below

HOW much can a world change in the space of 34 years? A shipyard that used to employ about 14,000 people now employs 5,000 ??? thankfully not me, because I???m long gone. The EETPU, which during the Thatcher years and under the leadership of Frank Chapple became more unpopular in trade union circles than the Falange, has been subsumed by greater things. And HMS Invincible was towed away to a Turkish breaker???s yard last February. It is no more.

That???s something to make a bloke stand still and count the years, I???ll tell you. The last time I saw the Invincible was when I returned from Bilbao to Portsmouth by ferry three or four years ago. It had been decommissioned and was tied up opposite the ferry terminal ??? not a light shining from a door or a pennant flying from a mast. I???m the sort of bloke who feels young at heart and eternally optimistic. But when you see a ship that you once helped build, one of the mightiest ships of the Royal Navy, floating worthless, redundant, and nothing more than an old hulk waiting for the scrapheap, by God that brings you down to earth with a thump. That???s a leveller.

Frank Blackburn still smokes roll-ups, or he did the last time I called on him at his cottage in Lowick about 18 months ago. The sun still rises over Morecambe Bay. And, most importantly, the South Traverse is still the best route to climb Great Gable. And that???s where I am today ??? up in the wind to complete the traverse, continue to Green Gable then drop down to Seathwaite in Borrowdale.

Bloody hell it???s cold. I???ve walked the traverse on warm sunny days with my parent???s dog in tow; I???ve jumped off halfway along and reached the summit via Great Hell Gate, which is not recommended; I???ve been up there in the early morning with my old schoolmate Peter Frith to take half-decent pictures of Napes Needle; and I???ve completed the traverse with my son, Fergus, when he was eleven.

Today the South Traverse is a stroll down memory lane, albeit a stroll where I discover I have to use my hands occasionally, especially when I decide to ???thread the Needle??? ??? clamber up the spine of rock that separates Napes Needle from the mountain, throw my legs inelegantly over the ar??te, and swamble down the other side. I???m sure it used to be easier than this. Has there been some sort of geological upheaval since Fergus and I did it in 1995?

But more than that, the South Traverse is sheer joy and will remain so. From the mountain rescue box above Styhead Tarn to the col between Great Gable and Kirk Fell, the traverse slices almost horizontally across some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the Lake District, skirting crags, crossing gullies, clinging to ledges and visiting places immortalised in the monochrome photographs of the famous Abraham brothers.

It is a classic Lakeland route. It should be walked in hobnail boots, club tie and flat cap set at a jaunty angle. Walkers should pause half way, sit on a warm slab to squint across the void towards the bulk of the Scafell range, and be obliged to enjoy a Senior Service or Passing Cloud. Tea should be taken from a tartan Thermos flask. Sandwiches should be filled with English cheese and absolutely nothing else except, perhaps, Marmite. Soft drinks should be limited to Marsh???s sass or dandelion and burdock. And the talk ??? the talk should be of mountain days, Hartleys beer, the superiority of canvas tents and the unparalleled skills of Willie Horne. That???s how it should be done. With a jovial whistle, a flush in the cheeks and a spring in the step. A classic route demands classic style.

Wasdale and Wast Water. This picture comes from the same stable as the Napes Needle shot at the top of the post. Great Gable centre, Yewbarrow and edge of Kirk Fell to left, Lingmell and slopes of Scafell Pike to right

The beck flowing from Styhead Tarn. Purists will be relieved to learn that from this point onwards the photographs are good old fashioned digital

Styhead Tarn with Great End and lumps of Scafell Pike in the background

The lower reaches of Scafell Pike from Great Gable's South Traverse

A climber prepares to ascend Napes Needle

Today, though, there is no warming sun or uninterrupted view. There???s an icy wind blowing off the Irish Sea and the mist hangs low on the fells. I make my way across crags that were once familiar but now appear slightly unknown to the col at Beck Head, then veer up Gable???s flank and arrive on its gloomy summit in a dispiriting gale.

The last time I was up here, which was with Fergus, we had intended to continue to Green Gable ??? but one of us chose the wrong route in the mist and we ended up back at Styhead Tarn. Okay, it was me. I can???t really blame an eleven-year-old. Anyone can make a mistake. No one???s perfect.

I smile about this as I clatter down the scree, following cairns with the wind whipping my waterproofs. Ten minutes later the mist clears and I see Styhead Tarn directly below me. Bugger. I???ve done it again.

Time for the breaker???s yard, perhaps.

The summit of Great Gable


  • Whaddya mean, you???ve never heard of Willie Horne? Click here to complete your education
  • I am indebted to Andrew Denholm for allowing me to use his picture of HMS Invincible being fitted out in Buccleuch Dock, Vickers Shipyard, Barrow. Click here for Andrew???s Aviation, Maritime and Transport Photographs website
  • A nice site for more information about the Abraham brothers

About McEff

Journalist on The Northern Echo, former shipyard electrician, former quarryman and tunneller. Climbs mountains and runs long distances to make life harder. Gravitates to the left in politics just to make life harder still.
This entry was posted in Walking, Climbing, Hiking, Mountains, Camping, HMS Invincible, Napes Needle, Willie Horne and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to From Gable???s South Traverse to the Breaker???s Yard

  1. Sorry Alen,had to stop reading when I saw the name Frank Chapple :)

  2. You tell a great story with some memorable turns of phrase; “Should be done in hobnails” is one I’ll remember! I took an Australian relative over the same route a number of years ago and we had a great and memorable day out.

  3. alan.sloman says:

    I found a picture of me in my old Blacks of Greenock dirty orange canvas anorak and red woolly balaclava the other day. I was soaked through, freezing cold and grinning like an idiot. I had my faithful Scarpa Bronzo boots on (3 thru’ soles, you know!) that always gave me horrid blisters on the back of my heels) and my cut-down map in a plastic bag..

    It was in the Lakes after we had caught the overnight bus from Victoria Coach Station and we hadn’t slept all night.

    My mate Wilky is now back walking again, 41 years later after a bit of a lay-off. I’m dragging him across Scotland in May.
    Ta for that. It made me grin.

    • McEff says:

      I think there’s scope here for a “things they used to wear on the fells” photographic competition. All my woolly gear ??? jumpers, hat, gloves ??? was knitted by my nana. In fact, I’ve still got a couple of hats she made. It was good warm gear and as cheap as chips. Cheers Alan.

  4. David says:

    Interesting trip down memory lane Alen, you have brought back memories of my own adventures on this side of Gable. I was still at school in the mid seventies, but remember seeing pics of Napes Needle in an old book. Years later (14th April 1991 to be precise) I managed to climb it and remember thinking how hard these guys must have been to do it in 1886 with a hemp rope and a couple of slings. I had forgotten about the South Traverse as a way up to the summit of Gable from that side though.

    • McEff says:

      Hi David. I???ve never been to the top of the Needle, though I did try to climb the lower section once on a very early solo trip ??? but I had my parent???s dog with me and it sat at the bottom barking its head off until I clambered down again. Those early pioneers were great guys. I have a lot of respect for them and admire their enthusiasm. It must have been a great time to explore the Lakes.

      • David says:

        Shame about the dog barking, perhaps it was just trying to tell you to be careful.

        The lakes do seem to have attracted some great men and women to explore the hills and crags over the years. One of the people who did a prolific amount of first ascents was a teacher at the County School called Bentley Beetham He has an amazing life history and was born over your way (Darlington), and lived here in Teesdale. I assume you will know about him.

      • McEff says:

        Funny old world, isn???t it? I heard of Bentley Beetham a long time ago but I had no idea he was from Darlington. I shall have to go through my old books and reacquaint myself with him. I???ve been working on the Echo nearly 17 years and I thought I was pretty well up on local heroes, because they all get recycled occasionally in the features pages, but he???s one who slipped through the net. And yes, the dog did me a favour. He did it again when I was trying to cross Sharp Edge once in the snow. Had to turn back that time as well to stop him barking.

  5. Alistair says:

    That was brilliant. I really enjoyed reading that. This is what blogs are for, bringing places to life with personal anecdotes and humour. You really should write a book.

    • McEff says:

      Thanks for that, Alistair. I wish blogging had been around when I climbed my first mountain in 1975 (Coniston Old Man) because I???ve forgotten more than I can ever retrieve from memory. This became apparent seven years ago when I found an old diary I???d written for 1986, and it was full of expeditions, people and events that had been wiped completely from my mind. Since 2005 I have kept a journal to counter this deterioration, and since the advent of blogging I???ve been uploading it. I think blogging is important because it???s a diary that other people, with similar interests, can read and comment on. Perhaps one day they will become an important part of our social history.
      I try to keep abreast with what you guys in my blog roll are doing because your activities are rich and varied and they inspire me. Some are educational, some make me laugh, some fill me with awe with their words and images. All of them are worth reading (and there must be many more) because they are individual takes on a common subject. Since I???ve being doing this blogging thing, I???ve started to look upon my fellow hillwakers in a different light. They are not necessarily just other people bumbling about on a mountain, they are people with stories to tell ??? and many of them tell it.
      I???ve been toying with the idea of writing a post on this subject for some time. I might just put my feet up and have a think about it. Cheers Alistair.

  6. Paul says:

    Hi Alen,

    As always bountiful written, I once read that not so long ago that school children throughout Lakeland were told “Today children we shall be learning about Napes Needle” And woa betide any child who put his/her hand up asking for its whereabouts, it does sound like the same era the photo you have was taken & that image has never left me when I think about Great Gable.

    Your post has inspired me to climb Great Gable via the south traverse, hopefully sooner rather than later.

    Alistair is right, you should write a book.


    • McEff says:

      Thanks for that, Paul. It really is a great route and you will thoroughly enjoy it. I’ll keep an eye out for your report because you always seem to pick a really good day and take excellent pictures.
      Cheers, Alen

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