MY old schoolmate and walking companion Pete Frith dropped in for a meal the other night. It’s the first time we’ve seen each other for ten years. We talked about the Lake District because I’d just got back. I said the roads between Barrow and Coniston are narrower than they used to be. I expect it’s down to shrinkage, the weight of dry-stone walls pushing the verges in, and the encroachment of herbage because sheep are seldom herded along the queen’s highway these days. He said it’s because the car I drive now is bigger than the 850CC Mini I used to zoom about in back in the 1970s. Fair enough. I’ll be the first to admit I get things wrong occasionally . . .
This is one of those blog posts that begins at the end. We had a good night. I know it was a good night because I had too much to drink and woke up at 4am on the settee, having rolled onto my glasses and flattened them. These things occur. I can live with them.
So back to the beginning. It’s a long day. I drive 99 miles from Darlington to Askam-in-Furness, call at my mother’s house, drink the mandatory cup of tea, then drive to Coniston along roads that are definitely narrower than they were 40 years ago. I don’t care what anyone says. They are narrower. Especially the A593 just south of Torver. It’s like an old T-shirt that’s been through the wash too many times.
Here’s something that gets my back up. As I turn left in Coniston to head up to the Walna Scar track, I see a road sign pointing to “Retail Outlets”. What? Is the word “shops” not sufficient? When we need to buy food, do we go retail outletting or do we go shopping? Jesus.
Sorry about that. I was late to bed last night and up early this morning.
It’s more than twenty years since I’ve walked on the Coniston Fells. The single-track road to the Walna Scar fell-gate is steeper than it used to be, as well as being narrower. And there are dozens of cars parked at the top and people wearing flashy gear. I feel a bit out of place in my frayed shorts and faded T-shirt. Wasn’t expecting a fashion parade. (By the way, click on pictures for high-res versions)
Let me tell you about the Walna Scar track. I have a facsimile Ordnance Survey first edition map of the Lake District in the 1880s, which depicts the track as a public road from Coniston, running over Walna Scar pass to the Duddon Valley. In those days, it was as much a public road as Honister and Hardknott – but like the tracks over Styhead and Gatescarth it just never got tarmac rolled all over it. It was built mainly to serve the local quarries – or slate fabrication outlets as they call them in Coniston.
So is it a public road or a mountain track? Do an internet search on the subject and a huge heap of documents is revealed, charting a war of words and legal battles that raged until as recently as 2011, with off-road vehicle enthusiasts on one side and local authorities on the other. And the outcome? The Walna Scar track is now, officially and legally, a restricted byway, and the only vehicles allowed on its surface are ponies and traps. I like that.
The track has been restored in recent years, with a surface of rubble and grit. It’s probably closer to its original state now than it has been since the last carts, tinkers, quarrymen and clergymen toiled over the summit all those long years ago. That’s not a bad thing.
From the top of the pass I strike north for Brown Pike and I’m on the summit (682m, 2,237ft) in what seems like no time at all. I check to see if my watch has stopped. Then I stride out for Buck Pike (744m, 2,440ft) and Dow Crag (778m, 2,552ft). On Dow Crag I eat all my sandwiches. This is a mistake. But I was up early this morning and I only had a slice of toast and two boiled eggs for breakfast.
Here’s something. How do you pronounce Dow, as in Dow Crag? Is it Dow, as in how now brown cow? Or Dow, as in doe a deer, a female deer? I’ve heard it pronounced both ways. Just thought I’d throw that in.
My intention, I told my mother and wife before setting out, was to climb Dow Crag then drop down to Goat’s Water and return to the car. But despite a late start, and because I’m making good progress, I decide to hop onto Coniston Old Man (803m, 2,634ft) – the first mountain I ever climbed. It will be a nostalgia trip, I tell myself. The Old Man is always a pleasure to climb.
There are crowds of people on the Old Man summit – more than I’ve ever seen on a summit before. It’s reminiscent of those schoolbook pictures of the Sermon on the Mount, only without Jesus. I’ve no sandwiches left but I might scrounge some loaves and fishes if I’m lucky.
Again, everyone is dressed smartly, or smart-casual, or smart-sporty, or smart-outdoor-chic. I’m at the outer fringe of the casual spectrum. Sort of extreme-casual bordering on ethnic-peasant-refugee-casual. I don’t know how people manage to stay so clean and look so fresh while climbing mountains. Perhaps these observation say more about me than them. I’ll move on.
I’m feeling good, partly because I appear to be walking well and partly because everyone up here is happy and having a good time. There’s a seaside, roll-up roll-up, wish-you-were-here, kiss-me-quick atmosphere. No loaves and fishes though. So I decide, in a moment of uncharacteristic bravado, to extend my walk even further and strike north over Brim Fell to Swirl How (802m, 2,631ft) and perhaps drop down to Levers Water and the Paddy End copper mines. Off I go.
I’m crossing Great How Crags when a realisation dawns. With the bulky mass of Grey Friar to the west, and Wetherlam to the east, it would be within my grasp to top all the Coniston fells in one glorious swoop. It’s a tantalising thought and I give it serious consideration. But on arriving at the lonely cairn on Swirl How my stomach starts rumbling alarmingly and I’ve nothing in my sack to replenish my energy reserves. Shackleton would not have baulked at the challenge, I’m sure. And neither would I if, like him, the alternative had been four years in a trench on the Somme.
So, with an air of reluctance, I wander down to Levers Water and the ancient Back Strings copper mines, then descend to Paddy End to follow the course of an old waterwheel launder (flume, race, leet, lade) across the foot of Brim Fell to a track that skirts pleasantly through bracken and soft turf to the fell-gate on the Walna Scar road.
It’s been a satisfying walk – unplanned, spur-of-the-moment, make-it-up-as-you-go-along stuff. Must remember to bring more sandwiches next time. And buy some new shorts. And complain to the authorities about the narrow roads.