HORIZONTAL hail and rain scythe across this bloody bleak ridge. Wind screams through the chinks in a dry-stone wall. I crouch in what little shelter I can find and fumble in my rucksack for another layer of clothes. A jumper. Good. But this means removing my waterproofs and thermal jacket first – and pinning them down while I pull on the jumper. A bloke needs three hands to accomplish this without losing an item. And then he’d need a pretty strange jumper. And an extra glove.
And all the while I am wrestling with clothes on this god-forsaken felltop, Alice Bauer is singing Where’s My Sweetie Hiding inside my head, accompanied by the Original Prague Syncopated Orchestra. That’s what comes of playing the CD at full blast while driving over the A66 this morning. I’m getting battered by an unfriendly force-ten gale and these hairy Czech guys are blowing trumpets behind my eyeballs.
I should have known it was going to be rough when I was lacing my boots in the Brothers Water carpark. Rain was absolutely thrashing down. But like a silly bugger I set off up Hartsop Dodd from the main road – a frontal assault.
And now I am just beyond the summit of the Dodd on an exposed ridge where this ferocious wind pelts me with rain and particles of ice that hurt like hell. It is my intention to head along the ridge to Stony Cove Pike, then veer east to High Street and end up on Place Fell. A old wall follows the line of the ridge into the clouds, which are bowling in the from the south-west and enveloping the higher peaks. Things don’t look good, and it crosses my mind that I might have to modify my plans.
More masses of stinging rain sweep in, and the wind is so strong I have trouble standing upright. Over to my left, before the ridge begins its ascent to Stony Cove Pike, is a grassy brow which I think drops down to the Hartsop valley. I take a decision to abandon my walk and make for it, but find myself on the crest of some crags. I retrace my steps to the top of the ridge.
The summit of Stony Cove Pike is veiled in cloud, the wind and rain howling across the path – up there on the top it will be even worse, with bad visibility thrown in.
Another decision. I drop down to the west, and although I am heading into the wind and rain, the slope is gentle and grassy. Three or four hundred feet below the ridge – with Caudale Quarries in front and below me – the rain ceases and the weather suddenly improves. I wring out my gloves and take stock.
I see three walkers above me on the ridge of Caudale Moor, struggling in the wind. They stop and look down towards me. They are looking at me, probably thinking: “There are more idiots on the fells besides us today”. Then I see what they are really looking at – a herd of red deer, a hundred yards in front of me. There are couple of big stags and about six or seven others. Red deer are a common sight in Scotland but I have never seen them in the Lakes before.
Another decision. I strike back up the fell in a final bid to salvage my walk. If those three blokes are carrying on into the clouds, and things are improving weather-wise, there is no reason why I should descend further.
Five minutes later, the rain sweeps back with renewed ferocity. Jesus Christ. Just when you thought it was safe to go back up the fell . . .
Another decision – this time the final one. I head towards the quarries with the intention of taking the sled-gate down to the Brothers Water Hotel. And like a plastic bag being blown along a backstreet, I am buffeted across the fellside to seek shelter in the dripping ruins of a roofless quarry hut.
Let me tell you about Caudale Quarries. Up here, high above the crest of Kirkstone Pass, men once mined slate. They drove tunnels into the mountain, and once into good slate metal – or clog, as the quarry fellas call it – they opened up underground, or closehead, quarries.
Caudale was last worked, if I remember rightly, during the 1930s by the Shaws of Coniston. The entrance levels have long since collapsed but it is still possible to gain access by abseiling down a 30ft shaft. I’ve done this a couple of times, many years ago, with the Cumbria Amenity Trust (see blogroll link).
The slate clogs were riven and dressed into roofing slates up here on the fell, then sledged down to the valley on the sled-gate – a fine sunken path that zigzags to the road in graceful sweeps (see picture at foot of this post). In later years an aerial ropeway was installed. Then, like nearly all of Lakeland’s slate and mineral ventures, it was overtaken by time and economics. Now it is just a smudge of ruins and a memory. In fact, “memory” is probably an overstatement.
So I sit here in the ruins with cold rain trickling down my neck, wring my gloves out again and have a cup of tea from my flask. And I think about the poor devils who slogged up here every day in the wind, rain, hail, snow and sometimes sunshine, to do a full day’s work for a piss-poor wage. They had little choice in the matter. They couldn’t gaze from the valley bottom at the rain rolling in and think: Nah . . . not today. They did not have the luxury of sitting in a warm car in a lay-by when things got rough. They had to take what they were given – all day, every day, year in and year out, and with the dangers of a poorly-regulated heavy industry thrown in.
An hour later, and with things firmly in perspective, I’m sitting in the boot of my car with my legs dangling over the bumper, drinking green tea and finishing a billy of rather good home-made French onion soup while rain lashes Brothers Water and night sweeps in.
Really, truly, we don’t know how bloody lucky we are, do we? We hear people moan and groan about “health and safety”, about the weather, about anything and everything that does not quite suit them. Yet not too long ago – certainly within living memory – people were lucky if they got a hot meal after toiling in the rain on top of a mountain; lucky if they got down with their limbs intact; lucky if they picked up a wage at the end of the week.
And on that note I drive home – Alice Bauer singing River Stay Away from My Door. Loudly.