It were early one morning when I rose from me bed
I’ve heard hark, hark away me boys so clearly
And so I drew me a little nearer, for to see who was there
That were going out fox hunting so early
Another wild day, and threatening to get very wet. Fine rain spatters from the south-west intermittently on a blustery wind. It’s 9am and I’m brewing up under some pine trees at the end of the road in Uldale, the Howgill Fells to one side, the Pennines to the other.
Teenage girls don’t like traditional folk music, by the way. This, really, is a bit of an obvious statement so I don’t know why I’m mentioning it. Other than I once went to Kendal with my teenage niece and embarrassed her to the edge of oblivion when I bought The Watersons’ For Pence and Spicy Ale LP and walked round with it under my arm. The embarrassment was mutual because she had her hair piled up like Kiko Fratellini’s hat and reinforced with three tins of lacquer. I think that’s why I bought the LP.
The Watersons sing a song called Swarthfell Rocks. It’s one of those fox hunting songs that can, like foxes, be found all over the country – only the place names in the lyrics change depending on the version.
And Swarth Fell is on the agenda for today. Whether or not it is the famous place enshrined in the song, I care not. It’s just nice to think I might be tramping into a bit of traditional blood-and-guts England which has – like polio, cow pox and trench-foot – been largely confined to history.
I set off in the reverse direction to that I had planned. This is a strategic move. From the top of Baugh Fell I will have the worst of the wind behind me on the traverse to Swarth Fell and Wild Boar Fell, both of which disappear and reappear sporadically in the mist. I trudge up the River Rawthey along a wet path to Holmes Moss, then after a sardine sandwich next to a ruined farmhouse, climb the flank of Baugh Fell.
Baugh Fell is an immense lump of barren mountain, riddled with peat bogs and tarnlets. It covers a huge area and from a distance looks bleak. Tramping up it, I discover it is no less bleak at close quarters. Walking is hard going, but it is interesting because there are ancient marker cairns positioned at strategic places. They look like giants on the skyline.
I am at the trig point for noon. The mist descends and the wind howls eerily through a wire fence that runs the length of the fell atop a drystone wall. After a brew, I follow the wall east along the ridge to another summit – the higher of the two – then drop back down to Holmes Moss across boggy ground.
The ascent of Swarth Fell is quite exhilarating because now I have the wind behind me. The summit, though, is dull and flat. It is even devoid of the man-eating bogs that add some interest to Baugh Fell. In the distance, about a mile-and-a-half to the north, I see a heavy black cloud swallow Wild Boar Fell. Terminally. Not a good sign. I calculate, with daylight due to run out shortly, I need to be on the summit within three-quarters of an hour.
I head off at a good pace, slog up a path towards the summit plateau (first decent path of the day, actually) and enter the mist. The path begins to take me off around a wide comb called The Band, which is not where I want to be. I take to the open fell. In good visibility there would be no problem. Today, in the deep gloom, I cannot afford to waste time. But I waste some. Far too much. I tramp around this vast and unfriendly plateau in howling wind and thick mist searching for the summit – and the light fades.
Blast and bugger. This wasn’t in the plan. It’s decision time.
Abandon ship. I return to the col between Swarth Fell and Wild Boar Fell, and follow a stream into Uldale Gill. The wind is so fierce it lifts spray from the beck and blows it up the hill into my face. Eventually I end up on the edge of a ravine called Needlepurse Gill. Darkness falls. I take to the fellside and blunder through all sorts of muck and mire until I hit the road.
At the car I put the tea can on the stove, stretch out in the back with the seats down, then heat the last of my French onion soup. Shall have to make some more, for this is the last of my frozen supply. As I sup my tea and wolf down the soup – Roy Eldridge’s trumpet blowing mournfully – the rain sweeps in with a vengeance.
So, Wild Boar Fell has snarled and snorted. And like the forty-second fox being chased on Swarthfell Rocks, I’ve been run to earth then chewed up. I’ll leave the last word to The Watersons, bless them.
So now to conclude, and to finish me song
This gallant fox hunt it is all over
It’s the forty-second fox that’s been slain on Swarthfell Rocks
So that puts an end to me story