THE puddles are frozen and a satisfying crust has formed on mud. Crunch, crunch. Big boots stomp through thin layers of white ice into voids where water used to lie. This is like being a child again. Crunch, crunch. Where does puddle water go after the ice has formed? That’s an intriguing question. Was it there in the first place?
Geese honk on the reservoir behind Wet Sleddale dam as the sun climbs into a windy though cloudless sky. The morning has an optimistic feel about it. It’s going to be a good day in Wet Sleddale – despite the name.
Cumbria Tourism has missed a trick here. Who in their right mind would look at a map of the Lake District and say: “Wet Sleddale. That sounds nice. Let’s go there for a holiday”? If Wet Sleddale had been a traditional English pub called the Kings Arms or the Black Horse, a brewery chain would have got its marketing people in, ripped the guts out of the place, renamed it something mundane and meaningless like The Fart and Gherkin, and be packing in the punters. There would be loud music, a huge TV screen that nobody watches, and girls who fall over after ten o’clock and lie on the floor texting their mates.
But it isn’t. It’s called Sleddale – like the neighbouring Long Sleddale – because at the dawn of time its inhabitants used horse-drawn sleds to bring hay from high meadows, peat from the fell, and perhaps slate from remote quarries where wheeled vehicles would sink to their axles, although packhorses were the preferred method for moving slate. And it’s called “Wet” for reasons that become obvious within a few minutes of straying from the car. The uninitiated are advised to pin a note to the top of their hat saying: “Dig here for me.”
The authorities should rebrand it Sunny Sleddale on the pretext it runs from east to west and so embraces the sun from morning to night; or Warm Sleddale, Cosy Sleddale, Green Sleddale or East Sleddale. Visitor numbers would increase overnight. Footfall – to use a buzz word favoured by marketing types – would become a stampede. For not only is this one of Lakeland’s most hauntingly wild and unfrequented valleys, it was also the location for one of the greatest cult films ever made.
High on the fellside at the abandoned Sleddale Hall, I take pictures of farm buildings and sit for a while on the doorstep. This is where Withnail and I was filmed – Richard E Grant, Paul McGann and the marvellous Richard Griffiths as the unquenchable, overbearing and rampantly homosexual Uncle Monty.
A rather nice touch is a wooden plaque fixed to the door which says “here hare here”, in honour of the note scribbled by Poacher Jake (Michael Elphick) who leaves the threesome a hare. Someone has arranged flowers inside a breeze block. Er, just a minute. It was only a film, for heaven’s sake.
Incidentally, I’ve just discovered why breeze blacks are called breeze blocks. In the US they are known as cinder blocks after one of their main constituents. Breeze is a synonym of ash. Say what you like, but this website strives to be educational and informative at all times.
Leaving Sleddale Hall to bask in the winter sun and surrounded by cows, I continue my journey. I’m heading along the most pleasant of tracks to the end of the valley, then over the mosses to Adam Seat at the top of Long Sleddale, before returning over the felltops.
The most pleasant of tracks brings me, after several miles, to Mosedale Cottage, one of the few bothies in the Lake District maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association. It’s a superb place in a superb location. I’ve wandered to its remote though homely whitewashed walls on a couple of occasions over the years, but always journeyed on. Must spend a night here sometime.
Today I lounge in a battered easy chair and devour a sandwich. The cottage sits on a small hillock beneath abandoned slate quarries. I suspect it was built to serve the quarries, and the quarrymen used the building as a barracks, store and office, as happened at many similar locations in the Lake District. Back then it would have been full of gnarled blokes and pipe smoke. There would have been laughter, bitchiness, whining, grumbling, swearing, shouting, and more laughter – all the things that quarry fellas do when they congregate at the end of the day. Been there, done it, still got the dusty T-shirt somewhere.
Now, though, the building is as silent as a grave. But it still has that end-of-the-day feel about it, as all bothies do. It’s tempting to kindle up the wood-burning stove, sling the boots in a corner, sit there in the complete and utter silence and drift peacefully into sleep. There again, with Uncle Monty in the vicinity it might be wise to move on.
I walk into the west – which sounds a romantic thing to do, but in reality is cold and muddy. I climb Adam Seat and drop down to the Long Sleddale slate quarries, or Wrengill Quarries as they are more commonly known. This is a place in which a man should spend a couple of hours just mooching around. It’s a fascinating fragment of Lake District industrialisation, with bits of machinery – including a rusting muck tub and an old compressor engine – lying about. There are also some impressive stretches of retaining wall holding back the tips and supporting track-ways.
Always impressed by my ability to be easily impressed by the most mundane of things, I leave the quarries behind and ascend Tarn Crag. I’ve been up here only once before (May 27, 1980) – but is hasn’t changed much. The stone tower on the summit was built by Manchester Corporation engineers when surveying the route for a tunnel and pipeline from Haweswater reservoir to Manchester. Not many people know that. But these people do.
I breeze, like reconstituted ash on the wind, over the pleasant summits of Grey Crag, Harrop Pike, Great Yarlside and Wasdale Pike to what must rank as one of the dampest and most depressing descents in the Lakes – several miles of elevated bog that slopes slowly towards Shap and sucks the energy from tired legs at every step. This is why it’s called Wet Sleddale. I’m wet and I’m sleddered.
Time to drive into Shap for a pint in The Fart and Gherkin.
- FOOTNOTE: The most entertaining scene in Withnail and I – and this is a personal point of view, you understand – is the Penrith tearoom fracas in which Richard E Grant cannot control his laughter. If this is acting, it’s excellent. If it’s genuine uncontrollable laughter, which I suspect it is, that makes it even better.