I LIKE Swindale because it’s not an easy place to find. It’s an even harder place to visit because parking’s not allowed in the valley. Outsiders are obliged to leave their cars on the common at the entrance because the road is so desperately narrow. I don’t like using the word “remote” because it is so often abused. St Kilda is remote. Terra del Fuego is remote. But if you want remote in a Lakeland context, then Swindale is as close as it gets . . .
The farms – few that they are – have an only-just-made-it-into-the-1950s feel about them. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way. But run an observant eye over the sagging gutters, the waterlogged farmyards, the fading whitewash and the thin smoke trailing from bleak chimney stacks, and you get the impression that this is a place of dolly tubs, zinc baths, worn lino, thin curtains, Vim and Belfast sinks.
I could be quite wrong, of course. And no doubt one day some wiry-framed, flat-capped farmer with a Sun Valley roll-yer-own stuffed behind his lug will stumble on this website and give me a round of the kitchen floor from his laptop. All well and good. This is just the impression the place gives me. It says: listen to the rush of the wind in the branches and the bleating of sheep on the fell, and when you’re passing a parlour window, cock an ear to Alvar Lidell reading the evening news. We’ve invaded Suez, apparently.
Swindale is my sort of place. I discovered its charms quite recently. In fact, it was the day devastating floods swept through Carlisle – which I think was in 2005. It was horrendously wet in Swindale too. But I was struck by the earthiness of the place. If you want a Beatrix Potter, picture-postcard Lakeland with leaded-glass windows and geraniums on the sill, go to Ambleside or Grasmere. But if it’s a grittier Lakeland that appeals to the senses, one where the only splash of colour on a February morning is bed linen dancing on a farmhouse washing line, take a stroll through Swindale.
I have a three-point plan for today. One: follow the old corpse road that leads over the fells to Haweswater, but branch off to climb Selside Pike and Branstree, returning over High Wether Howe and the interestingly-named Outlaw Crag. Two: at the half-way point, drop down to Mosedale slate quarries and have a poke about. Three: I’ll come to this one later.
So at Swindale’s last farm I veer up the fell on the old corpse road to the crown of the moor. The wind is icy and thin; the turf has a crusty tundra feel about it. On the col between Selside Pike and Branstree I take pictures of a survey pillar that was built during the construction of Haweswater dam and its accompanying engineering and tunnelling works. It’s one of several that command strategic positions in this part of the Lakes.
On Branstree I encounter the only other human of the day – a chap from Merseyside. He’s climbed from Longsleddale and over Harter Fell. We exchange a few words – not many – and I continue on my way, following a wall down the fell to the south then cutting across the lower slopes of Selside Pike to the quarries.
Mosedale quarries – I could spend a summer’s day poking about in a place like this. Green slate was quarried here for many years, Mosedale Cottage – the MBA bothy at the foot of the fell – being the centre of operations. What immediately becomes apparent is that when the quarries were abandoned they were stripped of anything that could be sold, unlike the neighbouring Wrengill quarries, in Longsleddale, which are full of all sorts of interesting objects and scrap. In Mosedale, even the riving booths and crude quarry shelters have been stripped of their roofing slates – every single one of them – leaving only bare walls. I wander on across the valley, vaguely disappointed.
Point three of the three-point plan is to photograph an old railway goods wagon that sits on the ridge between Mosedale and Wet Sleddale – the valley of Withnail and I fame – which I have passed on several occasions over the years.
It has come to my notice, after several decades of walking through wild and desolate areas, that the wilder and more desolate the area becomes the more chance there is of stumbling across old railway goods wagons. It’s one of those unwritten laws. Doctor Beeching must have sold them all to farmers when he closed down the railways. I thought I’d start photographing them and perhaps set up a dedicated website.
I reach the crown of the ridge. The railway goods wagon is no longer there – but there is evidence of where it stood. Bugger. How can something as solid and as seemingly permanent as that suddenly disappear? Perhaps the farmer made a killing and sold it on for ten times what he paid Beeching. Perhaps one day I’ll see it hurtling through Darlington station.
Disappointed a second time, I cross the boggy uplands to High Wether Howe and Outlaw Crag, then follow Haskew Beck down to the valley bottom in Swindale, where sheep still bleat and bed linen still dances on washing lines. Back at the car I boil a billy of tea, warm some homemade soup and turn on the crackly radio.
A voice from the past, one so quintessentially English, says: “Here is the news – and this is Alvar Lidell reading it . . .”
Apparently soviet troops have invaded Hungary to prevent it breaking from the Warsaw Pact and Dwight D Eisenhower has been returned to the White House. There’ll be plenty to talk about in Swindale tonight.
- To hear Alvar Lidell reading a BBC news bulletin about German PoWs escaping into the Welsh hills, CLICK HERE then click on his picture.