24 hours round the Lakes

A day long circuit of the Lake District in the footsteps of Coleridge.


In a previous post I reflected on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s account of his perilous descent from Scafell in 1802. The passage is widely-quoted as being the first recorded example of that now well-established genre of literature: non-fiction mountain adventure. Indeed, because the route he took (known as Broad Stand) is now graded a “Moderate” rock climb – and because climbs have to be recorded to be officially recognised – 1802 is often mentioned as being the Year Zero of the sport of climbing.

But the descent of Broad Stand was just one short incident in a much larger adventure. Coleridge was in the middle of a 9-day circular walking tour of the Lake District, starting from and finishing at his home in Keswick. Today, long walks are familiar to many, and a mainstay of the tourist industry in places like the Lakes. But in 1802, it was pretty much unheard-of to venture into the mountains for the sake of adventure alone. Coleridge was doing something highly unusual to head off on a hike like this, let alone almost fall down a mountain on the way.

Obviously, there is a fine line between adventure and foolhardiness, and Coleridge – without previous knowledge of Scafell, let alone map or compass – crossed it by descending Broad Stand. But his spirit of adventure in taking on the 9-day tour, in defiance of the conventions of the time, is still admirable. We all need a little bit of adventure now and then!

We know about Coleridge’s tour because his write-up of it, in the form of 2 letters and various notebook jottings, has survived. It’s available here and going through it, with a few OS maps alongside, it’s possible to plot the route he took all those years ago. An obvious thought follows – would it be possible to retrace this route, and perhaps get a better insight into what inspired his famous writings?

A little bit of research reveals it’s already been done. In 1989 local writer, the late Alan Hankinson, walked almost the entire route, and in 1991 his fine book Coleridge Walks the Fells was published. His walk was a very noble enterprise, in that it turns out that the vast majority of the route – mostly just tracks in 1802 – is now roads, and main roads at that. Hankinson reluctantly concluded that Coleridge’s spirit of adventure could not be recaptured by following his exact route on foot – and he said that nearly 30 years ago!


I had another day to me in the Lakes recently and decided to dedicate it somehow to Coleridge’s journey. In the end I settled on an acceptable compromise – a circular drive around the Lake District visiting various spots mentioned by Coleridge on his tour, plus a long journey on foot to where he went immediately after descending Broad Stand. Although this felt like trying to squeeze a 9-course meal into a lunchbox – and I’m not really in the business of recommending scenic drives! – it’s the best that could be done in 24 hours. A pretty full day as it turned out, but a rewarding one.

Coleridge started out from his home in Keswick – Greta Hall – just a couple of minutes walk from the town centre, but up on a hill and commanding a view that he raved about. It’s possible to walk up to the gates now and get a peep of this very fine residence and also the view of the mountains above today’s rooftops:

The route heads up the beautiful Newlands Valley, at the top of which is Moss Force, a disappointing spectacle on 1 August 1802 but a very fine one on 27 July 2017 after much heavy rain. Not often you can drive (and park!) so close to such a fine cataract:

DSC03625Dropping down to Buttermere, Coleridge’s route took him over Floutern Pass, but for the modern day driver you have to go round Crummock Water and Loweswater. I pressed on along the main road to Egremont, missing the diversion Coleridge took to St Bees. An unsucessful addition to his journey this turned out:

I walked on to St. Bees, 3 miles from Egremont-when I came there could not get a Bed-at last got an apology for one, at a miserable Pot-house; slept or rather dozed in my Clothes-Breakfasted there-and went to the School & Church ruins-had read in the history of Cumbd. that there was an ‘excellent Library presented to the School by James Lowther,’ which proved to be some 30 odd Volumes of commentaries on the Scripture utterly worthless- & which with all my passion for ragged old Folios I should certainly make serviceable . . . for fire-lighting.

I continued on the main road to Gosforth, trying not to think about Sellafield looming to the right, and then up Eskdale to the foot of Hardknott Pass where I switched to fellrunning gear. Across the fields was Taw House Farm, where Coleridge spent the night after his Scafell exploits and where he wrote the letter describing them:

DSC03626I had a choice of routes here – either to keep to Coleridge’s route from Scafell to Taw House on the west side of the River Esk, or to stick close to the east bank of the river and join up with Coleridge’s route 3 miles higher up. Either way, I knew it was most likely I would have to return the same way, as the river was in spate and probably unfordable. I decided on the latter route, to view some of the dale’s impressive rapids and pools:

DSC03629At the top, across the indeed-unfordable Esk, was the biggest fall of them all – Cam Spout – next to which Coleridge descended:

DSC03634Having done so…..

And now the Thunder-Storm was coming on, again & again!-Just at the bottom of the Hill I saw on before me in the Vale, lying just under the River on the side of a Hill, one, two, three, four Objects I could not distinguish whether Peat-hovels, or hovel-shaped Stones-I thought in my mind, that 3 of them would turn out to be stones-but that the fourth was certainly a Hovel. I went on toward them, crossing & recrossing the Becks & the River & found that they were all huge Stones…….

I came to a little village of Sheep-folds / there were 5 together / & the redding Stuff, & the Shears, & an old Pot, was in the Passage of the first of them. Here I found an imperfect Shelter from a Thunder-shower-accompanied with such Echoes! O God! what thoughts were mine! O how I wishes for Health & Strength that I might wander about for a Month together, in the stormiest month of the year, among these Places, so lonely & savage & full of sounds!

The stones are known as Sampson’s Stones, viewed here from the other side of the river with the sheepfolds to the left:

DSC03635The low clouds were very suggestive of the weather Coleridge described. Indeed, the whole walk up the Esk was accompanied by the thundering sounds of falling water, which would have very much suited the author of “Kubla Khan” with its frequent references to water – sacred rivers, romantic chasms, mighty fountains and five miles meandering. Ceaseless turmoil seething indeed.

Returning to the car, I continued my own meanderings over Birker Fell and down to Ulpha Kirk in the Duddon Valley. Coleridge waxed lyrical about the place:

The Kirk standing on the low rough Hill up which the Road climbs, the fields level and high, beyond that; & then the different flights of mountains in the back ground, with wild ridges from the right & the left, running like Arms & confining the middle view to these level fields on high ground is eminently picturesque-A little step (50 or 60 yards) beyond the Bridge, you gain a compleatly different picture-the Houses & the Kirk forming more important parts, & the view bounded at once by a high wooded rock, shaped as an obtuse-triangle/or segments of a circle forming an angle at their point of junction, now compleat in a Mirror & equally delightful as a view/

Coleridge’s best friend in poetry, William Wordsworth, agreed about the area, so much so that a few years later he wrote a series of 34 sonnets dedicated to the River Duddon. Number 31 starts:

The Kirk of Ulpha to the pilgrim’s eye
Is welcome as a star, that doth present
Its shining forehead through the peaceful rent
Of a black cloud diffused o’er half the sky;

Happily, this particular pilgrim managed to take a photo just at the moment the sun shone on the shining forehead against a black cloud:

DSC03656The Kirk seemed rather distinctive with its bells on the outside and (in that very civilised fashion) the door was open so you could have look around inside.

The next part of the drive – from Ulpha over to Broughton Mills – was very pleasant along a quiet, gated road. I soon came to The Blacksmith’s Arms where Coleridge:

Dined on Oatcake & Cheese, with a pint of Ale, & 2 glasses of Rum & water sweetened with preserved Gooseberries

I thought about going in and asking for the same but had second thoughts, particularly when the staff came out the front for a fag break. A lovely looking inn though:

DSC03657My head used to feel a bit like that anvil after spending too much time in places like this back in the day….

Once you’re over the next hill into Torver the return to Keswick is a long way by main road, roads familiar to generations of visitors to the Lakes. I did stop off quickly at one famous spot well known to Coleridge – Dove Cottage in Grasmere, his mate Wordsworth’s place. But when Coleridge passed on this occasion he didn’t stop for long – William and his sister Dorothy were away, en route to France to visit Annette Vallon, with whom Wordsworth had had a child – Caroline – several years before, a fact known to Coleridge but not to the general public until the 1920s! This was August 9 1802 – 4 weeks later, and still on the road to France, Wordswoth wrote one of his most famous poems – “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”.

DSC03620Well, that was a long day in the Lakes, but a memorable one. Obviously, you can only take so much in from behind the wheel, but I felt I got some sense of Coleridge’s tour from my journey, helped of course by the excursion into the wilds of Eskdale. Coleridge would have felt his circuit was taking him off into the unknown; to do that now you’d have to find a different circuit, off the roads. There is a well-known challenge called the Bob Graham Round – 42 peaks, again starting and finishing in Keswick. The “proper” fellrunning challenge is to do this in 24 hours – don’t worry, I’m not ready for that yet (ever) – but holiday companies also advertise it as a package walking holiday in manageable chunks. Maybe when I’ve got nine days to hand rather than one….

Friends of Meanwood Park

Last Saturday morning was the first meet-up of a new group – the Friends of Meanwood Park  – and it was great to go along and get stuck in to some serious legwork for a couple of hours for the sake of our local park.

This first session was advertised as a chance to “do various jobs including unblocking the mill race (muddy!) and remove invasive plants (muddy!)”, and it didn’t disappoint. The 15 or so of us that came along were soon busy in and around the duckpond in the American Garden. Before long we experienced the peculiar satisfaction that comes from unblocking stagnant water, by clearing out the silted-up outflow from the pond and releasing a rush of water down the mill race.  Listen carefully and there is now a faint, and soothing, tinkling sound as you walk over the bridge.

We then turned our attention to tackling the invasive species that had become prevalent around the pond – American Skunk Cabbage. That’s the yellow plant below:

Version 2You can find out more about this plant and why it needs removing here (there is also another blog on this site about invasive species in general). Needless to say, the various specimens dotted around the pond weren’t always conveniently located, and I had a particularly adventurous excursion at the end of a little promontory into the pond to get at the final few. But eventually we were satisfied that the pond was a skunk-cabbage-free zone and hopefully it will stay that way!

Meanwhile a few of the group concentrated on clearing holly around the stone footbridge over the beck, and there is now clear daylight where previously just a spiky passage. A bit of tidying up and that was your lot for the couple of hours, but very satisfying to be able to notice a real difference in just that short time. If you’re around the duckpond/American Garden in the next few weeks, I hope you agree.

Many thanks to the LCC Ranger Steve who gave the group a hand, giving us a timely reminder of some of the health and safety issues before we got stuck in, as well as providing the tools and, crucially, the tea and biscuits!

FOMP1st outing15July2017The next two meet-ups of the group are on Saturdays 19 August and 16 September, both from 10am to midday, from the car park at the end of Green Road. Wear suitable work clothes and boots but tools, wellies and gloves will be provided. If you like doing something practical and outdoors for your local park, and meeting some like-minded people, then I really recommend it.

Swimming through the air

The following is often described as the first ever written description of a mountain walk. In this respect, the author was establishing a fine tradition: hot-headed Englishman storms up a mountain – gets into difficulty – escapes by a hair’s breath – lives to tell a great tale. It’s pretty flowery stuff in places, but still a classic account:

There is one sort of gambling, to which I am much addicted; and that not of the least criminal kind for a man who has children & a concern. It is this. When I find it convenient to descend from a mountain, I am too confident & too indolent to look round about & wind about ’till I find a track or other symptom of safety; but I wander on, & where it is first possible to descend, there I go-relying upon fortune for how far down this possibility will continue. So it was yesterday afternoon. I passed down from Broadcrag, skirted the Precipices, and found myself cut off from a most sublime Crag-summit, that seemed to rival Sca’ Fell Man in height, & to outdo it in fierceness. A Ridge of Hill lay low down, & divided this Crag (called Doe-crag) & Broad-crag-even as the Hyphen divides the words broad & crag. I determined to go thither; the first place I came to, that was not direct Rock, I slipped down, & went on for a while with tolerable ease-but now I came (it was midway down) to a smooth perpendicular Rock about 7 feet high-this was nothing-I put my hands on the Ledge, & dropped down / in a few yards came just such another / I dropped that too / and yet another, seemed not higher-I would not stand for a trifle / so I dropped that too / but the stretching of the muscle of my hands & arms, & the jolt of the Fall on my Feet, put my whole Limbs in a Tremble, and I paused, & looking down, saw that I had little else to encounter but a succession of these little Precipices-it was in truth a Path that in a very hard Rain is, no doubt, the channel of a most splendid Waterfall.

So I began to suspect that I ought not to go on / but then unfortunately tho’ I could with ease drop down a smooth Rock 7 feet high, I could not climb it / so go on I must / and on I went / the next 3 drops were not half a Foot, at least not a foot more than my own height / but every Drop increased the Palsy of my Limbs-I shook all over, Heaven knows without the least influence of Fear / and now I had only two more to drop down / to return was impossible-but of these two the first was tremendous / it was twice my own height, & the Ledge at the bottom was exceedingly narrow, that if I dropt down upon it I must of necessity have fallen backwards & of course killed myself. My Limbs were all in a tremble-I lay upon my Back to rest myself, & was beginning according to my Custom to laugh at myself for a Madman, when the sight of the Crags above me on each side, & the impestuous Clouds just over them, posting so luridly & so rapidly northward, overawed me / I lay in a state of almost prophetic Trance & Delight-& blessed God aloud, for the powers of Reason & of the Will, which remaining no Danger can overpower us! O God, I exclaimed aloud-how calm, how blessed am I now / I know not how to proceed, how to return / but if I am calm & fearless & confident / if this Reality were a Dream, if I were asleep, what agonies had I suffered! what screams!-When the Reason & the Will are away, what remain to us but Darkness & Dimness & a bewildering shame, and Pain that is utterly Lord over us, or fantastic Pleasure, that draws the Soul along swimming through the air in many shapes, even as a Flight of Starlings in a Wind.

– I arose, & looking down saw at the bottom a heap of Stones-which had fallen abroad-and rendered the narrow Ledge on which they had been piled, doubly dangerous / at the bottom of the third Rock that I dropt from, I met a dead Sheep quite rotten-This heap of Stones, I guessed, & have since found that I guessed aright, had been piled up by the Shepherd to enable him to climb up & free the poor creature whom he had observed to be crag-fast-but seeing nothing but rock over rock, he had desisted & gone for help-& in the mean time the poor creature had fallen down & killed itself.-As I was looking at these I glanced my eye to my left, & observed that the Rock was rent from top to bottom-I measured the breadth of the Rent, and found that there was no danger of my being wedged in / so I put my Knap-sack round to my side, & slipped down as between two walls, without any danger or difficulty-the next Drop brought me down on the Ridge…

The date of this escapade was 5 August 1802, and the author was the Romantic Poet (and wayward genius) Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge was on a 9-day walking tour of the Lake District and the extract is taken from his written account of it, a letter to his muse Sara Hutchinson (full text on the University of Lancaster website). The route he describes is now known as Broad Stand, which is the direct line between the two highest mountains in England – Scafell Pike and Scafell.

As befits a great writer, Coleridge could spin a good tale all right. What of course is missing from the story is how indeed he did get down to safety. The “out of body” stuff towards the end of para 2 suggests strongly of divine intervention – well, I suppose you could get away with that as an explanation in 1802. But he must have got down somehow. Perhaps he exaggerated the danger, a bit of poetic licence?, but all the guidebooks these days tell walkers to avoid Broad Stand like the plague – it should be the preserve of rock climbers only. How best to find out?

Take a look, of course. Fortunately, it’s possible to visit Broad Stand safely without putting yourself through Coleridge’s perilous descent, and that’s by looking up at it from the ridge at the bottom (known as Mickledore). I recently ticked a big one off the bucket list and climbed Scafell Pike for the first time, so went via the steep pass to Mickledore to look at Broad Stand on the way. Here it is:DSC03577The sheep on the grassy platform in the middle of the photo gives some idea of scale. Coleridge’s route would have started around here and gone diagonally down to the left, down the numerous ledges he describes, finishing at the visible vertical split in the rock mentioned at the end of his account.

Put simply, the guidebooks are right. A solo climb up Broad Stand would be foolhardy at the very least – the whole scene is overpowering and I wasn’t tempted to go anywhere near the rocks. A descent – like Coleridge’s – would be a positive invitation to disaster. Note how the ridge itself falls away steeply to the left – any fall from Broad Stand would have you come to rest several hundred feet below.

The answer for lovers of Romantic Poetry was clear to me. Coleridge – only 29 at the time (he lived to 61) got away with it – to use his own words – simply by relying on fortune.

2 minutes 42 seconds of fame

Fellrunning’s enduring legend – the most famous and extraordinary individual performance in the history of the sport – is Ernest Dalzell’s descent in the Burnsall Fell Race of 1910. 2 minutes 42 seconds of tumbling, whirlwind descent from the top of Burnsall Fell to the finish line in the village. In the 107 years since, no one else has got within a minute of it (see previous blog)*.

Of course, the scale of the record just fuels the legend, as many have doubted the time. How can we trust a handful of eyewitness accounts from so long ago? I’ve been a bit of a doubter myself – my own best descent time in the race is about 6 minutes – flat out. How could it be humanly possible to run a mile, 800ft downhill, in 2.42?

I had this question in mind whilst out on the course earlier this week. Standing by the summit cairn, the village seems just a speck far below, almost as if it would take at least 2.42 to paraglide down, let alone run. Jogging down, there’s only really one route – along a thin, steep path through the thick heather: (photo of last year’s race from woodentops.org.uk)

burnsall descent

If the heather and gradient don’t slow you down enough, the path is worn down to the bedrock, and it’s this combination of steepness, heather and rock that makes progress so painfully slow, and Dalzell’s record seem so improbable.

But crucially, on the day of Dalzell’s record in 1910, the heather had been burned. His race, unusually, took place in September – almost all subsequent races have taken place in August with the heather still thick on the ground.

Further down the fell, just off the main path, I noticed an area where the heather was absent. I had a crack at running down this bit and it was a doddle – springy peaty turf and any rocks clearly visible and easily avoided. I reckon I was two or three times quicker here than on the path. Suddenly, it became a lot easier to envisage Dalzell throwing himself down a bare slope like this with abandon, just picking himself up from various somersaults and carrying on.

I was reminded of a few clips I’ve seen on youtube of that quaint English tradition of cheese rolling. In this annual event, competitors pursue a rolling cheese down Cooper’s Hill just outside Gloucester, a 200 yard-long grassy slope of 1 in 2 – a similar steepness to Burnsall. The fastest pursuers have perfected a technique of propelling themselves downwards by not just running but lying on their backs, rolling, diving forwards – whatever really! – and complete the course in seconds. Dalzell could well have used similar techniques on the bare slopes of Burnsall in 1910.

So, I came away from Burnsall the other day firmly convinced that Dalzell’s descent time was indeed possible, and that it will only ever be beaten if the Duke of Devonshire can one year conveniently burn his heather in time for Burnsall Sports Day.

Looking forward, as ever, to this year’s race on 19 August – you can enter online now


* and Dalzell’s overall time of 12.59 was only broken in 1977.

Maria Sandle @ HEART

Those of us involved in the Save Tetley Field Campaign have been very grateful to Maria Sandle for writing and sharing her wonderful song “The Golden Field” last year. Maria has been playing in the local folk/acoustic scene for a number of years, but yesterday made her “solo debut” at the HEART Centre in Headingley – I was very pleased to go along.

Maria played around 20 songs in total – divided into 3 mini sets – combining her own songs with those of others including Leonard Cohen, Annie Lennox, Nancy Griffiths and Steve Earle. Two songs particularly stood out for me, which neatly sum up her performing style and choice of material – one well-known, the other less so.

“Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” is a classic song by Fairport Convention, originally sung by Sandy Denny, with the virtuoso Richard Thompson on guitar. Maria tackled following in these illustrious footsteps admirably – as a non-musician I’m pretty impressed by anyone who can sing or play; those that can do both even more so. Maria’s was a worthy cover, and rather fitting in what is Fairport’s 50th year.

Less well-known, but matching the environmental theme of Maria’s Tetley Field song, was her version of Maggie Holland’s “A Place Called England”. The lyrics are both striking and amusing and worthy of a further look. Anything about allotments and compost is alright by me, but this one digs a little deeper still, eg:

I saw town and I saw country, motorway and sink estate;
Rich man in his rolling acres, poor man still outside the gate;
Retail park and burger kingdom, prairie field and factory farm,
Run by men who think that England’s only a place to park their car.


For England is not flag or Empire, it is not money, it is not blood.
It’s limestone gorge and granite fell, it’s Wealden clay and Severn mud

Full lyrics here alongside a youtube performance by the writer. June Tabor’s version on youtube is also well worth a look.

So overall, a well-performed and engaging debut, in a relaxed and comfortable venue. Keep an eye out for future gigs by Maria!

DSC03464“Come spring a golden field bursting forth with buttercups, surrounded by majestic trees…”

Find out more about how you can help the Save Tetley Field Campaign.


Song Lyric Sunday: The Band – “Ophelia”

I just wanted to use this week’s theme as an opportunity to share my new-found enthusiasm for The Band. There I go, finger on the pulse as usual – just discovering a group that split up over 40 years ago….

The group started life as The Hawks, before being spotted by Bob Dylan in the mid ’60s and becoming his backing band. Dylan casually referred to them as “the band” and when he moved on to solo projects, they rechristened themselves as The Band.

I’d describe their style as understated, quirky and playful. This contrasts with the rather serious tones of rock music in the late 60s/early 70s, and they were able to find their niche. At first listen they sound a bit “southern rock”, but in fact only 1 of the group was from the Deep South; the other 4 were Canadians – perhaps this crossover is part of their appeal.

The first songs that caught my ear were “Up on Cripple Creek”, “The Shape I’m In”, “Life is a Carnival” and – perhaps their best-known song – “The Weight”, but as I listen more this is beginning to feel like scratching the tip of quite an iceberg. Lots of messing about on Spotify and You Tube to come I think.

After achieving both critical and commercial success between 1968-76, they rather unusually decided to split whilst still at their peak. This at least saved them from going fat and useless I guess, although it seems they hadn’t missed out on some of the more decadent aspects of the rock star lifestyle, and sadly only 2 of the original 5 members are still with us.

The signed off in 1976 with a concert in San Francisco christened “The Last Waltz”, which featured a dazzling list of fellow rock legends as guests and was made into a film by Martin Scorsese. From the film, here’s “Ophelia”:

Boards on the window
Mail by the door
What would anybody leave so quickly for?
Where have you gone?

The old neighborhood just ain’t the same
Nobody knows just what became of
Tell me, what went wrong

Was it something that somebody said?
Mama, I know we broke the rules
Was somebody up against the law?
Honey, you know I’d die for you

Ashes of laughter
The ghost is clear
Why do the best things always disappear
Like Ophelia
Please darken my door

Was it something that somebody said?
Mama, I know we broke the rules
Was somebody up against the law?
Honey, you know I’d die for you

They got your number
Scared and running
But I’m still waiting for the second coming
Of Ophelia
Come back home

(Written by Robbie Robertson)

Tetley Field in a nutshell

I did my first ever “blogging challenge” on Sunday, and good fun it was too. I’m aware there are a fair few other writing challenges out there on WordPress and other blog sites, so I thought I’d set myself one. Having blogged extensively about the 4-year long (and continuing) Tetley Field debacle, could I ask boil down the essence of it to the briefest chunk? So, here’s Tetley Field, in 150 words: 

“In 2013, Leeds City Council assessed Tetley Field as unsuitable for housing.

In 2015, to provide a funding mechanism for the redevelopment of Headingley Stadium, the Council overturned this assessment, and included Tetley Field in its Site Allocations Plan (SAP).

In 2016, this funding mechanism – based on the development of Green Belt sites – was proved to be legally flawed and collapsed.

In 2017, the Council found a new funding mechanism for the stadium redevelopment, through a private investment company.

However, they have not subsequently removed Tetley Field from the SAP.

So Tetley Field is currently allocated for housing even though it was originally assessed as unsuitable for housing, and despite the original reasoning for overturning this assessment now being invalid.

The SAP will be subject to an Examination in Public later in 2017. Local communities are preparing to make the strongest representations possible to remove Tetley Field from the SAP”.


And just to follow this up, here’s my attempt at condensing the whole thing down to a tweet (140 characters):

“Despite the new funding package for Headingley, and the withdrawal of the planning application, #tetleyfield remains allocated for housing”.