24 hours round the Lakes

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

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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.