walks with eric – high stile



It was something we’d planned for twelve months or so, but with Eric’s chaotic arrangements we only got round to it this autumn.  It was planned as a pleasant stroll along the first three days of ‘The Coast-to-Coast’ (C2C), a long distance path between St. Bees in Cumbria and Robin Hood’s Bay in N. Yorkshire, originally described by Wainwright.  So it proved on the first day, but the going got very tough after that.  I’m not sure whether I wasn’t fit enough, too old or the route was too much anyway, but I got to the stage of being an energy-free zone.  On Haystacks, one third of the second days walk still to go, I lay down simply for the pleasure of not moving a muscle and stared back at High Crag.  It looked more daunting than any of the Scottish mountains I’ve done, yet I’d just done it.  It’s a mixed feeling isn’t it, the pride of achievement and the sense of unbelief?  The following day, my energy did not return, and Eric patiently lead us over to Grasmere.  I’d needed a rest day or more training or something.

When I described what had happened to the squash team, Peter in particular found difficulty in appreciating why we’d done it.  Feeling much better, I kept my own counsel, agreeing with him from the top of Haystacks but not in the afterglow.  It’s another of those things that some middle-aged men do, but its getting harder.

Day 1

‘The walk starts from the sea wall.  Rather disconcertingly (because we are supposed to be heading due EAST across England to the Yorkshire coast) it aims WEST, following the cliff, soon changing course to the north . . .  there is a risk of accident . . .  assurance of ultimately arriving at Robin Hood’s Bay is much greater if the landword side is preferred.’

So Wainwright’s guide sets the tone.  Eric describes him as a stylist.  The sentence structure and vocabulary for me amount to a gentle teasing, as if anyone in their right mind would hop over a fence and dive into the Irish Sea.  He comes across as a superior being, only he truly recognises the depth and seriousness of the high lonely places.  Whilst this is clearly untrue, and he would have admitted this in his later years, his writing can belittle his readers – they who share his love of the outdoors.  I find it funny.

We had a late start because of a train strike and we already knew we might finish with a tedious return journey to St. Bees to pick up the car.  The trip up was uneventful, the weather clear and sunny as it would be for the whole of the four days.  St. Bees is a public school town with a sea-side resort and a golf course, none of which interested us, but there were plenty of people about.  Off we duly set due east and pretty soon the view does open up to the north, The Solway Firth and Galloway, with Whitehaven in the foreground.  I once had an acquaintance from these parts who assured me they could see Scots hanging their washing out on the line.  It’s not true.  You actually do four miles before turning west.  My main concern was being disorganised.  I had things round my neck, map and camera, as well as 10 kilos in my rucksack.  None of this luggage transport by jeep for us.  Eric looked cool calm and collected, in shorts.  They often say outward appearances deceive.  It took me that first four miles to find what was comfortable.  I eventually gave the map to Eric and packed away the camera.

We broke off for a short while in Cleator.  As per my usual management skills, the batteries in my camera had run out after my first two shots, so I needed replacements from the corner shop; heaven knows how long they’d been on the shelf.  I was permanently on edge from then on.  You do need to keep some sort of pictorial record.

‘Cleator is an old village that expanded with the boom in iron ore mining last century . . .  Some architectural pretensions are evident in its places of worship and a few older houses but completely absent in the long terraces of small cottages built to a common pattern to provide for the rapid influx of miners.  Brave attempts are being made to improve these dwellings but it needs more than can come out of a tin of paint . . .  The mines have closed; the homes of their workers remain amongst the scars as cheerless monuments to a brief prosperity what withered and died.’

Again ten words when two or three will do, a form which is mildy patronising.  Nevertheless it makes an impact.  It ‘has a go’ at random acts of violence to beautiful things for the sake of ‘a quick buck’.  But I wonder what the people who live in those cottages would say?

‘Travellers through these places in search of four-star rest and refreshment can abandon hope:  they make no claim to be holiday resorts or tourist centres.  The primary concern of the inhabitants is to earn a living for themselves, not to cater for the leisure of others.’

Yes there are terraces.  Yes they might appear depressed, maybe on a rainy day in December, when Whitehaven have lost, but today people were out walking, cyling and sitting on small square concrete or paved frontages, sunning themselves.  We are post-industrial, part-time or retired, quite different to AW’s time and there is no sense of abandoning hope.  The residents don’t need to cater for others.  My acquaintance was made redundant and now works mornings only, hiring televisions to patients in the hospital just up the hill from Cleator.  He loves it round here.

Our first ascent is Dent Hill – from 500 (check) ft. to 1131 ft. in one go straight up and a shock to the system.  Its worth it for the views of Scafell, instantly recognisable – I’ve climbed it twice and remember it well.  Turning back to the coast, there is an obscuring blue heat haze, not enough to disguise either Sellafield or the Whitehaven Chemical Works.

‘These works have added nothing of amenity or scenic values to the landscape and inevitably have further devastated a sad area already badly scarred by the rubbish dumps of abandoned iron ore mines and smelting works, spoil heaps and derelict railways.  But man must live, somehow – and here he has, as compensation for his man-despoiled environment, a background of undefiled hills, the beautiful western fells, only ten miles distant – and the complete antithesis of urban ugliness.’

It’s a point of view.  As a product of the Industrial West Riding, I actually see beauty in spoil heaps and derelict railways; its part of my identity.  They make sense.  They are a reminder of how everyone’s standard of living was raised.  They partly explain why older people live longer and healthier and why they now outnumber youth.  Abandoned, they blend in, often unnoticed, occasionally landscaped or converted into a cycle trail.  And there are bits which remain ugly litter, no worse than the litter we see everyday in town centres and elswhere.

Eric’s worried about selling his house and buying another one.  He knows he must keep in touch with base – Sue is meeting their slippery builder tonight.  We go off course and miss ‘Nannycatch Beck’ but its a pleasant enough walk into Ennerdale Bridge.  We have booked into ‘The Cloggers’  B&B, a rather morose man greets us at the door and shows us to our room.

Eric has a project on the go at the moment.  He’s got a special deal from ‘Everyman Books’ which recommends a programme of reading.  Whenever there is a moment he is reading.  His house is currently more than unusually full of books all in cardboard boxes.  He is on number two – ‘Wuthering Heights’.   He lets me have the bath first.  We have a pleasant meal in the local.  There’s a relief map of Ennerdale on the wall and I remember something from my pathetic days as a ‘harrier’ about ‘Ennerdale Round’.  Its has massive ups and downs and is long – several fell races added together.  Joss Naylor did it five minutes of course.  Sue does well with the builder.

Eric goes to bed to read.  I watch a bit of TV and fall asleep.  It’s September the Eleventh – amazing I hadn’t realised.  Twelve months on from something I still cannnot understand.

Day 2

You never sleep too well the first night away from home especially when the heater is on all night.  Up bright and early and out on the road looking for a view for the scrapbook.  The fells to the west obscure the sun, but its a crisp dewy morning.  Why all these cars?  Its like being at home – our house is now the official route to avoid Honley village.  A nose-to-tail stream of cars.  Our cheerless host got quite passionate for him.  The ‘rat-run’.  Everyone from anywhere came through Ennerdale to get to the coast and then did the return journey every night.

A young man with a large pack shares breakfast.  His intention is to camp, but last night’s site was dire so he ended at ‘The Cloggers’.  We note for the three days we overlap with him, he stays in the same spots we do.  Back in 1968, I did the same on ‘The Pennine Way’, and had to abandon tent and cooking stuff over Within Heights somewhere.  Sheila and I had started seeing each other then, so it was no hassle returning and retrieving the stuff.

‘Ennerdale Water, most westerly of the lakes, is remote from the usual haunts of Lakeland visitors, yet it lies in a pleasantly rural setting at the outlet of a valley deeply inurned between lofty mountain ranges of which the view across the water is splendid, and in the evening sunlight supremely beautiful.’

This is a more positive AW.  Ennerdale is lovely and the first five miles up the lakeside path is comfortable.  It was after Gillerthwaite that the fun began.

‘Beyong High Gillerthwaite a delectable alternative route is available in clear weather (only) for very strong and experienced fellwalkers (only): . . .  here starts a path to Red Pike and the High Stile ridge, which can be continued to High Crag, Scarth Gap and Haystacks, joining the valley route at the Brandreth fence four hours later.  This is hard and rough going.’

I’ll say it is.  500 ft straight up to 2400 ft.  Eric expired first.  Two thirds of the way up we stopped and rested, caught our breath and generally moaned and wondered why we were doing this.  I’d seen a bloke well behind us seemingly making light work of what we’d struggled on.  Eventually he came into closer view and all became clear.  He was using a very short contour technique, back and forth against the side of the hill and making very little progress up, remaining absolutely fresh in the process.  He must have walked miles and taken hours over it.  When he joined us we realised he was from “Eastenders” or could have been.  I asked him to take a photo and we discussed the ins and outs of digital cameras.  I did my usual grouse about buying things that get upgraded almost immediately after the purchase.  ‘Well you could’ve done a deal,’ he says.  ‘My daughter made a mistake when she got this, I want a replacement.’  I think we’d got him just about right.

We weaved up after that, but wider and more effectively.  It made things easier and we didn’t lose much time, so there was some learning there.  We did it better than him.

Having made Red Pike we were happy to stop again.  Couldn’t see much because of the haze but it was fairly crowded.  Over to the right I spotted a ridge which I took to be on the other side of the valley.  I assumed we done the hard bit, but I’d left the map reading to Eric.  I was in for a nasty surprise, not only for the body but for the morale as well.  Eric said we had to do a bit more, but kept the total amount secret.  I was going to have to do a ridge walk which would test my fear of heights.  That ridge across the valley?  That was High Stile.  Its difficult to envisage, but I finally worked it out.  The Red Pike ascent is north-west and the ridge is due west, so you do turn sharp right on the top, it just doesn’t seem like it.  I spent the next three hours in a little private hell, with Eric telling me how well I was doing.  The haze helped keeping the sight of the sheer fall into either Buttermere or Ennerdale intermittent.  My tiredness perversely helped as well – I needed to concentrate on getting my feet in the right places just to be safe.  Red Pike – 2479 ft, High Stile – 2644 ft, High Crag – 2443ft,  Scarth Gap -1400 ft and finally Haystacks – 1900 ft.  Its only two and a half inches on the map.

This was the moment, arriving on Haystacks and looking back at High Crag.  I knew we had a long way to go, so you just get up and do it.  Eric turns to me, ‘Dave I think we have a problem.’  I wonder why I don’t care.  It’s a very minor error.

‘The Brandreth fence is the suggested rendezvous with any very strong and experienced fellwalkers in the party who may have preferred the High Stile altermative.  Sit down and wait for them:  they won’t be here for hours yet . . .  When they finally appear, notice how much less strong and much more experienced they look.’

AW’s route actually goes up the valley bottom and takes in Haystacks if you wish or you can make straight for Honister.  I’m one of the AW alternates.  Pity, because the slate quarry at Honister is a mixture of old workings and profitable current business.  We actually walked on the old tramway.  I could have taken a bit more interest.

We saw no one on the tops with a heavy pack.  Most were youngsters, who will insist on talking and joking as they walk and climb.  Those our age were lean and fit and lightly burdened.  Its a seminal moment, a senior moment.  I thought I’d had it on Ben Lawers in 1998 and again in 2000 on some Monro or other, but here I am again.

I didn’t pee all day.

We do the five miles left into Seatoller and Rosthwaite.  I was last in Seatoller in 1996 (I was 49) going up Scafell in the dark with 3000 others.  I was very fit then.  We make for the pub and order a meal before trying to find our guest house.  Its the Scafell Hotel, which out front looks a tad couth.  We are directed by signs to the Riverside bar round the back.  Two cultures, the gentile and expensive and the cheap and laddish, the latter accompanied by an endless loop of “Queen” tracks.  We phone home – Sheila’s at choir so I tell the answer-phone the superhuman feats we’ve achieved.

There’s a photo and reminder of one of the local fell-racing heros – it’s obscene.

Then a pleasant and nasty surprise.  My management skills again.  We are booked into the Langstrath.  We discover its a country house hotel and brilliant; we could have eaten here, though a bit expensive.  We have our own bathroom and the linen is crisp and fresh and inviting.  I go first.  Eric returns to Cathy and Heathcliffe.  I finish, say around 7 – 7:30 and write my notes in the bar.  Wooden floors and rugs, uncoordinated furniture, bookshelves, plain simple decor, pictures.  It’s a great place.

I’m knackered and at 9:30 I go to bed.  Eric is just emerging from the bathroom, book in hand.

Day 3

‘The Lake District is tht loveliest part of England, and Borrowdale is the fairest of its valleys.  Its appeal lies in the rich tangle of tree and rock – the hanging gardens of birch and rowan, the grey cliffs, that bound its green fields . . .  in its intriguing side-openings and recesses watered by translucent streams, all beautiful; in its sinuous approach to the highest and finest mountains in the country.’

This does it for me.  I was up early and immediately struck by the silence.  I wasn’t yesterday because of the traffic, which is the continuous noise at home, even into the night.  Here its silent, but it isn’t, it just seems that way.  There’s a continuous rushing of water punctuated by the occasional bark of a dog, and the more frequent baaing of sheep.  Breakfast is a grand affair.  There are a dozen or so, and we are the most abashed.  Eric checks whether the proprietor has remembered his vegetarian breakfast.  He wonders about mine, ‘I’m straight, I mean normal.’

‘Sorry, Eric, I didn’t mean you were abnormal.’

‘Sorry that you were normal?’

‘Oh, forget it, I screwed up.’

The damage was done.  In walks the host, ‘Here’s yours, and this is the one for the vegetarian,’ with emphasis and relish.  Eric is completely unfazed.  It’s a splendid place, £26 a head.  A place to return to.

The initial walk, before any ascent, is outstanding.  Lovely scenery in beautiful weather, always with a view of Langstrath Hotel.  Eric explains how intellectual and virtuous he felt after his bath.  He sat in the bar apparently with a glass of white wine, reading about Cathy, looking every bit the bookish quiet recluse.  I wasn’t there but it’s not difficult to imagine.  He doesn’t have to get into role, he’s there already, just perhaps hamming it up a bit.

As we begin to ascend, I realise my energy has not returned.  Eric leads.  We take a rest and survey the route to Greenup Edge, ‘We’re not going up that crack are we?’  I was looking with horror at a dry waterfall that seemed enormous.

‘No, we do the contour and then drop over the hill.’

I’m relieved, for about five minutes, until I see the couple in front of us on top of the waterfall.

We reach the waterfall, ‘We have to do the crack, Dave.’

‘Oh, OK, lets do it.’  I forgive him.  It’s not too bad, but why am I so breathless

and tired?

It’s outstanding once we are over the top and we elect to take the ridge which gradually brings us closer to high level views overlooking Grasmere (Calf Crag -1762 ft, Gibson Knott – 1379 ft, Helm Crag – 1299 ft).  It’s a popular walk in the opposite direction, presumably a circular, returning on the low level.  I have a mixture of fear and fatigue, like yesterday, but I know it won’t last for long.  We have an extended rest, much appreciated.  I recall the first time I came to Grasmere, just before my brother’s wedding.  I must have been about 15 or 16.  We stayed, mum, dad, me and Steve, in a caravan at Bowness.  Steve and I climbed Helvellyn and I think we did Skidaw.  We went to Grasmere show – cumbrian wrestling, professional handicapped racing, fell running and hound trailing.

We got lost coming off Helm Crag.  By the time we arrived in Grasmere, I’d had it.  I notice we were passing a sign with a familiar name on it – Glenthorne Quaker Centre.  Strange, I’d got it into my head we were staying in Ambleside.  Were there two Quaker centres?  Not my management skills again?  We part in Grasmere.  Eric for a cup of tea, me for a couple of strong lagers.  I check the schedule.  The address is Grasmere, Ambleside.  What a plonker.  A beautiful day and the pub is full, not of tired old men like me, but youth and couples.  They are watching Sky news and drinking.  The main story?  Barrymore and the inquest.  It’s all too banal.

We meet again and I come clean.  Eric’s decent about it of course, ‘The worst that could have happened would have been having to catch the bus back from Ambleside.’  I’m only slightly reassured.

Yes, it’s a Quaker guest house.  Meeting rooms, posters of it’s history and where it sits in the network of northern Quakerism.  Guess the piped music – Queen again. Our room is en suite.  Shower, washbasin and toilet are in a waterproof cupboard.  I go first and then fall asleep on the lawn which lies under Helm Crag.  Eric has lent me a book on the lakes by Hunter Davies.  It’s disappointing, particularly on Joss Naylor.  There’s a chapter on AW which I haven’t read yet, but I understand it doesn’t diminish his reputation.  Eric goes into Grasmere again and returns with all the timetables that will get us back to St. Bees.  He is surrounded by them on the bed and the possibilities are endless.  If we do this, we have such-and-such a wait.  That one doesn’t run on Sundays, this one finishes on Aug 31st and so on.  It’s beyond me.

The house is full.  Old ladies on sticks mostly, who seem to be here as Quakers.  Walkers and other overnighters.  We go into Grasmere and Eric treats us to a bottle of red.  I owe him one.  We spend a happy hour or two, trying to design his grand project.  Something he must achieve on his own.  A railtrip perhaps, taking in great author’s birthplaces or where they wrote, that sort of thing.  We have a disturbed night, which Eric spends with Cathy.

Day 4

It’s a mass catered breakfast, but good enough.  Eric engaged a bloke in conversation who asked questions about the walk that pretty obviously he knew the answers to.  We getting back via Keswick and Workington, and have a short wait for the bus in Grasmere.  It’s full of people sixty plus  The mountain tops are the domain of youth in the main, the valley bottoms are for older people, locals and tourists, some in walking gear.  We did see a few on Helm Crag, portly, well equipped and competent, but not on High Stile.

I wonder what its like, living with mountains all around you?  Its got to get under your skin eventually.

The bus trip is picturesque as we pass Thirlmere.  Keswick is full (WC Fields quote), so we make a short trip down to Derwentwater.  There’s a Morris Dancing convention on the main street as well as the Saturday open market.  It’s chaos.  You can imagine what their lunch time carry-out was like.  We have a coffee waiting for the delayed service to Workington.The queue is enormous, like one fat lady who arranged her tray tidily around a huge slab of cream cake.  We waited long enough through sheer numbers, but were further delayed by two elderly Scottish ladies, buying for several others, who had great difficulty in deciding on their order, coffee, tea, big cups, little cups, cold milk, hot milk, no milk, Earl Grey, fruit tea.  Boring today; amusing on another day.

The train from Workington is just like a toy.  Full of Japanese boys returning to school at St. Bees.  They’re playing rugby when we arrive.  It’s as you would imagine a public school to be.

So we made it, and I felt well, but needed rest to really recover.  Eric and I had got on very well.  We’d led separate lives, and enjoyed the bits we did together.

The view of High Crag from Haystacks is still the abiding memory.  AW’s ashes are up there at Innominate Tarn.  The Langstrath Hotel is the place I’d return to.  My management skills need help.  Bookish Eric was finally disappointed with Cathy and Heathcliffe.  Apparently they overreact  a little.  I forget what was next on his reading scheme.  We never did design his grand project.