There is something quite special about the Newlands Valley. No matter how many times I visit, no matter the hour or the season, it always manages to conjure a reaction in me be it a pause, a satisfied exhalation, an exclamation of approval or amazement, or some combination of the three. It seems unnaturally smooth in its curves - a huge half-pipe formed out of the Riggs and hills, curving and carving its way into the sky. Keskadale Beck is the definition of meandering, weaving and winding the length of the valley alongside its slightly more well behaved neighbour, the Newlands Pass Road. Whether you are travelling from Buttermere and turn the corner past Newlands Hause Car Park to have the valley open out before you, or you are coming from Keskadale Farm and have the joy of travelling up the valley with Moss Force waterfall sandwiched into a corner and inviting you forward for a closer look - the valley is a marvel that all at once makes you feel open to the elements but enclosed by the inspiring Lakeland fells.
If parking at Newlands Hause, it is only a short walk to the powerful Moss Force, and only a short walk further, up a steep path and a narrow gulley, before you are atop Buttermere Moss and Fell with the surrounding giants of the Lake District poking their heads above the horizon and daring you to go further. If you want to be up a height, and up a height quick, this popular but never crowded spot between Buttermere and Derwent Water is the perfect place to park the car and within twenty minutes forget that you own one.
On the 17th of April last year, this is just what I needed – to get out and to forget. I had had a particularly busy few weeks filmmaking and editing. Too many hours sat in a car travelling between London and Newcastle, and too many nights sat bleary eyed and frustrated in front of a computer screen. I was slouched in my office in Hexham, Northumberland, cursing the world and twitching my leg (in that way that some people do and that the people who don’t find irritating) and the sun poured in through the window, teasing me, warming my face and daring me to get outside. Within two hours, by about lunch time, I was parking my car at Newlands Hause, my camera bag on my back, laden with kit and a couple of sausage rolls, and a child-like anticipation egging me on. I didn’t know where I was going to go, and I didn’t really care – I simply wanted to feel the wind on my back, the sun on my face, and, if it worked out, to grab a couple of nice photographs as I went on my way.
The last time I had been at this spot was before the clocks had changed. I had felt the night creeping in as I travelled to visit some friends of mine in Portinscale and had wondered what the Newlands Valley looked like at sunset. The clouds had gathered and the wind picked up and the world changed quite quickly. By the time I had made the scramble up to Buttermere Fell the hills around me had turned all but black, and the blue light that weakly eeked its way through the foreboding cloud created an ominous, ink-like sky. It was both haunting and exhilarating. I stood alone, buffeted by gale force winds, looking down Newlands Valley as the clouds above me churned and turned and crashed against solid peaks. I loved it. I stood for what felt like hours, a little boy in the storm, Heathcliffe on the moor, Ahab on the sea – one second I was there in Cumbria just an hour or two from home, and the next I was completely lost in my imagination and the wild worlds that exist there.
This April visit however, couldn’t have been more different. The skies were blue and the clouds were many but thin - the rolling green hills and western peaks were a lot friendlier and agreeable and almost asking to be explored. The colour hadn’t quite come fully to the surface at this point – trees wore only a little green, grasses were still losing their yellow-ish hue. I climbed the trail from Newlands Hause, up the dry gulley to Buttermere Moss – a slightly sloping fell that’s quite spongey in parts and that leads to a cliff down which Moss Force tumbles. The skies moved quickly but calmly, the sunshine pouring through the white stuff and hitting the Newlands Valley and Knott Rigg like so many spotlights, shifting and highlighting before dissolving and starting anew elsewhere. The valley leads the eye towards Derwent Water and Blencathra beyond, the car park now a hundred metres or so below seemed in miniature, its occupants sitting obediently and strangely, made tiny by the hills surrounding them.
Immediately refreshed, I walked west at first – there is little more inviting than an edge when way up high, and Buttermere Moss leads uphill towards what appears to be a dramatic drop down to the village of Buttermere and the body of water of the same name. As I walked, I noticed how bright the light was around me, how stark the blues and greens, and I wondered and worried as to whether or not the conditions of the day would translate to good images. Soon, any concerns I had were put to one side when I was presented with the views High Snockrigg has to offer. This elevation looks out towards Crummock Water, Grasmoor, Rydal Water and indeed as far as Scotland and the Solway Firth to the North; towards the towering ridges of Red Pike and High Stile to the west; over the rich blue waters of Buttermere towards Fleetwith Pike and Haystacks to the South; and further in the distance the giants of the Lake District – Great Gable and the Scafell range. Straight ahead of me, over the shimmering Buttermere, High Stile stood proud, its base clothed in a trail of woodland running along the water’s edge and occasionally bursting into vibrant green as it caught the odd pillar of sunlight.
Throughout my journey up the Newlands Valley and my wander up to High Snockrigg, a particular peak had dominated the landscape – it stood now, over my left shoulder, peering, leaning, almost noble in its scale and stillness. I turned and looked at Robinson. What a wonderfully named peak – so individual amongst so many pikes and riggs and fells. I hadn’t thought of going up so high, but that is the strange beauty of days such as these – time slips away, and with it any sense of pressure or responsibility or restriction. Why wouldn’t I climb up Robinson? When 400 metres closer to sea level, when sat in my car, when amongst the hustle and bustle of the day to day, I could easily think of a hundred reasons why I wouldn’t. There and then, I couldn’t think of one. In what seemed like no time at all, after following a not too trying trail that wound its way up the hillside rather than taking it on directly, I found myself atop this glorious peak, looking north west towards Scotland. The ridges and crags and peaks and valleys of Knott Rigg, Grasmoor, Whiteless Pike, and Lad Hows caught the light and created such sweet shadows, pointing the way past Crummock and Rydal Waters towards the Irish Sea. From here, the Newlands Pass Road lay limp – a piece of string dropped and forgotten on a hillside, my car barely discernible now, so distant, so irrelevant, belonging to another world.
Now up a height, why not keep going? The breeze started to pick up a little, but the skies stayed blue and the clouds kept still and I was on a roll. I wandered towards Hindscarth, along Littledale Edge. There was no sign of another soul and in all directions the mountains and lakes stirred the senses and inspired – from here, everywhere and everything seemed possible and I wanted to see it all. As I walked across the hilltops I came across a fence running along the ridge – a sign of times gone by, rusty and wobbling but straight as an arrow in parts. Perhaps it’s just me, but a sign of civilisation such as this can have a strange effect – even though old, even though obviously left and unmanned, it evokes a sense of order, a boundary that shouldn’t be crossed. Here I stood, on a hill top completely alone, in one of the few wild places left in the British Isles, and yet I looked around, not sure what it meant, wondering if I could cross or what the consequences would be if I did.
I followed the fence – further downhill towards Hindscarth Edge and the rise back up towards Dale Head, and here lay dormant walls and what seemed like covered mines. Tumbling rocks that echoed of the past and that sat against, indeed were framed by, the solid Fleetwith Pike and the Honister pass in the distance. Faded greens and desaturated reds and browns mixed with slate greys and the bright blue of the sky – the signs of activity, of industry, both of the mines and the agriculture brought a haunting quality to the hilltop even on this sunny April day.
I moved further downhill. As the sun began its descent the light that glanced off the edges and faces of the peaks that surrounded me became more pronounced, more dramatic. I was struck by Fleetwith Pike, rising from the edge of Buttermere with its sharp ridge and solid, squat form, cutting through the valley, and soaring into the sky. So severe, so inviting, a challenge for another day, it seemed to sit at the feet of its larger cousins in the distance – Great Gable with its furrowed brow, Kirk Fell and Pillar basking in the fading light, Lingmell and Scafell like child and parent respectively, solid and stolid against the clouds.
I was tempted to continue. Hindscarth Edge swept down and back up towards Dale Head - Glaramara and Base Brown and more peaks than I could name or mention were peppered all around, showing me glimpses of unknown thrills if I would just keep going. But not that day. At that moment, on that ridge, I felt sated, I felt tired, and I felt like a beer and shower. The April sun was sinking fast and the crags and valleys, the folds and creases in this grand Lakeland quilt, were to be saved for another time. I turned and headed back towards High Snockrigg at the foot of Robinson, looking for a spot with a view where I could enjoy my sausage rolls and catch the sunset before a short walk back to the car. I made my way back towards Buttermere Moss, skirting Goat Crag and getting my feet wet in Goat Gills, with the dancing waters of Buttermere shimmering a thousand miles below me to my left. I reached the Cairn and started to make my way down to a slight ledge towards Low Snockrigg, slow moving sheep going in the opposite direction and baahing their disapproval to my presence as they moved uphill. I found a nice place to sit, pulled out my sausage roll (not a euphemism), and spent my last half hour on the Lakeland fells watching the sun float gently down behind Mellbreak. As it did so, it stretched and poured and at times lashed out, splashing against the crumpled face of Whiteless Pike and the lonely form of Darling Fell. In a final effort, a glorious orange death rattle, it lit up the great expanse of North West Cumbria and the Solway Firth beyond, before sliding slowly out of sight, and I made my way back home.
All images taken on the Sony A7rII using the Sony G Master 24 - 70mm 2.8.