Robinson, The Lake District, Cumbria - 17.04.2017

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.

Route map for Robinson hike.

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.

The Newlands Valley on a gloomy night.

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.

The Newlands Valley and Newlands Hause.

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.

Buttermere and Grey Crag

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.

Crummock Water and beyond from Robinson

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.

Knott Rigg and Keskadale Beck - The Newlands Valley

Littledale Edge looking towards Crummock Water.

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.

From Littledale Edge towards Honister.

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.

Fleetwith Pike, Great Gable, Haystacks, Kirk Fell and Scafell - a veritable feast of Lakeland peaks.

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.

Sunset from High Snockrigg.

All images taken on the Sony A7rII using the Sony G Master 24 - 70mm 2.8.

Causey Pike, The Lake District, Cumbria - 28.12.2016

In December 2016 I found myself with a day to spare. I don’t quite know how it happened as it certainly wasn’t planned, but in that window between Christmas and New Year, on the 28th to be exact, I woke up on the wrong side of a bottle of gin with a slight headache, and nothing at all in the diary. Usually these few days each year are a mad rush of hellos to rarely seen family and friends, punctuated only by the odd bacon wrapped chipolata and stray thought as to what the New Year might bring. This day however, started with the wonderful sense of nothing – no arrangements, no requests, no obligations, and no ideas.

Not long after peeling myself out of bed I was stood at my living room window sipping a Kenco Millicano. Before me lay the wasteland that was my front garden. Earlier in the year I had dug it up with every intention of landscaping it in late summer, but had instead just created random piles of soil which I had left to the elements and which were now just a huge litter box for the local cats. As I stood there in my brand-new-too-big Xmas jumper, courtesy of my mum, I could see a bloody cat not four feet from me. It was staring at me as it did its business with not a jot of shame – almost challenging me with its unflinching gaze. I had long since given up ‘shooing’ the buggers away, and this one squatted with such brazen contempt for my authority, I just drank my coffee and watched. As it finished up, brushed soil over its mess, and sauntered away down my garden path, something struck me - the ground wasn’t frozen! It was mild! I looked up to the sky and it was blue - cobalt blue with only traces of clouds smudged and smeared and still. The copper beech hedging that divided my garden from my neighbour, drained of life but full of texture, stood dormant - its leaves usually acting as a thousand gnarled weather vanes rattling in the wind, had not a twitch amongst them. It was a day for a walk!

Within 20 minutes I had my camera bag packed, my thermos brewed, and my pants unbuttoned at the waist (I had a longish drive ahead of me and was carrying a little Christmas dinner paunch.) I jumped in the car and headed for the Lake District. The journey from Hexham is invariably a slow one, the single carriage A69 forcing you to trail behind lorries and tractors as you pass through rolling Northumberland countryside and into Cumbria. I used the time to figure out where in the Lakes would be nice to try, and what I could fit in with only a few hours out on the hills. Some months earlier I had been sat in the beer garden of the Swinside Inn in the Newlands valley – a lovely traditional pub surrounded by sweeping fields and abrupt crags and woodland. I had become fascinated by a peak that rose up like a ridge not far in the distance and that looked a lot like Catbells to my untrained eye. My friend Joe told me that it was called Causey Pike, and that there was a route up that traced its way in a horse shoe across the peak and around where we were sitting before falling into Braithwaite, giving lovely views of Derwent Water along the way. I smiled as I drove past Carlisle and onto the M6 Southbound – I knew where I was heading.

The route

Not long later I was parking up. I had driven through Portinscale and down the winding roads that carve their way through dense woodland and on through the hamlet of Stair to the west of Derwent Water. Reaching the bottom of Rowling End, a low but steep hill that begins the ridge up to Causey Pike, I had pulled in on the road that wraps itself around the hills and weaves its way to Newlands Hause and Buttermere. There was no-one around. No cars, no people, no sound. The Lake District is wonderful in any weather and at any time of year, but I get a particular thrill on days like these. It seemed empty, almost ominous, and all around me seemed taller, and wider, and more exciting because of it. I grabbed my bag and threw on my hat, crossed the road, and started my ascent following Stonycroft Gill.

From halfway up Rowling End, looking to Derwent Water.

There was a route straight ahead going steeply up to Rowling End via Elias Crag – I considered it briefly but, fancying an easier life I followed a path that rose more gently up the valley side. Within five minutes the landscape began to reveal itself – the valley is narrow and steep, a path on the opposite side leads the eye gradually towards Outerside, curled and browned bracken lies limp all around, sharp edges and towering peaks begin to cut their way into sky above you. I stopped for a moment to take it in. I realised how, for the most part, I prefer walking alone. As I looked back down the valley, along the path I was on, pointing the way to Derwent Water and the hills beyond, I thought of how the silence you experience when you pause when alone, the freedom you have to breathe or sigh or wonder, is something I will never tire of. As much as I appreciate the company and craic that others can bring, solitude is essential to experiencing this landscape as fully as possible. For me, anyway.

Before long I was there, panting, on top of Rowling End. Like a purpose built viewing platform it directs you, makes you turn around, invites you to step forward, it offers you the most splendid view over Skelgill Bank to Derwent Water and the east. I was tempted to pull the camera out but Causey Pike stood behind me, teasing me with the promise of even more impressive views. I turned and started to claw my way up. Partly path, partly jutting rock, the ascent is a scramble that excites but never scares. As I went up, I remembered that an old friend once told me he thought that the point one reaches maturity is the point in life where one sees a tree and no longer wonders how it might be climbed. By that measure, I am not yet quite mature and it is wanders like these, heading up Causey Pike in December, looking for footholds, driven by a childlike anticipation, that often tell me I may never be.

On reaching the peak the need to take a photograph was knocked out of me by the sheer scale of what I saw – it demanded a pause, it needed a few moments to be fully appreciated. To the west ran the ridge, along Scar Crag, up to Eel Crag and around to Grisedale Pike and Braithwaite – the horseshoe I was planning to walk. To the north stood Skiddaw, squatting with authority over Keswick, full and thick and leading the eye to Blencathra. To the east, sandwiched between Rowling End and Barrow like a couple of pincers, sat Derwent Water, with Bleaberry Fell, Clough head and Great Dodd poking their furrowed brows over each other under the blue winter skies. And, most noticeably, at this time, on this day, in this light, to the south, Aikin Knott, Robinson, Scope End, Hindscarth and High Spy, like folds in a quilt or waves in a an off-green sea creating such sweet shadows as the sun started to set.

The view east from Causey Pike.

It was here that I met my first fellow walkers of the day. A family of six - three generations it would seem - finishing off their sandwiches, packing away their thermos, and starting their slow climb down to Rowling End. Also, a middle-aged man with an ill-behaved Collie, checking a map whilst smoking a roll-up. Hellos were exchanged with all and then I pulled out my camera and started to shoot. It was difficult to know where to start as each view seemed just as or more impressive than the other. I could see, with the falling sun, that I would have most joy looking to the south and the dusty winter haze and shapes and that were being created there, but I couldn’t help capturing a couple of shots of the view to the East first. Derwent Water and Keswick were in miniature, framed by the hills around them with barely a sign of life. The family who had recently left the peak stood on Rowling End and were admiring the view also – I thought I might be able to create a tilt-shift image of them and so got a quick snap.

Some walkers look east from Rowling End.

Aikin Knott and others as the sun sets.

I shifted my attention south. I managed to get a couple of images before the other walker’s Collie dog developed a fascination with my groin. I part stroked it (the Collie, not the groin), part pushed it away, but he was determined, and, it would seem, hungry. His owner came over to chat. We exchanged a few words, me pretending his dog wasn’t nuzzling my crotch as we spoke, him unaware or indifferent. By this time the sun was disappearing quite quickly and the landscape was shifting as it did so – lines of light, glare, shadows, crawling across the ridges and edges as we spoke – all the things I wanted to try and capture if I could. After a brief chat about immigrants (him anti, me shocked by how anti he was) his dog was prized from my nether-regions and he was on his way, running down the ridge to the west before dropping down into the valley, his canine pal running alongside. Was it just me or did the Collie wink at me over its shoulder? Each time I looked away, took a photo, and looked back, he was smaller, until he was soon just a speck, moving with what seemed like amazing speed, quickly being swallowed up by the peaks and troughs around him. I turned back - Scar Crag stood ahead of me to the west, the sharp contrast in the light now making its dark slopes ripple as they fell down to Rigg Beck. I decided to chase the light and began to follow the ridge towards Eel Crag.

The severe Scar Crag, leading to Eel Crag.

I had only made it a short way when I looked up and saw that my day was nearly over – the sun was close to touching the hills on the horizon and its colour changed – reds and oranges spilled over the peaks and into the dark valleys below. It was impossible to shoot with subtlety – the contrast between that which the light touched, and that which it did not, was too extreme – what had seemed impressive but familiar only half an hour earlier, now seemed almost Martian. An otherworldly red planet-esque feel snuck into each of my photographs, only the pock-marked edges of the hills, picked out by direct sunlight and set amongst huge blankets of black, were visible.

Knott Rigg and the rest, at sunset.

I turned – the view behind me, to the east and north, though just as transformed and just as magical, was calmer, more recognisable. I looked towards Bassenthwaite Lake, it trying its best to hide behind tree covered hills and the short but prominent Outerside. As I looked, I noticed movement, ever so slight, ever so small. My friend the walker with the strong views on EU freedom of movement and the sexually aggressive Collie was there. He had, in what seemed like an impossibly short amount of time, ran down to Stonycroft Gill and back up to the peak of Outerside. As I watched him with an admiration the sun sank behind me and the shadows in the valleys around us started to spread and rise like inky waters, swallowing up the hills an inch at a time. Small pockets of light remained on only the highest of the peaks and a spotlight was created before me, shining only on the walker and his dog as he took a breath on Outerside. I rattled off a shot. Then he was gone.

A walker atop Outerside, with Bassenthwaite in the distance.

I soon realised I wasn’t going to do the horseshoe route as dusk started to spread around me. I often carry a headtorch in my camera bag for just such occasions but in the rush of leaving the house for this impromptu trip, I had forgotten to pack it. I walked slowly along the ridge towards Eel Crag and saw the path heading up, winding backwards and forwards in a serpentine fashion before me, and knew it was too much that day. I was about to head back down, deciding to walk into Stonycroft Gill to follow a path back to the car, but the show the sinking sun was putting on behind me was fascinating. I had a little battery left on my phone, and so if need be I could use the torch for my descent. Indeed, I did use it when I headed downhill later that evening, smiling as I went and excited to get back to my computer to see what shots I had managed to capture. But, before I did, I sat down for a while. The winter sun sank slowly over the horizon – throwing out final thin warm fingers of light as it seemed to lower itself gently behind Red Pike and out of sight. I ate a snickers, crouched on a seat of heather, nestled into the side of Scar Crag, ringing every last moment from this wonderful winter day, and promising myself that in the future I will always look to carve out time for a hike in between Christmas and New Year.

Sunset from Scar Crag.

All shots taken with the Sony A7rii using the Sony G Master f2.8 24 - 70mm lens.