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.

Scafell Pike, The Lake District, Cumbria - 16.09.2016

It was back in September 2016 that timing, weather and location, without much planning, all came together and offered up the chance to have a wander up England’s highest peak. I’d just returned from a week in Austria where I’d been hiking and shooting landscapes in the Alps south of Salzburg. I had had a wonderful time (and will cover some of the trips I took when there in later blog posts), but, as usual, by the end of the trip had been looking forward to speaking a language I knew, driving on the side of the road I was used to, and queueing for things in an orderly fashion. The Lakes beckoned.

In a rare moment of forward planning, before setting off for Austria, I had had the foresight (something relatively alien to me) to arrange to stay with some friends in Keswick for a couple of days on my way back home. A few strolls around the familiar Cumbrian hills and valleys, I had thought, would act as a decompression chamber of sorts, before my landing back in the realities of work and traffic and bills and other such day to day guff.

And so, I found myself staying at the wonderful Lingholm Estate in Portinscale – a beautiful stately home on the shores of Derwent Water, with grounds to explore, history to immerse oneself in, and a café that serves the best breakfast I’ve had in years. It’s called the Huntsman and has as one of its elements a potato cake that I would happily live on for the rest of my life. Try it if you ever get the chance.

I was trying to work out where to go and what to do when I found out my friend Graham was in town and was up for a hike. Not only that, our friends Joe and Jenny were going to loan us their black Labrador, Titus, if we wanted him. In my opinion, any walk is made at least 10% better by the presence of a dog, and so, when Graham suggested we have a crack at Scafell Pike with our canine friend, it seemed like a no-brainer and into the car we jumped.

It was ridiculously hot. We drove from the Lingholm passing under Catbells on the west side of Derwent Water and up the Borrowdale Valley through to Seathwaite and the car park there. I had the A/C on full blast but the skies were blue, the clouds scarce, and the Sun aggressive, and Graham and I had a bit of a sweat on before we even got out of the car. There were quite a few vehicles parked up along the road to Seathwaite and so we knew it might be busy up top. We had a last check of our bags, me of my camera and batteries and the like and Graham of his scotch eggs and dog biscuits. I love these brief moments before setting off - the pause before lurching forward and the glance up the landscape you’re about to ascend – even the hills around you can seem to hold their breath in collective anticipation.

The route

We set off through the farm yard and followed the river up towards Stockley Bridge – a wonderful old stone arch marking the threshold between quaint flood plain and testing incline. The thousands of tonnes of errant boulders scattered about the valley hint at the past - the tempestuous times, the ice floes and the potential force of the now peaceful, glistening Gill. As we wandered I became more aware how difficult a day it might be for photography – the sun was strikingly bright and the clouds in hiding. I had stupidly forgotten to bring any filters with me and with this blanket vibrance that made Graham and I squint as we looked around, I wasn’t sure what I’d be able to capture.

We hung a right and carried up the valley towards Styhead Tarn. The slow rise brought with it new perspectives and looking up towards Green Gable or Seathwaite Fell, or ahead of us towards Lingmell Crag, one feels in the presence of giants. Towering over us and sinking below were the creases and crannies, the folds and edges of time and there is nothing that better puts you in your place in the world than the peaks and troughs of the Lake District. A lot of grunting and stopping and slow stepping brought us over the winding path and the uneven stones to the Tarn. There was a group of around 50 students – French I think – aloof and riddled with culture in a way an Englishman can never be. We had to keep Titus close to avoid him stealing a sandwich whilst the exotic youths hand rolled their cigarettes, and we ploughed on, sweating but determined.

We reached the peak of the valley and were faced with a range of options for our ascent. As is often the case in the Lakes, you reach your horizon only to be presented with another, or indeed several, even more magnificent. Here is one of my favourite crossroads in the world. Swooping around and down to your right is the side of Great Gable, falling dramatically towards Wasdale Fell and Dore Head in the distance, as Flass Knotts and Lingmell Crag stand proud on your left, silent darkened sentries guarding the hidden valley beyond. It was at this point I first pulled out my camera. The time of day and the empty sky wasn’t giving much in the way of mood or atmosphere but the hills themselves with their ragged faces and deep myriad scars had such sudden shadows and severe edges, I felt compelled to take a couple of shots.

The view from Sty Head past Lingmell Crag toward Wasdale Head

My trusty Sony back in my bag we made a little move to our left towards Great Slack before turning right and heading up what is called the Corridor Route. This is a wonderful ascent up the crags to the side of Great End (Stand Crag to be exact), over various Fords and eventually Piers Gill that cuts a severe path down to Lingmell Beck. At times you’re surrounded by crag faces and hill side and others you’re seeing huge spaces and distant fell sides open up before you. We met several people along the way – Titus decided to have a snap at a what I think was a Cockerpoo and was found out for being the coward he really is. A stroke and a sip from a stream and the stand-off had been forgotten about, and up we trudged to Lingmell Coll.

It was here we decided to sit and snack for a moment before our final push to the top of Scafell Pike. It is at this point we met one of the main routes up to the peak coming from Wasdale to the west, and it seemed more like a true thoroughfare than a mountain path. There were so many people heading up – all different shapes and sizes, nationalities and ages, speeds and techniques, tackling the seemingly endless scree that heads up and up and up and up. Graham and I finished our lunch and were about to start off again, but I looked to my right and was sure there would be a sight to see if I went a little further toward the edge of Pikes Crag. I like it when I’m right.

 

The view from Lingmell down to Wast Water.

Rolled out before me was Wast Water. The ominous Black Crag pointing down the slope to the calm, rich, blue water, framed perfectly by Illgill Head and Middle Fell. A winding path, peppered with people, meandered down to the body of water and beyond the flat lands of Cumbria, rolled out like chequered carpet to the horizon. Graham didn’t come to see, choosing instead to sit with Titus and enjoy the midday sun, my enjoyment of the view therefore being made all the more intense by the silence and relative solitude.

On we went up the grey rough path before us. I noted the change in convention and social interaction in this more popular and populated route – one of the small pleasures when walking the lesser known trails in the Lakes, and I daresay other parts of the Country, is the nod and the ‘hi’ which is almost always exchanged between strangers when crossing paths. Not here. It could be argued that the steepness of the ascent plays its part in the drop in interaction, but I think it may also be the numbers. You couldn’t say hi to everyone, and nor would you want to, but perhaps there is something about crowds that encourages one to put their head down instead of up, as was the case on Scafell Pike that afternoon. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but glance around occasionally, partly out of interest, and partly so as to feign interest as a way of a taking a breath without seeming like I’d had to stop. Looking to my left I noticed the scree petered out, making way for grassy outcrops and interrupted by huge rocks that seemed to erupt out of the ground. I strolled over to one such boulder and back down the way we had come, a haphazard bright green landscape peppered with pools and tarns fell away from me, with the eastern hills in the distance, peeking over the horizon through the thick blue summer haze.

From the ascent of Scafell itself down towards Sty Head Tarn.

Slow rises and indentations gave false promises of the summit as we climbed upwards, but it was only after a few of these, followed quickly by grunts and sighs and renewed efforts, that Graham and I stood, hands on hips, dog in tow, looking down on the rest of England. It was nice to see that Sod’s Law comes into force regardless of sea level, and it was within five minutes of reaching the top of Scafell Pike that the clouds rolled in from the west and the rain poured down. Fortunately for me, we saw it coming. I strolled away from the crowds and looked over towards Great Moss and the South Lakes beyond, taking out my camera and capturing a few photographs before the water hit where I was standing. The grey clouds rolled across the sky – a false bulbous ceiling diffusing the light and bringing with it a foreboding quality for the sun to tangle with. The sheets of rain in the distance hung and danced, fell down then departed, before doing the same again and again and again, and I realised how lucky I was to be up on the top, right at that moment, with my friend, as the elements put on their late afternoon show.

The view from Scafell Pike towards High Scarth Crag and Hard Knott

We let the other walkers sit and chat and smoke and rub and started our way back down. A steep descent down the east side, slipping and sliding down the scree. Already we were talking about pubs and pints and how sweet that first lager would taste. We wandered down towards Broad Crag, our knees starting to protest slightly against the unexpected pressure of the downhill scramble whilst Titus skipped ahead of us with endless enthusiasm, undaunted by the crags and slopes and slides that gave Graham and I pause. He would bound ahead until one of us called his name, and then would sit and wait for us obediently, passing the time by turning his attention to licking his own backside. Not to be crude, but if I could approach any challenge in my life with the same relish and vigour with which Titus approached his anus that afternoon, there would be no stopping me. We paused briefly for Graham to give him a treat before heading back up towards Ill Crag and on towards Great End.

Graham and Titus rest before Great End and Ill Crag.

This trail, edging around peaks to be conquered another day had an otherworldly quality as we wandered amongst the boulders and stones, scattered around great green fells without another soul in sight. We hung a left as we approached Allen Crags and made our way down to Sprinkling Tarn, but took a trail to our right before reaching it – Grains Gill pointing the way down a perfectly formed steep sided valley with Seathwaite Fell to the left, and Glaramara to the right, funnelling the water, and us, back down to Stockley Bridge, Seathwaite, and the oven-like car with the impractical leather interior, seemingly designed for its adhesive qualities on a hot day such as this.

Such heat, such tired legs, and such an effort called for only one thing, and we drove back to The Lingholm Estate via the Borrowdale Valley and a hamlet called Rosthwaite. This is one of my favourite place in the Lakes, having camped here many times over the years and having visited it first with my late father when I was a child. He was a fell runner and walker and the Lakes, along with The Cheviots in North Northumberland, were his place of solace and sanctuary, much as they are mine now. Graham and Titus and I sat on the slate terrace of the Riverside bar around the back of the Scafell Hotel, as Stonethwaite Beck trickled and babbled its way past us in the evening sun. I remembered fifteen years earlier being on a road trip with three friends and a tent and calling my father from the M6 to ask where we should go – Britain was our oyster and we wanted somewhere outdoors to camp and walk and have our breath taken away from us. He reminded me of Rosthwaite and the Lake District of my youth. That night I had my first pint at the Riverside Bar. Fifteen years later, I had my second, with Graham and Titus, a nurse from Derby, and a structural engineer from Lancaster – fellow walkers with aching legs and their own stories to tell of this magical part of the world.

All images shot on a Sony A7r II using the 24 – 70mm f2.8 Sony G Master lens.

The view from near Great End towards Great Gable and Kirk Fell.