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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.