Lakes District National Park sits on the west coast of England, a few kilometers east of the Irish Sea and less than an hour north of Manchester by train. Lush green valleys criss-crossed by low stone walls separating farm plots full of sheep, long lakes, beautiful stone buildings, and rolling mountains rising up to over 950m. And pubs serving fantastic, hand-pulled English ale!
Town of Kendal
The town of Kendal, about 25,000 people, lies just outside Lakes District Park on the south-east corner. After a late arrival due to my confusion with the train system, Ray picks me up and we wander through the town along roads lined with stone walls and lush gardens, through the old centre of town and towards the New Castle. The river Kent flows through town, and the surrounding landscape is hilly, with steep streets running down into the centre of town.
I love the architecture, with the classic English chimneys and beautiful stone construction of most buildings. According to the Kendal website, the town was first put on a map as a Roman fort in the 1st century AD, but the area had been settled long before the Romans arrived by the Brigantes tribe.
The Kendal Castle (called the “new” castle) was build in the 1200’s and is now a ruin. The stunning ruins sit atop a hill just east of the river Kent, where it commands a fantastic view over the town and surrounding countryside. Many of the castle walls, like stone walls everywhere around here, have ferns or other flowering plants growing out of the cracks.
Only here could they call the remnants of a structure from the 13th century “new”! For reference, however, the “old” castle in Kendal, Castle Howe, on the west side of the river, was built around 200 years earlier. Not much at all remains of it other than a rather large earthen motte upon which the castle itself had stood.
Naturally, our stroll about town ends at a pub, the fantastic Brewery Arts Centre, where’s there’s a cinema, theatre, and outdoor garden, and the brewery pub itself.
Saturday morning and it’s raining. Ray’s friend Simon has joined Viki, Ray and me for the weekend adventure, and we drive north from Kendal to Blaencathra to go for a hike. The landscape is lush and green, and the roads small and winding, often roofed over by trees. On numerous occasions we stop and pull over upon meeting and oncoming car, as there is not enough room for us both to drive past.
On the drive there I am amazed at all the beautifully constructed stone walls and buildings. The walls separate fields, and the buildings range from sheds and barns to farmhouses, inns, cottages and civic buildings, all built from field-stone or quarried slate. Many of the walls are dry-pack stone and capped with a row of vertical or slanted stone, looking like a jagged row of teeth. Fantastic craftsmanship dating back 100s of years.
The day is very wet, and we start by climbing a steep hillside full of grazing sheep. The grassy hills have large patches of ferns, which are apparently toxic and so don’t get eaten by the sheep. Everywhere the grass has been nibbled down close to the ground by the sheep, which sport red or blue coloured patches as identification. Blue tribe, red tribe?
We gain the top of the hill and stroll across to a small lake with a stream flowing into it, and up to the ridge. The ridge is shrouded in cloud, and there’s no doubt how wet we are about to become…
As we hike up, we are climbing into the clouds, and the light drizzle turns into fog and rain. The ridge starts off grassy but soon becomes rocky and narrow, turning into the aptly-named “Sharp Edge of Blaencathra”.
We meet some folks coming down, and they recommend that we turn back because of the wet. We decide to push on, into the fog and howling wind, and when we get to the true scrambling bit, we find the rock is solid but very slippery, with lots of exposure on left and right. The sharp edge does not last long, and after a few (very!) careful moves on the greasy rock and a further stretch of easy scrambling, the ridge broadens again and we dash to the top, heads down against the wind and rain.
No lunch at the top today! We tag the summit and turn around quickly to descend before freezing to death.
Taking a different path down, the broad descent trail heads down another ridge and we hurry down, eager to get out of the wind and wet. As we drop below cloud-line the weather and our spirits improve. Strolling down the slopes now, once again with sheep around, the beautiful valley bellow us glows a brilliant, vivid green.
Tons of character in the weather today, and a true Lake’s District experience!
Driving back we go through Grassmere, Ambleside, and Windermere. Close to Grassmere is Dove Cottage, home of the famous poet William Wordsworth from 1799 to 1808, and now a museum. The weather remains wet, and it’s a challenge to keep the camera dry while photographing this stunning building. As everywhere else around here there are plants growing out of the cracks between the stones, something that I’m sure infuriates the keepers of these fantastic old buildings, but sure add to the rich, organic beauty of the place. Also note the slate-stone roof.
On the way back to Kendal, we make a quick stop at the Badger Bar, an Inn built in 1624. So many fantastic pubs, so little time!
Back in Kendal, we change out of wet clothes and head to the 2nd pub of the evening. Dinner is pizza, named after the various countries competing in the European Football Championships, and fantastic English ale. Nothing like a warm meal and a warm beer with friends following a cold day in the hills! We walk up the big hill back to Ray’s place, and mid-way through that exhausting hike we need to stop for refreshments at the Rifleman’s Arms. The pubs here are truly fantastic, homey, cozy places where dogs are allowed, and drink ale out of a bowl, elderly ladies are playing darts or knitting, and families with small kids are having dinner. So civilized!
Sunday, Dow Crag
The weather forecast for Sunday is better, and we head for Dow Crag to do some climbing. Dow Crag is west and across a small valley and lake from the famous Old Man of Coniston.
It’s less than an hour’s drive, the fast way, from Ray’s house to Dow Crag, and we are in a bit of a hurry today to make the most of the better weather. Driving towards the mountains we can see that the tops are covered in cloud, meaning that the rock will be slippery and wet. The “fells” (hills or mountains, as they call them here) around the parking lot are stunning, with the ever-present stone walls snaking through the lush green fields full of sheep. Defining the valleys are rounded mountains broken by numerous rocky outcrops. Dow Crag itself is a dark, brooding mass of rock jutting out of the green lushness, divided into three major buttresses named A, B, and C, each 100-300m high, split by deep, dark gullies. The top is still covered in cloud, but the forecast is for clearing.
We gear up and hike the 1/2 hour on the trail and then another 1/2 hour up a very slippery scree and boulder field to get to the base of the cliff. The greasiness of the bounders is worrying, and arriving at the base of our chosen routes the rock appears very wet, with water running down the slabby route that Ray and Vicky were planning. We decide to bail and head right to an easier route, “C ordinary”, a three-star route put up in the early 1900’s (!).
The rock looks much drier on this route, the clouds have now lifted off the top, and we are excited to climb! I am on the rope with Simon, a long-time climbing friend of Ray’s from Manchester. Both Simon and Ray have done this route before, and are comfortable with the grade, given the weather and wetness of the rock.
There are very few bolted climbing routes in the UK, and those that exist are usually hard limestone routes. The rock at Dow Crag is a dense and fractured Rhylite, and takes gear very well. With the long history of trad climbing in the area (this route was first climbed in 1904!), no bolts are allowed. The lack of bolts gives the route a great, untouched, wilderness feel – fantastic! The wet rock makes for insecure feet, but the angle is low and the rock nicely featured, resulting in easy climbing, perhaps 5.4.
Simon and I swing leads, and by the 2nd and 3rd pitches I’m getting used to the slippery rock and things are feeling good. Ray and Vicky are climbing right behind us, and we get a chance to chat at the belay stations. My trusty little “climbing” camera, the Canon G9, didn’t work this morning thanks to yesterday’s soaking, despite being left out to dry all night (poor thing!) but I carry the big SLR up the route today. Always have two cameras!
My favourite pitch is #6, which is an easy ramp right followed by a traverse left following a good-size crack that takes pro easily. There are a few awkward moves on the wet, greasy rock, but the protection is great and the everything feels good. The pitch ends at a 2m flake that needs to be mounted, as the 30cm gap between the flake and the wall is too narrow to squeeze into. Awkward, but good gear before the flake and after some struggling I’m over the flake and into the gap. One more good cam and through a greasy section to where a good anchor can be built with a hex and a slung horn. Great fun! Simon takes the next pitch and we finish on a broad grassy ledge, where I can get some photos of Ray and Vicky by leaning out on belay.
We finish by traversing left on the grassy ledge, which is fine to solo but very exposed, and then heading up to the top over steep and exposed, but very solid, scrambling terrain. After gaining the broad summit, we stroll down a grassy ridge past the ever-present grazing sheep. To our right is the beautiful and remote Duddon River valley, where according to Simon there is a one-pub town. The trail leads down an ancient road that runs from the Coniston valley, up and over a pass and down to the Duddon River valley.
Great route, and the weather lifted as promised! The clouds are clearing and the views in to the lush green valleys of farmland is tranquil and beautiful. In the distance is the Irish Sea. Simon and I take the scenic route down, while Ray and Vicky have taken a “wrong” turn and descended the gully to the boulder field, a shorter distance but without the views. We meet them at the junction of the two trails, at the head of the valley, and laugh over the different descent routes as we stroll back to the car. The sky is clearing and occasionally the sun even comes out, painting the lush landscape. Stunning!
My obsession with the beautiful craftsmanship of the stone walls crisscrossing the farmland has been a source of continuous humour for the locals this weekend. Now, thanks to the stunning light I finally manage to get the photos I’ve been wanting, while everybody else patiently lounges by the car.
Thanks, Ray, Vicky and Simon, for a fantastic weekend of adventures in your beautiful backyard!
Darren Foltinek, 2012.