Skiddaw and a birthday surprise (Lake District)

My recent holiday in the Lake District had been intentionally booked to coincide with my birthday.  And for a special treat I had decided that I would like to climb Scafell Pike.  There was just something that appealed to me about marking the occasion by climbing England's highest mountain.  When the day dawned, however, I had a change of heart.  Two days earlier, whilst climbing Haystacks, I'd managed to injure a toe.  Not enough to prevent me from walking, but nevertheless it was sufficiently painful to make me think twice about attempting an ascent of the rock-strewn Scafell Pike.  What I needed, I decided, was an easier climb to as high an altitude as possible.  Looking out of the bedroom window of our holiday flat, the answer was staring me in the face.

Many seasoned fell-walkers look upon Skiddaw with a certain amount of derision.  It may be the fourth highest mountain in the Lakes but, whilst it is a little steep in places, the main route upwards from Keswick is mostly undemanding.  This, coupled with the fact that it's easily accessible from the town centre, has resulted in it being considered more of a tourist attraction than a serious climb.   The direct route up from Keswick has become known as the "Tourist Path", along which many an inappropriately clad day-tripper has huffed and puffed their way to the top.  Popular it may be, but to me it's still a very beautiful mountain with a special place in my affections.   Whilst visiting family in Cumbria as a child I had gazed up to the summit in awe, never believing that one day I would be able to climb up there myself.   Over the ensuing years I've enjoyed walking around the Yorkshire Moors and Dales, but I still hadn't really gained the confidence to tackle the Lakeland fells.  Until, that is, last year when I laboured my way to the top of a densely cloud-covered Skiddaw and thereafter was able to place the first tick on the list accompanying my map of the "Wainwright Fells of the Lake District".   I have to admit it was something of a struggle, and the view had been non-existent, but even so I'd felt inordinately proud of myself. 

There remained, however, two items of unfinished business between myself and Skiddaw.   First there was that view.  I really wanted to see it.  And then there was the small matter of Skiddaw's "little brother", the slightly lower peak known as Little Man.  Last year we had avoided the slight diversion to this summit, partly because of the poor visibility and partly because I just wanted to focus on getting to the top.  I've since regretted this, particularly when looking at the space on my list where there really should have been a tick.

Early on the morning of my birthday, I looked out of the window as the first rays of sunlight hit the side of the mountain and my mind was firmly made up.  Skiddaw it was then!

Early morning light hits the summit of Skiddaw

There were several benefits attached to being able to walk straight out of our door and head off towards the mountain, not least of which was the fact that we could leave the car behind.  It was a little after 7 a.m. when we set off and, apart from the clatter of market traders setting up their stalls, the streets of Keswick were almost deserted.  A short walk out of town brought us to the bridleway known as Spoonygreen Lane and the first stage of our ascent.  Skiddaw dominated the skyline and, although some clouds had gathered since dawn, the summit looked pleasingly clear.

The start of our ascent

After crossing a footbridge over the A66, the path climbed steeply uphill through woodlands, curving around the edge of Latrigg.  Through a gap in the trees I could see that the summit was still cloud free and I was in high spirits, filled with anticipation of a fine view. 

The summit looks clear

All the while, across the fells, we could hear the sound of distant raised voices.   It sounded like some kind of heated argument and, the higher we climbed the more concerned I became, especially when the sound of a man's voice hollering "You stupid fat bitch" drifted down the mountainside.  It had been a lovely, peaceful morning so far.  I really didn't fancy having to walk through the middle of a domestic dispute or, worse still, to have to break up a fight.  As we climbed up the side of Lonscale Fell the tirade of bad language continued to drift towards us, interspersed with the bleating of sheep.  Now the source of the commotion became apparent and in the distance we could see a farmer struggling to group together a herd of sheep.  The "fat bitch" was evidently his collie which seemed to be misinterpreting every harshly worded instruction.   As our route uphill would take us right through his scattered flock, we decided to wait a while so as not to further increase the angry farmer's stress levels.  

The path gets steeper

Walking on for just a short distance brought us to the Lonscale shepherd's memorial, a Celtic cross positioned on the fellside in memory of Edward and Joseph Hawell, father and son, who were two 19th century Skiddaw shepherds.   The monument is inscribed as follows:-

In loving memory of
two Skiddaw shepherds
Edward Hawell.
Of Lonscale.
Born Octr 21st 1815
Died June 2nd 1889.
And his son
Joseph Hawell.
Of Lonscale.
Born Decr 24th 1854.
Died Feby 20th 1891.
Noted breeders of prize Herdwick sheep.
Great shepherd of thy heavenly flock
These men have left our hill
Their feet were on the living rock
Oh guide and bless them still

After my previous visit to Skiddaw I had learned that Joseph Hawell had died, aged just 36, as a result of tetanus following a visit to the dentist.  At the time I had considered his death ironic, believing he would surely have preferred to have met his end out on this peaceful fell, amongst his beloved flock.  This concept of a rural idyll was now shattered as the flow of expletives continued to drift in our direction.

Apart from the ranting shepherd it was a peaceful enough morning and it was good to have this beautiful spot to ourselves as we tactfully waited for the right moment to continue.  I was in no hurry as I gazed over to the south where clouds rolled over the distant fells and seemed to fill the valley bottom.

The shepherd's memorial

Eventually the shouting subsided and we could see that the farmer had finally grouped all his sheep together and was slowly shepherding them downhill.   He was passed by a lone female runner who gave him a wide berth and, as she approached us, stopped to take a drink.  Her face was flushed, whether from exertion or embarrassment I couldn't tell.

"Choice language from the farmer!" she remarked, before setting off to run on down the hill.  Not for the first time I marvelled at the ease with which a super fit fell runner can hurtle down such a steep gradient.

Now the only sound was the bleating of the sheep as they made their way downhill in an orderly manner, signalling that it was safe for us to continue our ascent.

The sheep head downhill

As the path became increasingly steeper , I remembered how I had struggled with this climb just ten months before.  Now it really didn't seem too bad at all.  Admittedly, I wasn't exactly sprinting uphill, but neither was I particularly out of breath.  There was a noticeable improvement in my fitness and I felt delighted to have had this chance to measure my progress.  Turning to look downhill, I could see the shepherd had his flock well under control now.  And I could also see that the Latrigg car park was beginning to fill with cars.  We would not have the mountain to ourselves for long.

Sheep under control

Below us the view was becoming increasingly magnificent, including the whole of Keswick with Derwent Water and the fells beyond.  It was a sight to be savoured and, as energised as I felt, this was not a climb to be hurried.

A glorious view

After a while the gradient decreased a little and ahead of us we could see that cloud had descended over the higher ground.  A pair of walkers approached us from out of the mist and we stopped to chat to them for a little while, remarking that they must have had a very early start.

"The cloud has only just come down," one of them told us.  "It won't hang around for long though.  I expect it will clear by the time you get to the top."

I hoped he was right.  A nice view was at the top of my birthday wish list!

The cloud descends

Our route now turned off the main path, climbing up to the summit of Little Man, a mountain with two summits, the first being known as "Lesser Man" which is marked with a curious cairn made from rocks and rusty iron bars.  I wasn't sure whether to regard this as a work of art or just a plain old mess.  In any event, there was no view to be had from within the cloud and so we didn't hang around, passing the less cluttered cairn atop Little Man before pressing on for the summit of Skiddaw.

The Lesser Man Cairn

The route from Little Man descended for a short distance before rejoining the main path for the final ascent to the top of Skiddaw.  The clouds lifted for a short time, revealing a hazier view of Derwent Water and a sunlit Keswick below.

Hazy view from Little Man

As we approached what I believed to be the summit of Skiddaw a man with two dogs overtook us and it was at this point that I made something of a discovery.   We were standing by a cairn where on our previous ascent, last September , I had celebrated the fact that I had reached the top and could add a tick against "Skiddaw" on my list of Wainwright fells conquered.  Only this wasn't, it turned out, the summit at all.  As the man with the dogs kept on going, I suddenly realised that the true summit was some distance further along and was marked by, not only a cairn, but also a triangulation point.  On this day - my birthday - I had actually properly climbed Skiddaw for the very first time!

Last September....I thought I was at the top!

The clouds began to lift a little, revealing a misty view, and another walker kindly took a photograph of Tom and I together, looking windswept but happy by the cairn marking the official summit of Skiddaw.

The proper summit this time!

Below the mountain lay a patchwork of fields leading to the northern edge of Bassenthwaite Lake and in the distance we could just make out the hazy outline of the Solway Firth and the mountains of south-west Scotland.

Bassenthwaite Lake

The geology of the Skiddaw massif is fundamentally different to all the other Lakeland fells.  Whilst they are mostly volcanic in origin, Skiddaw Slate is formed from marine deposits, confirming that it is in fact a great deal older than any other mountain group in the Lake District.  The mountain's main north to south ridge exceeds 3,000 feet for its entire length of half a mile and the cloud began to clear all the while as we traversed the ridge to its northernmost edge. 

From this altitude the landscape to the north looked flattened.  It was almost like a clear demarcation point for the beginning (or end) of the Lake District.

Looking north

Glancing at my watch I was surprised to see that our ascent, including stops, had only taken a couple of hours.  It was a little after 9 a.m. and I was enjoying myself so much I wanted to continue.  Originally we had planned to simply turn around and walk back down by the same route we had ascended, but that felt like something of an anti climax.  And my toe wasn't bothering me at all.  After studying the map we decided to descend via the northern path, along an area known as Birkett Edge, which would also enable me to bag another Wainwright on the way down, known as Bakestall.  From that point we would descend to join the course of the Cumbrian Way which would lead us back in the direction of Latrigg.  This turned out to be an excellent decision and what followed was a wonderful walk, starting with a relatively gentle descent.

A gentle descent

Apart from the occasional steep section, mostly this route of descent was very easy and comfortable.  Here the Skiddaw Slate gave way to pleasant green fells and delightful views over the valley beyond.

Back o'Skiddaw from Birkett Edge

At the foot of Birkett Edge we crossed a stream known as Dash Beck.  To the north patches of sunlight were illuminating the landscape towards the Uldale Fells.

Dash Beck

Sitting by the side of the track was a large group of teenage girls with rucksacks, enjoying a rest break in the sunshine.  We were now on the Cumbrian Way, a long distance route of 70 miles which runs from Ulverston in the south to Carlisle in the north and along the way passes through some of the very finest scenery Lakeland has to offer.  As we headed south along the even surfaced track, the sound of the girls' laughter faded behind us and gave way to almost total silence. 

On the map this area is known as Skiddaw Forest, although in actual fact it is more of a wilderness, with not a tree to be seen.  This is because in this instance the word "forest" doesn't refer to a woodland in the popular sense, but rather it is an antiquated term, referring to the land's ancient status as a hunting reserve.  Known locally as "back o' Skiddaw", the mountain seems far less imposing from this aspect, with rolling heather-clad slopes and large areas of bog.

Skiddaw Forest

The route of the Cumbrian Way stretched out clearly before us, dipping down before ascending below the prominent peak of Lonscale Fell.  Ahead we could see a belt of coniferous trees sheltering Skiddaw House, a former keeper's lodge built circa 1829 which is now a Youth Hostel bunkhouse (the highest in Britain).

Towards Skiddaw House on the Cumbrian Way

Crossing a footbridge, we paused for a while to admire the view over to the north side of Blencathra.  It was easy to forget that we were still at an altitude of approximately 1,500 feet,  and therefore neither Skiddaw nor Blencathra appeared especially daunting from this angle.

The back of Blencathra

From Skiddaw House the route of the Cumbrian Way skirted round the edge of Lonscale Fell, from where we were treated to magnificent views down the Vale of St John to the distant Helvellyn range.

Along the side of Lonscale Fell

To the east we could see people on a path along the side of Blease Fell, where a sparkling stream flowed downhill to join Glenderaterra Beck.

Blease Fell

After turning the corner around Lonscale Fell we were heading towards Latrigg, beyond which we once again could see Derwent Water and the fells beyond.  It was now a glorious afternoon, the day was still fairly young and the temperature was soaring.

Heading back towards Latrigg

Our route began to descend now, passing over White Beck, a stream which runs downhill just below the shepherds' memorial.  I stood for a while here, enjoying the juxtaposition of water, trees, bracken and distant mountains.  Our walk was coming to an end and although my feet were aching a little, I could have stayed out here a lot longer.

White Beck

Keswick came into view as we descended through the bracken and my thoughts began to turn towards ice cream.  Was it too much to hope, I wondered, that there would be an ice cream van in the car park by the foot of Latrigg?  As we approached the car park I could see that my wish was about to be granted and I was soon enjoying a strawberry Cornetto, as we slowly descended onto Spoonygreen Lane.  My feet were starting to ache and a quick check on the GPS device revealed that we had walked a distance of just over 15 miles in total, including an ascent of 3,050 feet.  No wonder that ice cream tasted so good!

Returning to Keswick

Back in Keswick we crossed the River Greta along the banks of which people lay basking in the afternoon sun.  Most of the afternoon still stretched before us and the shops of Keswick awaited me, to be followed by a superb Italian meal at Bel Cibo (a restaurant I can highly recommend).  It had been one of the best birthdays ever, thanks in no small part to Skiddaw, a mountain which will always remain a fond favourite.

River Greta, Keswick

Coming soon... We return to the North York Moors for a walk from Kirbymoorside to Gillamoor and Kirkdale.


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