It was less than a month after our week in Keswick and I was missing the mountains. I desperately wanted to climb again. To feel the pull in my leg muscles, to experience the heat and the breathlessness and to push on, ever upwards, ignoring the fatigue, consciously regulating my breathing until I reach the summit, knowing all the while that I'm fitter than I've ever been in my life. And then I wanted a view. A sweeping panorama of lakes and mountains, forests and the distant sea. And then, after all of that, I wanted a really, really nice pint of beer.
When I was very young, on a family holiday in the Lakes, we'd spent a day at Coniston. It was the year after Donald Campbell had somersaulted "Bluebird" to his watery grave. At the time all subsequent attempts to find his body had failed. As we swam in the lake I recall my father calling out "I'll bet that's why they haven't found him", and I had looked at the water surrounding me, cloudy with thousands of minuscule, nibbling fishes. I can still remember my father's laughter as I ran from the lake, shrieking "Mummy, I'm being eaten alive". Later that same day we had walked a short way up the steep, grassy slopes beneath the Old Man of Coniston. As we had turned to look at the view of the lake below, with childish daring, disregard for consequences and, some would say, complete stupidity, I had decided to see how quickly I could run back down to the foot of the hill. It was exhilarating to begin with, running like the wind, until my legs had gained an unstoppable momentum and then gave way, pitching me into a tumble and then a slide, face first, right down to the very bottom. The sight of my split lip, gashed nose and black eye had later reduced my grandmother to tears. "Her face!" she had cried, to which my father had responded, with his typical dry wit "Serves her right for trying to plough up the Old Man of Coniston with her nose".
The Old Man of Coniston. A return visit was long overdue, I decided. At 2,634 feet it's a respectable climb. And the fact that the village of Coniston boasts a pub with its very own brewery was a definite added bonus.
The Black Bull Inn is home to the Coniston Brewing Company and, after a quick visit to their website, I was delighted to be able to book a room just a couple of weeks in advance of our next free weekend. As the weekend grew closer, however, the weather forecast grew increasingly bleaker. High winds and torrential rain seemed almost inevitable. Our original plan had been to drive to Ambleside on the Saturday morning, climb a relatively low fell, such as Loughrigg, and then drive on to Coniston, with our climb of the Old Man scheduled for Sunday. By Thursday the forecasts predicted the worst of the weather for Sunday, although it appeared that Saturday would be fine, if a little windy. Certainly it would be the best day for our proposed ascent of the Old Man. I made a snap decision and booked the last available room for Friday night at the Days Inn by the M6 between Sedbergh and Kendal. I was able to leave the office early on Friday, enabling us to drive through the Dales for supper at the Wensleydale Pantry in Hawes before continuing on to the Days Inn. The room was cheap, clean and comfortable. The price didn't include breakfast, but that suited our needs perfectly and so on the Saturday morning we arrived in Coniston a little before 9 a.m. The day was bright and sunny with only a hint of a breeze on the lower ground. As we left the Coniston village car park, however, a dark bank of cloud was rolling in over the fells.
Our intention was to complete a circular walk, which would include not only the Old Man but also two further "Wainwrights" - Swirl Howe and Wetherlam - before descending back into Coniston. As we set off up the track which left the village by the side of The Sun public house, we could see the cloud hanging low over the mountain top.
As we climbed all the while, by our side, the Church Beck flowed and cascaded its way downhill. A small waterfall appeared with a very enticing pool which, on a warmer day, I could imagine would be a delightfully refreshing place to have a splash about. Part of me wanted to go and dangle my feet in it, although I realised that the water would be extremely cold.
The stony path continued to climb steadily by the side of the beck until suddenly the landscape opened up before us to reveal Coppermines Valley, a deep basin cut into the side of the Coniston Fells. As the name suggests, this was once the site of extensive mining, which started after the discovery of rich seams of copper ore in the late 16th century. Copper mining continued for over 300 years until the closure of the mines in 1915, which was brought about due to falling prices and fierce competition from overseas. At the height of their productivity, the Coniston mines were believed to be the largest copper mines in Britain, with a vertical distance of around 2,000 ft. Today, however, the valley is relatively peaceful, the former copper mine buildings being used as a Youth Hostel and various holiday cottages. As we gradually climbed up the path and along the side of the valley the only sounds we could hear came from a group of people walking by the other side of the beck.
Occasionally a stray shaft of sunlight would illuminate the higher ground, giving me hope that the cloud may burn away and we might enjoy a clear view from the summit. It was wishful thinking though and the sunlight disappeared again, leaving the mountain tops cloaked in murk. Undeterred, we continued to ascend.
More and more of Coniston Water became visible as we gained higher ground and we paused to have a rest and to enjoy the view. From here we could see the distinctive ribbon shape of the lake, which sits in a deep U-shaped valley, formed by glaciation during the last Ice Age. At five miles long and half a mile wide, it is the third largest body of water in the Lake District and has a maximum depth of 184 feet.
Now the path became increasingly rougher with a surface of loose slate fragments. We were approaching the site of the former slate mines, evidence of which lay scattered all around us.
There have been quarries on the Old Man since at least the 16th century with high demand for the grey volcanic slate which was predominantly used as a roofing material. In 1859 a railway was constructed to transport slate and copper from Coniston and, with the closure of the mines, this was later used to transport tourists, until its closure in 1964. The remains of mining equipment and spoil heaps littered the path and ahead of us two thick steel cables crossed our route, protruding from a neatly stacked wall of slate. Getting past the cables entailed either ducking or performing a kind of limbo dance after which the path turned a corner and climbed up to a plateau.
Here the signs of industry spread around the ruins of an abandoned building. Slate debris lay strewn across the ground where cables and rails jutted about at all angles. A beam of sunlight struck the fells beyond. It was eerily beautiful and evocative. Industrial history mixed with natural splendour.
I have a particular fondness for old ruins, particularly those found in incongruous or bleak places such as this. It was therefore something of an effort to tear myself away. I could have stayed there for hours, photographing different angles and the changing light. There were the shells of neatly constructed buildings with rusted steel girders.
And rail tracks with steel cables (the same ones we had recently ducked beneath).
A little further up the mountainside we discovered more ruins, with open entrances to deep mining shafts.
An attempt had been made to block the entrances to some of the shafts, although I was still able to peer deep within, into the very depths of the mountain. I had no desire whatsoever to venture inside though. Caving is definitely not something that appeals to me, although I understand some caving groups do organise trips into some of the mine shafts. I'm not keen on confined spaces at all. Give me the open mountain tops any day!
I spent a while longer at this higher, second set of ruins, photographing doorways, arches and various mining debris, but soon had to move on. All the while we had tarried a steady stream of people had passed us by on the ascent. A climb of the Old Man, it seems, is one of the main features of any visit to Coniston, and by now it was getting pretty crowded.
The path climbed steeply upwards, away from the mine ruins and closer to the summit which was now heavily shrouded in ominous dark cloud.
Suddenly we found ourselves by the side of a beautiful little tarn. This was Low Water, a tarn I had noticed on my map when planning our route but which I had completely forgotten about in my enthusiasm for the ruins. Now it took me by surprise and I called out in delight "Oohhh... a tarn!", to the quizzical glances of the people gathered by its shore.
We walked down to the water's edge for a closer look and then, as we retraced our steps back to the path, a group of walkers dashed by us, one of them screeching with laughter, removing clothing as he ran. Not wishing to intrude, we continued with our ascent. It began to rain then and as we stopped to put on our waterproofs I could see that the man was swimming out into the centre of the tarn, to the great amusement of his companions.
Onwards and upwards, the path snaked its way above Low Water and I stopped for a while to photograph an aerial view, the clouds thickening around us. A man approached us on his way down through the mist and stopped for a chat as he drew level with us on the path.
"Which way are you heading?" he asked us. And then, when I described our intended route he added, "I wouldn't recommend it. The wind up there is strong enough to blow you off your feet."
I shuddered at the thought, memories of Great Gable still all too clear.
"If I were you," he continued, "I'd take the path down from the summit, off to the left. It will take you back down via Goats Water which will be much more sheltered. I wouldn't advise continuing to Wetherlam in such conditions."
We thanked him and he continued on his descent, stopping to impart the same advice to the next group of walkers he passed. We noticed he had been carrying a two-way radio and wondered if he was some kind of ranger or member of a mountain rescue team. With that in mind, and thoughts of the forecast of an approaching hurricane, we decided it would be wise to heed his warning.
As the summit drew nearer the clouds parted momentarily to reveal a view of Coniston village, bathed in a patch of sunlight. It was our last view before the murky depths of cloud enveloped us completely.
And then, suddenly it seemed, there we were - on the summit. We took turns to pose for photos by the cairn, cloaked in mist, the murkiness giving a false impression of solitude, the thickness of the cloud belying the popularity of the place.
It was getting close to midday and people were flocking up the mountain, looming out of the mist from all directions. No one hung around on the summit for long though. There was no view to be had and the combination of dense cloud and a brisk wind meant that it was a good few degrees colder than the lower ground. The wind, however, was nowhere near as strong as it had been when we had climbed Great Gable. Up there I'd fought (and lost!) the battle to stay on my feet. By comparison, this was a breeze. We pondered for a while, whether to continue with the route we'd originally planned, round to Swirl Howe and Wetherlam, but it was impossible to tell what lay ahead from within the thick cloud cover. Erring on the side of caution, we set off in search of the route suggested by the man with the walkie-talkie.
Soon we spotted a path off to the left and followed it steeply downhill. The cloud began to slowly drift apart before us, revealing a shimmer of water and then, as the mist thinned, the shape of a tarn emerged in the gorge below. This was Goats Water, an elongated tarn with a depth of around 50 feet, which contains trout and char.
The path down to the shores of Goats Water was steep and rocky. And it was so busy! A steady procession of people clambered up the path and our descent involved frequently having to step to one side to allow them to pass. Some of them were clearly seasoned fell walkers, appropriately clad and stepping almost effortlessly upwards. And many more approached us red-faced and breathless as they wheezed past, enquiring anxiously "Is it much further to the top?". As we approached the shores of Goats Water we left the clouds and crowds behind and the sun began to break through again.
At the head of Goats Water the path wound down through large rocks and boulders, with a sweeping panorama all the way across to Morecambe Bay. We rested a while and removed our waterproofs. The temperature had risen considerably.
At the foot of the hill we joined a single track lane known as Walna Scar Road which would lead us back into Coniston village. Now the sun was shining brightly as we followed the track, winding its way through the bracken.
As we walked along the lane towards Coniston I looked across to the Old Man and the Coniston fells, bathed in sunlight with the very lightest of cloud cover, and I cursed at our timing. If we were to set off now, I thought, we would enjoy a cloud free summit and a truly magnificent view. For a brief moment I contemplated turning around and retracing our steps. But then I thought about the Black Bull Inn and its brewery. We just had to retrieve our luggage, check in and then the sampling could begin. Climb the mountain again or put my feet up with a pint of beer? It was a no-brainer!
Later that afternoon, having acquainted ourselves with the Coniston Brewing Company's truly outstanding Old Man Ale, we wandered down to the shores of Coniston Water. There wasn't a breath of wind and barely a cloud in the sky as we sat on a bench, enjoying an ice cream and watching boats coming and going from the pier. This had been a weekend of poor timing, I thought. The threat of Hurricane Bertha had persuaded me to climb the Old Man a day earlier than planned and, in my eagerness to get up there before the weather broke, we had missed the best of it.
Ultimately though, the forecast hadn't been entirely inaccurate. On Sunday it rained, from dawn to dusk and so, for us, walking was out of the question. Instead we visited the excellent Ruskin Museum, where I spent a highly enjoyable couple of hours learning about Coniston's mining heritage and the fascinating story of Donald Campbell's "Bluebird", his death and the search for his body, which was finally found in May 2001 and lain to rest in Coniston cemetery. Later that day we hired a boat and sailed down the lake to beyond the crash site, at a speed we calculated was approximately 1/100th of that attained by Campbell before Bluebird had hovered, flipped over and Campbell had shouted his final words "I've got the bows out....I'm going....."
Our weekend in Coniston hadn't been exactly as intended. If anything, it had been better. The museum, the lake and the shops had kept us occupied for the entire rainy Sunday. And the beer and food at the Black Bull was excellent. I'm sure we will return one day and complete the walk we originally planned, but if a future visit should coincide with a hurricane, I certainly wouldn't object to being holed up in the Black Bull Inn.
Coming soon... A walk through the flowering heather of the North York Moors, between Rosedale and Lastingham.