We’d worked out our walking plans for our Keswick holiday 2012 well in advance, courtesy of Wainwright, Trailzilla, the AA, and the North Lakes Landranger OS map. First day: Catbells, Maiden Moor and High Spy, so that we’d be able to see our objectives for the second: Green Gable, Great Gable and Kirk Fell. Those plans truly were the best laid. There were two things we noticed on arrival on Saturday: firstly, that on a hot sunny afternoon, everyone had their waterproofs tied round their waists, and there were a lot of wellies; secondly, the four teenagers next to us in Otley Road car park. “I’ll be alright wearing this, won’t I?” “No! You need a waterproof! The weather can change AT ANY MINUTE!” We saw them later, coming out of Hope Park. With their frisbee.
Sunday started well: the forecast said we’d have a clear morning, and that rain would come in later, and it was clear, dry and warm going up Catbells with pretty much everyone else. There was the couple we kept leapfrogging as we stopped ‘to admire the view’, the youth group with the entertaining motivational chant, the family with a lot of juniors who seemed to appreciate the “Well done, kids!” as we reached the shoulder. The feeling of being among all the people increased as we heard tell of the lads who had set up a tent café on the summit – an inspired bit of enterprise there, selling bacon butties to raise funds for an expedition. Good job I hadn’t left my wallet in the car.
But that’s not why you go up, and we were keen to press on past the normal path back down towards Derwentwater, heading up to Maiden Moor. This was our first experience this year of the interchangeability of paths and streams – quite a lot of water on the ground… Didn’t quite make it to the highest point, or to look down into Newlands over Bull Crag, but I’m still claiming the Wainwright. At the rate I’m going, I need to.
By now, the people had gone – when you’re on the obscure one next door to the glamorous famous one, there are no more families, just fortysomething couples. Fair enough. When you’ve done that much organisation to achieve a break from family life, you might as well head off and spend your days on squelchy hilltop moorland in the drizzle. It was the afternoon now. The rain was coming in.
It did hold off as we got to High Spy. The people had reappeared: three of them taking photos next to the cairn, so we settled down for lunch on a nearby rock, naming this as ‘Pasty Point’ for the day (following Skiddaw Lesser Man, Skiddaw itself, and two very wet spots under Derwentwater trees, from previous years). This did mean that we went off-path for a few hundred metres, thus establishing clearly why paths are important in wet weather. There is a lot of squelchy moss on the top of High Spy. And sheep. Who scorn you. But we did see the fells south of the Honister Road. And they did look fantastic.
It was on the way down that the rain gradually started to kick in; I’d call the path scree-filled if I didn’t need to save that for Aaron Slack on Day 2 – it was a really interesting route down between the old slate mines of Rigghead, with signs of transport rails. Big contrast from the felltops.
As we reached the bottom, we looked at Castle Crag and decided not to indulge in the extension task of going up it. It was now that I broke the news that we were 7km from the car, and the clouds were lowering. Still, it had been a better day than the previous one for the four mountain bikers we saw: “Yeah, I felt like a salmon going up yesterday.” It was a good choice, as before long, the heavens opened. Another long, wet road trudge along Derwentwater? Ambassador, you’re spoiling us. Still, better that than the couple the next day who took the path down between Maiden Moor and High Spy and needed to call out Mountain Rescue to get them off Nitting Haws.
Monday. Started off a bit grey, but was, apparently, going to clear later on. Hmm. Just the day for Green Gable, Great Gable and possibly Kirk Fell, starting from Seathwaite. Seathwaite is apparently the wettest inhabited place in England. It says so, repeatedly, in Wainwright. Hung about in the car when we got there, waiting for the rain to stop. And it did. So off we went. Up the side of a waterfall.
It was generally dry as we got up Sour Milk Gill to Gillercomb, where a coffee break allowed us to see the sun shining over the fells at the other end of Borrowdale, in a “This is what you could have won!” moment. Above us, a ceiling of cloud. Could see the top of Base Brown. Not so much Brandreth. But it was going to clear later, so we headed up the hanging valley into the clouds.
It was as we reached the ridge from Base Brown to Green Gable that I remembered the effect that cloud has on me in the hills when I’m the navigator. I go very very quiet. And I become absolutely sure that, just out of my field of vision, there are VERTIGINOUS CRAGS OF DEATH and THE WIND WILL BLOW US OFF THEM. This is a bit wet, I admit. There wasn’t much wind. Nonetheless, I have not yet featured on a Mountain Rescue incident list, and I am happy with this.
Anyway, we made it to the top of Green Gable, with sheep scorning us on the way. There were no views. Nothing whatsoever. Just a bunch of rocks. So we went down the other side, towards Windy Gap, where we met a couple staying in Wasdale who were taking the line that, although there was a good path, Great Gable would be a waste of effort. My fog head was fine with this. Still no wind, mind.
Some way down the slippery slip that is Aaron Slack, we emerged from the cloud, looking down over Sty Head. Not much of an exaggeration to say that this was welcomed like an oasis – being able to see anything at all was quite high on our to-do list, and Styhead Tarn is something of a stunner. And, suddenly, there were the people again. We particularly liked the group doing the Mo on top of the stretcher box.
The new plan was to head across to the foot of Seathwaite Fell and see if we could see Gable from there, still hoping the clouds would clear up later. They didn’t, but by the time we got down, we’d been distracted by the path to Wasdale, and headed over in that direction. This was where the wind was, by the way – as soon as we were over Styhead, it was like being pushed in the face by a great big hand. Of wind. But Wasdale looked fantastic – a completely different valley from Borrowdale. Tempting – but, with heavy heart, we turned back. Did we see Gable? The Pike? The top of Lingmell? Nope.
Back down the Stockley Bridge path to Seathwaite, we were already hatching plans for 2013, while noting just how much like Hobbiton it all looked. We think we’ll go at Gable from the Honister Pass on Day One next time, and follow it up with the Styhead – Corridor – Pike – Esk Hause loop the next. In case of cloud, please make way around Buttermere and / or Crummock Water.
All that remained was the drive home. Not wishing to be defeated, we decided to take a different route from Keswick to Grasmere. Via Wasdale. And Hardknott Pass. And Wrynose Pass. This was basically taking the Astra fell walking (good job it was a week later that the battery gave out…), and a bit mental, but it did mean that, just for a minute, when the clouds lifted just far enough, and we were standing at Wasdale Head, Gable looked down at us, winked, and said, “Same time next year?”