Saturday, 30 June 2012

Not a good sign...

Pavey Ark from Stickle Tarn - Jack's Rake is the
diagonal line running up the front.
A bit of a different blog this time, prompted by a story in this week's Westmorland Gazette.  Within the space of one week, two people unfortunately lost their lives falling from Jack's Rake in Great Langdale.  These deaths are unbelievably tragic and clearly our sympathies are with their families; heaven knows how you cope when something like this happens.  In the wake of these tragedies there has been a call for warning signs to be placed on the more dangerous routes within the Lake District, and this has stirred up a bit of a hornet's nest in some quarters.

Tragic though these events are I'm afraid I'm wholly against the idea of warning signs being placed on dangerous fells for two main reasons; first of all the Lake District is a National Park and should not be cluttered up with unnecessary signage and secondly, even if there were signs I'm pretty sure people would ignore them anyway, or see it as an even greater "badge of honour" to flout the warnings.  People ignore signs every single day; "Smoking Kills", "Keep off the Grass", "No Parking" and "30MPH" to name but a few.  Signs like these are perceived as being for "other people" and not for whomever is reading them who will, no doubt, justify their reasons for ignoring them in some way or another.

Striding Edge
I've said my piece about signs before in my work blog, I genuinely think that one of the main reasons that so many signs are ignored is because there are so many of them to begin with, my previous rant was prompted by a trip to a toilet which involved 8 different signs telling me what to do.  In a society which is becoming more and more reliant upon signs to tell us what we can and can't do, we're in danger of losing the ability to think for ourselves and in the fells, that can be very dangerous.

I also think it's very important to keep things in perspective.  The second fell I ever climbed was Helvellyn and we went up via Striding Edge, another notorious route where there have been many deaths; we were pretty inexperienced but were aware of the dangers so waited for good weather and took things very steady, along with the several hundred other people on the route the same day.  Recently I was speaking with a neighbour who told me that, during one ascent of Striding Edge, his party sat and ate lunch near the final approach and counted over 1000 people going past in the space of an hour.  So let's do the maths; lets say that was an average figure for the peak ascent times of roughly 11am - 2pm, so that's 3000 people per day, now let's say there were 5 good climbing days that week, that makes 15,000 for the week and roughly 60,000 for the month.  Even if that only happened for 4 months of the year we're already getting on for nearly 1/4 million people.  (No wonder Fix the Fells are so busy!).  Tragic though it is, statistically speaking, with those kinds of numbers there will be casualties.
Sharp Edge; another notorious route.

Many moons ago my job called for me to work with TRL (Transport Research Laboratory) , these guys know all there is to know about road traffic accident and investigation and they told me that the thing they'd found which was most likely to encourage someone to reduce their speed was not a warning sign but a roadside memorial; a sharp reminder of our own mortality.  I know on our ascent of Striding Edge the memorials certainly reminded us to stay focused.  TRL were passionate about the need for appropriate signage and fully understood the problems caused by too many signs, or unclear or confusing instructions.

Warning signs appear to do very little to warn people.  Currently every car park and access point to Morecambe Bay has large warning signs regarding the dangerous sands and fast tides, and yet over one weekend in May 33 people required rescuing.  On the other side of the country, anyone who's ever visited Lindisfarne will know that every single shop, car park and tourist attraction carries warnings about the causeway and every year people ignore them and get caught out.

Following any tragic event everyone involved will look back and think how things could have been done differently, or how the same thing could be prevented from happening in the future, and it's important that we learn lessons where we can.  But the sad fact is that life is tragic. Millions of people visit the fells each year and sadly some of them get injured and a few will die.  If you stick to the safe routes you're likely to remain safe, if you tackle a more dangerous route the risk factor rises.  I'm not suggesting that the people involved in these tragedies did anything reckless or foolish, I just honestly don't think that warning signs are the answer.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

High Spy with my little eye...

Skelgill Bank with Bassenthwaite Lake behind.
Oh come on - I couldn't write a blog about an ascent of High Spy without going for the obvious pun now could I?  Last weekend had been booked in the diary for a couple of months; my cousin Esther was visiting Keswick and had asked if I'd take her on a proper fell walk and I was, of course, only too happy to oblige.  It tied in perfectly with some friends who were also visiting Keswick and so it was all agreed; hiking on Saturday followed by lunch with friends on Sunday.  And then the weather intervened...

We'd decided to take Delores up and camp for a few nights to save us the one hour each way drive but as we drove through the biblical downpour on Friday evening the plan seemed rather less brilliant.  We found the site and parked up easily enough, but as we sat huddled in the van listening to the rain drilling holes in the roof we couldn't help remembering that there was a perfectly good house fewer than 60 minutes drive away. I poured myself a large glass of wine to rule out any possibility of a break for the south.  The next morning didn't so much dawn as bubble to the surface, with the pouring rain now being given a little more "oomph" by the prevailing gale.  I called Esther and agreed to postpone the maiden hike until Sunday and we instead spent the afternoon tucked up snug and dry eating cake and drinking tea (or "carbo loading" as I like to think of it) with our good friends Caz & Ian.
On the top of Catbells

I'd like to tell you that Sunday arrived a little more quietly than Saturday did, but the thing is we'd camped on a working farm.  Now this may sound very "Famous Five" but the reality is our hardworking farmers are up bright and early 7 days a week and the combined chorus of dogs, chickens, cows and sheep had Steve convinced we were in the middle of a real time re-enactment of "Old MacDonald had a farm".  There was a definite "swear, swear here" coming from Steve's side of the bed at 5am.

Having stuffed the rucksack with just about every available foodstuff we owned we headed off to collect Esther.  I was very mindful of the fact that on this walk I wouldn't have the luxury of bickering with Steve about which path we should take; I was going to have to be responsible for an inexperienced hiker so, mindful of this fact, I packed an extra pack of peanut M&Ms in case of emergencies.  Steve deposited us at the foot of Catbells and we were off!

Views back up the valley to Dale Head
I would say it's pretty much impossible to get lost on the ascent of Catbells, but I'm sure someone will have managed it.  There was a steady stream of people pouring up the hill and, despite her concerns, Esther was keeping up a cracking pace and we were soon getting our breath back as we sauntered along Skelgill Bank. The last push up onto Catbells is a pleasing scramble.  Well it is if you follow me.  If you follow my rather more sensible cousin you'll find there's a good path up through most of the rocks.  We reached the top where we were greeted with a lively breeze and a little heavy "mountain dew" (I refused to concede it was raining) so we layered up and headed for Maiden Moor.  By now Esther was smitten and as each new peak or ridge came into view she added it to her list of "must climbs".  Don't blame me, blame the fells.

We fair roared up Maiden Moor propelled by a fine lunch and a couple of Snickers.  As it was Esther's first proper hike I was trying not to overdo things, but we're clearly bred from the same stock; once she spotted the path to High Spy there was no stopping her, and I hadn't entirely ruled out Dale Head and Hindscarth as our return route.  As we breezed over the top of High Spy however we settled on a return trek along the valley, following the Gill from Dalehead Tarn all the way back to Skelgill.  It's a wonderful route with an easy descent and spectacular crags and waterfalls along the way - looking all the more impressive following the previous day's deluge.

As we made our way through Little Town we encountered a couple of very friendly horses who were keen to say hello.  I never mind them when they're the other side of a nice big wall, but generally give them a wide berth if I have to cross their field.  The path from there to Skelgill is very pretty and I noted several houses I planned on buying when I next win the lottery.  At least when I next win more than £10 anyway.  I have to confess that by now we were tiring and, despite shoveling in a few handfuls of M&Ms, we were very glad when Steve found us along the road in Portinscale, thus saving us the final 1 1/2 miles back into Keswick.

By the end of the hike the skies had cleared and the weather was on its very best behaviour with the nearby fells all clamouring for our attention.  All around us tired hikers were making their way back to their digs with full cameras, empty stomachs and heavy legs, but none of us was too tired to re-tell the tales of the days adventures, accompanied by a cold pint, a hot dinner and a great big grin.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Wigan Wanderers

Blame Lesley; she was a good friend when I was at University and she came from Wigan.  She spoke with a wonderful Wigan accent and told me all about Wigan Pier.  I'm a huge fan of piers both big and small; Bognor, Brighton, Blackpool, Aberystwyth etc. and was fascinated by the idea of a landlocked pier in the middle of an industrial northern town so Wigan Pier became firmly lodged on my "to do" list and was finally crossed off last Sunday.  It wasn't quite what I expected.

Wigan Pier.  All of it.
Our acceptance of an invite to dinner and accompanying room for the night from friends in Wigan came with a proviso from me; could I see the Pier the next day?  "No problem" came the reply and I was set.  Overnight bag packed, including camera, and a vow not to get too intoxicated lest my hangover spoiled the experience.   Following a most enjoyable evening (and an introduction to slow cookers which merits a separate blog all of its own), we awoke bright and early(ish) and ready for our adventure.  After a spectacular breakfast provided by our generous hosts off we set.

We initially headed for downtown Wigan but veered off just before the high street and parked near an old steam museum and converted apartment blocks.  To be fair the stroll along the tow-path to the pier and the surrounding canalside area are nice enough and made for a very pleasant Sunday morning walk, but the pier itself is long gone.  All that remains is a slight hump in the tow-path and the two iron rails you can see in the photo.

She wasn't impressed either.
Apparently this is where the coal was tipped into waiting barges and it used to be considerably larger.  It's reputation has traveled far and wide thanks mainly to the combined efforts of Georges Orwell and Formby making the pier larger in fiction than it is in fact.  Apparently there used to be a museum choc full of the local history but that too is now nothing more than a deserted building, probably the result of cutbacks or a lack of popularity.  Admittedly Wigan Pier isn't the stuff of dreams or thrilling adventures, but it's an important part of the local history and sad to see it so unloved.

The route to the summit.
Leaving our wonderful hosts to enjoy the rest of what was turning out to be a lovely sunny Sunday we headed for nearby Rivington Pike.  If you've ever zoomed past Bolton on the M61 or chuffed though Horwich Parkway station you'll have seen Rivington Pike; it's that big hill with the house on top.  Parking was easy enough to find and, lacking a map of the area, we followed a rather nice walk from the AA website which took in the Pike plus a good dollop of Lever Park.  The park was absolutely heaving with people but the AA route took us along some pleasingly quiet paths as it wound its way past a reservoir and a castle and on to the summit.

Rivington Pike (and fancy camera setting!)
The reservoir has a typical "flooded" village story and these days supplies the good people of Liverpool and the castle was the work of Lord Leverhulme who owned the land and in 1902 donated it to the people of Bolton.  The castle gives a great vantage point over the reservoir and is fab for kids (of all ages!) to run around and explore.  In comparison to our usual weekend excursions this was very straightforward but clearly not everyone is up for the walk to the top, as we passed one family near the castle the guy turned to his lady friend, pointed to the Pike and asked "D'you reckon we could drive up thurr?"

The views from the summit are very lovely but it was the walk back down that we found most interesting.  It weaves its way past a lovely dovecote/ pigeon tower (depending on how posh you are) and down through the remains of Lord Leverhulmes terraced gardens.  I knew nothing of the history of the place beforehand, but since reading up on it for this blog I've become rather fond of Lord Leverhulme; he was the founder of Lever Brothers, was clearly a very wealthy man, and he gave the park (and many other things including a school) to the people of Bolton but he was also everso slightly bonkers, a quality I find utterly endearing.  The gardens are full of intriguing nooks and crannies which would take many years to fully explore; it's just a shame they can't be restored to their full glory.  There's some fabulous pictures and more on the history on this website, definitely worth a look if you're interested in the area.
Dovecote/ Pigeon Tower

As we made our way back towards the car I told Steve that if I won the lottery I'd fix the gardens and make them fabulous again.  His answer suggested that, in his view, Lord Leverhulme was not the only everso slightly bonkers person around.  There's no pleasing some people.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Hampsfell Jubilee Beacon

The crowds heading up
We haven't really done a lot of Jubilee stuff; there haven't been any street parties around here and on a busy bank holiday it's best not to take your car too far unless you have a fondness for sitting in traffic jams.  We did buy ourselves a rather sweet Union Jack tray but that's been about as festive as we've got.  Having spotted a piece on the news about the lighting of the beacons we figured there must be plenty of that going on around here so looked up the nearest one; turns out it was at the end of the road so no excuses!  We had toyed with the idea of Scarfell Pike or The Old Man, both of which also had beacons, but my dodgy back sadly precluded them though, as it turns out, that was a good thing.

Hospice & fells
Tearing ourselves away from Kylie, who'd just taken to the stage in the Jubilee concert, we headed upwards with light backpacks wondering what awaited us.  Having never been to a beacon lighting before we weren't too sure what to expect, apart from a bonfire obviously.  The main route up Hampsfell runs along our back garden and we'd not noticed crowds of people swarming by so we were beginning to wonder if it had been cancelled.  Up at the Hospice we noticed a dozen or so other people all hanging around looking bemused but, more importantly, we noticed there was no bonfire.  Eventually someone mentioned that the actual beacon was at Fell End rather than the Hospice and about 5 minutes later it sprung into life.  Oh, that's what the big "beacon" symbol on the map meant...

Birkrigg Beacon
We hung around at the Hospice for a while watching the beacons lighting up all around; Birkrigg, Black Combe, The Old Man, Arnside, Morecambe and about half a dozen others we were struggling to place in the darkness.  Some were accompanied by fireworks while others, like the one on The Old Man, appeared rather more modest affairs, presumably due to the challenges involved in carting huge loads of wood to the summit.  Eventually we decided to head over to our own beacon before it went out.

Hampsfell Beacon & full moon.
Although it was now nearly 11pm our route was well lit by the most incredible moon.  I completely failed to do it justice in any of my photos, but it was a stunning full moon with a near perfect reflection right across Morecambe Bay; something we'd never have seen from Scafell Pike or The Old Man.  As we approached the beacon I began to ponder about "beacon etiquette"; what was one expected to do?  On bonfire night we eat hot dogs and watch fireworks, on other ceremonial occasions we sing carols, but what does one do at a beacon lighting?  Turns out one hangs around chatting to the organisers until nearly midnight and then gets lost on the fell on the way home.  Well that's what we did anyway.

Although small Hampsfell is criss-crossed by dozens of paths and we thought that midnight would be a great time to try a new route down.  To be fair we did find a new route down, just not the one we intended, but it was a warm dry evening and we had head torches so we just had fun and made the most of our impromptu adventure.  We finally arrived home sometime before one o'clock; the jubilee concert was long over, but at least we'd finally joined in the festivities.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Buzzing from St Bee's to Whitehaven Festival

Lighthouse at St Bee's Head
There's a few things you need to know about me; I hate crowds, I loathe shopping, I don't like paying to park and I'm scared of dentists.  All of these facts will be relevant in today's blog.  Our mission was to visit the Whitehaven Festival and although I have a very sore back, my dislike of crowds and paying to park is greater , which is why we ended up at St Bee's Head 4 miles south of Whitehaven.  It was still £2 to park,  but I never mind so much when it's one of those honesty boxes popped out by a farmer.  Finding the carpark at St Bee's Head is an achievement in itself and it took us 2 laps of Sandwith to locate the correct turning.

Isle of Man from cliff walk
Thankfully the path to Whitehaven is a lot easier to find than the carpark and the views will soon take your mind of any aches and pains.  The route winds along the top of red sandstone cliffs and away in the distance, across the Solway Firth, looms the coastline of Dumfries and Galloway.  We stopped along the way for a spot of lunch, perched on a couple of small flat rocks.  After lunch we walked 200 yards around the corner and found a bench.  Typical.  We only saw a couple of people along the entire route, and then we arrived in Whitehaven where we found a whole lot more.

Red Arrows
It wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment in detail about Whitehaven Festival as a) we didn't see much of it, b) it was heaving and c) it appeared to centre around a huge market and I would rather have root canal treatment without injections than fight my way through a crowd of shoppers (see my opening comments), so we found ourselves a small patch of grass on the hill above The Beacon and settled down to watch the air displays.  I've always loved aerobatics and not just the Red Arrows; the things some pilots can do with an aeroplane amazes me and I always visualise them sitting in their cockpits with a great big grin on their faces as they swoop and dive through the air.

Whitehaven Chiphaven
After the displays were over most people left, so we headed for the harbour for a quick look around, but it was still busy and most shops were packing up so we found ourselves a chippy which sold the largest "small portion" I've ever seen.  Top marks to Whitehaven for building a "Chiphaven" in the middle of the harbour - a chippy shelter with a domed roof to protect you from dive-bombing Herring Gulls where you can clog your arteries in peace.  Genius.

All that remained now was a 4 mile walk back along the cliffs to the car.  It was one of those stunningly peaceful evenings where the only sounds were the birds and the crunch of our boots on the path while the sweet fragrant aroma of Deep Heat wafted around us.  We didn't see a single soul after we left the town and we took an outrageous number of photographs, most of which failed to adequately capture the moment and some of which I've included below.  (There are some fabulous shots from the same walk and loads of other info on West Cumbria on this fab site - though we did have better weather - sorry Sean!)

Many people head to Cumbria for the fells, but the Cumbrian Coastline is spectacular and there are 100s of miles of coastal path to take your pick from, so next time you're in the area, head west and don't stop till your feet get wet.  You'll thank me for it.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Peter Mayle has a lot to answer for.

Two days ago there was no path
Some of you probably know who Peter Mayle is but are wondering why I have it in for him, others perhaps don't know who he is and are curious as to what he's done to me.  For the record Peter Mayle wrote "A Year in Provence", one of the first "new life abroad books" and from him came dozens of others; "Driving over Lemons" (Chris Stewart) and "Extra Virgin" (Annie Hawes) to name but two.  Like thousands of other people I read those books and longed for the chance to live such a dream myself; and then we moved to the Lake District and I got my chance and that's when I learned it's not quite the same as they tell you in the books.

Trust me, this is the "after" shot.
We've been here just short of 18 months now and, if this were one of those books we'd have tamed the wilderness that is the garden, gotten ourselves a goat or two, harvested our first crop of olives/ tomatoes/ other home grown produce and be spending our evenings sitting around on the patio enjoying home grown meals with our neighbours, supplemented by local wine and freshly baked bread, whilst swapping amusing anecdotes about our experiences with the local tradespeople.

So what's the reality and how is it so different?  Well for a start I wouldn't exactly describe the garden as "tamed" just yet.  Where Peter, Annie et al seemed to have endless days at their disposal for creating their corner of pardise, I'm having to fit it in around 1 and 1/2 jobs and alongside my attempts at breaking into freelance writing.  They clearly had some sort of steady but undisclosed financial income to support their new lives; we had to sell our CD collection for our monthly shop. (I'm not complaining, just saying.  Well, actually I'm making excuses for not having done the garden properly yet.)

My favourite little nook.  Site of a spring in
wet weather (see Steve's pics below.)
Anyway, back to the garden.  We bought this place as it had the largest garden we could afford because we like a little space around us; but you know what they say, "with great gardens come great responsibility".  We'd been told that it was a "low maintenance" garden but I don't believe such a thing really exists; with each season comes a new challenge.  At the moment I'm battling sycamore saplings which pop up at an astounding rate accompanied by a rich assortment of weeds.  It doesn't help that I'm horticulturally inept,  When I visit the local garden centre in search of weedkiller and they ask what sort of weeds I have, the best I can come up with is "red ones, you know, the ones with the small green leaves..." Their pitying look says it all.  I've actually come up with  few rules for weeds which would help me enormously.

1. Weeds should be ugly and easily discernible from flowers.  We are the proud owners of some very pretty weeds, but they all have to come out apparently.

2.  Only one weed at a time per garden.  Along with our blue weeds and red weeds we also have bindweed and sticky weed and I only have one pair of hands.

Just need to train them to only eat the weeds.
3.  Weeds should grow at a discrete distance from all other flora.  Embedding themselves in amongst "proper" plants is not playing fair, neither is wrapping themselves around them.  You hear me bindweed?

To help reduce the amount of weeding I need to do I've reclassified some borderline weeds.  For example Wild Garlic and Wild Strawberries are allowed to grow along my paths so long as they don't mind sacrificing themselves for the odd meal or two.  I've also decided that the tall grass with the interesting stem is an "Ornamental Grass" and thus can remain, at least for now.

Our very own spring; well, occasionally.
On the bright side we have managed to grow some of our own produce.  Last year we produced an inedible crop of runner beans and a crop of peas which, although very tasty, could barely be eeked out to half a portion. We also inherited 4 prolific apple trees which quickly exhausted my supply of apple recipes, so this year we'll be making cider, lots of cider.  Who knows, maybe this time next year we'll have caught up with the Mayles/ Stewarts/ Hawes of this world and will be enjoying dinner in the garden with our neighbours or, more likely, we'll all be indoors getting roaring drunk on cider whilst the rain pours down and the weeds run riot unchecked.  Perhaps not quite so inspiring to write about, but nevertheless idyllic in its own way.