Thursday 26 November 2015

High Seat, Castlerigg and St. Bees

We've had house guests and other commitments for what seems like a month of Sundays, so we needed no prompting to sort out a little jaunt to the Lake District last weekend once we saw that there was a spell of fine, cold weather heading that way. We'd had a route mapped out for Skiddaw for a while and the plan was to stay over in the area and do that on the Sunday, taking advantage of the early start we'd be able to make. A shorter walk when we arrived on the Saturday was to act as a valuable warm-up exercise for legs that had been sadly under-used for several long weeks.

Phone pic of the Howgills from the M6
Day One:

High Seat, via Bleaberry Fell, was the the summit I settled on for the shorter walk. Younger brother and girlfriend having kindly agreed to house and dog sitting, we piled our gear into the car and headed north up the M6. The clear blue skies and snow-covered hills we saw as we passed through Lancashire boded well for our first winter walk of the season. For all the delights of long summer evenings and warm weather, I've missed those short, bright winter's days, sharp with frost that reddens the nose and nips at the ears. Just how wintery the weather had suddenly turned became obvious once we crossed into Cumbria - to the west, the mountains and fells of the central Lake District looked magnificent in their early winter garb, while to the east the Howgills, so distinctively beautiful at any time of the year, formed waves of silky whiteness that towered over the motorway.

Noting the amount of snow cover on Blencathra and Skiddaw as we passed, we drove through Keswick and parked at the National Trust car park in Great Wood. As we sorted out boots and gear, a robin flew down to a bush in front of the car and watched us with interest. He didn't seem particularly ruffled when I faffed around noisily getting my camera out but he managed to make himself blurred in every single one of the many shots I took of him. Blissfully unaware of this looking at my tiny camera screen, we bade him farewell and set off south towards Cat Gill. 

The climb up the gill is mostly on stepped path but it's steep and we found it a real calf-buster, particularly after not having been out walking for a month. There was compensation to be had the more height we gained, however, as the snow had decorated the foliage around the path quite magically.

The start of the climb from Great Wood.
Snow makes an appearance further up Cat Gill.
Causey Pike with (r to l) Scar Crags, Sail and Crag Hill behind.
Looking west across Derwent Water to the fells that stand over Newlands Valley.
Bleaberry Fell.
Views across Derwent Water began to open up now as well and, once we gained the top of the path, we could see the summit of Bleaberry Fell, with the rounded slopes of the High Fells and the Dodds to the east. We had planned to head from Lady's Rake to Bleaberry Fell but decided to make a brief detour to Walla Crag first, as it formed a natural "viewing platform". From here we could look across Keswick to Skiddaw, over to Blencathra, and across Bassenthwaite Lake to the Solway Firth. It was a beautifully clear afternoon and the views were awesome, making the cautious slide over icy rocks to this mini summit well worth the time and effort. A fellow walker, with her father by her side and her baby in a carrier on her shoulders kindly took our photo here and we returned the favour. From its vantage point the baby had better views than any of us but ignored them in favour of his teddy.

Before the gloves and outer layers came out of the backpacks.
Causey Pike and Grisedale Pike from the top of Walla Crag.
Derwent Water and Bassenthwaite Lake, with Keswick nestling beneath Skiddaw (r).
Looking east across Castlerigg Fell towards Clough Head and the Dodds.

Passing the unnamed tor (and unseen sheepfold)
on the way to Bleaberry's summit.
From here the path south west up to Bleaberry Fell was clear to see and promised good walking, even in the snow. And so it was for the most part, though I got caught out early on by what looked like an innocent patch of mud but turned out to be a knee-deep puddle of liquid clay. At first I thought I'd jumped out quickly enough to stay dry but as we carried on I realised there was an increasingly cold, wet sensation in my right boot, like having your toes sucked by an affectionate jellyfish. Before long the contents of the deceptive puddle had seeped their way through my socks to every nook and cranny of my foot.

Nothing daunted we plodded on, passing an unnamed but interesting-looking outcrop of rock that I might have been inclined to clamber up had it been balmier weather. The ruined sheep fold or shepherd's hut here completely escaped our notice at this point and it was only when we were far higher and looking back that we spotted it.

Ahead of us, Bleaberry Fell was sporting a dappled coat of heather and snow that made this handsome peak all the more attractive in the sunlight. It looked quite a sharp climb, and the walkers ahead of us looked tiny against its slopes, but when we finally got there it proved to be another stepped ascent. Covered as it was in snow and ice, it made for slow going purely for safety's sake but in warmer, drier conditions I reckon the stone steps would make this quite an easy climb. It certainly didn't feel that strenuous.

The dappled slopes of Bleaberry Fell.
Some walkers making the ascent ahead of us.
Looking south west to the Derwent Fells.
Looking west across Catbells to Ard Crags, Crag Hill, Causey Pike and Grisedale Pike.

Food with a view.
The sun seemed low in the sky now, albeit it was only around 2pm, and the wind had picked up strength as we climbed so that there was a pronounced wind chill. The modest shelter at the summit was full, so we carried on to the cairn just south of it to stop for lunch. Hoods up over our hats, we sat by this meagre windbreak and put our backs to the stiff breeze. The butties gave us a much needed energy boost and we surveyed the splendid views as we munched on our admittedly rather forlorn-looking lunch.

High Seat was directly in front of us, its spot height a mere 18 metres above Bleaberry Fell's summit, but between our vantage point and the trig column on High Seat lay an undulating plateau of heather, rocks and bogs that was to add more overall ascent to our journey. Our height gain meant that the views we'd had looking north from Walla Crag were more extensive now - behind us lay Skiddaw and Blencathra, while to our east the Dodds were giving way to Raise, White Side and the parent peak of the range, Helvellyn. We chatted briefly with a passing couple, who named the hazy but notably large hill across the sea in Galloway as Kirriereoch (assuming I've heard and remembered correctly what they said - looking at OS Maps it seems to fit). 

High Seat ahead of us.
Skiddaw and Blencathra behind us.
Looking south east to Helvellyn.
Kirriereoch Hill in Galloway.
Rich forges ahead to High Seat.
We headed downhill and struck out across the plateau on a path that was easy to follow but hard-going underfoot. People who'd passed us as we ate were disappearing into the distance at a rate that put us to shame. In fact Rich, who's usually slower than I am, forged ahead across this semi-frozen morass and left me standing. I'd like to claim I lagged way behind him here simply because I kept stopping to take photos, which I did to a degree, but even when I was on the move I bog-hopped far slower than I normally would. 

The ice and snow made it hard to judge where to put your feet and other people's feet proved not to be a sure guide as to solid ground. The recent spell of warm, wet weather had given the sponge-like fell top a good soaking and this sudden cold turn hadn't been severe or long-lasting enough to freeze anything below the surface. Some of the thin layers of ice across the top of the mire wouldn't have supported a dieting butterfly let alone the ample pot belly I carry round with me. 

Looking back to Bleaberry Fell.
Nearing the summit of High Seat.

Approaching the trig column on
High Seat.
When we eventually got to the tor that forms the summit of High Seat it was a blessed relief and even the tiny, inelegant scramble up ice-coated rocks seemed preferable to the long tramp we'd just had across the heather. It took hands, feet, knees and elbows to wriggle our way up the ice without slipping but in hindsight I think we might have missed a path or at least a walkable slope around the western side of the outcrop. 

We were at the farthest point of our walk now and well-behind time as per usual. Fortunately, however, there were no problems with route-finding ahead of us. The path down from here stretched before us quite clearly, cutting a snaking line north west through the snow-capped heather, past Dodd and then ultimately down to the lakeside road. The moon was rising now behind us and we wondered if we were going to have to break out the head torches (the batteries of which we'd thankfully checked and replaced the night before).

Yours truly, at the summit of High Seat.
The view north west from our highest point of the day.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back on the fells...
Our route down.

Rich leads the way again.
In the event, a couple of flooded sections aside, our route down proved to be as straightforward as it'd promised to be from High Seat and we made good time until we reached the waterfall in Ashness Gill. Even here, although steep, the path wouldn't have been too bad were it not for the sometimes barely visible sheets of ice that coated the rocks. We descended cautiously and eventually came to a stile by a field of sheep. The top of the fell was beautiful but bleak in the late afternoon sun and we hadn't seen anyone since we'd started the crossing from Bleaberry to High Seat so the sudden buzz of the quad bike the farmer was using to round his flock for the evening came as startling reminder of how close we actually were to civilisation. 

It was only a short walk now down to Ashness Bridge. From there we headed down the lane and joined the Borrowdale Road, just as the twilight shifted into darkness. There was a surprising amount of traffic and I was a little uncomfortable walking along here in the dark but fortunately there was a kerbed footpath on the lake side of the road. 

The setting sun.
The moon rising as we look back to High Seat.
To infinity and beyond!

By now my painfully frozen, damp right foot had mysteriously returned to normal - I could feel my big toe again and it felt snugger and happier than a big toe could be expected to feel under the circumstances. This prompted grim thoughts that this might be some bizarre sign of frostbite but Rich pointed out that we'd been walking down the gill out of the wind for some time so it had probably just warmed up rather than died and dropped off. 

Thankful that I wouldn't have to turn my boot upside down later and shake my toe out onto the hotel carpet, we returned to the car in the dark and plotted a course for the Oddfellow Arms in Keswick, where soul-warming beer was waiting for us, the very fine Cumberland Ale. Safely ensconced in a corner of the pub, I mused over why my right foot might have started feeling freezing cold again despite the warmth of the bar and Rich supped his beer in barely-suppressed joy at my suggestion that Skiddaw might be too much for us to take on the following day.

Day Two:

Shaky phone pic of Dodd as we drove to Keswick.
Keswick had been fully booked up when we made the last-minute decision to head up the Lakes for the weekend, so we had booked ourselves into the Shepherds Hotel for the night, on the outskirts of Cockermouth. Over a hearty breakfast we decided to definitely give Skiddaw a miss on this occasion. I suggested visiting Castlerigg instead while it was still early in the day and then seeing where our noses led us after that. 

It'd rained the previous evening but the clouds were beginning to break as we followed the A66 alongside Bassenthwaite Lake and the morning rays illuminated the top of Dodd. I'd felt a little disappointed because I'd mapped out a route for Skiddaw several months ago and had been eager to make use of it but when we got to Keswick, the mountain top was covered in cloud so it didn't feel like we were missing out too much by changing our plans. 

The topograph at Castlerigg
We headed up to Castlerigg, one of the most striking stone circles I've visited and one of the earliest in Britain. It is thought to be around 5200 years old and thus hails from the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age. I'd been here before but it was Rich's first visit to this evocative site, framed as it is with the some of the area's finest fells. It's little wonder that this location was chosen by the people who built the circle and we pondered whether there was some significance in the layout of the stones and the position of the Sanctuary, which forms a smaller rectangular enclosure towards the south east of the circle. We couldn't see any obvious connections from the topograph provided by English Heritage, though it does seem that the circle is aligned with the winter sunrise and possibly other astronomical phenomena.

I'd warned Rich that the site was a popular one with tourists and walkers alike and when we got there a group of people were standing inside the circle chatting. I thought they were on an organised tour at first but as we drew closer it seemed like they were just standing in the middle of the monument and exchanging opinions on pasties (Cornish or otherwise I don't know). This seemed to go on for some while so I wandered around the outskirts of the field and amused myself with taking pictures of the nearby fells and valleys. A few professional-looking photographers were patiently waiting by their tripods for the group to disperse, which they eventually did, enabling all of us to get some shots of the standing stones.

Castlerigg stone circle, with a snow-dusted Dodd Crag to the right
The entrance.
The Sanctuary, with Low Rigg in the background.
We headed back down to Keswick and wandered by the launches at Derwent Water, debating where to spend the rest of the day. Rich had developed a recurring cramp in his hip that made heading up to the tops again an increasingly unlikely proposition so we decided to drive over to St. Bees and then follow the coastal road back south.

Skiddaw from Keswick, still sporting its cap of cloud.
Causey Pike across the lake.
Derwent Island

It took us about 50 minutes to get to St Bees, a pretty village that nestles in a small valley by the Irish Sea. It's the starting point of Alfred Wainwright's Coast-to-Coast walk, that ends 192 miles away at Robin Hood's Bay in North Yorkshire. The beach here is quite lovely, with extensive views down the coast to Black Combe at the south-westernmost tip of Cumbria, and the beginning of a series of cliffs at its northern end. 

There's a path along the cliff tops but our first port of call was their base, where massive slabs of sandstone jut out to the sea. The soft stone here has long been a magnet for people to carve their names or images and messages into the rock and you can see carvings that date back to the Victorian era at least if not further. I'm sure many centuries of graffiti has been laid down here and lost to the sea and weather. It's quite a poignant spot and you wonder what were the stories of these people, where did they live and what historical events did they live through?

The sandstone slabs at the base of South Head cliffs.

Denied another day roaming the fells, I suggested a little excursion along the cliff path to South Head. There was a handy topograph here that listed the fells and mountains you can see looking inland to the east, from Pillar through the Scafells to Red Screes; south, you can see Muncaster Fell now as well as Black Combe, the most westerly fell of the Lake District National Park; in the west, we could make out the hazy outlines of the Isle of Man and Snaefell, while to the north the cliffs became more dramatic near St. Bees Head and the St. Bees lighthouse. In good weather, it's well worth making the short climb to this point as we did because the views are really rewarding. The coastal footpath can be walked from here all the way to Whitehaven in Saltom Bay if you are feeling energetic or there are opportunities along the path to turn inland and follow a circular route back to St. Bees.

Looking south, with Black Combe on the horizon.
Looking north to St. Bees Head and the lighthouse.
The view inland into the heart of the national park.
The Scafells and Red Screes
For us the cliff top path was a simple there-and-back walk as we had to head home but it made for a nice conclusion to what felt like quite a packed weekend. Now all that remained was to begin the drive home, trying to memorise names and locations as we passed several interesting looking hills so I could look them up on OS Maps when we got back.

Date: November 2015

Walk length (High Seat): 9.5 km

Total ascent: 725 metres



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