Friday 17 June 2016

Muncaster Fell

Once my knee seemed to be in fairly decent condition again, I was eager to head back out into the hills, especially as I had spent my downtime plotting and saving numerous walks on OS maps. One of the first ones we wanted to do was Muncaster Fell: I was attracted by the fact that the south western fells of the Lake District tend to be less busy at the weekend than the more famous hills to their north; Rich was persuaded by the fact that I had tied in a ride on a heritage railway - the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway -  as part of our trip.

So it was, in early March,  we found ourselves heading for Ravenglass, the small coastal village by the castle at the southern end of Muncaster Fell. It was a beautiful morning as we made our way from the M6 towards the Irish Sea and snow-dusted hills rarely look so fine as they do in gleaming contrast with a bright blue sky. I had plotted what I thought would be the most picturesque route - over Thwaites Fell. The sat-nav backed me up on this being the shortest journey to Ravenglass too. And it was indeed a beautiful panorama that spread out all around us, albeit one that was difficult to fully appreciate during our nerve-wracking, slow progress along the wet and icy, one-vehicle-wide road across this wintry high ground. 

Crossing Thwaites Fell.
Crossing Thwaites Fell.

Our engine - the "River Mite".
Eventually, having been slowed down further by having to reverse a considerable distance to a passing-place by someone in a four wheel drive who wouldn't reverse into the lay-by a couple of feet behind him, we reached Ravenglass with some relief and parked up at the station. Thankfully, we'd left plenty of time to get here for our train - the services were only once an hour and the next train after hours was scheduled to be a diesel engine rather than a steam train, which wouldn't have had quite the same charm. 

It wasn't long before our engine came into view, the "River Mite" - the Mite is the river that flows down from the south eastern flank of Ilgill Head (Muncaster's parent peak), across Tongue Moor, and its final journey to the Irish Sea runs roughly parallel with the railway line alongside Muncaster Fell. 

Early stages of our railway journey were enclosed by trees at times and offered mostly farmland in terms of views but Muncaster Fell's prominence runs at an angle, from south west to north east, and as we traced a line around its southern slopes a more inspiring aspect began to open up to the north - mighty relations of Muncaster, some cloaked in snow, as if their grandeur demanded wearing ermine robes. We were hugging the sides of the more modest Muncaster Fell, though its crags still rose up impressively above the railway line.

On the "River Mite" steam train.
The line skirts the side of Muncaster Fell.
Muncaster Fell's grander relatives appear to the north.

Irton Road station.
We alighted at Irton Road, a request stop, and made our way up to the lane that crossed the train track on a little stone bridge; from here we followed the lane south, with the crags of Silver Knott above us serving as a reminder that Muncaster Fell would still require some effort to attain its ridge.

We were heading to an enclosure called Rabbit How, which was to provide us with a route up, but on the way we passed Forest How, a house nestling among trees; there were a number of photographers dotted around here, aiming their tripods in various directions. The air was replete with bird calls and we assumed they were birdspotting but when we paused briefly to talk to one of them he explained that the area was a stronghold for the native red squirrel; we waited around for a short while in the hope of seeing one before reluctantly giving up and carrying on our way.

Silver Knott on Muncaster Fell.

Out of the tree cover and looking north east, the craggy northern reaches of Eskdale caught the eye and glimpses of the central mountains beyond also came into view - the view was crowded with the fells of the central Lake District and I have to admit that to me it was a bewildering array of crags and summits that didn't make individual identifications particularly easy even when I knew in what direction on the map I was looking.

Looking north east across upper Eskdale.

To the south east and directly in front of us, the crags that lined the edge of Birkby Fell, which were somewhat easier to identify with the use of the OS map, loomed over the valley of Eskdale.

Making our way south east.
Brantrake Crags below Birkby Fell.

The ascent from Rabbit How.
The climb up across Rabbit How and then onto the ridge was a relatively straightforward one, with a wall acting as a handrail once we attained the crest; even without this, the way was clear underfoot, if somewhat muddy and in places quite boggy. 

We followed this path for a good while, although at one point, tempted by higher ground to the east, I left Rich behind to climb up over the coarse clumps of grass. There seemed to be an automatic meteorological station here of some kind, though whether it was an operational one or not, I haven't been able to ascertain. I wandered around on the mini-peak here exploring for a while and soaking in the views north and east, which were still more impressive from this vantage point, before heading back down to join Rich and resume our journey.

A zoom-in on Scafell.
A zoom-in on Brantrake Crags across Eskdale.
Harter Fell (l), with Crook and Green Crags (r)
Looking south east towards Stainton Pike and Whitfell.

Eventually, around halfway along the fell, the wall turned right and headed downhill into Eskdale; a gate - or rather a pair of gateposts - lead us onto open land and we took a climb up onto some of the crags here to find some rock suitable for sitting on while we ate. Rich spotted a raptor, who seemed to be keeping a close eye on us, on a rock just behind me so the pictures of the bird below are thanks to him, as we tried to move as little and as quietly as possible lest we drive it away.

Looking back at the gateposts.
Our watchful lunch guest.
Our watchful lunch guest.

There's the path ahead but how best to get to it?
The route I had plotted followed the footpath on the OS map, downhill and along the south-eastern flank of the fell. 

When we returned to the gate, however, we could see on the ground that there was a clear trail that headed directly across the top of the fell towards its summit, Hooker Crag, and this we decided to take, not least because it promised more extensive views all around, including the Irish Sea, which would have been hidden otherwise.

It was boggy here at times and the path became indistinct during these sections; you could usually see where it continued further ahead but to get there was a case of testing the ground before putting your full weight down or sometimes just hoping for the best when your next footfall was too far ahead to test.

We were making a steady ascent all the while, not forgetting to look backwards at the views, which continued to expand as we gained height. Being habitually slow walkers, we had decided to take the train on the first leg of the journey where our timing was more assured rather than walk north and have a potentially long wait for a train back in the middle of nowhere. There were fine views ahead of us as we headed south to be sure but I think next time we will walk south-to-north so the fells of the central Lake District are constantly in our line of sight.

The view if walking south-to-north

The path across the ridge afforded us views of the Irish Sea.
We had reached a broad path now that looked and felt like it was maintained. The Irish Sea was glistening below us to the west and the top of Muncaster Fell at this southern end was revealed to be a fairly broad plateau with some interesting crags on its outer edges. 

We passed one of those isolated fir trees that I always seem to come across in the most unexpected locations (on the slate path heading up Moel Siabod, on the way up to Cadair Berwyn, poking up out of Edale Moor) and which always make me think of Christmas, only to come across another one further along that someone had decorated with baubles and tinsel; hardly very environmentally friendly.

The trig point on Hooker Crag could now just be made out in silhouette, though between us and the climb to it was a large depression that clearly contained an expansive area of bog, Hooker Moss. There seemed to be an easy route that skirted it to the west, however, and it actually proved to be a pleasant stroll over to the final, short climb of the day to the trig column. I know the phrase is something of a cliche now but Muncaster Fell definitely is a "small hill with big views", and we spent sometime here taking pictures and generally just admiring the scenery.

Hooker Crag, the summit of Muncaster Fell,with Hooker Moss below.
Crags to the south west of the fell, with a glimpse of the Isle of Man in the background.
Panorama from the trig column.
Looking down into Eskdale, with the River Esk and Black Combe the snow-covered fell on the horizon.

Looking back up at Hooker Fell from the forestry track.
The wind was punishingly cold and strong, even though the day remained bright and dry, so we decided against sitting down and having a coffee; it hadn't been a strenuous walk so a second refreshment break could easily wait until we reached Ravenglass.

Once you clamber down from the rocks on which the trig stands, the trail down off the fell is easy to follow and eventually broadens out into what seem to be a logging track; certainly large tyres had done a bang-on job of churning up the mud for a large stretch of the way and this man-made mess proved to be the heaviest-going walking of the day, with our poles saving us several times at the last minute from going arse in the air.

Muncaster Tarn.
It was a relief to reach a more solid track and as we followed it, we passed the idyllic-looking (though artificial) Muncaster Tarn. I nipped through the trees to take a closer look before we joined Fell Lane. 

From here it was all roadside walking into Ravenglass itself, on pavement once we left Fell Lane, and that was not as dull as it sounds as there were banks of crocus and snowdrops lining the roadside into the village to brighten our passage.

We had made good time so - as we relaxed with a pint of shandy each from The Inn at Ravenglass, overlooking the estuary that forms the confluence of the Rivers Irt, Mite and Esk - we decided what to do with the rest of our afternoon, while we still had light to explore.

A hazy Isle of Man as we headed back to Ravenglass.
A pint with a view.

The remains of the Roman bathhouse at Ravenglass.
First on the impromptu itinerary was a visit to the remains of a Roman bathhouse that stand on the outskirts of the village. It was impressive sight when we got there, with quite high stone walls and arches still remaining standing. There seems to be some controversy about the name of the garrison and naval base that the Romans occupied here in the second century, some claiming that the Ravenglass site was known as Glannoventa and others that it was named Tunnocelum - with Glannoventa being the name of the Roman fort that stood at Ambleside. Whatever the nomenclature, there is no doubt at least that a significant base stood here (to which the scale of the bathhouse remains bear witness) and that a Roman Road connected the Ravenglass site with the forts at Hard Knott and Ambleside, and beyond.

The railway turntable at the now deserted station.
From here we returned to the station where we had started out, now deserted and quiet. We estimated we still had some daylight left so determined that our next port of call would take us even further back in time - Swinside Stone Circle (also known as Sunkenkirk - the legend was that the locals were building a church on the spot and that each night the devil would come and tear down what they'd built, throwing the stones down into a circle).

This Late Neolithic stone circle, easily as impressive as its more popular northern relation at Castlerigg, lies just below Swinside Fell on the eastern edge of the area marked on the OS Explorer map as the Cumbrian Mountains. However you approach it, it requires rather more of a walk than Castlerigg. The most straightforward route - and one that fitted in with our journey home - seems to be to leave the A595 and take the road north towards Thwaites Fell; a bridleway leaves this road just before Cragg Hall and it was on the roadside here that we parked and began our walk into the far reaches of antiquity.

Looking north from the bridleway towards Hesk Fell.
It's about a mile and three quarters round trip from the road and the gradient is so gentle as to barely register. As we crossed Knott Moor, we rounded the hillside on our left to find a herd of Belted Galloways a couple of hundred feet from us. As some of them seemed decidedly frisky, headbutting one another and jumping around, we carried on with some trepidation, keeping a constant eye for the nearest wall or fence to scale should they decide to take an interest - and it was a considerable distance away from the bridleway.

The circle itself, when we reached it, was really quite beautiful and the setting spoke for itself, with wonderful vistas down the valley and the dark shadows of Raven Crag and the appropriately-named Black Crag towering above it to the west.

Swinside stone circle with Knott Hill on the right; beyond that is the Duddon Estuary.
A view to Raven Crag, west of the circle; snow clings to the sheltered slopes of Derry on the left.

The light was beginning to fade now so we reluctantly headed back to the car - doubly reluctantly, as we had worked out there was no practical way of avoiding crossing Knott Moor again. We knew at least that once we had passed behind the lower slopes of the hill, we would no longer be visible to the cattle; so, gritting our teeth, we proceeded with more attention paid to the cows on our right than to the path ahead and so were probably at more risk of tripping ourselves up than being trampled by feisty heifers.

The sun had disappeared behind the fells by the time we reached the car but as we drove home we reflected contentedly on what a surprising amount we'd managed to fit into a relatively short March day.

Date: March 2016

Walk length: 9.5 km

Total ascent: 295 metres


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