Blencathra is a mountain on the northern fringes of The English Lake District. It is in the news because the current land owner, Lord Lowther, has put it on the market to pay some taxes. This has resulted in a campaign to stop the sale to foreign buyers and, more importantly, to seize the moment and get the land into some form of public ownership.
My first memory of Blencathra is as a small boy in the late 1940’s sitting on the front seat of a black and white Western SMT long-distance coach whilst travelling from Glasgow to London. In those days the coach left Glasgow in the early evening, passengers had their first comfort stop at a cafe in the centre of Lockerbie just beside the station, then the bus headed southwards towards Carlisle. At a point north of Gretna in the fading evening light the Lake District came into view and the most prominent of the Northern Fells were Blencathra and Skiddaw. Little did I know then but a very few years later we would be living in Carlisle and the eastern side of Blencathra would be a daily sight. The mountain is immediately recognised by its distinctive top which has the appearance of a horse’s saddle. Hence the alternative name of Saddleback.
Our family originates from Dundee and Glasgow. When I was young we lived in the South of England as my father had a career in the RAF. Dad had joined the RAF from school in the mid-30’s and stayed with them until the end of WWII. He travelled the world, mainly in the Middle East and SE Asia, but his base was in Uxbridge, West London. Usually twice a year, in the summer and at Christmas and New Year, we travelled back North to see our grannies, aunts, uncles and cousins. That involved a 16-hour coach journey up the A1, the A66 and the A74, long before the days of motorways and mostly before the days of dual carriageways.
On leaving the RAF at the end of WWII, Dad trained as a school teacher and, in late 1952, he announced that he had been appointed Deputy Head of the new Eden School, situated in Rickerby Park, Carlisle. So, over the festive period we packed up one house, moved to Glasgow as a temporary home then moved to Carlisle. The biggest setback for me was that although I had sat my 11-plus exam in London, the Carlisle authorities did not recognise the result so I must be one of the few boys of my generation who had to sit two 11-plus exams. Fortunately I passed them both and spent my secondary school years at Carlisle Grammar School. It was through school and one teacher in particular, along with Dad’s school, and a family obsession with walking and the hills, that I then came to know Blencathra at a much more intimate level.
We went to the Lake District on a regular basis. There was no family car, quite normal in those days, so any trip would start with a walk to Carlisle bus station to board the double-decker bus of Cumberland Motors. The route went west through Wigton and on through Bothel where it turned southwards towards Lake Bassenthwaite and Keswick. Through the first half of the journey we could see the northern slopes of Blencathra, and a tempting sight they made.
Once we reached Keswick we would either head south towards the western shore of Derwent Water and Cat Bells or head north and east to Skiddaw and Blencathra. I can’t remember when I first reached the summit of Blencathra but it must have been about 1954/5. What I do remember is my first sight of the magnificent view northwards across the Solway Firth to the hills of Dumfries-shire and, in a clockwise panorama, looking over Carlisle, the Eden Valley and the northern end of the Pennines.
Dad settled into his new school and was quick to notice that Cumberland County Council had a hostel in Keswick that could be used by school parties for outdoor activities. I can’t now remember the name of the establishment but it was on the A66 that in those days passed through Threlkeld with Blencathra high up on the right, on its way into the centre of Keswick. As you approached the town the road went under an old railway bridge and the hostel was on the left, across the road from the River Greta. Dad quickly realised the potential of this place for Eden School and established a regular programme of outdoor activities based around the centre.
In those days life was much simpler and less regimented. So on most occasions that Dad took parties from the school to the centre our family went as well. Mum, who had been a guide leader, took on a pastoral role as well as being an extra pair of hands for leading and supporting activities. We three boys were able to join in many of the events.
Every visit to the centre began with an early evening walk up Latrigg, the nearby small hill, as a sort of initiator to the joys of the Lakes and as an opportunity to give some early introductions to the disciplines of walking in a group. Later in the visit, which from memory mostly lasted about one week, more serious hill walking was undertaken and, of course, Blencathra was always on the agenda. And so my acquaintance with the Lakes, and in particular the Northern Fells, expanded.
At Carlisle Grammar School there was one of those inspiring teachers whom you remember for the rest of your life, “Dan” Archer, a Maths teacher. “Dan” was a single man totally dedicated to his work and supporting the boys of the school who loved walking. Over the years he would identify the pupils with the keenness to get out on the hills, gathering a small group of eight to ten students to nurture. In retrospect, “Dan” probably also saw this as a way in which he could indulge his own passion for the mountains whilst helping others to catch the bug. But it was greatly appreciated.
“Dan” was, unusually for those days, the owner of a car. And it was no ordinary car. The Triumph Renown was a luxury 4/5 seater saloon with leather upholstery, large windows and a rather rectangular appearance. On Sundays during term time, “Dan” would take parties of five or six boys for walking days mostly in The Lakes. If you were lucky you were invited to join at least one trip a month. The three big mountains that involved the least driving time were Helvelyn, Skiddaw and, of course, Blencathra, which we usually referred to as Saddleback. We would climb these mountains in all seasons, in sunshine, rain and snow and always had a great day out.
Some of “Dan’s” trips went north and west into Galloway. A favourite location was Glen Trool. The hills provided superb walking country in almost glorious isolation. But even here Blencathra was not out of our sights. From most of the tops the view southwards was over the Solway Firth to the northern hills of The Lake District.
On some Sundays when I was not going on one of “Dan’s” trips, I became a junior member of the Carlisle Mountaineering Club. The club ran a bus, from memory once a month, mostly to The Lakes. The focus of activities at that time was rock climbing. They ran great training days at places like Shepherds Crag in Borrowdale and, occasionally, on the Langdale Pikes. Blencathra doesn’t have serious rock climbs but, needless to say, every trip passed the mountain at the beginning and end of the day.
In 1958 we moved house from Carlisle to an isolated cottage on a low hilltop near the village of Castle Carrock in the foothills of the Northern Pennines. The cottage had a great, uninterrupted view across the Eden Valley to, you’ve guessed it, Blencathra about 20 miles away as the crow flies. Dad was fond of an expression he either coined, or plagiarised, when asked about the weather: “If you can see Saddleback it’s going to rain and if you can’t see Saddleback it is raining.” And so Blencathra became a part of our daily scenery, providing it wasn’t raining!
In 1960 I moved to Glasgow to start University and continued my passion for the mountains by joining Glasgow University Mountaineering Club (GUMC). Over the years the club, of which I was to become President, occupied a lot of my undergraduate time, perhaps more than was wise. Most of our sorties were to the North, especially to Glencoe, Ben Nevis, Torridon and Skye but at Easter we had a tradition of heading southwards to The Lakes and North Wales. Every trip south started the same way, outside Calderpark Zoo on the south-eastern fringes of the city. The zoo was reached by tram or bus from the centre of Glasgow. Then it was a matter of finding a good position to start hitch-hiking. Sometimes we travelled in pairs but more often singly as it was easier to get a lift.
While standing at the roadside the best sight was to see a cream and maroon lorry approaching. These were the trucks of Robson’s Border Transport of Carlisle and the drivers nearly always stopped, were very friendly and even paid for the tea at one of the roadside cafes. The Robson lorries were extra distinctive as each had a name – “Border Reiver” and “Border King” are two I remember – long before the now more famous Eddie Stobart, also based in Carlisle, came along.
Sorry for the little trip down memory lane or should I say the A74. Whichever kind driver provided a lift, as the road started to head downwards towards the Solway Firth, our old friend Blencathra would come into sight marking the start of The Lake District. The GUMC visits were always to Great Langdale as the focus was on rock climbing. We camped as close to The Old Dungeon Ghyll as the landlord and the National Trust would allow. Happy days.
For the next thirty or so years the closest I got to Blencathra was on the M6 between Penrith and Carlisle. Marriage, children and work meant that home was always a long way from The Lakes. Then as retirement arrived, and with it more leisure time, we started to make The Lakes a stop on regular journeys by car from our home in Southwest London to Scotland. And our stopping point was no random choice, it was The Horse & Farrier in Threlkeld, literally at the foot of Blencathra. Each time we spend a few days there we take a walk on its slopes sometimes heading for the top.
And so, from those very early memories in the late 40’s of seeing Blencathra from the London to Glasgow coach, through a more intimate acquaintance in the 1950’s and 60’s and my first ascents, life has come full-circle and the mountains has regained a place in our lives and our hearts. The plans by the current owner, Lord Lowther, to sell the mountain to pay tax debts, provide an ideal opportunity to campaign to get the mountain into public ownership. Please support this campaign via Blencathra Petition or on Facebook at Friends of Blencathra.