Blencathra – A Mountain Worth Fighting For

The day started at Scales, a hamlet on the A66 between Penrith and Keswick. Our route was to take us to the summit of Blencathra via Sharp Edge. This popular route involves a trek up a valley till you meet the ridge descending from the summit and gaining about 1,000 feet along the way. The track then turns left and climbs more steeply uphill towards the aforementioned Sharp Edge. And “sharp” it is. But for us gazelles it was a doddle. Soon the summit loomed into view with its panorama of the Lake District to the South and the Solway Firth and Scottish Southern Uplands to the North. Absolutely magnificent. Then it was a run down the steep, rocky ridge of Halls Fell, a left turn at the bottom and back to Scales. A great mountain and a great day of walking.

I wish I was writing about today but sadly those days are long past. The above reminiscence describes something that happened nearly sixty years ago when I was about fourteen or fifteen. It wasn’t my first time on Blencathra but it was the first time under the leadership of “Dan” Archer, a senior teacher at Carlisle Grammar School, who took boys who he judged really had a love for the serious walking, out onto the hills. They were happy days as we learned the skills and pleasures of mountaineering in the Lake District and the high hills of Scotland.

So back to the present time. When we had arrived at the Horse & Farrier in Threlkeld the previous evening, our brand new Friends of Blencathra T-shirts were waiting in our room thanks to Richard Mattinson of Stitch & Print, the Royal Mail and Jooles and staff at the H&F. The shirts needed a serious airing so where better to give them their maiden voyage than on the mountain itself.

The morning dawned full of promise. The sky was blue and the wind was light. It felt like a perfect day for our adventure. But first we had to stoke up for the day with a delicious H&F full English breakfast. Cereal with fruit; bacon, sausage, mushrooms and scrambled eggs; coffee; toast and marmalade; superb. Having such an excellent start to the day meant that we only had to carry cereal bars, fresh and dried fruit plus lots of water to sustain us on the mountain.

Soon our boots were on, day packs ready and Blencathra was calling. The route we had chosen for today was via the ridge that goes over Hall’s Fell. There had been a little humming and hawing about which route to take but who could resist Wainwright’s description:

“For active walkers and scramblers, this route is positively the finest way to any mountain-top in the district. It is direct, exhilarating, has glorious views, and (especially satisfying) scores a bull’s-eye by leading unerringly to the summit-cairn.”

So we set out to the eastern end of the village, took the road leading upwards, joined a bridle path and soon we were passing through Gategill Farm, the home of the Blencathra Foxhounds. On the top side of the farm there is a walkers’ gate leading to a path through a stretch of woodland beside the tumbling waters of Gate Gill. And at the end of the woodland you are out onto the open hillside where the path meets with another one that basically contours round the southern slopes of the mountain. It’s at this point that the steepness of the route starts to become more obvious and reaching the summit takes on a challenging air. Looking at the map we were now at about 200m (~650 feet) and the top is 868m (2847 feet). So there were approximately 660 metres to climb. Distances and heights sound more manageable in metric.

A party of about ten or so twenty-somethings were just starting out. This was a signal to us to find a comfortable bit of grass for a rest whilst we watched them shoot upwards. It soon became apparent that they were far from “shooting” more “trudging” upwards. We set off about 10 minutes behind them and they were still clearly in view.

The path up Hall’s Fell is well used and so is very obvious – no route finding required at least not in perfectly clear weather. The path zig-zags to lessen the steepness but in parts is quite rocky and needs careful footwork. We began to miss our walking poles which we had inadvertently left back at home, 300 miles away. The hillside rises in steps so that at any one time you can only see 100 metres or so of the path ahead. We surprised ourselves by noticing that as we climbed ever higher that the party ahead never seemed to get any further away. Maybe we were fitter than we thought.

Wainwright was spot on when he talked about the glorious views. Today was clear and sunny, almost perfect for seeing the distant, and the not so distant, tops. As we walked, looking to the east, were the Pennines with Cross Fell, the highest in the range, clearly visible. The most northerly mountain of the Pennines, Cold Fell, was visible but clouds were building up behind it. To the south and west most of the high tops of the Lake District were visible. The most prominent, perhaps due to a trick of the light, was Great Gable a superb mountain which, in my younger days, had great scree slopes. Are they still there?

Eventually we arrived at the top of Hall’s Fell approximately half way to the summit. We found a nice grassy mound and sat down for an extended break. Looking up the summit ridge we could see a scattering of walkers and a few on the top. There were more walkers silhouetted against the skyline as they approached the top along other ridges from the east and the west. In total we could probably see about 20 -25 people all climbing the magnificent Blencathra. How many other mountains can attract so many people on one mid-week day, albeit in early July.

Looking ahead we could now see more of the scale of our task. The grassy slopes turned to rocks and the going got steeper. But, time to press on. As the rocks increased in size we found ourselves, from time to time, having to use handholds to keep our balance. Those walking poles in the cupboard at home were now being sorely missed. Still, onwards and upwards.

And then we reached 663 metres (2,175 feet) or at least that is what the Route Tracker app on my phone indicated. We sat down, had a long drink of water, an energy-packed cereal bar each and contemplated the increasing steepness and the rocks of the route above. Were we really up to it? Continuing upwards was feasible for us, in our eyes, but the descent, without the aforementioned carelessly forgotten walking poles, was leading to some concern. After a short pause we uttered in unison, “discretion is the better part of valour”. Our minds were made up.

This is the first time I can remember ever abandoning the ascent to a summit of any mountain except when forced by bad weather or descending nightfall. And this wasn’t any old mountain, it was BLENCATHRA. And we were wearing THE T-SHIRTS. What ignominy. Age is a bugger, it creeps up and bites you sharply in the bum.

Still it was a lovely day – warm and sunny with a gentle breeze – so we sat for a while and gazed upwards towards the summit and across to the ridges. The more we looked the more people we could see enjoying a day out on one of the Lakes finest mountains. Our contemplations were interrupted by another couple arriving from below. After a brief chat they uttered those same fateful words “discretion is the better part of valour”, waved bye-bye and turned to head back down. They were actually possibly five to ten years younger, so made it much easier for us to get back on our feet and, with a noticeable spring in our step, follow them on the downward track.

As we re-entered Threlkeld, the call of the Horse & Farrier rang out loud and clear. We may not have achieved all we set out to do but a pint of the finest Jennings Bitter served by Mike made the world seem a better place. We will return and we will conquer!!

Footnote

Blencathra was put up for sale by the Lord of the Manor about two months ago and the Friends of Blencathra was formed determined to buy the mountain for the public. A few days before our adventure it had been announced that a bid from a private buyer had been accepted.  Then a couple of days later, thanks to the indefatigable FoB team, the mountain was declared a Community Asset.  As I write the future of the ownership is still in the balance so the battle continues. We will win and make Blencathra a model for future purchases of significant parts of our mountain heritage.

To add your support you can join more than 6,600 fellow determined enthusiasts at Friends of Blencathra

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About Clashgour

With my wife Margaret I am spending a happy retirement divided between our flat in Richmond, London, our villa in Kalkan on the Turkish Mediterranean coast and travelling mostly in the UK, Turkey and the US. When travelling we use public transport where possible, resorting to a car when it is the only viable option. This blog is an occasional diary of our travels.
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