After a family funeral in the North of Scotland we had decided to rest for a couple of days at the Horse & Farrier in Threlkeld in the Lake District, our favourite stopping off point between Scotland and our home in London. The primary idea was to have a relaxing walk in familiar country. Although we know the area around Threlkeld, and its big mountain Blencathra, reasonably well, it seemed a good idea to ask fellow members of the Friends of Blencathra for their advice. Which walk would they choose? Our main criteria were that there should not be too much height gain and ideally it should be a circular walk. But most importantly it should have good views of Blencathra.
The Friends of Blencathra is a variegated group of people whose goal is to buy a mountain, Blencathra. I’m sure we all have different motivating factors but, top of the list, is the desire to have mountains in public hands. In the United States, the centre of the capitalist world, the nation owns vast tracts of the country as National Parks. In the UK, we have so called National Parks but the land in these places is, for the most part, owned by private landlords. The public has some rights of access but, when push comes to shove, the landowner rules the roost. Anyway, enough of my rant, and back to the story of a great walk in beautiful weather and with spectacular views of our mountain.
So, armed with some great suggestions, at 10.15am on the 7th March having had a hearty breakfast and dressed in layers to combat the morning cold, we set out walking from the Horse & Farrier on the road towards Keswick. In my younger days this was the main A66 trunk road from Penrith to Keswick. Today Threlkeld has a bypass and only local traffic uses the old road.
Storm Desmond in early December 2015 and Storm Jonas towards the end of January 2016 caused devastation in the Lake District. Houses were flooded, bridges destroyed and roads swept away. Threlkeld itself was largely spared although the village hall floor was badly damaged. Probably the biggest local casualty was the trail between Threlkeld and Keswick that, for a large part, follows the old Penrith to Keswick railway track. Major damage, especially to bridges, means that the trail is no longer usable and will be out of use for a long time. There are now well marked alternative routes.
We followed the old main road down to the A66 bypass and crossed it at a marked crossing point. Even there, it has to be said, the A66 is a very busy road and getting from one side to the other needs a lot of patience and care. We then joined the road opposite marked to Castlerigg Standing Stones. Very soon we came to the start of the railway track trail. Posted at the entrance was an excellent map explaining the damage to the trail and showing the alternative routes. As we paused to read all the information, a party of four walkers appeared along the trail. They had been to look at the damage but said the trail was physically closed just a short distance away barring further exploration.
Our route stayed on the old road and climbed slowly uphill to Burns Farm. Just before the farm, a sign-posted footpath on the left led us across a couple of fields towards the farm buildings. In the first field there were half a dozen or so tups – young male sheep – grazing. It was here that we had our first good view of our target fells. Low Rigg looked inviting with gentle looking slopes and roughly 2km away. High Rigg was a different proposition with much steeper and rocky terrain and probably a further 1km away.
The path was well marked through the farm buildings. There was no sign of anyone about. We left the farm behind as we followed an old, little used, tractor track that wound its way between dry stone walls till it reached a narrow local road coming up from the valley of St John’s in the Vale down to our left.
We turned right and after about 100m entered a steep grassy field on the left through a heavy wooden gate. At the top of the field we found ourselves with a clear view of the rest of the path to the summit of Low Rigg. Turning around, facing the direction we had come, there was the most magnificent panorama of two great Lake District mountains, Skiddaw and Blencathra. They were far enough away to see their whole profiles but close enough to pick out details of ridges, lower tops and routes. To add to the whole picture, the top two or three hundred metres of both mountains were dusted with snow and the sky was bright blue. It was stunning.
To the east, in the far distance, were the Pennines, also bedecked with snow. And turning to look in a more southerly direction, on the far side of St John’s in the Vale, was the buttress of Clough Head and the long ridge leading to the summit of Helvellyn.
And, as if this wasn’t enough, a couple of hundred metres to the West was a beautiful bright blue stretch of water, Tewet Tarn. This was a perfect spot. Tremendous scenery with a hint of isolation. We had a rest here and soaked in the atmosphere before walking down to the water’s edge. The surface was frozen for about 5 metres from the shoreline.
Looking towards Low Rigg we could see what looked like a sheep standing on the summit. Then we realised that perspective and distance were confusing us. The top was a lot closer and the sheep was a pony. The path to the top proved a simple walk although occasionally the ground was a little damp. When we reached the top, we saw that our pony had a few friends grazing nearby.
The route ahead went gently downhill on a well-marked path leading towards some buildings on the col between the two summits of the Riggs. On the way we came up to a rather high dry stone wall that had to be climbed. There were slab steps leading up one side and down the other with a flat slab on the top. It all looked straightforward. But, from time to time, I have balance problems. They go with my mid-seventies vintage. I made an attempt to cross but soon retreated. Margaret had a go and within, what seemed like seconds, was standing on the other side. There was nothing for it – I had to get over. And so, with some very ungraceful scrambling, I made it to the other side. (Must find out who is responsible for that stile and drop them a line about catering for the older walker.)
When we reached the buildings it was immediately obvious that we would be spending more than a few minutes here. St John’s Church was a real gem. The first thing in the churchyard that caught my eye was a sundial. And the time displayed was exactly 12 noon. I checked my watch and it showed 12 noon. The next twenty minutes or so were spent reading the inscriptions on the gravestones and looking for family connections. It was all very interesting and, in part, harrowing. We didn’t look inside the church as we wanted to get on. On the way back, we did go in and it was as fascinating inside as it is outside.
The uphill path starts about 50 metres or so to the west of church gate at the far end of an outdoor centre. There was a choice of two paths, a left-hand and a right-hand. We chose the right-hand which turned out to be not the best. The ground was frozen solid with a light covering of snow and frost. This made underfoot a little slippery especially when we had to negotiate a rocky area. Anyway we were soon onto more even ground and joined the left-hand route which looked to have been more straightforward.
Looking up the terrain got steeper but the path looked fine. So we set out at a steady plod till we came to a small grassy platform – a good place to catch our breaths. Coming down towards us we could see a lone walker descending and using two poles at full extension to balance his way down steep, icy ground. When he arrived we got into conversation. He turned out to be associated with the National Park and was out recceing a walk that he was going to be leading for them in a couple of weeks’ time. Talk turned to the Horse & Farrier and he asked how we found the food. Great, we said. He said that he lived locally and a while back had had a couple of bad experiences. He was glad to hear our positive opinion and said he would give it a try again. We said our farewells and he continued downhill whilst we contemplated the route ahead. Although the ground was steep, over the years walkers had worn boot-sized notches in the ground. We decided to follow these and a good choice it turned out to be. Soon we reached another flat area and the summit was in view but a short distance away.
We followed the path upwards. The summit is rather rocky but the path took a clockwise route spiralling up and avoided scrambling on the icy stones. Then we were there – the top of High Rigg.
To quote a fellow Friend of Blencathra, “The small fells are often the best for views!”. And is she right or is she right. The top is only around 350m above sea-level (just over 1,000 ft in old money) but the panorama would be hard to beat. And we were lucky to get the top to ourselves and clear blue skies. We could see people in the distance but no one anywhere near our icy outlook. After about 20 minutes soaking up the views, the wind chill started to make itself felt and a bit of movement was called for.
With walking poles extended to full length, we headed straight back down to the church which was reached in around 15 minutes. As mentioned earlier, we had a further look at the church, this time from the inside. There was lots of dark wood panelling (Yew?) and slate complemented by a small but very detailed stained glass window facing east. It had a quite a warm feeling.
Our walk now took us down the narrow road to the valley bottom of St John’s in the Vale. On the way we passed Yew Tree Farm – maybe my guess about the church wood being Yew was correct. Then as we approached the beck running along the valley bottom, the effects of Desmond and Jonas became only too real. Long stretches of drystone walling had been flattened. The force of the water must have been tremendous. Two farmers were in one field looking at the walls. It looked as though they might have been standing there since the storms, unable to believe what they were seeing. Looking at the hedgerows judging by the debris left behind by the floods, the water must have been more than a metre deep in the fields.
Once we reached the main valley road, there were more signs of devastation. Stretches of the road had been newly surfaced. On looking closer, it seemed as though the culverts under the road had got blocked and had had to be dug up to clear the debris. Water was now flowing freely from one side of the road to the other. As the road took us closer to Threlkeld, a Council roadworks truck appeared. It was there to collect some of the many warning signs that had been positioned to advise of the hazards. This was a good sign in itself. Clearly the Council was getting on top of some of the repair work and the road system was getting back to normal.
Before getting into Threlkeld we had to cross the A66 again, and it was no less busy than in the morning. It was now but a 10 minute walk back to the warmth of the hotel and a well-earned refreshment.
This was really a great walk. It met with all our criteria for today and left us feeling totally at ease with these low-lying fells. The total distance was about 8km (5miles) and the height gained about 250 metres (not much more than 800 feet). And my trusty pedometer logged over 16,000 steps, well over my 10,000 a day target.
By way of a postscript, since that day I have read Wainright’s description of his walk over High Rigg and Low Rigg. He praises the views to Blencathra then says “…a splendid little expedition admirably suited to old and rickety fellwalkers long past their best.” Hear, hear!!!!!!