Today we learn that being afraid of heights can be defeated with a little bit of help from friends and not everyone has the same expectations from a walk.
We’re in a large house in Newlands Valley. It’s regarded as one of the most beautiful and quiet places in the otherwise busy area near Keswick and, with the exception of the ‘interesting’ manoeuvring that is necessary as a car passes car or any vehicle overtaking mountain bike, it really is quiet and, at the risk of being repetitive, very, very beautiful.
Our temporary residence sits above a small hamlet accurately called Little Town and we’re surrounded by Causey Pike, Barrow, Robinson, Hindscarth, Catbells, Maiden Moor and Dale Head but the ones we can see are where we’re walking today.
Catbells, Maiden Moor and Causey Pike are three of many peaks just across the valley and whilst we’re looking forward to walking them, it looks challenging. The weather is forecast to be showery with some likely to be heavy and we’re at 2000 feet so it’s going to be cold which means hail could also be an issue.
As we have breakfast the clouds drift around the peaks. There is very little wind so they’re in no hurry and Carol is telling us that “…if you get a shower, it could hang about for a while as there is very little wind”. Well, that’s bad in one sense but it’s a positive too as we don’t have to contend with too much wind chill – maybe.
The plan is to get me up Catbells. In July 2015, we visited this lovely area and the team walked to the peak but I was nursing an aortic aneurysm so was restricted to a shorter loop walk that wouldn’t include too much exertion.
I didn’t know it at the time but six weeks later I would be lying in James Cook hospital following major surgery that fixed it and since then, the team have been trying to arrange a return visit to get me up there and, to say I’m looking forward to it, is an understatement.
The name Cat Bells may have come from a corruption of ‘cat’s bield’ meaning a wild cat’s shelter and may stem from days gone by when wild cats still roamed our countryside
The first kilometre of walking is along a quiet road that traverses the length of the valley and would normally be boring but when you’re in the Lakes there’s always something to look at. Even at night, this is such a dark area that when cloudless, the stars and planets are vivid and pin-sharp against the backdrop of black.
We turn off the road and immediately down, we’ve grown accustomed to feeling a bit cheated when we go down having not gone up because we all know the consequence! It is; however, across a delightful piece of land followed by Newland Beck and a bridge, we like a bridge, then we’re on the ‘up’. It’s not vicious and gives us a good opening workout as we look at the double peaks of Catbells so far above.
Our track takes us through Skelgill then we contour around the end of Gutherscale and after passing a couple of dog walkers reach the steps the top of which were the maximum height that I could achieve before my operation. If you have been saddled with a triple ‘A’ aneurysm please take care before the op.; however, after the op., in the words of the Nike ad. ‘just do it’.
I’ve looked forward to this for nearly four years when I saw the rest of the team disappear over the scramble at the top of the steps and I peeled away with a couple who didn’t want to go to the top because they had an issue with heights. I enjoyed the walk that I did that year and the views that it afforded but I still envied my mates going to the top. Now it’s my day and, whilst we’ve done a lot of things since then, this is the one to which I’ve really looked forward. (I’ve put a link to 2015 walk at the end).
It’s a bit of a zig-zag slog initially but the first scramble appears sooner than expected along with the first rain and hailstones. The hailstones are insignificant in size and far more acceptable than rain which makes the scramble moist producing a slippery surface and as a Catbells virgin it’s an irony I can do without! No sooner had I thought these words than the rain came and zips had to be zipped and hoods put on. The words that resonated with me were spoken by a mountain rescue friend who said, “It’s easier to keep warm than to re-establish warmth when chilled” and added that the latter is a near impossibility. So wrapped up and hooded I return to the scramble and watch the people in front who seem clueless so I pick my own route with encouragement from Dave.
The real challenge is when you raise a foot higher than your thigh and establish a foothold then pull yourself up. All of this is mechanical and no problem except, at our age, the ability to make that haul is a mystery. You know you used to be able to do it but not quite sure now. The other challenge is that you know that once your trailing foot leaves its place of safety, you have no idea where it was so going back is, at best, a guess and, at worst, a near miss. I go for the haul and slip, oh, and yes, my trailing foot has left its place of safety and is hovering in mid-air. Now here is the wonderful imaginative power of the human mind. Minutes earlier I’d been surveying the most beautiful vista. Derwentwater in all its glory surrounded by fabulous stone-scarred mountains cloaked in woods and capped by the moodiest cloud-filled sky but, most of all, it was a long way down. What is now going through my mind is the fact that I’m on a scramble a long way up; the reality is that, yes, I’m on wet rocks but they’re only ten feet up so if I do fall off, all I have to do is spread my legs and arms to avoid rolling and I’ll be fine; however, that would mean staying conscious. I do think about using my teeth on the piece of bracken sticking out of cracks between the huge stones then dismiss that in favour of concentrating on re-establishing my grip on the slippery stone and finding a crack into which I could lodge my trailing foot. Dave realises there is an issue and calls, “You all right?” By now I’m flat against the stones and my trailing foot is indeed hovering in mid-air and there’s a pain in my chest where a particularly large stone is digging into my ribs. “Yeah, I’m fine”, I say to Dave still with worrying thoughts about the height. I give another push with the leading foot that had slipped and this time I’m up and safe, “Yeah, thanks, I’m OK, well I am now”. I think my second response is met with more acceptance and Dave watches as I regain my composure and begin the scramble over the rest of the rocks. At the top of the scree/rocks, I check on Dave and he’s making good progress on what looks like a better route and I vow to do a little more analysis on the next scramble up to the summit.
At the top of the first peak, there’s a saddle with a wide track and any anxiety regarding height would subside as the width is such that there is no feeling of ‘Striding Edge” and the next two or three hundred metres is covered with ease. The final rise is a scramble like the previous one, it’s much higher but not as challenging and by adopting a more analytical approach and a bit of advice from Dave who’s already been this way a couple of days ago, we reach the top. We’re just in time to see clouds clear and blue sky is revealed with sunbeams scooting across the dales and villages nearly 1500 feet below (451 metres); in short, this is sublime.
We celebrate with the others up here and a delightful lady from Ireland named Laura takes a photograph so that we can all be on it. I ask about the North of Northern Ireland and she tells us it’s wonderful – note to self – put it on the list for future walking!
We stop for a while and take in the views from all compass points although there is significant cloud in the North and rain or hail can be seen falling like mist out of the bottom of the dark mass hovering above the mountains in the distance.
Someone says that it’s a bit of scramble up the last bit and that they’re surprised that it’s considered a good ‘family’ walk for children and grandparents alike, there is an implied question until Dave makes the observation, “We are grandparents, in fact some of us could easily be great-grandparents” – it’s a great walk and I’d urge you to do it.
We set off down Black Crag and start the long haul up Maiden Moor with only a couple of short scrambles to challenge us. At the top, we settle down to a bite to eat and talk about the views which are phenomenal. We decide on a split where three of the long-distance walkers will carry on to Dale Head whilst the others will return via Little Town.
As we descend Brunt Crag we meet our temporary neighbours who are living in the smaller of the two houses next to ours. They’re a wonderful family and we see them heading towards old slate mine workings about 200 metres from us. It’s slightly up and we can do without that at this late stage but decide to explore as I’d read about Beatrix Potter and her Mrs Tiggy-Winkle stories about the hedgehog washerwoman. The front of one of the lead mines on this moor is said to be the inspiration for her front door and it matters not whether this is the one – we make the decision that it is – regardless of fact and go in.
It’s pitch dark inside and our neighbours and new friends lend us a powerful torch so that we can go in and explore. It comes with some sage advice as we’re told to be careful 20 or 30 metres in as there is a vertical shaft covered only by a single plank. We resolve to walk to that and return without any dangerous jumping manoeuvres to test its springiness. The hole is not particularly high and I hit my head on the roof several times as I negotiate my way towards the vertical shaft. Dave’s already been there and is making his way back when we find a place wide enough to pass and he gives me the torch to continue the adventure. It’s an eerie site cast in the round beam of the torch, a single plank over a shaft of unknown depth one end of which is sitting on loose spoil. My plan was to go and look down it but the moving spoil beneath my feet helps me reconsider and I make my way towards the beams of light being emitted by the ‘phones of George and Dave who have taken up strategic positions along the passageway to maintain safety.
We return to the bright light of afternoon sunshine and squint for a while as our eyes adjust and we joke about graffiti that depicts Mrs Tiggy-Winkle as a ‘bit of a goer’ apparently. I’m not sure that Beatrix wrote that into any of her stories but there you go, ‘Peter Rabbit and the House of the Rising Sun’. Not an expected combination!
We continue the descent into Little Town and a tiny cafe shields us from what is becoming a damp, cold day where nice hot pea soup is enjoyed with huge freshly baked bread buns. You’d need to eat this on the way down, after a meal of this size, you’d never get up but it looks and smells spectacular and comes highly recommended.
The final leg of the walk is only a couple of kilometres (just over a mile) but it’s always a struggle. It’s an observation that we’ve made several times; the walk can be long or short, it matters not, the last mile is the hardest.
Thank you, George Renwick, Dave Rider, Bill Humphrey, Robin Wright, Peter Hymer, Dave Bowman and Chris Richardson.
Enjoy the snaps…G..x
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