Postcards from Coniston – The Billy Nine Mates Tour

So Switzerland is a memory and after a brief stop off to wash my smalls and talk to the dog, I’m back on the road again. Millie gave me one of those looks that only dogs can do just to ensure I felt guilty but it was great to be back if only fleetingly.

It’s the Ramblings annual outing where we hire a cottage in Cumbria and walk. We had a very reasonable nine-thirty start and were across the Pennines in less than three hours. The drive was glorious through Wensleydale and arriving mid-day gave us the opportunity of a short warm-up walk around Coniston Lake in the sunshine.

There are very few people about considering the fabulous weather, not that we’re complaining, just an observation.

Coniston

We’ve decided on a walk that will take us parallel to the lake then dog-leg in to sit and take a few snaps along its shore. As we pass through the kissing gate we meet a couple who have been taking their parrot for a walk – it takes all kinds! Chris is quite taken with it and the parrot with him. The image keeps us amused for the next few minutes as we walk through the fields populated with sheep and lambs together with the odd loan cow. I’m told that the dalesmen and Cumbrians often keep one for their own milk. This one’s very docile and barely looks up as we walk passed giving its flank an involuntary stroke of affection on the way by.

Coniston water is lovely and always conjures up the slightly sinister image of the black and white Pathe news of Donald Campbell’s Bluebird as she began to skip on the ripples that were still on the otherwise smooth water ironically made by him on the first pass. I remember the cool BBC-English voice saying calmly, “I can’t see much…she’s upside down…she’s going…” and then we watched in horror as Bluebird, now upside down and clear of the water and travelling at over 300mph, hit the water, cartwheeled numerous times then disappeared in the spray.

We sat watching the black and white images on the tv and waited with bated breath but nothing followed until the timekeeper’s equally calm voice said, “Complete accident I’m afraid, stand by…”

He died in 1967 but his body wasn’t found until 2001 and he is now interred in Coniston Cemetery but there is still a macabre legacy, what is interred is minus his head.

This memory is now more like a story from the past and seems almost surreal as we soak up the strengthening summer sun and relax on the lakeshore.

It’s such a beautiful day and the company is so good. We’re looking forward to the next four days beginning with Old Man of Coniston tomorrow and try to identify the route as we walk back. The air is so clear and the sun is shining at an angle so the mountains and ravines are in a sharp relief that doesn’t happen every day.

Switzerland was great but sharing is even better.

The Yorkshire Dales, National Park post on Facebook encourages us to use nature to reduce anxiety. Maybe things are different in Cumbria!

The plan is to walk to Brown Pike along the Walna Scar Road (this is a bit of a misnomer as it’s barely a track but we know that) followed by a walk along the wide ridge to Old Man of Coniston Peak then find a way down either via the old copper mines or a more direct route that would bring us back to the cars and both are quite steep.

We park at the beginning of Walna Scar Road and feed the meter with four hours’ worth of coins with fingers crossed that we’d be back before it runs out. The weather is good but set to deteriorate which doesn’t bode well for the tops. The walk between the car park and Brown Pike is progressive but all ‘up’ and was chosen to avoid the harder but shorter direct route that could involve some scrambling.

We’re all happy with the decision and it does afford some astonishing views as we make out way along the stony surface trying not to stand on loose shale that’s a permanent hazard for all walkers not just elderly ones. It has to be said though that the consequences for a seventy-something-year-old may not be quite as forgiving as for a twenty-something so sticks are used to good effect and concentration is maintained.

The going is easy for a couple of kilometres but then the incline becomes more severe and we take the odd break not just to catch our breath but to take in the views and appreciate what we’re still capable of whilst speaking out loud our intentions to try to keep it up. It’s mutual support that’s got us to this level of fitness and it also helps when one of us may be struggling.

I can see the heavy cloud starting to muster in the distance and a moist curtain of white is beginning to roll over the top of Brown Pike as Berghaus and Paramo are extracted from rucksacks in a pre-emptive attempt to stay dry. In the short term, we may be a little too warm but we can live with that.

Wanna Scar Road disappears over the ridge and takes itself and its pilgrims along the contour to White Pike but we’re making an acute right to zig and zag our way to Brown Pike summit and it’s getting cold as well as wet.

I’m determined to get to the summit of Brown Pike as I’m on a mission to test my ability to handle heights. I’ve been on this mission for over 15 years and it’s beginning to show signs of improvement, especially after some of the adventures in Switzerland. I’m delighted that on this occasion I reach the top where the weather breaks and allows a panoramic view of Coniston and the surrounding mountains. I realise that I’m not paralysed with fear and take some time in between bursts of heavy cloud and rain to take in the fabulous scene beyond the escarpment on which I’m lucky enough to be standing.

This is where we part, Tony and I will be returning the way we came and the others will be making their way along the cloud-shrouded ridge on their way to the Old Man.

Our return is through dense cloud for almost two kilometres and we pass numerous others making their way to the top. Some are not well prepared for the conditions and I wonder why?

For the sake of carrying a bag they could give themselves half a chance and reduce the number of callouts for the emergency services! Oh well!

The rest of the team disappear into the swirling cloud and we wish them well as they fade in to the rain and heavy mist.

They get into the gully between the current range and the Old Man of Coniston to shelter from the vicious wind and manage a drink and a bite to eat before climbing onto the Old Man just as the cloud breaks giving them a superb view of the valleys below. George takes the opportunity to create a few snaps and then it’s back down to continue the return scramble down the fell side and back to the car.

This part of the journey is not without incident as they witness a helicopter rescue across the other side of the fell and a lady in trouble near the tarn when a huge boulder traps her leg then rolls aside leaving her in a lot of pain but, fortunately, still able to walk. There’s nothing to be taken for granted in the mountains.

Their return is welcome and tales are traded followed by fish and chips, beer and frivolity.

A great day, but let’s just say it was ‘a tad difficult’.


Hawkshead

Today is a slow day. We have a five miler planned, it’s mostly flat although we will discover that there is a bit of ‘up’ this will achieve our aerobic targets – not that we have any – but it’s good for us anyway.

We’re walking to Hawkshead along the shore of Coniston then over the appropriately named Hawkshead Hill and into the tiny village not too far from Esthwaite Water. It also has a smaller mass of water which is privately owned and has been the subject of scientific study by Oxford University. It’s called Priest Pot and whilst it attracts a series of ribald comments it does have a history and the reason for the scientific interest is that it has been unaffected by humans for two or three centuries.

Part of the walk is along a footpath as the side of the road but we’re lucky in that there is only intermittent traffic whilst I know from personal experience that this same road through the summer months would not be as enjoyable as it is today.

We pass numerous fields of sheep and lambs gambolling like excited children. They run across the field and jump almost vertically as if their legs are pogo sticks. There’s a pause before they challenge each other to races and they stampede across the grass en-mass before the game suddenly stops almost as quickly as it started and they butt under their mothers as they trigger the milk to make them grow. It’s a great spring sight and a joy to watch.

The middle part of the walk is through trees with crows, rooks and ravens all caw cawing and a flash of something moving at speed that turns out to be a red squirrel. It makes my day and we’re now all on high alert, it’s the only one we see today but we’re certainly ready for the next one. And I’m thrilled.

Hawkshead is a little more ’touristy’ than Coniston with plenty of cafes and the odd outdoor clothing shop together with a church that sits imposingly at the highest point. We take the opportunity for a meal and a walk around the village and I discover some information on the Priest Pot. Apparently, it was established as a discrete pool cum tarn by the monks at Furness Abbey who allowed the reeds and other plants to establish themselves and cut the tarn off from Esthwaite Water. The result was an easily accessible larder of food not too far from the abbey. It was victim to Henry VIII’s dissolution and was closed in 1537. It has remained quite untouched since hence Oxford University’s interest above.

Hawkshead must have been quite an important place because it had its own courthouse, gallows and a field area called Gibbet Moss where the corpses of the victims of the gallows were hung as an example to others.

It’s a lovely walk but the lift back to Coniston in Graham’s car is welcome and relaxation in the garden for the rest of the afternoon gives leg muscles a chance of recovery.

Enjoy the snaps. G x

PS: Some of the images are outstanding thanks to Peter Hymer who spotted the opportunity for some of the portraits and showed his 50 years of experience in his creativity. Plus George Renwick has a natural eye for a great shot and today, he’s coupled that with a new camera! Mine are the rest 🙂

Thanks to George Renwick, Peter Hymer, Rob Wright, Chris Richardson, Dave Bowman, Dave Rider, George Preston and Bill Humphrey.

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