Monday, 21 January 2013

Five little fishes - Jan 12/13th

I can see how the title of this post might imply a religious theme, but this would be a red herring.  Sorry, I didn't see that one coming until it was typed, but I think I'll leave it in now!  No, the religion angle is nothing to do with it, partly because I am not a person of faith, and partly because the fish I refer to are hills, not..erm..well not fish.

No.  When I say little fishes I mean tiddlers.  Small fry.  The tiny little hills among Wainwright's list of 214 that are either isolated or of such modest stature that unless offering another attraction are wont to be ignored or put off until later when they ought to be taken on and climbed - hence the ones I call "The Oughts".
There are too many of these little ones in Wainwright's guides; which isn't to decry small hills, but if you are Bill Birkett and offer a comprehensive account of the region, making mention of a small hill or a crag makes better sense than the huge song and dance made about dull fare such as Mungrisdale Common, or Armboth Fell by AW; although in both of those cases there is at least a grander walk to be wrapped around the duller hill if we wish.  The ones that jar for me are the isolated hills which Wainwright complains are without merit or hardly worth the effort, despite dedicating a chapter to them.  However, this is to caricature hills that might deserve a better reputation, and this is indeed what I found this weekend past - that some Oughts ought, so to speak, while other Oughts ought not.

I decided to do some of The Oughts the weekend of the 12th as I have suffered a heavy cold all week and despite walking five or six miles most days on the flat, I knew any climbing would punish me.  My theory was that I could take it easy concentrating on these on Saturday and if I felt OK, push onto something more substantial on Sunday.  In fact I got all my wild camping gear ready and planned an attack on the Dodds and related summits west of Helvellyn with the intention to get above Clough Head or perhaps even further, probably walking in the dark until a suitable spot to camp was found.

It sounds comically ambitious now.

I had decided to leave Kettering about 4am but despite setting my alarm woke about 7am to find the alarm was mis-set and I was late.  Facing another hour of delay before leaving and thus losing fully four hours of daylight for walking I re-planned.  Booking myself a single room at The Kings Head in Thirlspot I set off after 9am knowing that I would likely do little on Saturday and could decide what to do Sunday on the fly.

My intended Oughts had been as many from a list of seven as I could manage.  The list included Great Mell Fell, Little Mell Fell, Gowbarrow Fell, Binsey, Graystones (which would complete the book of Western Fells), High Rigg and Raven Crag.  All of these are quite distinct and require climbing individually; generally with a bit of a drive between them, although a walk connecting Little Mell Fell and Gowbarrow Fell can be contrived with the vicinity of Priest's Crag as a bridge between.  It's probably necessary to make a bit of a detour to achieve this if one doesn't want to ignore a short section of cart track marked as private with no access, which is almost directly opposite the path up to Little Mell Fell.
The first hill I targetted was Great Mell Fell, and with traffic delays and a couple of short stops on the journey up it was around 1.30pm when I got to the foot of the hill and put my boots on.  I gather from Wikipedia that this hill is owned by the National Trust and is considered free open land.  That's all very well but there's a fence all around it that implies private land, so it took me a while to find the right start point.  Actually, I always end up at the bit of road nearest based on the map, and its usually where everyone else is starting from too! So, I parked as close to the hill as I could.  A couple had just started off as I got ready and I decided that I would take the anti-clockwise path around the base of the hill as they took the clockwise.  I immediately found the path to be boggy and sloppy and difficult to walk on so after a couple of hundred paces turned steeply uphill and North to find firmer ground.  This tactic worked, but the hillside was steep and I realised that this tiddler was not going to give itself up without demanding effort on my part.  I was soon sweating and wheezing and wishing I was still in the car, compounded by my congestion and a bit of breathlessness as a result, but I always feel like that at the outset of any walk.  I ascended the forested part of the hill until the slope gave way to more open heathland and paths became obvious.  At about half height or so I could see a second couple on the brow of the hill almost out of sight, and shortly afterwards the first couple I'd seen too, who were a little way ahead of me. Just before spying them I'd stopped to take a couple of photos and was rewarded with a brief burst of golden sun which gave me a nice shot of burnished heathland and the gloomier distant hills. That's Little Mell Fell to the right.

This beautiful burst of sun only lasted a couple of minutes and then all was gloomy and it quickly turned absolutely freezing cold. As I approached the couple ahead I had a real momentum and rushed past them as the lady asked another couple returning from the summit if it was far.  I had a little smile as the answer came back in an almost theatrically exagerated posh voice.  At the summit I immediately fished in my bag for fleece and coat as I'd ascended in T-Shirt sleeves and suddenly stopping brought home how skin-strippingly bitter the wind was. 

The summit of Great Mell Fell is not much to rejoice over, though the OS apparently calls this dog's grave a tumulus, so it must be more significant than it looks, which is probably down to having possibly been a stone age burial mound.  I didn't know this at the time or i would have taken a couple of extra pictures to try to illustrate the point.  Nonetheless, I had now climbed the thing and could concentrate on more rewarding hills, although I must say, the view of the Dodds from this summit is impressive.  I was beginning to rue not having stuck to my original plan, but I could already see the white peaks betraying arctic conditions up there. Descent was rapid, as I took the more direct route traced by the path that starts clockwise at the bottom.  Perhaps a little boggy if the summit hadn't been so cold and frozen, but I noticed one or two very appealing wild camping spots on the way down, especially a lovely flat spot right next to a huge tree trunk bent horizontal by the wind such that it touched the ground for a good eight feet.  A tarp against that would be a snug den indeed.  I can't imagine why one would camp here though.  Its not on the way to anywhere and you'd need two broken legs to get be-nighted on this hill - I shouldn't tempt fate really.

Back in the car and considering what to do with the last hour or so of light I quickly checked my map for the easiest place to attack Little Mell Fell nearby.  A road passes very close to the hill and quite high up too crossing a shallow pass between Little Mell Fell and the small peaks near Priest's Crag, so shedding a good third of its height compared with anywhere else around the foot of the hill.  Several other cars and a group of walkers congregated in a lay by next to a five bar gate leading on to a cart track to the hill.  Through another open gate after a hundred yards a permissive path is sign-posted up the steepest part of the southern face with rights of way left and right to nearby hamlets.  I began to climb placing my feet in the well trodden sockets kicked into the path.  I know its erosion and all that but a "staircase" of this kind always seems easier to climb than a simple slope and I was high up and following a horizontal contour path for a short distance before zigging back up steeply again to the summit which flattens gradually as the trig point comes into view. 
The summit is a bit more formal and defined than Great Mell Fell, but doesn't really deserve any false respect.  Again though, the hill provides terrific views, and not least this time a great view down on to Priests Crag and Gowbarrow Fell which occupy two of the highest points on a long almond shaped body of hills and crags bordering the edge of Ulswater for several miles.   I eyed this temptation wondering if I could afford the time to hike along the undulating ridge from the vicinity of Priest's Crag to Gowbarrow and bag another tiddler.  Within ten minutes of this thought I was back down at the road and heading past my car to the gate opposite Little Mell where I sadly discovered a notice warning walkers away from the route across the meadow and onto the crag.  A real shame as I would have loved to ramble across the interesting ups and downs, especially by head torch as would be the case coming back.  I know I could have just ignored the sign, but if everyone does that I think we risk farmers denying access through permissive paths, and anyway, on another day I will make the slightly longer trip from further down the valley below Priest's Crag on a proper right of way.  Then if I stray a little from the path I am only bending the farmer's rules a bit.

So, I accepted the situation and headed off to my B & B in Thirlspot.

Although I was alone, the King's Head was fairly busy for an early January weekend and I found the lounge too full to get a seat near the fire so I went to bed early after a meal and watched Match of the Day while seeing off a nice bottle of white wine.

On Sunday morning after breakfast (the "full lard", naturally), I headed for Binsey in the northern-most part of the Skiddaw group - in fact in my opinion it has little connection with any other group of hills, but they are the nearest ones.  I had worried that Binsey would be horribly steep looking at the map but on arriving at the start-point I found it to be a nice gentle climb which started the day wonderfully. The wind was gentle and the ground frosted, so that as I walked the grass crackled and crunched underfoot. About half way up I met a lady descending who told me she was glad to be rid of the rain for a while and shortly after meeting her I could see the summit ahead.  I turned to watch her pass by and noticed the weak pale sun trying to penetrate the mist and cloud - it looked lovely!

When I arrived at the top I couldn't help but be impressed with Binsey's cairns and trig point and a decent wind shelter all distributed along a modest ridge running East North East.  I seem to remember wainwright saying that the summit deserved to be on a grander mountain, and I know what he means.  This isn't even a mountain by any measure I know yet has a better summit that Skiddaw in my opinion. 

As with all these Oughts, descent was swift, although a flake of snow or two told me the day wasn't to be as clear as the Mountain Area Forecast had predicted. Luckily, I like walking in the snow.

So, Binsey conquered, I was off to Latrigg which had the potential to offer me other things than merely another summit today.  Firstly, its got to be climbed, so I would get a tick.  But I also had an idea it may be easy enough to be climbed by my daughter, Ellie, who has learning difficulties and some walking problems; and maybe by my father in law Ted who is getting on in years and might struggle on a big hill.  However, I liked the idea of Ellie having a Wainwright to claim, and I suspected the view over Keswick would be worth dragging Ted up there in future.  All of my guesses were on the money, and on a nice fine summer day I will take then both to the top of this little hill. 

Actually, from the car park its a doddle with almost no height to be gained, but quite a way up if one were to start from Keswick, so the view back down in that direction is lovely - Worth the stroll anyway.

As I had been driving up toward Latrigg the snow was beginning to settle in earnest, and I wondered if I needed to get heading south before long or risk congestion and worse on the roads.  As I got down to the level of Keswick, I realised I was being a bit too cautious as the snow seemed to be less persistent.  So, while the going was good i headed off past Castlerigg stone circle and to St Johs Vale where I could begin my assualt on High Rigg.  the old Chruch of St John is a youth centre now and a gated road leads to this place terminating in a handy carpark which was empty on this day.  Quickly, out of the car, coat on, rucksack on and walking poles in hand I marched off up High Rigg.  This little crag is the highlight of the weekend for me. The ground was snowy and iced, and the wind had real teeth, but the interesting shapes of the crags and hillside made for fine walking.  The easily won summit area really seems like the peak of a much bigger hill with various cliffs, gullies and saddles between a complex of little peaks that present little surprises as they are explored. 

The actual summit has a distinct cairn and almost circular ring of rocks  which in dry weather would make a fine place to scoff a packed lunch.  But not today - the wind and snow were spiteful by now and I expected worse if I ventured anywhere else, so I descended quickly but carefully and headed into Keswick to see what I could find in the way of a bargain!!

Keswick was deserted, or at least as deserted as it ever gets, but I had a mooch in most of the shops and ended up buying nothing - good.  I've been caught by impulse buys too often when I've weekended in the Lakes, and little-isolated-hill bagging is the perfect way to get caught again.  I did notice, by the way, that keswicj is in a right old mess near the town centre - they seem to be digging up a lot of raods and big holes in the ground.  Something to do with a new sewerage and flood defence combination as far as I could see.  Anyway, it meant parking a decent way out of the centre and walking in, which isn't a bad thing. 

Following this little jaunt I headed off to have a crack at Gowbarrow Fell.  I'd decided I would find a way around that Farmer's restriction a bit lower down the fell and walk along the spine of the mini-massif to Gowbarrow.  Sadly it was now so snowy, my car couldn't get up to the pass I'd visited the previous day.  Maybe a front wheel drive car would have been OK, but I drive a rear wheel drive BMW which is fantastic on fast dry winding roads and absolute pants on snow.  I got literally within fifty feet of the top and it wouldn't grip enough for the last bit.  I had to admit defeat and turn round with about a seventeen point turn.  For a few moments I thought I was going to get stuck sideways across the road when it felt like my wheels were just spinning, but somehow it managed too turn and I headed off back down in disappointment.  This was enough for me to give up for the weekend and I headed to the motorway and began the long drive back down south only five ticks better off.  I expect the hills will still be there next time.

 As for distance and ascent, I can't be bothered to work it out with so many little hops.

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