All I ask for, at the end, is a last long resting place by the side of Innominate Tarn, on Haystacks, where the water gently laps the gravelly shore and the heather blooms and Pillar and Gable keep unfailing watch. A quiet place, a lonely place. I shall go to it, for the last time, and be carried: someone who knew me in life will take me and empty me out of a little box and leave me there alone. And if you, dear reader, should get a bit of grit in your boot as you are crossing Haystacks in the years to come, please treat it with respect. It might be me.
– Alfred Wainwright: Memoirs of a Fellwalker
The north-western fells of the Lake District have a very limited colour range at this time of year: the dark green of the conifers; the almost-lime green of moss and grass; the rust of dying bracken, fallen leaves and pine needles; the grey-green of slate; and dark grey of the peaks, silhouetted against the steely sky – or, if you are lucky, glowing gold beneath emerging patches of blue – tinting the choppy lakes…. Green; orange; grey – with the occasional silver glint of vertiginous streams, or streak of snow. A gift to screen-printers; and absolutely beautiful to behold – even in a howling gale, when the sleet is battering your face at over 40 mph…! (I’m a northerner by birth, and by inclination: so am allowed such masochism.) Fortunately, the wind was blowing towards Wainwright’s beloved Haystacks: cradling Innominate Tarn, as it should… – but adding my face to to the local palette: a glowing, windburnt ruddiness.
Such was an almost deserted Buttermere, early last Saturday (when everyone else – if the roads were anything to go by – was out, manically Christmas shopping). Pottering around a small lake is much more preferable, to my mind – whatever the weather: especially when you can count the like-minded people you meet on the fingers of one necessary glove. And my perseverance was rewarded. Even though the wind never dropped, it did clear some of the clouds away from the majority of summits – revealing their true glory, transforming threatening giants into warm-hearted friends: especially the “fell with the prosaic name”, Robinson.
The Buttermere valley is robbed of winter sunshine by a rugged mountain wall exceeding two thousand feet in height and of unusual steepness, its serrated skyline seeming almost to threaten the green fields and dark lake and homesteads far below in its shadow. No mountain range in Lakeland is more dramatically impressive than this, no other more spectacularly sculptured…. Here the scenery assumes truly Alpine characteristics, yet without sacrifice of the intimate charms, the romantic atmosphere, found in Lakeland and nowhere else….
As I walked, I found myself humming the perfectly-ambling-paced Prelude from Holst’s Brook Green Suite – used as the theme music for Eric Robson’s television series of walks with “A.W.” – and it’s difficult to think of a more appropriate accompaniment, even in such challenging conditions (although Brook Green, as a place, itself couldn’t be more different).
On a better day – better for my health, as well as the weather – I might even have hauled myself up Buttermere Fell through the welcoming Scarth Gap (as did one lonely, better-equipped soul – aiming to descend later past Green Crag… – who I met at the southern end of the lake, crossing Warnscale Beck at Peggy’s Bridge) to pay my respects to the man himself at Innominate Tarn. But the granite crest of Haystacks, today, and from this perspective, never looked anything other than its usual forbidding self: a suitable sentinel for such a private – and great – individual. As the man himself wrote: “The Buttermere aspect is the better known, although this side is often dark in shadow and seen only as a silhouette against the sky: here, above Warnscale, is a great wall of crags…. The only advice that can be given to a novice lost on Haystacks in mist is that he should kneel down and pray for safe deliverance.”
Once up there – and it isn’t that tough a climb, really, at around 400 metres – as I know from a youth filled with fellwalking: you will find nothing other than a rewarding, but tough, beauty – the perfect definition of grandeur – that will never leave you (and that you will find very tough to leave – as did Wainwright…).
Writing this, a few days later, on Christmas Eve, supping a pint of Wainwright “exquisitely lovely” golden ale, I can remember almost every step taken: beginning with the walk from the car park behind the Fish Inn; Rannerdale Knotts (“a mountain in miniature, and a proud one”) a perfect backdrop… – not just because the ground beneath your feet varies so much, in level, texture, solidity: ranging from smooth, manmade paths; the damp cushioning of moulding leaves; false friends of less-than-stable slabs of slippery rock; tree roots almost fossilized by the frequent tread of boots; and temporary waterfalls rushing across where the trail once was… – but also because of that allure: every short stride bringing a new perspective (as well as a new photo opportunity… – even with my iPhone battery dying halfway round, I took over one hundred photographs…!).
As I turned, at the far end of the lake, approaching Gatesgarth Farm, I had a real feeling of déjà vu… – Fleetwith Pike rising majestically above a small group of trees… – “Ah: so that’s where the cover of Wainwright’s The Western Fells is!” [And that’s where the majority of the quotations come from (being his last Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells: “Thus a 13-year plan was finished one week ahead of schedule…”) – along with a smattering from The North Western Fells – as he uses the valley of the Cocker, “jewelled by the lovely lakes of Buttermere and Crummock Water”, as a convenient boundary between the two books.]
Returning along the northern shore of the lake (including the unique Hassness tunnel), you certainly look more down than up – and I never once forgot to watch where I was putting my feet, as Wainwright often prompts… – although Whiteless Pike, once cleared of cloud, was a great target: and stood as encouragement to keep up the pace (although I must admit to flagging terribly at Wilkinsyke Farm: using the excuse of a young border collie’s eagerness to stop and rest my legs, before the wobbly charge of the last few hundred metres; a change of boots and socks; and a final peeling of layers…).
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
– Gerard Manley Hopkins: God’s Grandeur