In Praise of Small Hills and Wide Horizons

A view from Arnside Knott – an Insignificant Hill with Disproportionately Magnificent Views.

The most truly beautiful views of British scenery are obtained from minor elevations, of from 500 to 1,500 feet above the valleys from which they rise.

Mountford John Byrde Baddeley

This quote comes form the Thorough Guides series, written at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. I read it quoted in Nicholas Crane’s ‘Great British Journeys’. He was following in the footsteps of H.V. Morton who was in turn following Baddeley in climbing Drum Hain above Sligachan on Skye.

Until Morton led me to this spot, I wouldn’t have believed such a view existed in Britain. I have been there twice now, and will go back. Drum Hain stands about 1,000 feet above sea level, about three miles from the ridge, and forms a rocky viewing gallery at a mid-point in the arc of the Black Cuillins. Facing you is a single ridge almost six miles long. Only here, on Drum Hain, is it possible to absorb the ridge in its entirety. It is a spectacle of unrelenting ferocity.

Are you reaching for a map? Are you wondering when you might make it to Skye and check out that view for yourself? I am.

I’ve often discussed with friends the idea of compiling our own hill list – of Insignificant Hills with Disproportionately Magnificent Views. (Clearly, a snappier title would be needed). Many of the hills are pimples close to the west coast of Scotland, climbed when inclement weather, indolence or exhaustion have kept us of their bigger brethren. In fact I wish that I had kept a list because I doubt if I could find many of them on a map now. A small hill above a bend in the river by Perth, which I climbed with TBH when A was a small baby does spring to mind. Muncaster Fell at the eastern end of Eskdale is another worthy contender – not high enough to qualify as even a Birkett, but more deserving of a visit than some which are. Our own limestone lumps are also clearly good candidates, even if they don’t all pass Baddeley’s watermark of 500 feet. (Who said ’round numbers are always false?” ….ah! Samuel Johnson – the power of the internet.)

Nicholas Cranes’s book is a fascinating read, particularly if, like me, you missed most of the television series (it’s great that the BBC keep commissioning his quirky programs, but a shame that they are content to let them slip by unheralded.) I love the way he seems to be compelled to immerse himself in the landscape, sometimes literally when he chooses to ford a river or cycle an old pass in torrential rain. Each account in the book of a famous literary traveller of the past offers a window on Britain at the time when they travelled. It struck me the other day that many of the books I enjoy reading are hard to find in bookshops at least partly because they are so hard to categorise – in many ways this book is a series of biographies, with lots of history inevitably thrown in, but I notice that on the back cover it is listed as ‘non-fiction/travel’.

Not so long ago I read John Hillaby’s ‘Journey to the Gods’. I seem to be slowly picking up all of his accounts of long walks from second-hand book shops. This one covers a walk through Greece with his wife Kate. I first bought a Hillaby book purely because it was about a long distance walk. But experience has taught me that books about walks can be execrable – of the “Ate my breakfast. Climbed a hill. It rained. Climbed another hill. Pitched the tent. It rained.” repeat ad infinitum school. Hillaby’s is such a good companion because he is both a polymath and polyglot. Whomever he meets and wherever he is, he seems to be able to make himself understood and to understand in turn. And he’s so well informed – on history, botany, ornithology etc. A real renaissance man. As John Steinbeck wrote of his friend the marine biologist Edward Ricketts: “His mind had no horizons. He was interested in everything.”

Another Arnside Knott view.

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In Praise of Small Hills and Wide Horizons

Leopard Stick

Whilst I generally remained aloof from the horseplay on our Haweswater foray, I did eventually submit to the lure of sticks. I was beguiled by the markings on this dead branch on the woodland floor. B had his powers, I found my leopard stick.

This is the surface of the wood beneath the bark, which has fallen off. Presumably these patterns are in some way part of the process of decay? Anyone know anymore?

Leopard Stick

Horse Lassitudes

Our walk on Sunday, a circuit of Haweswater, was always destined to be gently paced, since S was walking rather than lording it in his own personal houdah. But then we found so many distractions to hold us up still further. There were the snowdrops already mentioned, but the principal form of entertainment was provided by sticks. Picked up at the start of the walk as walking sticks, they quickly became, briefly, weapons – first staves, then guns, before mutating into gates: “What’s the password Dad?”

But it was when they fleshed out into horses that the fun really began.

We had to find smaller sticks to use as crops. And somebody has clearly been subjecting S to that sentimental Rolf Harris number ‘Two Little Boys’ (do the NSPCC know?), because he soon joined A on her mount…

Progress never threatened to rise as far as a canter – there were no ‘legs furiously pumping their stiff green gallop’ here.

Eventually we left Eaves Wood at Waterslack, crossed the railway and the road, into the Sixteen Buoys field. S particularly enjoyed clambering over all of the stepped stiles in the drystone walls.

In Sixteen Buoys our sticks underwent a magical transformation…

 

The three horses were very pleased to see us.

Well, very pleased to see our apples, which didn’t remain on view for very long, since they were soon snaffled.

A scrounger to perhaps rival a Fatdog, a cairngorm reindeer, the aggressive Mam Tor sheep or my mate Uncle Fester, the largest of the horses was eyeing up S once the apples were gone, or at least that’s what S seemed to think.

Into Gait Barrows National Nature Reserve, the moles are thriving here and the molehills have spread across the field. There are plenty of rabbit holes too. A ‘fell’ into one, but didn’t report any White Rabbit experiences.

Back in the woods around Haweswater, S helped me to photograph the snowdrops and then took a well deserved rest…

Further round, where the path crosses a boardwalk by the lake and there are benches, we stopped for a snack. The sun came out and it felt positively balmy, not like February at all, quite spring like in fact.

B had collected a motley assortment which he referred to as his ‘powers’, (because he is a ‘power ainjer’) – a couple of snowdrops, an interesting piece of bark, some pine cones and some snail shells. We bumped into his friend C and her mum as we headed for Moss Lane. He gave her his snail shells, retaining the largest for himself naturally, she fished in her pocket and produced a stone and tuppence to give him in return. All the children had been flagging by now, but B perked up and he and C wandered up Moss Lane together chatting contentedly. A meanwhile helped me with S who had finally decided that we were walking in the wrong direction and that we really ought to explore some of the gardens along the lane. This often happens – he doesn’t seem to trust my route finding.

Horse Lassitudes

Mist, Sand and Victorian Rubbish

Out on Friday with all the family and our house guests, my cousin, his wife and their youngest daughter. Our route was short – down to the Cove and across the Lots, but took a long time because S walked a lot of the way, and because we stopped for quite some time at the Cove.

On the way to the Cove I was surprised to discover primroses flowering on the grassy bank on Cove Road. I shouldn’t have been since I find that I was equally surprised when I found them there a week earlier last year.

Views form the Cove were quite restricted by the mist…

I’m intrigued by this large post seen here poking out of the water in the channel. It was revealed by the erosion of the substantial marshy foreshore which used to extend someway out into the bay here. I’d love to know when it dates form and what it’s purpose was.

TBH accompanied the kids for a clamber up to the small smelly cave in the cliff…

The ‘beach’ here is usually muddy, but today it was a mixture of mud and sand. We drew pictures in it, and clambered on the rocks…

A and B collected various shards of pottery – their treasure, whilst I found another remnant of the Victorian tip here – a glass bottle stopper.

Our newly sandy beach.

Despite the sand, A managed to find a revoltingly slimy mud which she rolled into a ball and insisted on bringing home: “It’s clay Dad!”.

On the cliff-top path which climbs up to the Lots, there are a couple of benches. I’ve photographed a very confident robin here before. This time a robin sat very nonchalantly on the wall, perhaps the same one, given how fiercely territorial robins are.

When it eventually moved, it was only to move closer to sit on the back of the bench.

 

I love the detail of the texture of the feathers on these photos. I’m also struck by how very spherical this bird is. When I draw robins (I’m an inveterate doodler) I tend to start with a circle for the body – not quite as inaccurate as I thought?

Mist, Sand and Victorian Rubbish

Snowdrops

Heading homeward from the Wolfhouse Gallery after our walk on Thursday, S fell asleep in the backpack. He and I left the others to go for their lunch, whilst we took a slightly longer route home in order to prolong his nap. At present, any walk around the village is a snowdrop walk. These snowdrops are flowering in an old orchard near Silverdale Green.

Here are more on the verge of the lane from the Green:

In general, the best places to look for Snowdrops is on the lanes. Moss Lane and the Row are both spectacular. These snowdrops are in Bottoms Wood…

…but they are in the corner of the wood, just beyond the wall of the garden at Bottoms Wood Cottage.

Apparently, it’s not at all certain that snowdrops (or more descriptively snowpiercers) are native to the British Isles. Generally they are found near to houses and villages and are also particularly associated with churches and monasteries – perhaps due to a connection with the Feast of the Purification of Saint Mary celebrated on the second of February.

Today, on a circuit around Haweswater, we passed the one place I know where snowdrops grow in profusion in an apparently wild state, although Challan Hall is not too far away and further along the path there is a curious abandoned building by the lake.

It’s easy to think of snowdrops as small, simple white flowers, but there’s more to them than that…

Snowdrops

Signs of Spring at Woodwell

For various reasons we missed our doses of fresh air therapy for several days. (Although we did have a wander around the fabulous National Railway Museum at Shildon. I must admit that until last week I had never heard of it and I thought that the National Railway Museum was at York, but if you are in County Durham, fancy a free day out, and like trains, then it’s recommended.) It became apparent that we were starved of good walks when instead of suggesting ‘soft play’, the zoo or swimming for a half-term day out, the kids requested a trip to Woodwell (they do expect to use the playground and be treated to cake at the Wolfhouse Gallery as part of the walk).

On the walk down TBH drew my attention to a garden pond by the path.

“That looks like a real Heron.”

“It is a real Heron!”

The bird was so stationary, intent on the pond, despite our proximity, that she took it for one of those models that householders use to deter herons from snaffling their goldfish.

In Bottom’s Wood a few spears of Ramson leaves thrust through the leave litter.

The hazel catkins have opened.

The woods thrummed with bird song. At Woodwell I heard my first drumming woodpecker of the year. TBH mocked my enthusiastic identification of robin and great tit song – “Your two birds”. She has a point – I was baffled by everything else. Trying to find the source of a strident piping I saw two nuthatchs. One seemed to be chasing the other. (You can hear the call here.)

The fields around the Wolfhouse were home to many lambs. These two were fairly steady on their pegs…

…and were already indulging in robust head-butting games…

Some of their peers, I assume more recent arrivals, still had their umbilical cords dangling, and seemed to be wearing ill-fitting coats…

This fellow seemed particularly lacking in confidence…

…and very shaky when he stood up…

 

…but, like our own little ones, was in no doubt about what he wanted…

…or how to get it.

 

The mild spell has arrived at exactly the right time for these lambs. I enjoy a cold snap, and would have welcomed more snow in this area, but the tentative steps of a nascent spring are most welcome.

A ‘stirring the pot’ – the spring below the cliff at Woodwell.

Signs of Spring at Woodwell

Heaven 17 and the Strange Case of the Missing Birketts

I’ve never heard of Birketts before now. What random set of rules are there for Birketts, Mark?

The Birketts are listed in the book ‘Complete Lakeland Fells’ by Bill Birkett. Not to be confused with Marilyns, Nutalls, Hewitts or Wainwrights alternative hill lists covering the same or a greater area. The ‘random rules’ are indeed arbitrary, or at least unclear:

In deciding just what to classify as a top I have applied various criteria both to the 1:25000 OS maps and to the actual physical form on the ground.

So secret criteria then. One overt criteria is that the fells must be over 1000 feet high. Another is that they must lie within the national park. So Benson Knot above Kendal, and further east Lambrigg Fell, Docker Fell and Roan Edge are all out. These four are only just over a thousand feet and the last three are all hard by the M6, but to my mind at least, it’s logical to include all as Lakeland Fells and they can be strung together to make a very pleasant walk.

I seem to have somehow managed to bag 17 Birketts so far this year, and I’m not really supposed to be bagging Birketts. Funny little blighters aren’t they? – some real gems and some where the only question can be “why?”

 

I would like to bag 17 all year. Mike lives a charmed life.

After this exchange in comments on a previous post, and a sudden rush of blood to the head, I decided to take the latter as personal challenge and resolve to climb at least 17 Birketts this year. I was thinking that since I had already ticked off 3 on Sunday, this was a manageable total to aim for. Repenting at leisure, I realised that in January I had actually walked over another 5 Birketts, namely Tarn Crag, Sergeant Man, High Raise, Calf Crag and Gibson Knot. What’s more if we hadn’t skirted around the top of Codale Head, dropped off the ridge just short of High White Stones and left Helm Crag for another day due to failing light we would have had 8 that day. So with 8 down and only 9 to go perhaps 17 is not much of a challenge after all. Never mind – I shall stick with it, 17 is a satisfyingly arbitrary total to aim for, and as I have said elsewhere, I like targets which I’m confident I can meet or maybe exceed.

There are 541 canonical Birketts in total. If we allow my suggestions of the 4 above we could extend the list to 545. The problem with that would probably be deciding where the borders of Lakeland are, particularly in the east, if the National park boundaries are not used. So 541 then. Except that looking at the section of the book that deals with the Birketts around the Kentmere valley I found some other omissions. The description of the route over Brunt Knott above Staveley begins:

Unfortunately Potter Fell and its three tops, including that of Ulgraves, have had to be excluded from this walk because of access problems.

They are also excluded from the alphabetical and height order lists in the appendices. But because of the right to roam legislation, two of those three tops now fall within access land. Ulgraves still lies just outside. So – any Birketts completists reading: pull on your boots, there’s two more to bag (or three depending on your attitude to a little harmless trespass).

So 544, excluding tops beyond the National Park (I notice that there are several more potential tops between the A6 and the M6 which are excluded, above the Lune Gorge, around the ‘other’ Borrowdale if you know it). At a rate of 17 a year that’s exactly 32 years. (There’s clearly some kind of magic at work here, can it be just coincidence that 544 is a multiple of 17?). Of course, I have climbed a lot of them before, but it seems somehow ethical to make a clean start and blog them all. Hang on though – I’ve already blogged two last year – Scafell and Slight Side. 10 down and 534 to go. It’s a doddle this armchair bagging.

 

The uncredited quotes come from Bill Birkett’s book, Ken at Where The Fatdog Walks, Mike at northern pies, and Martin at Summit and Valley.

Heaven 17 and the Strange Case of the Missing Birketts