Birthday Jaunt: the Old Boy on Coniston Old Man

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Over the Easter Weekend we had fog. Lots of it. Not so much a blanket of fog as a well-lofted, thick, winter duvet. We judged the visibility by the number of oaks we could see in the field behind our house: sometimes it dropped to just one, at other times excitement rose when as many as three loomed up through the cloud and we began to imagine that the fog might be thinning and lifting – but no such luck.

Easter Monday was my birthday. A square number, but not 25, despite my best efforts to convince my kids to the contrary.

“What do you want to do on your birthday Dad?”

“What I always want to do on my birthday: climb a hill.”

There was room for some optimism, we were hearing slightly galling reports of wall-to-wall sunshine and soaring temperatures from elsewhere in the country, and the forecast suggested that the fog would be restricted to the coast. The selection of Coniston Old Man for our outing was a cunning ploy on my part; the boys are in Coniston House at their school and Little S has been lobbying for a trip to climb the Old Man since two of his classmates climbed it last year; bragging rights were at stake.

We didn’t get off particularly early and I was pleasantly surprised when we managed to secure a spot in the rough and ready parking area at the top of the metalled section of the Walna Scar Road as late in the day as eleven. As you can see above, it was still foggy then, but we didn’t have to climb far before hints of blue-sky began to appear through the murk. Pretty soon we were stopping to strip off layers as we climbed out of the cloud and into the sun.

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Rather than taking the very popular, and populous, path up to Low Water and onward through the old quarries, we opted to climb the Walna Scar road a little way and then take the path which leaves just short of Boo Tarn. The OS map (see the bottom of the post) shows a path skirting the modern quarry before joining the other route short of the top. In fact, this southern flank of the hill seems to be criss-crossed by paths. We kept choosing the left, western-most option and this eventually brought us directly to the top without meeting the other, busier, Low Water path. Our route, by contrast, was very far from busy: on what became a glorious, sunny bank-holiday Monday, we met only two other walkers between the Walna Scar road and the summit.

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Booth How?

It does look, on the map, like a rather featureless and perhaps tedious route, but actually the hillside is studded with small crags and some much larger, quite impressive rocky knolls.

Once we left the fog, the temperature rose quite dramatically. Just a few days before I’d seen a brimstone, my first butterfly of the year, much later than my first encounter usually falls. Now we had an embarrassment of riches, there were butterflies everywhere; I suspect peacocks and tortoiseshells, though none of them would stop to pose for a photo. The birds were thriving too: skylarks, meadow pipits and wheatears all welcoming with song the sudden arrival of proper spring weather.

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We hadn’t gone too far before Little S decided that it was time for a refueling stop.

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We found a real suntrap at the base of another rocky knoll…

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Like me, B wasn’t hungry. I busied myself faffing with my stove and making a brew, but he clambered on the rocks of the knoll.

Here he is at the top….

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(The photo was taken from the same spot as the one above, which shows the extent of the FZ200’s zoom.)

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We had to pause a little longer for some more clambering on rocks. (The camera was obviously watching at this point, I usually choose to look away – it’s better for my stress levels.)

Eventually, we were away again….

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It was really quite hot now and Little S was making fairly heavy weather of it, so we began to count steps together and got a reasonably steady rhythm going. A and B were already setting a cracking pace, but liked the idea of step-counting and so they joined in too.

Our westward trending route was bringing us sufficiently round the shoulder to reveal great views of the cloud drifting across Dow Crag.

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We were in no particular hurry and soon stopped for a second extended lunch break.

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To the south and west Morecambe Bay and the Irish Sea were still hidden beneath a sea of cloud. The views were pretty special.

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For the next leg of our ascent, S devised a variation in our step-counting regime: every 100 steps was rewarded with a sweet. And after 1000 steps, he plonked himself down for another rest….

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The hill standing out of the cloud on the right is Black Combe, whilst the hills just barely poking out of the fog on the left are Kirkby Moor – we could pick out the wind farm on the moor.

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I don’t always get to climb a hill on my birthday, but I’ve usually managed to fit something in at least close to the big day. A few occasions stand out of the fog of memory. My 28th for example – I was on Liathach above Torridon in the North-West Highlands with a couple of friends from work. The day had started sunny and pleasant, but on the ridge we were enveloped in cloud ,with no sign of a view until, with no real warning, the cloud lifted and broke in the space of just a few minutes. I celebrated my 30th by climbing Beinn Bhan with my brother. It was another glorious sunny day, this time with a fair bit of snow to add to the mix. Beinn Bhan is a great hill in its own right, but it also has superb views of Ben Nevis and the Aonachs, although it’s the lunch I particularly remember from that day – our kid had packed cheese and biscuits and some champagne which he had chilled by filling a plastic bag with snow and packing that around the bottle of fizz.

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They certainly haven’t always been blessed with decent weather; a very drab and soggy day with a gaggle of friends on Whitbarrow springs to mind. On that occasion, I think that the party afterwards was more enjoyable than the walk. I haven’t always had company either – one year I climbed Crinkle Crags on my own after work. I went via Crinkle Gill and I particularly remember the clatter of large icicles toppling off the rocky walls of the ravine as I scrambled along the streambed.

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The summit, and its attendant crowds, came as something of a surprise. I was anticipating that we would still have some way to go, but A and B – who had got a little way ahead of the rest of us – came running back, excitedly exclaiming that we had ‘made it’. They’d left their rucksacks near the huge summit structure (cairn doesn’t quite seem to fit) and now carried S’s bag the rest of the way for him.

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On the summit, Scafells in the background.

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Brim Fell, Swirl How, Wetherlam and Low Water.

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Dow Crag.

We took the Low Water path down. It was still quite busy, even though it was now getting into late afternoon.

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It had it’s compensations though – the kids were very excited by this lingering patch of snow….

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I suppose that some people might feel that the abandoned mine-workings are unsightly, but I was intrigued: I ought to find out more about them.

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When we arrived home that evening, it was to find that the weather was really improving there too…

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….the number of visible oaks was fast approaching double figures.

Coniston Old Man Map

For Little S, the phrase ‘Birthday Hill’ is indelibly linked to Carn Fadryn on the Lynn Peninsula. For me, it tends to be a different hill each year. Liathach, Bienn Bhan and Crinkle Crags have been some of the best amongst them, but none of those birthdays was particularly recent. The Old Man is destined to stand out as a highlight amongst those many birthday hills.

Now, next year I have a ‘Big One’ pending, one of those birthdays which tend to be regarded as a milestone (or a millstone? – depending on your point of view) and double a square number to boot. What shall I climb next year, I wonder?

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Birthday Jaunt: the Old Boy on Coniston Old Man

17 thoughts on “Birthday Jaunt: the Old Boy on Coniston Old Man

    1. beatingthebounds says:

      Thank you – the rate at which camera technology moves on is astonishing. This wasn’t a particularly expensive camera (although of course, that’s all relative). I think they are, but then I might be biased! And I did have a wonderful day – if there’s a better way to spend your birthday than climbing a hill in the sunshine with your family, I can’t think of it.

    1. beatingthebounds says:

      When you get around to it, I can heartily recommend this route – although I also like climbing it from Torver via Dow Crag.

    1. beatingthebounds says:

      Yes – it’s a hill I’ve climbed many times over the years. I’ve been there with a more complete cloud inversion and seen Brocken Spectres; I was once bodily lifted by the wind on Brim Fell; like Beinn Bhan I climbed it with my brother on a mammoth day during which I think we did most, if not all, of the Coniston Fells. All of these memories accompany you to the top I often find.
      Are you suggesting that I have the name wrong? I’m always ready to be corrected and was more than happy to concede the point, but then I read: “Coniston Old Man remains one of the best loved of our Lakeland Tops” this from Harry Griffin in the Lancashire Evening Post from the 13th of June 1947. He was reporting on Malcolm Campbell’s speed record attempt. I just found a collection of pieces by him ‘Heritage of Lakeland’ in the Oxfam bookshop in Lancaster. I’m very excited! I thought you might accept Harry Griffin as a higher authority?

  1. Now that’s a birthday to remember, couldn’t agree more that’s the best possible way to spend a birthday. Above the clouds days seemed to be common on my walks a number of years back but I’ve not seen one for ages or Brocken Spectres and Glories. We drove home from Scotland that and experienced the weather contrast. At Tebay it was warm and sunny, at the M6 South Lakes junction the temperature had dropped several degrees and the fog was dense. Belated happy birthday Fella! 🙂

    1. beatingthebounds says:

      “Above the clouds days seemed to be common on my walks a number of years back but I’ve not seen one for ages or Brocken Spectres and Glories.”
      I agree, but isn’t that because we went out pretty much every weekend, come what may? (And on several more days over New Year, Easter, Bank Holidays, etc etc. – we had much more chance to experience those things because we had more opportunities.

  2. “our kid had packed cheese and biscuits and some champagne which he had chilled by filling a plastic bag with snow and packing that around the bottle of fizz.” – love it! Happy birthday!

    1. beatingthebounds says:

      It was great! We did something similar for my Dad’s 65th. He wanted to climb Scafell Pike, which we did, and we took bubbly and an odd assortment of things he likes to eat for a summit picnic (liquorice all-sorts, cinder toffee, cold, cooked Lincolnshire sausages, celery, grapes – amongst other things, if memory serves me right).

        1. beatingthebounds says:

          An odd assortment, maybe, but all favourites of my Dad’s. (Mine too, come to think of it.)

  3. Love this post! I used to take my family up there and lots of geography and geology students. It’s one of my favourite mountains! Reading you blog is wonderful. You transport right back to gorgeous north west England!
    Keep the posts coming,
    Annie
    Red River Croft

  4. Just looked again at Wainwright’s The Southern Fells, Number 15, Coniston Old Man. He has a good old rant about the OS’s nomenclature, but fails to mention their use of “The Old Man of Coniston”.

    1. beatingthebounds says:

      Whichever one of the two possible versions of the name is used I think there’s no mistaking which hill we’re talking about! Am Bodach in the Mamores is an ‘Old Man’ too I believe so maybe the name has a lengthy history?

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