Back to the fells
Posted on June 2, 2020
Bogbeans send twin leaves skyward. Some are in flower. Black lambs watch on and skylarks send their trilling tunes into a pure blue sky. Cotton grass sways ever so gently in the breeze. The clear air is crystalline, and we are caught in a kind of hiatus in time, as if the sky itself is pausing, waiting for the approach of a distant cloud.
In this wide spread of wet, springy ground I’ve found a bare rock to sit on - most rocks are completely hidden under mosses and grasses that have grown cushion thick. And here I rest, enjoying the sensation of sun warming my skin, and I simply watch as long grass shimmers from green to silver-white when the breeze rises, and floating plants mirror themselves in a water-held sky.
By our reckoning, it’s almost five months since we’ve had a long walk in the fells. With the country in lockdown we’ve been staying to our own small patch, walking probably no more than three miles from our door in any direction. And prior to lockdown our days were taken up with work that kept us docked at our computers, or visiting specific locations. To be out among the fells again is a dose of soul-food, and a reminder, if ever we needed one, of how fortunate we are to be able to access places like these.
We ummed and aahed about when and where to go. Now, with official restrictions on day trips being lifted, we felt we could now head into the hills. But we wanted to keep our impact as light as possible. We decided not to visit a popular walking destination because we weren’t keen to add our car and our footfall to hundreds of others. We chose Moasdale, a wide valley that rises northwards from the low point between the two high passes of Wrynose and Handknott. It’s well off the beaten track, with paths crossing wide open spaces, without any need to pass through farmyards or houses. In the whole day, we saw just two other people a few hundred yards from us. Our now all-too familiar habit of social distancing was easy to keep, and here we were also being treated to one of the most breathtaking views: the land spread out in vast bowls below the dramatic wall of the Scafell Massif.
A few weeks ago we watched ‘The Great Mountain Gather’ on TV, something that, in its slow considerate filming, brought the qualities of the fells right into our living room. It made me miss the fells more than I thought I had been. I began to yearn again to be out there, watching the shift of light over grass-covered ledges on towering crags, hearing the sound of skylarks and the play over water in the becks, and feel that sense of scale - to be so small in an amphitheatre of hills, where the detail of grass and lichen is as remarkable as the mountains themselves, offers a chance for body and soul to realign, to become refreshed.
Although in lockdown we’d both found a lot of pleasure and solace from our local area, and we feel so grateful that we are surrounded by so much green (here), we have been aching to get back to the fells and, quite literally, to plug back in and reset. It’s so fantastically good for a sense of wellbeing, and it’s wonderful to share it: Rob and I so often walk on our own but today we’re with my daughter Rosa, who’s been living with us since her university closed in March and has been, like us, itching to get out.
It’s not only the physical sensation of being out that is so satisfying, though: there’s also the delight of sitting in the middle of it all with a map, matching features on paper with what’s right in front of us, and reading out names. There’s something about the blend of Norse and Cumbrian dialect, and the bringing together of animal, mineral and experiential, that I just love: these names tells stories of how it has been shaped, who has been here, and which animals pass by. I find Rest Gill, Swinsty Gill and Yeastyrigg Gill running into Lingcove Beck, which feeds into the River Esk further downstream. There’s Sampson’s Stones and Tom Fox’s Crag, Adam-a-Cove and Ray Crag; Green Hole, Round Scar and Churn How; Heron Stones, Brock Crag and Throstle Garth. A throstle, or thrush, isn’t common up here in the bare grassy fells, but Throstle Garth and Throstlehow Crag rise just above a gorge that’s lush with trees, now in full, vivid green. This may have been home to thrushes for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
We began our walk today shortly after 8am, and within twenty minutes had lost sight of all roads. Our route took us past the bog, which has no name on the map, and up to a saddle of land below Crinkle Crags. We sat and stared at the huge rocky hulks of Scafell, Scafell Pike, Ill Bell and Esk Pike as we had breakfast, or maybe it was first lunch, and reflected on our memories of this same view last August, when we camped in this very spot, making a mark on the land for just one night, then leaving it unchanged except for the small impression of our tent in the grass, as if we had never been there. That night we chose our pitch very precisely, placing our tiny tent on a line that runs at a 240-degree angle from a single tree on the screes of Helm Crag in Grasmere (this was the eighth in a series of 12 camps, each one on a precise line, moving on 30-degrees at a time to complete a full circle).
After reminiscing about the drama of sunset and the wet night last year, we wandered on, following a path towards Bowfell, then joining Lingcove beck and turning back to trace the beck southwards and head up Hardknott Fell for a final high before ending the walk.
1310 ... Nearly at the summit of Hardknott, we’ve stopped by a tiny tarn, more of a puddle really, with cotton grass blowing at its edges. A stiff wind shouts in my ears and makes my skirt flap around my knees. I’m looking towards the great wall of the Scafell massif, round to Bowfell and Crinkle crags. It’s a dramatic skyline, all boulders and steep rugged rock. These hills have been had their status raised by superlatives - England’s highest peak pushes, brown and dusty, into the blue sky. But there’s something equally remarkable about the quiet valleys below these named giants. It’s the kind of landscape that has nothing to add in terms of superlatives but is nevertheless utterly remarkable, quietly special. The ground undulates with crags and huge knobbly outcrops that make shadows from sunlight and have settled in like patient watchers, observing the passing of aeons. Spring water seeps out of wet peaty earth, and flows in deep, glass-clear channels, liquid worlds of green and brown weeds, and occasional fish. Sphagnum moss spreads between rocks, marking years in depth and slowly, slowly, adding to the thick brown wealth that is peat. In amongst the moss and grasses, tiny red sundew leaves catch the glint of sunlight in the sticky drops they produce to trap flies, tormentil turn their four-petalled faces to the sky, and purple flowers emerge from the tongue-like fronds of lungworts.
Lingcove beck eases downhill over smooth grey rocks. In places, despite two months with barely any rain, the beck is deep enough to slowly sink your body into. We can’t resist, and feel the thrill of cold water stiffen our skin. In the clear water we’re almost alabaster. When I emerge into the warm, windless air, my skin feels like velvet, and I feel cleansed and revitalised - a very particular sensation I only ever get from dipping into a mountain stream.
The Moasdale valley is one I could return to again and again and find a different path each time, a different discovery. To observe a familiar place changing is part of the attraction: there’s a deepening a sense of connection, and also a chance to learn more about the land. Trees that have been planted in places are looking well-established; over time they will transform the look of that area and will be part of a connected corridor of woodland that runs the length of the Duddon Valley. And the spread of water, where the bog beans grow, is four or five times smaller than it was when we last visited in August 2019. Its shrinkage, and the way that once-wet moss has turned to pale grey, crisp patches of dry, reveal the recent lack of rain: in this area, April had 170% more sunshine than would be expected, and the meagre amount of rain that’s fallen since the middle of March is way below average. Across the UK, in fact, there are many places where recent levels of rainfall are the lowest since records began. We are, yet again, seeing climatic extremes, month by month, and the landscape, inevitably, reacts.**
Of course it will rain again, and this nameless dimple of wet land that harbours so much specialist life, will grow. It’s a marker of the rhythm of life in these hills. I remember how wet we were last August, when we left our campsite in rain that seems to come from every direction, and how delighted we were even in the wetness, our heads, necks and feet soaking. Today, our waterproofs stay tucked into our bags and we’re relishing the warmth of the sun, and the feeling, after so long, of our bodies feeling this wide open space, and our lungs breathing in such deliciously fresh air.
We’ll be making a few more cautious trips over the coming weeks, watching the land change through the summer, and gently building up our fell fitness. When it’s possible to go out for an extended period of time, we have a much, much longer walk planned: a multi-day walk linking the 12 locations of the Sense of Here canvas. We’ll be treading a wide, irregular circle around the National Park, relishing new dawns and dusks and encountering different habitats, views, and people as we go: a slow, considered way to feel the connections that run deep here and ponder all that we’ve learnt about this complex and beautiful place. The walk will form the final piece for the Sense of Here book and exhibition, which are due to launch at the end of September. And while it will no doubt present challenges, we know from previous experience it will bring far more rewards.
* Since first coming across a bogbean in September 2011, when walking in thick mist on the ridge above Buttermere, I’ve been fascinated by them. The Latin name is Menyanthes Trifoliata. This beautiful little plant, which flowers each year between March and June, forms floating mats. Here, dragonflies lay their eggs, and when the hatched nymphs are ready, they use the stems to climb out of the water, ready for their metamorphosis into adults.
**Dr Mark McCarthy, head of the Met Office’s National Climate Information Centre, says, “Although April 2020 will be remembered for being the sunniest April on record in England and the UK, along with the sunshine, the month was largely dry with mean temperatures well above average for most parts of the UK. The UK climate is warming, and it is notable that in a Met Office series from 1884 the Aprils of 2003, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014 and 2020 are all in the top ten warmest.”
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