It’s been a long time since I visited the Old Man of Coniston. Probably more than ten years have passed since I was last in this picturesque Lakeland village on the shores of Coniston Water. Not much seemed to have changed as I parked the car and walked toward the trail head that would take me to Walna Scar, and then along a well worn route to the summit of this iconic Lake District hill. Snow capped the hills behind the village creating the perfect winter landscape. Although the weather was cloudy, the forecast was for sun later in the day and I set off in good spirits.
Just as the climb starts to get steep, the route passes through the decaying remains of an old mining operation. Dotted all around are spoil heaps, rusting iron cables lie along the path, bits of old machinery lay abandoned on the mountainside, and a metal tower from an aerial tramway lays toppled on its side. It’s an atmospheric, slightly haunted, place, a reminder that the Lake District has an industrial heritage and isn’t just Beatrix Potter and daffodils “fluttering and dancing in the breeze”.
This area was famed for its copper deposits and mining of ore probably dates from pre-Roman times. A big boost came when Elizabeth I brought German miners to the region to extract the copper. Production remained on a small scale until the 19th century, when the mines were enlarged making them the largest copper mines in the north of England. Remarkable really, given that it’s half way up a mountain. The mines closed in the late 19th century, but the remains of this history make for interesting exploration.
I carried on along the snow-covered trail past the small tarn of Low Water, which was partially frozen. It was then that the sun seemed to part the clouds and illuminate the mountains and the valley below. It was a magnificent sight, but the snow along the trail was getting deeper and the wind was beginning to blow hard. I made a small detour to the side of the trail to get a better view over the valley below, the wind made standing upright a real challenge.
I could see the final ascent to the summit and a small group of hardy souls were making their way through the snow fields. I set off after them, but the last bit of the climb was made very difficult by the increasingly ferocious wind. As I reached the summit the sun disappeared and low cloud swept across, obscuring the entire landscape around me. I trudged onwards and finally arrived at the cain which marks the summit. There, I found four people huddled behind it protecting themselves from the wind.
On a good day, arriving at the cairn brings with it the reward of wonderful views over the surrounding fells and over Coniston Water. When I got there, visibility was around 100 metres and a vicious wind was blasting ice crystals across the the mountain and into my face. The top of the mountain had become an icy wasteland, and the wind was so strong that just trying to stand up was difficult. What had started as a pleasant walk had turned into a hostile environment.
I’d intended to continue on along the ridge to the north, and complete a circuit back to where I’d started. The wind was so strong, the visibility so bad, and conditions quickly becoming dangerous, that I decided to turn around and retrace my steps down the mountain. This wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, the wind was howling up the mountain directly into me as I walked down. The cold was piercing and the shards of ice almost lacerating … and yes this is considered a fun pastime.
Finally, down the mountain, the sun reappeared and the clouds that had covered the summit seemed to have vanished. This happens a lot in the Lake District, where the weather can change remarkably quickly. I cursed my luck but was glad to be walking back in warming sunlight.