The Vale of Nightshade, Furness Abbey

Tucked away on the Furness Penninsular in West Cumbria, the crumbling glory of Furness Abbey’s red sandstone is a glorious sight. It sits in beautiful countryside, known as the Vale of Nightshade, and despite its proximity to the towns of Barrow-in-Furness and Ulverston, it was as quiet and peaceful as I imagine it to have been in medieval times. It’s pretty easy to conjure up images of robed monks walking these grounds.

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey was founded in 1123 by a group of French nobles, including Stephen, Count of Boulogne, who would go on to become King of England in 1135. By the time Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537, Furness Abbey was one of the wealthiest and most powerful Cistercian monasteries in the Kingdom, second only to Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire.

The Abbey owned vast tracts of land across northern England, Ireland and the Isle of Man. They owned mining rights, fishing rights, built castles, ran farms and dominated trade in the region. They even built their own ships, on which they exported wool from their farms and iron from their mines. It was an enormous ecclesiastic money making machine, with a monopoly on industry, agriculture and trade. No wonder Henry VIII wanted to get his hands on it.

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Crook from an Abbot's crozier, Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Crook from an Abbot’s crozier, Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Much of what you see today dates from the 12th and 13th centuries, and even in it’s current state it doesn’t take much to see that this was a powerhouse of a place. Its graceful decline and picturesque location have proven to be inspiration for writers and artists. Turner made many sketches of the abbey and Wordsworth wrote a moving stanza in his great masterpiece, The Prelude:

Of that large Abbey which within the vale
Of Nightshade, to St. Mary’s honour built,
Stands yet, a mouldering Pile, with fractured Arch,
Belfry, and Images, and living Trees,
A holy Scene!

The really helpful and informative woman who sold me a ticket gave me a quick update on the conservation of the building – a necessary conversation as scaffolding is supporting one of the tallest parts of the building. The story of why was fascinating. Several years ago, English Heritage investigated the leaning walls of the main tower, what they found was both a major problem and a major archaeological discovery.

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Tomb, Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Tomb, Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

The monks’ 900 year-old ingenuity was the problem. They had built this enormous structure on marshy land. Their solution was to lay strong oak foundations upon which the abbey stood. Providing that the wood remained completely submerged in water, it wouldn’t rot and weaken. Then they diverted a stream for their own use, which can still be seen today, and by doing so they exposed the wooden foundations to the air.

This weakened the foundations and the ruined Abbey began sinking into the soft ground. Major engineering works were needed to prevent collapse. The upside of this was that during excavations to assess the extent of the damage they discovered the grave of an Abbot. Undisturbed since the Middle Ages, he was found together with his personal possessions, a hoard of medieval treasures including a silver Crozier and monks ring.

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Mason's mark, Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Mason’s mark, Furness Abbey, Cumbria

They also found the remains of the monk inside, it turns out Abbey life was pretty easy if you were in a position of power. The good life can have serious consequences though, the monk was described as a well-fed, little exercised man in his 40s who suffered from arthritis and type 2 diabetes. I doubt this is the same monk who is said to appear as a headless ghost riding a horse through one of the arches in the abbey.

Neolithic adventures, Birkrigg Stone Circle

On a whim, I left Swinside Stone Circle behind and headed to the other side of the Duddon Estuary to unearth a second stone circle, Birkrigg. Found near the village of Bardsea on the Furness Penninsular, it’s smaller than Swinside but Birkrigg still has a dramatic location on a fell overlooking Morecambe Bay. Thanks to the stone circles, it’s easy to imagine the connectedness of the communities that lived here around 5000 years ago.

Birkrigg Stone Circle, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Stone Circle, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Stone Circle, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Stone Circle, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

In fact, it was probably much easier to locate the stone circles 5000 years ago. Today, local authorities don’t make it easy to find these Neolithic monuments. There are no signs from the road and no arrows to point you in the right direction once you arrive in the general area. Were it not for a chance encounter with a local dog walker, I would probably still be wandering around the fells looking for it.

Birkrigg was originally much more impressive. It once had a concentric, double ring of stones with a ditch in between. This is quite rare in Britain, Stonehenge being the most famous example, and may mean Birkrigg had some special status. The outer ring had up to 20 stones, which have been scattered over time; the inner ring has between 10 and 12 stones depending upon who’s counting. You’d think this was an easy riddle to solve, but it’s more difficult than anticipated.

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

There is a superstition, attached to many stone circles, that it is impossible to count the number of stones. Every time someone tries they reach a different number. I’ve been to Birkrigg, have photos of the circle, and still can’t make my mind up if it’s 10, 11 or 12 stones. I’m pretty sure this isn’t Neolithic magic but, since we have little knowledge of the people who built stone circles, anything might be possible.

This area seems to have been highly populated in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, and although I didn’t see any, Birkrigg Common has several burial mounds from the period. Excavations in the centre of the stone circle in the 1910s unearthed human remains. Five people were buried there, all cremations, ashes from one was found in an urn that is now in Carlisle Museum.

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

After I’d wandered around the stones for a while, I went for a walk across the fell. I’ve never been to this area before and it’s a beautiful place, with tremendous views over the estuary and towards Ulverston. I eventually found my way back to the car and drove down to the coast. The tide was out so I decided to take a stroll on the sands. The vast panoramas from the sandbanks were spectacular.

Morecambe Bay, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Morecambe Bay, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Morecambe Bay, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Morecambe Bay, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Morecambe Bay, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Morecambe Bay, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Back to the Bronze Age, Swinside Stone Circle

Cumbria is a surprising place. Well known for the natural beauty of the Lake District, and its association with Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, there is a wealth of history and culture just waiting to be discovered beyond the obvious. The region might be a bit of a backwater these days, but in the Neolithic and early Bronze Ages, around 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, this was the centre of a thriving civilisation connected by trade to the rest of Europe.

Proof of this lies in the fact that Cumbria is home to an incredible number of stone circles. They may not be as well-known as Stonehenge or Avebury, but what they lack in size and grandeur they make up for in number and location. Little is known about the extraordinary structures that are dotted dramatically around the Cumbrian mountains, but they are the key to understanding the culture that flourished here millennia ago.

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

During the Neolithic era the central Lake District was the centre of a European-wide industry making stone tools. There were several axe ‘factories’, most famously in the quarries of Great Langdale and Scafell Pike, which made polished stone axes and other tools from green volcanic rock. They were prized items traded across the British Isles. For the time, the scale of the industry was huge, so much so that the quarries are easily identifiable today.

The same people who made stone axes in the Langdales, built Cumbria’s stone circles. If you find yourself in the neighbourhood, it’s well worth the effort to track down the site of these ancient monuments. I’d spent the morning in Millom, and Swinside Stone Circle is only a few miles from the town. I visited here in early 2015 on a cold winter’s day, and decided it was worth another visit on a bright sunny day.

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Known locally as Sunkenkirk – the Devil is said to have pulled down stones of a church that was being built – Swinside is one of the most important Neolithic monuments in Cumbria. It consists of 55 stones set in a near perfect circle, and sits on a flat, man-made area on the eastern flank of Black Combe. You can see the appeal of the site, there are spectacular views over the Cumbrian mountains, and access to the Irish Sea at nearby Duddon Estuary.

Although it’s slightly more accessible than many Cumbrian stone circles, Swinside’s position in the west of the county places it well off the tourist trail. On my previous visit I had the place entirely to myself and, apart from a couple of ponies and a lot of sheep, so it proved today. There’s a majesty to standing in this ancient place, admiring the views with only the sound of the wind and an occasional sheep bleating.

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Estuary near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Estuary near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

I spent a some time drinking in the views, and imagining the rituals that may have been performed here during the summer and winter solstices, before walking the couple of miles back along the track to where I’d abandoned the car. I’d not seen it on the way here but, as I reached a point where the track went downhill, the Duddon Estuary was shimmering in the sunlight before me. Truly beautiful.

A place of despair? Misunderstood Millom

I have to be careful what I say about Millom, after all I was there to visit a good friend who grew up in the town. I think the kindest thing I can say about this West Cumbrian outpost, is that it is blessed by extraordinary natural surroundings. To the north are the hulking mountains of Black Combe and White Combe; to the east lies the picturesque Duddon Valley and the otherworldly Duddon Sands; and to the south lies the beautiful Hodbarrow Nature Reserve. Everything west is Irish Sea.

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

The town wears the suffering of a long and not very graceful post industrial decline like a shroud, something underlined by my visit to the tourist information office. On my map the tourist office was in the library, but had recently relocated to the train station. The station is the sort of place that would make you question whether you’d made a mistake by getting off the train.

The tourist office consisted of racks of leaflets, none of which were about Millom. A friendly woman came over and asked if she could help. “I’m just wondering what there is to do in Millom,” I said. It quickly became clear that this is not a question people ask very often. She half-heartedly looked at the racks of leaflets, in her heart knowing that there wasn’t any point. To break the tension, I picked up a few leaflets about other places and politely made my exit.

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

I walked back through the town and bought a delicious homemade steak pie (they do a good pie in these parts). I stopped to read a dilapidated board advertising day trips to my home town of Kendal. When Kendal seems like a good idea for a day trip, things must be bad. I was beginning to think a former Mayor of Copeland had hit the nail on the head when he described Millom as “a place of despair”.

I don’t want to be unfair though, so let’s just say that it’s not a place that lends itself to conventional tourism. Millom has an interesting history, built on deposits of high grade iron ore, and the Hodbarrow Nature Reserve is a truly wonderful place. I know this because I’d just spent a few hours walking around it and the Duddon Sands. It’s this area that explains why Millom exists at all.

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Wild flowers, Millom, Cumbria

Wild flowers, Millom, Cumbria

Wild flowers, Millom, Cumbria

Wild flowers, Millom, Cumbria

Wild flowers, Millom, Cumbria

Wild flowers, Millom, Cumbria

In 1855 large deposits of iron ore were discovered around Hodbarrow. In a very short period of time, what had been a few small hamlets and farms was an industrial boom town of 10,000 people. At its peak, this was one of the largest iron ore workings in Europe. All the more remarkable then that almost no trace of that history exists today, except for some structures around the nature reserve.

I walked around the reserve, now an important haven for bird life, and marvelled at its beauty. Millom was framed by Black Combe and to the east were the majestic hills of the Lake District National Park. The view from Duddon Sands was even more dramatic, and, as I walked out as far as I could without ending up in the water, the view just kept expanding. It was magnificent, and the whole area was illuminated by wild flowers.

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

The strange thing about Millom, is that they make almost nothing of the fact that one of Britain’s finest 20th century poets spent his entire life here. Norman Nicholson was a literary giant to rival W.H. Auden and Ted Hughes, although he’s not nearly as well known. Nicholson took his inspiration from the people of this area, he narrated the industrial decline of West Cumbria, and he wrote of the landscape in a way that is the polar opposite of that other Lakeland poet, Wordsworth.

On the way out of town I stopped at the 12th century church of Holy Trinity, which sits next to the ruins of Millom Castle. This was a reminder of a different, earlier history. There may not be many reasons to visit Millom, but spectacular views over the Duddon Estuary, Norman Nicholson’s ghost, a 12th century church, and a glorious nature reserve, all stake a pretty strong claim for half a day of anyone’s time.

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

A walk through the Vale of Grasmere to Rydal Water

The Vale of Grasmere and nearby Rydal Water are two of the most picturesque places in the Lake District, itself famous for its picturesque landscapes. Grasmere, though, is more than just beautiful views to me. It’s a place I lived and worked for two years, a place I grew to love. I’ve walked the fells around here countless times, swum in the lakes and tarns, hiked to neighbouring valleys to go to the pub, and watched sunsets and sunrises from the mountain tops.

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

It’s a special place, and somewhere to which I was happy to return. The day after cycling the Fred Whitton Challenge though, I was less happy to climb any mountains. I opted instead for a gentle walk around the two lakes, a route I’ve covered more times than I can remember. I grudgingly have to agree with Wordsworth, who proclaimed Grasmere “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found.” At least if you can visit outside of the tourist season.

I’d forgotten about the bluebells that carpet the lakeside and woodlands at this time of year; how the rich greens of the hills merge with the browns of the dying bracken; and how the sun illuminates distant hilltops like a spotlight as the clouds move across the sky. I’d also forgotten just how invigorating it is to walk in such magnificent countryside without a care in the world.

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Wordsworth, of course, took inspiration walking these very same paths. He lived his younger, most artistically creative years in the hamlet of Town End on the edge of Grasmere; and he spent his less productive, but more famous later years, at the much grander Rydal Mount at the southern end of Rydal Water, by which time he was Poet Laureate. His friends and fellow poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, frequently spent time here as well.

I walked from Grasmere village along Grasmere up onto the ridge overlooking Rydal Water. This was always one of my favourite spots. The views are achingly beautiful and, nestling underneath the hulking mass of Nab Scar and Heron Pike, the whitewashed Nab Cottage, former home of Coleridge’s eldest son Hartley, glowed in the sunlight. I stood here for some time drinking in the views.

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, CumbriaRydal Water, Lake District National Park, CumbriaRydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Slate quarry, Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Slate quarry, Rydal Water, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Nab Cottage was also home to Thomas De Quincey, another member of the strange literary group centred on Wordsworth that descended upon this remote part of England. De Quincey is best known for his autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which relates his laudanum addiction. Laudanum, a sugary opium drink,  was regularly used as a medicine. Even Wordsworth took laudanum.

I couldn’t pass by Rydal Caves without having a look inside, for Old Time’s sake. These are man made from the time when this area was quarried for slate. You can still see the workings scattered across the landscape nearby. The bizarre thing about the caves is that there are tiny fish living in the water. The cave is some distance from the lake, begging the question, “How did they get there?”

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere village, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere village, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere village, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere village, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere village, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Grasmere village, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Dropping down to Rydal Water, I walked along the shoreline until I came to a small woodland that brought me to the River Rothay. The Rothay flows through Grasmere village, and connects Grasmere and Rydal Water. I finally made my way along the shore of Grasmere under a hot sun. Back in the village I reckoned I’d earned a lazy lunch.

Will it hurt? Yes … The Fred Whitton Challenge

It was still dark when my alarm went off. I looked pensively out of the window. It was windy, but it wasn’t raining. It was going to be a good day for cycling. After a quick shower, the kettle went on and I ate my first (but by no means last) banana of the day. I filled water bottles, checked clothing, tyre pressure, helmet, energy bars, spare inner tubes, brakes, tyre pressure (for luck). Finally, it was almost 6am, time to head to the start.

A camelid on Newlands Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

A camelid on Newlands Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Some 8 hours and 27 minutes later, exhausted but ecstatic, I crossed the finish line of the Fred Whitton Challenge. Along with two thousand other people of questionable sanity, I’d cycled 180 km (112 miles) on a loop around the English Lake District. A route that takes in nearly 4,000 metres of ascent and crosses all the major Lakeland passes. It’s a roll call of pain: Kirkstone, Honister, Newlands, Whinlatter, Hardknott, Wrynose.

The day started with an ascent of Kirkstone Pass. We were cycling into a strong wind, but this is one of the easier climbs on ‘The Fred’. Like most of the highest points on the route, there were people cheering, ringing cow bells and banging drums. The support was amazing, and cow bells are remarkably motivating. We wound our way along the shores of Ullswater, all thoughts of daffodils dancing in the breeze banished.

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

A camelid on Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

A camelid on Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Through Keswick and Buttermere we went, stopping briefly at the 58 mile point to refill water bottles and eat more bananas. By now the weather was getting hot, and the landscapes were luminous under a bright sun. It would have been greatly enjoyable but for the fact that I was cycling 112 miles. We passed by Ennerdale and Calder Bridge (where there was a second feed station), each village filled with people cheering us on.

Then it was the moment each person doing ‘The Fred’ anticipates and (if you’re me) dreads: Eskdale. Here the road narrows as you come down the valley, ahead rises the fearsome sight of Hardknott Pass. I could see the colourful jerseys of cyclists snaking up the vertical-looking mountainside. The last time I was here, on a biology field trip, I witnessed a car getting stuck on one of the hairpin bends. I was not looking forward to what lay ahead.

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Hardknott Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The route of the Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

The final 20 miles are perhaps the hardest of the route, and not just because you’ve already cycled 95 miles. It starts with Hardknott Pass, a relentless climb that reaches a gradient of 33%. I made it over the first brutally steep part of the climb, and tried to regain my breath and mental composure on the less severe mid-section. Looking ahead, I could see hairpin bends rising like a wall in front of me and felt despair.

I tried, but I reached a point where I couldn’t peddle anymore. The incline, too steep; my legs, burning. I got off and pushed the bike the last 200 metres. If that had been where the torment ended I’d have been delighted. The descent of Hardknott is the most terrifying thing I’ve done since climbing 6000m peaks in the Andes. My brakes were screaming as if in pain, the road so bumpy I was certain I would fly off the mountainside.

Kirkstone Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Kirkstone Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Kirkstone Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Kirkstone Pass, Fred Whitton Challenge © Steve Fleming 2017

Reaching the bottom, I have rarely felt such relief. Relief that I was alive. I then made the mistake of looking ahead. As if to mock me, rising up a few miles further down the route was Wrynose Pass. My heart sank, but I was encouraged by the bonhomie of other cyclists, all with a ‘we’re all in this together’ attitude. I peddled on telling myself that only one more big effort was needed and then I was nearly home.

The ascent and descent of Wrynose was a ‘cathedral of pain’, but I made it. The last 10 miles flew past in a revery of optimism and exhaustion. Finally, the end was in sight, I applied the brakes one final time and my first ever cyclosportive was over. I’ve never been happier to stop moving in my entire life.

_______________________________________________________

For a bit of fun, check out the time lapse video (by a good friend) close to the finish. I appear at 4:00, blink and you’ll miss it.

A Devil of a time at Swinside Stone Circle

Small but perfectly formed, dramatically located with spectacular views, would be an estate agent’s description of Swinside Stone Circle. They’d probably skip over the tale about how the stones were actually being used to construct a church when the Devil pulled the building down and sunk the stones into the ground. No one wants to know their favourite stone circle has an association with the Devil.

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

This local superstition, an invention of the 15th or 16th Century, gave Swinside Stone Circle the alternative name of Sunkenkirk Circle but ignores the long history of stone circle building in the English Lake District. This northern region may be something of backwater these days, but 5000 years ago this was the epicentre of Neolithic civilisation in the British Isles. There is a high concentration of stone circles in and around the area.

Lake District, Cumbria

Lake District, Cumbria

Lake District, Cumbria

Lake District, Cumbria

Track to Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Track to Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

I’d set off in the late morning, the southern Lake District was bathed in bright winter sunlight and there were some beautiful views of snow-capped hills and red-golden bracken on the hillsides. The sort of day when the English Lake District is breathtakingly beautiful.

Track to Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Track to Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Track to Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Track to Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

This was the first time I’d visited Swinside, but after my visits to Castlerigg Stone Circle and Long Meg and Her Daughters I was keen to see Swinside Stone Circle as well. If you want to visit this off-the-beaten-track stone circle be aware that there are no road signs to help you in the adventure. I drove past the track I wanted twice before working out where I needed to be.

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

I parked the car on a roadside near the tiny village of Broadgate and walked for 30 minutes or so to reach Swinside, climbing up a steep hill before the track flattened out across the fell side offering views for miles to the north. A few desolate-looking sheep munched on grass and I knew how they felt as the sun disappeared to be replaced by dark clouds and intermittent freezing rain.

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

The stone circle sits on a remote plateau in the middle of the fell which you might think is natural, but excavations have shown that this area was created by Neolithic peoples several thousand years ago. The fifty-five stones, hauled here from some distance, are held upright in holes filled with small pebbles.

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Lake District, Cumbria

I’ll say this of the builders, they had an eye for a beautiful and atmospheric location and weren’t too concerned about the effort it took to construct these monuments. To the north are the mountains of the Lake District, importantly though, a short distance south hidden by the fells is the Irish Sea coast and the port of Millom. Presumably this was an auspicious site for trade and fishing.

A family forlorn, Long Meg and Her Daughters

The fifty-nine granite stones (The Daughters) that make up the circle and the huge sandstone monolith (Long Meg), that comprise the wondrous Long Meg and Her Daughters Neolithic stone circle, are an extraordinary sight to behold.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

I can’t describe the feeling of being in the presence of this ancient monument better than William Wordsworth, the great Lake District poet, who penned the following lines after a visit in 1833:

A weight of awe, not easy to be borne
Fell Suddenly upon my spirit, cast
From the dread bosom of the unknown past,
When first I saw that sisterhood forlorn –
And Her, whose strength and stature seemed to scorn
The power of years – pre-eminent, and placed
Apart, to overlook the circle vast.
Speak Giant-mother! tell it to the Morn,
While she dispels the cumbrous shades of night;
Let the Moon hear, emerging from a cloud,
When, how and wherefore, rose on British ground
That wondrous Monument, whose mystic round
Forth shadows, some have deemed, to mortal sight
The inviolable God that tames the proud.

This is no ordinary ancient monument. At over 100m in width this is the third largest stone circle in Britain and the sixth largest in the world. So grand is the scale of Long Meg and Her Daughters that the only way to appreciate the magnitude of what you’re seeing is to view it from the air. Luckily, Visit Cumbria has an arial photo on its website. Viewed from the air or not, this is a magnificent place.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

There were perhaps seventy-seven stones in the circle, eighteen having vanished over the centuries. Still, we should be grateful that any stones are standing at all. In the 18th Century the landowner, Colonel Lacy, decided to have the stones removed so he could plough the field (some say he thought there was buried treasure). As the work began a terrifying thunderstorm erupted, taken as an omen that the stones should be left alone.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

This story adds to the local superstition that the stones are a witches coven turned to stone. It’s said that if any unsuspecting visitor manages to count the stones twice and gets the same number both times, the spell will be broken and the witches brought back to life. Given the size of the stones, the heaviest is estimated to be thirty tonnes, these were some big witches.

Long Meg is the most impressive of all the stones. Quarried from red sandstone on the banks of the River Eden over two miles away, one side of Long Meg is decorated with carvings. These enigmatic spiral, ‘cup and ball’ and concentric circle designs are still visible today. As is some more modern graffiti.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

The stone is associated with many legends. It is said to be the petrified remains of a local witch, Meg of Meldon, who apparently existed in the 17th Century; another superstition states that if you walk around the circle then press your ear to Long Meg you can hear her talk. This terrifying prospect hasn’t stopped people from making offerings at the base of Long Meg and in the trees within the circle.

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

None of this explains why this protected national monument has a farm track running through the middle of it, or why the entire area seems to be a toilet for local cows. Is this really how we treat one of our most important ancient structures? Does the local farmer hate people visiting so much that standing in cow shit comes as standard? Perhaps the witches should be brought back to life…

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld, Cumbria

A little distance away from Long Meg and Her Daughters is more evidence of the thriving Neolithic civilisation that existed in this area. Just outside the town of Penrith lies Mayburgh Henge, one of three nearby Neolithic henges that acted as meeting places for pre-historic communities. The giant stone in the centre of the huge earth bank that surrounds the site is the only remaining stone of four originals.

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge, Penrith, Cumbria

Mayburgh Henge is fascinating. It’s a huge structure, the surrounding bank is made with approximately 20,000 tonnes of stone brought from the nearby River Eden. There is a gap in the bank forming an east facing entrance and framing the one remaining standing stone as you enter the henge. It is a shame that the M6 motorway runs close by and peaceful enjoyment of this place is impossible.

A Pagan Christmas, exploring Castlerigg Stone Circle

Perched on a hilltop plateau dramatically located in a natural amphitheatre created by the mountains of the northern Lake District, the Castlerigg Stone Circle must be one of the most atmospheric sites for a neolithic stone circle anywhere in Britain. Stonehenge may be bigger, but it can’t rival the intense sense of place you feel when you stand in the centre of Castlerigg Stone Circle.

Information sign at Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Information sign at Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle with views to the south, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle with views to the south, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle backed by Blencathra and Skiddaw, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle backed by Blencathra and Skiddaw, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Constructed over 5000 years ago, sometime around 3200 BC, Castlerigg is one of the oldest stone circles in Britain and Europe. The people who built it knew what they were doing. The 360º panoramic views offer spectacular vistas of some of the grandest Lake District mountains, including the towering Blencathra, Skiddaw to the north, Helvellyn, Catbells and Great How to the south.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle backed by Blencathra, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle backed by Blencathra, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

It is a magical place to visit at any time of year, although I prefer it when it is freezing cold and the rain is accompanied by driving winds that chill you to the core. Luck would have it that on my recent visit these were the exact weather conditions I encountered. Even the local sheep looked fed up and they’re used to this weather.

One of numerous neolithic sites in the northern English county of Cumbria and the Lake District National Park, Castlerigg probably has forty large stones. I say ‘probably’ because local folklore has it that it is impossible to count the real number of stones, and the ‘official’ number has fluctuated over the years.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Depending upon who you ask the stones number either thirty-eight, forty or forty-two. Although on the information board at the entrance they show forty-seven stones. I counted sixty-five, although I was seeing double thanks to the gale force wind making my eyes water.

The tallest stones are around 2.5 metres high, including two large stones which mark the northern entrance into the circle. On the eastern side of the circle is a rectangle of stones that jut into the circle and probably had a ceremonial function – no artefacts have been unearthed to prove this claim although the solar alignment indicates a religious role.

Views south from Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Views south from Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Visiting this place at Christmas started me thinking about the origins of the Christian festival, and the pagan traditions it displaced when Roman Emperor, Constantine, adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Empire in 380 AD. Attempting to displace the traditional cult of sun worship, the new religion absorbed much of the old for its own ends. Christmas merged seamlessly with the Roman celebration of Saturnalia.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Similarly the pagan Celtic tradition of Yule, celebrated by northern European tribes, was also absorbed into Christianity, which came late to northern parts of the Roman Empire. Yule, or the Winter Solstice, is a traditional Celtic ‘Fire Festival’ celebrating the end to the darkest days of the year; it still influences our modern rituals around Christmas. Castlerigg Stone Circle, aligned to celebrate the solstice, was part of this tradition.

Entrance stones, Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Entrance stones, Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, Lake District, Cumbria

Yule logs, Christmas trees, holly wreaths and mistletoe owe their origins to numerous pre-Christian beliefs and traditions that survived the onset of the Christianisation of northern Europe. Even Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas) is pagan in origin, although I’m pretty sure he was invented by the marketing team at Coca Cola.

All this paganism goes some way to explaining why those religious zealots, the Puritans, outlawed the celebration of Christmas when Oliver Cromwell was running England in the 1640s. What Cromwell and his regicidal compatriots would make of our commercialised Christmas we can only guess at, although I have a feeling Christmas would be cancelled once again.

Walking in a winter wonderland on High Street

It started so promisingly. Blue skies, sunshine illuminating the golden hills surrounding Haweswater and a crisp early morning that normally means a glorious day and wonderful views. Then again…you can never take anything for granted when walking in the English Lake District. As I was trudging up Kidsty Pike on my way to High Street the weather turned, the clouds descended and the snow began to fall, obscuring the valley below.

Haweswater near High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater near High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

High Street circuit, Lake District, Cumbria

High Street circuit, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater, Lake District, Cumbria

This corner of the Lake District National Park feels remoter than its more illustrious counterparts in the central and western Lakes, but it offers fabulous walks and views to rival any in the region. The plan was straightforward, from Mardale Head on Haweswater I’d skirt the shoreline and go up Kidsty Pike to High Street; pausing to take the views before descending over Mardale Ill Bell and past Small Water Tarn.

My start point, Haweswater, was a natural lake until 1935 when the valley was dammed and flooded to provide water for Manchester. The decision caused an outcry, not only was this a beautiful valley but construction of the reservoir meant that two communities would be submerged.

High Street circuit, Lake District, Cumbria

High Street circuit, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater from Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater from Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater from Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater from Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

The villages of Measand and Mardale Green were lost forever under the water but occasionally the water level drops enough to reveal the old buildings. When I was a child during the drought of 1976 my parents took me there, the water so low it was once again possible to walk through the streets of Mardale Green. The reservoir contains 18 billion gallons, providing North West England with around 25 percent of its water.

Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

Kidsty Pike, Lake District, Cumbria

En route to High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

En route to High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

En route to High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

En route to High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

There is more than mountains and drowned villages to this walk though. The name High Street, at 828 metres the highest point of my walk, originates 2000 years ago when this was the most elevated Roman road in Britain. Linking settlements at Brougham and Ambleside, it was part of Roman supply routes to Hadrian’s Wall, the border between Scottish barbarians (a Roman term, not mine) and the Roman Empire.

Climbing steadily upwards towards the summit, there is something wonderful in the knowledge that you’re walking in the footsteps of ancient history. The tops of this range of hills are broad and ‘flat’, perfect for road building so Roman armies and supplies could avoid ambush in the wooded valleys below.

En route to High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

En route to High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Trig Point on High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Trig Point on High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

These characteristics also lent themselves to the hosting of summer fairs in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Local farming communities would gather on the summit to exchange lost sheep, buy and sell animals, and take part in traditional games such as Cumberland Wrestling and horse racing. Some locals still refer to High Street as Racecourse Hill, making it one of the more unusual racecourses in the country.

Descending from High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending from High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending from High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending from High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending from High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending from High Street, Lake District, Cumbria

On a good day the views across the Lake District from High Street are nothing less than spectacular. Today the weather was determined to deny me the full 360º panorama, but views aren’t everything. There is something profoundly moving about standing alone on a hill top, all noise muffled by a blanket of snow, hearing only the sound of the wind.

Small Water Tarn, Lake District, Cumbria

Small Water Tarn, Lake District, Cumbria

Small Water Tarn, Lake District, Cumbria

Small Water Tarn, Lake District, Cumbria

Small Water Tarn, Lake District, Cumbria

Small Water Tarn, Lake District, Cumbria

The walk along the ridge was accompanied by gusting snow; by the time I reached the trig point on High Street’s summit it was pretty much a blizzard. I set off for Mardale Ill Bell but the cloud persisted for much of my descent until, suddenly, the sun burst through and illuminated the landscape around me. It was quite magical. Finally, below the cloud, I got good views over Small Water Tarn and Haweswater before returning to Mardale Head.

Haweswater, Lake District, Cumbria

Haweswater, Lake District, Cumbria

Just in case anyone was thinking of taking a cooling dip in the reservoir after their exertions, this warning sign should give them pause for thought…although it would need to be a warmer day than the one I spent on High Street to persuade me to take the plunge.