Frozen landscapes and majestic views on Crinkle Crags

Formed by billions of tons of ice during successive Ice Ages, the valleys of the English Lake District are some of the most beautiful landscapes you’ll find in the British Isles. There are plenty of people who would disagree, but to me the most beautiful of all is Great Langdale, a picture-postcard perfect slice of Lakeland scenery. The valley runs from near to the village of Ambleside, through the hamlets of Elterwater and Chapel Stile, before ending in the massive bulk of Crinkle Crags and Bowfell, which rise like an impassable wall at the ‘head’ of the valley.

Scafell range and Eskdale Valley from the Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Scafell range and Eskdale Valley from the Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Great Langdale Valley from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Great Langdale Valley from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Views to Fairfield and Helvellyn from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Views to Fairfield and Helvellyn from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

The narrow valley floor is home to several farms, human habitation just about possible in the bottom of the valley provided you’re comfortable with isolation. On three sides the valley is overshadowed by some of the Lake District’s most impressive and popular hills: the Langdale Pikes, Pike o’ Blisco, Bow Fell and the Crinkle Crags. These hulking lumps of rock make you feel like you’re standing inside a vast amphitheatre. On a cold, crisp and clear winter’s day, it’s simply spectacular.

All down the valley, traces of centuries of human history are obvious. Slate mining has been a key economic activity in Great Langdale, and you can see the workings hewn out of the flanks of the mountains. This mining history goes back further to neolithic times, when 5,000 – 7,000 years ago a great neolithic culture thrived in Cumbria. The mountains around Great Langdale provided access to greenstone, ideal for making axe heads. Langdale axes were highly prized and have been found across Europe.

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Langdale Pikes and Helvellyn range from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Langdale Pikes and Helvellyn range from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

I’d dragged myself out of bed long before sunrise after a few days of Xmas festivities. Unsure whether this was a wise thing to be doing, I parked as the sun was tentatively illuminating the top of the Langdale Pikes, but the valley remained frozen and freezing as a brisk wind whipped along it and up towards my destination. The Crinkle Crags get their name from their unusual physical appearance, five large rocky undulations, or ‘crinkles’, and it’s my favourite part of the Lake District.

I wandered down the valley and alongside Oxendale Beck, crossing over the footbridge before starting the steep ascent towards Red Tarn. I trudged onwards towards the first crinkle. Here, on top of the southern tip of the crags the true majesty of this walk is revealed. To the east are panoramas over the Langdale Pikes to Fairfield and Helvellyn; north the views extend to Skiddaw and Blencathra, to the west, the entire Scafell range and sweeping vistas over the Eskdale Valley to the Irish Sea. It’s ridiculously beautiful. To be in the mountains on a day as glorious as this is simply euphoric.

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Views to Bow Fell and Scafell Pike from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Views to Bow Fell and Scafell Pike from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Views to Fairfield and Helvellyn from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Views to Fairfield and Helvellyn from Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Scafell range and Eskdale Valley from the Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

Scafell range and Eskdale Valley from the Crinkle Crags, Cumbria, England

The second crinkle, Long Top, is the highest point on the walk and contains a surprise, the Bad Step. Approaching the Bad Step, the trail disappears into bare rock. On closer examination it’s clear that you can climb through or over the fallen boulders that have formed it. Years ago, when I walked here regularly, there was a gap in the Bad Step that it was possible to squeeze through. Either the hole has become smaller or I’ve become larger. It was obvious I wouldn’t be squeezing through it today. The climb over was too icy to attempt, so I looped around the back.

As I walked further, I reflected on Alfred Wainwright’s wise words about the Crinkle Crags: “the traverse of the ridge being amongst the grandest mountain walks in Lakeland and strenuous effort will be recompensed by superlative views. Timid walkers will be less happy and may find the mountain hostile but should attempt it: other mountains are climbed and forgotten but Crinkle Crags will always be remembered”.

Three Tarns between Crinkle Crags and Bow Fell, Cumbria, England

Three Tarns between Crinkle Crags and Bow Fell, Cumbria, England

Descending The Band into Great Langdale, Cumbria, England

Descending The Band into Great Langdale, Cumbria, England

Descending The Band into Great Langdale, Cumbria, England

Descending The Band into Great Langdale, Cumbria, England

Descending The Band into Great Langdale, Cumbria, England

Descending The Band into Great Langdale, Cumbria, England

I vividly recalled the day when I found myself here in very hostile conditions. The day started clear and bright, by the time I reached the third crinkle strong winds, plunging temperatures, lashing rain and thick low cloud had turned this into a battle for survival. I became disoriented and, foolishly without a compass, found myself descending out of the cloud into the wrong valley. I had to go back into the ‘weather’ and try again. This is a mountain I’ll always remember, good and bad.

Eventually, I reached the Three Tarns (all frozen) where the route either continues over Bow Fell or descends The Band to Stool End Farm. I opted for descent and to celebrate a fantastic winter walk with a pint of winter beer in the legendary Old Dungeon Ghyll.

Winter landscapes on the Old Man of Coniston

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.

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

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.

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Mine works, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

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.

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Lake District from Old Man of Coniston, Cumbria, England

Lake District from Old Man of Coniston, Cumbria, England

Summit, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Summit, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Summit, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Summit, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Summit, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Summit, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Summit, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Summit, Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Walking the Old Man of Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria, England

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.

Lost in the mists of time, Roman history along Hadrian’s Wall

On a frozen Cumbrian morning in December it’s entirely possible to be lost in the mists of time while also being lost in the mist. Here, skirting the modern-day border between England and Scotland, lies what remains of Hadrian’s Wall. This was the northern-most frontier of the Roman Empire, an isolated outpost on the fringe of the ‘civilised’ world. Running for 73 miles between the Irish Sea and the North Sea, the wall passes through spectacular and rugged north country landscapes. At least when you can see them.

Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland, England

Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, England

Roman Army Museum, Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland, England

Roman Army Museum, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, England

Roman Army Museum, Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland, England

Roman Army Museum, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, England

Hadrian's Wall, Cumbria, England

Hadrian’s Wall, Cumbria, England

The Emperor Hadrian came to power as Rome reached its greatest geographical size. In AD 117, Rome’s authority extended around the Mediterranean, from Portugal in the west of Europe to Germany in the east, and from the Red Sea through the Middle East to the Black Sea. The frontiers of the greatest empire the world had known snaked for thousands of kilometres, and were regularly besieged by barbarian hordes, or non-Romans as they were also known. Nowhere more so than in the north of Britannia.

Emperor Hadrian decided to build a wall to better control this troublesome region. It took six years to build and was in use for nearly 300 years. Despite much of the stone having been reused to build farms, houses and churches, there are sections of the wall that are in a remarkably good state of preservation. Defensive ditches and foundations of fortified towns can clearly be seen as well. It’s a monumental achievement, and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was just unfortunate that I couldn’t actually see most of it.

As I walked along the line of the wall just east of the Northern English town of Carlisle, the mist hung heavy in the valleys and obscured the hilltops. It wasn’t hard to imagine the sense of ‘otherworldliness’ that the Roman troops who built and garrisoned this region must have felt. I’d planned to spend the day visiting various sections of the wall and walking some of the best preserved segments, but the notoriously bad Cumbrian weather ensured that my plans wouldn’t exactly go to plan.

Arriving at the wall and milecastle in a place called Banks, the mist seemed to be lifting and the sun to be making an effort, albeit a fairly weak one, to make an appearance. I stopped to admire what little I could see of the valley below before heading to the extensive remains of Birdoswald Fort. I’d planned to visit but the mist obscured the entire site. Instead I decided I’d head further east, into Northumberland, and visit the Roman Army Museum. This was at least indoors, and I figured that the weather might have improved by the time I finished in the museum.

Hadrian's Wall at Willowford, Northumberland, England

Hadrian’s Wall at Willowford, Northumberland, England

Hadrian's Wall, Cumbria, England

Hadrian’s Wall, Cumbria, England

Sheep protecting Hadrian's Wall, Cumbria, England

Sheep protecting Hadrian’s Wall, Cumbria, England

Hadrian's Wall, Cumbria, England

Hadrian’s Wall, Cumbria, England

Roman Fort at Poltross Burn, Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland, England

Roman Fort at Poltross Burn, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, England

Roman Army Museum, Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland, England

Roman Army Museum, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, England

Although I grew up about fifty miles south of Hadrian’s Wall I’ve only visited parts of it a handful of times in my life. This then, was something of a voyage of discovery. The museum promised an award winning film detailing the history of the wall. The 3D Edge of Empire film was worth the entry fee alone, in twenty minutes the extraordinary lives of the Roman soldiers who were garrisoned along the wall were brought dramatically to life. The rest of the small museum was interesting, interactive and entertaining.

Outside in the real world, things had gone from bad to worse and the mist was now so thick that I could barely see more than a hundred metres in any direction. I’d intended to visit the former Roman town of Vindolanda, a few miles east of the museum, but it seemed pointless to even try in this weather. Instead, I visited a few smaller sections of the wall on my way back towards Carlisle, and made myself a promise to come back in better weather to walk the wall properly.

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.

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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.