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 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.

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.

A festive walk over Catbells

Just to be clear, the Catbells referred to in the title of this post is a picturesque hill in the northern part of the English Lake District, and not some weird tradition involving cats, their bells and my size ten walking boots. Please don’t call any animal rights groups, no cats were hurt during the entirely harmless activity of fell walking. Well, I say entirely harmless, but after ten months in the Netherlands my legs were in pieces on the hills.

Derwent Water with Skiddaw and Belncathra in cloud, from Skelgil Bank, Lake District, Cumbria

Derwent Water with Skiddaw and Belncathra in cloud, from Skelgil Bank, Lake District, Cumbria

Newlands Valley from Skelgill Bank, Lake District, Cumbria

Newlands Valley from Skelgill Bank, Lake District, Cumbria

Catbells with Derwent Water in background, Lake District, Cumbria

Catbells with Derwent Water in background, Lake District, Cumbria

I’ve spent a lot of time in the Lake District but it is quite rare for me to visit the northern edge of the National Park. The moment I started the steep ascent up Skelgill Bank to Cat Bells I remembered why: whenever I walk in this area the weather almost always turns violent, typically involving strong winds and driving rain. True to form, I was greeted by a sudden downpour which turned to hailstone. I’d been warned.

Once, climbing Skiddaw – a short distance away – I was forced to crawl on my hands and knees by winds gusting in excess of 100mph. I actually saw someone blown off their feet that day. The winds on Catbells weren’t that vicious, but when I reached the top of High Spy I could hear the wind roaring up the valley and through a gap in the crags. It sounded like a jumbo jet taking off.

Looking forward to High Spy, Lake District, Cumbria

Looking forward to High Spy, Lake District, Cumbria

Derwent Water from Blea Crag, Lake District, Cumbria

Derwent Water from Blea Crag, Lake District, Cumbria

The View from Maiden Moor, Lake District, Cumbria

The View from Maiden Moor, Lake District, Cumbria

On a good day this is one of the most beautiful walks there is in the northern Lakes. There are sweeping views over Derwent Water, Bassenthwaite Lake, Newlands Valley, the Skiddaw range and Blencathra. It is stunning, but who wants perfect weather conditions when you can have gale force winds, driving rain and low cloud obscuring the views?

My plan was simple, walk the horseshoe which goes over Catbells, Maiden Moor and High Spy before dropping down to a gap at the top of the valley and climbing up Dale Head and Hindscarth before winding my way back down into the valley below. Fate, and the weather, had different plans.

The cairn at the summit of High Spy, Lake District, Cumbria

The cairn at the summit of High Spy, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending to Dale Head Tarn with Dale Head behind, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending to Dale Head Tarn with Dale Head behind, Lake District, Cumbria

The view down Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

The view down Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending from High Spy to the top of Newlands Valley where Dale Head Tarn sits bleakly on the fell, I started the long slog up Dale Head. A small voice in my head had urged me to descend into the valley and head back, but I persevered upwards only for the cloud to suddenly obscure the entire top of Dale Head.

The view over Dale Head Tarn from Dale Head ascent, Lake District, Cumbria

The view over Dale Head Tarn from Dale Head ascent, Lake District, Cumbria

Cloud covers Dale Head, Lake District, Cumbria

Cloud covers Dale Head, Lake District, Cumbria

Cloud covers Dale Head, Lake District, Cumbria

Cloud covers Dale Head, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending into Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Descending into Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

This sort of thing happens all the time in the Lake District, one of the reasons walking here can be tricky, sometimes dangerous. It is easy to be caught out by the weather and find yourself lost. I wasn’t especially keen to spend the next two hours in cloud, spotting a zig-zag route down to the valley I made good my escape.

Old farm gate post, Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Old farm gate post, Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Looking down Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Looking down Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Looking back up Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Looking back up Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Catbells is a relatively easy walk offering great views and is rightly popular. Get beyond the short loop that drops into the valley from Catbells though and you soon find yourself alone, occasionally bumping into another walker. If Catbells is the epitome of picturesque Lake District, things get a little more rugged further up but the scenery is never less than spectacular (at least when you can see it).

Looking back up Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Looking back up Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Impressive ram in Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Impressive ram in Newlands Valley, Lake District, Cumbria

Amidst all this natural beauty it is hard to imagine that you are walking through an industrialised landscape. Every now and then you can spot some old mine workings, evidence of the once thriving lead mining industry which this area was famous for up until the end of the 19th Century. Long gone now, but the physical scars still remain.

A walk to wintery Helvellyn

Spring may have finally sprung in the UK, but no one has told England’s third highest mountain that winter is over. As this was likely to be my last time in the area for a while, the free day I had in the Lake District National Park was reserved for hill walking, and Helvellyn was my destination. Unfortunately, I hadn’t factored in a considerable amount of snow and ice on top of the hill. I should have been better prepared, I’ve encountered snow on the summit of Helvellyn in May.

Helvellyn and Red Tarn, Lake District, England

Helvellyn and Red Tarn, Lake District, England

Helvellyn is a mountain I’ve climbed too many times to recall, but I never tire of clambering over the classic horseshoe trail: up Striding Edge, over the crown of the hill and back down Swirral Edge – familiar names on this legendary mountain. Situated in the heart of the English Lake District, Helvellyn is a popular hill amongst Lake District enthusiasts, so-much-so that there is a website dedicated to promoting the mountain’s glories. Even to me that seems a step too far.

Heading towards Greenside Mine, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Heading towards Greenside Mine, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Heading towards Greenside Mine, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Heading towards Greenside Mine, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Greenside Mine, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Greenside Mine, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Greenside Mine, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Greenside Mine, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Although I clambered to within 20 or 30 metres of the top, the last section of Swirral Edge was too icy to risk without crampons or an ice axe. A slip either way would result in a fall of several hundred feet. I was lucky that a person coming down had a spare ice axe, which he was generous enough to offer to me to help with the descent. It was disappointing to get so close and not reach the summit but the rest of my walk was wonderful.

View back down the valley, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

View back down the valley, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

View of Raise and Glenridding Common, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

View of Raise and Glenridding Common, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Snow melt, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Snow melt, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Starting out from the village of Glenridding – which sits on picturesque Ullswater, the inspiration for Wordsworth’s Daffodils poem – I chose to avoid the steeper, faster route up Little Cove towards Hole in the Wall. Heading instead towards Red Tarn by skirting around the base of Birkhouse Moor, en route passing one of the Lake District’s many disused mines. The Greenside Mine was the largest lead mine in the Lake District and was mined from the 1690s until the 1960s. There are still some mine buildings, and the scar of the mine works is carved into the hillside.

Helvellyn with Striding Edge (L) and Swirral Edge (R), Lake District, England

Helvellyn with Striding Edge (L) and Swirral Edge (R), Lake District, England

Helvellyn and Red Tarn, Lake District, England

Helvellyn and Red Tarn, Lake District, England

Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Helvellyn, Lake District, England

In an area notorious for bad weather, there was barely a breath of wind as I started the long ascent to Red Tarn. Under a warm Spring sun, I suddenly found myself wearing several layers of unnecessary clothing and was glad when I finally reached the tarn and the glorious view of snow-capped Helvellyn. Although it was mid-week, there were plenty of people taking the opportunity to do the walk; I could see small shapes dotted along Striding Edge and on the summit.

Swirral Edge, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Swirral Edge, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

The snow line, Swirral Edge, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

The snow line, Swirral Edge, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

View of Red Tarn from Swirral Edge, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

View of Red Tarn from Swirral Edge, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

The snow line, Swirral Edge, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

The snow line, Swirral Edge, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

I decided Striding Edge might be icy and opted to go up Swirral Edge, which afforded tremendous views over Red Tarn and back down the fells. After falling short of the top I headed to Hole in the Wall and descended into the beautiful parallel valley of Grisedale, finally reaching Patterdale and the road back to Glenridding.

Hole in the Wall, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Hole in the Wall, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Hole in the Wall, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Hole in the Wall, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Descending into Grisedale, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Descending into Grisedale, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Descending into Grisedale, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

Descending into Grisedale, Helvellyn, Lake District, England

After the horrendous weather when I was in the area in December I wasn’t expecting great things. This time though, thankfully, the weather chose to be hospitable. It made for one of those days which make the Lake District so special.

Above the clouds on the Fairfield Horseshoe

The Fairfield Horseshoe is one of my favourite walks in the English Lake District. In the heart of the Lake District National Park, it is a near perfect hill walk around a horseshoe-shaped route which towers over the valley below. Starting from the bustling village of Ambleside, you climb upwards over Dove Crag and Hart Crag, before finally walking the last few yards up to the summit of Fairfield.

On the way back down, once you’re over Great Rigg, you can descend into either the hamlet of Rydal or the village of Grasmere, both of which have strong connections to the Romantic poet William Wordsworth. I’d decided to visit Grasmere, where I’d lived for three years in my twenties, but which I hadn’t visited for several years.

Ambleside viewed at the start of the Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Ambleside viewed at the start of the Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Into the mist, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Into the mist, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Deep bog, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Deep bog, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Into the mist, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Into the mist, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

On a good day, the views from Fairfield are spectacular. With fine weather, the summit of Fairfield offers 360º panoramic views around the Lake District, and even to the Irish Sea. This was not a good day, but the views that awaited on top of the mountain were remarkable for other reasons.

Hart Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Hart Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Brocken Spectre, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Brocken Spectre, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Fairfield, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Fairfield, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

I started from Ambleside early in the morning, the sky was overcast, and, despite the weather forecast claiming the day would improve, it definitely felt as if rain was in the air. As I began the long ascent over the fells, the cloud descended and I quickly found myself walking through a muted landscape, unable to see more than 20 or 30 metres ahead. Strangely, there was very little wind, in fact none at all, and although I was getting wet from the moisture in the cloud, it didn’t rain.

Walking in weather like this is pretty unusual for this part of the country. Without the sound of wind you can hear distant sounds: birds singing, sheep bleating and water cascading down rocks into the valley below. I’d pretty much given up on seeing anything of the surrounding countryside, or getting the views from Fairfield. However, as I walked over Dove Crag it was suddenly illuminated by the sun. I was still shrouded in cloud, but it was better weather.

Dove Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Dove Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Dove Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Dove Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Hart Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Hart Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Hart Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Hart Crag, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Pushing on towards Hart Crag, I heard a noise behind me; with my heart pounding and imagination running wild, a fell runner (one of those crazy people who run over mountains for fun) emerged out of the mist and ran past me with a cheery, “Bloody horrible weather.” As he disappeared back into the mist, I set off again, and not long after found myself walking above the clouds.

It was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had in the Lake District. I must have walked here hundreds of times, but I’ve never experienced anything like it before. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but blue sky, white cloud and the occasional top of a mountain sticking through the cloud. When I finally reached the top of Fairfield, there was one other person there. Neither of us could quite believe what we were witnessing. He said he’d set off with three others, all of whom had turned back convinced the weather wouldn’t improve. Technically the weather didn’t improve, but we’d walked through it and found ourselves above it.

Fairfield, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Fairfield, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Fairfield, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Fairfield, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Fairfield, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Fairfield, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Fairfield, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Brocken Spectre, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Brocken Spectre, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Funnily enough, the sun was so hot it felt tropical, and I actually got sunburned. Which is as ridiculous as it sounds. As I started to descend, I spotted a rainbow in the cloud, which created a Brocken Spectre, something I’d not seen before, but which is simultaneously beautiful and eerie. It was a truly magical experience, shared with a few sheep and an absence of noise.

Towards Grasmere, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Towards Grasmere, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Towards Grasmere, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Towards Grasmere, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Towards Grasmere, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Towards Grasmere, Fairfield Horseshoe, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Helm Crag, Grasmere, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Helm Crag, Grasmere, Lake District, Cumbria, England

Descending, I quickly found myself shrouded in cloud again, and visibility returned to being negligible. I came across several people coming up the hill, all of whom were happy to know what awaited them when they reached the top. I trundled onwards towards Grasmere and finally dropped out of the bottom of the cloud with views towards Helm Crag, which sits at the northern end of the Vale of Grasmere.