Friday, 4 March 2011

North Country Fair

Simon Robinson and Nick Blunt on The Appian Way:(HS-4b-US-5.7)Pillar Rock.Photo Gordon Stainforth

Most mornings I look north-westward from our village, hoping to see the long white face of Whitbarrow staring full into the rising sun and most mornings I see it. It is said that George Fox, the heroic Quaker, harried by magistrates, constables, and thugs in the 1650's, saw the blaze of ice-white rock above the estuary at the head of More­cambe Bay and took it as a sign that his god was smiling on him. He certainly read rocks in that way. He chose to hold a meeting at the slanting crag now called Fox's Pulpit, on Firbank Fell above Sedbergh. because 'the word of the Lord came to me I must go and set down  the rock in the mountain even as Christ had done before'.
Whitbarrow is a sign to us too. When we can see it distinctly from. here, it means that the soft days of the west have turned more bracing - in summer at the start of an anticyclone, in winter likewise between pulses of storm when the wrack tears. Then we can see through to the scraper-board graining of the snow-filled gullies Dow Crag or to Whitbarrow's blanched towers.

The cliff is the north-western culmination of the carboniferous limestone, or looks like it. In reality it thrusts on further, through where it nourished excellent grassland for the medieval community at the Abbey, then hooks round west and south to end at the point of Cumbria, just north of the massive red sandstone timbering of St Bees Head.
The precipice called White Scar (in the northern sense of the cliff ) is the south end of a long berg separating the dales of the Winster and Gilpin. In early summer they whiten with hawthorn and damson blossom. Between these lengths of garden-comeliness all  is declivity and resistance. Try to outflank it on the west and you stagger up scree barely at the angle of rest. A little further and you're bridging up the dank limestone jambs of Pioneers' Cave, greased by oozings of the aboriginal hazel, ash, and hawthorn woods above, before clawing out through thigh-deep leaf-mould in a place best left to wrens and foxes.
The east side is gentler. Coverts grow in the troughs of humus between the waves of limestone. Where the mouths of the badger setts funnel down into the dark, you can put your head and shoulders into one opening after another and smell nothing but cold earth. Then your face is met by the faintest musky warmth, almost a body odour and you know that a family is at home down there.

On the face of the scar nobody is at home, not even the climbers who call it 'Indian country' and 'utopia for the masochist.' It is not the highest crag, just wholly formidable due to its lack breaks and the flayed slopes at its quarried foot. The tallest prow is now called Space Buttress. The jackdaws manoeuvring in mid-air at the summit look as small as tadpoles. It is never easy to estimate the height of a cliff. At the foot of the biggest and sheerest I have seen, El Capitan in Yosemite, a pine on the rim looked like the merest shrub. When voices called from up there, exchanging climbing instructions- in a Scots accent as it happened- and I managed to pick the climbers out, they were black specks on the naked thousand-metre steep. White Scar is a twentieth of that height. Standing up at the southern verge of the Lake District National Park, it is a harbinger of the 100 and 150m  heights to come — the East and Central Buttresses of Scafell, Esk Buttress, Eagle Crag in Birkness Combe above Buttermere, and Pillar Rock in Ennerdale.

One June day we approached Pillar from the north-west, digging our booted feet into the barely stable scree like labourers planting fence posts. The air in the belt of forest immediately below had felt like webs of humidity clinging to the nose and mouth. The dense bristle of the unthinned spruce, the salad juiciness of the broad-leafed trees estab­lished in the 1930s to redeem the wrong of cloaking the Lake District's sacred terrain in industrial forest, the temperature in the high seventies Fahrenheit — all this was melding to give Pillar Rock in the sky above us a look of monstrous tropical architecture, niched and stepped and buttressed, corroded and overgrown, like Angkor Wat in Thailand or the Mayan pyramids in Yucatan and Chiapas.

David Craig on Salome(HVS-4c.US 5.8)Buttermere.

My son Neil and I had been here before, to climb the North and South-west routes, on a classic day of breezy sunlight that seemed the atmosphere of his late boyhood. Three years later, the sky was curiously blind, a thick white, and the fells between here and Wasdale, Red Pike and High Stile and High Crag, were pale-blue flats without feature or relief.
After sidling up the hanging galleries of Grooved Wall above Walk­er's Gully, we moved round to climb Ximenes, a line found twenty-five years before as a short-cut to the looming trio of Goth, The Hun, and Attila on the west face of Low Man. I chose to lead the first, overhanging crack, possibly because Neil, now seventeen and striding beyond me in strength and skill, had better cope with the 'difficult crack' on pitch 2. The jams were excellent, closing on to the backs and palms of my hands like the jaws of a monkey-wrench. Twenty metres up on the belay ledge, still high on a burst of adrenalin, I looked about me to savour the barely accessible grandeur we had dared to enter. From the uppermost profile of Pillar a shaggy grey limb was growing rapidly outward. It dropped and curled under on itself, like a raptor's claw.

There's a really weird cloud up here,' I called down. 'Looks like a bit of a storm coming up.'
Beside me on the rock small spots were appearing, darkening enlarging as though the flanks and limbs of the crag were turning into a leopard's coat beneath my eyes. As soon as Neil reached me we decided to retreat,  with hardly a moment's discussion. The sky was unruly In three or four minutes dark shapes with dragon-toothed edges appeared all over the livid glare of it, fretted crests and manes, wisps wreathing like smoke above a bonfire. By the time we had packed our gear into our sacks, every rock was glistening and slippery. We were soaked through and still warm. The water sluicing on to us out of the sky felt not adverse like British rain but close to blood-heat. I had felt that just once before, in the monsoon rains of Sri Lanka. We took off as many clothes as possible and plunged down the fellside in an ecstasy of sweat and rainfall, running like waterfalls, like becks, like the showers teeming between clouds and treetops. Long after the sun had set and on past midnight, we watched from the back door of the farmstead at Gillerthwaite as Pillar and its parent mountain behind it came leaping into sight, a black tusk on a black brow, silhouetted against the flaring yellowed whites of the sky.Above them, far huger and higher than the mountain, the torsoes and heads of the the cumulo-nimbus glowed suddenly neon in the discharges of lightning.

Even in ordinary weather Pillar and the head of Ennerdale is beautifully  wild. Access is by foot only. The Forestry Commission gate is usually locked, so only determined walkers make it into what feels like a Canadian backwood. Stands of conifer line a river-bed filled tossing rapids and boulders scoured white by spate. The peace is more Highland than England. Once Pillar was a climbers' Mecca, described in a guidebook of 1825 as 'unclimbable', then climbed by a shepherd, alone, the following year, and almost at once by three shepherds. A further 119 parties got up it during the next fifty years. The sheer upstanding singleness of what they called 'the Pillar Stone' roused people to go and leave their mark there. They wrote their names, and sometimes 'God Save the Queen', on pieces of  paper stored in a ginger beer bottle on the summit. When this disappeared after an ascent by 'two navvies' in 1876, it was replaced first by a slate then by a double tin box where climbers left their cards — they- mostly gentlemen, with some ladies from the 1870s onwards. The box blew away in the early years of this century and scattered its genteel contents over the stony slopes. Now fashion has changed. English climbers prefer rock facing anything other than north and at altitudes below  800 metres. Of all great Cumbrian rocks Pillar is the one where you are most likely to find yourself alone. It is a true pillar: the girdle round it traverses through 270 degrees and it is the longest rock-climb in England. When Bill Peascod and I spent nine hours on it in 1983, we  were by ourselves for the entire prime summer's day.

The peacefulness of upper Ennerdale is man-made. Really it is an emptiness.. Gillerthwaite appears as an unenclosed cattle farm in a document of 1334. Cairns between the 250 and 300-metre contours on the fellsides show where fields were made in the pre-Roman Iron Age.
The steadings, for example the barn above the shippon entered by a ramp show relics of Norse building styles. In a push to raise homegrown timber after the U-boat blockade during the Great War had starved us out, the Forestry Commission bought Ennerdale above the lake in 1927 and covered it with larch and spruce. Proper human society, based here on farming, came to an end.
What it means in such a place was put classically by Wordsworth in a letter he wrote to the radical politician Charles James Fox in 1801 about the  value of people 'who daily labour on their own little properties'.

Their little tract of land serves as a kind of permanent rallying point for their domestic feelings, as a tablet upon which they are written which otherwise makes them objects of memory in a thousand instances when they would otherwise be forgotten. It is a fountain fitted to the nature of social man from which supplies of affection, as pure as his heart was intended for, are daily drawn. This class of men is rapidly disappearing.

Martin Armitage on the New West section of the Greater Girdle of Pillar Rock-(E1-US 5.10): Photo Stephen Reid

One of his two chief cases was Ennerdale, in which he set his poem 'The Brothers', written eleven months before. As in most of his best stories, ('Michael', 'The Ruined Cottage'), the independent small farmers who would be called crofters in Scotland and peasants anywhere else were under threat. Old Walter Ewbank has inherited his 'few green fields along with 'other burthens than the crop it bore'. When he dies, the place is sold along with their sheep which 'had clothed the Ewbanks  for a thousand years'. His sons have been inseparable. Now the elder, Leonard, leaves Cumberland to try to make a living at sea. For twenty years he is dogged by visions of 'waterfalls, and inland sounds / Of caves and trees,' by 'forms of sheep that grazed / On verdant hills — with dwellings among trees, / And shepherds clad in the same country grey/ Which he himself had worn'. Meanwhile his soulmate, James, lodges with this or that family in the dale. He becomes dreamy and tends to sleepwalk, and, while out shepherding dozes on the summit of Pillar 'a vast building made of many crags that rises like a column from vale'. Hours later, when he has not returned home, neighbours go up and search the fells and find him dead at the foot of the crag,his shepherd's crook still caught on the rockface where 'for years / It hung and mouldered there'.

James Ewbank would have found his way up Pillar by the Old West Route, a scrambling spiral, not quite a path. A quarter of a century later those first shepherd climbers, John Atkinson, J. Colebank,W Tyson, and J. Braithwaite, followed this route unscathed, inaugurating a new use for Ennerdale — tourism. Pillar is certainly dangerous. Bill  Peascod, a miner from Workington, writes in his autobiography that his climbing was never again as carefree after hearing, at the Walker's Gully, 'a strange flapping noise, like a flock of pigeons leaving a roof ridge'; later they found a solo climber broken and dead at the foot of Grooved Wall.
Wordsworth was using the threatening stature of the great rock to embody the precarious foothold of a whole country class, the farmers on the highland margins. I felt I was seeing the faint footprints of their kind when I heard tell of two other brothers, on the island of Mull. In  the house where she was born, at the end of a five-mile track along the  shore of Loch Scridain, Chrissie MacGillivray, aged 94, told me how two of her brothers had gone to make their living in Patagonia before the Great War and she 'never heard from them again'.

Napes Needle, piercing the screw of Great Gable above Wasdale Head, is the fine point of Cumbria, the merest leaf or blade to Pillar's massive column. It asks to be fingered or grasped so that we can follow with our bodies its exquisite line through space. Why did I take so long to climb it? Gymnastic British climbing began here, on 27th June or June 30th 1886, when an Oxford athlete called W.P. Haskett Smith climbed it alone. I walked past it dozens of times, after starting to climb in the Lakes in 1974, until in the summer of 1991, I suddenly climbed it twice.I think I had been backing off from its too a great fame. On postcard and as a badge and emblem of the Fell & Rock Climbing Club, it is so. visible and known that it no longer seems part of nature. Others have felt like this. Bill Peascod had a disrespectful name for it, Naples Noodles and Peter Greenwood, boldest and most agile pioneer on Cumbrian crags in the early 'fifties, pretended one evening in the bar of the Old Dungeon Ghyll in Langdale that he was going to blow up the Needle with dynamite — purely to wind up the Fell & Rockers, you understand.
In itself it is superb, surrounded by air, the antithesis of air —visible, tangible, enduring — slender enough to remind us that rock is anything but 'eternal'. As you climb up the last five metre arrow-head which balances on the twenty-metre shaft, no longer integral with it, it is faintly unsettling to remember that on the crag of Kern Knotts a few hundred metres along the slope, a climb first done in 1928 suddenly became far more difficult when a mass of stone was rolled away from its mouth in 1985 by an earth-tremor whose epicentre was at Carlisle. Almost unbelievably, the name of the route was Sepulchre. Perhaps it was the same tremor that shook off the crucial blade from a climb on Bow Fell called Sword of Damocles and a similar fang from a climb in Swindale called Sostenuto.

For so famous a rock the Needle is self-effacing. It merges with the verticals of the Napes Ridges between the scree chutes called Great and Little Hell Gate. I have been asked by walkers, 'Where is it, then?' They sounded cross or incredulous, as though they'd expected signposts and name-plates. Any of the ridges knifing southward out of Gable's mass could have issued in a needle. Probably they all do at one or another moment in geological time. At least one other long varnished needle hereabouts is still remembered. It was called Wilson's Horse, on Illgill Head at the far side of Wastwater. When it collapsed into the lake in 1800 or so, it sent out such a tide that a wave twenty feet high broke on the shingle beach at Wasdale Head.

As you toil about in the unstable gullies below the Napes, there looks to be nothing salient, just phalanxes of big flakes, half-embedded, half-shattered, many with fresh scars of rockfall. Then, between moun­tain and air-space, a notch cuts down deep into an imposing ridge. Its end soars, not yet mined away by water, frost and wind — the Needle, beautiful not only in its slim height but in the pattern of diamonds and half-diamonds, each three metres from point to point, which deep cracks have made in the western face of the shaft. These determine your stretches and strides as you work upwards to the shoulder beneath the final arrow-head. Once they were choked with rubble and tuss­ocks, making it hard for Haskett Smith and those who followed. By now generations of climbers have gutted them clean and the difficulties are concentrated into the arrow-head. Two joints cut across it. How simple, then, to use them as rungs of a ladder. I step up, making for an angular niche directly above the sheer east face and then I.... then I ... This isn't simple at all. The floor of the niche is just too high for me to get palms on to it, weight above palms, and mantelshelf securely up. Something out of sight on the right would help — I grope ... it's bloody smooth ... what do I do? Reader, I used my knee — the worst thing to do, because knees bruise easily, kneecaps can be dislocated.

Napes Needle

A few weeks later — all confidence by now — I made a little jump or shrug upwards, pressed down on my palms, reached fluently left­ward for joint number two, pulled with my fingertips and monkeyed happily on to the last short steep slab. It is so easy to climb well the second time.
I had made difficult moves many hundreds of times and they had often demanded more of me in strength, agility and nerve. For some reason no previous crux had given me so clear a realisation of what climbing is. We take for granted the solid ground on which we live. As we climb, this assumption is undermined. The more we ascend into the zone of difficulty, the less does our world seem mainly solid and the more thin air takes over as the norm. So living is made to seem provisional, equipoise, temporary, and we jeopardise our status as land-based animals.
This thought seemed to come into sight, transparent and structured as a crystal, as I stood on the little rug-size platform of the Needle's top. Before Hackett Smith, without rope or companion, tried the climb, he threw stones up from below. When one of them stayed put, he knew the top would be flat and fit to rest on before he attempted the frightening lowering of himself back down, arms braced, waiting for the toes to lodge on the two-inch rim which is the only hold above the joint. Before he left the top, he trapped his handkerchief under the stone — his flag of celebration, his proof of what he had done.
Both times I was there the summer wind was shaking me. It was still the best place in England for those minutes. With Wasdale Head laid out three kilometres away and seven hundred metres below. I had gazed down on the farm at Burnthwaite among girthy sycamores, the gables of the Victorian hotel, the little church like a cottage in its graveyard black with yews — elements of community bedded into a mesh of single old trees and small irregular fields, their walls built from the river shingle that had been ground out and off-loaded by these crags, then re-expressed as human culture.

David Craig on Wharncliffe Prow: Authors collection

David Craig© First published in Landmarks-Jonathan Cape.

Great thanks to David Craig for permission to re-publish this piece and to Stephen Reid and Gordon Stainforth for the action photographs.