Cross Fell: Delmar Harmood Banner. "Perhaps the worst viewpoint in England' HG. Image Lakeland Arts Trust.
Ever since a sparkling August dawn in 1930 when two of us, after a night on the summit, saw- unmistakably, on the far northern, western and southern horizons- the mountains of Scotland, Ireland and Wales from the top of Scafell, I have been interested in long mountain views. Many of us have caught glimpses of extremely distant peaks from alpine summits or seen the far Himalayas- almost unbelievably high in the sky- from Indian hill stations, but it is more the inter-visibility of British hills that fascinates me nowadays. How far can we see in the hills on the very clearest days? What are the maximum visual contacts from our highest mountains? Can you see right across England, from sea to sea, from any mountain top?
Towards the end of our appallingly wet Lake District summer I had a letter from a friend reporting "an unbelievable view, from sea to sea" from the scarcely-obvious viewpoint of Nine Standards Rigg above Kirkby Stephen. Perched on this modest two-thousander, close to its line of Dalek-like stone cairns, he was sure he could pick out both the Solway Firth to the north-west and Hartlepool power station on the east coast and, since there are long valleys down which to peer on either side, I'm sure this is perfectly feasible. Indeed, Kipling has a character in Puck of Pook's Hill claiming to have seen both seas from some Pennine height and, if you work it out, you will find that the theoretical maximum distance for inter-visibility between the Rigg and sea-level is something like 65 miles —quite far enough to reach the coast on either side.
Further, it should be possible to see the top of any other two-thousander up to 120 miles away from Nine Standards Rigg under perfect conditions — provided there was no obstruction in between, which would be most unlikely. All this is based on purely mathematical calculations — not mine, but more of this later. About one hundred years ago the Ordnance Survey claimed that the summit of Black Combe (1,969 feet) commanded "the most extensive prospect in the kingdom" — a claim probably based on the revelation years earlier by Wordsworth, that from the top might be seen "the amplest range of unobstructed prospect that British ground commands". It has nearly always been raining when I've been on Black Combe but, in perfect weather, the Galloway hills, the mountains of Mourne and Snowdon are said to be visible from the summit. A very old Ward Locke guide of mine quotes "several of the older authorities" for the claim that the southerly view from Black Combe extended to Jack Hill near Hanley in Staffordshire, but when I mentioned this in one of my early books I was told by a reader in those parts that he did not know of any such hill around there?
Elsewhere I have read that the view south from Black Combe is the longest overland view in England and that 14 counties could be seen from the summit — before they lost many of them. Whether or not this is true I Can't say, but I do know that you can see Black Combe from ships leaving the Mersey; from the North Pier at Blackpool; from the tower of Liverpool Cathedral and from a score of places along the Lancashire coast — a great shoulder of fell standing on its own on the very edge of the sea. Scottish mountains, being the highest in the British Isles, might be expected to provide the most distant sightings and, according to the summit indicator on Ben Macdhui, the second highest mountain in Britain, both Ben Hope and the Lammermuirs which are 191 miles apart may sometimes be seen from the cairn in exceptionally clear weather.
It is also stated in Abercrombie and Goldie's "Weather" that the Paps of Jura (2,400 feet approx.) have been seen from the summit of Hecla (1,988 feet) on South Uist — a distance of well over 100 miles. These long sightings tend to confirm the claim made to me by several people that Ben Lomond has been fairly positively identified, on a remarkably clear day, from the top of Red Pike in the Buttermere fells - a distance of something like 120 miles.
According to the following table all these sightings are possible and, indeed, even far greater examples of extreme visibility are theoretically feasible. This table was prepared by Patrick Satow, an expert on weather phenomena
A few years ago, after I had been writing about long sightings in the hills, wondering how far we could see under perfect conditions, Mr. Satow kindly worked out the necessary calculations and produced the table. It gives the theoretical distance in English statute miles at which an object of known height should be visible for a given height of eye — "under standard conditions of atmosphere, not including exceptional refraction".
Using the table it will be seen that the top part of Scafell Pike could be visible from 76 miles away if the height of eye was ten feet above sea-level but observed from a height of 3,000 feet — say on one of the southern Scottish Munros —the distance could become 145 miles. It should be emphasised, of course, that all these theoretical sightings depend on there being nothing in the way to obstruct the view. It will be seen from the table that the sighting distances naturally increase as the observer climbs up his mountainside but this distance increases by ever smaller amounts for each additional 1,000 feet of height — due to the steadily greater effect of the curvature of the Earth. Patrick Satow suggests the table can be used in another way. "If you stand on the beach at Seascale, gazing across at Snaefell, in the Isle of Man, 41 miles away," he wrote to me, "look along the line for height of eye 10 feet. By interpolation, it will be seen that your horizon 'cuts off' Snaefell at about 850 feet, and the island below that contour is out of sight. Conversely, if you stand at 850 feet on Snaefell the beach at Seascale will be in line with your sea horizon.
Finally, reverse your position again and ascent to 850 feet at Seascale and your sea horizon to the west will be in line with the I.O.M. beach. But you cannot do that so you go up Eskdale and start up the slopes of Scafell. You are now about 50 miles from the Isle of Man and on reaching 1300 feet above the sea the coastline of the island should just be in sight. This is found in the table by putting Height of Eye at 10 feet (on the beach. I.O.M.) and looking at Scafell. The fifty miles comes between the vertical columns headed 1000 and 1500 feet". The table shows that, in theory, maximum sightings of up to 145 miles are conceivable, under perfect conditions, between three-thousanders — say, Scafell and Ben Lomond or the Carnedds, in North Wales.
So that my dawn sighting from he top of Scafell more than 55 years ago of the mountains of Scotland, Ireland and Wales— but from two points about 100 Yards apart — was nothing remarkable. It has often been claimed that it is possible to see both the Irish Sea and the North sea from the summit of Cross Fell but, in fact, because of the hill's flattened dome shape, you can see nothing from the cairn except about a quarter of a mile of dull foreground and then the limitless sky. Indeed, the actual summit of Cross Fell is perhaps the worst viewpoint in England, not the best, although from rather lower elevations on either side of the fell very long distances, including one or other of the two seas, might well be visible on a very clear day.
Harry Griffin: First published in Climber- April 1986.