Friday, 9 June 2017

Blue Remembered Hills

As a tribute to Walt Unsworth who died on Tuesday at the fine age of 89, the following article is a piece he wrote for Climber magazine in 1983 when he was editor. His long and active life in the world of mountain literature as an author, editor and publisher, can be discovered in fuller detail in the linked Cicerone appreciation at the foot of this article.

Everyone has their own favourites amongst the lesser hills of Britain; places to which they can return time and again, not in the expectation of a dour struggle against mountain and weather perhaps (though sometimes they surprise you) but for spiritual renewal, in the way that the old mill workers used to tread the draughty Pennines. My favourites have always been in my backyard, so to speak. When I lived in the Midlands I found much pleasure in tramping the Stiperstones and scrambling about the weird, witch-begotten rocks that mark the top of that strange hill; when I lived in Manchester the Anglezarke moors became a favourite and I remember particularly one long winter's walk with A. B. Hargreaves and Jim O'Neil, staggering down in the frosty darkness to a hotpot supper at Rivington Old Barn.

Nowadays my favourites are the Howgills which I can just about glimpse from the look-out on the roof of my house, put there by a long dead sea captain, who wanted to see the ships coming into Sandside. He traded in slaves, incidentally. The Howgills are, for me, the very essence of Housman's 'blue remembered hills' — much more so than the others I've mentioned. They are hills as a child would draw hills: steep sided cones clustered together in a broad clump. From a distant viewpoint like Farleton Fell they often seem literally blue, or more accurately perhaps, a  pale mauve — then the light will change and a hint of green show through, dappled by shadows from passing clouds. I first saw these hills as a child during the war when I was periodically shipped off to Edinburgh out of harm's way. The gorge of the Lune was always one of the highlights of the journey, the great steam locomotive of the L.M.S. charging into the narrow dale, cinders flying from the smoke stack and the steep sided hills crowding in on either hand. They made a marvellous picture framed by the carriage windows and, strangely enough, that same view of the Howgills is still the best, in my opinion. Though nowadays it is more often viewed from the adjacent motorway, where the view is wider
and more long lasting.

Thousands of travellers over the years must have had their curiosity aroused by the conspicuous gash of Carlin Gill which is the focal point of this scene. Perhaps some, like Hassan, went a little further and determined to someday penetrate the Gill, looking for the last blue mountain. Though not many, I think. The Howgills are never overpopulated despite the fact that they have a Wainwright guide, not to mention a Harvey large scale map. They are not to everyone's taste- thank God- being, as someone once said, neither 'fish nor fowl'. Meaning that they had neither the rugged grandeur of the Lakeland fells which flank them to the west, nor the bogtrotting bleakness of the Pennine moors to the east. The qualities they possess are their own. Exceedingly steep slopes and a short, dry, springy turf which makes walking a pleasure. They are by no means gentle hills, but neither are they savage in the way that, say, Bleaklow is. Technically, I suppose, several of the tops in the Howgills are not hills but mountains, if one accepts the generally agreed definition of a mountain as something of 2000ft or over.

The highest point, The Calf, is 2219ft: Randygill Top, Yarlside, Fell Head, all make the magic mark, though ‘nobbut just' as they say, whilst most of the others miss out by the merest of margins. Nor are they hills in another sense: they are of the North West and therefore `fells', in the proper Norse tradition. 

My first excursion into the Howgills, like that of many walkers, was to climb The. Calf from the Cross Keys temperance hotel at Cautley. It has the advantage of superb scenery insofar as it gives close views of the gaunt and crumbling Cautley Crag and that celebrated showpiece of the district, the waterfall of Cautley Spout. It has the disadvantage of being short and steep if you take the most direct line and intend going no further than The Calf. Both objections are easily overcome. The first visit began inauspiciously, I remember. Somebody had put a bull in the field at the bottom of Cautley Holme Beck. It was necessary to pass quite close, and my thoughts, which should have been on the beauty of nature, were on whether it was possible to run up Yarlside carrying a rucksack and the folly of wearing a red cagoule! Fortunately the bull just stared at me balefully.

I've never seen one there since, I'm glad to say, especially as these days I know I couldn't run up Yarlside. On this walk the best way to reduce the overall steepness is to climb the slopes to the col at Bowderdale Head, between Yarlside and The Calf, then continue in the same direction to an obvious slanting trod which circles round the flanks of The Calf to the summit plateau. The Spout is the main feature of the walk, without doubt. It is really a string of waterfalls in two main sections, looking like a silver ribbon carelessly tossed down the fellside. It is attractive, impressive — far more so than any waterfall in the Lakes- and comparable with The Grey Mare's Tail near Moffat.

This walk can be lengthened by continuing over Bram Rigg Top, Calders and Great Dummacks, then descending the steep fellside back to the Cross Keys. I once did this on a meet led by John and Fredda Kemsley, who had the happy knack of organising club meets in the lesser known hills. The previous day we had been over Wild Boar Fell and Mallerstang Edge in hot weather, with ABH searching for a suitable pool in which to have a dip, en route. Sadly, John and Fredda were to lose their lives a couple of years later in a storm on the Dent d' Herens.

There is a more energetic approach to The Calf from the Cross Keys which Pat Hurley and I took one time and which visits some of the less frequented eastern tops. We began up Westerdale, crossing the Backside Beck by a little footbridge, then following the old farm road which leads from Narthwaite to Mountain View. This is a short valley by Howgill standards, so before long we were climbing up to the col below Randygill Top and following the fine little ridge that leads to the summit. What an extensive view there is from this fell! In the distance the blue ridges of Lakeland sweep across the horizon from Coniston Old Man to Carrock Fell. Cross Fell rises massively to the north, then, turning in a half circle eastwards, we could pick out Wild Boar Fell, Ingleborough, Whernside and the tangle of fells around Barbon. The nearer view, too, is impressive, especially the long trough of Bowderdale which lay directly below us. The ridges and deep troughs of the Howgills were revealed in their complexity; hump upon hump, like a shoal of stranded whales. The slopes of our next objectives, Kensgriff and Yarlside, looked horrendous as they shimmered in the hot sun. 

The way ahead, as we knew it would be, turned out to be a very up and down affair, like walking the track of Blackpool's Big Dipper. You've simply got to get used to the steep fellsides if you are to enjoy the Howgills at all, and few come steeper than the traverse from Randygill Top over Kensgriff and Yarlside to the col at Bowderdale Head. The ascent of Yarlside in particular is a real cruncher, like climbing Whernside from Greensett Tarn. Yarlside does have one advantage, however, which even Wainwright seems to have missed. Descending from the summit to Bowderdale Head (another steep knee jerker) gives the best views of Cautley Spout you are likely to see. 

From the col we plugged our way up to The Calf by the usual route then, in descent, followed the beck down to take a closer look at the Spout — not, I hasten to add, a recommended thing to do and certainly not if the weather is bad. That evening we ate at The Fat Lamb. Peering out of the window we thought the sun and the steep slopes had finally done for us and brought on hallucinations. Peering back at us was a llama, of the Peruvian kind. "Oh, my God," I cried. "We've flipped at last!" "It must be the ale," said Pat, who is a doctor and should know about these things.

It was, of course, Henry, the landlord's pet llama. Carlin Gill is different from any other walk in the Howgills. From the narrow road the Romans built along the western flanks of the fells you enter at once into a narrow valley which twists away to the right. So steep are the valley sides that landslip is common and the grass has at best a tenuous hold on the shaley slopes. The path crosses and recrosses the beck, seeking what footholds it can until at last the valley widens at a confluence and makes a splendid camp site. Beyond this it narrows again to a small rocky gorge where the best way ahead is usually the bed of the gill, though in a really wet season this might not be practicable. Once through the narrows, the gill divides in a dramatic manner.

The main stream comes directly down from a splendid little waterfall, known, somewhat confusingly, as The Spout. It is set in a craggy bower, bypassed on the left by extremely steep shaley slopes, the like of which I wouldn't recommend even to a mere acquaintance. The Spout is fine, but is overshadowed by Black Force, a deep ravine which tumbles into the gill on its right bank. There is a scramble up the bed of Black Force which Brian Evans mentions in Scrambles In The Lake District, but most walkers would prefer the fine, steep, grass ridge which bounds it on the left. Pat Hurley and I were here once when the mist was low, giving the head of the gill a Wagnerian atmosphere. Fingers of vapour drifted in and out of Black Force, making it appear much more savage than it really is.

We were very impressed and even more impressed as we crawled up the narrow ridge, the top of which seemed like a miniature model of Halls Fell on Blencathra,with nothing but bottomless pits of mist on either hand. Pure illusion, of course — take away the mist and you have a straightforward slog offering interesting views into the Force. On that misty day we traversed, somewhat uncertainly, over Fell Head and round the ridge over White Fell to The Calf. The compass seemed unreliable, for I tend not to trust an instrument which gives me three different directions for North whilst I'm standing still, and it may be that there are magnetic influences in the underlying rock, though nobody else seems to have noticed them. 

Walt Unsworth: Cicerone Press

Anyway, I kept the compass in my pocket as a good-luck charm, and steered by God and Guesswork, as the old mariners used to say. There were never enough windows in the mist to give us a clear idea of where we were at any one time, but somehow we managed to reach the trig block on The Calf without too much fuss. On the descent, naturally, the mist began to rise and we had a splendid jog down the long ridge of White Fell to Chapel Beck, then cut steeply over Brown Moor and the slopes beyond to reach the Fairmile Gate on the Roman Road. Steak and chips at the Barnaby Rudge in Tebay, washed down with a couple of pints of good ale, ended what had been another memorable day on the Howgills. ■ 

Walt Unsworth: Climber November 1983 

Cicerone Appreciation article