When I was climbing constantly, from 1973 to about 1990, if I saw a raven cruising above the crag before I started up a route, I used to say. 'Raven. seek thy brother' — an Arab saying meant to ward off ill luck. Gavin Maxwell used it for the title of one of his memoirs. (it didn't work for him). The black silhouette of the mountain crow prints the sky above most Lakeland crags. The names say it: Raven Crag, Threshwaite Cove: Raven Langdale, where I teamed to climb: Raven Thirlmere, girdled by Peter Greenwood's excellent traverse, which I was about to climb with Peter and the route's co-author, Don Whillans, when Don died in August 1985. I finally did it with. Geoff Oliver in May 1990. We'd had some storming days, above all when we did his delectable little Penrod on Scafell East, then trogged back down to Seathwaite in Borrowdale and put up Maginot Line on Aaron Crags. He didn't relish the loose rock above the cave on Raven Thirlmere. We survived it. and it remains for me one of the most satisfying and varied routes in the country: a ladder of little holds up The Apocrypha (Soper and Allinson's variation on pitch I of Genesis/Anarchist); dizzy down-climbing on the big corner, where the perspective down the drop so unnerved me that it took me ten minutes to make the first steps- then stretching strides from hold to hold. Reversing part of Communist Convert, on the way to easier terrain above the yawning hollow of the Cave.
All those bird associations mean a lot to me because, when I think about it, being amongst wild nature is my prime motive for climbing. You could hardly be closer to it. more in amongst it. You're grasping rock, sinking your fingers in moist moss, clasping lovingly at the roots and boles of trees. cursing bird-shit wonderful! You're smelling the struck-match odour of baking rock (especially in the scorching summers of 1976 and 1983). You're hearing close up the bark of ravens or the staccato squawk of angry peregrines. Especially if you're soloing and there are no calls from yourself or your partner to affright the birds and other animals.
When I was doing the field-work for the 1987 Buttermere guide, I got as near peregrines as I ever will. On Striddle Crag at the back of Fleetwith Pike. where nobody ever goes, I had almost completed pitch 2 of Mark's Route when I put my hand on the end of a shelf cut deeply into the rock. Just as I saw a clutch of creamy eggs with reddish-brown markings, a bird shot off like a bolt of lightning and grew suddenly smaller as it streaked away towards Green Crag with wing-wrenching zigs and zags. I quickly mantled on up the start of pitch 3 to give the bird peace to return. It was a falcon...a female peregrine. Next day, climbing Carnival with Rick Graham on Eagle, Birkness Combe, I was maintaining my position with some difficulty on the very steep face of pitch 4 when a pair of peregrines showed me how to be free and fearless amongst heights by plunging past me in some kind of ecstatic mating-play - pulling out of the dive with athletic twists of wing - plunging again in a blur before sheering off into the air-space of the combe. How we all play before the serious business of bringing up children closes in! Peregrines almost never nest in trees, although they occasionally use an old raven's nest. I almost trod on one when I was exploring outcrops in the Calf Flow area of upper Kentdale. One line claws up a green wall into a holly. Struggles painfully through the prickles, then heads for an exposed traverse and a final 'Amen Corner' which I've only once had the bottle to do on my own.
In the tree a clattering sounded and a falcon shot off through the branches, leaving a twig nest with eight eggs (instead of the usual three or four. It feels like an intrusion into someone else's domestic life when you stumble so closely in amongst them, and it was rather like that when I was in Longsleddale, going up to climb The Minotaur at the apex of Buckbarrow. On the skyline at the summit a tiercel was treading a falcon in clear silhouette. My mate Chris Culshaw and I often start the season on that crag because it is an appetising goal at the end of a saunter up a perfect dale (narrowly saved. I. believed. from being flooded to make a reservoir in the Fifties . Two years ago we were stopped from even setting a hand on Buckbarrow. As we neared the head of the scree, a fit-looking man who had been jogging down as we approached came right back up again and asked us, not all that breathlessly, if we would mind not climbing there that day. He was a member of the Cumbria Raptor Group and he was worried that ravens might be scared off their nests.
They had recently fought with peregrines for the tenancy of Goat Sear across the dale, the hawks had won, and the mountain crows had moved over here. Now a raven is not a raptor. For another thing ravens are so abundant in Lakeland that they hardly need protection. We backed down and went for a walk instead, amongst the labyrinths of man-made gorges and stone palisades where lead was mined at the dale-head. No doubt the Buckbarrow ravens are happily ensconced by now. The bird mates for life and usually occupies the same nest year after year. The finest example of this I ever saw was in Newlands, which Bill Peaseod 'gave to George Rushworth', his coal-miner partner, in the late Forties. When I was reconnoitring Waterfall Buttress for the Guide, I saw on the fellside above - - approximately where the number 6 is on the G.S. map north of Eel Crags and below the word 'Cairn' - a vertical yew trunk making a vee with a steeply-angled rockface. At least twelve feet of twigs had built up between crag and tree, green with algae at the bottom, bleached grey in the middle, and fresh brown at the top. How many generations of ravens have made this their home?
The beauty of the crags in Newlands - and of Buckbarrow. and Hutaple in Deepdale and Dove and Black Crag in Dovedale, and many another Cumbrian fastness - is that they are fairly shaggy, still more or less natural, and will remain so now that the likes of Spain have become fashionable. You can climb such Lakeland crags - often, admittedly, through dripping moss and waist-deep heather - and come into a little secret paradise. In Newlands at the right-hand end of Red Crag (Lower Tier there is a steepish Hard Diff. called Heather Entry I've only ever done it alone. In the early Eighties Bill Peascod never mentioned it, although we were trawling closely along what had been just Eel Crags until he and George Rushworth named the main cliffs - Grey, Red, Waterfall, and Miners. The Guide lists no date for it and no authors. You pull straight up on chunky holds, with faith (which is justified) that there is rock beneath the bushy heather. After fifteen metres you step out into a copse of mature rowans, dozens of them. No animals have been able to get here and graze them down. The heather has never been burned. I remember sinking down into it as though into a yielding bed and looking out through the grille of silvery trunks and lattices of fresh green pinnate leafage in a state of pure contentment. Hindscarth and Dale Head reared up on high. Forget them - forget the toiling up the screes that flank the dale. Right here an atmosphere of peat and honey folds you in and for an hour or so the anxious delights of climbing give way to the carefree bliss of doing nothing whatsoever in this perfect neuk of wilderness.
Nature in Lakeland is a matter more of plants than of animals because the centuries of hill farming have driven away the creatures. Eagles died out (and have had to be reintroduced near Haweswater, although there were a fair few once and had crags named after them in Birkness Combe, Borrowdale, Grizedale, Otters are rare, and making a comeback. Badgers tunnel out their dens in softer ground near crags, e.g. on Nab Scar north of Rydal Water and on the eastern slope of Whitbarrow a mile or two from Chapel Head Scar. I saw red deer just once, in Swindale, amongst heather and blaeberries on the ridge above Gouther Crag. Frankly, the commonest animals on the crags are ants. My son Peter and I actually called a route Red Ant Motorway because an army of them kept filing up our brand new purple rope. That was on Jura in the Inner Hebrides and I mustn't stray outside Cumbria. The ants all over the forest floor below Gowder Crag, on the east bank of the Lodore Falls in lower Borrowdale, are hateful, like black-peppercorns with legs. They love swarming into rucksacks, no doubt foraging for the chocolate-covered Kendal mint-cake which I always carry. Their smaller, redder kinsfolk, who seem to prefer human flesh, invaded our sleeping-bags when we bivvied at the summit of Raven Thirlmere and we were wakened at 2 in the morning as though our whole bodies were afire.
The only ants I've ever viewed with affection, or at least interest. were scampering up and down the rib on pitch 2 of Jackdaw Ridge on Shepherd's (where we found a black jackdaw feather lying heraldically on a greenish slab near the start). As I sized up what was clearly a gymnastic pull-up over an cave, I saw that the rock was alive with ants. It was chastening to see how fearlessly they clambered up each grain and wrinkle of the slate, even when the angle was beyond the vertical But then, they have six points of contact and an enviable power/weight ratio. The crags are hanging gardens, luxuriant with thyme and harebells and foxgloves, roseroot and yellow saxifrage and bell heather, in spite of ruthless rooting-up by us lot. What we euphemistically call gardening. Bill Peascod, miner that he was, quite revelled in tearing mats of turf off the likes of Beth's Crag near Grange in Borrowdale. When we were putting up Stingray, he wrenched off square yards of grass and flung them off into mid-air. Graham McPhee and company had to wear goggles when they were putting up The Crack on Gimmcr in 1928 because their scraping and tearing at vegetation made so much dust. I would rather give the plants a chance and leave them to root and flower and seed on all those well-watered ledges. I saw the Sadgill Wall area of Buckbarrow in a new light when I went up it with Geoffrey Halliday, author of' ' Flora of Cumbria'. A doctor from Hawick. Climbing there in the Nineties he had reported finding purple saxifrage at the right-hand side. somewhere near the grassy bay. Geoffrey hadn't climbed for decades and he came up the broad. gullied face with an air of stunned bewilderment at the precariousness of it all. We quested left and right along ledges upholstered with dewy blaebcrry. No luck. Perhaps the vivid flower, so plentiful on the western cliffs of Penyghent, was just too scanty hereabouts.
A different kind of frustration awaited me when I went up Dandle Buttress and into the wild garden on its crest, hoping for a feast of blaeberries. Too late — every outcropping rock was plastered with purple birdlime. Blackbirds and stone-chats and perhaps the rarer ring ousel, which I usually see there fleeing of up the steeper watercourses, had got there first and treated the place as their orchard. The flowers are invariably beautiful. exasperating when they hold moisture or cloak holds, but it's worth it. You just have to be more canny, and possibly wear socks over your PA's, which gives amazing adhesion. I wore out an entire pair on Black Crack. Bowness Knott. Ennerdale. which Bill Peascod (its author) and I enjoyed intensely- although the Guide calls it 'repulsive even when there is no water spouting from its lip'. Another of his, Y-Gully on Haystacks, gave us an epic day in the teeth of the tendency to abuse it because it supports `too many flowers'. What else can you expect of a gully? The lower pitches are rich in what botanists call flush vegetation.
Water has been sluicing down them for thirty or forty thousand years and the only visible rock is so slicked and rounded that it is unclimbable. Tiptoe through flowerbeds then,sinking your fingers in pillows of sphagnum moss to find holds, any holds. The gully banks are a slow-motion avalanche of flowers ...fragrant meadowsweet, star-flowers of mountain saxifrage, clumps of alpine lady's-mantle which is used in Switzerland to flavour Gruyere. Two hundred feet above, your goal can be seen, a slot framed by heather tall as broom .... Well, if you don't like that kind of thing. keep well away. I can only say that after six hours of slithering and burrowing, and seventy feet of classic 4c bridging up the central chimney, I felt as renewed as I have been by any route at all. Bill, Chris. and I had been immersed in the shaggy stuff of nature itself, unaltered by the - how many? - by the few dozen people who will ever have been there. Unless, of course, the star we gave it in the 1987 Guide has turned unexpected numbers of climbers onto it.
I say 'we` because Rick Graham seemed resigned to my peculiar tastes. The Guidebook Committee were clearly dubious. Ever since the 1949 edition, written by Bill Peascod, nobody has had a good word for the place. Bill wrote that his own route was 'hardly to be recommended because of the poor rock'. By the time of Soper and Allinson words like 'evil' could be used (of neighbouring Warn Ghyll) and 'unattractive' and 'very poor'. For my part I hope I made things clear when wrote that the climb `hides a fine hard pitch in its oozing innards' and has 'areas that make Lego look solid'. Not every route can be as clean as Gimmer Crack. Whatever your opinion of all those pulpy flowers and funguses, who would agree that trees are wholesome and sturdy, and at least as reliable as rock.
Who has not felt relief on arriving at the holly on Holly Tree Traverse, Raven Crag, Langdale, after the prolonged exposure of pitch I ? Anybody who has climbed it since about 1990, unfortunately, when the slender grey trunk and little flourish of polished leaves lost its grip on the crag at last. Climbers love trees to bits, ring-barking them by abseiling off them, treading the ground bare until the tree has no turf to root in. A small pine on the second stance of Brown Crag Wall on Shepherd's was charred fatally by a climber's stubbed-out cigarette. The yew on pitch 3 of North Crag Eliminate, Castle Rock of Triermain, has had its top worn to a naked spike by the rough usage of people stepping of it to regain the rock. Is this the only classic route in which a tree is an integral section of the climb? Once I was climbing Overhanging Bastion in that same wonderful area with one finger bandaged after a dog-bite had turned septic. The dressing came off as I was stepping diagonally up pitch 4 with the help of the yew roots that jut over the rock shelf like a burnished abstract sculpture.
I left a streak of blood on the brown wood. As I coiled at the top, I heard the next climber after me call out excitedly. 'There's blood here, as though he had found the trace of a climbing accident. Those venerable, slow-growing yews are the soul of stability, coming so soon after the daredevil swing along a vertical face on creaking flakes. It's supposed to be daft to hug trees. That's what l feel like doing, and sometimes do, when I arrive at them after a stirring or frightening pitch. The birch near the end of the traverse on pitch I of Cleopatra. Buckstone How, for example, or the oaks on the ledges of Trinity Stabs on Wallowbarrow, Dunnerdale. 'Can you use the tree?' a young climbing partner once called up to me. Of course you can: use anything whatsoever on the crag as long as you do your best to co-operate with wild nature and don't leave it irreversibly trashed.
Davig Craig: First Published in the F&R Journal 1986.
Republished by kind permission of the author.