Friday, 23 December 2011

Walk Review 2011

It is that time of year again when magazines, papers and TV schedules are chock full of articles and programmes reviewing different aspects of the last 12 months, whether it be the top films, best albums, top news stories of 2011, etc, etc. This blog post then is my personal look back at the best, and worst, of my walking adventures in 2011.

My walk along the North Kinder Edges was one of the walking highlights of 2011
For a start I managed to complete most of the walks I'd planned out for the year and in doing so also managed to visit a fairly good variety of areas. Perhaps the two areas that most stood out for me in 2011 were the North Pennines and the Lake District. Between the beginning of February and the end of May I did half a dozen walks in the North Pennines which together greatly enhanced my appreciation for what is a greatly underrated and often ignored area for hill walking. After 7 North Pennine walks in total in 2011 I now only have a few North Pennine 2000ft tops to visit. More importantly I finally got round to climbing Mickle Fell, the historic top of Yorkshire, but which has awkward access issues due to its location on the Warcop Range.

In 2011 I finally made it to the summit of Mickle Fell
Another important walk for me was when, in March, I climbed Whiteside, Hopegill Head and Grasmoor in the North Western Fells of the Lake District. This was my first walk in the Lakes since June 2009 when, at the time, I had been struggling with a knee problem which subsequently turned out to be torn cartilege. Having been an avid Wainwright bagger prior to that injury it was great to get back into the swing of things. In total I bagged 14 new Wainwrights in 2011 and have just 17 more to go to complete the whole set.

Enjoying the view of Hopegill Head from Whiteside, my first Wainwright for nearly 2 years
It was on one Wainwright bagging expedition that I also managed my first wild camp. Wild camping was one of those things I just knew would add a new dimension to my love for the hills but had never got round to it. Finally in July, with my friend Matt, I camped out by Sprinkling Tarn on Seathwaite Fell. Later on, in September, we also wild camped on Swarth Fell in the Yorkshire Dales. Despite the lack of sunsets and sunrises I thoroughly enjoyed both expeditions and hope to do a lot more in the future.

Looking down at our pitch next to Sprinkling Tarn
In my review of 2010 I mentioned the fact that I felt that I'd been fairly lucky with the weather. Looking back over the last 12 months I'm unable to give such an upbeat assessment. Perhaps I was just unlucky but, certainly for the first six months of the year, an excess of cloud and a lack of good visibility characterised the weather on many of my walks.

Matt negotiating the peat hags on Black Fell on a tough walk in difficult conditions
Frustratingly, even when we had the extended dry spells in March and April when it was sunny it was also very hazy so visibility was poor. On one occassion it so hazy that I could barely make out Derwent Water from Skiddaw Little Man despite there not being a cloud in the sky. It wasn't until my 11th walk of the year in mid-March that I was able to enjoy the dual combination of blue skies and good visibility.

The extremely dry Spring really dried out some of the peaty areas of the Bowland moors
Another element of the weather that has characterised the last 12 months has been the frequency of fairly strong winds. Now anyone who spends any time walking in the hills will expect it to be windy but it seems to have been especially so this year, particularly in April and May, although some of the strongest winds I've been out in were on the Win Hill walk I did in the Peak District in November.

It was so windy when I visited the top of Win Hill that I could barely stand and it is a miracle I got this picture in focus
Anyway the following, in no particular order, are my best and worst moments on the hills in 2011. The following are highly subjective and as with all walking experiences were very much dependent on conditions overhead and underfoot.

Top 5 walks
1. Cnicht (Snowdonia)
2. North Kinder Edges (Peak District)
3. Great Hetha and White Law (Cheviots)
4. Cold Fell (North Pennines)
5. High Raise and Rampsgill Head (Lake District)

The superb climb up on to Cnicht was definitely one of my favourite walks of 2011
Top 5 views
1. View from White Law on the Border Ridge in the Cheviots.
2. View of Nantgwynant valley from Moel Hebog.
3. Autumn sunshine on the eastern edges and Ladybower from Crook Hill.
4. The Howgill Fells from West Baugh Fell.
5. Buttermere Valley from Mellbreak.

The fabulous prospect of the Howgill Fells from West Baugh Fell
Top 5 moments
1. Discovering the patch of rare Spring Gentian on Mickle Fell.
2. Getting to the top of Whiteside, my first Wainwright in nearly 2 years.
3. Enjoying the bluebells in Littledale, Forest of Bowland.
4. Descending into Whitendale, Bowland, from the Salter Road.
5. My first experience of wild camping.

Bluebells in Littledale
5 Worst Moments
1. Being chased out of a field by a herd of cows near Renwick in the North Pennines.
2. The detour on to Soil Hill in the South Pennines, despite the numerous public paths on the map the locals clearly didn't want walkers around and to top it off the summit was a huge spoil tip.
3. Getting the wobbles near the top of the north east buttress of Lonscale Fell, I've managed Striding Edge and Sharp Edge no problem but this route definitely got my adrenalin flowing.
4. After nearly a whole day of poor visibility and wintry conditions the last few miles of an epic walk over Grey Nag and Black Fell in the North Pennines were mentally very taxing - good recovery later on in The Angel in Alston mind!
5. Ripping my trousers from knee to crotch while leaping an innocuous stream on Barden Moor.

I had to leap over a gate to avoid these pesky cows when they began running after me across a field outside Renwick
Overall it has been another cracking year for walking but now my thoughts are already turning to where I'm going to go next year. Roll on 2012!!!

Happy Christmas.


Friday, 7 October 2011

Walking the Border

You can encounter many physical barriers when out walking the high places of England. Walls, fences and ditches all act as the boundary line between farm holdings, parishes and counties, both old and new. Some boundaries exist only on maps with no visible sign on the ground. To my mind there is no more enjoyable boundary to visit during a walk than the Anglo-Scottish border as it winds its way northward from above Kielder Water, along the full length of the Cheviots hills.

A distant view of the Eildon Hills from Eccles Cairn at the northern end of the Border Ridge
My first visit to the so-called Border Ridge was back in 2005 when my wife, Lisa, and I went on a camping trip to Kielder. After spending a suffocating night in a midgie infested tent we set off on what proved to be a grand walk over Deadwater Fell and on to Peel Fell which is neatly dissected from south-west to north-east by the border. Here the dividing line between England and Scotland is marked by a line of widely spaced wooden stakes. Without a wall or fence to hinder me I was able to take a child-like delight in literally walking along the border with one foot in England and the other in Scotland.

Jennie Storie's Stone on Peel Fell sits just inside the Scottish side of the Border
I’ve since revisited the Border Ridge several times and climbed some of its major summits, including Windy Gyle and The Schil. For much of the way the border is marked by a fence which is shadowed for most of its length by the Pennine Way. The views, both into England and into Scotland are superb and I’d rate the panorama from Windy Gyle as one of the finest in the country. Recently I enjoyed superb visibility from White Law at the northern end of the Border Ridge. Looking into Scotland I could see beyond the distinctive profile of the Eildon Hills to Broad Law, the second highest fell of the Southern Uplands over 40 miles away.

The view into Scotland from White Law on the Border Ridge
It is not just the colourful hills, the outstanding views, or the thrill of being able to cross at will from England to Scotland that makes the Border Ridge such a special place for walking. Located so far from any major urban centres the Cheviots are anything but overcrowded. Their wild beauty and remote solitude make the area a paradise for walkers. There is also a lot of history as well. Bronze Age burial cairns, Iron Age hillforts and Roman camps can all be found on or near the Border Ridge.

The top of Windy Gyle is marked by a large Bronze Age burial cairn
Though quiet and peaceful today it is also an area that has seen plenty of conflict. From the wars between the kingdoms of England and Scotland in medieval times to the raids of the Border Reivers in the years before and after the Union of the Crowns in 1603 the Border Ridge and the surrounding hills has seen plenty of strife. The results of the endless raids, murders, skirmishes and battles all helped form the border as it is today.

At 601m in height The Schil is one of the highest summits on the Border Ridge
George MacDonald Fraser, author of the ‘Flashman’ series of novels and historian of the Border Reivers described the Cheviots as, ‘the most romantic hills in the world’. Whilst I have not travelled enough to dare to agree with that epithet I’d certainly argue they are among the most beautiful and the Border Ridge itself is certainly one of my personal favourite walking areas.

Looking south along the Border Ridge from Windy Gyle

Monday, 3 October 2011

Book Review: The UK’s County Tops, Jonny Muir, Cicerone (2011)

I love hill lists. Many of my walks have the ultimate aim of ‘bagging’ a previously unvisited summit from a popular hill list (I’m gradually closing in on completing the Wainwrights, the English Hewitts and Nuttalls). Ticking them off my ‘to do’ list panders to my more obsessive side, but standing on a summit is more than just an end in itself – I also use hill lists as a starting point to explore new areas. By tackling lists such as the Nuttalls and Deweys I’ve visited some quite wonderful walking country I would otherwise have missed.

So I was excited and intrigued when I was given the opportunity to review Cicerone’s latest walking guide, ‘The UK’s County Tops’ by Jonny Muir. I’ve been aware of the County Tops list for a while but my ambitions in this area have been restricted to the ones within the Pennine range. Rather than being based on the modern system of counties and unitary authorities, this book is based on the “historic counties”, i.e. counties that existed before changes to local government boundaries in 1974. That makes 91 historical county tops; 39 in England, 33 in Scotland, 13 in Wales and 6 in Northern Ireland. The county tops range in height from the 1344m high Ben Nevis in Inverness-shire, to the aptly named, 80m-high Boring Field in Huntingdonshire.

The author Jonny Muir is well placed to write this guide, having become the first person to visit all 91 county tops as part of a single 5,000 mile walking and cycling adventure in 2006. It took him more than three months to complete – a remarkable achievement.

The book is well laid out, divided into four sections that cover the county tops of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. A short introduction to each county top is given, with a recommended route, a plan of the route using OS 1:50,000 scale mapping, and a ‘Did You Know’ section which provides a ‘Famous Native’ and ‘Interesting Fact’ for each county. Some county tops are so close to each other they can be visited in the same walk.

As the author says in his introduction, “No other hill list is quite like this one. No other is as diverse or, frankly, as wonderfully ridiculous”. The list is certainly diverse and admittedly there is something ridiculous about some of the county tops, particularly some of the ones in southern England, like the aforementioned Boring Field. Perhaps the nadir is Betsom’s Hill, the county top of Kent, which is actually inaccessible as it lies in somebody’s garden! On the other hand, for those of us, like me, who live south of the border and feel daunted by the list of Munros, the Scottish County Tops provide a doable list of hills to climb in Scotland.

The book has undoubtedly opened my eyes to the potential of the County Tops as a viable hill list, and would prove indispensable if, god forbid, I ever found myself at a loose end in the Home Counties. In particular, it’s reinforced my desire to get myself over to Northern Ireland for some serious hill walking at some point.

I do, however, have some problems with the book or, more specifically, the walking routes that Muir provides. Roughly three quarters of them are of the ‘there and back’ variety, usually starting from the nearest point of access from a road. This is fine if the purpose it to get to the summit and back again in the shortest available time, but as this is supposed to be a walking guide, it would have been a lot better if more interesting routes were provided. I was particularly irked by the walking routes that Muir provides for The Cheviot and Hangingstone Hill. The latter is the highest point in Scotland’s Roxburghshire, but in reality it’s merely a shoulder of The Cheviot (county top of Northumberland). Muir provides separate routes, “for the sake of preserving national identities” but rather bizarrely starts both walks from Langleeford in the Harthope Valley. Not only that, they’re both ‘there and back’ walks when the two could easily be combined to produce a more satisfactory circular walk. Besides if Muir really wanted to preserve the national identity of Hangingstone Hill surely he should have provided a route starting in Scotland, perhaps from Cocklawfoot, for example. This is just one example; I could provide a lot more.

Another disappointment was the length of some of the walks. In fact ‘walk’ is something of a misnomer as some of them are no more than a 30 minute stroll from the car. Even given that this is all that is feasible for some of the English county tops I do feel more effort could have been made to give more extended and interesting walking routes. Just because you can park right next to the summit of Dunstable Downs, the highest point of Bedfordshire, doesn’t mean you should, especially when there’s a nearby chalk escarpment to explore. In complete contrast Muir’s route for Scafell Pike, which starts from Great Langdale, climbs both Bow Fell and Esk Pike before heading over Great End to Scafell Pike – a very challenging and somewhat circuitous route!

For pure, unadulterated peak baggers I would wholeheartedly recommend this book. For anyone who is genuinely interested in completing the UK county tops it is, of course, definitely worth checking out too. The book has certainly piqued my interest in the county tops but I’d be more likely to use it as a reference than a walking guide. There are some fantastic looking hills to visit contained within these pages, just not in the manner described in the book.

'The UK's County Tops' is available to buy from the Cicerone website.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

A Surfeit of Summits

It is a well-known saying that you can have, “too much of a good thing”, a sentiment I can whole heartedly agree with in the aftermath of gorging myself on a full packet of bourbon biscuits. Until recently one ‘good thing’ I didn’t think it was possible to have too much of in one go was hill summits. As a self-confessed peak bagger no walk feels complete to me without having bagged at least one summit, even better if I get to visit two, three, four or even five or six summits, no matter how insignificant, in a single walk. That was until a few weeks ago when I walked the Allen Crags – Glaramara – Bessyboot ridge in the Lake District.

The first summit of the day was Allen Crags
In total there were 11 summits to visit - on paper it looked like a peak bagger’s wet dream. The reality was somewhat different. Well before I reached the final summit of the walk it was clear that I was experiencing a condition previously unknown to me – summit fatigue, or, to put it another way, I was suffering from a surfeit of summits.

On High House Tarn Top, an area of attractive knolls and tarns
I’ve read some critical comments from people who complain that most of the summits on the Glaramara ridge are no more than minor bumps and are of little interest. I disagree. Yes some of them are, relatively speaking, fairly insignificant but in my experience every single one of them was worth visiting.

My friend Matt enjoying the view from Looking Steads
Allen Crags was the highest, Glaramara the grandest. Looking Steads had the best view south and Combe Head had the best view north whilst Rosthwaite Cam featured an enjoyable scramble to reach the highest point. However, of all the summits visited, it was the area of delectable tarns around the small knoll known as High House Tarn top that was perhaps the most beautiful.

The summit of Glaramara looking to the 'Wainwright' summit
It wasn’t the quality of the summits on offer that was the problem it was the quantity. The walk was an endless succession of ups and downs with few flat areas to provide any respite for the knees. Instead of getting into a stride we were halting every half mile or so to take photos as we bagged another top. It all began to get just a bit tedious and (I never thought I’d say this) boring.

The fabulous view of Comb Gill and Borrowdale from Comb Head
Bessyboot was the final summit of the day. The steep climb up from Tarn at Leaves proved to be a real sting in the tail. By the time the top was reached it had taken four and a half hours to travel the three and a half miles from Allen Crags. I can’t remember a walk where my pace has been so slow (though in my defence it has to be pointed out that I was carrying a heavier than usual pack having camped at Sprinkling Tarn the night before).

Looking back up at Comb Head from the summit of Dovenest Top
In the future I think I’ll have to try and make sure I don’t visit too many summits in one walk (there goes some of my walking plans for peak bagging in Wales). As for the Glaramara ridge I would definitely go back but I think instead of taking it all in one go I’ll do it in bite size chunks to allow me to savour it more.

The summit cairn on Bessyboot, the final top of the day
For hill-bagging geeks who are in to this kind of thing I bagged 9 Nuttalls, 4 Hewitts, 3 Wainwrights and 1 Dewey. While you try and work out how all those added together adds up to 11 summits I think I’ll go in search of some bourbons.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Going wild at last

Having talked about it for at least six years and having purchased an appropriate tent back in January I've finally had my first wild camping expedition. The location for this momentous event was Sprinkling Tarn, perhaps not the most original of choices given its popularity as a wild camping site, but it is a beautiful spot and perfectly placed near a number of well known walking routes in the Lake District.

Whilst the initial walk up to Sprinkling Tarn from Seathwaite and the following day's peak bagging fest on the Allen Crags - Glaramara ridge can be viewed on the main mypennines website I thought I'd take the opportunity to blog about both my reasons for wanting to go wild camping and how I found my first attempt.

I should perhaps point out first that I'm not a complete novice at camping. Back in 2005, when I first began to consider buying a backpacking tent, I opted instead to purchase a 3 berth tunnel tent for Lisa and I to use for weekends away. We used this tent on numerous occasions over the next two years for weekend breaks visiting the North Pennines, Hadrian's Wall country, Kielder, the Ogwen Valley in Snowdonia, the Northumberland Coast as well as the first of a number of trips to the Lake District.

My first camping trip at the end of April 2005 resulted in a particularly cold and frosty night in Alston Whilst I had thoroughly enjoyed all those trips (though the midgies at Kielder were a nightmare!), and especially the liberty it gave us to explore new places, I have always still wanted to try out a wild camp. The main reason for this is quite simple - I love the hills and mountains of this country and, more specifically, I love being high up in the hills. As something that would allow me to spend even more time on the hills then wild camping was something that I just had to try sooner rather than later. The opportunity to enjoy seeing the sun come up and go down from a high vantage point was of particular appeal to me.

In January of this year I finally took the plunge and purchased a backpacking tent along with a new, lighter, sleeping bag and a few other necessary accoutrements. Earlier, for Christmas, Matt had already bought me a Spork and a trowel ...

Having all the necessary equipment it was then a case of waiting for the days to grow longer and for a time when both Matt and I would be available for a whole weekend. Our trip was first scheduled for the middle of June but just the day before I cancelled, the forecast for that weekend being heavy rain and gale force winds neither of which I particularly wanted to experience on my first wild camp, especially in the 'wettest place in England'.

So it was that last Saturday I finally got to pitch my tent by Sprinkling Tarn. So how was it? We arrived at Sprinkling Tarn just as the light was beginning to fade and we soon both donned our head torches as we pitched our tents. I'd only had one practice attempt at putting the tent up (on my front lawn) so thankfully it was easy enough to manage 'out in the field'. I was also a bit concerned that, given the popularity of Sprinkling Tarn as a wild camping location, that there would be loads of people up there and it wouldn't feel very wild at all. I needn't have worried, while there were a few other tents dotted about none were visible from where we pitched and to all intents and purposes might not have been there.

Pitching our tents by Sprinking Tarn as the light begins to fade Having pitched our tents and stowed most of our gear away it was time for some long overdue dinner / supper. For ease of cooking I'd brought a couple of Wayfarer meals along with me, the first time I'd tried these. For supper I had beef and dumplings. It was tasty enough but I found the portion size a bit disappointing especially as, by this point, I hadn't had anything to eat for about nine hours. Half way through heating up the water the pan and stove overbalanced tipping all the water out so I had to start again. Thus I learnt my first lesson - I needed a smaller pan as the one I'd brought with me was far too large my camping stove.

Cooking a late supper by Sprinking Tarn Having finally finished our supper at about 10.30pm we then played around for a while testing out the range of our respective Petzl head torches (boys and their toys!) before finally retiring for the night. Strangely enough I never sleep well in a tent, at least not on the first night. This time was no exception. While I managed to get to sleep I was awake by 3.30am and couldn't sleep for the next couple of hours as I kept peeping outside the tent to see what the weather in the hope that I'd get some nice photos of the early morning sun.

Unfortunately it was not to be, patches of hill fog kept rolling over the higher fells and at one point (at about 4.30am) I couldn't even see the tarn just a few metres away. Finally giving up on some dawn photos I managed a bit more sleep (where I dreamt that I woke up to find dozens of tents surrounding us) before I eventually gave up on the idea of sleep altogether so got out of my sleeping bag and went to take some pictures of our pitch.

After accidentally waking Matt up we were soon cooking breakfast. This time it was beans and bacon for me and another disappointingly meagre portion from Wayfarers. After breakfast we had a little wander over to the western flank of the fell to enjoy the views of Sty Head, Wasdale Head and Great Gable (which seemed to be attracting what little sun that was breaking through the clouds). By 9.30am we had packed up and were ready to head for Allen Crags.

Sadly I didn't get to experience a sunset or a sunrise but on reflection Sprinkling Tarn may not be the best location for either of these as the views are fairly enclosed by the surrounding mountains. I'd also taken plenty of water with me so I didn't need to go in search of a decent water source and (thankfully) neither did I need to make use of the trowel. In some ways then, both in terms of the romance and practicalities of wild camping, it wasn't what I had hoped / expected.
On the other hand it did feel good to be sleeping out in the hills and, despite my oversized pan, I especially enjoyed sitting by the tarn in the dark cooking my supper. It all felt so natural. Having had my first taster I'm now really looking forward to the next trip which, hopefully, will be in September and will probably be in the Lakes again as I endeavour to complete the round of Wainwrights (just 19 left to go). If all goes to plan I'll once again go out with Matt but sooner or later I'll also need to try a solo trip. For peaceful solitude that is probably the ultimate although it is also quite a daunting prospect. It took me a few times to feel completely at ease out hill walking on my own, especially in remote areas. Whilst that is almost second nature to me now I imagine I'll have even less luck sleeping the first time I go out for a solo camp.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Gentle Art of Fence Following - Peak bagging in the North Pennines

There are 33 summits in the North Pennines which, if you are following the list devised by John and Anne Nuttall, attain the exalted height of 2000ft. Although this figure is some way short of somewhere like the Lake District actually trying to attain the summit of each of these North Pennines mountains is still something of a challenge.

One of the reasons for this is that, with the exception of the summits that are visited by the course of the Pennine Way (Knock Fell, Great Dun Fell, Little Dun Fell and Cross Fell), none of the other 29 tops can be visited by using a public right of way. A few, such as The Dodd and Great Stony Hill are close enough to a right of a way to require only a short detour but the majority stand well away from well trodden paths and before the CRoW Act would have been seen by most walkers as being quite out of bounds.

The summit of Knock Fell is one of the few North Pennine tops visited by a public right if way
Whilst the CRoW Act has now made it permissible to visit these summits there is still the issue of what route to take, a problem exacerbated by the fact that, without the benefit of a well trodden right of way, walkers are faced with crossing miles of tussocky grass, deep heather and substantial areas of peat hags and groughs. All of this adds up to, in my opinion, some of the roughest walking conditions in the country.

Large areas of peat hags are often found on the high North Pennine moors
While the high places of the North Pennines may be lacking in useful paths or bridleways they certainly do not lack in walls and fences. It is these walls and fences that often provide the key to navigation, especially in poor visibility, where they act as both a collecting feature as well as being a useful hand rail to follow. In fact in many areas of the North Pennines boundary fences are often the only visible feature of note.

Earlier this year a fence proved to be an invaluable navigational guide when Matt and I did a high level walk above Gilderdale in very poor weather
I've done half a dozen walks in the North Pennines this year and, in addition to the ones I'd already been to, I have visited another 13 'Nuttall' tops (I only have 4 left to do now). A recurring theme of these walks has been the miles upon miles of fence that I've followed. Furthermore many of the summits I've visited have lain within a few yards of a fence. Fences have become an almost constant companion and on at least two occassions this year I must have shadowed about 10 miles of fence in a single walk.

As mentioned there are very few paths that visit the higher summits in the North Pennines. Since fences are often the only navigational guide available a slim trod, created by walkers, will sometimes develop alongside a fence. More often than not though the only sign of anyone else having passed by is the occassional sighting of a boot mark in the peat. Of course sometimes it can get tedious. In poor visibility, when all you've seen for several hours is a frost lined fence and the frozen peat below you're feet then you do yearn for something different.

The fence running along the top of Dry Rigg is the only obvious feature in a sea of heather and grass
So far I've not really done a very good job of promoting the North Pennines as a good area to go walking. Certainly it would not be to everyone's taste. However, at a time when areas like the Lake District are becoming increasingly overcrowded the North Pennines offers sanctuary for those who perhaps treasure peace and solitude over excitement. Recently I saw more people on the small summit area of Kidsty Pike (hardly the most popular Lake District mountain) than I have seen in over 60 miles of walking in the North Pennines this year.

Indeed it is the very fact that it is so rare to actually come across another walker that the North Pennines has so much appeal to me. There are of course lots of other reasons why I enjoy walking there; the bird life, interesting flora, the wide ranging views and the general feeling of remoteness are just a few of them. On the other hand I wouldn't want to encourage too many people to go therer, I'd rather it stayed the way it is. I have three more Nuttalls to tick off from my 'to do' list. After that I'll move on to complete the remaining Dewey tops (summits over 500m) that I've not yet visited. I still have many more miles of fence following to look forward to.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Getting back on track with the Wainwrights

Those who have read some of my previous blogs or who are familiar with the website probably already know that I like hill lists and can be classed as the type of walker who is a 'peak bagger'. My website is dedicated to my walking adventures in the Pennines and as such features my latest progress in completing all the numerous Deweys, Hewitts, Marilyns, Nuttalls and County Tops to be found throughtout the length of the 'backbone of England'.

The one and only Pike O'Stickle

It may be something of a surprise therefore that the hill list that I most aspire to completing has nothing to do with the Pennines at all. The Wainwrights.

Looking up to one of my favourite Wainwright summits is Hopegill Head

My first walking trip to the Lake District was in August 2005 when Lisa and I took our recently purchased tent to the Burns Farm campsite near Threlkeld. On our first afternoon we had a nice walk up on to Cat Bells but it was on the next day when we climbed Fleetwith Pike and then Haystacks that I really fell in love with the Lakeland mountains. The views of the Buttermere valley were absolutely stunning and I distinctly remember saying to Lisa at the beginning of the descent from Haystacks, 'if there is a heaven then I hope it is like this.'

Enjoying the 'heavenly' views of the Buttermere Valley from Haystacks

The next day I got up early and climbed Blencathra on my own via the Hall's Fell Ridge. That evening I sat by the tent reading Wainwright's 'Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells - Bk.5, The Northern Fells' which I'd purchased only that afternoon. There isn't room here to discuss in detail what an utterly brilliant, amusing, informative and beautiful set of books that Wainwright created. The point is that having discovered the joys of walking in the Lake District it was the Wainwright books, and the challenge of visiting each of the 214 summits in the books, that became the major influence on my walking endeavours over the next few years.

On my second visit to Blencathra I took the adrenaline inducing Sharp Edge route

I returned to the Lakes a few months later in November when we hired a cottage for a week in the small village of Uldale. For six of the seven days we were there we enjoyed bright sunshine and plenty of blue sky. During the course of the week I visited the summits of 14 Wainwrights in the Northern Fells and a further 6 Wainwrights in the North Western Fells. The undoubted higlight of the week was on my birthday when we climbed Skiddaw via Ullock Pike and Carl Side.

The summit of Skiddaw

Over the course of the following 3 and a half years I returned to the Lakes as much as I could staying in B&Bs, campsites, cottages as well as driving out and back as a day trip. By June 2009 I'd completed 83 walks in the Lake District and taken my Wainwright tally to 183. Along the way I'd enjoyed some amazing experiences as well as a handful of not so good ones (top of the list probably being finding myself in the upper Wythburn Valley in heavy rain, poor visibility and fading light with a long way to get back to Grasmere).

Heron Pike in thw winter

Looking back my desire to complete the Wainwrights had turned into an obsession and in pursuit of that obsession I began pushing my body too hard. As a result I began to pick up injuries. The first was in Spring 2007 when, whilst climbing the Scafells for the first time, I got a sharp stabbing pain on the outside of my left knee. This occurred somewhere between Middleboot Knotts and Round How and whilst I should really have turned back I persisted and effectively got over Great End, Ill Crag, Broad Crag and onto Scafell Pike using only my right leg. Upon reaching Mickledore common sense finally prevailed and I left Sca Fell for another day. Still the descent from Mickledore to Wasdale was one of the most painful experiences in my life.

On the summit of Sca Fell Pike

A couple of months and numerous physio sessions later I returned for what should have been a simple walk up to Steel Knotts but the same thing happened again. Again though this did not stop me from hobbling up on to Hallin Fell from the top of Martindale Hause. Eventually the exercise from the physio paid off and I was able to begin visiting the Lakes again. It was some time though before I was confident enough to take my knee support off.

One of the finest Wainwrights is Steeple

Two years later in May 2009 I began getting pain on the inside of my left knee. I struggled on for a couple of walks but it was on Seat Sandal in June 2009 that I realised that something serious was amiss. Whilst more physio got me out hill walking again by the autumn the problem had been diagnosed as a torn cartilage which was finally repaired during an operation in December 2009.

This view of Grisedale Tarn and St Sunday Crag was taken from Seat Sandal on my last walk before my self-imposed exile from the Lake District

As something to keep me occupied in my spare time and whilst I waited for my knee to heal I began putting my website together. I had actually begun drafting some pages for a website six months beforehand but didn't get very far with it. At the time it was actually going to be dedicated to my walks in the Lake District. Following the operation though I was wary about going back to the Lakes too soon so instead I focused the site on the Pennines. As I began to develop the idea I decided that if I was going to call a site '' I'd better make sure I'd do most of my walking there, especially as there were areas, such as the West Pennine Moors, that at the time I'd never been to. It is no coincidence that the first hill walk I attempted after my operation was Bull Hill.

Standing below Dow Crag next to Goat's Water, one of my favourite tarns in the Lake District

So started what was in effect a self-imposed exile from the Lake District and the joys of Wainwright bagging, an exile that finally ended a couple of weeks ago when I completed the North Western Fells by visiting the summits of Grasmoor and Whiteside. In the meantime I've enjoyed some marvellous walks in the Pennines, from the Peak District all the way up into the Cheviots, all the while though I have continued to miss the rugged beauty of the Lakeland mountains.

On Whiteside - my first new Wainwright for 21 months

So now I've gone back, what next? It should only take me another 3 walks to complete both the Eastern and the Far Eastern Fells and that is my main target this year. I'm also hoping to go backpacking to the Lakes for the first time as well. I'll need to take it steady and I'm sure that the possibility of another injury will always be at the back of my mind. For this reason (as well as the current cost of petrol!) I need to make sure I don't get carried away and go back too often or too regularly. Instead I need to show patience and restraint and accept the fact that it may be a while yet before I finally complete the Wainwrights.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Spring is in the air!

Finally, spring is in the air! Daffodils shoots are appearing in the garden, crocuses have been appearing all over town and there were masses of snowdrops on my recent walk around Fountains Abbey.

Some of the numerous snowdrops I saw in the grounds of Fountains Abbey
Spring has to be the season I look forward to with the greatest anticipation coming as it does after the dark days of winter. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy walking in the winter too but to be quite honest by the end of February I'm fed up of the short days and especially the lack of sunshine that has characterised the last couple of months. Hopefully the beautiful weather outside today is a taste of things to come.

There were still patches of snow on Cross Fell well into May last year
Of course the arrival of spring is not necessarily a guarantee of better weather, far from it, in fact spring sees perhaps the greatest variety in weather conditions of all the seasons. As I discovered last year on Cross Fell patches of snow can cling to the higher tops well into May. Meanwhile I seem to have a tradition of underestimating the power of the sun in April and getting badly sunburnt as I did last year on Kinder Scout.

Enjoying the fine views from Ringing Roger last April, little did I know I was also getting badly sunburnt
One of the things I look forward to the most as spring approaches is the arrival of the various species of bird who return to the moors and high meadows in the Pennines at this time of year. Particular favourites of mine are the curlew, lapwing and skylark. The curlew is a magnificent bird and if I could pick just one sound that I would most like to hear while out walking I think it would have to be the haunting cry of the curlew.

I've yet to get a decent picture of a curlew, this one was taken on Burn Moor in Bowland in May 2009
I also find the song of the skylark particularly affecting. There are few things more relaxing than lazing about on a hill top on a nice sunny day listening to the skylarks song. My two favourite memories of being treated to a whole chorus of skylarks was on Little Fell in Mallerstang in March 2007 and Mungrisdale Common in the Northern Fells of the Lake District in May 2008.

A skylark that I caught on camera last year on Pen-y-Ghent
As for the lapwing it is one of the most distinctive birds both in terms of its call but also its display of aerial gymnastics if it feels threatened. In early spring I've witnessed huge congregations of lapwings both in Teesdale in the North Pennines and Wharfedale in the Yorkshire Dales - a truly magnificent sight.

The lapwing, one of my favourite birds
Of course spring is also lambing time as well. While watching a group of young lambs gambolling about cannot but put a smile on my face I confess I do try even harder than normal to avoid walking through too many farm fields during lambing time as the over protective mothers make me even more nervous of livestock than normal.

A lamb
I've already mentioned a number of flowers whose appearance heralds the arrival of spring. My favourite flower though is one that appears somewhat later in the season, the bluebell. Ever since I was a child I've always loved the sight of a woodland floor covered in bluebells. Every year, in late April - mid May I always try and make sure I get in at least one 'bluebell walk'. The best bluebell spot near me is the in the woods outside Ripley. Other prime bluebell areas are the banks of the Wharfe below The Strid and the banks of the Washburn below Thruscross Reservoir.

The woods around Ripley are fine place to see bluebells in May
Ahhh spring ... bring it on!!