What would Wainwright do?

There are more stories about Alfred Wainwright than about any other fellwalker. A list of his favourite places would fill volumes. He once though tried to sum up the best places of the lakes in a walk. No one but Wainwright would have thought of inviting his friends for a weekend walking 107 miles across the highest tops of Lakeland, but he did.

The Wainwright Memorial Walk is Wainwright’s own account of the epic walk. It loops over many tops, the best in Westmorland and Cumberland, and with the best views of the shining waters which lie between the fells. It is not a walk I would recommend trying in even a long weekend, but when challenged, the sights seen are spectacular.

There are more stories about Alfred Wainwright than about any other fellwalker.  A list of his favourite places would fill volumes.  He once though tried to sum up the best places of the lakes in a walk.  No one but Wainwright would have thought of inviting his friends for a weekend walking 107 miles across the highest tops of Lakeland, but he did.

The Wainwright Memorial Walk is Wainwright’s own account of the epic walk, named “Memorial” after his death).  It loops over many tops, the best in Westmorland and Cumberland, and with the best views of the shining waters which lie between the fells.  It is not a walk I would recommend trying in even a long weekend, but when challenged, the sights seen are spectacular.

I have so far only walked short stretches of the Memorial Walk, but my eyes are always turned towards the hills with a map and compass ready.

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Books and maps

Slieve Donard 2: Mourne with joy

Slieve Donard, the county top of County Down, Prince of the Mourne Mountains, stands looming above Newcastle; the silly seaside boutiques and rides, gaudy ice-cream stalls and beachwear shops looking tiny beneath its silent, majestic presence.
Previously I described the initial climb from the beach, though the woods by the Glen River up to the Ice House. It is here, having emerged from the woods, that the walk opens up, and the way to the top of the mountain appears.

Slieve Donard, the county top of County Down, Prince of the Mourne Mountains, stands looming above Newcastle; the silly seaside boutiques and rides, gaudy ice-cream stalls and beachwear shops looking tiny beneath its silent, majestic presence.

Previously I described the initial climb from the beach, though the woods by the Glen River up to the Ice House. It is here, having emerged from the woods, that the walk opens up, and the way to the top of the mountain appears.

The ice house is at the side of a deep, broad, steep valley climbing the mountainside.  It begins to divide the two neighbouring mountains, Slieve Donard to the south-east (on the left as you climb) from Slieve Commedagh to the north-west (right).  The route upwards is initially beside the wood, on a well-worn path, with the river, now a narrow stream threading between rocks, below to the left.

After the wood is left behind, the valley opens more and looking back there is a fine view down to the sea and the far Lecale peninsula, flat and fertile missy in the heat-haze.  The path is paved in parts from the rocks from beside it, and the river, now a bare mountain burn, is crossed again just on the stones within its course, and all in the great U of the valley which even over aeons this tiny water could not have carved.

The Glen Valley

The top of the path stops at a wall.  It climbs to the crest of the saddle between Slieve Donard and Slieve Commedagh halfway between the two summits and far below them both, and stops.  Here is the Mourne Wall.  The wall stands neck-high, between 1904 and 1922 by the Belfast Water Commissioners in order to enclose the water catchment in the Mournes, and to keep sheep out of it apparently.  It is a most remarkable construction, stretching for summit to summit miles across the mountains; Ulster’s version of the Great Wall of China. It also shows the way to the summit (although the fact that the ground goes up in one direction is generally enough of a clue).

The saddle (I keep wanting to call it a ‘bealach’) is a high ridge between the two mountains, and beyond it the Mournes stretch away inland, gorgeous to behold, and the wall looping over the tops to the horizon.  While I stood contemplating the scene a new group of walkers appeared over the lip, who had climbed the mountain from Bloody Bridge – a spot where the cliffs come down to the sea south of Newcastle with barely room for the road to squeeze by though there is a spot here to pull boots on and go.  The must be a more rugged path – and a goal for next time I come this way.

There are many routes up and around Slieve Donard:  I have listed some of the books below.  There is so much to explore in the Mourne Mountains, even just in this little corner of it, that one path, and the popular one at that, barely does it justice.  There is here at least a glimpse over those wilder slopes stretching of beyond.

I turned east.  It is a steeper, rockier climb beside the wall to the Slieve Donard summit.  You cannot stop as it is too tempting not to start again, and up, and further up it goes.

The summit levels, and here is the biggest cairn I have ever seen.  I clambered to the top of course. There: County Down duly topped. From the summit the view looks out over the sea and shore, to Newcastle, Lecale and the Ards peninsula beyond, into the Irish Sea, with the Isle of man appearing in the haze.  It is said that Snowdon is visible on a good day, but I could not see it, and the weather was descending.

Crowds on Slieve Commedagh

Back down to the Saddle, and I noticed that while there were many people up on Slieve Donard, no one was on its neighbour, Slieve Commedagh, so up I went.  It is an easier climb than the big one, and its summit cairn a far more modest affair.  Its resident inhabitants were better climbers than I – its sheep, and no more.

I looked across at Slieve Donard.  Its summit was now within a cloud.  It was time to descend.

Back down to the broad valley, and the vista once more opened up before me, back to the wee mountain burn hiding itself among the rocks and which grew as I followed it down, back to the ice house, which I took time to explore this time.

Then into the woods, the river a real river by now, with pools and cascades, and down, back to the car park and the sleepy seaside town.

Next time there are wilder routes.  My eyes at that point though were t a mountain further west, but that is for another time.

Maps and books

Slieve Donard 1: up to highest of Down

Slieve Donard, the highest mountain of the gorgeous Mourne Mountains, and the highest point of County Down and of all Ulster, was a challenge not to be missed, and gave me another county top to tick off the list.
The distinctive shape of this mountain, its bulk and whale-like profile, was visible from many of the places we visited around the edge of the Mournes, and called out to be trodden. It is not without neighbours equally haunting in their shape and immensity, but Slieve Donard is the greatest of them. For those who have not been among the Mourne Mountains, they create in a relatively small compass in the southernmost of one county a sudden landscape of rare intensity.

Slieve Donard, the highest mountain of the gorgeous Mourne Mountains, and the highest point of County Down and of all Ulster, was a challenge not to be missed, and gave me another county top to tick off the list.

The distinctive shape of this mountain, its bulk and whale-like profile, was visible from many of the places we visited around the edge of the Mournes, and called out to be trodden.  It is not without neighbours equally haunting in their shape and immensity, but Slieve Donard is the greatest of them.  For those who have not been among the Mourne Mountains, they create in a relatively small compass in the southernmost of one county a sudden landscape of rare intensity.

The mountain has the wee seaside resort of Newcastle at its foot, and here we started.  At one point on the promenade is a piece of modern art in the form of a cone with slot cut through it, arranged so that a look through the slot is of the summit of Slieve Donard: an interesting conceit, or a tribute to the mountain’s dominating presence.

We went down onto the beach and I trod with the sea washing on my walking boots, so that way there was no cheating and I could say I was climbing from sea level. My family then went off to explore the Tollymore Forest Park on the north side of the Mournes, which, they told me when they returned, was lovely – maybe next time then.  Today though I headed inland.

The Glen River
The Glen River

From the beach through the car park and out almost at once into a wood.  The route I was taking was up the tautologously named Glen Valley; the valley of the Glen River, and a lovely stream it is, tumbling over rocks worn smooth by its waters – in places not so much a river as a mile-long shallow waterfall, and with plenty of genuine cascades.

The path follows the river, on one side then the other, up though the woods it waters, at first a gentle climb.

It is a popular climb too – my hopes of boasting of achieving a rare feat were disappointed, except that I at least had walked from sea level not from the coach drop-off a little uphill, for all the difference it makes (and as it happens I coincided with a charity walk).  One thing I will say for the walkers of Ulster – they know to wear proper boots:  I have seen people trying to clamber lake District fells in plimsoles and flip-flops and wondered what planet they were on, but here in the Mourne Mountains there were stout boots on show.

The valley and the ice house

Eventually the tree cover thins and the path emerges, but I was not out of the woods yet (except literally).  There on the other side of the stream stands a large, domed ice house.  It looks in form like a giant igloo, except that an igloo is made of snow and an ice-house contains ice, or did in its heyday.  The ice-house was built for the estate, and I could imagine weary servants tramping up the much as I had to this far ice-house to collect ice and trudge back with barrows on an inadequate path, muttering curses under their breath, heavy-laden to the great house, wherever that is.  In a valley shaped by nature, the building stands out, but is a charm in its own way.

On then upwards. From here the valley is open and you can see how wide is this slice through the hill. In fact it is separating two mountains; Slieve Donard to the south-east and Slieve Commedagh to the north-west. There stands the challenge, which I will finish next time.

Maps and books

Climbing Snowdon: The Watkin Path

The Watkin Path is the toughest of the standard routes up Snowdon. There may be other routes known to climbers considered more challenging, such as the haul up Crib Goch, but of those normal routes straight to the top, the Watkin is the one. It also has the greatest ascent from start to finish: 3,330 feet.
The walk start at the ‘back of the mountain’ on the south side in the valley of the Nant Gwynant, at Bethania, between the two long lakes of the valley. A short walk in leads first through lovely woodland, then it begins to mean business as you walk up a dry valley carved into the mountainside, where Snowdon was heavily quarried for slate.

The Watkin Path is the toughest of the standard routes up Snowdon.  There may be other routes known to climbers considered more challenging, such as the haul up Crib Goch, but of those normal routes straight to the top, the Watkin is the one.  It also has the greatest ascent from start to finish:  3,330 feet, or 1,015 m in French.

It has been several years since I climbed the Watkin, so I have no photographs of my own for this own.  I had it easy:  my wife climbed with me in spite of a bout of flu, but we wanted to climb it before moving on and so we did.

The walk start at the ‘back of the mountain’ on the south side in the valley of the Nant Gwynant, at Bethania, between the two long lakes of the valley.  There is a convenient car park (with few cars when we were there, but if it were full I cannot think where else you might stop).  A short walk in leads first through lovely woodland, then it begins to mean business as you walk up a dry valley carved into the mountainside; here a theme of the walk appears as this is a side of Snowdon heavily quarried for slate.  There is a large monument here marking a speech by Gladstone:  what days they were when people would travel to a remote valley to hear a political speech, unless he just spoke to quarrymen off their shift.

The incline of a slate tramway crosses the path, while the path itself winds first beside the Cwm Llan river, then splits from a path across the flank of the mountain (which goes to Rhyd Ddu as it happens), crosses the stream and begins to climb in earnest, and when the path begins to climb, it does not stop.

The path has a haul up to the craggy ridge of Y Lliwedd (though not to its summit) before following the ridge north-west directly toward Snowdon’s summit.

One high section of this climb I distinctly; remember clambering with my hands and finding the foothold for us both on a narrow, very steep section, with the slate breaking away as we trod on it or held.  The weather was closing in too at that point.  Somehow in spite of weather and influenza we reached the ridge and the climb was still not over as we worked our way up to the summit.

I am told that this upper section has since had work done to it to make it less of s death-trap.

It was late in the season and late in the day for a climb and for once, I think the only time, the summit was empty.

Waterfall on the Cwm Llan River

We were unable to go back the same way after that break-away section and my wife’s state of health but we found instead an easier downward route, along Bwlch Main – a ridge on the other side of the quarried valley, down to the flank track from Rhyd Ddu, whence back to the Cwm Llan, and a feeling of a job well done.

I may have to revisit, this time with a camera, to see what has been done to the route.  It was fascinating as a side of the mountain not so frequently seen, and to encounter just one other walker, and that on the Bwlch Main path, is unique in my experience of Snowdon.

Maps

The best maps for Snowdon are of course the Ordnance Survey maps; the ‘Explorer’ at 1:25 000 and the ‘Landranger’ at 1:50 000:

Route map

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Great Cockup – pride of the Uldale Fells

Let us not forget the gentler fells of Cumberland.  In the north of the Lake District are the Uldale Fells and the Caldbeck Fells, together providing a beauteous finale to the sweep of the mountains.  Here there are no silvery lakes and the dark, foreboding hillsides are less vicious in their aspect.  You may forget these places if you scale mighty Skiddaw to the south, rearing its head over Bassenthwaite (although the last time I climbed Skiddaw was in a storm; the cloud descended upon the hill like a biblical portent and the lake was quite invisible).

Is that not the point though?  There is enjoyment to be had from the open walk, the man on the fellside alone with his own thoughts.  There need not be the challenge, which is no challenge when you know you can do it, nor the threatening peril to life and limb:  the walk and the emptiness are all.

Therefore on occasion look away from the massive massif, cross the Dash Beck and make for the hills which do not throw you off but which are welcoming.  There is none there like Great Cockup, the most famed of them, and one which has the modesty to be named after its own valley.  It is only 1,726 feet; a bairn could climb it.  There then, you may look out at Longthwaite Fell, Meal Fell and the amusingly ill-named Great Sca Fell, Burnt Todd and Knott.

Actually, the latter is 2,329 feet and the highest of the Uldale Fells, so if you are walking above Uldale, is you ambition to achieve a Great Cockup or Knott?

Map

Anglesey man’s autism helped by mountain hike – BBC

The BBC published a wonderfully life-affirming piece yesterday: “Anglesey man’s autism helped by mountain hikes“.

I cannot add much to the article, and I am not any kind of expert in the field (read Simon Baron-Cohen’s studies for that) but I can appreciate the raw therapy of the mountain.

In all the classical books on fellwalking a prominent theme is how wonderful it is to be alone.  The crowds and noise and oppressive babble of voices and all those spoken and unspoken needs and expectations crowding in on a man are gone when he walks out alone on the ridge of a far peak.  There it is man not against the mountain, which is timeless and undefeatable, but man alone being the best he can be and achieving.  There are no critical chatterers, no cruel comparisons, no slowing him down to conform with a crowd, and no confinement in a dull, man-made world shaped and defined by other hands – it is just a man out of dinning society, in the natural state in a landscape carved by the greatest artist who man the mountain and the man.  Yes, I understand.

 

Mountain of the Lost Princess

The hills are cold, hazardous.  The freezing clouds descend on Snowdonia ruthlessly, and the rain turns the underfoot into a morass.  Here amongst the forbidding mountains stands the greatest monument to a lost princess.  By the hard work of a society dedicated to her memory, the name of Gwenllian of Gwynedd now adorns one of the 3,000-foot mountains of Caernarfonshire.

Gwenllian cried her first in Abergwyngregyn while the court wept for her mother, Eleanor, or Elen, dying in childbirth.  She lay in her cradle when her father, Llywelyn the Last, was slain at Builth Wells, and was barely walking when her uncle, Dafydd, was taken and hanged for rebellion against King Edward. She was dangerous  – the last of the line of the princes whose ancestry ran back to those who had borne the name “King of Britain”, a kingdom which contracted into the mountain fastness of Snowdon.  King Edward was her uncle though, and he bore her away and placed her in a nunnery in Lincolnshire, never to hear her native Welsh tongue again.

In 2009 the mountain’s name was changed to Carnedd Gwenllian, from the bland ‘Garnedd Uchaf’ (a daft name; it is not the highest).  It followed a campaign by a society founded in Gwenllian’s memory.

Some years later I stood on the flank of the mountain, walking up from Abergwyngregyn, Llywelyn’s capital and now a little village, Aber, squashed into the valley.  With two small children in tow we could not climb to the summit, but we stood looking around us at the spectacle.  Here now reunited next to each other stand the peaks named Llywelyn, Elen, Dafydd and Gwenllian.

Baleful legend of Cadair Idris

What is it about Cadair Idris that threatens so much and has drawn so many wild and woeful legends?

This looming fell is not the highest mountain in Merionethshire (an honour belonging to Aran Fawddwy) but is the most famous. It is a long, lofty ridge of peaks and troughs with its summit known as Penygadair at 2,930 feet; a challenging climb but one which draws many robust hikers. Its distinctive shape and beauty are richly evocative of the wild landscape over which it presides.

Here at the top of the mountain is a scoop in the rock forming a giant’s chair – for this mountain is the ‘Chair of Idris’, and filling its seat the placid tarn known as Llyn Cau.

This is an enchanted place, but hikers should not tarry overnight. It may be tempting to slumber by the tarn in the shelter of Craig Cau, but alone as you may be, beware of what is said of this place.

The Giant’s Chair and Llyn Cau

Now, even in dismissing local legends as heathenish nonsense, you will know the every year some unfortunate soul is dragged from the slopes of Cadair Idris, having overstretched himself or been caught in unexpected storms, and one must have sympathy with the mountain rescue teams who trudge the cursed slopes to find the lost walker who thought an iPhone was enough to navigate the timeless mountain, and to rescue him before nightfall.

This is a mountain which had stood for millennia even before Adam was formed from the dust; its slopes have been carved by ancient ice and scoured by untamed winds. It knows a thing or two that a brief visitor cannot.

The bards of old sang that Idris the Giant sat here in his chair, and many princes dwelling in the valleys about this fastness have been named ‘Idris’. Before you climb, as you may, from Dolgellau or the Mawddach, you should know that the howling wind is the baying of the Cŵn Annwn, the hounds of Gwyn ap Nudd, foretelling a death, and the tarns are bottomless and contains spirits vengeful when woken, or so has been said.

And bards frequently climbed these slopes, for it is said that anyone who sleeps on Cadair Idris alone will awaken either a madman or a poet; and few can tell the difference.

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