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Off the beaten track in the Lakeland fells

Mark Richards sings the praises of wandering off the beaten track in the English Lake District and shares his story of finding a novel route up Thornthwaite Crag in the Far Eastern Fells of the Lake District National Park from the village of Low Hartsop near Patterdale.

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A great green delta extends a massive fan into the tarn beneath the ridge

As a thank you to local fellwalker Ian Blythe, I recently took advantage of the excellent weather forecast to explore with him a new route onto Thornthwaite Crag beacon. As so often happens, when you head off piste, we had great fun but when we finished Ian confided that he would never have done such a thing without my encouragement.

While researching my Fellranger guides I have always been ready to experiment. All the fells have been quite thoroughly documented, and, for many, Wainwright’s routes are the only ones worth following. But I’ve never had such inhibitions. In fact as we were setting out on this walk I had been planning to follow Hayeswater Gill as far as I could towards the summit (the title ‘An Ex-stream Walk’ was running round my head) but even as I walked I changed my mind.

That’s the beauty of deciding to fell wander rather than simply follow the well-trodden trail.

The Low Hartsop village car park was almost full when we arrived even at 10am. (It always is!) Leaving a parking donation in the village charity box we engaged in our first conversation: a young German couple on their first visit to Britain. Having enjoyed Hadrian’s Wall the previous day, they were relishing a good climb in the fair weather. As we pushed through the gate we did so beside a father and son duo, Orthodox Jews from London, dressed more for High Street shopping than the mountain. As they were mapless and with a time limit of five hours I was a little concerned so I gave them an outline route and off they went before us.

Our approach led through stock-handling pens, above which only the previous day a lady with a dog had had an awful accident with the herd of Luing cattle and been helicoptered to hospital. The most dangerous wild animals in the British countryside are domesticated farm cattle, stock that are easily excited by dogs. They are instinctive creatures seeking a quiet life and highly protective of their calves. (The simple advice is always be prepared to let your dog run loose off the lead if threatened and give the animals a wide berth, even if it means leaving the recognised line of a path or track.)

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Work for the new hydropower plant using Hayeswater Gill

We made our way up the old waterworks track to the filter house, built in 1908, from where an aqueduct used to run to supply water to Penrith. The summer work by the National Trust is racing on to convert the great rushing fall of Hayeswater Gill water into a hydro-electric scheme to supply the local community. We crossed the gill and admired its thrilling waterslides and cascades before rejoining the track above an excavator which was busily working on the track before a pipe could be inserted to run down to a new hydro plant. At the tarn we saw where the dam had been removed last year and set off along the grassy moraine banks above the newly-exposed shingle shore.

These massive glaciated deposits feature strongly in the upper Hayeswater valley. On the steep slopes of High Street they are abrupt and bluntly tapered, while alongside the tarn they are conical.

In the midriff of the tarn on the far shore a great green delta extends a massive fan into the tarn, deposited from an enormous landslide that in effect created The Knott as a separate fell mass from Rampsgill Head. Above the tarn I was lured from my planned ascent beside the gill by a curious snake-like grassy ridge which tempted us gently up the right side of the valley. This moraine proved a lovely ascent.

When, inevitably, it ended with no continuing onward route we had a fine view, but we then had to work out how to proceed. Either we had to traverse the awkward scree slope to regain the gill or head straight up the fellside. The latter proved the best option as it was largely grassy if cruelly steep, just about doable but not the kind of route to suggest casually in a guidebook (even a Fellranger!).

Ian put on a brave face and gave himself a few extra breathers before we arrived at the edge of the plateau. But what a great moment it was when we did!

Thornthwaite cragFairfield

Our legs tested and just a little bit rested we joined the ridge path and continued towards the top of Thornthwaite Crag, noting en route a stone that had a natural arrow pointing north-west to the Helvellyn range, seen in its glorious entirety. On we strolled to the grand cairn on Thornthwaite Crag and took in a monster view with the Scafells drawing the eye into the interior of the Lakes mountains.

After meeting various walkers on the ridge, including the father and son we’d met earlier (in fine fettle and thoroughly enjoying their adventurous day), we then descended more sanely and sedately over Gray Crag. Ian chuckled as I engaged everyone in conversation, however brief. It’s my habit on the fells. There’s always something to learn. It’s as good as gold to a writer to have a feel for the physical and emotional experience of your readers.

Reaching the track again, below the still-active excavator, we saw the earth banks that were being thrown up in the vicinity of the new hydro-plant. Lower down there is a laithe (field-barn) with a slate-garden roof which captures my camera’s attention whenever I pass.

We ended our day in proper manner, toasting a magnificent walking day together with two pints of real ale at Brackenrigg Inn up along the A592 in Watermillock.

Tampering with William Blake’s heroic poem… ‘Great things are done when men and mountains meet… that are not done by jostling on High Street’. Better by far to take the road less travelled to Thornthwaite Crag.

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Mark Richards

In 1980 Mark Richards began his three-part guide to the Peak District for Cicerone Press, and in 1987, with Chris Wright, wrote a guide to walking around the former county of Westmorland. He now lives in Cumbria and, after 14 years' dedicated research, has completed his series of Lakeland Fellranger guides covering the entire region. He has also written a guide to Hadrian's Wall.

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