Here’s a disturbing statistic (for me anyway): the last time I climbed a Lake District summit was Causey Pike in 2008. I remember a year or two earlier sitting next to a tarn near Great End and forcing myself to leave the peace and quiet in order to get up to Esk Pike. Esk Pike was the goal for the day and I grumpily told myself ‘you’re making the mountain your god.’ From that day I decided summits weren’t the be-all and end-all of walking in the Lake District. Evidently I never went back to one!
And now here we are in 2014, six years since I looked over the eastern end of Causey Pike’s craggy, precipitous top and thinking that’s not for me. Fleetwith Pike was the target of the one man expedition. A random selection you might think. Well, not exactly. Fleetwith Pike plays a significant role in a novel I’m writing, which is set in the Lake District, so I needed to do a bit of a reconnaissance around the Pike and Honister Pass.
I parked below the plateau where the Honister Slate Mine sits and walked through the quarry buildings for the start of the climb. It’s impossible to walk around here without being constantly reminded of that other side of the Lake District most people either ignore or aren’t aware of. It’s a working landscape, harsh and steep, weather beaten and occasionally cruel. I recently read an article about the life forms that would survive mankind – rats, wasps, the usual suspects – but the tenacity with which humans have crawled over and burrowed into landscapes like this to survive is too often overlooked.
Take the almost verticle north side of the Pike, Honister Crag. People pay money these days to be scared to death on the Via Ferrata, but this vertiginous system of metal rungs and walkways was the route to work for an unfortunate few not that long ago. What did they do if they had to nip home at dinner time? Nowadays a single decker bus takes folk up to the start of the tour and for a few dodgy yards has to reverse down a track with a dreadful drop on the driver’s side.
The wind today is a big one. Rushing up the Crummock-Buttermere valley before splitting around Fleetwith Pike. Tucked in behind a mossy mound offers some shelter, but you only have to stick your head up a few inches to have your ears flapped by the gale. Some of the distant peaks still have a few stubborn remnants of snow, but the weather’s not so cold; if it weren’t for the wind it would be perfect walking conditions.
The first iconic view of Buttermere shows up when I reach Burnt Scarth, a gap in the rocks framing the lakes reaching west. From up here you can see how the Buttermere valley would once have been one lake. The land between Buttermere and Crummock only silted up after the last Ice Age to create two lakes. (Three if you count distant Loweswater.)
A relatively short walk brings me to the summit and its choice of cairns. The tidier one signals the viewpoint to the panorama across the lakes, whilst the summit cairn directs the view south towards the real hard men: Great Gable, Kirk Fell, Pillar and the Scafell mob beyond. Fleetwith Pike is in a good position, with uninterrupted views in every direction. The Dodds are visible to the east, Skiddaw and the Causey Pike (that summit again) range to the north.
In your face are the vast flanks of Dale Head, Hindscarth and Robinson across the plunge down to Gatesgarthedale Beck, twisting and cavorting hundreds of metres below. This is the archetypal post-glacial valley, deeply incised, smooth slopes on one side, ice-plucked rocky face on the other, outflow lake to the left, slate mine to the right!
I’m alone for a good half hour, just me, a Pepperami and pork pies. The Duracells on the compact camera have given up so it’s the NIkon D5000 from now on with its wide angle lens that’s too wide for the filter holder to sit on the end of the barrel without vignetting the image. I’ve fettled a solution using double sided tape, but the wind is strong enough to blow the filter off the tape and if it blows down to the beck I’m not going after it.
A day as good as this has to be concluded properly. And that means a pint of Cocker Hoop with roast chicken, chips and gravy at the Traveller’s Rest, Grasmere. My first summit in six years, passed with neither hitch nor incident, listening to bhangra in the car on the way home and already planning the next top. As for the reason for doing all this, the novel: nothing changed there, but the idea for promoting it has been altered a bit as a result of this walk.