Day 14: Blea Tarn and the Sticklebarn

I must have been feeling great, because I decided to go up an extra hill. To approach Scafell Pike from Ambleside, the most straightforward route is to saunter along the glacial valley of Great Langdale. On Hugo’s recommendation, however, I took a detour up and over Loughrigg Fell, the 335m sentinel overlooking the town and the entrance to the dale. Hugo would be joining me that afternoon at the Great Langdale campsite after running some errands, so off I went on my own, up into the clouds.

The upper reaches of Loughrigg Fell turned out to be a misty mess of mire, moss, tarns, and knolls. The cloud pressed in close, limiting and transforming, showing then hiding weird looming shapes – weird in the old sense, like Shakespeare’s witches, or Pratchett’s, if you prefer life to be less tragic. It felt like beyond my vision was nothing but impenetrable cloud and I created my own moving island of reality, illuminated by sight. I would have struggled to navigate my way to the summit through the maze of earth and water without the GPS on my phone. I took a bad selfie at the trig point and carried on over until suddenly I dropped under the roof of cloud and saw the open space below. A beautiful, mirror-like lake with a wooded island in the middle told me that this was the wrong valley; I was looking at Grasmere. I had to cut across, slanting uphill and beating bracken out of my way, to get back in the right direction. At last I hopped over a drystone wall onto the road that created a pass between the two dales.

I sometimes look like I learned how to smile by reading an instructional pamphlet

I came down through the High Close arboretum to the village of Elterwater. Crossing the Great Langdale Beck, I joined a shady footpath where a man was bent over, photographing a fungus. Now, as a birder, it is completely normal to go up to any other birder and ask them what they’ve seen, and I like to take any opportunity to learn about nature from an enthusiast, so I asked what he was looking at. He seemed quite taken aback, and said, “mushrooms”. I asked what kind, and when he realised I was actually taking an interest, his face lit up. Perhaps fungus-lovers aren’t as mainstream and cool as us swaggering bird jocks, and don’t anticipate that passers by might engage with them. We had a nice chat; apparently he and his wife go on mushroom-hunting trips. I am afraid I can’t remember what species he mentioned were there, but it was a wholesome experience nonetheless.

Woops, wrong valley

I continued along the valley floor, until I found a rock where I could sit and admire the Langdale Pikes. This area is a microcosm of many things that are fantastic about the Lakes. The pikes are eye-catching craggy summits that were the most distinctive part of the sunset horizon view I had enjoyed two nights before. Below them is Stickle Tarn, which I have dipped into when snow covered the ground before, and from which a beck leaps all the way down Stickle Ghyll. Over from that is the slightly gloomier Dungeon Ghyll, and the brilliantly named waterfall Dungeon Ghyll Force. It is no surprise that Wainwright and the Lakes poets before him found inspiration here. Looking along the valley, I could see the smooth shoulder of Bowfell climbing into the clouds. That was my route up onto the horseshoe where the highest summits were to be found.

Looking up Great Langdale towards Bowfell and Crinkle Crags

At the foot of Stickle Ghyll, and indeed, powered by the flow of its water, is the Sticklebarn, a well-known National Trust-owned pub. A ghyll or gill, by the way, is a ravine or gully, down which a beck (stream) usually flows. These words come from Old Norse. I recently finished The Adventure of English by Melvin Bragg, and I have to stop myself from getting too excited and turning this into an etymology blog. The Norse influence from over a thousand years ago still runs strong in Cumbrian place names and dialect words. The words feel blunt, earthy, as if drawn from the land itself, in contrast with the touch of airiness and flamboyance of the French words brought by the Normans, which became the language of aristocrats and those aspiring to sophistication.

I stopped at the pub and ordered some food. It was early afternoon and the campsite was just a short way along the road. I sat and read. The arrival of a group of rowdy nuns disturbed the peace somewhat. My sharp eyes spotted some beards among them, leading me to suspect that they might not be real nuns. Eventually Hugo turned up, and we headed over to set ourselves up at the campsite. He was all for negotiating the price down on my behalf; as the campsite was NT-owned too, and as he was an NT ranger, his own camping spot was free. I can’t remember if he was actually successful, but if he wasn’t, it was not for lack of trying.

After pitching our tents, we went for a walk up the south side of the valley, to Blea Tarn. Since moving here, Hugo seemed to have amassed a huge cache of local knowledge and history. He told me all about the disputes and rivalries between the farmers of Langdale. Blea Tarn (tarn is another word of Norse origin) lies in a hanging valley between Great Langdale and Little Langdale, carved out by a glacier in the last ice age. The sediment at the bottom of the tarn has sat undisturbed since the ice melted. We walked round into the woods on the western shore. Hugo went for a swim while I sat against a tree and played reels on my whistle. On the far shore, he showed me a stand of aspens, each leaf trembling like a heart about to fall in love.

Blea Tarn in its hanging valley

We went back to the Sticklebarn for the evening. We thought there would be board games we could play, but the best we found was a 10×10 chequered board and a mixed assortment of pieces from two incomplete chess sets. Undeterred, we lined them up and decided on the house rule that bishops and castles from the smaller set could only move up to three spaces. Hugo was white; he had a full complement of pawns plus two mini castles and a mini bishop, but was missing a normal bishop. I had only three pawns and one mini castle, but all the other normal pieces. It worked surprisingly well and we had a good game, with my lack of pawns forcing me to go on the offensive from the start. Maybe I only thought it was good because I won, though.

Sticklebarn chess

Shortly after checkmate, a folk duo launched into lively music in the next room, so we got another drink and went to sit and listen. They were called the Drystones, and they were fantastic. I tapped my foot along with several guitar and violin pieces. Then the violinist handed his instrument over to the other and got out a long, silvery tube – a low D whistle. They began a slower piece, one full of chirpy ornamentation but with serene lingering over the airy but resonant notes of the whistle. Had it been in a minor key, it would have been haunting, but instead it was optimistic, like the warm buzz of bees over a summer meadow, or a fresh breeze filling a sail on a playful sea. I fell in love with the low whistle, and have since got a cheap one of my own to try to master. Hugo and I both bought a CD of the band’s music.

As we tottered back to our campsite in the dark, we sang. It turned out Hugo knew some of the same songs of the sea as I did, and was able to harmonise around me. I went to bed excited for the next day. Not only would I be knocking off the second peak, but I was going to be joined by my girlfriend, Zoë, her dad, Steve, and her dad’s mate, Murray. A proper team to take me up and over the highest mountain in England.

Published by Alasdair Robertson

Hiker, birder, conservationist, and occasional comedian

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