It’s the last day of my trip away, and I want to take in another classic ridge walk before heading home.
It will mean visiting three national parks in a day; starting in the North York Moors and walking in the Lake District before returning home to Dartmoor – it’s a lot of miles but seems worth it as I set out. The forecast, as ever, is patchy but I seem to miss all the showers as I drive West over the Pennines and along the bank of Ullswater towards Glenridding until, as I pull up in the village car park, it begins to rain. Heavily.
I wait it out for 15 minutes or so as indecision starts to set in – do I really want to be out for half a day in this? But I’ve been wanting to walk up Helvellyn by Striding Edge for as long as I can remember, and I’ve come a long way already today for this – it’ll be a while before I’m this far north again. So, with a certain reluctance, I pull on boots and full waterproofs, grab my pre-packed sack and poles and splash off.
It’s wet and warm – within minutes my glasses are useless, and I take them off as I find my way out of the village, past the campsite and onto the hillside. Then its straight up, following a good path alongside Mires Beck with the village behind gradually getting smaller and smaller, and the views out over Ullswater getting more expansive as I gain height. Its hot going, and breathable waterproofs or not, I’m feeling it, but half way up the hill the rain eases, then stops, so after a while I’m able to stop and rest, remove the waterproofs, and continue upwards more pleasantly and quickly in shirt sleeves.
Over the first top to a levelling of the ground, with views ahead of Grisedale and the Eastern Lakes now appearing, along with those behind. The sun is hot, so I press on – showers are forecast and, this being the Lakes, I’m pretty sure that they will arrive before too long. The flat section is all too brief and there’s a stiff, zig-zag pull ahead up onto Birkhouse Moor – but eventually the top of this arrives, along with further views. I can now see Hellvellyn for the first time and pick out its two bounding ridges – Striding Edge on the South and Swirral Edge on the North – which will be my way up and down the mountain. Red Tarn, as yet unseen, lies between the two, and directly below the imposing east face of Helvellyn – a good venue for winter mountaineering.
The walking is much easier now, flat or even gently downhill, following a wall pointing straight towards the ridge. The sun is fully out and, at Hole in the Wall I stop, eat lunch and enjoy the warmth, the views, and the prospect of the ridge walking to come. Its windy, so I shelter in the lee of the wall.
This is another of the great ridge walks of England and Wales. I’d walked the Snowdon Horseshoe a few days previously and knew from reading that this was a much less serious proposition than Crib Goch – I’d seen it described as an airy walk, rather than a scramble. Well, I’d soon find out – it certainly looked inviting, snaking away from me over Low and High Spying How, before running smack into the mountainside, leaving a steep 500-foot climb to the summit.
I set off; there’s a rough track that leads onto the ridge about half-way along, but somewhere I’d picked up that it was more satisfying to get onto the crest of the ridge as soon as possible. So I followed a much smaller path up and left, and walked the first few hundred feet alone on smooth turf, over various minor tops and was rewarded by views in both directions.
All too soon, the main track rose up to meet the crest and it became rockier and narrower; still not really scrambling, an airy walk indeed. Still, the wind is strong and gusty, so it makes the walking exhilarating and enjoyable. Then I overtake a couple of walkers; as I pass, I hear a phone tone and, to my astonishment, the leading walker takes a call via his watch, explaining loudly, without breaking his stride, that he is on top of a mountain, and proceeding to explain exactly where.
It’s too rocky to go much faster to get away from this intrusion so I stop, intending to let them past, and fortunately, they drop off the ridge onto the path which avoids the exposure of the ridge on the Red Tarn side, and are soon out of ear-shot. I notice a few other people now I look, and most are taking this path.
I continue, alone now and careful, along the top. The wind is really gusting now and the sky darkening; the good weather clearly won’t last much longer, and the buffets of wind are certainly adding an edge to the traverse. So I push on as quickly as I can – only to reach a second disappointment as I reach High Spying How. On the path in front of me is a turd and a mess of toilet paper – I literally have to step over it to move forward, which I quickly do – muttering to myself about what would make someone behave in that way – it’s hard to credit.
Still – it doesn’t spoil things for long, and I quickly reach the chimney which leads down from the ridge to the start of the final climb to the summit. It’s got a bit of a reputation but, although polished, it’s a very straightforward scramble; I guess this is why it’s given a grade 1 in scrambling terms, but it’s no major obstacle really.
Much worse, after a brief rock step, is the shaley gully leading steeply upwards toward the ever darker sky and the top of the mountain. Still, with an effort, it’s over quickly, although I pass two parties heading down who are very anxious about the ridge; I try to reassure them and point out the flanking path which they didn’t know about. As I pop out onto the top, I come face to face with a memorial to Charles Gough who died in a fall from the ridge in 1805. Apparently, his faithful dog stayed with his body until it was found some three months later; both Sir Walter Scott and Wordsworth have recorded this event in their writing.
The other thing I see as I top out is the weather; I’d known it was worsening but could now see out over the central Lake District tops to the south west. Cloud after cloud of rain was sweeping towards Helvellyn – where a few sheep are huddled together on the summit. So I stopped only briefly at the shelter; time enough to eat a snack and watch two mountain bikers in full protective gear set off into the wind and begin the long downhill to Thirlmere – they were certainly in for an exciting descent.
I tried briefly to convince myself that the rain would miss, or pass me by, but I didn’t really believe it and, sure enough, as I set off again, dropping from the summit plateau and onto the initial rocks of Swirral Edge, the first shower arrived in a flurry of wind. So on with the waterproofs again and cautiously down; fortunately this ridge is both easier and considerably shorter than the other so I was quickly on level ground again, despite the rain-slicked rock. On the drive over I’d planned to head straight down to Glenridding from here, but all the way up earlier I’d been eying up Catstyecam – an isolated summit, not much lower than Helvellyn, which marks the north eastern end of Swirral Edge. It looked like a perfect extension to the ridge walking, and I’d spotted a path down which re-joined the main track down Glenridding and back to the lakeside.
So that’s the way I went, chased all the way by ever more violent squalls of wind and rain, to the top which felt much more exposed in this weather than the main summit, and then down a spur by way of the direct and knee-wrecking path I’d spotted earlier. It was certainly worth doing.
It’s a long plod down well-made tracks to the main valley; the rain had set in relentlessly by now, and the track was running with water all the way to Glenridding Beck. From here it’s just a gentle stroll on the hillside above the stream to the car, and the long drive south to get home.
But the rain eased and then stopped altogether. I paused to admire the stream and look back; the tops had now all disappeared into black cloud and I was thankful that, although a little wet, I’d been able to walk there in clear weather. I was glad I hadn’t given into the doubts in the carpark four hours earlier.