Part One – Ambleside to a bivvy spot
For weeks I had been debating whether to enter the Lakeland Five Passes, a 33 mile event with around 10,000′ ascent organised by https://www.ascendevents.co.uk/events/. Because I’ve lost fitness this winter I was unsure whether I could complete the distance with that amount of climbing so decided to recce the route over two days, with a bivvy partway. Not only would I get fitter but I could check out the sections of route that were unfamiliar.
I nearly abandoned the trip before I set out as an arthritic bunion on my left foot felt as if someone was hitting it with a hammer. However I knew I could jump ship after the first ascent over Wansfell if I couldn’t subdue its screams. The event starts in Grasmere, but I was based in Ambleside so I set out up the steep lane past Stock Ghyll to the foot of the climb over Wansfell. It was a perfect morning: blue skies with hazy cloud, crisp air and a gentle cooling breeze.
As I was carrying an unfamiliar weight I took it slow and steady up the stone staircase. Competitors will be pleased to know that ‘Fix the Fells’ will probably have the laid last of the steps to the summit by the time of the event as the final blocks were there waiting to be installed. The call of a cuckoo and the melodic song of larks kept me company. These birds were to be my constant companions, singing a theme tune for my journey.
The familiar descent down Nanny Lane was as delightful as always, with views across to the next climb over the Garburn Pass. A lark sat on a rock close by and serenaded me. I stood and listened for a while, but soon had to hurry down to Troutbeck. A short road section leads past a roadside well to a narrow path fringed with wild flowers. This brought me down to Troutbeck Church where I took a break to have a quick look inside. It’s very lovely, with whitewashed walls, a gallery and colourful stained glass. Two of the windows are by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, stalwarts of the Arts and Craft Movement.
The trail now meets the busy main Kirkstone Pass road. Fortunately a pavement runs alongside and a footbridge avoids a dangerous section before crossing the road to a broad bridleway. A good firm well laid stone surface leads steeply up to another path that bears left towards the main Garburn Pass track. The gradient here was gentle, which was a relief as the day was warming up, but I realised that my toe and foot had stopped complaining. From now on it would be difficult to turn back as I was travelling further and further from civilisation, and would lose phone signal in the furthest valley.
The descent to Kentmere is as easy as the ascent to the Pass and the views are delicious. I sat on a rock partway down to have my lunch, listening to the lark song and the sounds of the breeze in the trees, before completing the descent into the pretty Kentmere village. Two lads were bouldering on a huge erratic in a field below the track, their mats a bright splash of red against the green grass.
I passed the rather unprepossessing church, crossed over the bridge and turned left up a lane. At this time of year its roadside banks are dotted with bright yellow poppies, interspersed with bluebells and unfurling ferns. Not far up the lane a steep narrow path through cool woods brought me out at Green Quarter where there is a camping barn – and I realised I had paused my Suunto watch when I sat for lunch and had forgotten to restart it! Grr! I had missed out about two miles of my journey and probably about a hundred feet of ascent. These things matter you know.
I was still chewing over my frustration at the mistake as the path climbed towards the pass over into Longsleddale. Does this pass have a name? I couldn’t find one on the map but it is definitely a pass. The views up into the Kentmere Valley were at their best in the patchy sunlight but the path is not as well defined as the broad track on the other side of the shallow valley. In fact it would be difficult to follow in misty conditions. It joined the main track at the col then snaked through bleak moorland until another delightful descent into Longsleddale.
I don’t know this remote valley very well – the few times I’ve visited it seems to have been shrouded in mist – so it was a pleasant surprise to realise that it is so beautiful. There is a tiny farming settlement at Sadgill, and a surprisingly busy parking spot at the roadhead, but apart from that it is very peaceful. Another cuckoo called. Every valley seems to have its resident bird. Also surprising was the fact that there were more people here than along the whole of the rest of the route. I chatted to a chap taking an impromptu afternoon off work. He ran outdoor training courses for adults. Later I met a grandmother and her grandson. He had a half day off college so they had driven round for a stroll.
The track up the valley towards Mardale is broad, level and laid for vehicles, which makes for easy walking and therefore time to look up and take in the idyllic scenery. At the head of the valley it rises steeply towards the Gatescarth Pass, but is still wide and well laid. Dandelions were lacing the track with yellow as I climbed and a series of waterfalls were the soundtrack.
The upper valley is bleak moorland in contrast to the verdant valley floor. The upper reaches of the beck that fed the falls were close by the path and I decided to filter water to refill my containers. Looking at the map I couldn’t see another opportunity once I climbed up onto the high fells. I wasn’t sure how far I would get this evening and didn’t want to be caught out without water. My pack, with bivvy gear, food and full water bottles weighed about 10kg, which was a remarkably easy load to carry. I have a Sawyer filter which is quick and simple to use so was soon fully laden with 3 litres of water; plenty for a night out up high.
I’d just shouldered my pack to climb the last steep section to the col when a couple of women hove into sight. One was quite a distance in front and the other was shouting loudly from behind. As they grew closer I could hear her yelling, “I’ve walked ten ****ing miles over ****ing fells and now I’m having to fall over these ****ing boulders!”. This was repeated like a refrain all the way down, past me and into the distance. I got the impression she wasn’t very happy but it struck me as hilarious, and it was sort of good-natured in tone. I suspect she’s telling the tale in a bar somewhere and enjoying it in retrospect. I hope so, for her friend’s sake!
At the Gatescarth Pass a path leads left up to Harter Fell (Mardale). From here there are good views down into Mardale and to Haweswater reservoir. It was so good to be up on the fells. I’d enjoyed seeing the valleys, but the light was superb on the tops with the sinking sun creating ‘landskein’, layers of hills, each layer fading to a paler shade of blue in the distance. Three chaps ran past me and I debated asking whether they were checking the Five Passes route as they seemed to be heading in the same direction.
The swift descent to Nan Bield Pass was a pleasant jog, although the path from Harter Fell summit could be difficult to find in mist. I made note of the bearing just in case. There’s a welcome shelter at the Pass with a stone bench and I sat to eat a snack before the next ascent. The battery of my watch beeped to let me know it was running low so I plugged it into a spare battery pack and fortunately it still worked whilst charging. I hadn’t done this before so was pleased to know I could charge it on the move.
The climb up from Nan Bield towards Mardale Ill Bell starts out on another set of well laid stone steps. I ended up on the summit by mistake. I should have checked the map more carefully as there is a contouring path that leads off left below the summit and avoids Racecourse Hill, High Street. Looking back I could see a tiny tarn which appeared to mark the start of the path. One to remember for next time…
Once on the contouring path it was easy to follow, although there was a fork partway where a mistake would have cost time. I took the righthand path, which is less distinct, and was soon climbing the last few feet to Thornthwaite Crag with its huge beacon cairn. Three Belgian guys were resting beside the wall. They had walked over from Ambleside along Robin Lane then traversed one half of the Kentmere Horseshoe over Yoke, Ill Bell and Froswick and were contemplating a wild camp beside the beacon. It was a good spot to choose, but I wanted to press on, and I wanted solitude too.
I had been dreading the descent to Threshthwaite Mouth. I’d been there the previous year after a walk along the length of High Street and I remembered it as steep, loose and chossy. I had remembered the terrain correctly but it felt easier. I wasn’t feeling very well on that day whereas now I was feeling remarkably good despite so many miles in my legs and a heavier load. Halfway down my eye was drawn to movement on my right. Not too far distant, on a shoulder of fellside above Threshthwaite Cove, a large herd of red deer were grazing. They saw me before I saw them and we watched each other for a while before they judged me to be harmless and returned to their grazing. It was a magical moment and one that my iPhone camera couldn’t really capture.
Once down at the col there was still the precipitous scramble to Stony Cove Pike to contend with. I was very glad it was my last ascent of the day and was determined to find a bivvy spot on the lower slopes of John Bell’s Banner.
The sun was sinking low now as I hurried over Caudale Moor, grateful for the dry weather that had made its boggy paths a bouncing mossy carpet. I could see the Scafells and Gable silhouetted against a golden sky with the bulk of Red Screes in the foreground. A ridge-top wall guided me down the broad, and occasionally boggy shoulder below John Bell’s Banner and at Pike How a group of small crags proved to be the perfect spot for a hidden camp. Dinner was eaten by the fading light of the setting sun. A shallow hollow beside a low crag, positioned to receive the first rays of the rising sun was where I erected a small tarp to cover my sleeping bag, rucksack and trainers, and snuggled down for a night’s rest. My very first solo bivvy.
Part Two – the bivvy spot to Ambleside
I might have had a better night’s sleep if I hadn’t drunk so much all the previous day! Extricating oneself from a narrow cocoon in the dark is not easy, and reinserting oneself is even trickier. Three times I performed this ungainly manoeuvre, the last time as the first signs of dawn tinged the sky behind Froswick with a pink and gold glow. As it was only 4.30am I decided I needed more sleep before tackling the final miles back to my starting point.
Larksong, crisp fresh sunshine and two herdwick sheep were my companions for breakfast. Striking camp was so easy with just a sleeping bag to stuff further into its covering and back into the rucksack. Red Screes loomed to my right. Its steep slopes were the penultimate challenge on my trek but would be the final challenge on the actual event. Before that, however, I had to negotiate the vertiginous scramble down to the Kirkstone Pass with its eponymous pub glowing white below. Early morning cyclists were streaming over the pass in bright clothing and camper vans spilled coffee drinkers into the car park.
Once safely down it was just a matter of crossing the road and taking the obvious path up the flagstones to the summit. It was steep, and already very warm, but the stone stairs made for easy climbing. There were, however, some tricky scrambly sections that were hard work with tired legs and a laden pack. They would be quite a challenge after a long run. I met a young couple descending with huge packs. They had spent their very first wild camp on the summit, having driven up the previous night, parked at the pass and walked up quite late. They had been for a chilly dawn dip in the tiny summit tarn – braver folk than me!
As I reached the top another couple caught up with me, travelling light and moving fast. They took my photo for me and kept me company as far as Scandale Pass where they headed off for Fairfield and I began the descent to High Sweden Bridge. They suggested I call in on them for a cuppa later which was a good incentive to speed up although I wanted to savour the lovely Scandale. It’s such a gentle easy walk along the valley floor with a walled track in its lower reaches leading to the picturesque High Sweden Bridge. The valley is now dotted with pale green tree tubes and the vista will alter considerably if all the new trees grow. It will be fascinating to watch the change over the years.
The steep pull up from the packhorse bridge to the Low Sweden Bridge track reminded my legs that they were quite tired but the descent that followed was pleasant, with good views over Ambleside. A little trod branches off just above Low Sweden Bridge to lead down to the Rydal Hall track. If I didn’t know the area so well this shortcut would be easy to miss, but it’s a lovely path lined with bluebells at this time of year. And Rydal Hall cafe was just perfectly placed for when my food supplies and energy ran out. I ordered a hummus and roasted red pepper sandwich and a pot of tea. I was asked if I wanted cake as well but usually I can’t eat that much so declined. I wolfed down the butty, swigging copious cups of tea, then headed back to the counter to change my mind about the cake. I was very hungry!
Much restored I felt able to dodge the flocks of tourists along the Coffin Road to Grasmere. I even had enough energy to admire the view across Rydal Water and Grasmere to my final challenge: the low but mighty Loughrigg. But first there were the fleshpots of Grasmere to navigate and the tough tarmac of the Red Bank road. I met hordes of people wearing Walking With the Wounded charity t-shirts as I began the road walk up to the foot of Loughrigg, and a young woman caught up with me and walked alongside for a while. She had been fell running, supporting competitors on the Old County Tops race and training for the Bob Graham Round but she had twisted a knee and was limping back to her car along the road. So in my own way I too was walking with the wounded. Before we parted company a couple pointed out a roe deer close by on the bank above the road. Such a beautiful creature and so well camouflaged in the dappled shade of the woods. It watched us warily ready to run at the slightest hint that we were a threat.
I can’t say I found the steep staircase up the sharp end of Loughrigg easy. But it was relatively short and swift and I was soon over the familiar summit and jogging gently down the grassy path towards my destination. I was surprised and pleased with how strong I was feeling and that congratulatory mood lasted until I reached the flat gravel track shortly before Ambleside.
I had stopped to replace the rubber tips on my walking poles as I can’t bear the tapping sound of the metal tips on tarmac. Both poles were in one hand and I was fastening the zipper on my waist belt pocket with the other hand when I stepped forward…and was suddenly upside down, head first down the slight slope! Luckily there was no one about to fuss so I lay there like an upturned beetle assessing the damage before I tried to get up. That was easier said than done as the weight of the sack and the gradient meant I was totally off balance. My left ankle was throbbing, my right knee hurt, and when I rolled up my tights up to look there were deep cuts in it. I pulled the tights back down to stem the bleeding, noting with satisfaction that they weren’t torn. I was wearing a vest and my right shoulder was peppered with gravel. One hand had a small chunk missing and I was later to find bruises on both palms. It wasn’t until the next day that I was aware of the bruise on my bum. In the distance a cuckoo mocked me. Now I was the walking wounded!
Somewhat chastened – well they do say pride comes before a fall – I limped slowly down the steep tarmac lane to Rothay Park, and home. I had fallen less than half a mile from my destination. I had walked 34 miles and climbed 10,000 feet over the two days with a huge pack; I had scrambled up and down precipitous crags, but been floored by a level gravel track five minutes from home. Such are the vagaries of life. Luckily the damage seems to be relatively superficial although the swelling and bruising has been quite impressive.
So what are my impressions of the route? I have to say I loved it, particularly the central section which was less familiar ground than my ‘local’ haunts close to Ambleside. The Grasmere start will make it an easier route as the trail from Red Screes is mostly a gentle descent all the way to the finish. I’m hoping that Jeff has booked similar weather for June 16th as the conditions I’d experienced were close to perfect. And if my ankle recovers swiftly – count me in!