Feeling Sheepish

The Lake District has a number of famous inhabitants. Depending on who you ask, they might mention Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the other Lake Poets,  Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome or Alfred Wainwright, author of the famous Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells.


For other people, some of the most famous residents are there still, and will carry on doing so for many years; not the humans who call Lakeland their home, but the Herdwick sheep, 99% of whom are estimated to live in commercial flocks in the central and western dales of the Lake District.


Herdwicks are especially robust animals, and live solely on forage, but tend not to stray, which makes them especially suited to the hills of the Lake District. For those of us who do not farm, the Herdwick sheep are also very distinctive, with their brown wooly bodies and faces seemingly with a perpetual amicable smile, and many people, me included, find them endearingly charming. 


Seeing the Herdwick sheep, perhaps as much as the familiar outlines of the Lakeland Fells, is one of the ways that makes me feel that I have arrived in the Lakes; little brown clouds pottering across the slopes and fields beneath the peaks.

Waiting for the Ghost Train

Tucked away behind undergrowth and wire fences, near the A66, beside Bassenthwaite Lake (the only "Lake" in the Lake District, tedious pub trivia fans; all of the other lakes are actually "Meres" or "Waters") stands the crumbling remains of what was once Bassenthwaite Lake railway station. The station was part of the Cockermouth, Keswick and Penrith Railway but, along with the rest of the line west of Keswick, closed on 18 April 1966, just over a century after it was opened.


I have always found something rather fascinating about exploring old ruins; as a child, I braved the wildly overgrown ruin of a large house at the end of my village, and for a long time afterwards was obsessed with the vacant rooms I had found, with tantalising hints of their former grandeur. Even today, I love the strangely surreal atmosphere of coming across buildings slowly being reclaimed by nature. So it was, having finished a short hill walk in the Lakes earlier in the year, that I realised I would be passing the ruins of the old railway buildings on my way to my hotel.


Some time before, whilst distracted at work one day and exploring Google Streetview, I had seen the ghostly outline of the old station building beside the main road. There has (and remains) some talk of reopening the line between Penrith and Keswick, which greatly appealed to me, although I fear that it may remain a unrealised dream of enthusiasts. Wist reading about it, I had been looking into the old railway that served this part of the Lakes. Later, I read The Lake District Murder by John Bude, in which the main characters frequently travel up and down this line, investigating shady goings-on, and was curious about this one of many abandoned railway lines. Since its closure, the Keswick to Cockermouth stretch of the railway has been built over, as the A66, which means that, with a little effort, one can imagine a little of the old journey.


I parked the car up a side road and approached the remains of the station building. It roof having been removed (or collapsed), it was clearly in a bad state and it was fenced off, with signs warning against trespass. Not wishing to do so (and, anyway, being unable to find a practical way through the fences), I walked around to the front of the station, along what I realised would have been the track-bed in front of the platform. The elegant wooden waiting room, also without its roof, was still recognisable, with its red and cream panels fading and overcome by mildew, and I could make out the ticket window in what I presume was the station master's office beside it.


Walking along the platform, whose edging stones remained beneath a carpet of moss, it did not take a great deal of imagination to see the building in its heyday, although somehow this made its current state all the more forlorn and sad. For a functional building, it had been created with very pleasing elegance, as I suppose was the way things were done in the 1860s. I wondered whether the craftsmen who laid the stone and created the woodwork ever considered that there might come a time when their hard work would be left to fall apart, but then reflected that few of us think of the future like that. It had been a smart building on a railway line, and presumably something that its station master and railway staff had devoted time and care to maintain, but its time had passed.


Returning to my hotel along the A66, I passed several other obviously railway-related buildings, which had now become homes, and was pleased to think that something of the old railway, beside the course of its old line, remained and was in regular use.

Long way up


There are days, walking in the hills of the Lake District, when you wonder what on Earth you are doing. Perhaps you have slept badly; for example, a 2 am heavy downpour of rain may have drummed with thunderous intensity on your tent, waking you and keeping you awake for some time. Other times, perhaps you are not as fit as you were, or had thought that you were, and the relentless trudging almost directly uphill, begins to feel like an impossible task. Then there's the weather. As I have pointed out to people on a lot of occasions, there is a reason why there are a lot of lakes in the Lake District; in my experience, I think that I have had more good weather days than bad when walking in the Lakes, but that does not detract from the fact that it can rain a lot.


Recently, having returned to the Lakes to try and tick off some more of the Wainwrights, I had a full hand of the above irritations. I had slept badly, and as I trudged to the start of my walk, the valley was overcast, with the cloud sitting discouragingly low on the hills I was proposing to climb. Nevertheless, it had stopped raining, and I started my walk, determined to at least give it a go, before the weather and my own dozy sluggishness defeated me. Very soon, it turned from wet to warm, and I had to remove my rainproof jacket. Even then, it felt like walking in the tropics, and my glasses refused to stay on the bridge of my nose, but repeatedly slid down on a slick of sweat that poured off my reddening face.


Slowly but surely, I reached the top of Seathwaite Fell (a hill of around 600 metres in height). There, sitting by Sprinkling Tarn, I ate some lunch, and drank a small bottle of orange juice with indecent haste to try and quench my parch. Across the little body of water, I could make out the lower slopes of Great End; at 910 metres, the highest hill I was aiming for. I say "lower slopes", but I suppose I really mean "cliffs", and it was far from clear where the route I had picked out on a map actually led. Having fed, I headed towards the cliff wall, and scanned it again for a way up. Eventually, I made out The Band, a kind of breach in the hill's ramparts, which was supposed to lead to another path that would eventually climb up the hill.


I am not a walker who disdains the SatNav, and today I found mine particularly useful in confirming where on the bleak side of this hill I actually was. SatNav can only lead you so far, however, and I was fortunate, eventually, to pick out the subtlest hints of a pathway leading up the apparently otherwise unassailable rock. To the experienced walker, the polish on well-worn rocks and the occasional line of grit amongst the native rocks are all indicators that you have not lost you way, and I was relieved to follow them. Then they abruptly stopped at a twenty foot high wall. I looked up at it. There might, it occurred to me, if one was feeling adventurous, be just the barest hint of steps, but I was walking alone, and was wary about getting myself rock-bound; that terrifying sensation of being unable to go forward or back, without the risk of a fall and a breakage.


I retraced my route a little and scanned the rocks around me. No, I had followed the right route; this was it. I returned to face the mini-cliff and reevaluated the scariness. On reflection, it seemed slightly less terrifying, and before I knew it, I had scrambled up it, and onto the next stage of the climb. I am not normally a walker who enjoys scrambling, but as the climb progressed, I found myself enjoying the mental as well as the physical exertion. One of the greatest things about walking is its capacity for clearing the mind of everything but the essential. One cannot worry about deadlines and other work problems, when you are also at least partly focused on not dying, for the moment.


Eventually, the gradient lessened, and I finally took a moment to turn around and see where I was. For the last half hour or so, I had been climbing in the mist, so I was not expecting to see very much. It was with a tangible surge of emotion, then, that almost as I turned, the cloud lifted, and I found that I had an exceptionally glorious view all the way down to Derwent Water, about six miles away. I breathed deep of the clean mountain air, and grinned. This, I muttered to myself; this is why I do this.