Series in which Julia Bradbury explores the work of Britain's greatest fell walker Alfred Wainwright. Julia climbs her first mountain, Blencathra, and tackles Sharp Edge.
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Nestled in the far north-west of England, this is the Lake District.
A land defined by its natural beauty.
And known to millions who love the Lakes
was the late Alfred Wainwright, author, guide writer and talented artist.
But above all, he was the greatest fell-walker.
Wainwright's Guides have inspired generations of walkers to roam these glorious fells.
Now, a century after his birth, it's my turn to go in search of the real Wainwright experience.
Today I'm at the northernmost tip of the Lake District, ready to tackle my first true mountain.
At 2,847ft, this is firmly in the big league of English fells.
And there she is - Blencathra.
I've read that Wainwright truly loved this fell.
Today I want to find out why.
Out of all 214 fells, what made him devote more pages to Blencathra than any other?
Now I haven't climbed anything like this for years.
So I'm going to need all the help I can get off Wainwright and his guide to the Northern Fells.
First published over 50 years ago, Wainwright's handwritten and illustrated guides to the Lakes
have sold over a million copies.
They've become the bible for those who want to get the best out of England's largest National Park
and as a novice climber, they're pretty much all I've got to go on.
The first thing you notice about Blencathra is what a great big hulk of mountain it actually is.
I mean look at it. All the different slopes, the ridges,
the colours you can see from here, dark crevices you want to get into.
The next thing you notice is this - a big, fat A road right at the foot of the mountain -
the A66. Which is nice(!)
Wainwright must have hated this.
When he published his Blencathra guide in 1962,
this road was nothing but a plan in the minds of local authorities.
But Wainwright made his opposition perfectly clear.
The present road policy in the Lake District,
of generally turning highways into racetracks, is surely wrong.
It is an offence against good taste to sacrifice their character
to satisfy speeding motorists and roadside picnickers.
But Blencathra remained a very important fell for Wainwright.
And to explain it's significance I'm meeting someone who knows his work intimately.
Chris Jesty is halfway through a complete revision of Wainwright's original guides.
Every path, scree and cairn is being checked and updated.
Some might say that it's a bit of a poisoned chalice to take on updating a Wainright book.
I must say, when I first thought that I was going to do it three years ago
it hung about me like a black cloud -
I didn't want to do it. Because I knew and what nobody else knew how much work was involved.
I'd have liked to have done it in his lifetime so he could comment.
But unfortunately he can't now.
Why you? What was your relationship with Wainwright?
Ah well. In 1972 I published a guide to the Summit of Snowdon.
And this is rather like the panoramas in his books.
I sent him a copy of this and I got a very pleasant letter saying how much he liked the panorama...
-So he was your critic?
-Yes. And if I had any letter from Wainwright,
I'd have been delighted.
To have Wainwright saying he liked the panoramas was just too much.
What's the highlight for me up there on Blencathra?
Well, the Sharp Edge route would be recommended I think, by Wainwright,
because in the final pages of the final volume
he gives his six favourite mountains,
and that includes Bencathra, and also six favourite places to be, apart from summits.
And he mentions Sharp Edge on that. Sharpe Edge is the most difficult of all the ascents
of any of the mountains because of the, it's just rock-climbing, really.
-Have you done it?
-I attempted it.
This was 1993, and I couldn't get up it.
So I wouldn't attempt it now. I had a look at it from the bottom
then I went up and had a look at it from the top, and that's enough for me.
So the man that's updating Wainwright's Walks hasn't tackled Sharp Edge?
Well, if it was me doing it, I would go a different way up.
I can't deny I'm slightly concerned that a man like Chris Jesty chooses to look at
rather than climb Sharp Edge.
I'm hoping it will be the climax of my walk today.
But before I start, let's take a look at the route I'll be taking.
Starting from the Inn at Scales Village, I'll be leaving the main road behind.
To begin, there's a steady ascent through the dense bracken of the lower fell.
Things should get steeper as I reach the side of the great hollow known as Mousthwaite Combe.
The path here zig-zags up the side of the Combe before edging its way round the top of the rim.
At the top of the Combe, I'll head north at the crossroads,
following the valley of the Glenderamackin River.
From here I should be able to get a clear view of the mountain's summit
and the distinctive plateau top that lends the mountain its alternative name - Saddleback.
Leaving the river, there's a short ascent to the secluded Scales Tarn.
The Tarn is a perfect rest spot and also the access point for Sharp Edge.
And this is what I'll be facing - Blencathra's jagged ridge of rock.
The Edge is the shortest, most direct
and easily the most treacherous approach to any peak in the Lakes.
But my reward for this route should be a gentle and very satisfying stroll
across the saddle to the peak.
But back at the A66, that reward is a long way away.
2,847ft - that's a pretty decent climb.
Be nice to get away from the road as well.
People who knew him, claim that this was the only fell Wainwright truly completed.
In the winter of 1960 he devoted himself to climbing and mapping this -
the south side of the mountain.
Everywhere else? There's probably some small stream
or scree slope that he never got round to recording.
But not Blencathra.
-The old A66 - can still hear it, nice and loud.
With so many people speeding past its base, Blencathra is one of the most familiar landmarks in Lakeland.
It stands alone, the last great outpost in the region,
giving climbers a view right across to the Pennines.
And to begin with at least, it really is a gentle climb.
The path meanders round the edge of Mousthwaite Combe,
although I know that at some point I'm going to be reminded of what's coming up ahead.
Now there's a sort of mini crossroads here.
A faint path coming up the hill that way, a strong one across the mountain.
But I know I've got to follow the river, the river Glenderamackin.
And there are two valleys, but this just looks like the more obvious path, so this must be the way.
Aha! There is a sliver of silver which is the river, so this is the right way.
There's a real cloud hanging over Blencathra today.
I walked through a bit of it back there, so my hair's gone all curly.
I hope that it lifts off Sharp Edge because you don't want to tackle Sharp Edge in pea soup,
which is what that is.
The weather is one of the enduring characteristics of the Lake District.
No number of weather forecasts will ever enable the walker to venture forth with total confidence.
This is a world of microclimates, where one valley basks in sun whilst the next runs for cover.
But today it seems I might just be very lucky.
The whole atmosphere of the walk changes about here.
You tip over that edge into the bosom of the valley and suddenly the road noise has gone
and all you can hear is the river gushing through the valley down below, and the odd sheep.
Wainwright would have loved this.
A beautiful valley,
and not a soul in sight.
I've got the place to myself.
Despite 19 million visitors a year, the Lakes still offers
one of England's best opportunities for escapism.
And that was half the appeal for Wainwright.
I do prefer my own company to that of other people.
The tinkling of a mountain stream, the twittering of birds,
the sound of wind sighing across the mountaintops...
That's music to me.
Unless I'm very much mistaken, that is Sharp Edge.
In fact I know I'm not mistaken because it looks exactly like that in Wainwright's book.
That jagged silhouette is unmistakeable.
It looks impossible to climb but there are little ants on the top.
'And that's what I'm meant to be doing.'
From here on, Blencathra begins to feel like a genuine mountain.
Phew! Steep incline.
For the walker in search of a raw fell-climbing experience, Blencathra scores highly.
The Lakes these days are littered with specially constructed footpaths, a necessary step
to protect the fells from tens of thousands of visitors every year.
Blencathra, for now at least, remains amazingly free from man-made paths,
leaving me to enjoy the mountain just as Wainwright first found it.
Ah! This is just a classic Lake District scene, and it's beautiful.
This is Scales Tarn, just at the base of Sharp Edge
and there's something so magical about these pools of water.
Perfect spot for lunch.
Scales Tarn is one of hundreds of tarns in this area.
They're a real feature of the Lake District
and mark the spot where huge basins of snow and ice once gathered.
Many of these became so massive that they spilled over
to form the glaciers that carved out so much of the Lake District environment.
Ten thousand years later,
the ice has long gone and all that remains are these great natural bowls,
where water gathers, forming a tarn.
I feel like a speck of dirt
by a plughole
in an enormous basin.
It's really imposing.
It's like a giant amphitheatre.
We know how much Wainwright enjoyed being on his own in the Lakes.
That's almost impossible these days.
You have moments of solitude, moments of peace and quiet, but this is clearly a mecca for lunchers.
Wainwright's particular pet-hate was school parties -
long caterpillars of 40 kids that he insisted would have to share just one cheery hello from him.
One thing you do notice from down here is,
as craggy as Sharp Edge looks, once you make it, it's completely flat along the top,
all the way round.
But reading my Wainwright leaves me in no doubt about the challenge I've got first, though.
Sharp Edge is a rising crest of naked rock.
A breaking wave carved in stone.
The sight of it at close quarters is sufficient to make a beholder
about to tackle it forget all other worries, even a raging toothache!
"The crest itself is sharp enough for shaving.
"The former name was Razor Edge, and can be traversed only at some risk of damage to tender parts.
"There is one awkward place calling for a shuffle off a sloping slab onto a knife edge.
"Countless posteriors have imparted a high polish to this spot."
I think my posterior might be polishing it as well!
Right, it's time to tackle Sharp Edge.
And it's time to let you into a little secret as well.
No big surprise, I'm not actually completely on my own.
There is a camera crew with me.
And amongst the crew is the lovely David,
who just checks that we don't do anything horribly wrong.
It's a health and safety thing, because David is our mountain goat.
-You don't mind me calling you that do you?
You've been walking these hills for how long?
-A long time.
-A long time - are we going into decades?
-Yes, many decades.
So there's nothing you don't know about probably every square inch of this place.
I know a fair bit of Lake District.
-I am going to make it, aren't I?
-Absolutely - no problem. Absolutely not.
My reputation depends on it!
Today, visibility is good, it's not wet...
No, dry rock, it'll be good.
Cloud has gone, OK. I think we should just go for it.
-Come on then. And grab your bag.
Just mind this crew.
Not only is David a mountain guide with a vast local knowledge, he's also a fanatical fell-runner.
He celebrated his last birthday by running 48 miles across 30 peaks.
A ridiculous feat, made even more surprising because it was his 60th birthday!
A glorious day. Have you noticed that everybody speaks to everybody?
Which I like. Yeah.
Not like that in London, you know.
I've only ever been to London three times.
Do you think you know the fells as well as Wainwright did?
No, absolutely not. He spent months on one single mountain.
Finding every single way to the top.
Every route, ridge, he knew everything about them.
And his guidebooks are definitive. The way he does the perspective
drawings of the path going up the fell.
No-one before or since has written books that come anywhere near him.
He used to sleep out on the fells rather than go home.
And the books he wrote purely as an aide memoire,
for when he couldn't go up the mountains himself in his later years.
36 pages he wrote on this mountain,
just unbelieveable. Anyway, we're getting to the serious bit now.
This has all been not too bad - so far.
We'll just take our time and not do anything silly.
You should go first.
Wainwright always liked to send people first so they saw things for the first time.
The wind's picking up now.
It is. It'll just add a little frisson to our expedition.
As if we didn't need anything else.
Now, that looks nice and not so hard up there, David.
Yes, but that's not where you're going. Up the gulley. Come on.
Just...you have to think three points of contact.
Three points of contact?
-So obviously both feet.
-And one hand or...
-I'm not going one-legged!
Is this particular bit called anything else?
I don't think so. It's all part of Sharp Edge until we get
to the steep bit there which is called Foule Crag.
It's totally different. There, you can't just balance across. You have to use hands and feet.
-Even I will use my hands on that bit.
Sorry I've let you go again.
-I should wait for you.
Don't worry about me - I'll just keep using my hands.
-Well, this is the exposed bit.
The thing to do is just to go across it.
-Shall I go first?
-Yeah, please do go first.
All you need is good balance and watch where you're putting your feet. Use your hands.
What if I said I didn't have great balance?
Well, now's the time to discover that you do.
OK, I'm gonna do my three point thing if that's alright.
Look at you just walking across.
This is where we have to be careful of those tender parts.
Wainwright, ooh! 'Allo!
And then we get to the big slabs.
-Room for a picnic up here.
-Am I being a bit too cautious?
-No, no. Shall we try full height?
-Just not looking.
-That's all right.
Ooh, bit windy.
I probably look quite pathetic.
But I don't care.
It looks quite high from up here.
My heart's going boom, boom, boom.
-Is that the hard bit done?
Yay! Thank you.
For me, there's a real buzz about completing something that genuinely makes you nervous.
And heights are definitely not my thing.
But the reward for getting across the Edge is Foule Crag, the final steep climb to the summit plateau.
Remember, three points of contact.
I'm right behind you.
Try and keep your body away from the rocks so you can see what you're doing with your feet.
You've got the bit between your teeth now, haven't you?
I can... Smell the summit!
Unlike David, I'm no rock-climber, so there's a real sense of achievement
in completing something that felt truly adventurous.
Having got over Sharp Edge, I really feel I know what Wainwright
meant when he called Blencathra "a mountaineer's mountain".
-Yeah, not very far.
Just before you go, just look back and see where you've come from. Isn't that just superb?
You see, that's quite impressive.
-Yeah. It looks like a Sharp Edge from here.
-It certainly does.
You can really see the bowl into which the tarn is set.
Without you, I wouldn't have done it at all, I've got to say, David.
Well, this is the best bit of the walk, isn't it?
You can look back and take in the views from up here.
-Well, you haven't sent the best bit yet anyway.
David, where do you stand on this name game? Saddleback vs Blencathra.
-Well, Blencathra has to be it for me. It has to be.
Well, it just rolls off the tongue so nicely, doesn't it?
It's more romantic, isn't it?
And it's the ancient name. Saddleback is the Victorian name.
We're just walking through what the Victorians call the saddle of Saddleback.
It just doesn't sound the same to say, "Oh I've tackled Saddleback."
It isn't as impressive as "I've tackled Blencathra! I got to the summit!"
And yet the OS still can't make their minds up,
one or the other, so they list it as both. Wainwright would only have Blencathra.
-I like Blencathra too.
-OK, we'll go for that.
-Yep, well done.
And what magnificent views, but all around you.
There's isn't a bad looking view in any direction.
We've got Criffel in Scotland over there for a start.
-Which water is that?
-Derwentwater, just below Keswick.
-Thirlmere over here.
-Yep. And this mountain range straight ahead of us?
That's Clough Head, onto the Dodds and way up onto Helvellyn.
And over here is Skiddaw, and Skiddaw Little Man which overlook Keswick, dominate Keswick.
And then further left you come onto down below, just above Derwentwater -
Catbells, great favourite with lots of people who go to Keswick.
And that runs onto Dalehead, Hind Scarth and Robinson.
There's not a fell you don't know, man!
Whether you know the peaks or not,
the view from nearly 3,000 feet up is undeniably spectacular
and you feel utterly detached from the world below.
This may not be the highest spot in the Lakes, but it's one of the best known
and, as I've just discovered, it's one of the toughest climbs around.
There we go. Our spot is marked, atop the cairn.
Well, that's good. Excellent. Well done.
Now, Wainwright wasn't very impressed with this cairn was he?
He loved the summit but overall, if you read the book here
"And nothing marks the highest point but a poor untidy heap of rubble.
"On occasions attempts are made to give the thing some shape and dignity, but until someone
"carries up a few decent size blocks, the cairn will continue to disappoint by its insignificance."
Well, there's a big one there. Shall I go and get it?
Go on then. Rather him than me.
I think he meant something even bigger, but nevertheless...
We'll do something anyway.
We could have started the change in the cairn on the top of Blencathra.
-It could become something significant.
Congratulations. Thank you very much.
We know Wainwright thought this fell worthy of more pages than any other,
but we'll never truly know whether Blencathra might just have been his all-time favourite.
The great fell-walker was canny enough to keep this sort of information a close secret.
But he did leave behind a comprehensive guide to one of the Lake's most dramatic climbs
and left us in no doubt that whilst there are many saddlebacks, there is only one Blencathra.
That's the Borrowdale valley in the heart of the Lakes, and that's where I'm heading next time.
Now it's 2000ft lower than here and much flatter, but it's also the wettest point in England.
So fingers crossed.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail: [email protected]
Julia Bradbury sets off to climb her first mountain, Blencathra. Her route to the summit sees her tackle Sharp Edge, the Lake District's most technical and vertigo-inducing ridge climb. In the process, she discovers why the obsessive Wainwright chose to cover this fell in more detail than any other.