Helvellyn Wainwright Walks


Helvellyn

Series in which Julia Bradbury explores the work of fell walker and author Alfred Wainwright. She sets off to climb Helvellyn via the fearsome ridge of Striding Edge.


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Transcript


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Nestled in the far northwest of England, this is the Lake District.

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A land defined by its natural beauty.

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And known to millions who love the Lakes was the late Alfred Wainwright.

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Author, guide writer and talented artist,

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but above all, he was the greatest fell-walker.

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Wainwright's guides have inspired generations of walkers to roam these glorious fells.

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And now, a century after his birth,

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it's my turn to go in search of the real Wainwright experience.

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Welcome to Ullswater, the second largest

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and one of the most popular stretches of water in the Lake District.

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Today, this is my start point for what is arguably one of the most famous mountain walks in England.

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But I'm also here because those fells over there

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were where it all began for Alfred Wainwright.

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Ullswater forms a great natural boundary to the area of Lakeland

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that Wainwright chose to call the Western Fells.

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This was where AW, as he was often known, started his 13-year mission

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to explore and chart the detail of every peak in the region.

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It was a unique task,

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that would turn a reclusive accountant from Blackburn

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into a fell-walking legend.

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Wainwright's beautiful pocket-sized pictorial guides

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have been a part of Lakeland life for over 50 years.

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For me, today, it's all about tackling two things -

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the mighty summit of Helvellyn,

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and what Wainwright described as the finest ridge in Lakeland, Striding Edge.

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At 3,118 feet, Helvellyn is the third highest peak in England.

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It enjoys a central location, numerous possible ascents,

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and the classic Striding Edge.

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"There is no doubt that Helvellyn is climbed more often than any other mountain in Lakeland,

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"and more than any other, it is the objective and ambition

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"of the tourist who does not normally climb."

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Alfred Wainwright came here as a 23-year-old in 1930.

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A complete newcomer to the Lakes, he arrived in Ullswater,

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determined to tackle Helvellyn the following morning.

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By all accounts,

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conditions for him were far less appealing than for me today.

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Ullswater really is a stunningly beautiful valley.

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The lake snakes southwards, and ends here in this dense mass of fells.

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And you can just make out the flat summit of Helvellyn from here,

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and it looks a long, long way to the top!

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From the southern tip of Ullswater, Helvellyn is well protected,

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leaving me some fine gentle rambling before the hard work begins.

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Conditions seem calm enough - the valley in front looks welcoming,

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but the Lakeland fells can still be a hazardous environment,

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nowhere more so than Helvellyn.

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So before I set foot on Striding Edge,

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I'm paying a visit to a man who knows plenty about local dangers.

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Dave Freeborn heads the Patterdale Mountain Rescue,

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one of 12 teams in the Lakes, but the one with the dubious honour

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of serving the thousands who tackle Helvellyn each year.

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Obviously, what we've just seen is a practice situation.

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How often does the chopper get out in rescue situations?

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In Patterdale, about 15% of the time. There were 17 rescues last year.

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-So, you're all busy men, then!

-Yeah.

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What qualifications do you need to be part of the team?

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You have to live in the area,

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so you're able to respond fairly quickly,

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you need to have a basic first aid certificate, but most importantly,

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you need to be able to work as a team,

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as it's the team that gets it sorted out.

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-Are you on call 24 hours a day?

-Yeah, every team member is on 24/7.

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You often get a call out on Christmas Day, or...

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It's usually at the most inconvenient time, like when you're in the bath.

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Now, just to reiterate, you're all volunteers.

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Absolutely. Every rescue team in the UK is made up of trained volunteers.

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You are a dedicated lot.

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I'd like to think that if I had a broken ankle, someone would come up for me.

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Let's concentrate on Helvellyn.

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What specific problems have you dealt with?

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OK, if you fall off Striding Edge,

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there's a fair chance you're going to suffer serious trauma, if not death.

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That does happen quite frequently.

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In winter time, because it's north-facing,

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you get a lot of snow build-up,

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and you get a cornice of snow which lips over the edge,

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and we've had a number of times

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when people have not realised how far back from the edge the cornice breaks.

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They've stood on it, and gone through the cornice, and down,

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in one case, to the person's death.

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It's a serious place, but it's only serious if you're not...

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-Not aware.

-Exactly, yeah.

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Do you get people who become petrified, very frightened,

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and you're dealing with exposure and fear?

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We do, we call that cragfast,

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where somebody doesn't want to go up or down.

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That often means that you've got to rope up and climb in,

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or abseil down to them. You need to chat them through,

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calm them down, and get a harness on them damn quick.

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So Wainwright was right, particularly on Helvellyn -

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watch where you're going.

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Absolutely, but it's good fun,

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it's a very good mountaineering walk, not a scramble, a walk.

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There are a few rocky bits,

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but, essentially, it's something everybody wants to do. It's good.

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Before I leave the valley,

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let's take an aerial view of the route I'll be taking.

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My route starts from the church in Patterdale village,

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adjacent to the Mountain Rescue Headquarters.

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From here, I'll head away from Ullswater,

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taking a gentle walk along the floor of the Grisedale valley.

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As the leafy trees run out,

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my walk enters more familiar Lakeland terrain.

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For a mile and a half, a long path takes me in a straight line

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to the well-known landmark known as the Hole In The Wall.

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This is where the drama begins.

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On the right up ahead is the vast combe of Helvellyn,

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filled with red tarn, and encased by the mountain and its two ridges.

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The start of Striding Edge is clearly marked by the rock pinnacle of High Spy How.

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From here, the famous Edge rises and falls over numerous jagged peaks.

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As it meets the bulk of Helvellyn,

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I'll be left with one long steep scramble to the felltop plateau.

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The summit is then just a short walk away,

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and the drama of the climb turns into one of the flattest and most gentle of Lakeland viewpoints.

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St Patrick's is the parish church

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of what used to be known as Patrick's Dale,

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my rather tranquil start point for one of the area's toughest climbs.

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As you look up the valley of Grisedale, the village of Patterdale

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feels really protected on either side by the fells.

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Sadly, those two peaks are not the summit,

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those are just the approach slopes to Helvellyn,

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which is always a bit disconcerting.

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This is going to be a biggie for me.

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Helvellyn is part of the most extensive range of high ground in England.

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For five miles, a great succession of peaks line up,

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from Dollywagon Pike in the south, to Great Dodd in the north.

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The ridge rarely drops below 2,500 feet,

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with the summit of Helvellyn the grand pinnacle in the middle.

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Aha, now, that is the first glimpse of the footpath

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which will take me all the way up to the Hole In The Wall.

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But before any serious climbing,

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there's a good mile of single-track road to follow along the valley floor.

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This is Grisedale, and it's just classic Lakeland.

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Most of the land here has been part of a private estate for generations,

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which has preserved a fine valley view for walkers like me.

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The footpath soon becomes a straight diagonal plod up the side of the fell known as Birkhouse Moor.

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But as you climb, the views both in front and behind get better.

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Back over the top of Patterdale,

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you look towards the eastern-most summits in the Lakes,

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the likes of High Raise and High Street,

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fells that Wainwright would go on to study in his second pictorial guide.

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Looking ahead, though,

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the fine weather of this morning seems to be disappearing.

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Clouds are moving in rather ominously,

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just where I'm heading to.

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Time to take a moment to double-check my route.

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When you study a Wainwright guide,

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there are certain things that you come to expect.

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Comprehensive drawings, very well laid-out notes,

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but there are a couple of things I haven't seen before,

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like these bullet-point notes about the various approaches.

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"Number one - via Grisedale Tarn, a long easy walk on a good path."

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Er, this one, "Via Nethermost Pike - not for novices.

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"Via Striding Edge, my route, the best way of all."

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There's something else I haven't seen before, as well,

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graphs which plot the distance in relation to the altitude,

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so offering you the steepness of the routes, if you like, obsessive detail.

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I haven't seen these in anything else, so it's almost like, in this,

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book one, he's trying things out.

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Apart from an enduring love of the Lakeland fells,

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Wainwright's motivation for his guides was very simple.

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He thought he could do a better job than anyone else.

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He admired Ordnance Survey maps,

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but thought them inadequate for finding footpaths.

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And then there was Baddeley,

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who had already published a Lake District guide covering 20 of the greatest fells.

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AW, though, presented 14 possible routes up Helvellyn alone,

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and went on to provide similar coverage of 213 other peaks.

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That's the thing about the Lake District,

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one minute glorious sunshine, the next thing, pouring rain.

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Always pack your waterproofs.

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Well, if you can see me,

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I think you'll realise, as do I, that this bank of cloud has set in.

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Now, there's a slight break in the cloud over there,

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and I can just make out the wall.

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The majority of walkers who attack Helvellyn's eastern side

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cannot fail to pass the giant wall

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that stretches from the valley floor in Grisedale,

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up and along the entire ridge of Birkhouse Moor.

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And just like me, Wainwright and his cousin

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encountered it for the first time in less than perfect circumstances.

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"We followed a pony route rising along the flanks of Birkhouse Moor

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"above the lovely valley of Grisedale.

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"The weather was less promising, and before reaching the gap in the wall,

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"we were enveloped in a clammy mist, and the rain started."

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No wonder the Hole In The Wall is such a landmark -

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it really is the cut-off point,

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it's almost as if one walk's ended and another begins.

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The terrain changes completely.

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And there would be my first view of the summit.

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Except it's hidden under a nice layer of cloud.

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I wonder if that will still be there when I get there.

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I'm looking right into the mouth of the great bowl here.

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Now I know that Red Tarn is at the bottom,

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but it's hidden from view right now.

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And on the left, beneath that creeping cloud, is Striding Edge,

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but from here, I've really got no idea of what to expect,

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so I can't work out whether I'm intimidated, frightened by it,

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and this weather really doesn't help.

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"Neither of us had waterproofs, nor a change of clothing.

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"Perhaps it would clear later, we thought.

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"We were already under the optimistic delusion that afflicts most fellwalkers."

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Somebody once said, "Take nothing but photos,

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"leave nothing but footprints when you're on a mountain."

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I'm gonna add to that. "Get nothing but wet, soaking wet."

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Wind, cloud and rain are something all proper fellwalkers should experience.

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And today certainly is that - an experience.

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Fortunately, though, the Wainwright Walks helicopter crew

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have been able to get out above Ullswater and Helvellyn on a different day,

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so with a touch of television magic, here's what I COULD be looking at.

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If conditions were any better for me,

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I'd be soaking up the very best Helvellyn has to offer.

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Wainwright thought it a pity that the majority of walkers attack the mountain from the opposite side.

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The smooth grassy slopes that rise out of Thirlmere are,

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he said, "unattractive", and "lacking in interest".

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My side is geologically far more interesting.

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A more difficult ascent, but as AW noted,

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this is the price you pay,

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if you are to discover Helvellyn's "true character".

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Now, for those of you who've watched before,

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you'll know that I'm not alone.

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It's not just Wainwright I have for company, I have a crew.

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In fact, I'm just about to clean Jan my cameraman's lens.

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And I also have a David.

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Now, everybody who works in these here parts should have a David,

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because he knows the Lake District, I'd say,

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almost as well as Wainwright. Isn't that right, David?

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Well, I'm not quite so sure about that, really, but I do know it well.

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-You're the man to take Striding Edge with.

-I think so.

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I know from reading Wainwright's books,

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when he first came, conditions were similar,

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-so we're not complete fools, are we?

-Certainly not.

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And we're going to do this safely, and we can get over no problem.

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-Be careful.

-Be careful, take it easy.

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Normally I'd take time to go down to visit the tarn,

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but I think today, we should just press on. What say you?

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-Yep, it's clear at present, so we'll go for it.

-OK, let's make a move.

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As an experienced climber, fell-runner

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and all round lover of the Lakes,

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David is the ideal man to check that we don't become another statistic for the mountain rescue team.

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Now, this, in terms of geography,

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is an example of glacial excellence, isn't it?

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You've got the two ridges, one on either side.

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Sharp aretes, both sides.

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This great combe, a great mass of ice, would have formed here,

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and just gouged all this lot out.

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-Such a good example.

-It's a geography teacher's casebook.

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-But this is going to be fun today.

-Yeah.

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It looks quite moody in the cloud cover, doesn't it?

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It does. It adds something to it. A lot of atmosphere.

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But we need to... We could cut off up here,

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-Up to the ridge.

-Why, so we...?

-Get onto it early.

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Having walked with David before,

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it's no surprise that he's dragging me off the path,

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to eke out every last bit of drama from the climb.

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We're now heading to High Spying How,

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the tower of rock that marks the high point at the start of Striding Edge.

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How many times have you crossed the ridge, David?

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Oh, I can't imagine the number. Many, many times.

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Doesn't matter how many times you come to these places,

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-it's never the same twice.

-No.

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And you hear people say that over and over again,

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and you think it can't be true, but it is.

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I must say, I'm happy to be doing this part of the walk with a partner.

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Yeah, it's nice to have company occasionally.

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Yeah.

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"We went on, heads down against the driving rain

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"until, quite suddenly, a window opened in the mist ahead,

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"disclosing a black tower of rock streaming with water,

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"an evil and threatening monster that stopped us in our tracks.

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"Then the mist closed in again and the apparition vanished.

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"We were scared. There were unseen terrors ahead."

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'And like Wainwright's visit, as David and I reach High Spying How,

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'we step into an unavoidable blanket of cloud.'

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Normally, this is where you can see the whole of the edge stretching out in front of us.

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We can just about see our feet!

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"There was no doubt about it, we were on Striding Edge,

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"a platform of naked rock that vanished into the mist

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"as a narrow ridge with appalling precipices on both sides.

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"In agonies of apprehension,

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"we edged our way along the spine of the ridge."

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Happy?

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-Happy.

-Good.

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Well, the one good thing about the rain and the cloud cover today

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is that we haven't seen very many people.

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No, that's good, cos it can be like the checkout at Sainsbury's at times, with queues of people.

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There's a memorial, somewhere about here, to a huntsman.

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Ah, there it is.

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-Do you fancy a step across?

-No, I think I'll go round,

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thanks all the same. What was he doing hunting up here?

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Well, all the Lakeland packs hunted on foot.

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They don't go on horses or anything.

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Well, no, that would be tricky.

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So if the pack were working these areas, the huntsman would get up high to watch what was going on.

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And obviously, the people who followed the hunt would also get to high places.

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-And it went wrong for Robert Dixon.

-It did.

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Anyway, his friends thought highly enough of him to cart that great lump

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of cast iron up here to mark the point.

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Most unfortunate.

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Striding Edge fully deserves its place as the most famous spot on any mountain in Lakeland.

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On a clear day, you can appreciate 300 yards of exposed narrow ridge.

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Once on, there's no escape save for going forwards or backwards.

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And yet for walkers with a reasonable head for heights,

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and for those not pre-occupied with fox hunting,

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it is a very attainable and satisfying mountaineering achievement.

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The good thing about this pea soup is if you did suffer from vertigo,

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it wouldn't matter cos you can't see anything down either side.

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Now, of course, because you've done this many times before, you'll know

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when this is ending, but I've got no idea, cos there's no vision.

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It's quite soon, actually.

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But there is a little sting in the tail.

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Something just to round it off nicely.

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And it's not very far away.

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-We have to get down there.

-OK. Oh, I see, that is a little sting, isn't it?

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It is.

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-So we're going to go down backwards?

-Yeah.

0:22:440:22:49

Keep your body away from the rock,

0:22:490:22:52

just like going backwards down a ladder.

0:22:520:22:54

"After an age of anxiety, we reached the abrupt end of the edge

0:23:000:23:05

"and descended an awkward crack in the rocks to firmer ground below and beyond...

0:23:050:23:10

"..feeling and looking like old men.

0:23:110:23:14

"My cousin, looking like something fished from the sea,

0:23:160:23:21

"kept looking at me and saying nothing, but was obviously

0:23:210:23:25

"inwardly blaming me, as author of the day's programme for his present misery."

0:23:250:23:31

-What's next?

-The summit.

0:23:320:23:35

There's going to be a little climb up, isn't it?

0:23:350:23:37

-A little climb up.

-Always little treats in store!

0:23:370:23:40

On a better day, David's "little climb"

0:23:440:23:46

would be revealed for all to see.

0:23:460:23:49

The final approach to Helvellyn's summit is a 300ft face of steep rock

0:23:490:23:54

and loose scree and his inappropriate choice of words would be clearly obvious.

0:23:540:23:59

If Striding Edge tested your nerves, this will test your fitness and stamina.

0:23:590:24:03

Not bad for a little climb.

0:24:030:24:07

It's quite interesting doing a climb in these conditions cos it's just completely different.

0:24:070:24:13

It really is

0:24:130:24:15

what you see inch by inch.

0:24:150:24:17

I don't really know what to feel at this moment, being so close to the summit.

0:24:270:24:31

Because...it's all just so murky.

0:24:310:24:35

Finally...

0:24:410:24:42

..a bit of a plateau.

0:24:450:24:47

Yep. It's quite steep, that last little bit.

0:24:470:24:52

Yeah. They make you work for your money up here on Helvellyn!

0:24:520:24:55

They do on this side of it, they certainly do.

0:24:550:24:58

Somewhere up here, just where the climb meets the plateau, is a monument.

0:25:030:25:08

You might see it looming out of the mist.

0:25:080:25:10

-Another one?

-Yup.

0:25:100:25:12

One of the best-known stories in the Lakes concerns a young man who climbed my route 200 years ago.

0:25:140:25:21

Charles Gough had set off from Patterdale with his faithful Irish terrier.

0:25:210:25:25

But three months later,

0:25:250:25:27

his shattered remains were found by a local shepherd.

0:25:270:25:30

Gough had perished on the cliffs beneath this monument,

0:25:300:25:34

but there, standing guard over his master's body, was Gough's dog,

0:25:340:25:38

an event Wordsworth later chose to immortalise,

0:25:380:25:41

creating a favourite Lakeland tale of love and undying fidelity.

0:25:410:25:46

From the memorial, there's just a simple walk across the plateau to the summit.

0:25:510:25:56

If I could see more than 30 feet today, I'd be able to appreciate

0:25:560:25:59

the largest, flattest peak of any of the Lake District giants.

0:25:590:26:05

There's so much room that two daredevils even managed to land a plane here in 1926.

0:26:050:26:11

This is where the hordes converge from all directions on a good day,

0:26:140:26:18

quickening their pace as they spot the summit shelter.

0:26:180:26:21

Now THAT'S a good shelter.

0:26:270:26:29

It is. It's a cracking shelter.

0:26:290:26:30

-Because you get protected from every side.

-That's right.

0:26:300:26:33

It doesn't matter which way the wind's blowing,

0:26:330:26:36

you'll find shelter there.

0:26:360:26:37

-Is that the summit cairn?

-That is the top.

0:26:430:26:47

It's not a particularly impressive cairn on the summit of such a mountain.

0:26:470:26:51

No, but I guess, on any other day,

0:26:510:26:53

the views would more than make up for it.

0:26:530:26:55

Oh, absolutely spectacular and extensive in every direction.

0:26:550:26:58

For instance, over here, you'd have Blencathra and that range there,

0:26:580:27:02

and then, Skiddaw would be there, and the northwestern fells,

0:27:020:27:06

Grisedale Pike would stand out over that direction,

0:27:060:27:09

and you'd be able to see as far as Morecambe Bay easily from here.

0:27:090:27:13

But there's one nice thing, I've never been here before by myself,

0:27:150:27:19

well, I'm with you, of course,

0:27:190:27:21

but without any other person on the fell top.

0:27:210:27:24

And that's all because of the cloud cover.

0:27:240:27:26

You see, David, every cloud has a silver lining.

0:27:260:27:29

Well, shall we go to the shelter and get out of this wind?

0:27:290:27:32

Yes, let's use it for what it's there for.

0:27:320:27:35

"Legend and poetry - a lovely name and a lofty altitude

0:27:360:27:41

"combine to encompass Helvellyn in an aura of romance.

0:27:410:27:45

"It is, as a rule, a very friendly giant.

0:27:450:27:48

"If it did not inspire affection,

0:27:480:27:50

"would its devotees return to it so often?"

0:27:500:27:54

Well, I feel like I've ticked off one of the great achievements in fell-walking.

0:27:570:28:01

If you stay in any B&B around here, somebody, some day, will ask you,

0:28:010:28:07

"Have you done Helvellyn and Striding Edge?"

0:28:070:28:10

And, of course, now, I can say yes,

0:28:100:28:13

but one day, I'm going to have to come back,

0:28:130:28:16

so I can see the magnificent views from this summit. Ha.

0:28:160:28:20

-Shall we go back down?

-Sure, come on.

-It's just like a rehearsal.

0:28:200:28:24

Next time, it'll be much, much better.

0:28:240:28:27

Oh, I don't know, I've enjoyed this in its own unique way.

0:28:270:28:31

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:410:28:44

Julia Bradbury presents a series of classic walks and climbs in the Lake District. Armed with Wainwright's famous Pictorial Guides, Julia is setting out on some of the biggest and most popular fell walks in the country. Through sunshine and rain, Julia explores the stunning landscape that inspired the late Alfred Wainwright to produce his beautifully crafted guide books.

Nobody can call themselves a true fell walker until England's most popular mountain has been conquered. Julia Bradbury sets off to reach the summit of Helvellyn via the Lake District's most talked-about ridge - Striding Edge. And just like legendary fell walker Alfred Wainwright, Julia discovers herself reaching the Edge for the very first time, just as the cloud and the rain descend.


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