Julia Bradbury explores the work of fell walker and author Alfred Wainwright. She aims to reach the summits of Crinkle Crags and Bowfell in Lakeland.
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Nestled in the far northwest 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.
And now, a century after his birth,
it's my turn to go in search of the real Wainwright experience.
Welcome to Great Langdale.
This is one of the best-known and most-visited valleys in the Lake District.
It's a place where walking and climbing sit happily alongside the ongoing traditions of upland farming.
Around these neatly tiled fields,
visitors like me come to explore the streams, the lonely tarns and the hidden waterfalls.
Standing watching over the head of the valley
is not one, but two of Alfred Wainwright's favourite fells.
And today I'm going to try and conquer both of them
and find out why AW thought the two of them together created Lakeland's best ridge-mile.
Crinkle Crags and Bowfell,
both giants of the Lake District in their own right
and blessed with a commanding position, soaking up attention throughout the whole of Langdale.
With two peaks in one walk,
there's no question this is the most physical Lakeland challenge I've undertaken so far.
But it's also very appropriate.
Wainwright was an ardent fan of the ridge walk.
For him, it wasn't just about the ascent, it's what you do once you're up there.
"Ridges, in general, provide the best fell-walking in Lakeland.
"They are the high-level traverses that link mountain summits,
"and invariably reward the walker with ever-changing distant panoramas
"and aerial views of ethereal beauty.
"Ridge-walking is fell-walking at its best."
Every individual chapter in Wainwright's Pictorial Guides
ends with a plan of possible ridge routes
that could be taken from the summit.
Together, they open the door to some truly enormous excursions.
His ridge routes from Crinkle Crags and Bowfell were the most comprehensive of all.
But, as was his style, he left the precise choice of routes up to the individual.
Now I always carry an OS map because remember these guides were written 50 years ago and things change.
Prime example on today's route - Climber's Traverse, which Wainwright recommends strongly.
Nowhere to be seen on the OS map.
My plan is to tackle Crinkle Crags first, approaching from the south
before making my way along the entire ridge to the summit of Bowfell.
This is over a mile of the most exposed land in the Lakes.
It pays to know your route and check the details
before you find yourself up there with a rain cloud approaching.
But today I've managed to enlist the help of a man who knows this ridge walk rather well.
Derry Brabbs is a leading Lake District photographer
and one of very few people who can say they actually worked with Wainwright himself.
And being a photographer, he insisted that I meet him in a very specific spot.
Hi, good morning, how are you?
Derry, are you trying to make my walk even harder?
I know this isn't your route
but I just had to drag you up here because this is just one of the best views
in the Lake District and I thought you ought to enjoy it before you do some serious hard work.
It is absolutely glorious.
It is. From my point of view as a photographer, vantage points are everything.
From here, you can see the ridge walk you are going to be enjoying later, Crinkle Crags and Bowfell.
-Oh, have you done Crinkle Crags and Bowfell?
-I have, several times.
You've done seven books in total with Wainwright.
Did you experience initial resistance from AW in those very early days?
Here's a photographer coming along saying,
"I'm going to take photographs of the hills that you have lovingly drawn and put down on paper."
I was under no illusions from the start because I realised here was a man who knew exactly what he wanted.
He was dogmatic to the point of obsession sometimes. But no, we got on famously.
I think it was a very tentative relationship to start with,
but as soon as I realised that I could climb the fells without doing myself too serious a mischief,
and he knew that I could take the photographs he wanted,
we really developed a very amicable, good working relationship.
You must have been petrified.
What was it like to work with Alfred Wainwright?
It was very nerve-racking because of course, not being a walker myself,
I never had any inkling of what Wainwright was.
I thought, "How can people do this for pleasure?"
It was just extraordinary. But as you get fitter,
you get more comfortable with your surroundings,
and you start to realise why Wainwright did love the Lakes.
I am really looking forward to my walks today, but what treasures do I have in store?
You have one of the best ridge walks in the Lake District going across the jagged edge of Crinkle Crags.
Drop down to Three Tarns which you can see, that depression.
Then you're going to cut across the Climber's Traverse,
just to that great lump of rock which is Bowfell Buttress.
And what you can't see from here is the Great Slab,
which is one of the great natural features in the Lake District. I'm always looking for viewpoints.
And I think Crinkle Crags and Bowfell Summit are two of my favourite views.
Also on Crinkle Crags, I read about the Bad Step.
Yes, the Bad Step, it's almost like the Hillary Step on Everest, but in miniature.
And it really is quite amusing to watch people trying to struggle
and sit there almost with map and pen trying to navigate a way round it.
You're not reassuring me here at all.
You can have a fun time trying to get up it,
but I can assure you there is a route that you can go round the side.
I've noticed there is one route that exists in the Wainwright books,
the Climber's Traverse, that is nowhere else.
Well, it is there if you look for it now.
But it's one of those routes which Wainwright would have discovered for himself
and, of course, many have followed in Wainwright's footsteps since that time.
It's a well-marked path.
It has because one or two moments where you have to slither around.
The problem you do have is when you are at the bottom of Bowfell Buttress. The only way is up
and that is quite a nasty scree slope.
Thank you for your time today.
I feel honoured because I am only following in Wainwright's steps.
You worked with the great man. I'll touch you and hope a bit will rub off.
Hopefully not my knee ligaments.
'Well, I'll certainly need to be in good shape for this, the longest Wainwright walk I've ever tackled -
'six and a half miles to the top of Bowfell.
'And for once, there'll be descents as well as climbs.
'So let's have a look at the route I'll be taking.'
Sitting on its very own at the top end of Great Langdale
is Stool End Farm, the last outpost of civilisation on my walk today.
The lush fields disappear as I head up Oxendale, crossing the beck,
and beginning a long and steady climb beside the ravine of Browney Gill.
I'll eventually emerge onto flatter ground at Red Tarn,
a turning point for me,
as I move northwest across a great expanse of peaty grassland.
The gentle path gives way as you approach the many rugged peaks of Crinkle Crags.
This is where Wainwright's ultimate ridge walk begins -
a mile of classic views and fell-top scrambling.
The pass of Three Tarns nestles between the two peaks.
My cue to make my way across to the Climber's Traverse
and get amongst the very best that Bowfell has to offer.
A world of towering cliffs and shattered rock,
including the unmistakeable feature known simply as the Great Slab.
From here, it's just a short climb across rocks
to one of the most shapely summit peaks in the whole of Lakeland.
Stool End Farm is both a working uplands farm and a major thoroughfare
for fell walkers leaving and arriving in Great Langdale.
It sits at the foot of the open fell,
the furthest place where those not prepared to walk can hope to explore.
The environment becomes much wilder here.
The river bed is strewn with massive boulders,
which are a clue to a time when the river was much less tame than it is today.
During storms, the boulders are pushed down by the force of the water, rumbling along the river bed,
like little pebbles.
Everywhere you look, there are signs of what happens when the water levels tumbling down the fell-side increase.
The footbridge here is as new as it looks,
only put in place two years ago after the previous crossing was swept away by the Oxendale Beck in full flight.
The bridge is also where the walk takes a sudden turn upwards
as the path leaves Oxendale and heads south up a gully,
destined for Red Tarn.
And so to the first proper climb of the day.
In fact, the most intense piece of ascent of the whole climb -
a steady relentless slog up 1,100 feet, which rapidly takes you away from the gentle fields of Langdale
and gives your entire body a wake-up call for the work up ahead.
My path skirts a ravine that gets progressively more dramatic as you climb.
This is Browney Gill, cut over the millennia since the last ice age
and now a small oasis of rowan trees and flowering plants.
I bet a few bottoms have perched here over the years.
It's not so much an awkward or technical climb, just a long slog.
But you get a great view over the ridge,
over Crinkle Crag to Bowfell from here.
Sadly this path goes that way in the other direction.
And it looks like there's a bit of a scramble up ahead as well.
In wet weather, this scramble would be a hazardous experience
with water breaking out of the main gill and pouring over the rocks and path.
This is a nice little surprise.
Few big fell walks are complete without a trip to a tarn
and this one is no exception.
Red Tarn is just my first today, a "walker's crossroads"
as Wainwright described it, with four paths converging where the stream exits the lake.
It's not the most picturesque tarn I've ever visited.
It's just parked up in the middle of this great open pass, exposed to all the elements.
Certainly very different from the other Red Tarn at Helvellyn.
But you do get a magic view of Bowfell.
Wainwright described this particular Red Tarn as "an unattractive sheet of water",
but did concede that it might have its uses on a hot day.
But, with a great deal still to tick off,
there's fortunately no time for considering a paddle anyway.
From the tarn, the good news is that much of the hard graft of ascent has already been done.
And as you cross the top of Browney Gill,
there's time for a look down the gully to admire what you've just achieved.
The walk from here changes its character.
The route to the first of the Crinkle Crags
brings you onto an inspiring high fell plateau.
This is where the air changes, the wind changes
and views open up as you stride across the gentlest of gradients.
And far in the distance behind you,
Lake Windermere at the end of the Langdale valley.
Ah, there they are.
You walk across this grassy plain for about a mile and you get a bit lost
and you forget about the drama that lies ahead.
And then...there are the Crinkles.
That's Crinkle one,
Crinkle two which is actually the summit,
Crinkle three, four and five.
That nasty gully between Crinkles two and three, you wouldn't want to fall down there.
"These undulations, seeming trivial from a distance,
"are revealed at close range as steep buttresses
"and gullies above wild declivities, a scene of desolation
"and rugged grandeur equalled by few others in the district."
Inevitably, the gentle path across the grass gives way to boulders
and scrambling as you approach this most distinctive of fell tops.
And it's as you scale the first of the five mini summits
that you get a clear view of the second and highest Crinkle.
But in the way stands the biggest obstacle on any footpath in Lakeland.
I'm definitely looking at the ominous Bad Step.
It looks exactly like Wainwright's drawing.
Thing is from here, you don't get any sense of its size or scale.
"Chicken-hearted walkers, muttering something about discretion being the better part of valour,
"will sneak away and circumvent the difficulty
"by following the author's footsteps around the flank of the buttress.
"Two chockstones block the gully entirely,
"forming a rocky wall ten feet high.
"Quite beyond the powers of the average walker to scale."
Hm. It is a big step.
I don't know if it's a Bad Step.
That overhang looks a bit dodgy.
It looks like it could fall on you, so I think I'm going to stick to this side.
Bad Step is largely a problem-solving exercise.
Once you realise you'd have to be eight foot tall to climb straight over the chockstones,
it's just a case of choosing which bit of the side wall to climb.
A combination of hands, feet and the odd knee should then see you through.
And from there, it's just a few yards over rocks to reach the true summit of Crinkle Crags.
This great vista just opens out in front of you.
There's Langdale, all the way down to the right.
Eskdale on the left.
And then the magnificent Scafell range just in a big horseshoe
ahead under the cloud.
But that's the view you want.
That's where we're heading, Bowfell.
No wonder he thought this was the best ridge-mile walk.
Crinkle Crags really doesn't disappoint.
It's a mountain defined by its unique summit outline.
It's said that the early men of Langdale gave the mountain its name,
a name that suits it just as well up here as it does from the valley below.
AW did have one problem however.
He couldn't decide whether Crinkle Crags was singular or plural.
Should it be "Crinkle Crags is" or "Crinkle Crags are"?
No, he couldn't decide either.
And so my ridge walk begins.
From 2,816ft, my route falls and rises
as I traverse the rest of Crinkle Crags.
I'm glad the weather is clear.
With the path barely discernible, and ravines and gullies nearby,
this is not somewhere to be caught in the wind and the rain.
This little scramble to the top of Crinkle three is a diversion.
But your reward is this terrific view of Great Langdale,
down and through the valley.
I think these detours are really worth it, not just for the views
but because they really help me with the geography as well.
The geography of this fine ridge once included the local county boundary.
When Wainwright published his Pictorial Guides,
this was where Cumberland and Westmorland ran alongside each other,
both now consigned to the history books in favour of the modern day Cumbria.
From this angle, Bowfell really is quite a sight.
A great pyramid of a mountain.
The word "fell" doesn't describe it adequately. It really is a mountain.
As AW puts it, "This is the heart of Lakeland's best ridge mile".
And he certainly gave it the attention it deserved.
In fact, he presented it in a level of detail that was unique,
even for him.
This is a plan of the entire ridge from Crinkle Crags all the way up to Three Tarns.
Full of detail, as you'd expect from Wainwright.
But supposing I was coming in the opposite direction,
well, I'd have to turn the book around, wouldn't I?
Not with Wainwright. You see, he was so obsessive, he did it for you.
Look. There it is.
Exactly the same route, but the other way round.
Now that's what I call service.
After a mile of intensely rocky scrambling,
it's quite a relief to be heading downwards towards gentler, grassier ground.
A welcome chance to take the pressure off your knees as you approach the ideal rest spot at Three Tarns.
This is the most popular pass route between the mighty valleys of Langdale and Eskdale.
The Three Tarns themselves are so small they're easily missed.
And, depending on the weather, you may only find two tarns or as many as four.
Either way, this is the place where I'm leaving Wainwright's Crinkle Crags chapter,
and turning my attention to the second mountain of the day.
"Bowfell is a mountain of noble aspect and rare distinction.
"There is both grace and strength in the upper reaches.
"It is a challenge that cannot be denied."
And for me, the challenge is to navigate my way off the main route and find the Climber's Traverse,
the path that Wainwright thought showed Bowfell at its very best.
Without the reassurance of Derry Brabbs,
I'd be unsure about following this route.
The Climber's Traverse isn't a public right of way, so it doesn't appear on OS maps.
But a path it is.
One that takes you off the ridge and into places where most walkers never reach.
Now the name might suggest that harnesses and hand-holds are required
but fortunately the Climbers' Traverse isn't quite that dramatic.
The path first developed to provide access straight to the favoured spots of rock climbers.
It follows a ledge that passes round the great supporting walls of Bowfell.
This is where climbers come to tackle Flat Crags, Cambridge Crags
and the suitably named Bowfell Buttress.
It just sort of grows out of this river of scree and then juts up into the sky.
Walkers who stick to the main route from Three Tarns
can easily spend an entire day on Bowfell without ever noticing the drama that sits under their noses.
But those that do make it here are rewarded by one of the most welcome features of this, or any, long climb.
"Nothing better ever came out of a barrel or a bottle," as Wainwright puts it.
As you sip the water that's poured straight out of the heart of the Bowfell rock,
you're surrounded by some of the boldest mountain features in the country.
A good spot to prepare for the final climb of this Lakeland epic.
Now getting here was meant to be the tricky bit of the day.
But to be honest, an exit route has never been less obvious to me on a Wainwright walk.
He doesn't recommend going up the scree.
He does recommend a route called Great Slab
which looks to be up that way,
so I'll give it a go.
So I'm left with an unlikely climb up the side of Cambridge Crag
and a route past the most unusual feature of the day.
In amongst all the near-vertical rock faces is one very different one...
..Great Slab, as Wainwright called it.
A vast and gently sloping platform of naked rock.
Uniquely round here,
it's remained free of all the scree and boulders that surround it.
And frankly, having climbed up the side of it, you could do with a rest.
Now I'm not intimate with all 214 fells,
but I'm pretty sure you don't get a view like that anywhere else.
And Wainwright was so impressed with the Great Slab and the Langdale Pikes in the distance
that he gave it a double-page spread.
Now yes, it's quite a bleak picture, but remember these were hand-drawn.
Every detail, every line.
Look at this little chap at the top with the walking stick.
I wonder if that's him?
As you round the top of Great Slab,
the summit of Bowfell is both unmistakeable and reassuringly close.
It's an exciting summit that keeps the challenge going right to the very end.
"Bowfell's top is a shattered pyramid,
"a great heap of stones and boulders and naked rock.
"A giant cairn in itself."
This is so different from any summit I've been on before.
You definitely know you're at the very top.
But there's no need for a triangulation point or any great cairn.
Where would you put it anyway?
Throughout seven whole volumes,
this was the only fell Wainwright admitted, straight away, was one of his very best.
He loved to bestow honours
and create rankings that would inspire endless debate on footpaths and in pubs across the Lakes.
But every other fell had to wait until he published his final Pictorial Guide
to learn whether they would join Bowfell in Wainwright's premier league.
We know from these pages how important Bowfell was to Wainwright.
He declared his love very early on.
But in 1966, he also made Crinkle Crags one of his top six summits.
Two top fells,
one mammoth expedition,
and the greatest ridge walk in England.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Series in which Julia Bradbury explores the stunning Lake District landscape that inspired the great British fell walker and author Alfred Wainwright to produce his beautifully crafted guidebooks.
Julia faces a new physical challenge as she experiences the world of Wainwright - not one summit, but two. The Lake District's most famous walker loved to explore routes that link fell tops together, and Julia aims to find her way along the best ridge-mile in Lakeland, reaching the summits of Crinkle Crags and Bowfell, two of the biggest peaks in the area.