Pillar Wainwright Walks


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Pillar

Series in which Julia Bradbury explores the work of fell walker and author Alfred Wainwright. From Ennerdale, she ascends one of Wainwright's favourite fells, Pillar.


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Nestled in the far north west 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, it's my turn to go in search of the real Wainwright experience.

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Welcome to one of the remotest spots in the Lake District.

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This is the very tip of the Ennerdale Valley,

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and from where I am here, it's nine miles that way

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to the closest village, and we're at least five miles away from a proper tarmacked road.

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So it's pretty remote.

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I'm here because this is Wainwright's recommended start point for one of his most dramatic climbs.

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Over there is the ominously-named Pillar.

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And today I'm going to find out why Wainwright thought that this mountain

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had the most handsome crag in Lakeland.

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Dominating the side of the Ennerdale Valley, is Pillar, the highest peak in the Western Fells.

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Just short of 3,000ft, Pillar is right up there amongst England's highest summits.

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But it's in terms of drama that Alfred Wainwright thought this mountain really excelled.

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The north face of the fell has a formidable aspect.

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Crags and shadowed hollows, scree and tumbled boulders form a wild, chaotic scene,

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a setting worthy of a fine mountain.

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At the heart of the north face stands Pillar Rock,

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a 500ft tower, the defining feature of the mountain.

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Wainwright highlighted a route that could take determined walkers right through this dramatic scenery.

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The reason I'm able to start from here so early in the morning, with my cup of tea, thank you very much,

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is this place, the Black Sail Youth Hostel, a sort of outpost of civilization in the valley.

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A definite favourite of Wainwright's,

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and just about anybody who wants to get the most out of Ennerdale.

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Black Sail is the only building in the upper reaches of Ennerdale.

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Five-star accommodation it may not be,

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but that's of little concern when the location is unsurpassed.

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Walkers who've already trekked for miles can sit and assess their route up Pillar,

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with little more than the grazing sheep to disturb them.

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When you come here you know you're only ever going to share the valley

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with a handful of people, so you feel quite privileged.

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But there is one man who spends a bit more time here than most.

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One of very few people who can actually claim live in Ennerdale is Tony Hume.

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A former geography teacher, he now has the unique task of managing Black Sail.

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-You never get bored of the view here, do you?

-Not at all.

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It's a pretty good office to have, I must say.

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The valley has such atmosphere at any time of day, whatever the weather.

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Even when the wind's whistling around and

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the slates on the roof are rattling, the fire's going inside.

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-So it's snug.

-Absolutely, yes, very snug.

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But it hasn't always been a youth hostel. How long has it been operating?

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YHA have run it since the 1930s.

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But it was built hundreds of years before that as a shepherd's bothy

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when the shepherds needed somewhere to stay as they

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brought their flocks from one valley, one market, to another.

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-They needed somewhere to stay overnight.

-It was their little stopover.

-Yes, yes.

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Still got a few sheep, which I love.

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-It's great.

-Just a few...

-Just a few dotted around.

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Now, you're a geography teacher,

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so who better for me to ask about the glaciers,

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there's everything going on here, a lot of geography happening.

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There's a lot going on, yes. Starting with the

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basic shape of the valley, which is what people come for, the dramatic crags and mountain tops.

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A long time ago, millions of years ago, it was a volcanic area.

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What you see on the highest bits are the remains of very ancient volcanoes.

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You have to also try and imagine what it was like during the last

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Ice Age, which finished about 10,000 years ago.

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Everything you see now in the valley would have been covered.

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-Just completely?

-Completely covered in ice.

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And then as the ice started to melt, it would have been the valley glaciers, the sorts of things

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you see in parts of the Alps and the Himalayas today, where you have a glacier filling maybe three-quarters

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of a valley, with the peaks sticking out above it.

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The fact that Wainwright recommends this as good start point for Pillar,

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how many people come to you because of that?

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Most visitors are probably here because of Wainwright.

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Not only walking up Pillar and the surrounding mountains, but also

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-because we're on the Coast to Coast route.

-So AW's good for business.

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It's fantastic the way the wind just whistles through here.

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-It picks up out of nowhere.

-This is what it's like here, yes.

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It just changes.

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It's a good demonstration of what we said about the atmosphere.

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This is, it's suddenly as if we'd just been shot through a wind tunnel.

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My hair's got back to normal now!

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-You're all right, though.

-Yes, I don't have those problems!

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That's what I like about the Lakes.

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Pillar, there I go, high-level route.

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Comments, please, Tony?

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Certainly a favourite.

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Dramatic views, quite steep drops.

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Hope you've got a head for heights.

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-Well worth it when you get to the top.

-Have you gone the high level route?

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I haven't done the High Level Route myself.

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I knew you were going to say that.

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I don't get out as much as people think.

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But I have been on top of Pillar a few times.

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I just hope the weather stays like this, because it's magical.

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You'll be able to see for miles if it's like this. It will be very clear.

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But it can change in half-an-hour.

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It could be cloudy when you get up there. Have fun anyway.

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Fingers crossed! Please!

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Being at Black Sail means I'm already 900 feet above sea level,

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right amongst the high ground at the end of the valley.

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This will be the shortest distance I've ever had to cover to reach one of country's highest peaks.

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But let's take a look at how parts of the climb more than make up for it in steepness.

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Leaving the hostel, I have to head further up the valley to cross the River Liza.

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The bridge takes me onto the path up to Black Sail Pass -

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a broad grassy slope and the quickest route over the hills to the Wasdale valley.

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But as I reach the top of the pass, I'll turn northwest,

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and step onto the main ridge that leads all the way to the summit.

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The path passes close to the grassy dome of Looking Stead,

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Wainwright's recommended viewpoint for the whole of Ennerdale.

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This is where I'll prepare to leave the ridge and set off on the

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High Level Route, straight across the drama of Pillar's north face.

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The cliffs continue to grow in size, until a long diagonal ledge

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gives walkers the chance to come face-to-face with Pillar Rock -

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Wainwright's most handsome crag.

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But the Rock is not the top.

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There's still 400 feet of steep scrambling to go.

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A challenging end before you've conquered the north face

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and can walk easily across Pillar's rounded peak.

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Well, I know there's plenty of rocky ground on this climb, so I'm hoping this morning's fine weather holds

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and surfaces remain dry all the way to the top.

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But, for now, there's just a lot of grass up ahead.

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As with so many Wainwright Walks, you start by heading away from where you're going.

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The approach to Black Sail Pass takes you towards the dome-shaped summit

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of Pillar's biggest neighbour, Great Gable.

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Kirk Fell is to the right, Green Gable to the left.

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Three shapely summits, and a natural blockade

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that have helped preserve the total isolation of this spot.

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From here, you can stand and look over thousands of conifers

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that fill the valley floor all the way to Ennerdale Water.

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By the time Wainwright arrived here, the trees had already been planted

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to replenish wood reserves after the First World War.

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Aforestation in Ennerdale has cloaked the lower slopes in a dark and funereal shroud of

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foreign trees, an intrusion that nobody who knew Ennerdale of old can ever forgive.

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Elsewhere though, this spot is as untouched as England gets.

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Visitors are welcome,

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but anyone hoping to find a tea room or a gift shop will be sorely disappointed.

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There's base camp back there.

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Everything you need getting further and further away.

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And this is the first bit of serious business on the climb as well.

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On a day like today, a walk like this presents a common Lake District problem.

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What should one be wearing?

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The long, steady climb up Black Sail Pass is hot work, but

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as you get higher, the wind begins to bite every time you pause for breath.

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The top end of passes are, by their nature, rather exposed places.

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This well-trodden path is where the air gets channelled between Pillar and Kirk Fell,

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a route once taken by shepherds and miners alike heading towards Wasdale and the Cumbrian coastline.

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Now Wainwright says

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"Watch out for a gate that marks the top of the pass.

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"Only a fanatical purist would think of using it".

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It's been 40 years since this book was written, and they still haven't fixed the gate.

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Don't forget to close it behind you!

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In fact, as you turn north and make your way along the broad ridge to Pillar, the route is clearly marked

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by a strict succession of ageing, rusty fence posts.

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They seem utterly redundant, but have become a substitute cairn for the uncertain walker.

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I'm onto the approach slopes of Pillar now.

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I have to say, so far, it's been a pretty healthy walk.

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You certainly need a bit of stamina.

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And I reckon I'm just about here.

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This is where Wainwright's artistry and eye for detail come to the fore.

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By the way he's angled the drawing and its scale,

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he's managed to fit a very intense, complex, curvy route all onto one pocket-sized page.

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And this is where it looks like its going to start to get pretty interesting.

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From this small unnamed tarn, the broad grassy ridge stretches out for another half a mile.

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You can stride out with the view down into Wasdale opening up on your left.

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Hello, Mr Sheep.

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But it's to the other side of the ridge that AW suggests a brief detour.

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Looking Stead is a small pinnacle jutting out 1,000ft below the main summit.

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An ideal vantage point to assess the view down into Ennerdale,

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one of Lakeland's more controversial valleys.

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You can really see the work that's being done to the valley from here.

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Huge swathes of conifers have been taken out.

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Acres of evergreen forest give Ennerdale a rather unfamiliar look.

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More Canadian Rockies than English Lakes.

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But you imagine that AW would have been quite pleased with the current Wild Ennerdale project.

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This scheme is steadily removing conifers and introducing areas of mixed woodland.

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In years to come, the valley should have a more natural beauty

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to accompany one of Wainwright's favourite mountains.

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"It is an offence to the eyes to see Pillar's once-colourful fellside

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"now hobbled in such a dowdy and ill-suited skirt.

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"Yet such is the majesty and power of this fine mountain

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"that it can shrug off the insults and indignities, and its summit soars no less proudly above."

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This is my first view of the drama up ahead.

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You can see all the rocks and cliffs of the north face of Pillar,

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and the high-level route traverses across,

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which is, hopefully, what I'm going to do.

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But, for the moment at least, the grassy eastern slopes of Pillar are a simple fell-walking pleasure.

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And, at around the 2,000ft mark, there's a view down the opposite

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valley all the way to the head of Wast Water, the deepest lake in England.

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My walk today, though, is about to change.

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Walkers looking for a real adventure have to look for the easily missed diversion.

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As the grand peak of Scafell appears in the background,

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there's a small cairn - the turning point for the high-level route.

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Wainwright thought this was the start of one the best miles in Lakeland -

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a route of engrossing interest.

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And, to kick things off, whilst the main path continues up, the high-level route takes me down,

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steeply down!

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Stepping onto the north face of Pillar is like making a leap to an entirely new mountain.

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This really can't be described as a "walk" any longer.

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This is a true and testing fell climb.

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Your gaze is tempted up to the ever heightening peaks above you,

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but you can't absent-mindedly stroll along the high-level route.

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Every ten metres or so there's something new to negotiate -

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scree,

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boulders and occasional outbreaks of very wet rocks.

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This rocky climb was more of what I was expecting from Pillar,

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based on what I've read and heard.

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But I was hoping,

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as I came round that corner, to catch a glimpse of Pillar Rock,

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but not quite yet, it would seem.

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A bit more rocky terrain to tackle.

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The high-level route twists and turns its way around

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the many spurs and buttresses that support the mountain.

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Unlike the ridge path far above, there's rarely a chance for an unobstructed view.

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But there is one large man-made feature to look out for.

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That must be Robinson's Cairn over there,

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which is Wainwright's big, last landmark before you get to the Rock.

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John Wilson Robinson was a local man and a pioneer of rock-climbing

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who established many of the now famous routes up Pillar Rock.

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When he died a century ago, his friends came here to build a cairn in his honour.

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Well, this is definitely an appropriate spot to build a cairn

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because that is a cracking view, finally, towards Pillar Rock.

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I can just make out the path from here - that rather ominous looking ledge on the left

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cuts diagonally across all the way to the top.

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Now, of course, what I could have done is twinkle-toed, nice and easy,

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across the top there, but then, you wouldn't get this view.

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Robinson's Cairn is the first place where

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you begin to see how a mere walker could hope to negotiate Pillar Rock.

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Shamrock Traverse is the steep and narrow ledge

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that leads you almost level with the topmost pinnacle of rock.

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At this point, it is possible to enjoy the view

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before taking the direct path back to the valley floor,

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but that would only leave this Wainwright chapter incomplete.

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For me, there's 900ft still to the summit

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and it's clearly going to be steep all the way.

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'The Rock had a well-established local notoriety long before tourists called wider attention to it.

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'An object of such unique appearance simply had to be given a descriptive name.

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'The Pillar was an inspiration of shepherds.

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'Men of letters could not have chosen better.'

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And so it was that the Lake District's most

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notorious rock formation became the name for an entire mountain.

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As you approach, it dominates your horizon, a full 500ft from base to summit.

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Eventually, the Rock blocks out the sunlight and you climb the scree to get on to Shamrock Traverse.

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You can feel that you're

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high up here.

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I'm a little vertiginous.

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Wainwright rated this spot, Shamrock Traverse, as one of his favourite places in the whole of Lakeland,

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excluding the summits, of course.

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And it's certainly an experience.

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Loose stones,

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a big drop,

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a narrow ledge

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and today, a little bit slippy.

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I think I'm going to go up and round.

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The vast majority of ascents up Pillar never come anywhere near this stretch of high drama.

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It's an ingenious route, allowing fell-walkers a rare chance to scale vertical cliff faces.

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The name Shamrock has nothing to do with Irish clover leaves, however.

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It is, quite literally, a "sham rock".

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From a distance, it appears to be part of the same crag as Pillar Rock,

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but as you reach its top, you realise the two are separated by a mighty chasm.

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The most handsome crag in Lakeland is now staring you in the face, but, as Wainwright makes unusually

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clear, this is as close as one gets without ropes and a harness.

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'Pillar Rock is positively out of bounds.

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'Don't even try to get a foothold on it.

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'The climbing guides mention easy routes, but these are not easy

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'for a walker who is not a climber, and lead into dangerous situations.'

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Rock climbers, or "crag rats"

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as they're known in these parts, are drawn to Pillar by its history.

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The main jagged peak at the centre was first conquered in 1826

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and arguably marked the birth of an entire sport in this country.

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My route past the peak of Pillar Rock traverses the top of Walker's Gully,

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but, like the Rock, this is actually no place for walkers, quite the opposite, in fact,

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for this ever-steepening crack is where a man named Walker once tried to descend the mountain.

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It was a decision that cost him his life.

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Above the rock, my ascent suddenly becomes very exposed.

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There's a direct climb of 400ft left,

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not helped by the fact it's just starting to rain.

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I might not have to tackle the Rock, but this is pretty intense scrambling!

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Final hurdle, just make the rock nice and wet why don't you?

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Thank you.

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As you approach the summit, you can see much further down the valley.

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It's clear there really is some severe weather in the area.

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A twisting column of rain cloud is passing some way to the north.

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Not a time to be hanging around.

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Nearly there now, I can smell the summit.

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But the weather can't make up its mind. The sun is back out.

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And look, a little rainbow, a little bit of magic on the way up.

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To the south, sunshine.

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To the north, storms.

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This is the sort of weather the Lakes are famous for.

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You end up playing a guessing game, wondering if the bad weather in the

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neighbouring valley will ever reach you.

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But at this late stage, the threat of rain isn't going to stop me reaching the top.

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Nearly there,

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final few steps.

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Ah, blimey,

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all that climbing, all those rocks,

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and it's completely flat!

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Ah, but look, that is the first proper view

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of Ennerdale Water, which looks as if it's

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underneath a big old rainstorm.

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I can hear thunder over thataway.

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And if you look round to the north,

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far, far, far beyond the hills, that's actually Scotland.

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It always feels good to get to the top of a summit.

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On a clearer day than today, I'd be able to see the entire

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Cumbrian coastline from this western edge of the Lake District.

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From the Scottish hills right round to Morecambe in the south.

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Today, though, only the giant tops of Scafell and Scafell Pike are clearly visible,

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and disappearing into the haze, a vast number of peaks, all of them charted in detail by A Wainwright.

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This little book was the final instalment of Wainwright's pictorial

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guides, but the real closing chapter is over there in the east.

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Above the tiny youth hostel

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lies Haystacks, which is a walk I've done, and, of course,

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it's AW's final resting place.

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Directly across the valley, with Pillar standing guard

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in the background stands the lowly summit of Haystacks.

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In 1991, this is where Betty Wainwright came to sprinkle her late husband's ashes,

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to be forever amongst the hills that had given him so much.

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In my walks so far, I've only touched the surface of one man's life ambition.

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Alfred Wainwright left us with a seven-volume, 2,180-page guide.

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It was, he said, his love letter to the English Lakes.

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In 1965, it was here, on the fells around Ennerdale, that Wainwright finished his final pictorial guide.

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His plan was to climb and to walk in the summer and to write during the winter.

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He thought it would take about 13 years.

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He finished one week early.

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'The fleeting hour of life of those who love the hills is quickly spent,

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'but the hills are eternal.

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'Those who seek and find while there is yet time

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'will be blessed both in mind and body.

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'There will be fair winds and foul, days of sun and days of rain.

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'But enjoy them all.'

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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E-mail subtitling@bbc.co.uk

0:28:440:28:46

Series in which Julia Bradbury explores the Lake District landscape that inspired the great British fell walker and author Alfred Wainwright to produce his beautifully crafted guidebooks.

Julia faces more climbing than walking as she sets out on one of the most dramatic Lakeland routes. From the remote valley of Ennerdale, she starts the ascent to one of Wainwright's favourite fells - Pillar. The route takes her past cliffs, along ledges and over the Lake District's most famous crag, Pillar Rock.