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Blencathra

Blencathra

hardback: 310 x 260mm
176 pages: 250 colour pictures
Frances Lincoln 2010: £25: ISBN 978-0-7112-2986-0


For many walkers, Blencathra is the finest fell of them all. Blencathra stands steep-sided and solitary at the edge of Lakeland's northern fell block. Its four front ridges rise from the village of Threlkeld straight to the sky, where they make crinkly shapes against the rushing grey clouds above.

The ordinary way up Blencathra, by Mousthwaite Comb and Scales Tarn, is one of the most intriguing easy ascents in Lakeland. Less easily, Blencathra has two Grade 1 scrambles, one mild and one tough within the grade, but both of them tops for quality. Halls Fell is a real ridge, rising rockily for 400m of height gain, but nowhere difficult; while Sharp Edge is a narrow arete high above Scales Tarn, one of the finest but also one of the hardest Grade 1 scrambles in Lakeland.

But there's more. The ridges on either side of Halls Fell are slightly less rocky, but a whole lot wilder. Or if you're feeling grumpy, the ravines between those ridges are full of scree, and sheep, and steep wet shale. Wainwright's Pictorial Guide devotes pages of polite but vivid disapproval to these routes. Less articulate walkers will resort to grunts and swear-words.

And then, for solitary wanderers, there's the heap of gabbro, granite and gorse that's Carrock Fell. And there's the Back o' Blencathra. Here are the mystic talking trout of Bowscale Tarn, and the spectral army that rides across the face of Souther Fell. For philosophers there's Mungrisdale Common: is the status of being the Most Uninteresting Lakeland Summit itself slightly interesting, thus making it not the boringest after all? While geologists can explore the tiny outcrop where the Skiddaw granite emerges to show itself to the world.

Youthful enthusiast and rough-handed scrambler, geologist and ghost-hunter and grump, all emerge onto Blencathra's two kilometres of summit ridge. And there we stroll gentle gravel and pleasant grass, along the brink of that sudden drop to the south. Beyond Derwent Water and St John's Vale, there is laid out in panorama all the jagged, lumpy roughness of Helvellyn, the Scafells, Great Gable. Gable and Scafell are excellent bits of hill. But the one walkers keep coming back to, again and again, is Blencathra.

Ronald Turnbull takes us up and down Blencathra in all seasons of the year and by 20 different routes, and explores Blencathra's outliers: Souther Fell, Bowscale Fell and Bannerdale Crags; Mungrisdale Common; Carrock Fell and High Pike; as well as a brief nod towards Blencathra's overbearing big brother, Skiddaw. Pictures and words detail the history and landscapes, the mines and minerals, the wildlife and the rocks of this magnificent and much-loved Lakeland fell.
      

The first 50 pages, with all their pics, can be seen on
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reviews

"So good they named it twice," is Turnbull's take on why Blencathra is also known as Saddleback. "By either name and for what walkers want, this is the hill that has it all." And this is the book that has it all, a mighty hardback which looks at the 20 different routes to ascend Blencathra and explores its biology, geology and flora, its history and its legends. Ronald Turnbull explains the Brocken Spectre and in one delightful flight of fancyy, draws on Forrest Gump's "life is like a box of chocolates" to compare Blencathra and neighbouring fells. As quirky and fascinating as would be expected from this highly knowledgeable writer, walker and photographer, BLENCATHRA should perhaps be compulsory reading for the planning inspector determining the application for the Berrier Hill wind farm.   Mary Ingham and Sue Allan Cumbria Life

REVIEW 2   REVIEWER 2



Blencathra and Back o' Blencathra from Great Mell Fell, evening

Introduction

The fell with everything

For many walkers, Blencathra, standing above the busy A66 at the northeastern corner of Lakeland, is the finest fell of them all.

Which is odd. In terms of height above the sea it's only England's fourteenth – lower than the Scafells, lower even than Raise and Esk Pike and Pillar. It is also in the wrong place: the self-contained block north of the Vale of Keswick which is, by general consent, the least exciting end of Lakeland. The Northern Fells as a whole are more akin to the Pennines or Scotland's Southern Uplands. And within this rounded, grassy hill group, Blencathra is overshadowed by its big brother to the west, Skiddaw.

Being in the Northern Fells, Blencathra is even made of the wrong sort of rock. Pioneering photographers George and Ashley Abrahams took their first climbing pictures on the crags below Sharp Edge. The photos are impressive, but the climbing was horrible: steep, grassy and loose. Skiddaw Slate is not a rock-climbing rock, and those of the grab-and-dangle persuasion stay to the south of Derwent Water on the rugged rocks of the Central Fells.

Meanwhile those who, ever since the 18th century, have been disparagingly named as ‘tourists’, are trudging up Skiddaw by its wide and unexciting path. But for us who call ourselves walkers, the hill of splendour is Saddleback – or the name it usually goes by these days, Blencathra. By either name, and for what walkers want, this is the hill that has it all.

Saddleback: the wrong shape

Our game of going up hills and looking at the view goes back, ultimately, to an 18th-century vicar called William Gilbert. He invented ‘Picturesque Beauty’, and published the first handbooks for its appreciation. For him, Saddleback was not only in the wrong place and of the wrong sort of stone. It was also quite the wrong shape.

"In the mean time, with all this magnificence and beauty, it cannot be supposed, that every scene, which these countries present, is correctly picturesque. In such immense bodies of rough-hewn matter, many irregularities, and even many deformities, must exist, which a practised eye would wish to correct….

"The pyramidal shape, and easy flow of an irregular line, will be found in the mountain, as in other delineations, the truest source of beauty.

Mountains therefore rising in regular, mathematical lines, or in whimsical, grotesque shapes, are displeasing. Thus Burnswark, a mountain on the southern border of Scotland; Thorpe-Cloud, near Dovedale in Derbyshire, especially when seen from the garden at Ilam; and a mountain in Cumberland, which from it's peculiar appearance in some situations, takes the name of Saddleback, all form, disagreeable lines. And thus many of the pointed summits of the Alps are objects rather of singularity than of beauty. Such forms also as suggest the idea of lumpish heaviness are disgusting - round, swelling forms, without any break to disincumber them of their weight."

Observations, relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, Made in the Year 1772, On several Parts of England; particularly the Mountains, and Lakes of Cumberland, and Westmoreland

- William Gilpin 1786

Blencathra from Skiddaw

Blencathra stands steep-sided and solitary at the edge of that northern fell block of Lakeland. Its five front ridges rise from the village of Threlkeld straight to the sky, where they make crinkly shapes against the rushing grey clouds above.

The ordinary way up Blencathra is one of the most intriguing easy ascents in Lakeland. It passes through the low Mousthwaite col, along the steep side wall of an unsuspected back valley, then rises past waterfalls into a perfect combe with black crags and a deep, cold tarn. This Scales Tarn route is steep only briefly, it winds through six different sorts of places, and it still manages to keep the summit view a secret until the very last minute. I like it as a descent, as the toes appreciate its non-steep nature even more when going downhill.

Many who call ourselves walkers will also want some easy scrambling. Blencathra has two Grade 1 scrambles, one mild and one tough within this easisest of the scrambling grades, but both of them tops for quality. Halls Fell is a real ridge. After its steep and heathery start, it rises as rocks for 400m of height gain, but nowhere is it at all difficult. It's suitable for an adventurous fellwalker over the age of eight, and any such short-legged walker will be distracted by the rock features into failing to notice many of those 400 metres of ascent. Sharp Edge on the other hand is exposed and serious, a narrow arete high above Scales Tarn. It's one of the finest, but also one of the hardest, Grade 1 scrambles in Lakeland.

The Scales Tarn route or one or other of the two scrambles, possibly followed by the uncomplicated descent by Blease Fell, makes most people's first expedition on Blencathra. But there's much, much more. The ridges on either side of Halls Fell are slightly less rocky, but a whole lot wilder. Or if you're feeling grumpy, the ravines between those ridges are full of scree, and sheep, and steep wet shale. Wainwright's Pictorial Guide devotes pages of polite but vivid disapproval to these routes. Less articulate walkers will resort to grunts and swear-words.

And then, for solitary wanderers, there's the Back o' Blencathra. Back o' Blencathra has Bowscale Fell and Bannerdale Crags, both with genuine craggy bits. Bowscale Fell has another classic tarn, and beyond it is the heap of gabbro, granite and gorse called Carrock Fell. Back o' Blencathra with its sterile underlying slates is a comparatively poor place for mountain wildflowers, but across the scoured sides of Carrock can be found a dozen strange sorts of stones, some brighter by far than any Snowdon lily or Scafell pink. All of this is about five times as exciting as the boring Back o' Skiddaw.

For romantics, there are the mystic talking trout of Bowscale Tarn, and the spectral army that rides across the face of Souther Fell. For philosophers there's Mungrisdale Common: is the status of being the Most Uninteresting Wainwright Summit itself slightly interesting, thus making it not the most boring after all? Geologists can explore the tiny outcrop where the Skiddaw granite emerges to show itself to the world – that's in the bed of Sinen Gill, at grid reference NY302281.

So let's not be churlish and point out that even with all this, and, even with its two names, Blencathra is still only half a mountain. On the northern side, where long treks through the Back o' Blencathra should bring us to the mountain's splendid North Face, there's only a long, slightly soggy, grass slope.

It's just as well. Wainwright offers more routes up Blencathra than any other single hill. If Saddleback had the North Face to go with its southern edges and eastern corrie, there would be no room for anywhere else at all in Book Five of his Pictorial Guides.

Blencathra versus Saddleback: so good they named it twice

What's this: a second splendid mountain alongside the A66? Where is it, this Saddleback? Sorry, says your well-informed friend: Saddleback is exactly the same as Blencathra. This is only reasonable. Blencathra being twice as much mountain as most, deserves to have twice as much name.

The supposedly more authentic, British, name Blencathra was promoted by Wordsworth, though it was Wainwright's insistence that has brought it into almost universal use. Blencathra is said to mean 'hilltop of the chair' with the same root as Cadair Idris in Snowdonia (modern Welsh 'blaen', front of; 'cadair' chair). The significance of 'Saddleback' will be obvious to anyone approaching along the A66 on a day when the cloud isn't down. The steep ends of the saddle are formed by the final steps of Saddleback's two finest ascent routes, Halls Fell and Sharp Edge.

Some say that the authentic, 'real' name should be that one earliest recorded. Well, William Green, in his Guide to the Lakes of 1818, only confuses the issue further. He refers to the actual summit (Halls Fell Top) as Linthwaite Pike, and adds: "Some persons say that Threlkeld Fell, not Saddleback, is the name of the whole mass of mountain, and that Saddleback, is only that particular saddle-like part, reaching from Linthwaite Pike to Atkinson's Man, others give the name of Blencarthur to the whole body, but, perhaps, Blencarthur or Blencrater, is most properly applied to the cavity surrounding the Tarn, which appears to have been the crater of a volcano, from the lava every-where found on its borders."

But Green got it wrong:the rocks around Scales Tarn are slates, not lava, and Blencathra has never been a volcano. Even so, Threlkeld Fell and its summit point Linthwaite Pike could add interestingly to the confusion around the hill we mostly, in modern times, call 'Blencathra'.

To use a special name opaque to outsiders is an important part of not being an outsider yourself. Accordingly, I disclose a tendency among the stricter sort of pendants to call the hill Saddleback after all – this being the name actually used by those who lived around it as far back as anyone can remember. Even more subtle is the suggestion that, because of the British settlements around Castlerigg and on Thirlmere’s Raven Crag one should use the name Blencathra only when considering Saddleback from the south.

But are they indeed the same mountain? Seen through the mist at dawn from the stone circle at Castlerigg: that has to be Blencathra. Leaping up the ridges on a clear spring day – this is surely Saddleback.

How Blencathra Became

The hillwalking person came to the Djinn of All the Universe and said: "This Mesopotamia is all very well, but we want some hills for our hillwalking. Some craggy hills. If you wouldn't mind."

So the Djinn did some mystic gestures and some rising magma and poof! it created Dartmoor. "How's that then?"

"Oh my," says the hillwalking person; "It's nice in its way with all the little sticky-up bits, and thank you, but ... you don't call that craggy, do you? We did say we wanted it with crags."

So the Djinn did some more gestures and geology and poof! Brecon Beacons.

"Now listen," says the hillwalking person; "We did mention it didn't we -- craggy? We need to be able to tumble over the edge. There's no use in a fell if it can't be fell off."

So the Djinn went seven times around the world, collecting bits and pieces of earth science, and powering up volcanoes, and gathering wiggly bits left over from the Andes. And after two hundred million years of shuffling about with the continents: SHA-ZAMM! The Lake District!

The hillwalker peeped out from under his woolly hat. The hillwalker blinked, and turned slightly pale. "Oh... we didn't mean quite as craggy as all that... "

But the Djinn already knows the old jokes, even the not terribly funny ones. And it lifted up the hillwalker by the hood of his anorak, and deposited him -- just so gently -- on the northeastern corner. It's craggy, but not too craggy. In fact it's just exactly as craggy as you wanted it to be. It's the one for the ones who walk up hills.

How Blencathra Became

It's odd to think, as you stand on Blencathra's 868m summit, that it started life as sludge 6000m under the ocean.

That ocean was called Iapetus. It existed eight geological ages ago, somewhere in the southern hemisphere. What would eventually be called England was at its southern edge. Standing on that coastline, 450 million years ago, you'd be on bare brown ground and probably in a dust storm -- as land plants have yet to invent themselves. Off shore, you might see a chain of volcanic islands, bare and black, possibly with grey ash-clouds, or with white clouds of steam as lava hit the ocean below. (Or of course, you might not: there are those dust storms, and there is also the fog of 450 million years of everything happening since, so that the volcanic islands are no more than a pretty good guess.)

Beyond the black steaming islands was a deep ocean trench, as there is today off the volcanic shores of Japan and of South America. And if you watched really, really closely over several millennia, you noticed the land at the other side getting very slowly closer. For the Iapetus Ocean was shrinking, its bed being drawn down underneath 'England' in what geologists call a subduction zone. Eventually, in the geological period called the Devonian, the ocean closed up completely, as what would eventually be Scotland arrived from the other side. This collision of the continents squashed the sludge, and very gradually raised it into a mountain range called the Caledonian. This range was as high and jagged as similarly-formed ranges of today, the Alps (Italy crashing into Europe) or even the Himalayas (India's collision with Asia).

The lumpy landscape of Helvellyn and the Scafells is the crushed remains of that chain of volcanic islands just off the southern continent's northern shore. Their rock is called 'Borrowdale Volcanic'. Beyond the islands lay the sludgy-bottomed ocean trench. Squeezed-up sludge forms slate; so the rocks of the northern fells are slaty, and were formerly called the Skiddaw Slates. As some of them are actually greywackes or grey sandstone, they are now officially referred to as the Skiddaw System. But almost all of them are somewhat slaty, and I'll use the old name in this book.

Formed 500 million years ago, these are among the oldest surviving rocks in England. The Earth itself is nine times as old as the Skiddaw Slates, and even the Universe is only 30 times as old.

Cumbria, however, is not Caledonia. Ages of erosion through half the geological history of the planet have totally erased those Caledonian mountains. They ended up so flat they were actually underwater, with kilometres of limestone and sandstone over the top. But then the sudden arrival of Africa rumpled up our corner of Europe, and raised these tough old rocks again from the deep underground. It's only taken a couple of hundred million years for the come-lately limestone and sandstone to erode off again. This leaves the now twice-crumpled grey slates standing proud; along with the purple-grey or greeny-grey volcanic rocks to their south.

In the last eyeblink of geological time, the glaciers of the current Ice Age have given the slates and the Borrowdale Volcanics the shapes they happen to have, at the unimportant moment we call now.

Slate splits into thin sheets: that's what makes it slate. It splits like this because, as the rocks get squashed, little flat crystals of mica realign at right angles to the compression. The sludge destined to become Skiddaw made a sort of slate that's not useful for covering your roof with. Instead it falls apart into little saucer-shaped pebbles, as found on the pathways of Blencathra. The smooth, shiny mica, lined up along the splitting-apart surfaces, means that these slaty rocks are slippery. If you're used to the rough volcanic rocks of central Lakeland, you'll find Sharp Edge slightly treacherous, and especially so in the wet. Cairns made of the Skiddaw Slates tend to slide apart. The one at Blencathra summit comes and goes: during the mid-1990s it didn't exist at all. Even when it's there, it's a sad stonepile that slumps into the plateau like a mud pie left out in the rain.

The Central Fells -- Helvellyn, Scafell, Great Gable -- are made of tough volcanic rocks: and their shapes are cragged and chunky. The northern fells, made of Skiddaw Slates, have smooth, steep sides, formed of bare scree or of scree covered in heather. The compensation is the fine ridgelines. Blencathra has Sharp Edge and Halls Fell, as well as Gategill and Doddick Fells. The Grasmoor group also has fine (if somewhat slippery) ridges; and even Skiddaw, the somewhat dull neighbour of Blencathra, has Long Side.

The underlying rocks determine the soil, and the plant life that grows out of it, and even the sheep that eat the plants. Particular incidents within the great earth movements give character to Carrock with its odd volcanics, or play out the sequence of altered metamorphic rocks on the way up Glenderaterra. Mere details within those details are the mineral intrusions that, along with the sheep, give these hills their social history. So the logical unfolding of this account means that next will come a sequence of sub-chapters on the detailed geology; then the flowers and wildlife growing out of it; then the human history of mining, farming and, finally, of fellwalking – itself determined by the underlying geology.

But I'm a fellwalker, and to that logical unfolding I say: I can't wait that long.

So this book is now going straight up Blencathra, starting by its finest and most exciting route, Scales Tarn and the scramble of Sharp Edge. It will then work around clockwise, by the five front ridges, not to mention their intervening ravines. After that it will wander up Glenderaterra, and cock a snook at the big brother Skiddaw itself. The biology and the geology, the lead and tungsten and zinc, the wild flowers and the even wilder Herdwick sheep; they are all out there on the slopes of Blencathra, and with any luck we'll come across them all by the time we reach the three delightful outliers at Blencathra's eastern end: Bowscale and Bannerdale, and the smaller Souther Fell.

Youthful enthusiast and rough-handed scrambler, geologist and ghost-hunter and grump, all emerge alike onto Blencathra's two kilometres of summit ridge. And there we stroll on gentle gravel and pleasant grass, along the brink of that sudden drop to the south. Beyond Derwent Water and St John's Vale, there is laid out in panorama all the jagged, lumpy roughness of Helvellyn, the Scafells, Great Gable. Gable and Scafell are excellent bits of hill. But the one walkers keep coming back to, again and again, is Blencathra.

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