The Swindale Fells
It was all going so well. Two summits in the bag. Two more to go. Despite the fog, cold wind and distinct lack of views, this is my kind of walking. Striding out beside a dry stone wall, I am guided reassuringly through the gloom.
My lockdown legs are injected with new life. This is the first walk of 2021 I’ve not had to start from my front door. I inhale the damp air and struggle to suppress a smile. I am back in the mountains!
The ground becomes spongy. I poke and prod the boggy broth with my poles, adjusting my stride to avoid the soggiest patches. I place each foot tentatively; not committing to a full transfer of weight until I’m sure the ground will hold firm. I make slow but steady progress across the gloopy terrain.
But then my boot sinks further than it should. I subconsciously adjust my weight and it is swallowed up. I watch with horror as my ankle, shin and knee disappear remarkably quickly. Black, icy water rushes into my boot, causing me to gasp. The awkward stance throws me off balance and my other leg suffers the same fate.
The more I fight it, the more I am sucked down into the stinking cess pit. All I can think is I am miles from civilisation. I’ve not seen another human all day. It’s cold and wet and windy. And I’m stuck…
End of the road
Swindale is beautifully remote. There’s a paved road, of sorts, that takes you some of the way there. But ultimately you have to accept the inevitable and walk the rest of the way in. Persevere with the journey and your reward is pure solitude. You’ll be lucky (or unlucky, depending on your point of view) to see another person all day.
Walking down the pockmarked road, I spot signs that nature knows it is in charge here. From the tiniest wren, with its nest arrogantly sited in prime position by the road, to the mighty white-tailed eagle – which I later learnt had been spotted scoping out nearby Haweswater that very same day – birds of all shapes and sizes swoop across the track, as if my presence this morning is an intrusion into their domain.
It is foggy and cold but the sheltered valley provides some respite as I climb to pick up the Old Corpse Road, connecting Swindale and Haweswater. I soon leave the security of the track and gain height via the northern spur of Selside Pike. Names like Hobgrumble Gill and Woof Crag jump out from the map, prompting me to think of fantastic lands filled with beasts. Mists swirl around me, obscuring any views but allowing the imagination to run wild.
With nothing to see, I focus on my navigation. Attack points, aspect of slope, relocation. It’s good to stay sharp when conditions are like this. Comparatively few folk tread these fells in the far east of Lakeland. But I think they are missing a trick. There are long ridges and even longer dry stone walls to follow to your heart’s content. Endless ups and downs offer glimpses of more celebrated peaks in the hullabaloo of the National Park.
Tall towers and deep holes
I stick to the fence as far as the saddle between the large cairn on Selside Pike and my next objective, Branstree. Emerging eerily from the mist is a huge pillar. This monolith is one of four you’ll find in these parts and acted as a survey post during construction of the Haweswater aqueduct in the 1930s. There’s a fascinating history to read about if you do a little digging online.
I leave the wall and begin to contour around the slopes of Branstree to see what I can find. My explorations are rewarded, first by a stinking pool of peat which I have no desire to fall into. An opportunistic spider has spun its web across the opening of the stink pit, no doubt hoping to ensnare an unfortunate fly, or sheep, or hiker.
The two impressive cairns of Artle Crag loom large as I alter my course to ascend the broad spur to the summit. Branstree itself has a large flat summit marked by a circular plaque on the ground. There’s a small cairn alongside, which looks as if someone once felt sorry for the underwhelming summit marker and thought it needed a tower of stones to accompany it.
My route turns south east and takes on an altogether wilder feel. After losing some height, I am faced with some flat ground before the next ascent of Tarn Crag. Here’s where I end up in my boggy predicament. I am acutely aware of the dangers of marshy ground, ever since a school trip to Buckden Pike in the Yorkshire Dales after heavy rain. My defining memory from that trip is leaping across bogs and fishing out lost boots from the peaty blackness.
But despite my care, I now find myself waist-deep in the squelchy soil. The more I fight it, the more it embraces me.
It was Bear Grylls who came to my rescue. Not literally, I might add, but as my lizard brain fires up, I recall reading something in one of Bear’s books about escaping from quicksand. I shift my weight forward and gently lift my legs behind me. Once on my front, I am able to shuffle across the bog like a seal towards the security of solid ground. Thanks Bear.
Soaked to the skin, I am grateful for the spare warm clothes in my pack. But by the time I’ve brushed off the gunk and climbed towards Tarn Crag, my trousers are drying in the wind (nice one Montane Terras!) and the cold water sloshing about in my boots now feels almost pleasant – like a warm foot spa.
No harm done, other than some dented pride, I bag Tarn Crag and then Grey Crag, the most easterly of the Wainwrights. With nothing but clag and strong winds to report, I turn my back on the familiar heights of the Lake District and head towards the Shap Fells.
Dropping beneath the fog, this part of the walk feels very different from other parts of the Lake District. It is wild and remote and bleak. But also beautiful. A huge, pathless expanse opens up before me, as I leave the ridge at Harrop Pike and drop into the valley. What lies ahead is miles of ankle-busting descent across soft ground. But the feeling of tranquility out here soothes my soul.
As I approach the river crossing and the relative security of the bridleway back to Swindale Head, I decide there’s more playing to be done, so I head on to Swindale Common for a spot of navigation practice. But first some lunch.
Fantastic Mr Fox
I hunker down beneath the rocks at High Wether Howe and take in the view. The cloud now clearing, I look across to Selside Pike and take in the vastness of this landscape. As my mind settles, I see something large moving at pace. It’s too big for a dog. Maybe it’s a wolf?! I soon realise it’s a fox – and a large one at that. Seemingly oblivious to my presence, I watch it trot across the plateau before disappearing out of sight. I later stumble across a pile of scat, full of fluff and small bones, with a smell only a mother could love.
After negotiating some steeper ground near Gouther Crag, I hop across the stepping stones of Swindale Beck before enjoying a gentle stroll back to the car.
I have a soft spot for this part of the Lake District. It’s a haven for wildlife and, like many of the far eastern fells, the mountains feel remote and exciting. Alfred Wainwright dedicated his second pictorial guide to the men who built the dry stone walls. Perhaps if he could see these fells now, he’d dedicate it to the efforts of those who have brought the wild back to the mountains.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Park responsibly on the verge by the single track road just before the sign telling you to go no further.
Distance: 20.5 km
Wainwright count: 4
Navigation: You’ll need good navigation skills in this remote and pathless part of the Lake District. There is a reassuring fence / wall to follow in parts but you’ll need to be able to navigate away from this to reach the summits.
Terrain: Very boggy in parts. Tiring on the ankles away from defined paths.
Facilities: None. Shap is your best bet for facilities.
*These routes and descriptions are only ever intended to be a personal record of my adventures, which may inspire your own. Hillwalking involves a degree of risk, so please make sure you are properly equipped and prepared if you choose to follow them.