Great Crag

Published 12 July 2020

The summit cairn of Great Crag

One whole day after visiting Borrowdale to climb Grange Fell, we were back in Borrowdale to do a kind of horseshoe walk around Ullscarf. After alighting the bus at Stonethwaite, we climbed Eagle Crag then carried on to Sergeant’s Crag and Ullscarf. Our final stop before leaving the hills for 2019 was to be Great Crag.

There are more than a few hills in the Lake District where a line of fence posts run over them. Even up in the highest points of Britain’s most popular National Park, there is still a need and desire to partition land up into small chunks.

Modern fences tend to consist of wooden stakes, with galvanised wire mesh strung up between each one. Relatively simple to install, cheap and effective at keeping in (or out) whatever you want to keep in (or out).

But in times gone by, they used more solid and substantial solutions . Solutions like the heavy, solid looking metal fence posts that ran over Ullscarf, concreted into the ground.

But what happens when they’re no longer needed? When there is no reason to keep things in or out? Wooden stakes will eventually rot away. But metal will be there a lot longer.

Tarns and lakes at Coldbarrow Fell – on the way between Ullscarf and Great Crag

This was what had happened on Ullscarf. The wire running between the posts had long since been removed, but how long had the posts we were following, been there? How many years, decades, had they stood, redundant of purpose? How many more would they remain?

We were following the line of metal posts towards Great Crag. A three mile epic walk following the ridge from Ullscarf. And on a route where there isn’t actually a path most of the time.

Borrowdale, seen from Low Saddle on the way to Great Crag

At first we could follow the fence posts. But far too quickly you come to a point where the fence heads off east when you need to keep heading roughly north-west. A rough path then takes you past the minor hills of High Saddle and Low Saddle. But after that you are on your own.

We stomped through the dense heather; ever present boggy water oozing up from the ground as we walked. It was hard to know exactly where we were supposed to be heading towards. We could see some higher ground ahead of us, but had no idea whether that was Great Crag or not (spoiler alert: it wasn’t.) We were also supposed to be going near Dock Tarn, but we couldn’t see that either. All we could do was keep walking, try not to get too wet, and hope for the best.

Dock Tarn and Great Crag finally come into view

It took some time but finally Dock Tarn came into view. It turned out we were quite a bit off the course we were supposed to be on. But at least we now had something to aim for. And at long last we found the path that supposedly would take us to the top of Great Crag.

We may have found the tarn, but where the top of Great Crag actually was, was still a mystery. The map told me we were less than half a kilometre from the summit, but we didn’t actually know where it was. There were several points where the ground rose up in height, but they were dotted all over the place and it wasn’t abundantly clear which was which.

Picking a way round Dock Tarn

The problem was that the summit was a mere 50 or so metres higher than the path we were walking on, and there were bobbles and bumps that were likely contenders. In his Pictorial Guide to the Central Fells, Alfred Wainwright noted that “the geography here is anything but simple”. He wasn’t wrong there. He also said that “a visit to Dock Tarn is recommended.” Which may be so but I was getting distinctly fed up of seeing it by this point.

My trousers were soaking. My feet sore. I just wanted to get up to Great Crag, sit down for a rest, and then head down to Borrowdale to catch the bus back to Keswick. Instead I was having to walk along a narrow and half flooded path that twisted along the edge of the tarn, with still no real idea where the summit was, nor how to get it.

On the way to the top of Great Crag

Not until we had left the tarn behind, wandered on for a bit more then stumbled round a corner, did finally it all become clear. It was like a revelation. There it was. To our left. A path led up to the summit, just short climb up another muddy path. And there we were, weary but present and sitting down next to a large cairn.

I riffled in my pack for a reviving apple, crunched it down, took in the view – which was not particularly impressive – and discussed with Catherine where we were heading next.

Option one would be to retrace our steps back to Dock Tarn, then follow the path down to Stonethwaite, haul ourselves up the road towards Rosthwaite, and get the bus from where we’d got off it earlier in the day.

Watendlath Tarn – a particularly interesting bit of Great Crag’s rather lacklustre views.

Wainwright also gave another route to/from Great Crag. This headed north towards Watendlath. There’s no buses – or much at all – there. But we could divert off it mid-way along and head to Rosthwaite instead. For some reason Wainwright hadn’t listed this as an option. But there was a clear path, running to the south of Grange Fell, running between Watendlath and Rosthwaite. And the latter had the benefit of the open top bus back to Keswick. It was a no-brainer really.

My apple successfully crunched, we retraced our steps down from Grange Fell’s diminutive summit and carried on along the path. A swathe of copper-coloured bracken greeted us as we followed a path to a drystone wall from where the routes to Watendlath and Rosthwaite went their separate ways.

Heading down to Borrowdale

Borrowdale, that ever so beautiful valley opened up ahead of us, and we headed down to the valley floor and the waiting bus stop where the omnibus would greet us to whisk us back to Keswick.

Later I’d realise that my final fell of 2019 was also my 100th. It was a bit of a shame that this milestone hadn’t been the most enjoyable I’d ever done. but this moment had been reached none-the-less. 2020, I was sure, would see me finally reach the half way point of my Wainwright bagging. And I couldn’t wait for the winter to be done with, and to get back out to the Lakes to do some more.

2020 was going to be a great year, of that, I was sure.

Postscript: you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men…

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