Published 12 June 2022

A gloomy summit of Dodd

When you spend a week in the Lake District in late October, you don’t expect the best weather. There won’t be the most sunshine. The wind may be a bit stronger than July. It may be a little damp at times. It certainly won’t be super hot. But usually it’s alright. You get some good days. We’d been in October several times and generally things had been reasonably well. We had no reason to believe a trip in the October of 2021 would be any different.

And we certainly hadn’t expected rain of almost biblical proportions.

All during the Wednesday daytime, it thundered down. All through the night too. When we awoke the next morning, the fields near the back of our holiday cottage in Keswick had changed. Where once was grass and sheep, now stood water. The level of the River Greta were far higher than normal. It was crazy. And whilst the rain had lightened off, it wasn’t the best.

This was arguably not the best weather to go climbing a Wainwright. But we’d been cooped up indoors and I was longing to do something. Anything. So whilst the children enjoyed the thrills and spills of an indoor climbing wall – far enough from the water to avoid any flooding – I decided to head out for a walk.

Water gushes down the streams past the bridge near the Old Sawmill Tearooms.

There was just one question. What on earth to do? The higher fells were barely viewable due to cloud cover. Water would be cascading down the hillside in copious volumes. There was a good chance many of the paths would be mud baths. Bridges may have been washed away. Even lower level walks would have their problems. From the window of our holiday cottage we could see a section of the Cumbria Way. Or at least where it was supposed to be. It was very much underwater.

Oh, and it was still raining.

And yet there was one Wainwright that seemed to cry out as an ideal wet weather fell. And that was Dodd.

Bundles of wooden stakes on Dodd.

Why? Well Dodd has several big benefits for a wet day. For starters it’s owned by the Forestry Commission and as such, is full of trees. Trees that provide shelter from the elements. Trees that help soak up all the excess water that had been falling from the sky.

Dodd has another benefit too. It’s covered in forest roads and well-made tracks. Paths that will give you firm footings even in the worst of conditions. If you go from the car park at the Old Sawmill Tearoom, you won’t even need to worry about navigation. The Forestry Commission have laid out a series of marked walking trails. One of them goes all the way to the summit. I wouldn’t even need a map.

Yes, Dodd was the one for a day like this all right.

All the colours of autumn.

Wainwright gives three different places to set off up Dodd. But most people will shun Dancing Gate, and Millbeck. The Dodd Wood car park near the Old Sawmill Tearoom is the most obvious place to start thanks to its large car park.

From the car park, four marked trails head out from from it. There’s the 1½ mile Sandbed Gill trail. That’s marked out with yellow arrows. Red is the 1½ mile long Skill Beck Trail. Then there’s blue. The Douglas Fir trail. Only a mile long, it allows you to see some trees. They’re all pretty low level.

The Wainwright bagger wants green. The Dodd Summit Trail. Three miles of it that takes you along a series of forestry paths and tracks, up to the top and then back down again. It being a circular walk, you have the option of picking your direction. And for good measure, it’s pretty much a combination of the two ascent routes given in Wainwright’s Pictorial Guide for the Northern Fells.

A forest path on Dodd

But which way round to walk? Well the trees mean it doesn’t even matter. You get trees for much of the way no matter what you do. This is arguably one of the downsides to Dodd. There’s few views. Only a parade of forest tracks and roads to follow, idly keeping an eye out for the the green signposts that lead you slowly uphill.

Then, near the top, all is revealed. In the 1950s when Wainwright visited, Dodd’s summit was covered with mountain pines, bar a small clearing near the summit cairn. Now the top of Dodd is tree free, after it was discovered that the tees near the top were not flourishing. Indeed that many looked distinctly unhealthy. And so they were cut down, the summit area opened up. You can see a view now. Splendid views all around! Well, you do if the weather isn’t too bad. I hadn’t particularly picked my days well when it came to views. Cloud covered the whole area. The cloud that was emptying its watery contents all over me.

A bench with a view.

But a short walk from the summit, down a little, did a least provide a viewpoint where I could see Bassenthwaite and much of the surrounding area. Most of which was under water. The full extent of the flooding couldn’t be seen, but there was a fair amount of it. The lake had spread out everywhere, expanding to fill fields all around. And it was still raining?

How much more could those fields hold? How much more rain could be soaked up before it became a major problem? I didn’t like to think.

So I stopped thinking, and pootled about the summit a bit longer. A simple memorial, emblazoned “In memory of John Lole and Ian Sandelands, 1st Seaton Scout Group” and “In Memory of “MAC” Malcolm McDougall” marked on it. Gone, but never to be forgotten.

Monument on the top of Dodd.

The way back down was pretty much like the way up, only with different paths and tracks. Trees, bracken, and rain. The well made paths and tracks at least made walking tolerable. The rainwater simply flowed off the stones and headed to drainage channels and streams, heading downhill. A few other hardy souls were out and about, most with dogs, and all looking sodden and a bit bedraggled. Everyone was suitably bedecked in waterproofs. Even one of the dogs.

With little of any importance to talk about on my way down, let me take this opportunity to tell you about George Smith, also known as the Skiddaw Hermitt.

Raised in Turriff, Aberdeenshire, he’d studied at Marischal College, one of the colleges that merged to become the University of Aberdeen in 1860. But the academic life wasn’t for George. And over the years he made a recluse, finding his home mostly in a tent built against a low stone wall on the Skiddaw Massive. Newspaper reports from the time are unclear, but it’s believed George spent most of his time on Dodd.

Look closely and you can just make out a flooded Bassenthwaite Lake.

Even in the coldest weather, he was scantily dressed, declaring to one journalist that he hadn’t liked clothes even as a child. At times he’d be completely naked. He spent much of his time painting. His wigwam tent was positioned so he could study the sunrises and sunsets.

Some thought him mad. Insane. They tried to “civilise” him. Provided him with clothes. Tried to encourage back to the “normal world”. Got him a job.

These attempts to “heal” him didn’t work. In 1873 he left the Lake District to visit friends in Banffshire. By all accounts his intent was to return. But he never did, finding himself spending the last few years of his life in an asylum where he died three years later.

Was he ill? Did he have mental health issues, or did he simply have an alternative lifestyle that others didn’t understand. Who am I to say?

But I do know that the desire to be out and about in the area of Skiddaw, even on a wet day, well that is one I can definitely relate to.

Bassenthwaite Lake and lots of flooded fields, seen from Dodd.

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