Back in the early 1960s when one Alfred Wainwright was mid way through writing his set of Pictorial Guides, car ownership was nowhere near what it is today. And by all accounts, when Wainwright was out doing his research, he didn’t use one. Instead, he relied on public transport. Well what little there was.
Perhaps the bus services were a little better than they are now. Like many areas, Cumbria’s local bus services have been severely hit due to austerity cuts, with subsidised services now almost non-existant.
That Mungrisdale, with its population of less than 300, gets a bus service at all, seems to be a minor miracle. But it does, with one bus a day running to Keswick and one to Carlisle. At weekends and school holidays services are improved, with an extra bus that runs part way to the village of Caldbeck. Don’t expect a useful service though. The bus to Keswick arrives at 10am, and if you want to go back from there, you’ll need to wait until twenty past six in the evening. Which makes you wonder why they even bother running it at all, until you spot the footnote on the timetable for the morning service that says “this bus continues to Buttermere on route 77” and you’re hit with the conclusion that Mungrisdale’s bus service mainly exists to ensure the bus company can get a bus from their depot to Carlisle down to Keswick, without having to run it empty.
There are some Wainwright baggers who decide to follow in his footsteps, and do all their bagging car free. And then there are those, like me, who look at the timetable of the 73 and 73A buses serving Mungrisdale, and think “stuff that, I’ll drive.”
And so it was that I pulled up at the deserted car park area outside the village hall, dropped my £2 coin into the honesty box and set off on my walk. There was no one around – well why would there be given the daily bus wouldn’t be arriving for another hour? I had the place to myself. Mungrisdale was clearly asleep.
I’d arrived there to start a walk; one that would allow me to put five fells in my Wainwright bag, one of which would include the mighty Blencathra that had been staring down at me for the last few days as I’d pottered around Keswick with the family during a cheeky October half-term holiday. But there are four other fells around Blencathra, and it would have been a shame not to do them as well whilst in the area, hence my arrival in Mungrisdale. For it would be here that I would set off on my journey, starting with Souther Fell.
The fell is accessed from the village from a path on a narrow country lane; the adjoining fields full of frost. The lower flanks full of ferns, most of which were turning brown as it was October, and based on the denseness of the ferns, it wasn’t a massively popular walking route. Indeed, Souther Fell’s hardly the most exciting Wainwright to visit, consisting mostly of a steep-ish climb, then a long, grassy ridge, which might explain why I didn’t see a single soul the whole time I was on the fell itself.
Souther Fell’s summit was guarded by two sheep, who were stood right next to the tiny summit cairn, trying to prevent anyone getting too close. Although they were perhaps not the best guards as they ran off as soon as I arrived, leaving me alone again once more. I sat nearby, soaking it all in. For the fell does have one redeeming feature, and that’s its views.
This particular Wainwright is at the edge of the Northern Fells. To the east, there’s not a single Wainwright to walk on, and most of what can be seen in the foreground is flat farmland, split by drystone walls. There is something to see in the far distance, but that’s the Eden Valley and the Pennines many miles away. And then, to the west is the mighty Blencathra; the main star of the fells round about. It’s impossible to miss, with its two peaks poking up at each end. From the top of Souther Fell, it’s easy to see why Blencathra once went mostly by the name of Saddleback. And it’s really hard not to imagine it stuck on top of a horse. Or perhaps that’s just me.
To the south lay Patterdale, and a veritable army of fells to explore. And that leads me rather tenuously onto the one thing that Souther Fell has that no other Wainwright does. It’s own army. A Spectral Army.
The tale goes like this. It was early evening of Midsummers Day, the year 1745, when marching soldiers, mounted cavalry, and carts too, were seen travelling over the ridge of Souther Fell. When they reached one of the ridge, they’d disappear and reappear at the other. And the continued to do so until nightfall.
Now that weird disappearing thing aside, the locals were perplexed for they knew that the ground was far too steep for such a convoy. It was all very strange, but still it was observed. A group of witnesses – 26 sober and respected people – were brought together to watch what was going on, and all later told the tale under oath. But the next day, when people climbed the fell, there was not a single shred of evidence to be found that anything had gone on there the previous night. No footprints, no hoof prints, and no tracks made by carts. There was not a single thing there that would corroborate what people had been down below.
The best explanations – and they seem rather flimsy ones – are that the sighting was actually smoke from bonfires, or even that it was some sort of strange mirage or reflection of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army from the Scottish Coast where they had been on manoeuvrers that day. But nothing has ever explained the so called Spectral Army of Souther Fell. And probably never will.
I sat on the summit of the fell, reading Wainwright’s far more eloquent rendition of the story. And wondered what was going on in the minds of those twenty-six respected witnesses, before packing up my belongings once more, and heading off to somewhere with far less of a line in ghostly sightings.