Coniston Old Man

Published 1 December 2019

The trig point on the Old Man, with the path to Brim Fell in the background

This hadn’t been the first time I’d tried to bag the trio of Brim Fell, Dow Crag and The Old Man of Coniston. Or Coniston Old Man. Or whatever you want to call it. My first attempt was made eight years earlier. And it was abandoned due to the wind.

My plan had been to spend six days in the Lakes, camping and visiting a good number of fells. I’d yet to start my quest to bag all the Wainwrights, but I wanted to explore. To see as many of them as I could. During the day I’d aim to do just that. In the evening I’d arrive at a campsite and perhaps then visit an excellent local hostelry nearby.

It was the wind that really caused the problems. The closer and closer I got to Dow Crag – my first intended fell – the stronger and stronger it got. After nearly being blown to the ground twice, I gave up and started to head back to the campsite, and probably an excellent local hostelry.

But as I headed down, it seemed to calm down. After all, the weather can change quickly and not just from good to bad. And near Goat’s Tarn, a patch of water that sits between Dow Crag and the Old Man, things had improved enough that I felt it worth having another go. I’d do the Old Man and see what happened next.

Things were okay to begin with. But then the wind re-appeared, it did so with a vengeance. The wind began battering me at speeds that were frankly unbelievable.

In despair, but knowing it was the right thing to do, I turned back. As I did, hailstones began to rain down on me, bashing my head.

In the end, the closest I got to the Old Man that day was a pint of Old Man Ale in the Black Bull pub in Coniston village.

Eight years later, I had high hopes that my visit to the Old Man would be far more successful. For starters, apart from a few light rain showers, the weather was pretty good. I’d already got Dow Crag in the bag. And all I had to do was walk a mere quarter of a mile from the summit of Brim Fell, in order to get there. Oh and if the weather suddenly got really bad, the safest descent route from where I was stood, went over the Old Man’s summit anyway. It was pretty much done and dusted.

The top of the Old Man

It’s at this point that the narrative of this piece would be greatly improved by a sudden storm. Some horrendous wind. Yet more hailstones. A nice piece of tension. Ratchet up the jeopardy of notch. Real life doesn’t work like that. In the event, the simple walk along a wide path, surrounded by grass, was thoroughly uneventful. Although I did realise I’d lost my sunglasses, so let’s not pretend it was all sunlit uplands up there that day.

I’m not sure if there are any statistics collated on the most popular Wainwrights in terms of people walking up them, but The Old Man of Coniston has to be up there in the Top 10. Possibly the Top 5. The summit, reached in very little time, was crowded with people. I dutifully joined the queue for the statutory photograph of the fell’s highest point; one of the few people not to be standing as part of a huge group in front of the stone trig point.

In that respect, little has changed since Wainwright’s day. His drawing of the Old Man’s summit featured four Boy Scouts, eight tourists looking for Blackpool Tower, and a solitary fellwalker looking north to the hills. More people on my visit were probably looking towards Sellafield’s extensive nuclear reprocessing plant, and the Irish Sea beyond it. That sole fellwalker was represented firmly by myself, looking beyond Eskdale and towards Scafell. Although I confess to just a few sneaky glimpses towards the sea. Wainwright would have disapproved, but hey, I just couldn’t help myself.

Ruins of old mine buildings

The sheer number of people on the top of the Old Man discouraged me from lingering too long. And so I began to head down, stopping to explore the small tarn called Low Water. Wainwright described it as “a good place for giving up and going to sleep”. That seemed fair enough. But if I did that, maybe I would have enough time to explore the Old Man’s industrial past. The old copper mines.

It was slate that was the Old Man’s first known export, with quarries in business around the 12-13th centuries. But it was to be copper that the fell would become known for. Mining for the metal started in the 16th century, and copper continued to be extracted until 1914.

Whilst the mines closed over a hundred years ago, there are plenty of remains sat silently decaying on the hillside. Not far down from the summit I came across warped metal rails and thick metal wires. The remains of buildings. A crane that had fallen down. Old bits of machinery dotted around. Stone built ventilation shafts.

Rusting machinery at the old mines.

It was rather fascinating and I spent some time pottering around, trying to imagine this fell side as the hive of industrial activity it once was. Copper mining brought prosperity to the village of Coniston. This would have been a busy place. Although it was still pretty busy now, so perhaps not that much had changed.

I poked my head around a bit, admiring these leftovers of another age, and then carried on down the hillside. Ahead of me was the large car park where many had parked up. But as my car was down in Coniston Village, all that meant was a walk down the tarmac on the Walna Scar Road. So instead I followed Wainwright’s suggestion and headed to the far nicer route.

There were but a handful of us walking this way; most people obviously prefering to save some effort and park at the car park. But enough came this was for the path to be good, and easy to follow. Perhaps some who used it were going to one of Coniston’s two youth hostels, that is another remnant of the mining era. YHA Coniston Coppermines is sited in the old home of the manager of the mines. Opening in 1932, two years after the founding of the YHA, it is one of a handful of hostels that remained in use since the the foundation of the organisation.

The old mining buildings – in white – are now YHA Coniston Coppermines

When it opened, cars would have been banned. YHA regulation 4 stated firmly

Hostels are intended for Members when walking or cycling, and are not open to motorists or motor-cyclists

YHA Handbook of Hostels 1935.

Things changed with the decline of the railways in the 1960s, and in the distance I could see a car driving up to the hostel; a basic road connecting the hostel on the other side of the beck that my path slowly came alongside.

Not long after I was at the edge of Coniston village. My conquest of the Coniston Three now complete. I looked at my watch. It was only three o’clock. It would take me another two and a half hours to get home again, but the fact I’d made it up Dow Crag, Brim Fell and The Old Man of Coniston, eight years after my first attempt, was worthy of a celebration. And what better way than to celebrate with a fine pint of Old Man Ale, brewed by the Coniston Brewery, and served at their pub, the Black Bull, in the heart of the village?

Unfortunately I was driving. So I bought a new pair of sunglasses to replace the ones I’d lost at the top of Brim Fell. And then had a piece of cake and a cup of tea in a nearby cafe.

It perhaps wasn’t the best celebration. But it would do.

The path to Coniston alongside Church Beck. You can probably guess where the Beck is.

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