High Crag

Published 8 March 2020

High Crag, seen from High Stile
High Crag, seen from High Stile

If you’re in Buttermere, you can’t escape a group of fells looking down on the village and the lake. Fells that stand there, calling for you. And I was in Buttermere. And they did call me. So I went to visit five of them. After starting with with Great Borne and Starling Dodd, I had carried on to Red Pike and High Stile. And my final fell of the day would be pretty high too…

I noted the strength of the wind. I noted too that the map showed a path from the top of High Stile going right down to the valley floor. I considered calling quits and ending my walk at High Stile.

But the thing about High Crag is that it’s only a mile’s ridge walk from High Stile. And it’s only 67m lower in altitude. And so I realised that if I missed High Crag that day, I’d be regretting it for years to come. It would be one of those “awkward” fells.

I’d amassed a few of those over the years. Fells that I ended up missing out for one reason or other, that would be a nuisance to do later. Fells that would need a special trip to bag. Or that would need a substantial detour to get there.

Hard Knott was one of those. At some point I was going to have to drive all the way to the remote Eskdale on the western side of the Lakes to get it. And when I got there I’d have to walk only a quarter of a mile up from the car park to the summit, and then go back down again. I’d done all the other fells in the area. I would have no other reason to go there other than Hard Knott. A big detour for a fell I’d need no more than 30 minutes to walk.

Clough Head was another. It sits about two miles north of Great Dodd in the Eastern Fells. And it’s pretty much alone. The most efficient way to do it is to walk those two miles from Great Dodd, then head down to the valley floor. But on the day I did Great Dodd, I ran out of time as I needed to get back to our holiday cottage for tea.

The view from Eagle Crag
One of several crags on the narrow ridge between High Stile and High Crag, Eagle Crag offers a sharp drop and a splendid view of the southern end of Buttermere.

It would have been so easy to let High Crag fall into that boat. And for what? Some wind that had been worse, but was still yet to beat me? Nah, I thought. I had to do High Crag. And if anything, the strength of the wind has been decreasing the further I got from Starling Dodd. Why would I not go on to finish High Crag?

Also I couldn’t actually find the path that would lead me down the hillside from the top of High Stile. So, yeah. It was a bit of a done deal.

It was a rocky path that led me from one High to another. Notionally all I needed to do was to follow a line of rusting fence posts. There was a path that ran roughly alongside the posts. Although it was noticeable how it seemed to delight in going as close to an edge of the hillside as possible. The path has been optimised for thrill-seekers instead of those who look over the side of a hill at a sharp drop and go “Yikes!” And walking very close to very steep drops, has a tendency to make me nervous. And there were a lot of those steep drops.

The humped top of High Crag approacheth
The humped top of High Crag approacheth

On one side, my brain is telling me encouraging things. Like “you’ve done paths like this before loads of times. And not once have you slipped, fallen down the side of the hill and plummeted to your death! Come on, it’s easy!”.

And the other side of me is patiently pointing out “dude, that fact that I haven’t died yet, is not helping. Please can we walk a bit further from the edge. Somewhere where if I slip, all that will happen is that I will graze my knee on a rock.”

Now obviously I made it in one piece. This isn’t a piece written beyond the grave or anything. The side of my brain that was busy pointing out that I was yet to die, remained correct for another day.

And to be fair, the views down to the Buttermere valley were rather dramatic. Quite awesome and spectacular. Great to admire the scenery from. As long as you don’t get too close.

The summit cairn of High Crag
The summit cairn of High Crag

Of the three “Buttermere Fells” (as no one calls them), the summit of High Crag doesn’t have the best of views. But the view towards the head of Ennerdale was definitely a winner. And noticeable in particular was one small building. That of Black Sail Youth Hostel.

This small, remote, isolated building sits alone near the end of the Ennerdale Valley. There’s no road access. No mobile signal. No WiFi. And You won’t find a plug socket in which to charge your electronic device. And ever since I’d first seen it, I’d wanted to spend the night there. To be able to sit outside on a warm summers evening with a bottle of ale. Soaking up the atmosphere. Enjoying the fact that I was miles from a road. Miles from another building. But not too far from a beer.

That would have to wait though. There’d been no beds available at Black Sail that night. Also my belongs were over at Buttermere hostel. That was some distance away.

The mighty Ennerdale

It was time to head downhill.

It was a steep descent. Full of slippery rocks and stones that sloped downwards at perturbing angles. After a day of pretty easy walking, the climb down from High Crag came as a bit of a surprise. One that happened rather slowly, but a surprise all the same.

It took a while. My inbuilt cautiousness made itself known. Over breakfast I’d chatted with a man from Inverness. Nine times he’d been to the Lakes in 2019 alone.

He was a fell-runner. We chatted a bit and I told him I struggled with the fell-running idea. I wasn’t sure I could do it. Some of those runners seem to leap like gazelles when they go down steep mountain paths. All without stumbling, and rolling down the hillside in a big ball like Coyotte in the Roadrunner cartoons. Here I was going as slow as possible, thinking at least three times about every next foot step I made. Run down these steep paths?! I couldn’t even imagine. What I could dream happily of, was the point where – at long last – the track began to level out a little.

The secondary summit of Seat
Seat – a secondary summit of High Crag

I was heading for the Scarth Gap Pass. The map showed a shortcut down to it that would save me about half a kilometre of walking. On the ground I could see no evidence of it. Only something that looked like a scree run. Yeah, but no thanks.

So instead I carried on over the summit of a minor fell called Seat. It featured no resting places, but did have a grand – if slightly scary looking – view of the nearby fell of Haystacks. That fell was Wainwright’s favourite. The one where his ashes were spread after he died. And visiting that fell would be for another day, so instead I headed down to the valley, to the hamlet of Gatesgarth.

As I meandered downhill, I idly thought about how to get back to Buttermere. The obvious way was on foot. But there was a bus stop at Gatesgarth, served by a bus that headed along the edge of the lake to Buttermere village. My feet were getting a little weary, and as I walked I wondered what time the bus ran. Could I get it back, save myself a couple of miles of walking?

A gap in a drystone wall
A gap in the wall helps let the Scarth Gap Pass head downhill

No, it turned out. I was still a good kilometre from the road when I saw the little white minibus pootling its way along the road. With the next bus two hours away, getting to Buttermere by Shanks’ Pony was the only option.

But tired as my legs were, I wad glad I missed that bus. The path that ran through the trees on the southern shore of Buttermere lake was idylic. Peaceful, attractive, tranquil, enjoyable. As the evening sun began its slow descent to the horizon, its light shone brightly behind those fells that I’d been walking on all day. Each picked out in that bright evening glow that radiated across the landscape.

It was the perfect ending to a pretty fantastic day.

The northern end of Buttermere
The northern end of Buttermere

Your Comments

Vic Flange

20 March 2020 at 8:14 pm

Wahey! Comments are back.

Anyhow, wise choice: having to go back to claim a ‘lone’ peak (or peaks) is a swine.

Alas, I’ll have to go back to climb Starling Dodd and Great Borne – I did High Crag to Red Pike as part of a reverse Coast-to-Coast – climbing the scree from Scarth Gap to High Crag was an absolute bugger (the 14kg rucksack didn’t help much). But at least, on an earlier occasion, I did Clough Head as part of a ridge walk from Nethermost Pike to White Pike, dropping down to Threlkeld with the luxury of a pint or two to kill time awaiting the bus back to Keswick.

Happy days.

What’s next, Andrew?

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