At the Shrine of Scawfell.

From: On Cambrian and Cumbrian Hills (1908)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Arthur C. Fifield 1908 London

At the Shrine of Scawfell

  IF “angry grandeur,” as has been said, is the feature of the Carnarvonshire mountains, that of the Cumbrian Fells may be described as friendly grouping. Unlike the proud oligarchies of Snowdon and the Glyders, we see here a free and equal democracy, a brood of giant brothers, linked together with rocky arm in arm, and with no crowned heads claiming marked predominance over their fellows. It is collectively, rather than singly, that the Lake mountains impress us. “In magnitude and grandeur,” says Wordsworth., “they are individually inferior to the most celebrated of those in some other parts of the island; but in the combinations which they make, towering above each other, or lifting themselves in ridges like the waves of a tumultuous sea, they are surpassed by none.”1

  The sense of greater friendliness and accessibility of which we are conscious among these hills may be due partly to this cause, still more, perhaps, to the influence of the Lake writers, who have so largely created the sentiment with which the fells are begirt; we feel “at home” there in a degree not known to us either in Wales or in Scotland. It has to be remembered, too, that the Lake District, in contrast to Wales, is a land without a past, the cradle of a fortunate race which has had no troubled record of wars or rumours of wars, but an almost unruffled exemption from “history”; and this, again, may tend to strengthen the feeling of serenity associated with these heights, even in the minds of those who have undergone many buffetings from their storms.

  But this feeling must be a modern one, for the earliest visitors, as we have seen, were affected rather by the terrors than the charms of the mountains, so that the very bridle-paths seemed as precipices to them, and we find one old traveller sagely remarking that “there is something unmanly in conceiving a difficulty in traversing a path, which, we were told, the women of the country would ascend on horseback, with their panniers of eggs and butter.”2 Of all writers, the best qualified, by his love of the mystic and sublime, to give expression to the awe which the fells once inspired, was De Quincey, and in his Memorials of Grasmere he has drawn a highly coloured, yet in spirit very faithful picture of a region rather vaguely apprehended by him, where, as he says, far beyond the “enormous barrier” of his own Easedale, “tower the aspiring heads, usually enveloped in cloud and mist, of Glaramara, Bowfell, and the other fells of Langdale Head and Borrowdale.” And here it may be remarked that though much poetry, of a far-fetched kind, has been written about mountains, the mountains are still waiting for their poet, at close quarters. In Wordsworth’s “Excursion” certain aspects of the fells are wonderfully portrayed, and in Scott’s “Helvellyn,” and that canto of his “Lord of the Isles” where the Coolin Hills are the theme, we have true mountain idylls; but on the whole it has to be confessed that the poets have written about mountains as if they had never set foot on them, but had been content to take the panoramic “views” of them from afar. Even Wordsworth’s prose account of his ascent from Seathwaite “to the top of the ridge, called Ash Course,” makes one suspect that his real acquaintance with the hills was very slight; indeed his corruption of the guide’s pronunciation of “Esk Hause” (the typical name of the central saddle of the Scawfell range, at the head of Eskdale) into the absurdity of “Ash Course,” shows that he had but little sympathetic knowledge either of the nomenclature of the hills or of the dialect of the hillsmen.

  There is much insight, however, in Wordsworth’s selection of the Sty Head as the pivot of the Scawfell group. “From a point between Great Gavel and Scawfell,” he says, “a shepherd would not require more than an hour to descend into any one of the principal vales by which he would be surrounded. Yet, though clustered together, every valley has its distinct and separate character.” The truth of this will be owned by every one who has personally studied the district. If we take Scawfell Pike, with the Gable and Bowfell, as a single mountain, we have the common centre from which there radiate at least seven important glens—Borrowdale, with its gorgeous colouring and variegated effects of rock and turf, leafage and river; the grave and simple beauty of Buttermere; Ennerdale, wild and primitive, its Pillar Rock rising like a pulpit in the midst; Wastdale, plain to the verge of ugliness, even as an unfurnished room is plain, yet full of the sense of the great heights that wall it round; the solitude of upper Eskdale, with its mighty waterfalls and mountain pools; the more sociable Duddon, and the pastoral greenery of Langdale. Surely nowhere else in Great Britain can we stand on a hill-top with seven such valleys at our feet I Were I a millionaire, instead of building mansions in town and country, I could imagine no more regal indulgence than to keep a cottage-lodging in each of these seven dales, so that from that high central watch-tower on Esk Hause I might descend at nightfall, as the mood took me, into whichever paradise or wilderness I should prefer. As a single starting-point for scaling each and all of these hills, the choice would rest either on Wastdale or on Seathwaite, the little hamlet at the extreme head of Borrowdale, noted as “the rainiest place in England,” which means only that when it rains there it rains with a will; they are so placed that there is hardly a summit in the district that cannot be reached by a strong walker from these points.

  Of the four chief groups which the hills of Lakeland assume—Skiddaw to the north, Helvellyn to the east, Grasmoor to the west, and to the south the range of Scawfell—the last named is by far the most alluring both to the nature-lover and to the climber, for it is much wilder, rockier and more precipitous than the rest. Looking at a raised or tinted map of the district, we might conceive this rough mountain mass to be a great birdlike figure swooping north-eastward, to dip its beak in Derwentwater, perhaps; with Glaramara for its down-stretched head and neck, with Great End for its elevated shoulder, from which are extended in sweeping curves to right and left the two superb “wings” of Bowfell and the Gable; with the Pikes as the ruffled plumes of the mighty back, and Scawfell as the dark high-spread tail. Such, we may imagine, is the great stone eagle that flies towards the pastures of Borrowdale.

  Though devoid, for the most part, of sharp peaks and ridges, and massive rather than graceful in their general form, these Cumbrian Pikes, like the Camarvonshire Glyders, to which in general character they are akin, have the charm of untamed wildness; you may clamber for weeks together over their desert of crags and coves, yet:find their wonders inexhaustible. Seamed as they are in many places by deep “ghylls “ and gullies, or carved into stark faces of rock, bristling with projecting “pinnacles” and “pillars,” the grandest sight of all they have to show is Mickledore Chasm, the great “door” which some primeval force has flung open between the Pikes and Scawfell; and it is only when the range is approached from the east or the west that this vast natural:fissure, thoroughfare for the winds of heaven, can be properly seen. The very heart of the mountain is reached when you stand on the ridge of Mickledore, with the cliffs of Scawfell towering over you on one side and the Pikes on the other, for from this centre you can look down into Eskdale or Wastdale, or climb to either summit, as you choose; and here, in this huge hollow, is often a witches’ cauldron of the clouds, which come drifting up from either valley according to the whim of the wind, until they meet a contrary current at the top, and are piled up in swirling masses on one side of the ridge, while the other side, as if protected by some invisible curtain, remains cloudless and sunlit.

  Next to Mickledore in interest is Piers Gill, the gigantic cleft, shut in by high walls of rock, which zigzags down the north slope of the Pikes opposite the Sty Head, rivalling the Welsh “Twll Du” in savageness and much surpassing it in beauty. Viewing it from the the top of the Great Gable, one is reminded of a monstrous serpent-a stone serpent in the clutch of the stone eagle-writhing downwards from the crags of Lingmell; when entered from below, it is found to be the wildest of the many rock-ravines, veritable canons in miniature, by which these mountains are cloven, as witness the fine Crinkle Gill and Hell Gill on Bowfell, and the famous Dungeon Ghyll, “so foully rent,” on Langdale Pikes.

  Turning now to the northern shoulder of the Pikes, the high promontory of Great End, we see around us an almost unbroken continent, with a stony isthmus leading eastward across Esk Pike to Bowfell, so shapely a peak when seen from the Windermere lowlands; and there are few finer walks than to follow these heights for their whole length, passing over Crinkle Crags to the Wrynose Pass, and thence, if time and strength allow, along the Coniston Fells to the Old Man. On the other hand, the leftward wing from Great End, after dipping to the Sty Head, rises steeply again to another chain of summits, the first of which is no less glorious a goal than the crown of the Great Gable.

  For, after all, it is neither to Scawfell, nor to Bowfell, nor to any lesser fell, that the mountain lover looks, when, after long absence, the well-remembered phalanx of heights—the “tumultuous waste of huge hill-tops,” as Wordsworth so fitly termed them—again unfolds itself to his gaze. He looks to the Great Gable. In so far as the Cumbrian Hills can be singly appraised, the Gable is the summit to which there clings the strongest sentiment, by virtue both of its noble and arresting outline, and of the grand rocks and ridges by which it is so powerfully flanked. Its name is somewhat ill-chosen, perhaps, for the likeness to a gable is hardly to be discovered except from the south; from other quarters the impression is rather that of a great round tower, or dome, a majestic sight when seen from a few miles’ distance, belted with clouds, or looming up in dark relief against an ominous sky. Nor, when one approaches it more closely, is there any sense of disappointment. “It’s a a strange place, is Gable,” said my Wastdale shepherd, and such will certainly be the judgment of those who have roamed in all weathers about its shivered and rock-strewn sides. Of the ordinary ascents, the least inspiring is that usually chosen, from the top of the Sty Head Pass; it is far better, if you come from Seathwaite, to follow the little beck, beloved of the water-ousel, which joins the stream that flows from the Sty Head Tarn, and having thus gained the saddle between the Great and the Green Gable, to skirt the northern verge of the mountain overlooking the Ennerdale precipice, till you reach the broad top; or, if Wastdale be your starting-point, you can ascend by a still more fascinating route, up the long grassy ridge known as Gavel Neese.

  Close to the cairn, at the top, is the small rock-cistern in which there is a “perennial” remnant of rain-water, idealized by several writers, following Wordsworth, into a pure and celestial lymph. “Even in the driest summer,” says the History of Cumberland (1883), “the sparkling liquid gushes forth from the little fount.” In truth the pool, at its best, is but stagnant and brackish, and owing to the habits of some tourists is now often polluted with bits of food or newspapers; so that no worse punishment need be invoked on those who pen such fictions than that they should themselves be forced to slake their thirst with its waters. There is the less need to romance about this “fount” because the three real streams that have their source on the Gable are peculiarly fresh and sweet; in fact, there is hardly a more charming little torrent than “Gable Beck,” which goes singing down into Wastdale on the left of the Neese as you ascend.

  But the chief glory of the Gable lies in the wild crags on its southern and northern sides. Much as climbers have written of the Great Napes, the huge outstanding stack of cliffs that seems to overhang the traveller between Wastdale and the Sty Head, scanty justice has been done to their strange and terrible beauty, which is enhanced by the fact that the whole front of the mountain from which they project is itself a precarious scree-slide of extreme steepness, so that in looking up to these impending arêtes one surveys them not from a flat base but from a shifty slope inclining at a sharp angle to the vale, and they have thus all the appearance of a greater precipice upstarting fantastically from a lesser one. Their name of “Napes” is aptly bestowed, for they are united with the Gable by a narrow neck, where the green turf, streaked with red undersoil, is in bright contrast to the prevailing grey of the mountain.

  Standing at the foot of the Napes, one finds in them a series of fanlike ridges and gullies, from one of which rises the famous Needle, subject of countless articles and photographs; and if it be holiday-season there will probably be one or two parties either climbing or prepared to climb. The Needle being far too slender to accommodate many cragsmen at once, the curious sight may sometimes be witnessed of one set of Needle-men, including more rarely a Needle-woman, gravely waiting their tum, while their predecessors are maneuvering in various postures on the rock. The sport of mountaineering, it may be remarked, differs from certain other sports in this, that, however exciting it may be to those personally engaged, the mere onlooker is apt to find the spectacle rather tedious; nor is this surprising, when one remembers the large scale of the scene, and that the progress is slow in proportion to the severity of the ascent, a climber on the mountain-side occupying much the same position, relatively, as a fly on the house-wall. Still, there are many of us who would rather be spectators of such gymnastics than take an active part in them.

  The crags overlooking Ennerdale, if less peculiar than the Great Napes, are also very impressive, and though long proclaimed “inaccessible” have now been assiduously explored and mapped out by enterprising climbers. A romantic interest, too, attaches to them, through the discovery made by Mr. Haskett Smith of “a sort of hut of loose stones, evidently the refuge of some desperate fugitive of half a century or more ago,” who is presumed, on somewhat imperfect evidence, to have been a smuggler,3 but whom we should prefer to regard as a pilgrim of the mountains, a fugitive only from the cares and worries of an over-exacting civilization. Whether “Moses’ Sledgate,” the rather mysterious half-obliterated old track, which may be seen winding round the west side of the Gable, had any connexion, as Mr. Haskett Smith surmises, with the hermitage among the crags, must be left to the reader’s imagination; it seems more likely that the prosaic statement of another writer, that the path was formerly used for carrying slates from the Honister Quarries to Wastdale, is the correct one. However that may be, all climbers will subscribe to Mr. Haskett Smith’s praise of the Gable as “splendid to look at, splendid to look from, and splendid to climb.” It is, in truth, a mountain of mountains, and has the same intimate hold on the affections of the climber in Cumberland as Tryfan has in Wales.

  From the Gable it is but a step—as mountains go—to the Pillar, of which the famous Pillar Rock is a dependency, and even those who are not “Pillarites” in the true sense will find a rare pleasure in scrambling around and about the Rock, which may be reached by the rough track known as the High Level, leading direct to its foot from the top of Black Sail Pass across the face of the fine northern front of the fell, in the course of which “traverse” they will follow the windings of several bold capes and green shady coves. The Rock itself, though somewhat dwarfed by the parent mountain when viewed from a distance, is a grand object from below, when one stands right under the great walls which form its northern buttress.

  Of the many climbers who frequent the new hotel at Wastdale Head, now spoken of as “the Chamounix of the Lake District,” few probably remember the place as it used to be when the fine old dalesman, William Ritson, was the landlord, a bleak bare hostel, where the guests, whatever their personal inclinations may have been, led emphatically the simple life. It so happened that, in one of my early visits to Wastdale, I was staying there with a friend at the time when the Rev. James Jackson, the octogenarian known as cc the Patriarch of the Pillarites,” was killed on the Pillar Fell, and the last evening of his life he spent with us at Ritson’s, narrating his own mountain exploits, and reciting the verses in which he celebrated them.4 It was the last day of April, 1878, and on the May morning the brave old man went forth to repeat his annual pilgrimage to the Pillar Rock; we saw him, and were probably the last to see him, plodding off with slow steps in the early twilight. Two days later, when we were coming back to Wastdale from Buttermere, we heard shouts across Ennerdale, and climbing up the Pillar Fell, close to the east of the Rock, in a dense mist, we met a search party, and learnt that Mr. Jackson had not been seen since he started. Joining in the search, we peered and groped about the recesses of Pillar Cove, now dim and ghostly under a heavy pall of vapour; but it was not till the next day, when the clouds had lifted, that the body was found, as a dalesman expressed it, “ligging under the Pillar,” the fact being that he had met his death not on the Rock itself, but on a ledge of the steep brow above. It has been said that his vigour was unimpaired, and that the same accident might have happened to a boy, but to us, who were strangers to him, he gave the impression of much physical weakness, and, as the sequel proved, so far from being in a fit state to scale a dangerous crag, he was not capable of crossing the easy ridge which gives access to it. So strong is the fascination of the mountains, which can lure an old pilgrim of eighty-two years thus to sacrifice himself at their shrine!

  Of the other ranges of the Lake District—Helvellyn, Saddleback, Grasmoor, and their kin—differing widely as they do from the Scawfell group in their smoother contours and less savage rock-scenery, little need here be said; but there is at least one distinctive feature in which they excel, and that is the number and keenness of their “edges.” To a connoisseur in climbing, there is always a great attraction in the mountain which may be approached by a narrow stair—

The peak that stormward bares an edge
Ground sharp in days when Titans warred—

and herein is the unfailing charm of such otherwise formless masses as Saddleback and Helvellyn. Who, for instance, would ascend Helvellyn by that ponderous bank above Wythburn, when he might have Striding Edge for his upward path and Swirrel Edge for his return? And why should any one climb Saddleback by its toilsome grassy slopes, when an ideal course is offered him in Sharp Edge, overlooking Scales Tarn, and in Narrow Edge, which falls away with scarcely less sharpness from the highest summit? I have named the most famous of these edges, but many others not greatly inferior will suggest themselves; thus Fairfield may be delightfully taken by the narrow ridges of Cofa Pike and Hartsop Dod, and even the bulky Grasmoor assumes an air of refinement, if scaled by the slim reef of Whiteside, or by the slender arm that it holds out to the promontory of Causey Pike. In old days these knife-edges were reputed difficult and perilous. “The awful curtain of rock named Striding Edge,” is De Quincey’s description of the chief ornament of Helvellyn; and Green, in describing his adventurous crossing of Sharp Edge on Saddleback, speaks of the necessity “either of bestriding the ridge, or of moving on one of its sides with hands lying over the top, as a security against falling into the tam on the left or into a frightful gully on the right.” What was once a terror has now become a joy to the climber of ordinary powers, but to this day one may hear expressions of the old misgivings. A friend who had come over the edges of Saddleback told me afterwards that he had felt “sick with fear,” and I have heard a tourist on Snowdon, fresh from the passage of the Beddgelert “Saddle,” exclaim in solemn accents, “It is a thing to be done once in a lifetime, and no more.”

  In winter, however, all is changed, and these ridges are then made really formidable by the frozen snow-drifts, which can often transform a steep bank into a dangerous ice-slope, with a veritable razor-edge for its summit; the mountains, in fact, put on a wholly different character at that time.

Who sees them only in their summer hour,
Sees but their beauties half, and knows not half their power.

  It has lately become the fashion for rock-climbers to visit the hills at Christmas, but thirty years ago, as I remember, those who thus ventured were assured by their friends that they “must be mad”; so certain did it seem that English hills were nothing worth but as a summer holiday-resort. I recall, in particular, the winter of 1878-79, as the time when I first introduced myself to the wonders of an Arctic Lakeland, not only in the skating, but in long mountain walks, under a spell of severe frost and cloudless sunshine combined, which had turned the hillsides into a strange realm of enchantment, the rocks being fantastically coated with fronds and feathers of snow, and the streams and waterfalls frozen into glittering masses of ice. I was at Coniston, the only visitor in the place, and for several days had been exploring the range of the Old Man, without meeting a human form, when one afternoon, as I stood by the shore of Levers Water, in a hollow still wild and beautiful, though marred to some extent by the copper-mining, there came from round a buttress of the hill, and passed me without speaking, a solitary wanderer, who seemed to look from mountain to mine, and from mine to mountain, as if noting the difference between the work of Nature and of man. I knew instinctively that it was Ruskin, for who else that lived at Coniston would be abroad on the fells at such season?

  A day or two later, a friend of Ruskin’s who arrived at the hotel requested me to guide him to the top of the Old Man, and I did so, after a fashion. Only once or twice have I been lost, wholly and irretrievably lost, in a mountain mist, but this was one of the occasions; a thick cloud enveloped us as we were coming down, I had taken no compass, and my attention was being distracted by talk. Luckily I kept the shameful secret, and my companion did not guess that I was deeply ignorant of the direction of our descent; when suddenly, after much wandering, as by a miracle, we emerged into daylight at the very spot we were in search of! A rumour of this phenomenal knowledge of the fells must have reached Ruskin, for he wrote to congratulate his friend on having found “such a guide,” a compliment which I value the more as being almost the only one I ever received as a mountaineer.

  In a subsequent talk, Ruskin said to me that his feeling for these mountains was one not of affection merely, but of “veneration.” Which indeed must be the feeling of every pilgrim who is worthy to present himself at the shrine of Scawfell.

1 Description of the Scenery of the Lakes, 1823.
2 W. Gilpin, 1786.
3 See Climbing in the British Isles, by W. P. Haskett Smith, i. 86.
4 A fragment only has remained in my memory.
“Two elephantine properties are mine,
For I can stoop to pick up pin or pack,
.    .    .    .    .
Though fourscore years the howdah on my back.”

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