After days of still weather and unmoving, grey cloud, the mist hung below the northern fells of the Lake District. From the north, on a Wednesday afternoon, only Skiddaw rose above it. Separated from the land below, a peak up with the clouds. I drove round the western side alongside Bassenthwaite to approach Blencathra towards sunset, at first a rounded hill and then, once past Latrigg, the southern ridges came into sight. They spill from the summit and crunch into the land below, like the whole mountain is gripping the earth.
If you drive in from the east, along the A66 from Penrith, Blencathra is the first mountain you see. Or rather, you may see the rounded hills around Ullswater first, but Blencathra is the first one that has that mountain aura. It looks like a crown, but not a gaudy crown; mountains do not do symmetry well. It appears instead as though someone has accidentally partially melted a crown, then tried to stick it somewhere no one will notice.
I parked in Threlkeld and headed up through a farm, past a hedge made from ash which still had its leaves despite the mid-November cold, and made for Hall’s Fell. This is the central of the five ridges that form the whole southern side of Blencathra. At their peaks they are narrow and rocky, while their bases fan out, trying to overlap each other before the land calms them. Reading their names from west to east feels like an incantation: Blease, Gategill, Hall’s, Doddick, Scales.
I crossed the stepping stones over Gate Gill and joined the path. Two crows flew west overhead and the imposing slopes of Gategill Fell on my left rose up like a fortified castle buttress; to me it always looks like the steepest of Blencathra’s ridges. All the lower slopes were the colour of rust, the thousands of bracken fronds that were so green in spring now woody and dry.
The path steepened and soil gave way to rock. Some easy scrambling is needed here, and the most interesting route lies over rocky lumps, some rounded like wigs and others cut-up with grooves and strung out in waves, remnants of the immense geology that has shaped these hills.
The top of the ridge narrows. I looked up as a raven crossed it and disappeared. I tried to blot out the sound of the main road behind me, already far below but a constant reminder of the lack of wilderness. Over on the right, the lights of Penrith were coming on, the barrier of the Pennines beyond melting into the grey sky. Between the ridges, the corries are dark, their streams resonating up from the deep clefts far below, emerging from somewhere deep in the mountain. The loose rock and grass corrie headwalls seem impossibly steep in the flat light.
On the summit I was alone. A mild breeze blew constantly from the south-west, right from where I could see Scafell Pike and its neighbours, crowded in by all the fells of Cumbria. Their tops were clear, with little definition in the gathering gloom. Skiddaw stood aloof to the west, the great valley of the Caldew sinking into night, and away to the north the Solway Firth was white. It didn’t look like the sea, it looked like a vast glacier, and behind it the hills of southern Scotland added to the effect, clouds spilling from slopes and enveloping the lowlands; a dusky milk washing all of northern Cumbria.
Sunset came and went with only a blush of red to the west. I could hear nothing except the steady wind, and as the hills became darker so the sky stayed light. The lateral lines of cloud like so many horizons stretched away to the south-west with lighter patches now and then visible above the main mass, a vault of grey light. It gripped me, filled me with a craving to visit all the peaks I could see, as it had done so many times before. There was mystery out there, and adventure. It is the mountain bug, that same bug which keeps drawing you back. Once you have it, it is incurable. It can take you at any time, when glimpsing a view, feeling a breeze on your face, hearing a story. It starts somewhere near the heart and spreads through the body. Somehow, being on the summit of a mountain, alone at dusk in November, was something that felt right. And next time I feel a constant breeze, or have a vision of hills in autumn dusk, I will know the mountains have found another way to call me back.
I descended the next ridge east, Doddick Fell. Over to the left, hidden from the southern side, lie two more ridges, the closest of which is Sharp Edge. It is a famous scramble because, though not long, it can feel extremely exposed. I like that it is round the back, like some cunning Loki hidden from human view by its older more august brothers.
I dropped back down past the grassy summit zone into the heather, dark and woody and cloaking the upper slopes. It’s once purple flowers are now light brown and crisp, the same colour but much more delicate than the bracken. With dusk becoming night I withhold from using my torch, trusting my night vision and pushing aside the hard, dead bracken fronds that cross the path.
Sheep stand silent in the fields, the road noise is unavoidable, and the dark grows so that I can’t tell how muddy the path is. Returning along the base of Hall’s Fell to the car, the blinding lights of an ongoing engineering work at the local farm light up the surrounding shelter-belt conifers. I stumbled back across Gate Gill and found the road again.