an account of an ascent of fairfield

Tue, Dec 6, 2011

I was down in Grasmere for a few days last week staying at the excellent Beck Allans Guest House beside the river. They were doing a 3 for 2 so I booked up and bussed and trained my way down there with the aim of a day on the hill and a day of culture at Dove Cottage. I was so enjoying Grasmere, with its excellent real ales (Windermere, Cumbrian Bluebird), eateries (can recommend the Red Lion and Potted Out) and bookshop (Sam Read) as well as the poetry of Wordsworth that I wrote up this account in the B&B that night, hopefully with a touch of the poet’s style!

An Account Of An Ascent Of Fairfield From Grasmere Via Stone Arthur And Great Rigg With A Descent to Grisedale Hause And Mill Bridge via Tongue Gill

The day started with a full cooked breakfast at the B&B and afterwards I surreptitiously made up ham and corned beef rolls in the room. There was much banter at the breakfast table when my fellow guests learned of my place of origin, namely the Isle of Skye, with the usual observations that the heavy rain outside was in fact just a light drizzle and I’d be going up the hills in my t-shirt. In other words, the usual inane banter!

At around 10:15 I headed off up the road to the Swan Inn and up the road to the right beside some lovely stone built houses. Then the right hand road signed for Alcock Tarn which ran close to the boisterous burn before the wet and soggy path to Stone Arthur branched off to the left. Up and up I wended my merry way as wetter and wetter grew the path until I was walking up a river course. On the steep section I paused to peer through a locked gate into the dead silence of a conifer plantation. It contrasted with the increasing strength of the wind the higher I climbed. On the last haul up the grassy path to the rocks on the ridge I wondered where all the water was coming from as it overflowed from the flat ridge and ran in torrents down the path, making going on the saturated grass slow and slippery. Shortly after Stone Arthur the rain became torrential, the wind began to push me around and I entered the fast moving cloud. It grew wilder the higher I went and the odd gust had me stumbling around while all the while the rain beat a deafening staccato on my hood.

I was lucky in three respects however. There was a large path which meant I didn’t have to consult the compass. The wind was from behind and slightly to the right and it wasn’t cold. So I was free to revel in the elemental bashing I was being handed by the weather.

Eventually I came to the ridge where strangely it was much calmer and I turned left for Great Rigg, who’s summit at 776m didn’t hold me for long as shelter behind the cairn was sparse. The ridge further on, at its lowest point was completely calm but as I ascended to Fairfield the wind returned with a vengeance and I was glad of the shelter at one of the many walls and cairns on the summit, which was a terribly exposed plateau. The rain flew past my crouched form as I sought meagre refuge from the storm and I took the opportunity of taking a bearing down the west ridge for Grisedale Hause as I wasn’t expecting a path to be evident on the rocky plateau. However cairns a-plenty guided me lower on my bearing until I came upon the path once more.

The steep and eroded scree path was when the wind really took control and I struggled to stop on the shifting screes or indeed to stay upright against an onslaught of vicious gusts that tore ragged shards of mist across the hillside at maniacal speed. The worst of the wind was in a narrow defile and I struggled to descent against it but once out of the lower end progress was much improved and shortly after I reached the coast to coast path at Grisedale Hause. Here I hung a left and descended into the wind which was much reduced in vigour although the paved path was under a flowing river of clear mountain water. Descending a stepped section I noted the multitude of little cataracts on each step with each one being blown back up the path by the force of the wind. Eventually out of the mist appeared a sign saying the bridge across Tongue Gill was out and a new one may or may not be in place by July or August! As it was November going into December I reasoned it would be there, or so I hoped as shortly thereafter I came below the cloud to the sight of an impassable Tongue Gill.

The head of the valley was white with cataracts all feeding the foaming frenzied river which roared tumbling and spraying in a mad dash for the green flats around Grasmere. The bridge was out of sight much lower down and my immediate problem was to cross the valley to reach the lower section of the path with several raging torrents to negotiate. So, deciding to eschew the climb back up to the sign and the detour down Great Tongue, which looked just as bad with torrents roaring down much steeper ground, I made for the foot of the big waterfall which fed the biggest tributary of Tongue Gill, my reasoning being if I could get across that then the others should fall in quick succession as I reached and dealt with each in turn.

As I stood at the foot of the falls a wet and earthy smelling stream of air was blasted over me and I felt refreshed and alive after being cocooned in my hood most of the day. I descended a little and effected a crossing at a narrow and fast flowing section where I had to grip first one submerged boulder, force my leg across the raging torrent behind another submerged boulder and then grip this second one through a skin of fierce and clear cold water and by such horizontal scrambling defeat the torrent which threatened to push me off balance and send me to a sticky end in the next falls down, a short distance below. The onslaught was worsened by the fact I was waist deep in the icy flow with the two boulders providing my only means of withstanding the current, which banked against me forcing water chest high. Soaked but safe, I trudged down the path and jumped or waded the remaining torrents ‘til I reached the path on the valley floor and which I could see disappeared into the lowering mist high on the hillside and well away from the raging Tongue Gill.

The outcome was still in doubt as I had no idea whether the bridge had been replaced but I still had one last card to play if it wasn’t, namely a path that contoured round towards Grasmere and which I would take if no bridge appeared as it was obvious Tongue Gill was impassable. Eventually I did reach the crossing point and to my relief a short and sturdy new bridge spanned the raging torrent. As I stood on the bridge I noted wryly a more desperate solution had the bridge been absent, A fallen tree of great vintage, green with moss and almost touching the near bank would provide a challenging crossing for those out of mind. It would have involved a nasty downclimb to the torrent’s edge and a neat step up onto the bouncing tree limb followed by a crossing of the main trunk, horizontal above the flow with either an equally nasty climb up the bridge stones or a short plunge into the flow in the hope of being swept into the small but calmer inlet just before a side torrent added to the river’s fury. Released from uncertain danger how the mind frolics in life’s vigour anew!

As I came up from the bridge I spied the next torrent to cross. A not inconsiderable flow of angry, fast and churning water too wide to bet on a certainty of outcome. So used to crossing torrent after torrent had I become I almost failed to spot the the second bridge! I stood on its sturdy middle and mused how I might have crossed this final barrier to a safe descent to the valley. The last few miles were on flooded paths to Mill Bridge where I passed two girls struggling up the path through the rain, laden with shopping bags and no doubt bound for one of the holiday cottages. Then it was down the flooded back road into Grasmere which I entered along the deeply flooded permissive path.

I reached the B&B four hours after leaving, not having stopped to eat once but munching corned beef ciabattas on the soaking descent beside Tongue Gill. A superb day out rounded off with a pint of Windermere and Steak and Ale Pie at the Red Lion.

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