I’d been looking forward to a chilly March camp, and to testing my new Vango Apex. Due to diabolical weather for our intended camp in January it’s still only seen any action in the garden. So when Matt (@hillplodder) earmarked the weekend of 1st of March for an early spring wildcamp, I busied myself with fretting about kit and packing it. Until that is the message to say that everything was going titus verticus at work and he was going to have to cancel the weekend. Disappointment hung around for a couple of days, and then the news that it might be back on again for the weekend after, travelling up to Penrith on the Sunday. A flurry of potential routes was exchanged, with the possibility of a camp at Great Mell Fell and the ‘other’ Angle Tarn adding to my excitement.
Sunday saw the 10.57 am Virgin Pendolino whisking me northwards from Crewe, in an almost deserted carriage, except for Matt, his big blue rucksack and what looked like a weeks worth of newspapers (on closer inspection just a copy of the Sunday Telegraph). Plus one very enthusiastic ticket collector who confessed cheerfully to having once kicked a toilet door in to apprehend a fare dodging miscreant.
I was particularly looking forward to this trip, as we’d arranged to meet my friends John & Sarah at Troutbeck to join us on the walk up Great Mell Fell. Sarah is a southerner like myself, but in 2012 moved up to western Cumbria with her family, and like me appears to have caught a nasty dose of what I’ll call ‘Wainwright’s Disease’. This odd affliction can strike at any time, but generally in middle age and manifests itself as an uncontrollable urge to climb large Lakeland fells, even if one’s time ravaged body and general lack of fitness might suggest this to be unwise.
Once pleasantries and gossip had been exchanged, we got to work on the business of Great Mell Fell. The map appeared to suggest a route was to be found up through the trees on the lower slopes. At least there was no stream to be negotiated in this wood, but plenty of moss and bog grasses indicated the damp patches that were best avoided. The gentle sound of wind in the treetops, and the rattling of the leftover autumn leaves round our feet were disturbed by the puffing and blowing of four fairly unfit middle aged people as they squelched their way up a fell. As we laboured our way up, the closely wooded slopes gave way to scattered boulders and some of Wainwright’s ‘bleached skeletons of trees’, larches contorted into impossible shapes by the prevailing wind.
Layers had been shed on the ascent but soon went back on again at the top, the wind whipping my hair into a frenzy for the obligatory summit photos. As is usual on the descent, we found a much better path than on the way up, and within half an hour we were back at the bottom contemplating the next stage.
Farewells were said, and Matt and I struck off along the road. We’d not yet decided whether to camp on Little Mell Fell, or to climb up Little Meldrum and make camp there for the night.
A choice of two particularly muddy looking sheep folds and the decision was made to pitch on Little Mell Fell, and continue along over Little Meldrum in the morning. The sheepfold was an absolute nightmare, a slimy smelly mess of mud, boggy waterlogged ground, well laced of course with copious quantities of sheep shit. The law of sod decreed that today some unfortunate hiker was destined to fall in, and on this occasion Matt was the chosen one. Trying my hardest not to laugh as I surveyed his mud splattered arse, we continued on our way up the fell gingerly, our muddy footwear making the wet grass even more slippery.
As my mind wandered from the task of staying upright, the burning in my thigh muscles reminded me of a similar gradient I’d encountered once in Portugal, the somewhat aptly named ‘Cardiac Hill’.
With my companion a little further down the slope, trying his hardest not to fall over again, the pain in my thighs demanded regular stops for a slug of water and a look at the view, which even on such an dull day was spectacular. I was the first to arrive at the trigpoint with a feeling of elation and immense relief, as dusk was falling and the wind was blowing a fine drizzle into my face as I surveyed the view of Great Mell Fell. Matt hove up as I attempted to erect my new tent, my timing somewhat in excess of the 7 minutes stipulated in the instructions. As I struggled to attach the bright orange inner, Matt was already installed in Monica and amidst much swearing was attempting to light his Trangia with some particularly slow burning fuel. Too cold to sit in the doorway and use my stove I decided on a cold collation for tea, and gratefully accepted the offer of some eventually boiled water. We’d decided at my insistence to buy some proper milk this time, which always makes tea with slow boiled beck water taste so much better. After a meal of crisps, cereal bar and double chocolate digestives I donned my thermal leggings and prepared for the long winter night.
I snuggled down happily in my sleeping bag to the soothing sounds of the wind sighing in the tent guys and a rhythmic contented ‘purring’ from the adjacent tent. In just a few hours though, this tranqil scene had changed. My tent heaved and contorted in the wind, an ominous flapping coming from just behind my head. I wondered if Matt was faring any better in Monica, but I couldn’t hear anything other than the wild flapping of my tent, and rain lashing relentlessly against silnylon. I drifted off again into an uneasy slumber, for the peace to be suddenly shattered by a rogue sheep that had snuck round to the back of my tent and baa’d loudly. My heart still hammering in my chest at this interruption, swearing softly under my breath I wriggled back down into my bag for another attempt at sleep. At about 6 I woke to the soaring, bubbling call of the Skylarks as they performed their aerial acrobatics high above the fell, a magical thing to experience. I dozed like this for a while until an enquiry from my neighbour as to whether I was awake (conscious) and had I heard that sheep in the night (oh yes!)
After another beck water brew and breakfast I went for a gander round the top of the fell. The clouds and rain of last night had vanished, replaced by azure skies. The moorland grass shone like burnished gold in the early light, against a backdrop of jagged snow topped peaks. The frost on the fell top grasses melted imperceptibly in the warmth of the early sun, each blade shimmering like a million diamonds. Is this is why I love this place ?
It struck me during my wanderings that Great and Little Mell Fell have a totally different look and feel to the other Lakeland fells I’ve seen. Apparently this is because they share the same unique rock composition, ‘Mell Fell Conglomerate’, and have weathered into different shapes as a result.
I was jolted out of my reverie by Matt, who was anxious to get packed up and gone. We retraced our steps from last night, this time successfully skirting the ovine shit pit. Looking furtively behind as we headed up a ‘permissive’ footpath, the sheep eyeing us suspiciously as we tried to keep out of view of the farmhouse. At the top of the boggy sheep track we turned right and skirted a plantation of christmas trees. Soft springy looking rocks covered in moss rose up and bashed me on the kneecaps, interspersed with bits of boot wetting bog. Then it was time to make a break for it through the christmas trees. I escaped relatively unscathed with a few scratches, but Matt lost a pocket and nearly a water bottle. Then off up and away from the spiky fingers of the trees, slowly climbing up towards Little Meldrum, the view unfolding in front of us as we ascended.
First Little Meldrum, then Great Meldrum, not Wainwrights but fairly decent sized hills, dwarfed though by most things up here. The distant icy peaks I’d first noticed on Little Mell Fell grew tantalisingly closer, but I knew I wasn’t going to get to see them this time.
After a peaty scramble in the mid morning warmth we were at the trigpoint on Gowbarrow Fell, drinking in the views like parched and weary travellers. The rounded reddish dome of Little Mell Fell, the wooded slopes of Great Mell Fell and in the distance still those unreachable peaks clad in the last of the snow.
As we descended, I was amazed at how the grass and bracken could look so dry and bleached after the deluges that had fallen on it in the last few months. I could have lingered longer here, but we had it in mind to catch a bus at Aira Force to get us into Patterdale for round about lunchtime, and from there the decision could be made as to what to do next.
As we sat at a table outside the Patterdale Hotel drinking our fizzy pop, I’d made the sad decision that no amount of painkillers were going to improve my current affliction. Rather than spend a night camped out complaining about it the sensible decision seemed to be to get a bus back to Penrith, go home and let Matt continue on the next leg of the trip without me. Goodbyes were said, and as I sat waiting for my bus in Patterdale, sadly surveying the view from the most scenic carpark in Britain I thought back over the last twenty four hours.
So on this trip, I’d managed to squeeze in another wild camp and three new fells. The camp, although only my third ever has to be my favourite so far, at such a lovely location on the summit of Little Mell Fell. The wind and rain didn’t put me off one bit, even the fell top grass was really comfortable and springy under my sleep mat. Alfred Wainwright said of Little Mell Fell ‘It is an uninspiring, unattractive, bare and rounded hump – the sublime touch that made a wonderland of the district overlooked Little Mell – and few walkers halt their hurried entrance into the sanctuary to climb and explore it’. I completely disagree. I loved its friendly rounded shape, rich red soils and dark peaty depressions. The fresh morning colours after the stormy night, and to be able to peek out of my tent as the skies lightened and the stars faded was magical, all against a soundtrack of soaring Skylarks.
Great Mell Fell was lovely too, with its wooded slopes, scattered bracken and boulders and the weathered twisted trees, hardly any different to the scene described by Wainwright almost 60 years ago. Gowbarrow Fell was different again, more of a ‘proper’ Lakeland fell with its peat, rock, grass and heather.
All in all I’d had a wonderful trip, albeit very brief, and I’m really pleased that I finally had the opportunity to test my new tent, in some fairly challenging conditions. As I contemplated everything I’d seen on this trip, I thought how fortunate I was to be able to spend time in this wonderful place, and it’s made me even more determined to live up there one day. I just hope I’ll still be fit and well enough to appreciate it when I do.
To remind me of the Skylarks..