Fear and roving in the Lake District

Matt Carroll confronts his vertigo on the Lake District's new Via Ferrata
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The Independent Travel

This could get embarrassing. Having dragged my reluctant girlfriend up to the Lake District for a weekend in the great outdoors and spent all week bigging myself up as the adventurous go-getter, I've come a cropper within minutes of leaving the car park. After harnessing and helmeting up, we're a matter of yards into what should be a straightforward walk up the side of Fleetwith Pike, at Honister slate mine near Keswick, when I freeze at the first obstacle. In front of me is a walkway made from three iron girders, which bridges a gap between two pieces of rock. Three quick strides and I'll be over it, but I can't take my eyes off the drop below. It's 10ft at most – the kind of thing you might see in a kids' adventure playground. And yet, my legs have turned to jelly.

"Come on, what are you waiting for?" asks Maria, who sauntered over without batting an eyelid. I'm just making sure she gets over safely, of course.

Behind me, I hear impatient huffs from two teenage girls who are here with their mum. I'm reminded of a scene from an Indiana Jones film – there's no turning back. I shuffle across like a pensioner who's lost his Zimmer frame, doing my best to act nonchalant. Everyone has their weakness, I tell myself, in an effort to caress my bruised ego – even Mr T was afraid of flying. My personal nemesis is heights. Climbing a stepladder to change a light bulb in my flat is enough to bring me out in a nervous sweat.

For most people, however, this iron bridge is a cinch – the youngsters behind me amble across it with zero fuss. It lies at the start of Honister's recently opened Via Ferrata, or "iron road", a system of metal footholds and ladders hammered into the rock, which enable you to take the quickest course to the top of the mountain. It's based on similar routes in the Italian Dolomites which were installed for moving troops around the mountains as quickly and safely as possible during the First World War.

You attach yourself to a cable that runs the entire length of the route, so if you do lose your footing you're only ever going to fall a few feet before the bungy cord on your harness stops you. At least, that's what our guide, Simon, tells me as I get ready to tackle the next section – a wall of rock coated in ice. This was a lot more challenging than I had expected. I'd envisaged a quick scrabble over some scree, not something akin to actual rock climbing. As Maria disappears over a ledge above, I struggle to find a foothold on the slippery rock. I daren't look down, for fear of confronting the precariousness of my position – not to mention impatient glares from the two girls below, whose soundtrack of tuts and sighs are making me even more flustered.

My feelings of emasculation are compounded by the realisation that this was the route that Honister's miners followed to work every day back in the 19th century – minus the safety cable and artificial footholds. After hauling myself up onto a rocky plateau, Simon gives me an alarming insight into the terrible conditions endured by the men who worked the mine in its heyday.

"Many of them died young from explosions, or being buried under rock-falls inside the mine," he says. "They'd be up at first light and would spend about 12 hours a day working at the face. Children as young as six were employed to light the dynamite, because they could run through the tunnels much quicker than a fully grown adult." Standing here in the fresh air, under a cloudless blue February sky, it's hard to believe that there are 11 miles of tunnels buried deep within the innards of Fleetwith Pike – and 13 more in Dale Head on the opposite side of the valley.

Further up, we come across various leftovers from the mine's heyday, reminders of the daily grind that kept this place going for hundreds of years: bits of cable here; part of the pulley system used to haul railway trucks loaded with rock up and down the mountain each day over there.

By 1891, the mine was producing 3,000 tons of slate a year, with over 100 men employed in extracting huge green boulders known as "clogs" and turning them into handcrafted roof tiles. It was precious stuff; sections of the roof at Buckingham Palace are made from slate that was blasted out of these hills. The terrain becomes mellower as we make our way towards the top, and we reach the summit to be rewarded with the kind of view that poems are written about. In the distance I can see Buttermere Lake and Crummock Water stretching out like plates of glass under the huge sky. On a clear day you can see all the way to Scotland from here. No wonder Wordsworth was so fond of the place.

After taking a more conventional route back down, I have a cup of tea with the mine's current owner, Mark Weir. Generations of his family have worked here, including his grandfather ("Boss"), and Mark purchased it in 1996 after learning of the mine's closure.

"I was flying over it in my helicopter one day, and it occurred to me what a shame it was that the place had closed down. It ripped the heart out of the community," he says. I'm struck by Mark's honesty about his struggle to make the mine work: "I was nearly bankrupted twice," he says, reflecting on the countless nights he spent blasting slate from the same faces as his grandfather.

Honister is consequently a true family affair, with mother Celia manning the reception desk, and Uncle John giving Mark the benefit of his 40 years' slate-mining experience. Even at nearly 70 years old, John is a mountain of a man, with hands like shovels and a laugh that shakes the foundations. He came here as an apprentice, aged 15, when wages were £3 a day and working conditions horrendous. "It gives me huge satisfaction to see the mine open again," he says. "It played such an important part in our history."

Although Honister was the only enclosed mine in Cumbria, reminders of the region's slate quarrying heritage are etched into the landscape all over. And for those of us uncomfortable with heights, it's good to know that you don't have to attach yourself to a cable to access them. The next day we head over to the Old Man of Coniston, part of the Furness Fells, which overlook Coniston Water, where Donald Campbell perished in 1967 while attempting to break his own water speed record. Just minutes into our walk, our guide, Ian, points to a huge gouge cut out of the earth, known locally as Copper Mine Valley.

"They first started quarrying here in Elizabethan times," he says, "and by the Victorian age there were over 600 people toiling away on this hillside."

The only sound you'll hear today is the crunch of small stones underfoot, as legions of walkers invade the Lakes to gulp fresh air and gawp at the views. Halfway up we come to Low Water Tarn: a layer of ice coats it, which makes it look as though it's been covered in cling film. A shaft of sunlight cascading over one of the surrounding ridges creates a petrol-blue spotlight in the centre of the black pool. If you're looking for a walk that doesn't require maps (or much fitness), the Old Man is a good bet. At just 2,635ft above sea level, you can be up and down it in time for lunch. And one of the best places to refuel is Lucy's in Ambleside, with a menu the size of which defies belief. After gorging myself on homemade pâté and a delicious beef stew, I need another walk to work off the calories. I decide to stay at ground-level this time, though.

Traveller's Guide

Matt Carroll stayed at Lindeth Howe hotel, Bowness (015394 45759; www.lindeth-howe.co.uk).

Honister slate mine Via Ferrata costs £19.50 per person (under-16s £9.50). For more information call 017687 77714 or visit www.honister.com

Lucy's of Ambleside: 015394 32888; www.lucysofambleside.co.uk

For more information on guided walks, visit: www.cumbriatouristguides.co.uk.

For more information on the Lake District, visit: www.enjoyengland.com/ruralescapes

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