The Lake District: Nirvana in the North

Ash, alder, sycamore. Falls of rock. Black water. Wave upon wave of peaks swelling into a heavy sky. This is the Neolithic landscape of the Northern Lakes, and it is heaven

The North Lake District has some of the toughest and most spectacular scenery in England, cursed by farmers, sighed over by poets and battered, since the whole concept of tourism was invented, by hordes of visitors. This land of the Cumbria High Fells is not my home - that lies in the soft, enclosing valleys of west Dorset - but it is where I go, like millions of others, to recapture the sense of awe and splendour that only mountains can give. North of Keswick you have Skiddaw and Blencathra. To the east of the Langdale Pikes is beautiful Helvellyn; to the west are Scafell and Pillar, a favourite with Edwardian members of the Fell & Rock Climbing Club who photographed each other, in splendid moustaches and boots, striking poses on the summit.

The North Lake District has some of the toughest and most spectacular scenery in England, cursed by farmers, sighed over by poets and battered, since the whole concept of tourism was invented, by hordes of visitors. This land of the Cumbria High Fells is not my home - that lies in the soft, enclosing valleys of west Dorset - but it is where I go, like millions of others, to recapture the sense of awe and splendour that only mountains can give. North of Keswick you have Skiddaw and Blencathra. To the east of the Langdale Pikes is beautiful Helvellyn; to the west are Scafell and Pillar, a favourite with Edwardian members of the Fell & Rock Climbing Club who photographed each other, in splendid moustaches and boots, striking poses on the summit.

Scafell Pike attracts the conquering type of visitor because, at 3,210ft, it is the highest point in England. But it is also a potent memorial, for in 1920, Lord Leconfield, its owner, gave it to the National Trust in memory of the men of the Lake District "who fell for God and King, for freedom, peace and right in the Great War". Ringing words. Remember them when you look out over the glinting landscape of lake and tarn, scree and scrub, that spreads out around you from Scafell's crest.

Did Neolithic man ever feel the urge to storm Scafell? He was close to this place, fashioning axes on the slopes of Great Langdale from the Ordovician rock. Or did he stay sensibly on the lower contours where, later in the Dark Ages, farmers started the slow process of clearing and enclosing small patches of land for their sheep and cattle? In this landscape, the tamed and the wild exist cheek by jowl. The small fields, with their stone-wall buffers, represent survival in the harshest of environments. You see it nowhere more clearly than at Wasdale, a long thin valley where scree tumbles precipitously into the dark, enigmatic embrace of Wast Water.

The best thing about Wasdale is that it lies at the end of a No Through Road, and once you have threaded your way in there is little reason ever to get out. Its relative inaccessibility means that it has changed far less than other, more visited, parts of the Lakes; electricity only came here in the late 1970s. The road through the dale finally bumps its nose into the fell at the end, conveniently close to the door of the Wasdale Head Inn. Yewbarrow sits humpily to the left. Black Sail Pass stretches ahead and Scafell beetles over the brow of the fell on the right.

Go there in October, forget Scafell and make instead for Illgill Head, where you can spreadeagle yourself in bracken and whin a mere 2,000ft above sea level. Here you can cruise like a glider, watching the pattern of peaks and fells, tarns and rivers rearrange themselves as you swing round the crescent of the fell ridge. Often, at this suspended time of year, the lake is so still that it throws back an immaculate mirror image of fell and rock, scree and sky.

Shadows, Brobdingnagian in the morning light, scud across the landscape or lie in silhouette on the other side of the valley. The sky may be startlingly blue, but don't trust it. From nowhere, weird heavy clouds will pull themselves together to drape heavily over the shoulders of Great Gable.

From the saddle above Fence Wood, land drops on one side over fans of rough scree into Wast Water. On the other side, breaking waves of views stretch to Eskdale. Beyond that is the sea, gleaming hazily around Seascale. Between the high peaks, the saddles are made from heath and mire, peat and acid grassland. In patches of soggy moss you can find huge colonies of sundew, one of the few carnivorous plants native to Britain. It hugs the ground, a rosette of small reddish, spoon-shaped leaves which bristle with hairs, each tipped with a drop of fluid. Insects land on the plant, stick to the hairs and are doomed. The leaf closes in on itself and the flies are dissolved in the sundew's home-made soup.

You can drop off the top of the fell alongside Pickle Coppice, typical of the sparse plantations of evergreens that hang on to the sides of the slopes. In the valley bottoms, deciduous trees predominate: ash, alder, sycamore. When it has been raining, the sides of the hills here splinter into small streams, charging through moss and ferns to empty themselves in the River Mite below. Once in the valley, you can turn back up the hill, climbing between two narrow flanks of forestry plantation to come out on Tongue Moor, easy walking among rough-coated sheep. Burnmoor Tarn, black and treeless, lies on the right, Scafell beyond it. By tea time you will be back on the saddle below Illgill and by 6pm you will be taking your boots off at the inn, which at dusk shines like a beacon at Wasdale Head.

The inn is by far the biggest building in the hamlet, three storeys high and, like many of the buildings in nearby Keswick - the only large town in the area - it's painted white with black surrounds to the windows. There is a church, a farm called RowHead, and a few scattered cottages, all built in the materials typical of the district: rough rubblestone walls, and roofs of slate that shine sullenly in rain.

The flat land of the valley head (and there is not much of it) is divided into a jigsaw of tiny, irregular fields bounded by thick boulderstone walls. W G Hoskins, the grandfather of English landscape history, describes it as a medieval landscape. The National Trust, which owns more than 30,000 acres of land in this area, dates it to the 16th century. Whenever it was, it represents hard labour and thin pickings.

But viewed, say, from the windy flanks of Pillar on a bad day, the valley, with its pattern of bright green fields and silver river, looks like nirvana. To reach Pillar from Wasdale, you may take the Black Sail Pass, a motorway of a trail, then strike off to the left past the Looking Stead on to the switchback of rocky mounds beyond. If the sun is still shining and the sky is still blue, the bulk of Yewbarrow will be cutting Wast Water into two shining halves with the gleaming disc of Burnmoor Tarn above it. But often on the final scramble to Pillar, when you are at 3,000ft, a wind strikes; a malevolent, exhausting wind. With every step, you battle for balance like a novice tightrope walker. The High Fells show their cruel side and, like an animal, you crawl into the lee of a sheltering rock.

The weather, which we are used to dominating, needs to be taken seriously up here. The wind can pick you up from the ground and drop you in places you'd rather not be. Windy Gap, lower down, presents a potential escape route. You either keep to the high ground and get down gradually by way of Red Pike or shoot down the scree run on the left to shorten the circuit and get out of the wind. The instant exit leaves you slipping and swearing down a half-mile chute until it drops you on the rocky grassland of Mosedale, where the sheepfolds wait, refuge incarnate.

Every October, a Shepherds' Meet is held in Wasdale. For more than 1,000 years, sheep have sculpted this landscape. At the show gimmers and rams bulge between makeshift hurdles, their fleeces dressed with reddle. As more and more sheep pass through their hands, the shepherds become covered in it too, trousers and jackets gathering the same red-brown ochre tints as the fleeces. The best Herdwick Sheep are brought to the show. So are the best fell hounds, to race an extraordinary 10-mile circuit round the fells of Wasdale: up Mosedale, round Yewbarrow, back by Lingmell and Burnthwaite. The dogs are probably the ugliest you will ever see, like rangy foxhounds with narrow heads and tails, big feet and intelligent eyes.

Hounds are slipped in one of the small, walled fields, close to the church. The owners crouch in a jumble, the dogs straining between their legs, held back by the folds of loose skin at their necks. As the starter's handkerchief goes down, the hounds streak away down the field, following a trail laid beforehand by a fell runner dragging a scent-soaked bundle of rags. The hounds jump 6ft stone walls like steeplechasers before disappearing in the bracken.

For the next tense half-hour you will only catch glimpses of them, way up on the hills, streaming in a line along the scent, hurtling across streams, flying over boulders, indistinguishable to the naked eye. But when they come into view over the last mile, the hounds' owners race to the finishing line blowing whistles, screaming their dogs' names, and waving big handkerchiefs in the air. The hounds clear the final wall amid a wild cacophony of cheering and banging and whistling and hurl themselves, molten bundles of off-white and brown, into the arms of their owners. Only in the wild landscape of the North Lake District can you imagine a spectacle as immense and moving as this.

This is an extract from 'The English Landscape' (Profile Books). To order a copy for £20.99 including P&P (RRP £25), call 020-8354 5518

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