Ni­cholas Crane in the Pen­nines

The TV star and RGS pres­i­dent and a won­der­ful tale of weather.

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: PHILIP THOMAS PHOTOS: TOM BAI­LEY

T WAS THE BIRTH­PLACE of mod­ern cli­mate science in Bri­tain. But it wasn’t a lab­o­ra­tory in a lead­ing univer­sity. Nor was it a cosy study that fos­tered the ob­ses­sion of a rad­i­cal ge­nius. It was in fact a rick­ety shack perched 2782 feet up on the windswept crest of Cum­bria’s North Pen­nines. And for the man who ded­i­cated much of his life to ob­serv­ing the weather up here, Great Dun Fell proved to be a pe­cu­liar kind of bliss.

Weather is a na­tional ob­ses­sion for us Brits – a peren­nial talk­ing point which only in­ten­si­fies come au­tumn, when a rab­ble of storms sweeps in from the At­lantic. But for Gor­don Manley, it was an ob­ses­sion he would take to new heights… lit­er­ally. In 1932, the ge­og­ra­pher and keen hill­walker be­gan gath­er­ing me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal data on Great Dun Fell. Five years later he built a weather sta­tion at the top, where his metic­u­lous ef­forts would even­tu­ally pro­duce a long-term pic­ture of cli­mate in the Bri­tish Isles. Buf­feted by the ‘Helm Wind’ – Bri­tain’s only named wind – the fell’s ex­posed sum­mit was ideal for ob­serv­ing ex­treme weather, and Manley would investigate this rare phe­nom­e­non dur­ing his time here.

85 years af­ter Manley em­barked on his sci­en­tific ad­ven­ture, the story of Great Dun Fell ll is told through a walk as part of the Royal Ge­o­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety’s Dis­cov­er­ing Bri­tain project, which cel­e­brates some of the UK’s best­loved and most in­trigu­ing land­scapes. Join­ing us to track down Manley’s hill­top hide­away, is a writer and broad­caster who’s used to un­earthing sto­ries in the land­scape. Well known as the pre­sen­ter of Coast, Map Man and Great Bri­tish Jour­neys, Ni­cholas Crane also hap­pens to be pres­i­dent of the RGS.

“Manley and the Helm Wind are com­pletely pe­cu­liar to Great Dun Fell – that’s what makes this a ge­o­graph­i­cally-de­fined walk,” ex­plains Nick, as we set out from the tiny vil­lage of Knock at the foot of the fell. “For me, hav­ing sto­ries at­tached to walks al­ways makes them much more in­ter­est­ing.”

The sky is over­cast, ex­cept for a few scat­tered shafts of light needling the che­quered greens of the Eden Valley. Up a green lane, hawthorn roots tie them­selves into knots along the verge. Cross­ing the pas­tures which lap against lower slopes of the moun­tain, the path dips to bridge a leafy gill and joins the well-traipsed course of the Pen­nine Way as our premier na­tional trail nears its sum­mit.

Our route rises through dry­s­tone walls into the steeper, teeper, wilder ground of the open fell. Sidestep­ping the glacier-gouged out­crops jut­ting out from the scarp of the North Pen­nines, we reach the he domed top of Eng­land’s bar­ren back­bone and come to the neat, an­gu­lar cur­rick of Knock Old


Man. Pe­cu­liar to the north­east, ‘cur­rick’ is an­other word for cairn. On the map, they’re sprin­kled across Knock Fell – a sign that we’re cross­ing a lin­guis­tic wa­ter­shed as well as a lit­eral one. The Rivers Tyne and Tees rise nearby, be­gin­ning their cir­cuitous jour­neys to the North Sea. Cur­ricks mark a dry path across the boggy fell top be­fore a cause­way of stone slabs shows the way. As we track north­west, a gi­ant golf ball looms on the hori­zon, adorn­ing the sum­mit of Great Dun Fell.

It would be an un­der­state­ment to say that a cer­tain guide­book writer was not a fan. In his Pen­nine Way Com­pan­ion, a dis­grun­tled Al­fred Wain­wright con­demns it as ‘the ugli­est of all sum­mits.’ At the time, he was com­plain­ing about the radar masts first erected here in 1948 and to­day a mod­ern radome con­tin­ues to scan the skies of north­ern Eng­land – an all-see­ing Eye of Sau­ron for Bri­tain’s air traffic con­trollers. But while Wain­wright was justly af­fronted by the ‘mon­strous mis­cel­lany of para­pher­na­lia’ on top, it would be wrong to as­sume that Great Dun Fell is a moun­tain oth­er­wise un­blem­ished by man.

Where the Pen­nine Way makes a bee­line for the sum­mit, a man-made ravine slices across our path. Dun­fell Hush is a legacy of lead min­ing


– a scar torn into the hill­side when a tor­rent of water was un­leashed to ex­pose valu­able seams of galena. Around the rim, the ground is heavy with spoil, laden with traces of ore. From the age-old tra­di­tion of up­land sheep farm­ing to more re­cent eye­sores, the land­scape is sel­dom nat­u­ral.

Amid the empty ex­panse of moor­land to the east, we can spy the iso­lated shoot­ing lodge where Gor­don Manley stayed with the Arm­strong fam­ily dur­ing his reg­u­lar trips to Great Dun Fell. Three miles from the sum­mit and 1800 feet up, Manley reck­oned Moor House was the most re­mote dwelling in Eng­land. He de­scribed the North Pen­nines as “the most ex­ten­sive area of bleak un­com­pro­mis­ing up­land that Eng­land pos­sesses”. Drawn to this land­scape of ex­tremes, he paints a beguiling pic­ture of stark, oth­er­worldly beauty.

Manley’s early years on Great Dun Fell co­in­cided with gath­er­ing storm clouds of a dif­fer­ent kind, threat­en­ing to en­gulf Bri­tain. Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, it was hardly sur­pris­ing that his ac­tiv­i­ties were at­tract­ing the sus­pi­cions of lo­cal peo­ple down in the Vale of Eden. Ru­mours were cir­cu­lat­ing that Manley had been ar­rested as a Ger­man spy and his re­search find­ings were even deemed a na­tional se­cret.



Emerg­ing onto the sum­mit, we skirt the perime­ter of the radar sta­tion. It’s like walk­ing onto the set of a spy or sci-fi thriller. In the chain of Pen­nine tops, Great Dun Fell is a ju­nior part­ner – bet­tered by the 2930 feet of neigh­bour­ing Cross Fell. And it’s also the loftier of the two which is more widely associated with the vi­o­lent Helm Wind. This un­com­mon but no­to­ri­ously vi­o­lent nor’easter hur­tles down the western flank of the North Pen­nines, bat­ter­ing the towns and vil­lages in its wake. It’s the na­tion’s only named wind and Manley’s re­search on Great Dun Fell would ex­plain how this lo­calised weather event cre­ates a cylin­dri­cal, ‘ro­tor’ cloud called the Helm Bar. Record­ing wind speed, tem­per­a­ture and rain­fall in all sea­sons, the fu­ture Pro­fes­sor would some­times spend the night in his hill­top ob­ser­va­tory, tucked up in a sleep­ing bag with a brew on the boil. It’s an ad­ven­tur­ous ap­proach Nick can re­late to: “I’d have loved to have done some­thing like sleep­ing alone up on moun­tain tops. A lot of peo­ple would have as­sumed that he was suf­fer­ing for his science by sleep­ing in this small wooden hut, but it’s quite clear he en­joyed it. Who wouldn’t? When the Helm Wind blew, that hut would have been rock­ing from side to side and it must have been hugely ex­cit­ing.”

Ex­cit­ing it may be, but we’re grate­ful it’s not mak­ing an ap­pear­ance to­day. Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the sharp end of the Helm Wind, Manley re­called strug­gling to stand in gales reach­ing speeds of 60mph. His­tor­i­cal ac­counts tell of up­turned haystacks and horse riders get­ting blown from their sad­dle. Many of the win­ters Manley spent on Great Dun Fell were plagued by sub-zero tem­per­a­tures and snow­drifts, prompt­ing his lov­ing mother to knit him thick socks for his for­ays on the fell. We look for traces of Manley’s hut, but we can only guess at the ex­act lo­ca­tion, some­where in­side a fenced en­clo­sure con­tain­ing the re­mains of later in­stru­ments. Ideal for ob­serv­ing at­mo­spheric con­di­tions, Great Dun Fell is an equally per­fect

perch for sur­vey­ing the Cum­brian land­scape. Be­low us, Sil­ver­band Mine looks like a prospec­tor’s out­post from the Wild West.

As our eyes wan­der down the es­carp­ment of the North Pen­nines and across the fer­tile breadth of the Eden Valley, it’s easy to see why the Ro­mans favoured it as a cor­ri­dor to the north, much as it re­mains so to­day. Be­yond, the lumps and bumps of the Lake District are laid out like a panoramic poster, al­beit one lack­ing the help­ful la­bels for iden­ti­fy­ing the far-off fell tops. Yet even on a lacklustre day like this, the shapely con­tours of Blen­cathra and Helvel­lyn are prom­i­nent enough to dis­cern among the haze.

Tak­ing our leave from the Pen­nine Way as it rolls north to­wards the sum­mit of Cross Fell, our de­scent fol­lows an­other of Great Dun Fell’s claims to fame: Bri­tain’s high­est met­alled road. Climb­ing most of the 848 me­tres to the radar sta­tion at the top, this Tar­mac road is pri­vate for much of its length, but not barred to walk­ers, for whom it pro­vides an easy re­turn to the valley. There’s an alpine flavour to this road, which is lined by snow poles as it pitches into a gul­ley. Melt­ing into a fa­mil­iar coun­try lane, it rounds the out­ly­ing hillock of Knock Pike and brings us back to the vil­lage where we be­gan.

Like the man who pi­o­neered cli­mate science at its sum­mit, Great Dun Fell is an ec­cen­tric among moun­tains. “I re­late to what Manley was up to,” re­flects Nick, “I know why he was so ob­ses­sive, why he be­lieved that ge­og­ra­phy was a science worth pur­su­ing. He be­lieved in the im­por­tance of un­der­stand­ing the cli­mate and look­ing for pat­terns.” A land­scape can drive peo­ple to do great things. For Gor­don Manley, it was the ‘wildest and least-vis­ited tract in Eng­land.’


GE­OG­RA­PHER IN THE FIELD A rare day away from the desk for writer, broad­caster and RGS Pres­i­dent Ni­cholas Crane. PEN­NINE KING The bleak up­land of the North Pen­nines AONB is crowned by Cross Fell (be­hind), which pips Great Dun Fell by 45m.

Manley’s fell-top weather sta­tion dur­ing the win­ter of 1939. Note his skis out­side.

PEN­NINE WAY Our walk sam­ples a leg of Bri­tain’s first na­tional trail: the 268-mile Pen­nine Way, opened in 1965. MAP MAN & COM­PASS KID Get­ting our bear­ings amid the mud­dling moor­land of the North Pen­nines.

CUM­BRIAN CUR­RICKS ‘Knock Old Man’ marks the par­ish bound­ary of Dufton and Long Marton in the his­toric county of West­mor­land.

TRAIL­BLAZER Born in 1902, Gor­don Manley took weather read­ings from the age of 12, even­tu­ally be­com­ing a lead­ing fig­ure in cli­ma­tol­ogy.

UP­LAND EYE The con­spic­u­ous radome on Great Dun Fell mon­i­tors civil avi­a­tion over north­ern Eng­land.

ME­TE­O­RO­LOG­I­CAL DE­BRIS Fol­low­ing Manley’s ex­am­ple, a later field sta­tion on Great Dun Fell was set up by me­te­o­rol­o­gists from the Univer­sity of Manch­ester. Its re­mains sur­vive near the sum­mit.

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