Nicholas Crane in the Pennines
The TV star and RGS president and a wonderful tale of weather.
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
‘‘ FOR ME, HAVING STORIES ATTACHED TO WALKS ALWAYS MAKES THEM MUCH MORE INTERESTING.
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
‘‘ THE FELL’S EXPOSED SUMMIT WAS IDEAL FOR OBSERVING EXTREME WEATHER, AND MANLEY WOULD INVESTIGATE THIS PHENOMENON. ’’
– 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. ’’
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.’
‘‘ WE LOOK FOR TRACES OF MANLEY’S HUT, BUT WE CAN ONLY GUESS AT THE EXACT LOCATION… ’’
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.