Hillside Birchover Classic
The Editor heads to Coniston to complete Wainwright’s Southern Fells on a popular summit, for a change…
The Editor completes ’the orange ones’ with an old man...
It’s a hot and sunny Saturday afternoon in the Lake District and the summit of the Old Man of Coniston resembles a buzzing beehive. The air is thick with the scent of sun cream, and barbecues, wafting up from picnickers at the tarn below. Its visitors sprawl on the grass, to rest weary legs and hot heads, while taking in what’s possibly the best view in the world, on a day like today.
The Old Man of Coniston, also known as Coniston Old Man, or simply the Old Man is 803 metres high. The origin of its name, like most mountains, is a bit sketchy, but it’s thought to be a bit of a linguistic mash up. Coniston derives from the Old Norse Konings Tun, meaning ‘King’s Farm’, and the Old Man part is thought to come from the Brythonic maen, which means ‘stone’. The result today, of course, is a rather charming one, and a hike up the Old Man is a popular birthday choice.
Nearby, a group of teenagers are celebrating an eighteenth, mocking the poor birthday boy for being an old man, having officially become an adult! Steve and I chuckle at the distant memory of being 18 and turn our gaze to take in the view below. Five-mile-long Coniston Water resembles a puddle from up here, with sailing boats that look no bigger than the toy ones I used to make as a kid out of matchsticks and serviettes.
No doubt Coniston village is a hive of activity, too, with its ice cream parlours, pubs and cafés, and array of things to do at the lake.
The following day, we took a lake cruise and learned that Arthur Ransome used several places around Coniston Water as inspiration in Swallows and Amazons. Black Cat Island, with its secret harbour, is a particular highlight of the tour, apparently. Not being a fan, this is news to me, but I did know that Donald Campbell had used Coniston Water during the 1950s and 60s for speed record attempts in his famous waterfaring rocket ship, Bluebird, eventually losing his life here in 1967. It was his wife’s wish that he be left to rest here, and so Bluebird, sitting at the bottom of Coniston Water, was Campbell’s grave until 2001 when his body was recovered during the Bluebird Project.
It would seem this was approved by his daughter, Gina, who later gifted the wreckage of Bluebird K7 to the Ruskin Museum in Coniston (yes, John Ruskin lived here, too), and it’s currently undergoing restoration. Donald Campbell is now buried at Coniston cemetery.
As we slowly chugged across the lake on 90-minute cruise, comfortably seated on the outside deck of a little wooden boat that follows the route that Campbell took, it’s impossible to imagine what it must have felt like to attempt 300mph across these tranquil waters, let alone in a contraption that looked fresh off the Thunderbirds set.
The orange one
That the summit of the Old Man is rather busy comes as no surprise, it just takes our senses a little by surprise because we have not taken the usual route to get here. Nor is it our first mountain summit of the day. Having taken the back route, as it were, this is in fact our third summit and we have barely seen a soul all day, until now.
And this is the bit where I feel I should apologise to regular readers of Campervan, because you’re no doubt bored of hearing about all my trips to the Lake District as I work my way through all 214 Wainwright fells. But the good news is that, at the time of writing, I only have 25 left, so it will all be over soon for you!
For the record (and in my own defence), I feel I should also mention that I do go to other places in my campervan, but the weather is usually rubbish. The sun only shines when I go to the Lakes and, as we all know, just like on
TV, the sun only shines in magazines…
So, back to the Old Man. We’re here for a little celebration of our own – to complete Wainwright’s Book 4, The Southern Fells, aka “the orange one”. Book 4 (of seven) features 30 of the Wainwright fells and contains some absolute corkers – and some of my favourites – including Scafell Pike, Crinkle Crags and Bowfell. That we have saved the Old Man of Coniston until last is mainly a fluke.
We’re keen on circular ridge walks and so we’d decided early on that we’d do the Old Man as part of a longer walk, in order to take in another pair of Wainwrights – Dow Crag and Brim Fell.
It’s a circular walk that could be tackled in either direction but we’ve decided to do it clockwise for two reasons. Firstly, we don’t fancy taking the main drag up from Coniston, which is likely to be busy with tourists. Secondly, since this walk would mark the end of ‘the orange ones’, it seemed only right that the Old Man should be the closing chapter on Book 4.
Besides, we usually complete Wainwright books on a fell nobody besides Wainwrighters will ever have heard of, let alone visited – usually a grassy bog somewhere far-flung in no man’s land that takes all day to walk to – so it’s a novelty for us to be completing Book 4 on a popular fell. As a result, it’s easy to get to and hardly requires any navigation on a clear day.
Dow is not a female deer
From the campsite, we follow a footpath towards Torver for a short while, where we turn off just before the village to join a bridleway that soon starts to head uphill.
Of course, the Lake District is well known for its mining history, so the walk goes past a number of disused quarries, some of which are now filled with water and look very inviting on a hot summer’s day, but swimming would be dangerous, so there are fences and signs warning passers-by to keep out.
The old quarry tracks are cart-width and, therefore, make for very easy walking, even two abreast, and we soon reach Torver Bridge, where a choice of footpaths presents a selection of options for the day, all of which seem appealing. We notice a couple of families with children all carrying lilos and bodyboards, heading straight up to the tarn – Goat’s Water – that sits in a bowl at the foot of the Old Man. Unlike the quarries, people are allowed to swim in tarns, and I have observed that lots of people indeed do. I, myself, have indulged up to my ankles before becoming concerned that hypothermia may set in. Other (wiser) walkers are following a cart track around the base of the Old Man, heading to Coniston village.
For us, however, it's onwards and upwards and, shortly, we peel off the cart track to head steeply up the nose of Brown Pike. At 682m high, this marks the start of our ridge walk. We’ve also worked up an appetite, so we take a sandwich break here and sit down on the grassy summit to admire the views.
Another couple, with
a dog, are doing the same thing, but otherwise we have the summit to ourselves.
Facing southeast, we can see most of Coniston Water in front of us. It’s our first proper glimpse of the day, and we’re soon discussing Donald Campbell’s adventures.
If we turn our heads to the left, we can now also see the summit of the Old Man, which is marked by a prominent stone cairn. It’s only 11am but it already looks busy over there, the large summit cairn standing still amongst a scattering of little matchstick men zipping to and fro like ants on a mission. We’ll soon be joining them, but, first, Dow Crag.
From Brown Pike, we head north along the ridge path. The terrain is rocky and we know we’re in the mountains now. Straight ahead of us is the heart of the Lake District National Park and we try to work out where Scafell Pike (England’s highest mountain) is.
At 778m high, Dow Crag is not to be sniffed at, either, and its summit is a collection of rocks that requires some scrambling to climb up to. On the top, I brave standing on a ledge to stare into the abyss of Goat’s Water that’s now directly below. It’s no surprise that this is a favourite mountain among climbers and there’s said to be a route up from Goat’s Water, although I can’t make it out. There’s also a Mountain Rescue stretcher box located on the face of Dow Crag, which we later spot from the other side of the bowl, near the Old Man.
To the brim
Having scrambled down the other side of Dow Crag, we soon reach the end of the ridge, where we get to a crossroad of footpaths on Goat Hawes. One of the paths heads down to Goat’s Water and we figure this must be a popular route back down the Old Man, as a lot of people seem to be heading this way.
But we are walking in the opposite direction, uphill again to the summit of Brim Fell, which stands at 796m. The summit is so wide and flat that I reckon you could land a plane on it, although its giant rocky summit cairn might get in the way. By footpath standards, this is a motorway, and we can clearly see the Old Man to our right. To our left, the path leads to Swirl How – another Wainwright, and we reminisce about the time we did this one. Another scorcher of a summer’s day and we happened upon the wreckage of an RCAF Halifax bomber on nearby Great Carrs, which crashed here in 1944 during a night
navigation exercise. Not much of it remains today, but it’s still identifiable as a plane.
But now it’s time to turn our backs on Swirl How and head over to the Old Man of Coniston – our final summit of the day and our very last of Wainwright’s Southern Fells. As we approach, the number of people around rapidly increases. We can’t yet see the main path up from Coniston because it’s over the other side of the mountain, so it’s been concealed from our view all day. However, as soon as we reach the summit and peer over, we’re struck by how busy it is. Briefly, we join the swarm around the summit to grab a selfie, to serve only as a reminder to our future selves that we completed ‘the orange book’ here.
Just below us, another tarn – Low Water – looks very inviting indeed in the midday heat and even we are tempted to join the crowds, whooping and shrieking as they brave a dip in the freezing water. We head down and then walk around the tarn a little bit to find ourselves a secluded spot on the grass, where we lay on our backs, gazing up at the mountains while dangling our feet in the cold, refreshing water. Then Steve lets out a proper schoolgirl scream, “Ah, get it off me! There’s a fish eating my foot – piranha!” I look down and see a newt. Unfortunately, by the time I grab my camera, it has escaped Steve’s flapping size 12s and hidden under a rock.
I poke fun at him for an appropriate amount of time while we eat a sandwich, then we carry on our merry way.
On the tiles
We’re back on a quarry path and, all of a sudden, we stumble upon a disused slate mine. We spot buildings and mine openings, and metal cables, pipes and winches strewn about the mountains indicate that it can’t have been out of use for that long.
A little further down, we encounter more buildings and machinery. A small handwritten sign states, “Archaeological site. Please don’t disturb this fragile site. Leave iron artifacts in place. Thank you.”
Later, we learn that there is evidence of slate extraction around the Old Man dating back to circa 1200. During the Victorian era, slate mining became extensive and more efficient methods were needed, and so compressed air was used to power drills and winches. This required a power source, so a powerhouse was built next to the existing smithy here, using water from a reservoir high up on the mountain to power a Pelton wheel. The quarry was in operation until the 1960s, when new sources of slate put paid to the quarries on the Old Man.
Just beyond the quarry, the path reaches a fork. Straight on leads down to Coniston, but we peel off to the right to head in the direction of our campsite. As we round a corner, we assume it’s a mirage, but no! An ice cream van glistens in the strong afternoon sun. It even has its own parking spot, so it must be popular.
Our pace quickens to a jog as we get nearer, and those simple orange ice lollies were the best thing ever! Well, until we got to the Ship Inn, where a cold pint of local ale was the best thing ever.