Nature Notes

Falling Off Fells

Taking a few days to travel up to Scotland, we reached the quieter Western Lakes via the hair-raising Hard Knott Pass with its switchbacks, 1in3 inclines and a landscape that both dropped away and rose above us at the same time.

The Cumbrian Fells were dizzying; breathtaking in weather that made them look like the railway posters of the 1930’s that I so love. Cloud shadows swept across an ever changing view, revealing peaks and flanks in gold and tawny flashes like a revelation, whilst ravines and gulleys were steeped in deep violet shadow. From the dun coloured tops of the mountains, patches of purple and damson gave way to green bracken or forests of pine and oak: colours from another time, somehow, vintage and nostalgic. The spectacular blue screes of loose stone that plunged down to the still, mirrored lake below were awe-inspiring.

From Wast Water, we headed up Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain. The water ran down to meet us all the way, pouring in white streaks with a muted roar, or a hollow cloop as it disappeared down sink holes. We crossed Lingmell Gill as the summit brightened, then vanished in low grey cloud.

Two thirds up, my son and husband pushed on to the summit, whilst we took the time to take it all in beyond Hollow Stones. I felt overwhelmed by the vastness, too excited, lost for words. Aware of the legacy of those who had walked and written about these mountains – from Wordsworth, Coleridge and Wainwright, to Arthur Ransome, Harry Griffin and Tony Greenbank – what right had I? What knowledge or skills had I, to do anything other than stand gazing, wide-eyed and breathless in my leaky boots?

Looking back, the mountains led the eye down to the glittering lake, on to Seascale, snagging briefly on Sellafield’s cooling towers and out to the hazy-mauve bulk of the Isle of Man. Among the heather and myrtle, I tried to take in more intimate detail. For a moment, the only birds I saw were ravens, plying the updraft, throwing themselves off summits with joyful barrel rolls. Their familiar sight and calls allowed me to orient myself, suddenly bringing things into focus: starry sphagnum moss, cotton grass, bog asphodel – the white rumps of wheatears bouncing over the ling.

I took my reference from the ravens and felt more prepared for the mountains to come, for the wildlife I might see (if I can get my eye in) in just a week. Just then, a strange bird lifts above the ridge: an RAF Tornado silently performs a barrel roll of its own before roaring down the mountainside, leaving me feeling like I’m about to fall off.

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