I sometimes wish I knew the Lake District better than I do. My rather patchy knowledge arises partly from a fixation with the number 3,000: a bit of a Munro thing, a preference -certainly the past- for walks that end at a summit over 3,000 feet high.
So it is that my knowledge of the Western side (which unless you live over there is less accessible) is a lot less well-developed than I would like it to be. I have been to Wasdale a few times and climbed the 3,000-foot Scafells from there but I had never been to Upper Eskdale, until yesterday that is, when F, N and I set off on an exploratory walk.
Upper Eskdale is enclosed by a horseshoe of impressive peaks, the highest of which are Scafell Pike and Scafell, which it shares in common with Wasdale. In the centre of the skyline a pleasingly pointed Eskdale Pike rises above the Esk River much to the satisfaction, I imagine, of people with cameras who don't want to venture too far from the thin ribbon of country lane that winds past the end of the valley.
The only way in is on foot: there are no roads, hotels or campsites within the horseshoe, only footpaths, hills, crags and the Esk River. If you want to get here by car you have to brave the Wrynose and Hardknott Passes, or take 12 miles of winding country lane from the South, or take a circuitous route around the Lake District itself to approach it from the West.
The Esk river is more of a stream than a river here and, for quite a lot of its length, takes the form of pleasantly rocky bathing pools linked by waterfalls. Next time I visit I'll take a towel. As it was, we were restricted to the banks. Much to our amazement -and amusement- as we walked up the valley, we kept running into a group of four young men dressed in helmets, T shirts and wetsuits who were swimming, gill-scrambling and tombstoning their way up the river. They were good-natured lot. They had something of a "Three Men in a Boat" aura about them (well, four in this case, and no boat) that made one feel as good to be alive as they evidently did. It's easy to be a Jeremiah where tombstoning is concerned. The Jeremiahs in this case may be right: speaking for myself, I definitely lack the nerve for it, and don't relish the idea of swapping in a split second a life spent swimming in rivers for one spent in a wheelchair. If nothing else though, these guys certainly made a good case for the importance of having fun.
We stopped for lunch by the side of a rocky pool before tackling the steepest part of the walk. This turned out to be not particularly arduous: it soon emerged in a high basin overlooked by the highest local peaks, Scafell and Scafell Pike, which is an imposing presence seen from this side. One of the joys of walking for me is the discovery of high, secluded valleys in which signs of habitation are invisible and which are accessible only through a certain amount of effort. My imagination being prone to hyperbole, I was reminded in this case of Shipman and Tilman's discovery of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary.
The summits of these mountains were not our objective on this occasion. We crossed the the Esk by teetering over the dry tops of its rapids, thankfully without falling in, and made our way back via a different, high-level path. The mountain tops were free of cloud. The air was sharp and clear and the peaks of the hills that surrounded us stood out in a continuous line, inviting one to walk along it: Scafell, Scafell Pike, Ill Crag, Eskdale Pike, Bowfell, Crinkle Crags. Not today. Walking the "Eskdale Horseshoe" will have to wait -but not for too long, I hope.
11 months ago