Stac Pollaidh

One of Scotland’s most renowned mountains is Stac Pollaidh (often Anglicised to Stac Polly), located in Assynt, around 70 miles north-west of Inverness. Famous for its extraordinary rock scenery, it is easily accessible, being relatively low in height (just over 2000ft) and close to a public road. Having visited for the first time last week, I felt it was worth sharing my impressions – this is a treat not be missed but, saying that, not without its obvious risks.

Driving north from the small town of Ullapool, after about 10 miles Stac Pollaidh first becomes visible to the west, its unique fin-like shape irresistibly drawing the eye:DSC04451Turning left on a side road, an additional 5-mile drive brings you to the car park at the foot of the mountain (note there’s only room for about 10 cars so on busy days you might want to try and arrive early). From here you get a better impression of the challenge ahead: DSC04444The first objective is the low point on the ridge, about three quarters along to the right. In days gone by, you took a beeline to it from the car park, but heavy erosion of the path (on a mountain that nature is rapidly eroding anyway) led to the construction of a sensible alternative. So now, the path circuits the mountain, and you arrive on the ridge from the rear. I chose to travel anti-clockwise, ie climbing to the right of the photo. (Later – while it was satisfying to complete the circuit – I found the descent route to be pretty boggy by comparison; thus you might consider climbing and returning on the same, drier, route).

The climb to the ridge provides no technical difficulties and moderately fit walkers should be able to do it in an hour or so (you also get the bonus of fantastic views over miles of wild Assynt landscape). However, from this point on things become rather different. The situation is tremendous, with the mountain plummeting away almost sheer from your feet. And all around, bizarre rock towers and pinnacles overwhelm the senses. Many will feel that at this point they will have come far enough. DSC04448.JPGBraver souls may consider a traverse west along the ridge. Well, the reward is increasingly improbable outcrops of sandstone, sculpted into precariously-balanced pillars, and increasingly sensational situations, with severe levels of exposure:

DSC04445DSC04446The flip side is that at several points progress is impossible without a very good head for heights, and the ability to climb and circumvent various rocky obstacles. Having managed to scramble up a steep gully, and then skirt an awkward jutting-out rock, I baulked at “the crux” of the ridge – a 10ft rock tower with a sheer drop of 2000ft on either side. That would have been a step too far for me.

Overall then, Stac Pollaidh provides a pretty stark example of the balance between interest and risk that comes with mountain exploration. Proceed along the ridge with caution, and know your reasonable limits. Reports of a recent fatality on the mountain only underline this point.  Incidentally, I was travelling pretty lightweight, in fellrunning shoes and with a light pack, and this helped on the scrambling sections.

Coming home, I found this spectacular drone footage of the mountain, which says it all really. Blimey, did I really go up there?

Song Lyric Sunday: Van Morrison – “Streets of Arklow”

Haven’t played the Song Lyric Sunday game for while now but Helen’s theme this week prompts me to briefly share this song. Simply because – it’s one of my favourites on probably my favourite ever album. As neither are particularly well-known, I can only encourage you to give 4 minutes of your time to “Streets of Arklow” and, if you like it, the rest of “Veedon Fleece”.  To try and describe it – something of a cross between Irish folk and rock – but actually, trying to bracket it does it a disservice – it’s just a unique sound. Hope some of you enjoy it as much as I have over the years.

And as we walked
Through the streets of Arklow
Oh the color
Of the day wore on
And our heads
Were filled with poetry
And the morning
A-comin’ on to dawn

And as we walked
Through the streets of Arklow
And gay perfusion
In god’s green land
And the gypsy’s rode
With their hearts on fire
They say “We love to wander,”
“Lord we love,”
“Lord we love to roam…”

And as we walked
Through the streets of Arklow
In a drenching beauty
Rolling back ’til the day
And I saw your eyes
They was shining, sparkling crystal clear
And our souls were clean
And the grass did grow
And our souls were clean
And the grass did grow
And our souls were clean
And the grass did grow

And as we walked
Through the streets of Arklow

(Written by Van Morrison, 1974)

Walking over uneven ground

Review of “Mariner – A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge” by Malcolm Guite


I’m currently working at a charity shop with a good range of books on our shelves, but behind the scenes you get a slightly different picture of what the Great British Public are donating to charity. Just how many copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, The Da Vinci Code and anything by Jeremy Clarkson are there in the world? Anyway, the fact that these books aren’t wanted anymore tells you all you need to know about them….

So, it’s been a relief to get hold of a much more substantial title this week – “Mariner”, a new biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge – by Malcolm Guite, recently out in paperback. I’m usually a library or charity shop addict, but this was £15 on a new book very well spent.

It’s almost 2 centuries since the death of the revered Romantic Poet, so there are plenty of biographies already out there, but this one has found a new and refreshing way of telling his life story – paralleling his ups and downs with the plot of his most famous work – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. So for example, the Mariner infamously shoots the albatross for no apparent reason….. equally, Coleridge, on hearing of the death of his son, unnecessarily delayed his return from a trip to Germany by several months. Later, the Mariner falls into the pit of despair, drifting “alone on a wide, wide sea”, before slowly realising his mistake in killing the albatross and returning home, renewed. Similarly, Coleridge experienced the horrors of opium addiction, but with careful supervision managed to make something of the final years of his life. Indeed, Guite explains how – 20 years after writing the poem – Coleridge had sufficiently recognised how his own life mirrored that of the Mariner for him to add an instructive “Gloss” to the poem (to the left of the text – see photo above) and even to start referring to himself as “The Mariner”.

The book’s structure is not only an effective way of telling a life story, but also of bringing the whole of the famous poem itself to life. At 625 lines, over 7 parts, the Rime can sometimes feel a daunting prospect for the reader (I have to admit to getting a little bit bogged down in the middle sections before – like the Mariner himself). But in considering the Rime as a whole, and giving equal emphasis to each of the 7 parts, Guite allows you to see the whole of Coleridge’s vision. Just as there is much more to Coleridge’s life than the annus mirabilis of 1797/8 and his friendship with Wordsworth, so does an albatross round the neck and water water everywhere only scratch the surface of the poem.

Guite also wishes to address an apparent oversight in previous biographies – namely the importance of Coleridge’s Christian faith in both his life and poetry – and argues the point convincingly. This is not to say that either the book or the Rime is exclusively for Christian readers though. I found the passages explaining the source of Coleridge’s inspiration illuminating. And the tale of the Mariner is universal, and can be viewed at a number of levels – a good yarn, dozens of nifty rhymes and phrases, simple moral messages (“don’t do stupid things”, “learn from your mistakes”, “look after nature”) as well as extending to the full-blown religious allegory. Perhaps that helps the Rime remain as relevant today as ever.

Finally, having previously blogged on Coleridge’s fellwalking adventures (not once but twice!), I was interested to read Guite’s take on this habit. After all, the Rime was largely composed on a 40-mile walk in 1797 with the Wordsworths, and around this time their mutual friend William Hazlitt observed (quoted on pp 113-114):

Coleridge has told me that he himself liked to compose in walking over uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood; whereas Wordsworth always wrote (if he could) walking up and down a straight gravel walk.

Like the changing seas his Mariner was navigating, “Walking over uneven ground” seems a fair metaphor for Coleridge’s tumultuous life, and Guite has struck on a novel way of presenting it. I zipped through the 400-odd pages of “Mariner” in just a few days. This is one book I won’t be donating to our charity shop in a hurry.

September in the Lakes with YHA



This is a blog with a slight difference. In September I’ve been doing some volunteering for the YHA (Youth Hostels Association) in Borrowdale in the Lake District, and in between times exploring the area, mainly on foot. I’ve decided that as good a way as any of describing how it’s gone is just to reproduce extracts from my daily diary, and to share some of my photos. I’ve really enjoyed my 3 weeks volunteering and am very grateful to the staff at YHA Borrowdale for giving me the opportunity to volunteer and for welcoming me into the team. 

Just to provide a bit of context: I ended my most recent paid job back in August. The blog begins with me thinking about what to do next when we got back from our family summer holiday at the beginning of September. It ends when I went off to enquire about a paid role with YHA at another hostel…. so this may not be the end of my time with YHA!

I didn’t have much internet access while I was up in the Lakes and (ironically enough for a blogger) I didn’t miss it. I packed quite a lot in around my volunteering and, typing up my notes, it’s been interesting to reflect on how I spent my free time while away from the routines and conveniences of home. 

I’ve included some notes* at the end to explain some of the locations/references mentioned. The geography of Borrowdale is best understood with the help of an OS map, of course… 



Sat 2 September (home, ie Leeds)

I’m planning a 3-day youth hostelling trip this week. Innuendo from all members of family nudging me towards making it a more vocational trip, ie exploring volunteering opportunities. I may try and make initial enquiries tomorrow.

Sun 3 Sept (home)

I had a brief chat with Buttermere YH tonight which reassured me that a short hostel placement may be worthwhile. I’m minded to book Tues night there. Will try to get through to some other hostels again tomorrow before making a final decision.

Mon 4 Sept (home)

In fact, I decided to “apply” online for a 2 week placement at Keswick, starting on Saturday. I couldn’t get through to them on the phone so have booked tomorrow night there. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll try somewhere else….

Tues 5 Sept (Keswick YH)

Just a brief entry, as I’m going to do a more extensive report of the day in a letter home. Kids back to school. Arrived Keswick about 1.30pm. Poked around town a bit, then checked into YH. Warden’s day off, so hope to discuss tomorrow. Ran up Skiddaw by main path, returning by Skiddaw House – about 3 hours. Great!


Wed 6 Sept (Keswick YH)

A much longer report to follow here. No point writing another letter home as I’m heading home on Fri anyway… although not for long!

After a typically-fitful night in a YH dorm, I followed a gut instinct this morning and headed to Borrowdale YH to try to “catch the warden”. Come back at midday I was advised. So, returned to Keswick to go online at the library to register my interest in the opportunity. (Incidentally, the library has enough books by/about Coleridge to fill many a rainy day – a reminder that although remembered for a few poems, he was writing letters, notes and works every day – a bit like today’s bloggers!).

Returned to Borrowdale and met managers Chris and Simon. Both fellrunners, in fact Chris had been helping a Bob Graham Round-hopeful yesterday. The upshot of our chat was that I was offered a 10-day placement starting on Sunday morning. Albeit residing in a shared room. But this was almost as good an outcome for this week as I could have hoped for. I can park the car next to the hostel and Chris even offered me a free night tomorrow (which I accepted). Note the dates & accom I was offered were based on hostel availability.

Anyway, slightly reeling from all this, I was granted free parking at the hostel for the rest of the day and headed off for a run (as conspicuously as possible to confirm the impression I was the right sort). The weather was OK at this point so I headed up in the direction of Dale Head. Unlike yesterday’s long and gradual climb up Skiddaw, this was much tougher – steep and technical and not runnable all the way. Anyway, at the ridge the sight of Dale Head soaring 500 further feet above sent me heading off in the other direction – over High Spy, Maiden Moor and, finally, Catbells. A fine traverse this, with the view of Catbells and Derwent Water from Maiden Moor exceptional. The summit of Catbells a delectable spot, but heavily populated with kids and people without maps. But it is understandably a popular climb for all.


I dropped down from Catbells to Grange – tea in the café – then back to the YH alongside the river. 3 hours overall and pretty knackering, I wonder what I’ll be up for tomorrow?

Spent the evening rather hobbling around Keswick and going down to the lake. A fine view here and plenty of (older) people wandering down to the Theatre by the Lake, which looks like an attractive-enough place.


Thurs 7 Sept (Borrowdale YH)

Morning drizzle, a deteriorating forecast and aching limbs meant I was only up for rambling this morning. I chose a circuit of Derwent Water. 10 flat and pleasant miles, so fair enough, but not exactly exciting. Too many dog walkers and umbrellas to really be my thing. All inspired me into an off-piste adventure: a scramble up the side of Lodore Falls to find stretches of pools and rapids above far more interesting than the main falls themselves. The Romantic Poets seem to have been inspired by picturesque scenes… but like Scale Force you can’t get anywhere near them*. I eventually popped up on the Watendlath road, passing Surprise View (well named) and a misty Ashness Bridge on the way down.

Then back to Borrowdale YH. Nice running and walking chat with fellow hostellers. Rain coming down in buckets now. A momentary easing encouraged me into an evening run. And quite an adventure this turned out to be. I took on the hostel’s fellrunning challenge of running from the bar to the top of Castle Crag. Half a mile along the riverside path first – river in spate and much of the path underwater. Then a steep and technical climb. 17 mins 50 secs – compare the record: Ricky Lightfoot’s** 11.30! On the return, the path even more underwater – thigh deep in places. Rain torrential now, fading light and I even had to divert round a bull! Heady stuff.

Anyway, all this reassures me I’m in the right place.

Fri 8 Sept (home)

Up early after a rather better night…. drove home – back by 10.30am. Sorting washing and stuff, catching up with family, mulling over whether I’m doing the right thing. I think so. My main concern about the next 10 days is sleeping in a shared dorm and not having private space. Plan is – back to Borrowdale tomorrow.

Sat 9 Sept (Borrowdale YH)

Back in a very busy hostel – big contrast to the other night, but good to see it at full capacity.

We decided to have a family day out to make the most of our short time together. So, we went to Ingleton Waterfalls – halfway to the Lakes for me, the girls returning on the train. Waterfalls very swollen and impressive. We went from the car park to Thornton Force and back which was enough, before a drop off at lonely Clapham station.

I need to “report” at 10am tomorrow so I may squeeze in a morning run. Forecast foul tomorrow – it ended up quite nice today – Borrowdale less gloomy in the sun!

Sun 10 Sept (Borrowdale YH)

Another brief entry as another letter home will follow. Early morning run to see Blackmoss Pot – certainly would be worth a visit in hot weather. Then changing beds, hoovering and cleaning the self-catering kitchen. I enjoyed it! Then a walk in the rain to Seathwaite and back. Rain unbelievable!

Mon 11 Sept (Borrowdale YH)

Knackered now, after a very long day.

Started with a shopping trip. Drove over Honister to Cockermouth in 45 mins. Note – try it in the other direction, to avoid the steep descent at the top. Sainsbury’s. Ended up rushing back due to trying to find a postbox, roadworks in Keswick and getting stuck behind the Borrowdale bus – so 45 mins by this route too! Back to the hostel at 9.58am, 2 mins before my shift started.

Straight into bed changing, then hoovering the whole hostel (3 hours!) and doing the kitchen. I’ve now got my shift sheet for the week. 7am start tomorrow, bar duty Wed eve, then home Thurs and Fri. Fingers crossed I’ll be able to run the Dale Head race on Sunday.

Weather much improved, so my evening adventure was up Bessyboot from Stonethwaite, then returning via Tarn at Leaves and Comb Gill. Fellrunning in the Lake District can be at a whole new level to what I’m used to! Not much of this route was really runnable. Very steep climb, rough ground on top and tricky, slippery descent. Set off around 5pm and was surprised to find it was 6.30pm on top. Had to keep a cool head on the way down as I missed the path and the light was beginning to fade. Superb country though – didn’t see a soul. Back to the hostel just after 7pm.

Tues 12 Sept (Borrowdale YH)

Fitful night, conscious of the early start. Donned apron and natty catering headwear and straight into knocking up packed lunches, cleaning fridges and industrial-scale washing up. An intense 2 and a half hours but the free leftover fried breakfast a good consolation! 2 further hours of bed-changing a light relief by comparison.

After lunch I had a nice chat with colleagues in the staff house. The atmos of a shared student house, and a good bunch.

Afternoon trip to Keswick for a bit more food and to catch up with the outside world at the library. Then another run up Castle Crag, this time in much better conditions than last week, hence 16.58, almost a minute’s improvement. I returned a different way this time – dropping round the back of the crag and traversing to Seatoller – a good runnable route. Note to return to Castle Crag with camera due to the spectacular view from the cairn by the slate heap.

It’s been very easy falling into conversation with hostellers this week – a nice aspect of being here and made easier by having my volunteering as an ice-breaker. Tomorrow, rain forecast – a shame as I’m not on till 6pm.

Wed 13 Sept (Borrowdale YH)

Today’s shift started at 6pm, so I was interested to see how I could make the most of the day beforehand and still be ready for work. Particularly as the forecast was poor.

So, I just set out, walking initially up a pleasant little fell at the back of the hostel – High Doat. Weather OK-ish, so I decided to start recce-ing some of the Dale Head race route. Got to the top of the mine and decided to go for the summit. In the end, I got the full variation, including a brief shelter behind the summit cairn from pelting hail, before the clouds parted to reveal the classic view of Newlands. No doubt it will be a tough race on Sunday, with local knowledge a distinct advantage.

Had a quiet afternoon dozing and reading, including a brief time on the bench by the river in sunshine!

Then to my first ever evening behind a bar. Very manageable as it turned out – busy enough and the systems all seemed to work. Nice to chat too, which by my standards I’ve been doing a lot of here.

Tomorrow – housekeeping shift 10am-4pm, then home till Sat.

Fri 15 Sept (home)

Yesterday’s housekeeping shift included my first taste of emptying bins & cleaning sinks/mirrors. Then drove to Leeds, meeting all at the climbing wall – a happy reunion. Catching up with domestics at home today.

Sun 17 Sept (Borrowdale YH)

Bitty Saturday morning supervising an emergency plumber to fix a leaking loo. He fixed it, I paid him, it started leaking worse than before. Had to call him back which meant Rosie missed her cornet class – a shame. Then back to Borrowdale, and a nice evening chat with colleagues in the staff house.

Early Sunday morning shift – 3 hours of frenetic activity which flew by, serving around 50 breakfasts. A seamless exercise in cooking, serving and cleaning.

After my shift a real treat – a 10 minute walk to register for a fell race! And the first half of it – on a perfect day for running – went swimmingly. Up to the top of Dale Head in 40 minutes – I think this must be the longest continual uphill run I have ever done. Misfortune 100ft into the descent though. The sole parted from the rest of my shoe! Somehow I managed to effect a descent with a flapping sole hanging on by a thread, but it was a descent significantly slowed and accompanied by plenty of cursing and bum-sliding. I still finished in 1hr 7mins though – quicker than I was expecting. New pair of shoes tomorrow!


Nice evening walk a third of the way up Bessyboot as you view it from the hostel. Great view from the top of some rock slabs which provided some interesting scrambling opportunities.


Mon 18 Sept (Borrowdale YH)

I initially resisted offers from colleagues to go to the pub last night, pleading aching limbs. About 10pm though I realised I could drive there and join them for last orders. Perhaps I should have gone earlier – my sparkling mineral water contrasted rather with their high spirits…

Another early morning shift today, but only 16 breakfasts, so not as manic. Then cleaning bogs & showers for the first time – lovely. Afternoon trip into Keswick to spend £xxx (!) on a new pair of running shoes – the assistant droned on at me for a full hour, by which time I would have done anything to get out of there.

Evening bar shift 6pm-9.30pm. And so I successfully negotiated my first split shift day.

Have told Chris I want to stay longer. He’s OK in principle – needs to work out my accommodation – may involve some time living/working at Honister YH***, which I’d be OK about.

Tues 19 Sept (Borrowdale YH)

Glorious day of weather, but had to deal with working the housekeeping shift first – lots of hoovering and glass shining.

Chris let me knock off half an hour early, which gave me the chance to make the most of the conditions, and try out the new shoes! So, climbed up Bessyboot as you see it from the hostel (strictly speaking, “High Knott”) – an exciting scramble. Then along the tops a bit through a moonscape of bumps, crags and hollows – great country on a clear day like today.


I then dropped steeply down into Langstrath next to Caw Crag – an infinity of climbing possibilities here. This brought me down right next to Blackmoss Pot, and I couldn’t resist a late-season dip. Excruciatingly cold, but I managed to effect an “immersement” by clinging on to the rocks on the side. But what a place – water as deep as the rocks are high that surround (and conceal) it. Back down the valley to the hostel.


After finishing at 4pm on Thursday, I’m now scheduled to start at 3pm Monday, with my accommodation for next week being Honister. So, a nice long weekend ahead.

Wed 20 Sept (Borrowdale YH)

Another early shift – breakfast for 40 teenagers by 7.30am, then rest of the morning clearing up the teenage mess in their rooms.

Afternoon off initially into Keswick but had an urge to “get out of the Lake District” so plumped for visiting Whitehaven. Not beautiful, but a peculiarly fascinating place. A huge old dock in a bay framed with cliffs – the town sloping down with a surround of hills. Walked to the end of “The Beacon”, then a wander round the attractive Georgian terraces of this planned town. A real maritime feel. Fish and chips in a bus shelter as the rain set in. Despite many attempts at regeneration, the rather inevitable air of a fading town, but the setting and sense of history very potent.


Drove home over Honister and popped into the YH, meeting the manager and checking the accom arrangements for next week. Am very glad to be getting my own room – tonight will be my final night in the shared dorm and, frankly, good job too.

Fri 22 Sept (home)

Fish and chips on Wed eve did not settle easily, but an hour in the relatively fresh air of the smokers’ shelter put me right. Surprisingly decent night’s sleep meant my final housekeeping shift of the week was do-able. As per last week, drove home via the climbing wall.

Sun 24 Sept (Honister YH)

I’m looking forward to a week in my own room at Honister…. speaking of which, I’m in it now. And I feel like a king with my stuff spread out and my own key….

Plan tomorrow is a tour of bothies and huts in the morning, before my 3pm-9pm shift down the road.

PS – I took a short diversion on my way here to look at Ullswater for the first time – it really is as beautiful as people say it is….

Mon 25 Sept (11.30pm, Honister YH)

Frankly, a bonkers day – like 3 days in one.

Early morning mist forced a change in plan, so it was an hour’s run down the old toll road, then round High Doat through the wood, a surprising waterfall (Scaleclose Force, I think) and back up the track.

Plan then was to kill time in Cockermouth but in fact the mist cleared so walking boots back on. 2 bothies visited as originally planned. Dubs Hut – pretty large but basic, and Warnscale – much smaller, cosier perhaps, and with a spectacular view – much the better first impression. What it’s actually like to spend a night in either of them though…..


Lunch and rest back at Honister, then to Borrowdale at 3pm…. only to be told “you’re not needed till 5”! So into Keswick to get a couple of things done.

So by 5 I’d already had a pretty busy day, but the busiest was yet to come! Helping with tea for the first time – for 64. Prep, serving and cleaning through to 9pm. Then an extra hour and a half helping on the bar and cleaning up after that, ie some of the late evening reception routine. Finished at 10.20pm, then back up the road in the dark to Honister. And I have to be back in before 7am tomorrow to cook breakfast for the same 64!

Plan for tomorrow afternoon = some quiet reading. I’ve got Johnny Marr’s autobiog out of the library, which I’m looking forward to.

Tues 26 Sept (Honister YH)

Too tired to write much. Chef for breakfast from 6.50am under the Catering Manager’s expert guidance. Then bogs & showers. Almost broken, returned to Honister for rest and reading. Back to Borrowdale to chef tea, then was mercifully released “early” at 7.30pm. Same shifts tomorrow, fulfilling the “second chef” role.

Thurs 28 Sept (8am, Honister YH)

Wednesday a bit of a blur, working the split shift and trying to get stuff done in the middle of the day, including rest. Physically, it’s very demanding.

Day ahead of working on the hostel grounds. Fortunately, it’s a nice day forecast.

PS – the Johnny Marr book has really helped fill the gaps over the last few days. Great to have a good book to hand for the first time in ages!

Fri 29 Sept (12.30am, home)

Now back home and it’s half midnight. Helped fill potholes, clear scrub etc, then knocked off at lunchtime. Then home, again via Thurs night climbing. For the moment, that’s the end of my time at Borrowdale….



*Robert Southey wrote the famous poem “The Cataract of Lodore”; Samuel Taylor Coleridge raved about Scale Force near Buttermere.

**top Lake District fellrunner

***YH at the top of Honister Pass, 2 miles beyond Borrowdale YH, and 1000ft higher

24 hours round the Lakes

A day long circuit of the Lake District in the footsteps of Coleridge.


In a previous post I reflected on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s account of his perilous descent from Scafell in 1802. The passage is widely-quoted as being the first recorded example of that now well-established genre of literature: non-fiction mountain adventure. Indeed, because the route he took (known as Broad Stand) is now graded a “Moderate” rock climb – and because climbs have to be recorded to be officially recognised – 1802 is often mentioned as being the Year Zero of the sport of climbing.

But the descent of Broad Stand was just one short incident in a much larger adventure. Coleridge was in the middle of a 9-day circular walking tour of the Lake District, starting from and finishing at his home in Keswick. Today, long walks are familiar to many, and a mainstay of the tourist industry in places like the Lakes. But in 1802, it was pretty much unheard-of to venture into the mountains for the sake of adventure alone. Coleridge was doing something highly unusual to head off on a hike like this, let alone almost fall down a mountain on the way.

Obviously, there is a fine line between adventure and foolhardiness, and Coleridge – without previous knowledge of Scafell, let alone map or compass – crossed it by descending Broad Stand. But his spirit of adventure in taking on the 9-day tour, in defiance of the conventions of the time, is still admirable. We all need a little bit of adventure now and then!

We know about Coleridge’s tour because his write-up of it, in the form of 2 letters and various notebook jottings, has survived. It’s available here and going through it, with a few OS maps alongside, it’s possible to plot the route he took all those years ago. An obvious thought follows – would it be possible to retrace this route, and perhaps get a better insight into what inspired his famous writings?

A little bit of research reveals it’s already been done. In 1989 local writer, the late Alan Hankinson, walked almost the entire route, and in 1991 his fine book Coleridge Walks the Fells was published. His walk was a very noble enterprise, in that it turns out that the vast majority of the route – mostly just tracks in 1802 – is now roads, and main roads at that. Hankinson reluctantly concluded that Coleridge’s spirit of adventure could not be recaptured by following his exact route on foot – and he said that nearly 30 years ago!

I had another day to me in the Lakes recently and decided to dedicate it somehow to Coleridge’s journey. In the end I settled on an acceptable compromise – a circular drive around the Lake District visiting various spots mentioned by Coleridge on his tour, plus a long journey on foot to where he went immediately after descending Broad Stand. Although this felt like trying to squeeze a 9-course meal into a lunchbox – and I’m not really in the business of recommending scenic drives! – it’s the best that could be done in 24 hours. A pretty full day as it turned out, but a rewarding one.

Coleridge started out from his home in Keswick – Greta Hall – just a couple of minutes walk from the town centre, but up on a hill and commanding a view that he raved about. It’s possible to walk up to the gates now and get a peep of this very fine residence and also the view of the mountains above today’s rooftops:

The route heads up the beautiful Newlands Valley, at the top of which is Moss Force, a disappointing spectacle on 1 August 1802 but a very fine one on 27 July 2017 after much heavy rain. Not often you can drive (and park!) so close to such a fine cataract:

DSC03625Dropping down to Buttermere, Coleridge’s route took him over Floutern Pass, but for the modern day driver you have to go round Crummock Water and Loweswater. I pressed on along the main road to Egremont, missing the diversion Coleridge took to St Bees. An unsucessful addition to his journey this turned out:

I walked on to St. Bees, 3 miles from Egremont-when I came there could not get a Bed-at last got an apology for one, at a miserable Pot-house; slept or rather dozed in my Clothes-Breakfasted there-and went to the School & Church ruins-had read in the history of Cumbd. that there was an ‘excellent Library presented to the School by James Lowther,’ which proved to be some 30 odd Volumes of commentaries on the Scripture utterly worthless- & which with all my passion for ragged old Folios I should certainly make serviceable . . . for fire-lighting.

I continued on the main road to Gosforth, trying not to think about Sellafield looming to the right, and then up Eskdale to the foot of Hardknott Pass where I switched to fellrunning gear. Across the fields was Taw House Farm, where Coleridge spent the night after his Scafell exploits and where he wrote the letter describing them:

DSC03626I had a choice of routes here – either to keep to Coleridge’s route from Scafell to Taw House on the west side of the River Esk, or to stick close to the east bank of the river and join up with Coleridge’s route 3 miles higher up. Either way, I knew it was most likely I would have to return the same way, as the river was in spate and probably unfordable. I decided on the latter route, to view some of the dale’s impressive rapids and pools:

DSC03629At the top, across the indeed-unfordable Esk, was the biggest fall of them all – Cam Spout – next to which Coleridge descended:

DSC03634Having done so…..

And now the Thunder-Storm was coming on, again & again!-Just at the bottom of the Hill I saw on before me in the Vale, lying just under the River on the side of a Hill, one, two, three, four Objects I could not distinguish whether Peat-hovels, or hovel-shaped Stones-I thought in my mind, that 3 of them would turn out to be stones-but that the fourth was certainly a Hovel. I went on toward them, crossing & recrossing the Becks & the River & found that they were all huge Stones…….

I came to a little village of Sheep-folds / there were 5 together / & the redding Stuff, & the Shears, & an old Pot, was in the Passage of the first of them. Here I found an imperfect Shelter from a Thunder-shower-accompanied with such Echoes! O God! what thoughts were mine! O how I wishes for Health & Strength that I might wander about for a Month together, in the stormiest month of the year, among these Places, so lonely & savage & full of sounds!

The stones are known as Sampson’s Stones, viewed here from the other side of the river with the sheepfolds to the left:

DSC03635The low clouds were very suggestive of the weather Coleridge described. Indeed, the whole walk up the Esk was accompanied by the thundering sounds of falling water, which would have very much suited the author of “Kubla Khan” with its frequent references to water – sacred rivers, romantic chasms, mighty fountains and five miles meandering. Ceaseless turmoil seething indeed.

Returning to the car, I continued my own meanderings over Birker Fell and down to Ulpha Kirk in the Duddon Valley. Coleridge waxed lyrical about the place:

The Kirk standing on the low rough Hill up which the Road climbs, the fields level and high, beyond that; & then the different flights of mountains in the back ground, with wild ridges from the right & the left, running like Arms & confining the middle view to these level fields on high ground is eminently picturesque-A little step (50 or 60 yards) beyond the Bridge, you gain a compleatly different picture-the Houses & the Kirk forming more important parts, & the view bounded at once by a high wooded rock, shaped as an obtuse-triangle/or segments of a circle forming an angle at their point of junction, now compleat in a Mirror & equally delightful as a view/

Coleridge’s best friend in poetry, William Wordsworth, agreed about the area, so much so that a few years later he wrote a series of 34 sonnets dedicated to the River Duddon. Number 31 starts:

The Kirk of Ulpha to the pilgrim’s eye
Is welcome as a star, that doth present
Its shining forehead through the peaceful rent
Of a black cloud diffused o’er half the sky;

Happily, this particular pilgrim managed to take a photo just at the moment the sun shone on the shining forehead against a black cloud:

DSC03656The Kirk seemed rather distinctive with its bells on the outside and (in that very civilised fashion) the door was open so you could have look around inside.

The next part of the drive – from Ulpha over to Broughton Mills – was very pleasant along a quiet, gated road. I soon came to The Blacksmith’s Arms where Coleridge:

Dined on Oatcake & Cheese, with a pint of Ale, & 2 glasses of Rum & water sweetened with preserved Gooseberries

I thought about going in and asking for the same but had second thoughts, particularly when the staff came out the front for a fag break. A lovely looking inn though:

DSC03657My head used to feel a bit like that anvil after spending too much time in places like this back in the day….

Once you’re over the next hill into Torver the return to Keswick is a long way by main road, roads familiar to generations of visitors to the Lakes. I did stop off quickly at one famous spot well known to Coleridge – Dove Cottage in Grasmere, his mate Wordsworth’s place. But when Coleridge passed on this occasion he didn’t stop for long – William and his sister Dorothy were away, en route to France to visit Annette Vallon, with whom Wordsworth had had a child – Caroline – several years before, a fact known to Coleridge but not to the general public until the 1920s! This was August 9 1802 – 4 weeks later, and still on the road to France, Wordswoth wrote one of his most famous poems – “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”.

DSC03620Well, that was a long day in the Lakes, but a memorable one. Obviously, you can only take so much in from behind the wheel, but I felt I got some sense of Coleridge’s tour from my journey, helped of course by the excursion into the wilds of Eskdale. Coleridge would have felt his circuit was taking him off into the unknown; to do that now you’d have to find a different circuit, off the roads. There is a well-known challenge called the Bob Graham Round – 42 peaks, again starting and finishing in Keswick. The “proper” fellrunning challenge is to do this in 24 hours – don’t worry, I’m not ready for that yet (ever) – but holiday companies also advertise it as a package walking holiday in manageable chunks. Maybe when I’ve got nine days to hand rather than one….

Swimming through the air

The following is often described as the first ever written description of a mountain walk. In this respect, the author was establishing a fine tradition: hot-headed Englishman storms up a mountain – gets into difficulty – escapes by a hair’s breath – lives to tell a great tale. It’s pretty flowery stuff in places, but still a classic account:

There is one sort of gambling, to which I am much addicted; and that not of the least criminal kind for a man who has children & a concern. It is this. When I find it convenient to descend from a mountain, I am too confident & too indolent to look round about & wind about ’till I find a track or other symptom of safety; but I wander on, & where it is first possible to descend, there I go-relying upon fortune for how far down this possibility will continue. So it was yesterday afternoon. I passed down from Broadcrag, skirted the Precipices, and found myself cut off from a most sublime Crag-summit, that seemed to rival Sca’ Fell Man in height, & to outdo it in fierceness. A Ridge of Hill lay low down, & divided this Crag (called Doe-crag) & Broad-crag-even as the Hyphen divides the words broad & crag. I determined to go thither; the first place I came to, that was not direct Rock, I slipped down, & went on for a while with tolerable ease-but now I came (it was midway down) to a smooth perpendicular Rock about 7 feet high-this was nothing-I put my hands on the Ledge, & dropped down / in a few yards came just such another / I dropped that too / and yet another, seemed not higher-I would not stand for a trifle / so I dropped that too / but the stretching of the muscle of my hands & arms, & the jolt of the Fall on my Feet, put my whole Limbs in a Tremble, and I paused, & looking down, saw that I had little else to encounter but a succession of these little Precipices-it was in truth a Path that in a very hard Rain is, no doubt, the channel of a most splendid Waterfall.

So I began to suspect that I ought not to go on / but then unfortunately tho’ I could with ease drop down a smooth Rock 7 feet high, I could not climb it / so go on I must / and on I went / the next 3 drops were not half a Foot, at least not a foot more than my own height / but every Drop increased the Palsy of my Limbs-I shook all over, Heaven knows without the least influence of Fear / and now I had only two more to drop down / to return was impossible-but of these two the first was tremendous / it was twice my own height, & the Ledge at the bottom was exceedingly narrow, that if I dropt down upon it I must of necessity have fallen backwards & of course killed myself. My Limbs were all in a tremble-I lay upon my Back to rest myself, & was beginning according to my Custom to laugh at myself for a Madman, when the sight of the Crags above me on each side, & the impestuous Clouds just over them, posting so luridly & so rapidly northward, overawed me / I lay in a state of almost prophetic Trance & Delight-& blessed God aloud, for the powers of Reason & of the Will, which remaining no Danger can overpower us! O God, I exclaimed aloud-how calm, how blessed am I now / I know not how to proceed, how to return / but if I am calm & fearless & confident / if this Reality were a Dream, if I were asleep, what agonies had I suffered! what screams!-When the Reason & the Will are away, what remain to us but Darkness & Dimness & a bewildering shame, and Pain that is utterly Lord over us, or fantastic Pleasure, that draws the Soul along swimming through the air in many shapes, even as a Flight of Starlings in a Wind.

– I arose, & looking down saw at the bottom a heap of Stones-which had fallen abroad-and rendered the narrow Ledge on which they had been piled, doubly dangerous / at the bottom of the third Rock that I dropt from, I met a dead Sheep quite rotten-This heap of Stones, I guessed, & have since found that I guessed aright, had been piled up by the Shepherd to enable him to climb up & free the poor creature whom he had observed to be crag-fast-but seeing nothing but rock over rock, he had desisted & gone for help-& in the mean time the poor creature had fallen down & killed itself.-As I was looking at these I glanced my eye to my left, & observed that the Rock was rent from top to bottom-I measured the breadth of the Rent, and found that there was no danger of my being wedged in / so I put my Knap-sack round to my side, & slipped down as between two walls, without any danger or difficulty-the next Drop brought me down on the Ridge…

The date of this escapade was 5 August 1802, and the author was the Romantic Poet (and wayward genius) Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge was on a 9-day walking tour of the Lake District and the extract is taken from his written account of it, a letter to his muse Sara Hutchinson (full text on the University of Lancaster website). The route he describes is now known as Broad Stand, which is the direct line between the two highest mountains in England – Scafell Pike and Scafell.

As befits a great writer, Coleridge could spin a good tale all right. What of course is missing from the story is how indeed he did get down to safety. The “out of body” stuff towards the end of para 2 suggests strongly of divine intervention – well, I suppose you could get away with that as an explanation in 1802. But he must have got down somehow. Perhaps he exaggerated the danger, a bit of poetic licence?, but all the guidebooks these days tell walkers to avoid Broad Stand like the plague – it should be the preserve of rock climbers only. How best to find out?

Take a look, of course. Fortunately, it’s possible to visit Broad Stand safely without putting yourself through Coleridge’s perilous descent, and that’s by looking up at it from the ridge at the bottom (known as Mickledore). I recently ticked a big one off the bucket list and climbed Scafell Pike for the first time, so went via the steep pass to Mickledore to look at Broad Stand on the way. Here it is:DSC03577The sheep on the grassy platform in the middle of the photo gives some idea of scale. Coleridge’s route would have started around here and gone diagonally down to the left, down the numerous ledges he describes, finishing at the visible vertical split in the rock mentioned at the end of his account.

Put simply, the guidebooks are right. A solo climb up Broad Stand would be foolhardy at the very least – the whole scene is overpowering and I wasn’t tempted to go anywhere near the rocks. A descent – like Coleridge’s – would be a positive invitation to disaster. Note how the ridge itself falls away steeply to the left – any fall from Broad Stand would have you come to rest several hundred feet below.

The answer for lovers of Romantic Poetry was clear to me. Coleridge – only 29 at the time (he lived to 61) got away with it – to use his own words – simply by relying on fortune.

Song Lyric Sunday: The Band – “Ophelia”

I just wanted to use this week’s theme as an opportunity to share my new-found enthusiasm for The Band. There I go, finger on the pulse as usual – just discovering a group that split up over 40 years ago….

The group started life as The Hawks, before being spotted by Bob Dylan in the mid ’60s and becoming his backing band. Dylan casually referred to them as “the band” and when he moved on to solo projects, they rechristened themselves as The Band.

I’d describe their style as understated, quirky and playful. This contrasts with the rather serious tones of rock music in the late 60s/early 70s, and they were able to find their niche. At first listen they sound a bit “southern rock”, but in fact only 1 of the group was from the Deep South; the other 4 were Canadians – perhaps this crossover is part of their appeal.

The first songs that caught my ear were “Up on Cripple Creek”, “The Shape I’m In”, “Life is a Carnival” and – perhaps their best-known song – “The Weight”, but as I listen more this is beginning to feel like scratching the tip of quite an iceberg. Lots of messing about on Spotify and You Tube to come I think.

After achieving both critical and commercial success between 1968-76, they rather unusually decided to split whilst still at their peak. This at least saved them from going fat and useless I guess, although it seems they hadn’t missed out on some of the more decadent aspects of the rock star lifestyle, and sadly only 2 of the original 5 members are still with us.

The signed off in 1976 with a concert in San Francisco christened “The Last Waltz”, which featured a dazzling list of fellow rock legends as guests and was made into a film by Martin Scorsese. From the film, here’s “Ophelia”:

Boards on the window
Mail by the door
What would anybody leave so quickly for?
Where have you gone?

The old neighborhood just ain’t the same
Nobody knows just what became of
Tell me, what went wrong

Was it something that somebody said?
Mama, I know we broke the rules
Was somebody up against the law?
Honey, you know I’d die for you

Ashes of laughter
The ghost is clear
Why do the best things always disappear
Like Ophelia
Please darken my door

Was it something that somebody said?
Mama, I know we broke the rules
Was somebody up against the law?
Honey, you know I’d die for you

They got your number
Scared and running
But I’m still waiting for the second coming
Of Ophelia
Come back home

(Written by Robbie Robertson)

Song Lyric Sunday – Ain’t nothing you can do


I heard about this musical challenge from a fellow blogger so I thought I’d give it a try. Basically, you just have to respond to a weekly themed prompt and share the lyrics of an appropriate song (and the song itself!). Sounds like a bit of a laugh for a Sunday evening….

This week’s theme is, cheerily enough, “Pain”, and the lyrics that first came to mind were this neat little verse:

When you got a headache
An you try to soothe the pain
Go right back to sleep
And you’ll feel all right again
When ya got a backache
Little rubbin’ will see you through
When you got a heartache
There ain’t nothin’ you can do

That’s the start of “Ain’t nothing you can do”, first song on one of my favourite albums – “It’s too late to stop now” by Van Morrison. Elsewhere on my site you’ll see that I’m a bit of a fan of Van the Man and there’s a risk that my participation in this challenge could just end up with me posting a series of his songs. Anyway, for the moment, I can only recommend both this song and the whole live double album that follows it. Difficult to say what style of music this is – it seems to embrace a whole load of styles. Anyway, it’s not only me that likes it – the critics rave about it as one of the “best live albums of the 70s” etc etc…

One nice thing about giving this some thought is that it’s prompted me to find out a bit more about the song. I thought it sounded like a cover and in fact the original version was from 9 years earlier (1964) by Bobby Bland (full lyrics here; songwriters Don Robey/Joe Scott.) Turns out this original Soul version is also well worth a listen:

Van was clearly partial to covering Bobby Bland songs – search also for “Turn on your lovelight” (which bears a clear resemblance to the later, and well-known, “Everybody needs somebody to love” by the Blues Brothers).

OK, better wrap up here before I spend the whole night farting about on youtube. Hope you like these first choices.

Catch your heroes while you can

It’s been widely noted that a number of celebrities have passed on so far in 2016, with Mohammed Ali being just the most recent. Not too far behind him in status are 2 pop icons of my era, David Bowie and Prince. Back in the 80s both seemed so culturally significant as to be almost immortal, which makes the fact that they are no longer with us all the more poignant.

I found myself mulling over all this last night as I waited for Van Morrison to take the stage of Harrogate International Centre. I’ve been a massive fan of Van the Man for 15 years or so now, but this was only the second time I was going to see him live in concert (last time back in 2004). He was 70 last year, so he’s no spring chicken by a long shot. I’d bought my ticket months ago, and in the light of the bad run celebrities have been having, I’d been getting a few pre-concert nerves. Could he be the next famous pop star making the wrong sort of headlines?  This was his first show in Yorkshire for as long as I could remember – should I have gone out of my way to see him earlier?

So when he eventually stepped on stage at 8pm in his low-key kind of way, I suddenly felt enormously relieved, indeed privileged, that I was indeed about to see one of my heroes do the thing that made them famous.

It turned out I really shouldn’t have worried about Van’s wellbeing. From the off he seemed far from being a spent force. The famous voice is as strong as ever, and although his set these days is a rigid 90 minutes, he rattled through 25 or so songs without pausing for breath in between.

As befits someone over 50 years into their musical career, Van has a huge back catalogue to dip into. So, whilst it was great to hear the landmark songs for which he is most well known – including “Brown Eyed Girl”,  “Moondance” and “Crazy Love” – perhaps the best moments of the concert were when he put a surprising new twist on some lesser-known tunes, for example more upbeat versions of “Wavelength” and “Someone Like You”. He also managed to get this most committed of atheists to sing along to a couple of his more gospel-ly numbers – “Whenever God Shines His Light” and “By His Grace”.

The highlight though was the closing “Gloria”. I should mention that the audience was largely of Van’s own vintage (I’m decidedly middle-aged by comparison). But when the band really turned things up a notch or two for this 1964 pop classic, it was great to see so-called “old” people out of their comfortable seats, enjoying a great tune that has been with them for so many years.

As a committed fan, I’m probably not the most impartial observer, but overall I thought it was a great concert, in a terrific venue, and the short-sleeved audience went home happy into the warm Harrogate evening. And I felt very reassured that I’d got the concert “under my belt”. I’d driven just 30 minutes up the road from home in Leeds to see my favourite musician perform. But that was a real treat, I realised, and certainly not something to take for granted.


parkrun – “open and transparent”?

Recently, I’ve been getting back into running after a gap of several years. I’ve been doing a few local jogs around Meanwood, along with a few parkruns on Woodhouse Moor.

parkrun is something new to me, as it didn’t exist when I stopped running back in 2007. I’ve really enjoyed the 4 I’ve done. Apart from the fun of running 5km in a large group (around 400), perhaps the best thing is how little hassle it is. Before parkrun, entering a timed event involved the bother of registering, safety pins and paying a few quid. With parkrun, you just have to register online once, print out a barcode, remember to take it with you and be on the startline at 9am. And of course it’s free. This is currently available at 5 locations across Leeds every Saturday morning, plus a junior version in Roundhay Park every Sunday (which my kids do from time to time).

For me then, parkrun has been an entirely positive experience up to now. So obviously I was interested in the well-publicised story last week about a parish council in Gloucestershire proposing to charge its local parkrun. parkrun itself has been strongly in opposition to this. Its view is that parkrun encourages people to take healthy exercise and that introducing a charge would discourage many from participating. Clearly, parkrun doesn’t want this one case to set a precedent elsewhere in the country.

The parish council is arguing that parkrun has an impact on the park over and above general use. Therefore it should be charged a bit extra. I can actually see this argument. On the Woodhouse Moor route, some of the verges are quite cut up – it’s impossible for 400 runners to keep to the relatively narrow paths (particularly in the first 500 metres). And parkruns are run over exactly the same route, every week of the year, so there’s little chance for the verges to recover.

The key point here is about “public benefit” – is it better for society as a whole if the cherished principle of a free, weekly run is retained, even if it results in extra costs? This is a conundrum that crops up pretty often for me in my day job. I work for a charity that helps other local charitable groups. It’s often down to me to work out if the organisations that we help are indeed charitable; in other words, whether they work exclusively for the public benefit.

So, in trying to form a view about parkrun’s case, I did my usual research. Who exactly are parkrun? If you visit their website, at the bottom they tell you they are company no. 07289574 – Parkrun Ltd. But if you search for parkrun on the Companies House website you find that there are in fact 2 other parkrun companies – Parkrun Global Ltd and Parkrun Trading Ltd. Parkrun Global is a new company (registered in 2015) and appears similar to Parkrun Ltd (registered in 2010) but with an additional public benefit objective (about promoting and advancing health). Parkrun Trading is a wholly owned subsidiary of Parkrun Global and is a company limited by shares, which means that it does not work for public benefit.

So why the 3 companies? Perhaps because parkrun’s income comes from sponsors, both corporate and individuals, but it isn’t really made clear. And why is only Parkrun Ltd mentioned on the parkrun website? (particularly given that Parkrun Global appears more charitable).

Perhaps surprisingly, neither Parkrun Ltd nor Parkrun Global have registered as a charity with the Charity Commission. This is the most surefire way of reassuring the general public that your organisation exists entirely to “do good”. The last 4 years’ full accounts of registered charities are published on the Charity Commission website. At present, parkrun publishes a very long list of “donations and withdrawals” and uses this to describe itself as “open and transparent”.

But I feel the slightly curious picture around parkrun’s legal/charitable status, and how it chooses to communicate it, suggests that it could be even more open and transparent. Organisations that take a principled stand certainly should be as open and transparent as possible. Otherwise they risk being accused of not being solely motivated by altruism.

It would be great if parkrun could present a better explanation of its legal status. If it could clearly state that it was an organisation that existed exclusively for the public benefit, I’d be more comfortable with its case.