Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

A Walk to Skiddaw House

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Far Wescoe: apparently the cottage where poet WH Auden often stayed in the 1930s

A good walk on the lower slopes of Skiddaw this week. After driving up to Cumbria for work, I managed to fit in an afternoon on the fells – first time this year – and actually got some sunshine.

I decided to take a look at Wescoe, a hamlet centred on a large farm. There’s a literary connection because W.H. Auden’s parents had a cottage here and Auden took refuge in it when he got back from the Spanish Civil War in 1937. It was here that he wrote most of his famous poem ‘Spain’, as well as other excellent early poems such as ‘It was Easter as  I walked in the public gardens’.

As far as I can work out, the cottage must have been Far Wescoe – the white one opposite the post box. When I first came here back in the 1980s, looking for the house, I asked around and eventually met an old man who told me, yes, ‘Doctor Auden used to have a cottage here’. He’d never heard of the poet W.H. Auden, but he remembered Auden’s dad, the Birmingham G.P.! Oddly, that made me feel much closer to Auden himself.

From Wescoe I took the lane north-west – partially flooded in places, and I got the predictable bootful of water – which soon becomes a footpath heading due north parallel to the beautiful (and beautifully-named) Glendaratarra Beck, which is down in a deep wooded gorge but gradually comes up to meet the path as you go.

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The lane heading for Skiddaw House (Great Calva in the distance).

I didn’t have a huge amount of time so I simply carried on up to the small bridges over the beck (where someone has just built a new but not intrusive stone building housing, I think, some hydroelectric equipment which I hope isn’t going to interfere with the beck itself) and followed the path up to Skiddaw House.

Skiddaw House is one of the bleakest and most remote houses in the Lakes – a former bothy, now a Youth Hostel (it was closed when I got there so no chance of a cup of tea). It’s a wonderfully grim place, and the larches planted as wind protection have long been reduced to spindly skeletal remnants by the ceaseless prevailing wind.

Skiddaw House is the setting of just about my favourite episode in the whole of Hugh Walpole’s Herries Chronicles, the duel between John and Uhland Herries in The Fortress in which Uhland shoots John and then commits suicide – a horrific  scene but brilliantly written and very suitable for this grim, remote spot.

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Skiddaw House: bleak and lonely but weirdly romantic

 

Given more time, I’d have turned due West and returned via Skiddaw summit, but sadly time was limited and I just returned direct to Wescoe. The consolation was a wonderful view over to the Newlands valley and Causey Pike in front of me as I came down.

I haven’t done a lot of walking this winter owing to persistent minor ailments and family business, but I’m hoping to get up to the Lakes at least once a month henceforth and will try to post about where I go each time. And if you fancy a creative weekend in the Lakes in May 2014, take a look at www.lakelandwritingretreats.co.uk and think about joining Angela Locke and me for a stimulating break!

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Towards Newlands – Causey Pike just right of centre, late afternoon sunlight

Crags, Caves and Squirrels

Castle Crag is full of caves and chasms

Back to the Lakes last week to give a talk to a group of Swiss students, mostly MA students studying English Romanticism. After a great day touring Dove Cottage and walking up Sour Milk Gill to Easedale Tarn I stayed on and went for a scramble around the slopes of Castle Crag near Keswick.

Slate cavern hewn at the base of Castle Crag

The Crag doesn’t look huge from the Grange-Seatoller path but it’s really a ridge, much larger and more intricate than it looks, full of gulleys, crags, fissures and caves. Its slopes on the east side are thickly forested and you can disappear in there for hours and get happily lost. You can spend hours and days exploring its mysteries. I took a long time trying to locate Millican Dalton’s cave but didn’t succeed. I’ve tried and failed before. If anyone out there can give me precise directions to find it, please get in touch.

Red squirrel explores dense pine forest around the Crag

I spent a while meditating in a grassy natural balcony half way up one of the crags and became aware of rapid zig-zaggy movements in a nearby tree. Turning gently that way I soon saw a pair of red squirrels chasing each other madly in a pine tree, tearing in spiral paths up and down the trunk. Managed to ease the camera out and when they finally tired of the game one of them ambled over towards me. This was about its closest point.

Helm Crag from a How Foot bedroom

Amanda came up and joined me for the weekend, which we spent at How Foot Lodge in Grasmere. They gave us a room with a wonderful foliage-fringed window looking straight out to Helm Crag. They told me they have an unusual number of free rooms this year owing to the World Cup so now’s your chance to make a booking on impulse at this lovely and relatively inexpensive hotel: www.howfoot.co.uk

Bluebells cover the lower slopes of Loughrigg Fell

The weather was kind and we had a few great walks, including the circuit around Grasmere and Rydal Water. Sheets of bluebells were still floating their intense colour on the slopes of Loughrigg, making a wonderful contrast with the dead russet of the bracken.

No, it isn't a Julian Cooper painting: the rock contemplates its own face in the water

At the Rydal Cavern I disregarded the National Trust’s warning notice (what are the odds, really, of a chunk of rock dropping from the roof exactly at the moment I’m standing directly underneath?) to go into this, one of my favourite spaces, and contemplate the mirrorimage of the hewn rock in the still floodwater. Of course I advise you not to do this, and if you go in there it’s at your own risk. Don’t sue me if you get flattened.