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Sky and Fell

Kentmere valley and a glimpse of wild

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Up and up through a cranny in the cliff face, funnelled through a notch and hemmed in by dry stone walls and crags; a red kite comes for a closer look. Peregrines sometimes nest in the cliffs above Kentmere village, and, remembering the alarm calls of Greenland, I raise my pole above my head to give it something to aim for if it decides to attack. But I see the notch in its tail and realise it can’t be a peregrine. With a turn of its wings it’s off on the wind, floating away over the line of cliffs.

Up here, birds are the same. Up here, the fells and crags still form their lines, still raise their contours; and the becks still tumble from fellside to valley bottom. Mountain flanks are still knolled and lumpy, barnacled with rock, and humped with earth. The events of the past week seem cataclysmic, seismic, earth-shattering. But out here, up on the heights, it feels as insignificant as one rain drop in a shower. The mountains were here before us and they will remain long after we’re gone.

The scenery before me is no wilderness: tamed by man, enclosed and quarried, mown by sheep and scarred by feet. But it is varied and gem-studded nonetheless. In nooks and crannies lie hidden treasures. A grown-over sheepfold or a tree-split boulder; a shrub-lined gill, red with rowan berries and glistening with a beck at its centre. Sheltered behind a wall and looking out over the lines of fells and edges, tarns and lakes, I remember we’re part of a landscape much bigger, more complex, and infinitely more exciting.

A 14-foot-high cairn sits atop Thornthwaite Crag, singing its monument to the valleys below, stark and prominent against pale clouds. On my descent, a sunken path appears, gently eroded from banks of peat. Above, the grass lies flat, wind-scoured and free of snow; but in the shallow depression, ice and snow linger, and melt to bog with the touch of sun. Sheep shelter here, and as well as snow, flecks of wool cling to the hollow's sides, all that remains of nights spent hunkered down, out of the wind.

On the cols between summits, the wind barrels; I take one step sideways for every two forwards. Worse than the constant sideways shove is the chill borne on the gusts, leaving my face raw and my hands icy through my gloves. On an overhanging peat bank, icicles connect floor to ceiling, one unhalting tube, no point or drip or stalactite dagger.

Moving from Nan Bield Pass, a cleft between the valleys of Kentmere and Mardale, I follow a curled slaloming path, like the body of a snake, folded above and beneath itself. Down alongside a beck, to a ruined sheepfold, half-wall, half-boulder. Finally, the sun comes out to warm my numb cheeks and I lie in the grass out of the summit wind. On the flank of fell above, nine red deer amble slowly; they cross the v of a small beck, and pause, looking around, until nudging upwards once more, grazing as they do. Through my binoculars I see an impatient mother butt her calf along, and then again a few seconds later. Her repeated admonishments only encouraging a few steps of frantic movement before curiosity again takes hold.

A small glimpse of wild, a big sky and a bracing wind, and the world no longer seems devoid of possibility, and I no longer quite believe in the capacity of this virus to floor us all. Even if it does, life and the planet will go on turning, the wind will keep on howling, and the mountain will continue to be eroded, piece by piece, and eventually that 14 foot summit cairn will tumble and scatter across the fellside.

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Postscript: this walk took place in the week before the new government measures were limiting movement further. The journey to get to the fell bottom was also only 9 miles, but alas, since then, I have made the decision that this was to be my last "proper" fell walk for a while. Even 9 miles on quiet country lanes is too far, and while I may not cause any excess strain myself, it's no use having one rule for me and another for everyone else. The fells will still be there when some level of normality resumes, and (hopefully) so will I.

Copyright © Jack Threlfall Hartley 2020