Sunday, 22 November 2015

A historical walk on Skiddaw.

Skiddaw, that magnificent mass of a mountain that is the backdrop to the lakeland capital, Keswick.
Above can be seen the true beauty of the northern lakes with the town resting in the valley. From left to right can be seen Dodd, the ridge of Ullock Pike to Carlside, Skiddaw itself, Skiddaw Little Man, Lonscale Fell and finally Latrigg to the front of Lonscale, this being the wooded area and below the snow line. To the far left, the Glenderaterra Valley can be seen, formed by Lonscale and Blease Fell, which is the western flank of Blencathra (Saddleback). Magnificent as this mountain is to view, the usual route to the summit can be mundane in its test of walking and navigation. It commences from the parking area on the dead end road above Underscar, this parking is itself at nearly 300 metres. Be careful, many cars go to this parking area but it is potholed so needs 'negotiation'.
 The area of Latrigg was itself the subject of an access battle, the chief protagonist being Canon Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley of Crosthwaite Church, the founder of The National Trust and he is buried in that churchyard. He led a party of his parishioners with crowbars, I assume for access provision and not weapons, to assert their authority on the landowner for the right to walk and have access to this small yet beautiful viewpoint of Keswick. This led to a civil court battle in July of 1888 which thankfully resulted in a compromise with the landowner, and has resulted in legacy of the public being able to soak up the view from this 367 metre high fell.  Many walkers miss this small summit off their itinerary when climbing Skiddaw, the over 3,000 foot summit being the singular goal of their walk, yet they miss the greatest view of the area in doing so, and only adds 30 minutes overall, to any such Skiddaw walk. 
Keswick, Derwentwater, and the Borrowdale Valley in view
Setting off for Skiddaw from Latrigg car park

The route above is both the start and end of the walk, heading out up toward Little Man and passing the Howell memorial stone erected primarily by Canon Rawnsley in memory of the great breeders of Herdwick sheep in the area.
"Great Shepherd of Thy heavenly flock. These men have left our hill,
Their feet were on the living rock. Oh guide and bless them still." 

The erection of such reminders of the end of life caused some criticism from writers of the time who in their walking reports commented about the desire to walk and enjoy life and not death:

  "... But why O Canon thus bring mortuary sentiments into the soul of the tourist just when he palpitates with the keenest life?"  

Carrying on up the fell one faces the wide yet steep ascent on the left of Whit Beck and when this flattens a diversion can be made to Lonscale Fell, or the walker can continue on for Skiddaw, having the option of going over or round the back of Little Man. Eventually the summit is reached, in modern measurements 931 metres high, with it's panoramic views of Bassenthwaite, Derwentwater, across to Blenacthra, before swinging round to the Caldbeck Fells. Toward the east is The Glenderaterra Valley and the valley route to Swineside; where these two meet is Skiddaw House which I will later comment on twice as we journey toward it.   Most walk back via the same route they came up yet the better though longer walk is to head towards Dash Falls via Bakestall and Dead Crags, before turning for Skiddaw House. 
I have previously commented on the mundaneness of the route up to Skiddaw yet it would be wrong to suppose it is without its risks. One summers day, early in the last century Reverend Peel and his wife were staying in the Keswick area on holiday from Darlington, and she wished to go to the summit of Skiddaw.  Despite the weather being poor earlier that week, causing failed attempts to commence the walk, one day the morning weather not being good, but she and her maid set off for the summit in the afternoon. The weather came down once again and they unwisely pushed on for the summit. When they did head back they missed the gate between Skiddaw and Little Man and headed instead toward the treeless Skiddaw Forest. In the meantime Rev. Peel had become worried and had set off with others to search. The rain came, they got wet through, night descended, the women were not located and everyone except the Reverend returned to Keswick. He was joined in the morning by others, a total of fifty, but despite these numbers they were hampered by the weather and still his wife and maid were not found. Around noon the sun managed to break and the cloud lifted off the mountain. At 3 pm, after over 24 hours on the mountain, they were found sheltering behind a rough  wall, exhausted and suffering from lack of food and exposure to the harsh elements. Mrs Peel's comments were 'We were just preparing for another night'. A youth who was on the search party was despatched to Skiddaw House for food to sustain them. They were escorted down to Glenderaterra Valley, on the Blencathra side, where a carriage awaited for their transport back to Keswick. The Reverend was informed as he was still out searching and immediately made his way from the hut on Skiddaw to Keswick to join his wife. (No doubt he sang praise for the safety the good lord had bestowed on his ill-judged wife that day.)
Sadly such episodes continue to occur and not always with the same fortunate ending. Cold as it was for them, at least it was the summer and they were capable of sustaining the night temperatures. 

Our walk now takes us from the summit of Skiddaw to Bakestall and Dash Falls before the story once again returns to Skiddaw house for another event. Bakestall gives an excellent view of the Solway Plain, across to Overwater and Binsey. It is simply a question of walking beyond the trig and following the fence line down to Bakestall, then continuing to Dash Falls. Here you hit the only drivable (4x4) track to Skiddaw House for the occupants. This route makes a pleasant change being along the heathered bridleways of the Northern Fells, the grouse shooting grounds for which Skiddaw House was the lodge for Lord Lechonfield. It is at Skiddaw House that another piece of history forms this route story and unfortunately did not have the happy ending that Reverend Peel's wife had. 

Looking to Skiddaw House from Dash Falls track, the remotest residence in England.
Skiddaw House, now a youth Hostel.
It was at this house that a person died of alcohol poisoning in 1863. Sad as that is, one would ask why this merits a piece of a history write up? The person who died of alcohol poisoning was Thomas Hodgson and he was nine years old! 
A shepherd's meet had been organised by the Donald Grant who lived with his family at Skiddaw House and he was the gamekeeper for Lord Lechonfield. Ten to twelve shepherd's attended and one was Mr William Todhunter, a farmer and innkeeper at Threlkeld. Being the innkeeper, he brought a bottle of rum and a bottle of gin - but they were gallon bottles. Thomas had attended from Brockley Crags (I assume Brockle Crags on Great Cockup) with 10 year old Peter Grant, one of Donald's sons.
 Viewing the inquest details that are available it appears that Thomas was given various full glasses of rum and gin and despite being taken to his bed he returned on two occasions. He was clearly very drunk, howling like a wolf in the garden at one point. At 7 am the next morning he was found fitting and a doctor was sent for, the messenger reaching Keswick at 10 am and Dr Oswald George Rumney got to the premises at 1 pm. Despite numerous methods of revival, including strong coffee and spirits of ammonia, Thomas was constantly sick with his pulse fast and weak. The Doctor left at 7 pm and Thomas died shortly after this. 

Brockle Craggs Thomas's father was a husbandman, a small farmer.
The inquest was held at The Royal Hotel on Crown Street, Cockermouth (which burned down in 1864) with Dr Bell as the Coroner. Evidence was given by the other children present who stated Thomas was given large quantities of alcohol by named shepherds. The Coroner gave the shepherds the option of not giving evidence and it is notable how the caution he gave them resembles closely the one given to suspects today. William Todhunter and others wished to be heard and William agreed he brought the alcohol in gallon bottles. All the men agreed they knew Thomas got 'fresh' with the alcohol, but beyond a small quantity of mixed alcohol with water (the boy, Peter Grant, in evidence had said no water was mixed with any alcohol) all denied actually giving Thomas alcohol. 
The coroner said he could only speak for himself but:

'... everyone denied giving the boy any drink; he also noted that all the men were ‘rather fresh’ and were not aware of what they did.'

He also noted one of the shepherds had stated he saw the boys get some drink but could not tell who gave them it.
The coroner asked the man to leave while he and the jury considered the case; the men withdrew and the coroner then explained to the jury the case before them. He summarised that:

  'he believed the boys had spoken the truth but they had taken drink themselves and could not say how much they might have had. He did not think that they could return any other verdict than that the deceased died from excessive drinking, but there was no evidence the deceased had taken the drink against his own free will. Had the men forced him to take it, then they would have been guilty of manslaughter. It was a sad thing to think that boys of such tender years should be allowed to take drink, and he thought that it showed that those who had given the drink to the boys were in a sad state of demoralization. He thought that they should caution those men, and tell them the very serious thing they had done. They had killed the deceased through sheer neglect. The men were all well up in years and ought to have known better than to give any of the boys the smallest quantity of drink.' 

The jury returned a verdict of death through excessive drinking and reprimanded the men for the serious manner in which they had conducted themselves, expressing a hope that they would be more careful in future to whom they gave intoxicating drinks. 

Many have walked past Skiddaw house oblivious to this event, as I have myself done. Like me, I am sure they will glance to the garden and view in their imagination a young boy drunk and dying. 
From Skiddaw house it is a straight walk back along the track that skirts Lonscale Fell, with its high level, yet flattish track back to Latrigg car park. One can just make out the old mine workings in the valley bottom which thankfully do not scar the landscape too much. Here the eye is naturally drawn down the length of the valley to the view across High Rigg and the towering Helvellyn beyond. 
As the walker achieves the car park they have walked in excess of 17 kms and 900 metres ascent, without the additions of Latrigg, Lonscale and Little Man. To add these three fells makes it a 21 km walk with 1100m ascent. 
Happy walking.



  1. Thanks for a nice tale . . . adds to the place and will be remembered on our next visit.