The Langdales via Stickle Tarn.

Harrison Stickle – 2415ft.

Pike ‘o Stickle – 2323ft.

It was the last house of the day, halfway through my trial week as an estate agent photographer. I already knew I wouldn’t last. The hours were longer than originally stated, there was no pay for overtime, despite inevitable overtime most evenings and the distances covered for very little petrol allowance meant I’d be running my car into the ground for a company I could care less about. Hunting for another job was eating up the majority of spare time I did have, with little or nothing to show for it. I had however, struck gold this evening; the last house of the day was in Ambleside, meaning I could hike the Langdales once I’d finished.

I’d been shadowing John all week, with him showing me the ropes and giving me tips on how to photograph houses correctly. It really was as simple as it sounds; you tidy a room (if it hasn’t already been for you), open the curtains, turn on the lights, crouch in a corner and click. John, a man in his fifties, who looked in reasonable shape despite his apparent diet and unknowingly sported different coloured stains on his shirts every afternoon from spilling his lunch, took intricacy to new levels. Like many in the world, he’s determined to prove in vain that his job requires greater technical nous than meets the eye. He wasn’t a bad guy, far from it, but he was dull. So dull, that even time appeared to give up when he was around. Which is perhaps worse than being a bad guy?

As we went through the motions of straightening curtains and raising venetian blinds in this dated two bedroom flat, John’s spiel was in fifth gear. ‘Always remember that someone’s home is their palace. It’s our job to capture that.’ ‘Ok John.’ ‘It might not be the grandest of buildings, in the most exotic locations, but to them, it’s their home. A little slice of perfection.’ ‘Ok John, got it.’ I removed the mawkish black and white photographs splashed with red (that somehow, inexplicably became fashionable) from windowsills and the mantel, picked up the dog food scattered across the kitchen lino and washed my hands after accidentally touching something sticky on the counter. ‘Remember…’ John continued, shouting from the master bedroom ‘…be creative. Make the property sparkle. Make it stand out.’ I walked into the bathroom, noticing cobwebs on the window and a quilt of dust settled on top of the cabinet. ‘Should I give this a wipe down John?’ John poked his head around the door, giving the room a quick glance ‘Nah, fuck it. It’s hardly David Beckham’s house is it?’ ‘Gotcha.’

Once we’d finished up, I drove out toward Ambleside Waterhead, turned right at the lights and followed the one-way system until I veered left just past the rugby ground, over the dainty Rothay Bridge and onto the winding road to Skelwith Bridge. Strong gusts threw hardened terracotta leaves spiralling into the air, allowing them to fall like confetti seconds later. Slowing down would have made it all the more beautiful. I knew it but did nothing. Keeping my foot on the accelerator, my hands gripped to the wheel and my bonnet touching distance from the bumper in front; blitzing through a perfect moment in search for another. At Skelwith Bridge I turned right just before the hotel and onto the road that runs hand in hand with the ever enchanting River Brathay and Elterwater and passed the Merz Barn; the unfinished work of contemporary artist Kurt Schwitter, that’s since become a sanctuary of inspiration for artists all over the world.

On the other side of Chapel Stile, I drove off the road and into the heart of a fantasy fiction novel. Great Langdale demands its own weather. Irascible clouds constantly swarm, imposing their dominance, bolstering an already tyrannical scene.

Staring up at Stickle Ghyll, Loft Crag, Harrison and Pike o’ Stickle is a daunting sight that fills you with as much trepidation as it does thrill. I became a little concerned I wouldn’t be able to reach one of the summits, let alone both and would perhaps have to settle for Stickle Tarn that sits just below Pavey Ark.

I began my climb at a pace that was set out of worry from being behind a schedule that didn’t exist. I marched behind the National Trust owned Sticklebarn that reminds me of Minnie’s Haberdashery (minus the jellybeans) and onto an instantly steep path, briefly covered by trees up the valley. Sweat began to pour from me at an early stage, despite the temperature dropping. I couldn’t tell if I’d brought too much or too little clothing as I removed items, only to throw them back on again once my sweat cooled.

Huge amounts of rainfall over the last few days filled the valley with a torrent of white-water crashing from one section of the ravine to another. I shook off the pitiful absurdity as my eyes and ears played tricks on me, convinced spectral shapes and cries from behind the roars could be seen and heard. I continued up the path, turning to admire the already captivating views every time I needed to put out my burning lungs. The sun broke through tight pockets in the congested charcoal skies, like a torch frantically searching for the foreign noise on a pitch-black night. The path, not wanting to leave sight of the falls crept behind Tarn Crag unnoticed, requiring some scrambling and the crossing of the waterfall with large boulders on hand as steppingstones. On the other side, the path became apparent once again. Finally, I reached Stickle Tarn, splashed my face in the biting waters and stared up at the scaly, prehistoric Pavey Ark protruding out of the mountain side; the remainder of the beast asleep, deep below ground. I followed the tarn to the left after spotting a luminous speck half-way up the scree between Pavey Ark and Harrison Stickle. From the tarn it looked like a tough scramble, but as I followed suit, I found its bark worse than its bite. Toward the top it got a little tougher, this could have been because I chose a more difficult route, thinking it looked like the quicker option. At the summit of Harrison Stickle I sat, legs dangling, remembering I’d left yesterday’s leftover lasagne in my car. I absorbed the views, eyeing which direction I’d take if I were to hike from here to Helm Crag. Below, the last of the walkers appeared to be slowly making their way down to the comforting lights in the valley, leaving me feeling a tad vulnerable. I made my move toward Pike ‘o Stickle, the second peak of the Langdales. From Harrison Stickle it’s a pleasant enough stroll downhill (after a few carefully required steps), before crossing a small stream surrounded by marsh, that you notice if you don’t stick to the path and up the second ascent with a squelching accompaniment. I climbed and scrambled up to the second and final peak of the evening, staring over toward Pike ‘o Blisco and Crinkle Crags on the other side of the valley until the weather finally turned its threats into action. I quickly made my way down in the same direction, somehow losing the path but finding the marsh once more. I contemplated following my tracks all the way down, but at the last moment due to the worsening weather and visibility, decided to descend via Dungeon Ghyll.

The dark of night marched out of the deep, black ravine and began to sprawl across the sky. The narrow path ran close to the edge, adding disquiet to my steps until it veered away onto kinder, wider grounds, only for it to become greasy underfoot due to the stinging rain. The short steps may be straightforward to climb, but in the opposite direction, especially with the weather and twilight hot on my heels they were awkward. One was too short of a gap, two or three in the receding visibility seemed too risky. I began to fret I would become one of the many morons who are rescued off mountains due to a lack of appropriate equipment. An image of me plastered all over the local front pages spurred me on as I changed pace into a gentle jog. Slowly but surely after a few slips and falls, one of which caused the forceful wind to even hold its breath, I made it back into the valley. The path took me past Pike Howe and Miller Crag, not that I noticed. At this point I could barely see my boots, let alone the path. Luckily Sticklebarn was lit up, casting light like a beacon. I made my way across a sloping field filled with thirty or so unusual huge rocks; the rocks moved with a fright, bleating to one another as I tiptoed through. Ahead was a sty, and I was sure I could hear voices coming from somewhere but looking around I couldn’t see a torch light. As I got closer, I could see on the other side of the sty to the right, leaning against a wall, a couple sat in darkness. ‘Hello’ I called out as politely and as non-frightening as I could, not that it worked. The man jumped up screaming and sprinted straight ahead. His reaction, so startling, that I in turn, screamed out myself, much to the delight of his partner, who began laughing hysterically. I apologised profusely, explaining it was not my intention to scare them. Once they regained their composure, the woman, who sounded Scandinavian asked if I was the last person coming down. I replied, ‘I believe I am’. I was inclined to ask why they were sitting in the dark, hoping I’d stumbled across doggers, but couldn’t be bothered engaging in conversation, so kept moving.

Walking through the car park I fantasised about the couple telling friends at a dinner party that they were spooked by a stranger emerging from the dead of night on a mountainside. The thought of being the centre of an anecdote to a group of strangers filled me with an odd, unjust sense of pride.

Once changed and back in my steamed-up car eating yesterday’s leftover lasagne, I listened briefly to Radio 3 on the DAB, until it knocked itself onto FM before finally falling into white noise. I shut it off, and in the silence whispered ‘Jack, I want you to draw me like one of your French girls.’ I stopped short of smearing the steamed-up window and instead finished my cold pasta, turned the ignition, cranked up the AC and drove home.      

Spectral shapes in the falls

One thought on “The Langdales via Stickle Tarn.

  1. So we’ll written I felt that I was there climbing the mountains with you and rushing back down again before the darkness fell…


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