The Stuff of Legend – Cumbria’s Grisedale Tarn and Helvellyn

Posted: Sep 23 2016

The Stuff of Legend – Cumbria’s Grisedale Tarn and Helvellyn

By George Kitching

Nestled between the mighty flanks of Fairfield and the hefty Helvellyn massif, Grisedale Tarn has an eerie, other-worldly majesty. As the cloud hangs low over its silent waters, you can almost imagine a hand emerging from its depths holding aloft Excalibur. But it’s another Celtic ruler whose legend pervades here.

Dunmail was the last of the Cumbrian kings, slain in a bloody battle with massed Scottish and Saxon forces. His men were routed, mutilated and forced to build a large cairn, Dunmail Raise, on the spot where their chieftain fell, but not before they’d saved his crown from Saxon mitts and cast it into the depths of Grisedale Tarn where it is rumoured to remain. Local legend has it that every year his ghostly army returns to the tarn, retrieves the crown and carries it back to Dunmail Raise to urge their monarch to rise again and reclaim his kingdom.

Today the cairn sits beside a stretch of dual carriageway on the A591 between Grasmere and Keswick, just before the road skirts the shore of Thirlmere. Turn away from the tarmac however, and climb the path alongside the cascading waters of Raise Beck and the modern world quickly fades. By the time the tarn is reached the stuff of legend feels more tangible.

Some fine ridge walks converge here. Starting from Patterdale, walkers with lofty ambitions and matching energy levels can conquer St Sunday Crag and ascend the impressive bulk of Fairfield by the rocky pinnacle of Cofa Pike. Today though, ascending from Thirlmere, I’m heading for Helvellyn, which means climbing the stepped path that zigzags up the southern slope of Dollywagon Pike.

As if in sympathy with Dunmail’s demise, the sky darkens and the cloud comes down. By the time I reach the top it’s enveloped in a thick mist. The path to Helvellyn is wide and easily followed but Dollywagon’s summit requires a brief detour. I follow the sketchy path along the line of the crags with the distant silhouettes of fellow walkers and some jubilant whoops to reassure me I’m heading in the right direction. It’s not long before the summit cairn comes into view and the reason for their felicity is revealed. A party of charity fundraisers is preparing for a group photo, unfurling their “24 peak challenge” banner in triumph at attaining their target. The celebrations are cut short though, when a navigationally diligent member realises this isn’t Helvellyn after all and the banner is duly packed away.

As they dissolve into the murk in search of the right mountain top I’m left alone on a slender promontory descending all around into cloud. Just then I notice a small teddy bear, tucked carefully behind a rock. It clearly hasn’t been dropped by accident, but what is it doing here? It has a laminated card tagged to its ear bearing the web address www.facebook.com/angelbabycassie. I later learn it’s been placed here by a grieving father in memory of his stillborn daughter, Cassie Elizabeth. To raise awareness and fund help for other parents going through this harrowing experience, Nicky Bloor has set himself the challenge of climbing the 100 highest peaks in England and Wales, leaving on each a teddy like the one he’d bought for Cassie – the one she never got to hug.

Just then a flash of blue sky is revealed and I get a tantalising glance of the verdant valley below. The cloud shrouds round again, but the wind has whipped up a pace and is blowing it clear. As I pick my way back to the main path, the vista to the west opens up revealing a stunning panorama of Lakeland fells with the sun breaking through illuminating their eastern slopes like a Heaton Cooper painting.

I press on for the wonderfully named Nethermost Pike with another quick aside to visit the top of High Crag. By now the sky has cleared to the east rewarding those of us who have braved the gloom with breathtaking views over Ullswater and Striding Edge. Striding Edge is the jagged Helvellyn ridge which, in good weather, affords adventurers with a head for heights an exhilarating way to scramble to the summit. From Nethermost Pike, its intrepid walkers look like ants or stick men. We appear to have swapped Heaton Cooper for LS Lowry.

Spurning the main path I track round the edge of the crags to get a closer look at Striding Edge and Red Tarn beyond. As you join the route coming up from the ridge, you encounter a monument to Charles Gough, a romantic artist who attracted little attention during his lifetime but was later immortalised by the likes of Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott who saw the free-spirited or perhaps plain reckless nature of his death in 1805 as the ultimate expression of the romantic ideal. A tourist in the Lake District, Gough set out to climb Helvellyn with no experience and only his faithful dog, Foxie for company. His body was found three months later beside Red Tarn by a shepherd who supposed he must have fallen from Striding Edge. Foxie was still guarding his body.

This image of canine fidelity was irresistible to the Romantics who pictured a devoted spaniel lovingly defending her master’s body from the scavenging ravens that picked at his bones. A Carlisle newspaper had a more prosaic interpretation, “The bitch had pupped in a furze near the body of her master, and, shocking to relate, had torn the cloaths from his body and eaten him to a perfect skeleton.”

With the clouds parted, the views from the top of Helvellyn are spectacular and continue to reward all the way down over the subsidiary peak of Little Man and the steep descent to Thirlmere. On the way I pass a man who can climb no further due to his crippling fear of heights but whose overriding ambition is to make it to the top one day; and a lovely couple, ascending via this route, who ask me earnestly if they are nearly there yet - a hundred yards above the car park!

All human experience is here then - the history, the comedy and the tragedy; the poetic and prosaic; the noble and foolhardy; and all somehow diminished in significance by these wild, beautiful, remote peaks with their rocky outcrops and sweeping vistas, formed from catastrophic eruptions 450 million years ago.

As the country argues angrily over Brexit, devolution and independence, the legend of Dunmail feels like a timeless reminder that it was always thus; but these magnificent hills were here long before there were human feet to tread them and they will remain long after the last walking boot has crumbled into the dust; a realisation at once humbling, liberating and exhilarating. Perhaps this is why one man is so desperate to conquer his fear while another seeks solace here from the pain of losing his child. To borrow a line from a time when I used to like U2, “kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, but you go on and on”.

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