A Pint for the Fells
A Pint for the Fells
“Fancy a pint?” The landlord, without waiting for an answer fills the glass. It helps you know – someone shouts, above the cackle of wet and weary walkers that now fill the pub – to repair the paths on the fells. I didn’t know, but I did notice a sign on the pump in front of me, ‘Fix the Fells, 10p donation from every pint of Old Man’. “We’ve raised £250 for them,” said Ian Bradley from Coniston Brewing Company. This little known fact, may, or may not, account for increased consumption of Lakeland ales.
The effort by two local breweries – the other being ‘American Invasion’ by Cumbrian Legendary Ales – to give something back is just part of the enthusiastic support that Fix the Fells is currently receiving from public and businesses in and around Cumbria. Tubular Fells, a company that produces a map of all the 214 Wainwright Peaks is also donating a £1 from each sale, and a man sponsored a path that he regularly walks in the northern fells. According to Tanya Oliver, the programme manager for Fix the Fells, “The summer has been going brilliant thanks to the hard work of our rangers and volunteers. Also, thanks to the funding received so we can continue our work.”
Lengthsmen head to the hills
From February to November, each year, teams of lengthsmen – and many lengthswomen – head into the mountains to repair miles of paths. Some of these are rangers, the rest are volunteers who want to give something back to the fells they so regularly enjoy. (The term lengthsmen comes from medieval times when people were paid to walk the length of the parish, repairing roads and unblocking ditches). “As of mid-October, volunteers have already gifted over 1219 days, so it looks like another record-breaking year for them,” added Tanya. “This year the rangers and volunteers have completed 241 drain runs, and there were 57 working parties.” Teams of rangers have been repairing and maintaining upland footpaths in the Lake District since the 1980’s.
Fix The Fells
Fix the Fells is a long-term partnership of the National Trust, National Park, Natural England, Nurture Lakeland, Friends of the Lake District and Cumbria County Council. It is mainly National Trust Rangers and volunteers who undertake the practical work, and they are supported by Park Rangers. “We use traditional techniques of path repair dating back from the Romans, miners and shepherds. Restoration work reduces erosion scars and also helps protect the ecology and archaeological heritage of the landscape,” explained Tanya.
Their work is hard: comfortable in the summer months, especially in the warm summer we had this year. Arduous in winter, when heavy rain, gale force winds, and blizzards, make the teams drop axe and shovel and run for shelter into the small temporary huts they have built on the hillsides. I climb from the junction of the Three Shires – no, this is not a hobbit tale – and head to Crinkle Crags to meet the team.
Behind me, a lone figure walks up from the car park. Ahead, a walker, silhouetted on the ridge, leans into the hillside and climbs the skyline towards Pike Of Blisco. Yesterday the hillside was covered with walkers. Each year it is estimated that 15.3 million visitors come to the enjoy the Lake District. Ten years ago, when I walked these fells, I described the path to Crinkle Crags as a ‘red motorway’. Over the years, erosion had exposed the rosy-red bedrock. Vegetation and soil, ripped out of the hillside, quickly disintegrated under volumes of rain water. In the early 90’s, erosion wasn’t tackled as effectively as it is today, and walking boots decimated the work of shovels. The path was noticeable from space: the perfect blot on the landscape. I expected to see this again, probably much worse, but I was surprised.
The hundred or so pitched-steps I climbed indicated that things had changed. An information sign nailed to a wooden post explained about the ongoing work on Crinkle Crags. In the distance, two small figures swung pickaxes and pushed shovels, incongruent among a group of walkers.
“The specific work on Crinkle Crags involves landscaping out the spider web of paths that are beginning to form and return the route to just one path,” said Richard Fox, one of the Fix the Fells rangers – whose role is to organise and oversee the practical work programme. “The work began mid-April with a helicopter lift and the groundwork started in May. At the end of October, the work will cease and resume next year.” Some walkers have negative reactions towards the repair work on the fells and make a point of walking around the paths, so contributing to the erosion, and undoing much of the pain-staking work done by the teams.
Many walkers give a fundamental cry to leave the fells alone; like ostriches sticking their heads into the ground hoping that the erosion will just disappear, and the fells will return to their natural state. But their natural state was not at all conducive to recreation: only the pasturing of sheep and deforestation enables these activities. And long before this the fells were the domain of wolves and wild boar. The only people who ascended them in those days were hunter-gatherers and Vikings. “It is important,” emphasised Richard, “that all walkers respect the work we are doing and do their bit by staying on the repaired line. Path repair work is very expensive and is a constant need. Fix the Fells is not funded by any statutory body and we rely completely on donations.”
The work on Crinkle Crags is one of this years biggest ongoing projects. The route had developed a shortcut where
walkers were cutting the corner from the path, which, if left, would become another erosion scar. This problem is exasperated because the path heads across a wide, flat piece of hillside, so a few rocks dug in weren’t going to solve the problem; walkers would just walk around any repair work. So the teams dug the turf off huge areas, dug out hollows and piled up small mounds, creating a lumpy, bumpy landscape which guided walkers along a single path. Helicopters fly in tons of stone during the year costing about £40,000. Repairing each metre of stone-pitching costs £99. The organisation is looking to raise £5 million over the next ten years to repair sections on 120 paths and maintain the existing network. They have repaired over 200 paths in the last ten years, during which they have developed high levels of skill and expertise to protect the upland environment.
A strong volunteer programme is essential to protect the local ecology and archaeology, using rediscovered traditional techniques and developed new ones. The days of wandering over miles of untouched grassy fells have gone. Ongoing conservation work is an unavoidable necessity to try and prevent the fells looking like a building site. Paths are the result of a million pairs of walking boots each year tearing up the natural vegetation and eroding the landscape.
One of the biggest problems can be the organised events that take place. This year there are serious concerns about the damage on Scafell, England’s highest mountain from these events. “Unfortunately our narrow paths leading to the summit of England’s highest mountain are no longer able to cope with the demands of challenge events and visitors on them. This is leading to significant erosion problems on the fell side,” commented Richard Fox. “We will need £250,000 over the next eight years to repair the main routes on the Western side of Scafell Pike alone; these are the popular Corridor, Hollowstones and Mickledore paths.” Everyone I spoke to valued the work that the teams are doing. Some recounted times of frustration, pain and agony, when descending over eroded paths that had become deep gullies; sliding, falling, and twisting ankles as bankings gave way. Slipping on slabs of rock covered with small stones. “They were quite dangerous. They’re much better now,” commented a couple from Yorkshire, who had come away for a week. “The steps are so easy to walk down. I think they are doing a great job. The paths blend into the hillside. You can’t easily see them.”
Clearing the paths
Last year 82 volunteers (49 male, 33 female) regularly walked up the fells carrying spades and brooms. Their work involves maintaining ‘drain runs’. At weekend, they sweep the paths, brushing away the stones, making them easier to walk on. During the week, teams build conduits for rainwater to flow down. These get blocked up with stones and vegetation. During heavy rain the paths can become flooded, fragile vegetation gets washed away. So the work of the volunteers in clearing the ‘drain runs’ is essential. In 2013, volunteers gifted 1,258 days on the mountain paths and a further 174 days on lower level work including
repairing dry-stone walls. “We could not undertake the volume of Fix the Fells work without them. Their enthusiasm makes the programme what it is,” said Tanya. Iain Gray, one of the upland rangers at work today on Crinkle Crags, has repaired trails in the Lake District for over 26 years. He is no stranger to the damage that the tourist’s boots have on the hills. ”We try and blend the paths into the folds of the landscape by following hillock and hollow,” he said. Adding that the teams work hard to keep the repairs aesthetically pleasing. Iain was busy digging away from the path, creating another conduit to keep the water flowing down the hillside. The work produces a lot of soil as the paths are repaired. This is used to bank the edges, and help the path blend into the surrounding landscape. I asked him where the ‘red motorway’ was. He looked up the fell, pointing out where it had been. I could see no trace of it. Liam Prior, a Ranger Supervisor, was working higher up the mountain.
“Can you see where Liam is working, the vegetation is a lighter green, that is where the path used to be. We have repaired most of it, now we’re pitching the paths, allowing vegetation to regenerate at the sides. Our intention here is to narrow the path, to create containment and improve the walking surface so people are encouraged to use the durable surface, rather than the hillside,” he said. I headed up into the clouds to meet Liam. He had moved up from Manchester – just over six months ago – after applying for a job on the ‘Fix the Fells’ website. He now lives in Millom where he works for the West Team: one of the four teams covering Cumbria.
Jokingly, he refers to his job as like working on a chain gang: each day breaking rocks. “The work is great fun,” he said, “it’s hard, but just being out on the fells each day is fantastic. I laugh when friends visit me. It’s like a busman’s holiday: they just want to go for a day on the hill. Last weekend we climbed over Great Gable, but usually on my day off I just want to relax at home and do something different.”
Liam was watching out for his father, a fell runner, who, with some friends, was bounding over the mountains checking out a new route for a fell race. “He should come down this way; it’ll be nice to meet him,” he said, smashing his pick into the ground. I climb higher, enveloped in the cold, clammy mist that covers Crinkle Crags. Jewels of dew glisten on my jacket, cling to the hairs on my arms and run off the end of my nose.
The path leads upwards between the rocks. I turn back. Strong wind blasts over the edge of the crag on my left. Liam has put his jacket on now: the weather is changing. His father has still not appeared. I look to see if there is any trace of the ‘motorway’ but it has completely disappeared, now overgrown with grass and vegetation. Nature has a way, I suppose, of reclaiming what is lost, even quicker with a little help from its friends. Now for that pint. I head back down the hill, leaving Ian and Liam finishing their work for the day. I wonder if I’ll see them in the pub. “Fancy a pint?”