"A cracking walk"
"Helvellyn with Mark Richards" is filmmaker Terry Abraham's worthy full-length follow up to his "Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike," his widely-acclaimed film about England's highest mountain shown (in considerably edited form) on the BBC in 2014. Both films feature breathtaking views of their respective subjects, but they are quite different in their approaches. "Scafell Pike" is not a walking video, but rather a wide-ranging exploration of the people who live, visit, and work in the area over a four-season period, with various narrators (including fellrunner Joss Naylor and researcher David Powell-Thompson), each with his or her own segment. "Helvellyn" features fellwalker Mark Richards who guides us on three of the numerous walks to the peak of the mountain--and so the program is ideal for treadmill walkers like me, who with a little imagination and more wish-fulfilment can pretend during their daily workout that they are actually walking the walk among the fells.
Richards, author of the "Lakeland Fellranger" series, has served as a guide in several other DVDs, including "The Cotswold Way," "The Dales Way," and "Lake District Trails." Knowledgeable and experienced (he walked with and was mentored by Alfred Wainwright), Richards has an ebullient personality, though Abraham sometimes catches him in contemplative mood as he surveys the spectacular landscapes before him.
Wainwright devoted 26 pages of his "Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells" to Helvellyn, more space than is given to any other of the 214 fells he covered. Generally considered the finest of the four highest mountains in England (the others being Scafell, Scafell Pike, and Skiddaw), its most famous feature is Striding Edge, a 900 foot spine of rock located close to the summit, and approached from Patterdale. Striding Edge is one of the three walks featured on the DVD, the other two being Hard Edge and Brownrigg Well.
A nice extra feature of this disk is that loading it into your computer allows you to access and print out three of Richards' drawings of the mountain, the selected routes along the ridges and valleys marked with dotted lines, enabling you to better follow his progress. Like Wainwright, Richards is a devotee of linescapes, those "textures of fine lines" that bring out the essential features of mountainscapes ever better than many photographs. The young Richards had submitted some of his pen and ink drawings to Wainwright, to the master's approval and encouragement. Each segment of "Helvellyn" begins with one of Richards' line sketches of the route, which then dissolves into Abraham's photographed version (though I suspect that in actuality, the process was reversed, with Richards sketching from Abraham's image).
On his Brownrigg Well walk, Richards is accompanied by John Manning, editor of "Lakeland Walker" magazine. As they stop to drink cold water from a mountain spring, Manning admits that as editor of an outdoor magazine, he spends more time indoors at his desk than actually exploring Lakeland. On the Striding Edge walk, Richards stops to talk with Tanya Oliver and Richard Fox, with the organization Fix the Fells, which helps to maintain Striding Edge and other geologic features of the Lake District. (Erosion is a constant problem, aggravated by numerous fellwakers who don't stick to the paths.)
On the Brownrigg Well walk, Richards and Manning walk past the site where an Avro 585 Gosport landed in 1926, the first plane to land on a mountain in Great Britain--not exactly a giant leap for mankind, but a record for all that. On the Hard Edge Walk, in Grisedale, Richards stops at the Brothers Parting stone, which commemorates the occasion when William and Dorothy Wordsworth last parted from their brother John in the Lake District in 1800. John, a sea captain was drowned when his ship went down off the coast of Dorset several years later. Another memorial commemorates Charles Gough, an artist who was killed in a fall from a rock in 1805. His skeleton was later found guarded by his faithful dog, an incident commemorated both by Wordsworth, in his poem "Fidelity," and by Walter Scott. Gough thus became more famous for his death than for his art.
When we do arrive at the top of Helvellyn, we are treated to magnificent views of the surrounding area and peaks, including Great Gable, Pillar, and Coniston. We also see the diminutive mountaintop cairn--a scrawny little clump of stones. Wainwright himself registered his disappointment: "It might be expected that the summit of a so popular a mountain would be crowned by a cairn the size of a house, instead of which the only ornament is a small and insignificant heap of stones that commands no respect at all, untidily thrown together on the mound forming the highest point."
Shriveled cairn aside, Abraham's "Helvellyn with Mark Richards" is a must-see experience for all devotees of the Lake District. With its stunning photography and its genial guide, this disk offers the next best experience to actually being in an area "richly endowed," as Richards notes, "with beauty and drama, and breathtaking views, green valleys, wild coves, and high ridges." Of course, he does warn that the mountain can be dangerous, especially in bad weather. Two days before the present account was written in January 2015, BBC news reported that during snowy conditions two men had fallen from Swirrel Edge on Helvellyn into Brown Cove, one of them later dying from his injuries--the second death on Helvellyn in a week. The third highest mountain in England can be a pleasant and easy walk, but it is not to be trifled with.
Larry B | Ventura, California | October 2018