"Can There Be a Better Place to Have Breakfast"?
The latest Striding Edge video offering from the gifted cinematographer Terry Abraham takes us on three seasonal mountain walks in Upper Eskdale, a glacial valley in the southwest corner of the English Lake District. The remote Eskdale (literally, the broad valley through which the River Esk flows) sees fewer visitors than other areas of the Lakeland, but not because it lacks beauty; the legendary Alfred Wainwright described Eskdale as “one of the loveliest of Lakeland's valleys; it descends from the highest and wildest mountains in the district to the Sands of Ravenglass in a swift transition from bleak and craggy ridges to verdant woodlands and pastures watered by a charming river." In “Upper Eskdale” David Powell-Thompson takes us on several scenic walks in “the highest land in all of England,” to the top of Harter Fell, Esk Pike and Bowfell, and Hard Knott.
Powell-Thompson is a mountain guide and longtime Striding Edge researcher; he has worked with Eric Robson, Cameron McNeish (in “Wild Walks”) and Julia Bradbury (in her “Wainwright Walks” and “Coast-to Coast” videos). For the most part he has remained behind the scenes, though there is a glimpse of him as a considerably younger man carrying his gear under the end credits of Robson’s 1998 video release “The Wainwright Memorial Walk.” Powell-Thompson emerged into camera view to assist Bradbury along a heavily overcast Striding Edge on the way to the summit of Helvellyn; more recently, he hosted his own segment on Terry Abraham’s award-wining “Scafell Pike: Life of a Mountain.” Looking every bit the grizzled mountain man—he won the prize for “best beard” two years running at the annual Wasdale Show—the 69-year old Powell-Thompson is nothing short of astonishing as he clambers up to the rocky summit of Harter Fell or the vertical face of “Boulder No.3” near Esk Pike with the agility of a man half his age.
The Harter Fell walk, like the other two, begins at the Brotherilkeld Farm, a moniker that “has given place-name enthusiasts fun for donkeys’ years.” The starting point is also near the Jubilee Bridge, built in 1977 to celebrate the silver anniversary of the reign of Elizabeth II. Sweeping aerial views of the Eskdale landscape are intercut with ground-level views of the amiable narrator making his way up to the top of the fell. Abraham has a painterly eye; some of his shots seem almost abstract in their composition of color and form. An image of Powell-Thompson silhouetted against a sunset is particularly striking, as are the muted greys of multiple ranges of Lakeland mountains, one behind the other. As he makes his way along paths constructed centuries ago to enable the passage of peddlers, pack horses, and travelers from one valley to the other, Powell-Thompson walks past landmarks like the farm owned by Beatrix Potter, which she donated (along with fourteen other of her other properties) to the National Trust. Reaching the summit of Harter Fell, Powell-Thompson stops to admire the view, not only the nearby peaks like the Scafells, Pillar, and the Conistons, but also the Isle of Man, Ireland, and Scotland, and—“if you really look hard—north Wales.” He mentions that Harter Fell made Wainwright’s list of his six favorite summits, the key criteria for which are (1) a rocky top and (2) a great view.
Filmed in late September (but warm enough for Powell-Thompson to be in shirtsleeves at least part of the time), the walk to Esk Pike and Bowfell is a two-day excursion, with our guide camping out at the end of the first day. That allows him to remain alone on the mountain (apart, of course, from his camera crew) when everyone else is rushing home and to be there in the morning before everyone else arrives. Along the way he points out a wall that was built tall enough to keep sheep in but low enough to allow deer to jump out. He passes by Great Moss, the “sponge that keeps the River Esk flowing during droughts,” and a volcanic crater where, according to legend, Samson dropped a collection of gigantic boulders--one of which, “just for the fun of it,” Powell-Thomson climbs.
Next morning, he emerges from his tent, brews a cup of tea, and marvels at the sun rising over the far eastern fells. Soon he’s on the summit of Esk Pike, where, from this central location (“If the valleys of the Lake District are the spokes of a wheel, then Esk Pike can claim to be the hub”), he is able to view many of the most well-known peaks in the Lake District—Skiddaw, Grisedale Pike, Blencathra, High Street, Bowfell, Coniston Old Man, Harter Fell, the Scarfells, Great Gable, and Green Gable. But it’s the early hour that makes the panorama special: You just don’t get views like this unless you stay here overnight.” Before going on to the summit of Bowfell, Powell Thompson pauses at a cairn built as a memorial to mountaineer Gerry Charnley, designer of the International Mountain Marathon. (Charnley died in 1982 in the Helvellyn range.) And the mountaineer’s friends later created another memorial, the Charnley Way, a 57 km marathon route, with its 26 checkpoints within the Eskdale, Borrowdale, and Langdale regions.
The third and final walk takes us to the top of Hard Knott. One of the “lesser fells,” at 1,803 feet (which makes it 148th in order of height among Wainwright’s 214 Lake District peaks), Powell-Thomson nevertheless pronounces the view from the summit “one of the best in Lakeland.” What makes this segment truly magical, however, is that it was filmed in winter, and the snowy mountains and valleys offer vistas of stunning beauty. Following the River Esk again from the start point at Brotherilkeld Farm, Powell-Thompson soon comes across the pool at the bottom of a waterfall where sherpa Tenzing Norgay (who accompanied Edmund Hillary to the summit of Everest) was said to have lost his false teeth while swimming. At another spot, our guide examines the remains of an ancient Roman fort where 500 cavalrymen were once posted. The area is relatively accessible; parts of it are only a mile or so from the road, “yet you feel so out of it, so alone, so much in the wilderness . . . It’s just a magnificent place.”
Following the success of his earlier “Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike” and “Helvellyn,” Terry Abraham lives up to his reputation as one of Britain’s finest geographic cinematographers. His next project, “Life of a Mountain: Blencathra,” should be worth waiting for.
Larry B | Ventura, California | October 2018