Three days hiking 14 Lakeland fells with a poignant connection to the Armistice Day Centenary
To mark the centenary of Armistice Day, James Forrest explores the history of the “world’s greatest war memorial” with a walk over Scafell Pike, Great Gable and 12 other mountains dedicated to the nation in memory of those who died in the First World War
“A light wind rules my hair, the sun warms my neck, and the Lake District scenery tugs at my heartstrings”
“This path was deinitely not as steep 10 years ago,” jokes John with a grin. It is a dry, self-deprecating quip about his advancing years and slow pace. John is 92 years old. But that isn’t stopping him climbing to Styhead Tarn from Seathwaite. Flanked by his two daughters, he takes of his lat cap and gazes ahead to the Scafells. His face lights up, as if his whole being is rejoicing in the majesty of the mountains. It is a chance encounter that inspires me greatly. On a day in which the spirituality of the fells is on my mind, I ind myself imagining that John is remembering all of the loved ones he has outlived. His smile is a nod to those friends no longer by his side.
I’m here on my own commemorative journey, paying tribute to my greatgrandparents and exploring the history of the so-called ‘Great Git’. 2018 marks 100 years since the cessation of First World War hostilities at 11am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. his watershed moment sparked the giting of 14 Lake District mountains to the nation, under the protection of the National Trust, as a memorial for fallen heroes. he summit of Scafell Pike was donated by Lord Leconield in “perpetual memory of the men… who fell for God and King”; Castle Crag was given as a memorial to “the men of Borrowdale”; and 12 mountains including Great Gable were dedicated by the Fell and Rock Climbing Club as “hills of freedom”. hese gits were described at the time as the “world’s greatest war memorial”. I’m marking the centenary by walking the paths of this great memorial – and, like John, seeking solace in the beauty of Lakeland.
Perched on a boulder, I sit alone and look out across the dancing surface of Styhead Tarn to the dramatic skyline of the surrounding fells. To my right the bulky mass of Great Gable rises imposingly; ahead the minuscule bump of Scafell Pike’s distant summit cairn is clearly silhouetted against a brilliant blue sky.
Virtually everything my eyes touch is a memorial. It feels poignant. I think about the stories my family have told me. My great-grandfather homas Bennett, who was known as the best amateur footballer in Birmingham, fought in the trenches in France. He sufered shrapnel wounds and was sent home. he injuries almost certainly saved him from inevitable death on the front line, but also ruined his promising football career. My dad can vividly remember homas, with a haunted look on his face, refusing ever to talk about what he saw in the war. On my maternal side, my great-grandfather Albert Chambers fought in France aged just 17 and was similarly troubled by the horror of his war experiences. My comfortable, privileged life is so far removed from theirs that I can barely comprehend what they went through. But I feel genuinely grateful for their sacriices.
As I eat my lunch, I read more about the history of the Great Git. Many fellwalkers are aware of the memorial plaques on Scafell Pike and Great Gable, and the annual remembrance service held on the latter – but the full details of the mountains’ post-war signiicance are, perhaps, less well-known. So here is a potted history of the three separate gits of mountains to the National Trust that occurred in the years following the First World War.
On Peace Day in July 1919 a beacon was lit on Scafell Pike to signal the end of the war. Soon ater, the landowner Lord Leconield gited the mountain to the nation in memory “of the men of the Lake District who fell for God and King, for freedom, peace and right in the Great War”.
Then, in 1920, a group of friends donated Castle Crag, dedicating the mountain Looking down Lingmell Beck from the Corridor Route Hiker on Green Gable with views to Buttermere to the memory of 2nd Lieutenant John Hamer and the men of Borrowdale. And inally, in 1923, the Fell and Rock Climbing Club donated all of the land above the 1,500t contour line surrounding Great Gable. his git included 12 summits in total – Lingmell, Broad Crag, Great End, Seathwaite Fell, Allen Crags, Glaramara, Kirk Fell, Great Gable, Green Gable, Base Brown, Brandreth and Grey Knotts – and was marked with a ceremony conducted by Geofrey Winthrop Young, a leading mountaineer of his generation. His dedication at the event on Great Gable poignantly encapsulated the ethos behind all three gits to the National Trust.
“Upon this mountain summit we are met today to dedicate this space of hills to freedom. Upon this rock are set the names of men – our brothers, and our comrades upon these clifs – who held, with us, that there is no freedom of the soil where the spirit of man is in bondage, and who surrendered their part in the fellowship of hill and wind, and sunshine, that the freedom of this land, the freedom of our spirit, should endure.”
The words seem strangely relevant almost 100 years on. My spirit is soaring and the sense of freedom is palpable as I gaze over the enticing mountains ahead. he sun is shining brightly in a marbled sky, a swirling mix of blue and white, and the fells are quiet except for the song of a soaring skylark.
My plan is to visit all 14 of the memorial mountains over three separate day walks. Day one, starting in Seathwaite, will tick of Seathwaite Fell, Lingmell, Scafell Pike, Broad Crag, Great End, Allen Crags and Glaramara; day two, starting at Honister Pass, will visit Grey Knotts, Brandreth, Base Brown, Green Gable, Great Gable and Kirk Fell; and an easy day three from Grange will conclude my commemorative journey with a visit to the dinky yet beautiful Castle Crag. But this long weekend isn’t about peak-bagging. It’s about reconnecting with the past and, hopefully, tapping into the mountains’ deeper, almost religious role as living memorials.
I leave Styhead Tarn, with Seathwaite Fell already behind me, and pick up the Corridor Route ascending south on grassy shelves below the looming, rough western slopes of Great End and Broad Crag. I plod happily along the narrow track. A light wind rules my hair, the sun warms my neck, and the Lake District scenery tugs at my heartstrings. From Stand Crag, I gaze down at Lingmell Beck as it meanders gracefully in the valley, while cloud shadows roll hypnotically over Great Gable’s towering sides of rock, scree, crag and clif. he tranquillity and splendour of the fells makes them an ideal setting for solitary contemplation, for remembering, for paying homage. I have no memories of my greatgrandparents who served in the First World War. But I have lost three grandparents, all of whom lived through the Second World War. I spend a few quiet minutes in thought. From the col I nip north-west briely to the 807m summit of Lingmell, before re-tracing my steps and then toiling southeast over endless stones to the summit of Scafell Pike. Sweating and panting, I make it to the top. he cairn – a large stone structure that contains a touching memorial plaque – looks every bit a itting shrine to fallen heroes. A recent renovation project carried out by National Trust rangers, who repaired crumbling stone and rebuilt collapsed walls, has let the monument in pristine condition for the centenary. It feels right. I linger on the cairn before dropping down briely to the trig pillar. A small wooden cross, adorned with a single red poppy and the words ‘In Remembrance’, has been placed atop the plinth. Four names have been handwritten onto the cross. I wonder who they were, what happened to them, and who was paying tribute to their lives atop England’s highest mountain. I will never know the answer. But I feel conident that whoever was grieving will have found some healing and comfort amongst these beautiful fells.
The following day, a Saturday, I reach the spur leading to Green Gable, ater visiting Grey Knotts, Brandreth and Base Brown.
I don’t know where to look. Resplendent scenery surrounds me. I slowly swivel a full 360 degrees, noticing familiar landmarks – the Langdale Pikes, Ennerdale Forest, Buttermere. Like old friends they bring a smile to my face, triggering happy memories of Lakeland expeditions of years gone by. I ascend gently to the 801m top of Green Gable before descending red scree to Windy Gap and then snaking up a steep, boulder-strewn path to the Great Gable war memorial. Alfred Wainwright called the summit of Great Gable a “itting place to pay homage to men who once loved to walk on these hills and gave their lives defending the right of others to enjoy the same happy freedom”. It’s diicult to disagree. I stand at the viewpoint of Westmorland Cairn: Wast Water spreads out regally in the valley below, framed perfectly by the heathery slopes of Illgill Head and Yewbarrow; and the intricate puzzle of drystone walls and ields at Wasdale Head glows exquisitely bright green, illuminated by golden rays from the heavens.
Eighteen hours later and I’m walking along the shores of the River Derwent with three friends: Anna, Nic and Adam. We’re heading for Castle Crag, a fell that – at only 290m high – is tiny in stature but gigantic in charm. Its wooded slopes have a “sylvan beauty unsurpassed”, as Wainwright put it, while oceans of scree, tangled boulders and jagged crags add a dose of drama and ruggedness. Even the disordered labyrinth of quarry chasms, spoil heaps and caves don’t detract from the irresistible lure of Castle Crag; they complement it, somehow.
We wind upwards through piles of slate and emerge at the top. Slipping into a sunshine-induced state of laziness, we lie on the grass, eat snacks, chug on our water bottles, and chat and laugh about our hiking adventures. In front of us, Derwent Water shimmers in the sunlight, and Keswick nestles in the shadow of Skiddaw as the northern giant rises proudly above the town, forming a classic symmetrical mountain scene with its outliers. I turn my head and spot the commemorative tablet set within the rocky excrescence that marks Castle Crag’s summit. It is a timely reminder of why I’m here. I think about the words of Geofrey Winthrop Young: “the fellowship of hill and wind, and sunshine”.
That is what the four of us are: a fellowship – a social group of like-minded individuals who are free to indulge in our love of the mountains; free to enjoy the hills and the wind and the sunshine, without restriction. And for that I feel incredibly grateful to the fallen heroes commemorated by the git of these mountains.
Memorial on Great Gable
“A itting place to pay homage to men who once loved to walk on these hills and gave their lives defending the right of others to enjoy the same happy freedom.”
– Alfred Wainwright on Great Gable
THREE WALKS ON 14 FELLS
START/FINISH: Seathwaite GR: NY235120
Distance: 17km/10.5 miles
Time: 7-8 hours
START/FINISH: Honister Hause YHA GR: NY225135
Distance: 14.5km/9 miles
Time: 6-7 hours
START/FINISH: Grange in Borrowdale GR: NY252174
Distance: 5km/3 miles
Time: 2 hours
Maps: OS 1:50,000 Landranger sheet 89 (West Cumbria); Explorer sheets OL4 & OL6; Harvey 1:40,000 British Mountain Map (Lake District)
Travel: In spring and summer, Stagecoach route 77 from Keswick services all three walks. Out of season, the 78 will take you as far as Seatoller.
Accommodation: YHA Honister Hause and Borrowdale (Longthwaite)