Friday, September 21, 2012

Traversing Glaramara

The plan of ascent, with beer notes

Because water from both sides of Glaramara, east and west, descends into Borrowdale, it's possible to do a full traverse of the mountain and still get back to where you started from - most other Lakeland mountains over 2500 feet would drop you into a different valley system with no easy means of return. 

I did the walk on September 1st with my pal Richard, who features in the pix.

The ascent route began, from the west, along what we've come to refer to as the "Victorian path", (meaning any ascent of a fell that is used by at least 90% of the walkers), but instead of passing sideways across the front of the hanging valley of Comb Gill we went straight through it, scrambled up the edge of the little gorge, and finally emerged on the ridge via Comb Door (the sky-line gap in the picture below).

Comb Gill

A hanging valley is a (usually glacial) valley whose lower part has been subsequently sheared off by a later and deeper glacier. In this case the deeper glacier was Borrowdale. The upper valley of Comb Gill is now cut off from casual passers-by, ending some hundreds of feet above Borrowdale with a step and a steep descent, over which the gill tumbles in a series of waterfalls.

In the gorge I photographed a few plants.

Wild Angelica (Angelica sylvestris), with Viviparous Sheep's-fescue (Festuca vivipara), Devil's-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis), the leaves of Roseroot (Sedum rosea) (I think), Yellow Saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides)...

Devil's-bit Scabious and a plant that I perhaps too hastily accepted as Goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea) - not that there's any doubt of the identification, but it is a notoriously variable plant and I should have taken time to focus on this variant.

Above and below, Yellow Saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides).

Alpine Lady's-Mantle (Alchemilla alpina), the easiest Lady's-Mantle to recognize (because its leaves are fully divided into compound leaflets) but not the easiest to get to see.

Now exposed to almost incessant wind, we staggered around the east of Comb Head and back over the col to approach the summit from the west via the 20ft rock step (Wainwright's route B). The clouds had been lowering, but now we saw occasional patches of blue sky.

Viviparous Sheep's-fescue (Festuca vivipara), which I photographed while waiting at the rock step for some other walkers to come down it before we could go up.  It confused me at the time because I remembered a statement in the Collins Guide by Fitter, Fitter and Farrer (1984): "Other grasses [proliferate occasionally], but only this species never has flowers". Now I've checked with Stace and Hubbard and found that this isn't invariably true, though neither mentions panicles that are wholly sexual, like those in the top right of the photo. I'm still a bit puzzled, and hope some reader may help me out.

Close-ups - fertile above, proliferous below.

The summit. Richard's probably trying to work out if it is the summit, because there's a second summit just to the south, which we couldn't be bothered to go to. Anyway it turns out that the one we were on is, by a few feet, the higher of the two. 

After a thermos behind a rock we went down the east side of Glaramara into the side-valley of Langstrath. Mainly, we descended steeply over boulders concealed by bracken. We never found any of the paths down. Wainwright didn't recommend the route, so it's become disused.

And so back, for three or four miles through this lonely valley, to the campsite at Rosthwaite in Borrowdale. Langstrath is a lovely surprise in the midst of such otherwise heavily-walked country. It's surrounded by the "backs" of mountains so attracts few expeditions. One runner shot past us, and that was all.


Here's a couple of nice links about Langstrath:
A proper photographer describes taking a picture of the waterfall:
Langstrath's "secret" cave, unfortunately vandalized:

Altogether it turned out to be a longer and more demanding walk than I'd expected. That was partly because most of the time we were on Glaramara we weren't on any kind of path. And any traverse means going a long way round the base to get back to where you started.


Glaramara got on to my radar because it kept cropping up in literature that I've read or written about recently.

Wordsworth's  "Poems On the Naming of Places II. To Joanna" (1800), which has this passage:

The Rock, like something starting from a sleep,
Took up the Lady's voice, and laughed again;
That ancient Woman seated on Helm-crag
Was ready with her cavern; Hammar-scar,
And the tall Steep of Silver-how, sent forth
A noise of laughter; southern Loughrigg heard,
And Fairfield answered with a mountain tone;
Helvellyn far into the clear blue sky
Carried the Lady's voice,--old Skiddaw blew
His speaking-trumpet;--back out of the clouds
Of Glaramara southward came the voice;
And Kirkstone tossed it from his misty head.

and the famous ending of "Yew-Trees" (1803):

To lie, and listen to the mountain flood
    Murmuring from Glaramara's inmost caves.

Then Sir Walter Scott's Bridal of Triermain (1813) has these lines about King Arthur's tour through the wilds.

'King Arthur has ridden from merry Carlisle
               When Pentecost was o'er:
He journey'd like errant-knight the while,
And sweetly the summer sun did smile
               On mountain, moss, and moor.
Above his solitary track
Rose Glaramara's ridgy back,
Amid whose yawning gulfs the sun
Cast umber'd radiance red and dun,
Though never sunbeam could discern
The surface of that sable tarn,
In whose black mirror you may spy
The stars, while noontide lights the sky.

(King Arthur must be roaming about in no particular direction, because he starts in Carlisle, goes south to be seen near Glaramara, and then enters the Valley of St John, which means he must have turned northward again.)

Here's Robert Southey, musing from his window at evening, in the hexameters of "A Vision of Judgement" (1821):

                             the hills that, calm and majestic,
Lifted their heads in the silent sky, from far Glaramara
Bleacrag, and Maidenmawr, to Grizedal and westermost Withop.
Dark and distinct they rose.

 A poem by the 14-year-old John Ruskin (from around 1833) has this:

The crags are lone on Coniston,
And Glaramara’s dell;
And dreary on the mighty one,
The cloud-enwreathed Scawfell.

I had supposed that the "dell" meant Comb Gill, but now I think it's more likely that it refers to Borrowdale in general.

Probably in all of these poems (except, maybe, Southey's) the mountain was singled out for mention just because of its resonant name.

But the same accusation can't be levelled at John Bailey, who thus defended writing yet another new book on Milton (in 1915):

When a man spends a day walking in hilly country he is often astonished at the new shape taken on by a mountain when it is looked at from a new point of view. Sometimes the change is so great as to make it almost unrecognizable. He who has seen Snowdon from Capel-Curig is reluctant to admit that what he sees from Llanberis is the same mountain: he who has seen the Langdale Pikes from Glaramara is amazed at their beauty as he gazes at them from the garden at Low Wood.

The Langdale Pikes, from Glaramara

Bailey, evidently, had been on this very spot and was talking about Glaramara's view of the "back" of the Langdale Pikes. (The famous view from Glaramara is northwards to Derwentwater and Skiddaw; you can vaguely see it in the summit photo.)    

But the sound of "Glaramara" has continued to attract. A.S.J. Tessimond, "England (Autumn 1938)":

Grape-bloom of distant woods at dusk;
    Storm-crown on Glaramara’s head;
The fire-rose over London night;
    An old plough rusting autumn-red.
If a name has sufficient resonance it can come to stand for larger things: thus, "Glaramara" can become symbolic of all Borrowdale, or all Lake District fells, or all English mountains.  Not bad for a name which originally referred only to the summit rock and not even to the whole fell!

At least, so Wainwright says: "The ancient and beautiful name really applies only to the grey turret of rock at the summit but happily has been commonly adopted for the fell as a whole." This statement is much repeated on the Internet, but it doesn't tell the whole story. The early source comes from a charter of 1209, when Alice de Rumeli gave her manor in Borrowdale to Furness Abbey, and mentions "Houedgleuermerhe" as a boundary between it and the neighbouring Egremont estate in Eskdale. This clearly refers to the summit and may well mean the Head of the Shieling by the Ravine, interpreting the elements as Old Norse in origin.

I don't really understand, though, why we can be so certain that Glaramara wasn't already established as the name of the fell, and why "Houedgleuermerhe" doesn't simply mean the Head of Glaramara?

I suppose the counter-question is, why would you want to name a fell? Certainly, if it was a prominent skyline landmark and well separated from other high ground, it would acquire a name quite quickly. But many Lakeland Fells are not like this. Dividing an area of high ground like the Scafell massif into distinct fells would take much longer and remain contentious.

What is a fell? The authors of this paper see it as a "fuzzy object", with a definite point at the summit and a vaguer area surrounding it. Medieval landowners would find boundary markers (such as a summit) useful, but would have little reason to designate an area as "Glaramara", especially if it lay across estate boundaries.

One thing that would certainly make a difference is a Romantic sensibility that endows mountains with a soul. Give it a name and you can personify it. It seems clear that the name "Glaramara" securely designated the whole fell, or maybe the whole ridge, by the time Wordsworth used it in 1800.

As for methodically dividing all the high ground of Lakeland into fells, Wainwright himself was probably the key pioneer. He partly responded to, partly created, a taste for "collecting" fells. Well, that's Glaramara out of the way!  Where next?

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At 9:02 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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