Tag Archives: National Trust

Taking a Stand

Broad Stand, as the notorious flight of granite steps on the eastern flank of Scafell is known, is a death trap. A quick look at the Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team website will confirm the number of incidents that have taken place at this accident black spot. These range in seriousness from a family of four and their dog who had become stuck on the ledge half way up the crag, to a fell walker found dead beneath East Buttress on 2 July 2017. 

Not recorded on the Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team website is the descent of Broad Stand made by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge on 5 August 1802. Coleridge set out from Greta Hall, his home in Keswick, carrying little more than a change of under garments and some simple writing materials, bound up in a “natty green oil-skin” held together in a net knapsack. Through the Newlands Valley he climbed by the waterfall of Moss Force, then descended into Buttermere and took tea at the Inn by the lake. From Floutern Tarn he descended into Ennerdale and spent the night at the home of John Ponsonby at Long Moor. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1802

Coleridge departed Long Moor after tea and arrived late at St. Bees. He was unable to find suitable accommodation and was forced to spend the night in his clothes at a “miserable pot-house”. He lingered at St. Bees a day then walked on to Egremont, from where via Gosforth he followed the River Irk upstream to reach Nether Wasdale.

Having spent the night at Wasdale Head, Coleridge climbed in the fresh morning light to Burnmoor Tarn, then followed the torrent of Hardrigg Gill to the rocky summit of Scafell itself, where on a natural table of granite he took from his knapsack the paper and pens he had placed there upon leaving Greta Hall and began to compose the letter to his friend Sara Hutchinson from which the details of this account come.

Symonds Knott, Scafell

By three o’clock in the afternoon the wind had begun to gather around the summit such that Coleridge sought his descent from the mountain. He found himself at the narrow gap between what contemporary climbers know as Eastern Buttress and Scafell Crag. It was here that he began to experience difficulties.  He lowered himself down a flight of three granite steps to a narrow ledge. Finding himself unable to continue further down the crag he attempted to retreat the way he had come. To his dismay he found the ledges out of reach and became crag-fast.

Lying on the narrow ledge Coleridge describes entering into a “prophetic trance” (possibly induced by a gram of laudanum) during which he became emboldened by the “powers of Reason and Will”. It was then that he noticed a narrow gap in the rock below him, through which with some difficulty, he was able to pass and thus avoid injury. This gap is known to climbers and hikers alike as “fat man’s agony” and confirms the identity of Coleridge’s descent as Broad Stand.  

Inspired by Coleridge’s heroic if slightly foolish adventure, I determined to experience for myself the perils of Broad Stand. Considering discretion to be the better part of valour, and not wishing to become a statistic on the Wasdale MRT website, I decided to employ some professional assistance in the form of a qualified mountain guide. 

My rendezvous with Matt le Voi was at the Lake Head National Trust car park early on one of those bright, otherworldly Indian Summer mornings that somehow materialise out of the North Atlantic, surprising the human inhabitants of Cumbria as much as the flora and fauna. Along the well-worn path beside Lingmell Gill, Matt and I strode under the September sun, turning now and again to see how it sparkled off the shimmering length of Wastwater, filling the view behind us as we climbed. 

Matt le Voi above Wastwater

At the approach of Mickledore, Matt suggested we climb the steep scree at the foot of Southern Buttress. Here, carved into the fine-grained andesite of the crag, one can discern the shape of a cross beside which are carved four sets of initials and a date, 21 September 1903. The cross marks the location where four young pioneers of climbing fell to their deaths from the lofty precipice of Scafell Pinnacle above. The names of the four young men killed that day are R W Broadrick, H L Jupp, S Ridsdale and A E W Garrett, all members of the Climbers’ Club, which had been newly founded is 1898. They had been attempting to repeat the ascent of Scafell Pinnacle, which had been first made by Welsh rock pioneer, Owen Glynne Jones some years earlier. 

Climbers’ Club Memorial, Mickledore

As the late summer sun crept behind the mountain above us, I felt a chill come upon me, the hairs on the back of my neck standing to attention. Here in the highest ‘Corrie’ in England, bounded on three sides by immense towers of rock, stories of tragedy and death gather like the hooded crows that sweep down from the rocky heights. 

Just before the outbreak of the First World War, Siegfried Herford, a mathematics graduate of Manchester University, ably assisted by George Sanson, a zoology graduate from University College London, made the first ascent of Central Buttress on Scafell Crag. The crux of the climb was a flake crack, which Herford was able to surmount by standing on the shoulders of Sansom, acceptable practice in those days, precariously held in place by a rope threaded around a chockstone near to the top of the flake.

Siegfried Herford was killed by a rifle grenade in France on the 28 January 1916. Stories of sightings of Herford’s ghost, lingering around the base of Central Buttress, began to circulate among the climbing community thereafter. The mountaineer and author Bill Birkett describes how, in the early 1980’s he was descending from Scafell Pike on a bitter, snow shrouded November day, when, approaching the col of Mickledore he noticed walking towards him from out of the swirling mist, the figure of a young man dressed in Khaki drill. Birkett thought nothing of it until he noticed the man was wearing puttees above his boots, a fashion more readily associated with the British Army of the early 20th Century than the 1980’s. Some years later the notorious chockstone that had held Herford and Sansom in place on Central Buttress, became dislodged and fell, killing the climber Iain George Newman. 

Broad Stand was for once dry. There were no excuses. Aware of the many accidents in this spot we set up a belay from the narrow crack in the seemingly impenetrable defences of Fat Man’s Agony. I watched as Matt disappeared through the narrow gap and found myself alone, the only sounds the clink of karabiners and the down draft of ravens wings. Time ticked away slowly and I began to feel a cramp in my calf, shifting my weight from one leg to the other whilst still maintaining the belay position against the cold grey rock, my knuckles whitening around the umbilical chord of rope threaded through the crevice in the rock. It was a good ten minutes more before I heard Matt’s voice calling down from somewhere above me, informing me that he was safe and I could begin to climb. 

Being of slight stature, I was able to squeeze through the vice like fissure in the wall without too much hindrance.  I popped out onto the first rock step where with ease I was able to follow the line of Matt’s rope to the left via a series of outward sloping ledges onto the second rock step. Here, my heart surged into my mouth and sweat began to collect on the nape of my neck. With Broad Stand you see, the structure is all wrong – or right – depending on your viewpoint. What first appears to be a series of relatively benign rock steps leading to higher, more manageable ground, takes on an altogether more alarming prospect because of the angle of fracture of the rock, dipping at about thirty degrees to the South.  This means that the whole structure leans outwards towards the precipice of the Eastern Buttress, making Broad Stand a bit like the House of Fun at an amusement park, but without the laughs. 

It was going to be a leap of faith. I shouted for tight rope and pushed out with all my strength, grappling for the finger hold and finding it securely. “Get a grip!” shouted Matt, and I hauled myself up onto the next ledge, eventually finding my feet on the coarse forgiving granite. I crouched there for some time, regaining my composure and allowing the tide of adrenaline now coursing through my circulatory system to subside, looking down into the heart-stopping drop below.

Myself and Matt on Symonds Knott, Scafell

At the summit of Symonds Knott, lazing under a resplendent blue sky, Matt and I ate a celebratory lunch of cheese sandwiches and chocolate washed down with instant coffee before walking to the cairn marking the summit of Scafell. Turning to the West the early afternoon sun shimmered on the surface of Wastwater as we descended the long, grassy slope of Green How, arriving triumphantly at the National Trust car park, where I thanked Matt for his assistance and waved him goodbye. 

Having time to spare I wandered around the head of the lake to Overbeck Bridge where a small shingle beach extended a little way into the lake. There being no one around I slipped out of my walking clothes and into the cold, heart-stopping waters, seeing beneath me the rounded cobbles give way to the bottomless blue of England’s deepest lake. I floated on my back for some time, soaking my heat-sore feet in the mountain clear drink. My gaze scanned the rugged skyline to the East, finding the rocky cleft between the peaks where, not three hours ago, Matt and I had climbed on the very rocks that once had detained Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and recalled the words he had written to his friend Tom Wedgewood.

“I do not think it possible, that any bodily pains could eat out the love and joy, that is so substantially part of me, towards hills, and rocks, and steep waters! And I have had some trial.”

Great Gable from Wastwater

A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of The Great Outdoors Magazine.

Saddlebole, Alderley Edge

Alderley Awakenings – part 2

“Great novels offer us not only a series of events, 
but a place, a landscape of the imagination
which we can inhabit and return to.”                                                                                                        

Ursula le Guin

The words of Neil Philips reverberated around my head for some considerable time. “to explore the disjointed and troubled psychological and emotional landscape of the twentieth century through the symbolism of myth and folklore.” This was the landscape I had only too painfully come to know as a young adult, both the landscape of the novels of Alan Garner, but also “the troubled psychological and emotional landscape of the twentieth century.” At the age of just fifteen I had found myself contemplating thoughts of suicide, thoughts which left unchallenged and untreated continued to fester, with age ripening into a dark self-hatred, which at the age of twenty-six compelled me, in a desperate cry for help, to act upon those thoughts. One vigorous stomach pump and a good night’s sleep later I found myself at the mercy of the on-duty psychiatric team, who seemed to offer as much empathy and compassion as Caligula, and some time later I was cast out onto the streets with the vague promise of some follow up sessions with a psychotherapist, in about six months time, they said. 

By some miracle of self-determination I fought my way through to my mid-thirties only to be faced with a further personal crisis of calamitous proportions, the consequences of which – a failed marriage, two estranged step-children, a flat-lining professional career, mounting personal debts – lay around me like the victims of a massacre. Something had gone wrong, horribly wrong. There were so many questions, but the materialist culture surrounding me, to a certain extent smothering me, seemed to hold no answers. The messages, both intentional and subliminal, seemed to be saying that my only purpose was to work to earn money to spend in cycles of the unrestrained satiation of morbid desires. I was lost. I needed a place of familiarity from which to assay what I had become. So it was that I returned to those books of my childhood: The Weirdstone of Brasingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, The Owl Service, Red Shift, in some vain attempt to find answers beyond the material.

So again I found myself on Alderley Edge, as I had on many, many occasions since that first encounter, many years ago. On this particular bleached winter’s morning, an oatmeal sun straining to peer over the tops of the birches, I headed out from the warmth of the Wizard Tea Rooms to retrace familiar steps around the three hundred acres of woodland now owned and managed by the National Trust.

No more than three hundred metres through the trees I arrived at Engine Vein, a section of open cast and collapsed mine that once was over twenty-five metres deep but was capped with concrete in 1979 for reasons of safety (the chasm into which my younger self gazed with such awe and wonder). A small iron door on the southern side of the cleft leads through a narrow passageway to the extensive chamber below, from where a labyrinth of drifts, levels and adits criss-cross and interconnect for mile upon mile. Back filled passages are still being discovered at Alderley, often by the Derbyshire Caving Club who have taken responsibility for the up keep of the mines under the direction of the National Trust, and who regularly hold open days for those wishing to take a subterranean exploration of these fascinating features[i].

Engine Vein, Alderley
Engine Vein, Alderley

The earliest evidence of mining at Alderley is to be found at Engine Vein and dates to the Bronze Age. The main ore extracted was copper, but cobalt, iron, lead, silver and even gold have also been found[ii]. In their book Prehistoric Cheshire, Victoria and Paul Morgan recount how an oak shovel found by 19thCentury miners in a section of mine at Brynlow to the south west of Engine Vein, has been radiocarbon dated to approximately 3,700 years old[iii]. A large number of stone hammer heads and similar tools were also discovered in material that had been used to backfill the open cast mine. The process of open cast mining at Engine Vein is believed to have involved the digging of small circular pits into the rock, the adjacent sides of which were then knocked though to expose the full length of the mineral vein. Evidence of this process can still be seen along the side of Engine Vein today, together with significant blackening of the rock, indicating the use fire setting to make the rock faces brittle in order to ease excavation.

From Engine Vein I headed to Beacon Lodge and crossed the Macclesfield Road. The hollows and depressions of the thick oak woodland still held the frost of the previous night as I made my way to lower ground and a clearing of sandy deposits. This was known as Sandhills, and is all that now remains at surface level of a considerable mining enterprise that took place during the 19thCentury. In 1857, James Mitchell obtained a twenty-year lease from Lord Stanley to extract ore in this location, initially using open cast excavation, which became known as West Mine. By 1860 the excavations were extended using tunnels into the rock both at West Mine and also at a new location in Windmill Wood, the no less imaginatively named Wood Mine. Between 1857 and 1863 the Alderley Edge Mining Company excavated an estimated 80,000 tons of ore producing 1,071 tons of copper metal with an estimated value of £84,132.[iv] Extraction of copper ore continued until 1878, by which time competition from overseas mining operations became too great, resulting in a global fall in the price of copper. The Alderley Edge Mining Company opted for voluntary liquidation and all mining activity ceased. At the beginning of the 20thCentury there were brief periods of renewed interest in ore extraction at Alderley, but again global economic forces resulted in very little profit for the prospectors and by 1919 the mines were once again abandoned. This heralded a darker era in the history of the mines and one that I must confess to having played a minor (not miner) role in, the problem of trespass. In 1929 two young Stockport men had wandered into West Mine and had become lost in the labyrinth of passageways, their torches eventually giving up, unable in the dark to find a way out. Their emaciated bodies were found in a side passageway three months later. Public concern at the fatalities did little to deter persistent trespassers. Between 1934 and 1937, forty-one people were fined by Wilmslow magistrates for offences of trespass in the mines[v]. In 1946 a man fell sixty-five feet to his death in ‘Plank Shaft’, again in West Mine, but the mine was not filled-in and fully sealed until 1960, the year The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was published. 

“The widest shaft they had yet come upon lay before them, and stretched across its gaping mouth was a narrow plank.”[vi]

The ancient mines of Alderley claimed their last victim in 1974 when a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl fell thirty feet into Engine Vein, prompting the capping of the open cast shaft with concrete[vii]. In the fields and heathland to the north of Sandhills there is now no visible sign of West Mine or Wood Mine, although the lower levels are still accessible by means of two shafts dug in 1975 by the Derbyshire Caving Club, now kept firmly under lock and key.

To The Edge

Heading back through the woods further to the north, I arrived at the Macclesfield Road by a rusted early 20thCentury sign, now a protected monument, bearing the inscription “TO THE EDGE”. The sign pointed to Castle Rock, a beautiful outcrop of the Helsby and Wilmslow conglomerates and sandstones, from which the escarpments of the Alderley edge were hewn, which were laid down during the Triassic period of geology some 240 million years ago, in an arid environment prone to flash floods, which brought down debris from the surrounding mountainous areas, rich in mineral deposits[viii]. Despite the name, no evidence exists to suggest there was ever a castle on this site, however, evidence has been found of Neolithic implements and what the Morgan’s refer to as “an original Neolithic floor” of “friable brownish sandstone” and “loose bleached sand”, dating to around 5,000 years before present[ix]. Neolithic hunter-gatherers would no doubt have been attracted to the Edge because of the shelter it provided from the prevailing westerly winds and the plentiful supply of fresh water, the Edge being irrigated by at least three natural springs. 

I climbed down under the face and ran my hands along the beautiful banding within the rock, tracing the ebb and flow of ancient sand dunes and river channels, tiny crystals of silica and mica coming away on my fingers. These exposures continued to the north, gradually sloping downwards towards the village, where one of the natural springs seeped from the foot of the cliff. Looking up I saw the face of a bearded man looking back at me – Wizard’s Well. This enigmatic carving is folly believed to have been carved into the rock by the great grandfather of Alan Garner, whose family lived in the area of the Hough below the Edge (pronounced huff)for over three hundred years. Although increasingly illegible, the letters read:

Drink of this and take thy fill for the water falls by the Wizard’s will.”

Now faced with the suburban gardens of Mottram Road, I about turned, following the sculpted sandstone eastwards to where two further springs, known as Holy Well and Wishing Well, appeared each on either side of a buttress several metres in height. By the second well, the rock was dank, coated with a curtain of moss, dripping with water rich in minerals, from deep within the ground. I cupped my hands underneath the lush vegetation and let them fill with the crystal clear water, and drank.

Beyond the wellsprings, the ridge of Alderley Edge climbed to an eastern prospect over looking Glaze Hill. Here at Stormy Point an impressive crust of the Triassic conglomerate sat defiantly above the softer red mottled sandstones of the Wilmslow formation, bearing the scars of past mining activities. A long fissure in the conglomerate rock around fifty centimetres wide and up to two metres deep, topped by an unusual rectangular stone capping a circular hole, is known locally as the Devil’s Grave. 

“If you run round theer three times widdershins Owd Nick’s supposed to come up and fetch you.”[x]

As children we would dare each other to take up the challenge and thus by encircling the stone in and anti-clockwise direction, would invoke the very devil himself. Of course we were always bitterly disappointed when having circumnavigated the offending monolith, nothing happened.

Devil’s Grave

By early afternoon the Edge began to fill with the routine assault of families of over excited children, lolloping dogs and couples wearing matching Hunter wellington boots and Barbour jackets. Barley able to contain my resentment towards these interlopers, I quickly took the path through the fir trees behind the old Pilkington Family memorial and descended into the beautiful beech woodland of Saddlebole, where the path dropped steeply into a hollow, then through the beech trees to the break of slope. 

Stories are important; the telling of stories more so. In his book The Philosopher and the Wolf, Mark Rowlands describes humans as “the animals that believe the stories they tell about themselves[xi],” and there is a very real part of myself, a part that perhaps a psychologist would refer to as the child ego state, which still wishes to believe in the legend of Alderley. And although it may be my inner child who turns up the undergrowth in the nooks and dingles of Alderley wood in search of ….what? something, some recognition, some identification, this desire is by no means childish. It is the desire that has driven the creation of myth and the telling of stories since humans first acquired the ability of speech.

At Ridgeway Wood I came across a small waterfall, which tumbled over loose shale into a deep ravine. In late November of 1745, rumour spread amongst the families of the Hough that a Jacobite army loyal to the ‘Young Pretender’, Prince Charles Edward Stuart were heading south from the undefended city of Manchester to Derby, their route taking them via Alderley. The alarmed inhabitants took their beds, blankets and family heirlooms and hid out in the ravine until the ill-fated rebellion had past by.

From above the wood I returned north towards an earthen mound topped by a memorial stone. Marking the highest ground, this was the site of an Armada Beacon built around 1577 as part of an Elizabethan early warning system comprising a chain of fire signals strategically located on high ground, stretching from the south coast of England, to London and onwards throughout the country. The original building was a simple construction of four walls around a fire basket or pot, within which wood, pitch and tar were to be lit should the need arise, as it did in 1588 when the Spanish fleet attacked the English coast[xii]. Lord Stanley, owner of the Alderley estate during the 17thCentury, arranged for the beacon to be re-built as part of landscaping works, with higher walls and a pitched roof. This building collapsed during a storm in 1931, the remains of which lay scattered around the site and were used to build the current memorial stone.[xiii]

The earth mound upon which the beacon stood has been scheduled as a Bronze Age barrow, a type of prehistoric burial site also found at Seven Firs just to the south of Engine Vein and in Brynlow wood, nearby[xiv]. It is not inconceivable that the association of the legend of the sleeping knights with Alderley Edge lies in the presence of these barrows, possibly the burials of Bronze Age chieftains. Alderley was certainly of great importance to Bronze Age people because of the mineral wealth held within the earth. As the Bronze Age passed into the Iron Age, the ceremonial rights and traditions of the former people would have been forsaken, remembered only as stories and passed from generation to generation by oral tradition.

Through the thickness of trees: fir, pine, oak, ash and birch, I could hear them shouting after me, calling my name. Adult voices, distant and dislocated from the hypnotic draw of the open wound in the Cheshire woodland. I believed I had found the fabled Iron Gates deep within the tactile rocks of Alderley Edge and was intent on discovering the whereabouts of the elusive Wizard. Unbeknown to the child, the wizard in question was not Ambrosius, or Merlin, or Cadelin, but Alan Garner himself. For undoubtedly a spell had been cast over me, one from which I would never recover, and what in fact I had discovered was not the mythic Iron Gates, but something far more precious. Precious to the child, even more precious to the man as he now found himself, stumbling around in the mid-life forests and spiritual vacuity of twenty-first century Britain, desperately searching for some vestige of meaning.

[i]Derbyshire Caving Club www.derbyscc.org.uk

[ii]Chris J. Carlon, The Alderley Edge Mines, 1979, John Sherratt & Son Ltd, pg29

[iii]Victoria & Paul Morgan, Prehistoric Cheshire, Landmark Publishing Ltd. 2004, pg71

[iv]Carlon, Chris, J. The Alderley Edge Mines, John Sherratt and Son Ltd, 1979, pg 52 and 66.

[v]Ibid. pg122

[vi]Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Op. cit. pg127

[vii]Carlon, Chris, J. The Alderley Edge Mines, Op. cit. pg124

[viii]The nomenclature of the Upper Triassic sequence was changed during the 1980’s. What had originally been referred to as the Bunter and Keuper Sandstones, became incorporated into the Sherwood Sandstone Group. The two main stratigraphic sequences visible at Castle Rock, Alderley Edge are the Upper Mottled Sandstone (formerly part of the Bunter sequence), above which is the Engine Vein Conglomerate (formerly part of the Keuper sequence).  See Benton, M.J., Cook, E. & Turner, P. (2002) Permian and Triassic Red Beds and the Penarth Group of Great Britain, Geological Conservation Review Series, No. 24, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough, 337 pp.

[ix]Victoria & Paul MorganPrehistoric Cheshire, Op. cit. pg33.                                           

[x]Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Op. cit. pg33

[xi]Rowlands, Mark. The Philosopher and the Wolf, Granta Publications, 2008, pg2

[xii]Stanley, L. Alderley Edge and its neighbourhood, Op. cit.

[xiii]Ron Lee, Portrait of Wilmslow, Hanforth & Alderley Edge, 1996, Sigma Press, Wilmslow, pg72.

[xiv]Victoria & Paul MorganPrehistoric Cheshire, Op. cit. pg119