JUST had a couple of great days in the Lakes based at Sykeside in the Eastern Fells. I’ve always been pretty passionate about the Lake District, although I normally tend to restrict visits to late Autumn or winter, when the fells are a bit quieter. Despite that I love the unique atmosphere of the Lakeland fells, the old slate cottages and the farmed fields lapping their way onto the skirts of the fells. Maybe I’m just an ageing romantic but I do rather like the notion of the Lake District villages being “preserved in aspic.”
Maybe that’s why I’m particularly fond of Hartsop near Patterdale. It’s a tiny village, more of a hamlet really, and it just appears to be so unspoilt, tucked away out of the main drag under the shadow of the Eastern Fells. It’s particularly beautiful and atmospheric at this time of the year with all the flowers in bloom.
Anyway, I digress, I want to talk about footpaths. It’s a subject we covered in TGO recently when my old friend Bill Birkett made a rather hard-hitting attack on Fix the Fells, the organisation that seems to be doing a lot of work on the footpaths in the Lake District area. We also gave Fix the Fells an opportunity to reply and they certainly came across as pretty reasonable. However, as I wandered down towards Boredale Hause from Angle Tarn yesterday I was pretty shocked to see a yellow, manicured footpath run up the south ridge of Place Fell. You could see it from a long way off, the surface is smooth and unspoilt by stones or boulders and it’s very wide. I couldn’t help think that this is footpath maintenance gone mad. What had been created is unaesthetic and completely out of keeping with the rough and wild nature of the high fells.
Now I don’t know who was responsible for this footpath. It might have been Fix the Fells, it might not have been, but it made me wonder who these footpaths are being made for? Are we pandering to those who demand easy access to the high tops? Is there a fear of litigation should someone stumble over a boulder and hurt themselves? Is this another example of the nanny state the last Government created - design everything to the lowest common denominator so that everyone, even the old and infirm, can walk or be pushed up the fellside?
I’ve been a supporter of footpath maintenance work for a long, long time. I think such work is necessary to “heal” the mountain from the effects of erosion, but such work has to be done with sensitivity; in a way that the footpath blends in with the landscape. This can be difficult to achieve but it can be done. People like the late Ray MacHaffie did some tremendous work in the Lake District and I shudder to think what his comments would have been about this new path up Place Fell. I’m also aware that mistakes can be made and some contractors can be overly zealous. We had a situation in the Nevis Partnership recently with a path that was created in such a way that it was obtrusive, a path that will have to be re-laid to make it more sensitive to the needs of users, and to the surrounding landscape.
There is a danger that the Lake District could turn into a network of highly intrusive, manicured walkways. The National Trust and the National Park Authority have done a pretty good job in preserving much of the Lakeland atmosphere and cultural identity - Hartsop is a great example. It just seems a great pity that some of the work being carried out on the mountain footpaths is over the top and unnecessary. I agree that erosion creates some terrible scarring on the fells and we need to do something about it, but these new scars are almost as bad, they’re just a tad tidier. So come on Lakeland authorities - can’t you narrow these footpaths a bit, put in some boulders here and there, make the edges a bit more ragged. Nature doesn’t work in straight, smooth lines. Neither does she try and pander to everyone.