Interview: Stephen Goodwin's Lakeland Climbs & Scrambles

© Dan Bailey

Is it a book review, an interview or just a thinly veiled excuse to escape the desk? Dan Bailey joins author Stephen Goodwin for a day on the fells to talk about his new guidebook Lake District Climbs and Scrambles.

Steve Goodwin loves big days out in the mountains. ‘It’s all about the journey’ he says, whether that’s alpine ski touring, mountaineering in the greater ranges or – as today - mooching around his home patch in the Lake District.

 ‘There’s a subtle satisfaction, perhaps to do with the natural curiosity of our species. If you’ve ever been on a linear multi-day hike, even the Cumbria Way, say, there’s likely been a moment when you’ve stood on a col and looked down into a “new valley”. Hey, what’s down there? You’re prospecting, it’s atavistic. Sounds romantic, but at its best it’s really like that.’

Steve Goodwin high above Eskdale  © Dan Bailey
Steve Goodwin high above Eskdale
© Dan Bailey

Journeying through the hills and exploring their craggy corners are defining themes of Steve’s new guidebook Lake District Climbs and Scrambles, published by Vertebrate. In it he chains together classic routes on Lakeland rock, from scrambles through to easy roped climbs, combining these hands-on sections with hill walks over the tops to create twenty long mountaineering days out.

The base line in grade terms is a lengthy loop of Bannerdale Crags, Sharp Edge and Hallsfell Ridge -  nothing harder than grade 1 scrambling, but superb all the way. At the other end of the scale is a classic link-up on Grey Crag topping out at Severe on the stunning arête of Oxford and Cambridge Direct. Plenty of greats along these lines are included, and yet though many of the individual climbs and scrambles will be familiar they have often been combined in novel ways. Take the clever pairing of St.Sunday Crag’s Pinnacle Ridge with Striding Edge; or the interesting notion of climbing Corvus, Diff territory par excellence, en route to Glaramara’s summit, and then descending by Cam Crag Ridge. There’s left-field stuff too, like Central Gully on Great End (in summer?! There’s ‘sport for the adventurous’ here he assures us. Yeah right) or an unjustly neglected 160m VDiff on Steeple. Only 20 days out, perhaps, but plenty to get your teeth into.

I meet up with Steve on a sunny spring morning in Stonethwaite. The official pretext is to talk about the book, but I suspect we’re both enthused most by the activity to come - our plan, very much in the spirit of Steve’s project, to combine scrambles, summits and long miles on foot. I’ve just talked him into even more miles than he’d had in mind, a haul over to Eskdale in the remote heart of the central fells. But first there’s Glaramara and Cam Crag Ridge, today in ascent.

‘Cam Crag Ridge is reckoned one of the best scrambles in the Lakes’ says Steve, ‘clean rock in a series of stepped craglets rising out of Langstrath.’

Impeccable rock on Cam Crag Ridge  © Dan Bailey
Impeccable rock on Cam Crag Ridge
© Dan Bailey

And so it proves – better than I’d remembered it, even, and longer, with impeccable rock and plenty of variety. Slabby bits, juggy walls, even an improbably steep corner; it’s perfect quick-moving grade 2 ground. The rock is sun-warmed, the views are quintessential Lakeland, and we couldn’t be having a better morning.

Steve has lived in Cumbria since 2000, but he doesn’t seem to be taking the Lake District for granted just yet.

‘I could wax lyrical about the landscape, but everyone knows that’ he says. ‘For me what’s so special about the area is I suppose the hills’ magical ability to transform your mood for the better the moment you step away from the road and head for the crag or hill top.’

A political journalist in London for 25 years, he relished the chance to run to the fells.

‘Covering politics, you’re part of that unreal “Westminster village”’ he says. ‘Eventually you need to break out and rediscover the real world.’

That’s meant freelance writing, much of it in the outdoor media, plus a ten year stint as editor of the Alpine Journal. That was ‘[h]ard work’, he says. ‘One of my predecessors as editor, the Victorian William Coolidge, put it this way : ‘The privileges of the editor are few and the annoyances many.’ In truth though, I made a lot of friends across the world through the journal and learnt a lot about mountain ranges that had barely crossed my radar. Even so, after 10 years, it was time to stop polishing other people’s accounts of their adventures and get out to have more of my own.’

Hence this latest book, and a previous walks-only Lakeland guide for Vertebrate too.

‘In a sense I’ve been researching it since my first walk in the Lake District many decades ago' says Steve. 'Every time you go out you’re mentally logging data and sparking new ideas for days out. Many of the climbs and scrambles in this guidebook I’d done before, with favourites repeated several times. When I got serious about the book, five years ago, I had to scheme them into decent day-long rounds, then get out and do each circuit in its entirety, gathering a full route description.’

Top-end scrambling on Ill Crag's Southeast Face  © Dan Bailey
Top-end scrambling on Ill Crag's Southeast Face
© Dan Bailey

‘The researching took me to corners of the Lakes that I don’t regularly visit. I live in the Eden Valley, north-east of the Lakes, so Dow Crag, say, or Eskdale is quite a drive. Then when you get there, in the sunshine on Dow’s imposing face, or negotiating the beautiful cascades in the Upper Esk gorge, you wish you came more often.’

We’re heading for Eskdale now, a spot I manage to visit less often even than Steve, and Ill Crag’s Southeast Face is in our sights. This is one of the most remote scrambles in the Lake District, and among the longest too with a height gain of at least 400m. I’ve done it before, but the memory is dim, distant and disjointed. Steve assures me I’m going to love it:

‘After a fair old hike over Glaramara and Allen Crags’ – check – ‘you descend into Upper Eskdale, gaze up at Ill Crag and think ‘Wow!’ this is something else. Now you’re really out in the wild and wondering quite where the route actually goes up a steep mountainside ramparted with a plethora of bulky outcrops.’

‘Once you locate the start however, the route flows with a wondrous logic' says Steve. 'Each time I’ve been there, the constant refrain of myself and partners has been: “Amazing!” The rock is so rough you could almost become Velcro-ed to it, and the situation looking out over the emptiness of upper Eskdale is breathtaking.’

He could not be more right. The face is a baffling jumble of rock and grass, but armed with Steve’s foreknowledge, aided once or twice by the detailed description in his book, we sniff out the best line. Its scale is misleading, and what from a distance look like insignificant outcrops turn out to be slabby tiers each about a rope length in height (if we'd bothered with the rope). Once committed to each section the scrambling is sustained, airy and thought provoking, and the rock must be some of the best in Britain. Just as Steve had predicted, we’re laughing out loud about it the whole way up. I can’t think of a more appropriate route for a book of long mountaineering days.

Up on Ill Crag the clouds are moving in and the crowds have long since departed. It’s still a fair trek home, and we're thoroughly soaked before we get there, but if you’re out for an all-day mountain journey of the sort that Steve extols in his new book then all this walking is an essential part of the fun. 

Lake District Climbs and Scrambles cover pic   © Vertebrate

Lake District Climbs and Scrambles by Stephen Goodwin is published by Vertebrate

Cover price £16.95

Vertebrate say:

Lake District Climbs and Scrambles combines the best scrambles and easy climbs in the Lake District with great walking loops to give twenty superb ‘mountaineering’ days out on the Cumbrian fells.

Each route runs from valley floor to mountain top, with the ascent – and often descent – made via a classic scramble or climb. Scrambles at grades 1 to 3+ tackle ghylls, ridges and crags, with Lake District classics such asJack’s Rake and Sharp Edge sitting alongside lesser-known gems likeSourmilk Gill and Crenation Ridge. Climbs up to Severe include some of the best loved easy routes in the Lake District, like C Ordinary and Corvus. And while walking to and from the climbs and scrambles you’ll explore valleys like Wasdale and Deepdale, and reach the high tops of Scafell and Blencathra.

Researched and written by local author and mountaineer Stephen Goodwin, the routes feature Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 maps, photo topos and easy-to-follow directions, along with route profiles and local information. Also included is a detailed appendix, to ensure that you have a fun and successful day out.



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