I’ve been debating whether to post this or not, as it may be controversial, and have decided to go ahead and tap the hive mind of UKC.
I walked Bowfell and Crinkle Crags on Saturday, from ODG, going up via Angle Tarn, and descending via Brown Howe and Oxendale.
The path from Red Tarn down to Oxendale Beck has been repaired in the last few years with stone pitching. I believe the path reference (on Cumbria CC website at https://www.cumbria.gov.uk/roads-transport/public-transport-road-safety/countryside-access/rights_of_way/map.asp) is 543004.
Link to path location: http://streetmap.co.uk/map?X=326692&Y=504597&A=Y&Z=115
There was no rain in the day, but there had been lots of rain previously and the ground was soaked. The pitched stone steps of the path were smooth and wet. The stones seemed to be set at a slightly downhill angle. Going up the path would have been fine, but doing down was simply treacherous. It was easier to walk on the grass beside the stone path. There was another walker who was finding going down quite difficult. My walking partner said he felt he had to watch every step. I’ve completed the Wainwrights, so I’ve been up and down a few paths in the Lake District in varying conditions. None of us were inexperienced walkers.
I understand path erosion due to weather and heavy footfall is a significant ongoing issue. I don’t know which body funded or did the work on this path. But from a walker’s point of view, the stone pitching on this path is dangerous in certain conditions.
Has anyone else experienced this path or similar unhelpful repair/restoration work? What does the hive mind think of balancing the pros and cons of doing this sort of work?
Wow! This is uncanny! I walked up Bowfell via the Band last week, and on the way down met a work party about a 1/4 of the way up just past the first drystone wall.
I had a bit of a chat and cheekily suggested that they should angle the new path stones up slightly, so that they weren’t likely to cause a slip. I got a few looks.
Presumably it’s to aid water drainage that they are sloped downwards but they are feckin lethal. I did most of the downwards route on the grass and bracken at the side.
I've walked on a number of recently constructed pitched paths where people have clearly disliked them and preferred walking beside them (no big step ups) some of them are obviously a complete waste of effort and money. I share your concerns.
Dangerous and counterproductive. It just causes erosion when people avoid it.
There’s a section of this on the descent from Dungeon Ghyll under Pike Howe that’s been there for a few years. Unsurprisingly, there’s an eroded rut on either side.
Where there is a hint of ice late in the day in winter, paths laid like this provide the perfect cause for a dangerous fall. I've seen it happen.
> I had a bit of a chat and cheekily suggested that they should angle the new path stones up slightly,
I really don't see how they can fail to understand this, unless they do the work and never, ever walk on the paths.
They are horrible.
That's frustrating to hear. I know many aren't fans of stone pitched paths but in the Lakes they are a necessary evil. When they're done badly they can really make the end of the day a real pain coming down in poor conditions.
The other culprit that springs to mind for this sort of thing is the path coming down from Red Pike towards Buttermere. They seemed to have specially selected slippery stones set at just the right angle to minimise traction on the descent when wet.
It's so frustrating when a badly laid path just leads to more erosion. The NT should get whoever built the paths on Liathach/Alligin for the NTS as consultants.
I can't imagine many people here disagreeing with your comments.
Only reasons I can think for this practice are:
1. It's an attempt at drainage.
2. Sloped paths were used to slide quarried rocks down in the Lakes, and it's some sort of pastiche of the past so it doesn't upset the Friends of the Lake District.
3. It's less digging to do.
Whatever the reason, I agree they're absolutely lethal when wet, icy or covered in snow (or just merely unpleasant to walk down in the dry).
Was walking up to Sca Fell from Wasdale head a few weeks back with a friend who does land conservation/repair work. The path there is pitched with stones sloping downhill. I asked why they don't set them more level, his response was no. 3 in your list, it takes too much work.
On the fix the fells there's a page on planned work (https://www.fixthefells.co.uk/work-programme/). It includes the following:
> 14 Gillercomb, Borrowdale
> This path was repaired many years ago, using a style that would not be copied today. Over the years the stone has become polished and moved so the path is now tricky to negotiate and deters folk from staying on it.
So I wonder if it's a similar story with the path in question here, just a crap job and the stones have settled/moved to make it awkward.
They've lost Ray MacHaffie's skills unfortunately. His paths are very well pitched. Some others (the bottom section of the Swirls path (I swear I'll sue someone if one of my slips on that injures me badly) and several older ones in Langdale are pretty lethal and I always get off them except in very dry conditions. There is almost a sense of malice on the part of the constructors. It is pretty silly as there are some excellent ones too - no need to import Scottish path builders.
Well meaning and intentioned volunteers building paths, might not always be the fittest or most skilled. Sounds like there might be a few volunteers here for future works?
A while back I was grumbling to myself about some path repair work, and had the realisation that instead of complaining I should just volunteer. Then I can either help to make a difference, or more likely find out why they're done the way they are and learn to stop grumbling. Fix the fells only take on volunteers one a year, next opportunity being early next year so I guess we'll see then whether I follow through...
I used to build paths for the NT in the Lakes. The decisions on how to construct them always came from Head Office. It's not the fault of the workmen. The 'higher ups' at the NT kept changing their minds on the use of big or small stones and which way they should slope. No matter what was tried someone would always complain while others would like it. Whereas we had to use stone obtained from the sites we worked on nowadays the stone is helicoptered in. Each area in the Lakes and every path needs has its own peculiarities. There is no 'one way fits all' approach that works
The paths are a disaster as for 9 months of the year people walk off the side.
Drainage is the issue to resolve. The paths should all be gravel as in steeper and higher torrential rain terrains of the Alps.
These Lake District paths are vandalism on a grand scale and should be stopped for some thinking time about drainage. This has been known for years and discussed.
Totally agree,Rays path on Gable is an example of how it should be done.Took it up with the path crew when they were doing the Brown Tongue path 40 odd years ago,they simply said thats how we were told to do it.I wouldnt attempt to walk down one of these path in any conditions.I suggested they visit the Alps and see how it should be done .The present paths only lead to more erosion.
> I suggested they visit the Alps and see how it should be done .The present paths only lead to more erosion.
When I was working for the NT nearly 40 years ago I lived in a shared house in Windermere. The rent was £60 a week for my wife and I. My pay for a weeks work building footpaths was £60. The chances of affording to go anywhere let alone the Alps was non existent. But I take your point. The 'high ups' at Head Office were the ones to tell. I'm sure they would have loved the trip. Whether they would have learned anything is another matter.
> The chances of affording to go anywhere let alone the Alps was non existent. But I take your point. The 'high ups' at Head Office were the ones to tell. I'm sure they would have loved the trip. Whether they would have learned anything is another matter.
The national parks do trips every year to other NPs in Europe for 'ideas', but it's not just 1 or 2 who research and advise everyone on return, they send 2 or 3 from every national park, at tax payers expense.
There may or may not be case law where 'improvements' to a public right of way led to it being hazardous and causing injury but there's always a first. I think it might be worth bringing up with the rights of way section - I can do that as part of the day job.
It's an old path - all steps or mechanically engineered gravel jobs these days - not always a huge fan of the paths, take the wildness out but the alternative can be pretty ugly
Stickle Ghyll before the footpath (late 70's maybe)
That photo brings back memories! We were working on that path when Chernyoble blew up. Despite the work being physically tough I loved it. We just wore shorts and wellies in the summer. The wellies took all the hairs off my legs I remember.
I think I may have planted some of those trees in the middle of the photo!
I remember coming down a path somewhere in the Lakes - quite large sloping stone slabs, dusted with a layer of fine grit (either washed out or off boots). It was like walking on ball-bearings and quite scary.
The other problem is that way the paths are laid may not suit your pace, and what works for one person may not for another, and what is fine going up may be tricky going down. Some can be quite uncomfortable to walk on.
It's difficult to do it in a way which suits everyone, but not impossible. The best solution I have seen is local to me, where the path has been laid using smallish stones in an irregular herringbone pattern. This looks more natural, it seems to drain well, and whatever your pace it is possible to find a suitable step whether going up or down.
Path erosion is undoubtedly a problem in the Lakes and elsewhere, and something must be done. However if the new paths feel unsafe or are too uncomfortable to use then people will literally vote with their feet and avoid them. Since this seems to be a regular occurrence it seems that many of these new paths are not fit for purpose.
There is also a cultural issue - stone staircases are not natural in the Lake District. Houses have staircases - not fells. For the quangos to suggest that pitched paths are traditional and historic is a travesty. Only some pony tracks were cobbled in the past, pitched paths are foreign and unworkable.
Drainage is the key, stone staircase construction should be rapidly halted. Humans need to walk on well-drained gravel, it is safe and amenable to the human body. This is the method used in the Alps where torrential rainfall is much greater than the Lakes, and the ground is steeper.
As one correspondent suggested, there is ample legal and material evidence for Fux the fells, NPA and others to be sued for damages due to accidents caused by stone staircases. Accidents that would not have happened had the paths not been built.
There are a few things ruining the Lake District: bracken, dogs, litter, over-selling, second homes, holiday lets, willow cash crops, but stone staircases are one of the worst travesties against the character of the area.
I'd always assumed that where gravel is used in the Alps it was generally because paths have a gradual rate of incline, due to the greater distances, whereas paths in the Lakes being shorter and steeper, don't allow for gravel?
Wow, I am staggered by some of the wild statements and inaccuracies in response to this thread. I'm guessing that many folk on here criticising have never done a day of stone pitching or have any real practical experience of this work. It's fine saying you don't like them but maybe people should try it before accusing them of malice, failure to understand or never walking on such path and other such nonsense. So:
* volunteers do not build paths, they are all done by skilled upland path contractors. Fix the Fells volunteers do basic maintenance like clearing drains.
* they slope downwards to aid drainage. How would sloping upwards make them less wet and less icy when the water will just pond up?
* it is not head office of the NT that sets standards - they are done across the whole of the UK by organisations like the British Upland Footpath Trust which includes NT, NPA's, Natural England, SNH etc. Current standards is for a 1 foot tread length as minimum and 6 inch rise between each stone. Go and look at the path up onto Nab Scar from Rydal for old school pitching - small stones pitched in all higgledy piggledy. They are a nightmare. I accept that topography and local stone will mean you can't always get this on every step but that is the aim.
* NPA's do not go to Europe specifically for advice on upland path work. You are mistaking this for more general Erasmus/ Europarc study trips. All visits for good/ best practice are within the British Isles.
* Stone staircases have existed in the Lakes for centuries - the old drove passes for ponies such as Sty Head, Stake Pass, Rossett Ghyll, Garburn, Gatescarth all had stone surfaces in places. What's the difference between calling them cobbles and pitching apart from size? Stone causeways were built in Roman times. although I guess that counts as foreign!
* Are people really saying they can't walk down a set of stone steps after going over Bowfell and Crinkle Crags without walking on the grass? Jeezo! Yes it's harder on the feet and knees than grass but stone usually is...
Disagree that Lakes paths are steeper than in alps or dolomites - those mountain ranges are much younger than ours.
All our paths used to be gravel.
> * Stone staircases have existed in the Lakes for centuries - the old drove passes for ponies such as Sty Head, Stake Pass, Rossett Ghyll, Garburn, Gatescarth all had stone surfaces in places. What's the difference between calling them cobbles and pitching apart from size? Stone causeways were built in Roman times. although I guess that counts as foreign!
Paving for ponies/sleds etc and the Romans yes, but not staircases, there is a difference.
* "Are people really saying they can't walk down a set of stone steps after going over Bowfell and Crinkle Crags without walking on the grass?"
Walking down stone steps is a doddle. Walking down stone steps where the treads slope downwards and are frequently covered in very slippery biofilm is less easy.
In such circumstances walking on the grass is usually easier. Personally I always walk on the path where possible, but if that is unrealistic I walk a long way away from the path rather than down its edges.
I'd love to be able to help out with upland paths in a volunteer capacity but I really can't do hard manual labour thanks to the bizarre neurology I was born with. Instead I try my best to help with regular donations to the "Fix the Fells" campaign.
There are certainly times, when descending in the dark in less than ideal conditions, that I find myself thinking that maybe I should just walk alongside the paths. It would certainly be safer.
I take all your points from a very considered post. However if people are literally voting with their feet by refusing to use the path and walking beside it then the expensive restoration has failed.
It really depends on the nature of the terrain beside the path. If it's in a bit of a ravine then it will be used. If it's bordered by heather etc then people will forge their own path.
I have sometimes challenged people in a courteous way to use paths but I've largely given up, it's not good for my blood pressure. I'm not sure what the answer is.
Sorry this was for DR
> * Are people really saying they can't walk down a set of stone steps after going over Bowfell and Crinkle Crags without walking on the grass?
Apparently they are, as we see plenty of examples where erosion is continuing alongside a stone path. One of the videos on Fix the Fells' website shows one such example - could the reason be that the stone path is unpleasant or unsafe to walk on so people choose to avoid it?
When walking over ground where there is no path, I would usually be wary about walking on a large bare slab, especially in the wet or ice because it's so easy to slip, particularly when descending. But that is how a lot of paths have been built.
I don't think anyone is questioning the efforts or good intentions of the bodies who maintain these paths, but if people are then avoiding these paths then surely it is right to question the techniques being used?
From vague memory is it not a similar case for the path coming down by Hell Gill? I seem to remember it being f*cking desperate without poles under some snow due to the fact the steps were inexplicably sloped downwards.
There isn’t much comparison between paths in British hills and those in the Alps. Precipitation in the Alps is generally lower than in the British mountains (Chamonix 1285mm, Keswick 1500mm, Seathwaite 3500mm). In the Alps a good deal of that falls in the winter as snow, and protects paths from freeze-thaw as well as from trampling for up to half the year – British hill paths take a battering all year round. Summers are hotter, therefore more evaporation and transpiration, so hardly any peat. Generally less acidic soils and more resilient vegetation cover. The steepest slopes on valley sides are often forested so paths are well contained.
Alpine paths are generally historic artefacts, developed over centuries for transhumance - moving cattle and sheep up to the alp grazings. Because of that they keep to low gradients by zig-zags (cows can’t handle steep stone paths) and are (or were) routinely maintained. Nonetheless by no means all of them are gravel based, there are plenty of stretches of cobbled, pitched, and slab-paved paths. With the exception of Scottish deer-stalker paths, which are like Alpine paths because they too were built for quadripeds, British hill paths have usually evolved as walker desire lines, heading straight up steep slopes and valleys and creating channels for surface flow and groundwater. Until quite recently there was virtually no stabilisation, construction or maintenance.
Most people in the path business appreciate that pitching even when very well executed is only a partial solution – walkers will generally go up it happily enough, going down is problematic. But to achieve a stable, self-draining gravel-surfaced path you need to keep the gradient down, which on steep slopes means zig-zags. On open British hill land, zig-zags mean chronic short-cutting in descent, - we’re an undisciplined lot - which means scouring and slope failure.
I could bore on at even greater length, but would offer three points in response to this thread:
- path management is complex and varies with site conditions. Techniques are under constant review.
- many of the most grossly damaged paths in British hills have been brought under fair control over the past 40 years or so by vast amounts of skilled craft labour. We tend to forget just how dire how many of them used to be (see those Stickle Gill pictures above).
- the Alps is a quite different cultural and physical setting. Practice isn’t readily transmitted from there to here.
I should probably say that I’m a happily retired observer after about 30 years in and around mountain path management so have no financial interest to declare ….
Thanks Bob, I was about to write something similar about alpine paths & tracks. Although it seems that the traditional skills here in the Alps are being lost judging by some of the bulldozed forest tracks which seem to be appearing which erode very quickly as they frequently are both steep & without drainage.
There is a simple progression:
1. 3 foot gravel path gets replaced with a staircase.
2. Stones often helicoptered from virgin periglacial scree - completely wrong geology sometimes from places that have never seen human feet, often with rare flora and fauna.
3. Path now becomes 6-10 feet wide as people walk off the the side.
4. Mini-diggers and more helicopters come in, path gets bigger then google earth is full of motorways that never used to exist.
So instead of properly servicing and draining a pre-existing gravel path and keeping it 3 foot wide, we end up with a pseudo-urbanised fellside. Unnecessary and just plain vandalism.
Scales tarn path on Blencathra was built with the wrong stones - there is a famous metamorphic aureole here, and they transported the stones out of context in the aureole. It will never be the same again. Nor will the periglacial scree which has also been vandalised.
The LDNPA is clueless about most things, but top of the list must be path building.
> * they slope downwards to aid drainage. How would sloping upwards make them less wet and less icy when the water will just pond up?
Why not have them slope SIDEWARDS instead ?
That way the water can still drain off, but the path isn't damned dangerous to walk down in wet and icy conditions, and people would'nt have to - I do mean HAVE TO - use the ground next to it when said ground is at its' most vulnerable.
Furthermore, any water draining off the 99th step wouldn't just run down onto the 98th, etc..., until the water is effectively gushing all the way to the valley bottom, but would end up soaking into the soil. Better for the environment I would have thought.
I once fell on my arse over and over again on a Lakeland pitched path when there was ice.
Once. Then I bought some microspikes and have never had any problem since. If this happens to you more than once, I'm afraid my sympathy is limited. If you're falling on your arse walking in the mountains when there's ice, you need to change your footwear, it's not anyone else's fault.
When the paths are wet, I don't have a problem. I think they look at lot better than the eroded motorways I trogged up and down as a kid, and I find them more pleasant to walk on, but I can understand why other people find them hard work going downhill.