Elizabeth Stephenson writes about Borrowdale and climbing, and what they have given to her.
Great writing, I think Little Chamonix holds a special spot in many climber's heart. I on sighted it, soloed it and once used it as a downclimb. I fell of Conclusion though, nearly splattered myself as the one cam slipped down the crack catching on the very edge of the lip. Troutdale Pinnacle is another mega classic.
Borrowdale has also meant a lot to me – and continues to mean something more that makes my heart constrict in my chest.
I was there just the other day, leading a small party of Italian relatives, the family of my partner, Benedetta. We parked at the bottom of the valley. Langstrath and the high coombes were full of mist and the light slanted through in big sheets of pale blue and silver.
The Italians were fascinated with the pillows of moss on the drystone walls and the peculiar Englishness of the damp cottages. I tried to point out Raven Crag, Coombe Gill, and Sour Milk Gill’s cascata leading up to an illuminated Gillercombe. Questo circo, sulla cascata – siamo stati la una volta per fare arrampicata sul una falesia grande... Ho un foto! Il foto hai visto di Detta con piedi nudi nel fume. I tried to explain... struggling to find the words. Some things are hard to say.
We continued to a stream under trees beside a field and followed the riverbank. I remembered seeing a dipper there with Detta one quiet weekend day, when Detta was too tired to continue climbing. She marvelled at the little black and white “stream-penguin”, hopping, darting, skimming the water in flight. My first dipper sighting was in Borrowdale, too - with an old school friend, one of my first times out leading the rope up VDiffs and HSs at Shepherds: we stopped to watch its strange antics from the stone bridge at Grange.
The last time Detta and I were in Borrowdale, we had also spent the day climbing easy things at Shepherds, then walked back to Grange and idled on the stony riverbed, watching birds and talking quietly and bouldering out the bridge. We took photos. Later, at the car, we saw a red squirrel... “Look!” hissed Detta – hushed, tense, excited all at once. It made her day. Afterward, unusually, we drove out of the valley via the west road. We were about to move away from the Northwest and knew it would be our last time in Borrowdale for some time. Driving slowly above the lake, full of conflicting emotions, as the evening settled in upon Skiddaw was profoundly elegiac.
Whilst these memories leaked through my mind, we continued along the stream. Zia Eli and Detta’s sister, Noa, were taking photos of the Herdwicks, so I showed Detta’s mother the exposed tree roots interwoven through the path: radisce, si! I noticed a couple of tubs lurching around the field and thought of the lambs of early spring climbing trips, joyfully leaping around with wriggling tails or squeezing under their mothers on frosty mornings as we set off from the campsite at Chapel Farm. I set out on a faltering account, in Italian, of over-grazing and a reported memory of 50-years ago: the valley floor, full of wild flowers. Abbiamo perso tutto.
Leaving the wooded stream, the hill climb was fine for Noa, busy with her camera, and Detta’s brother, sweating lightly in a neat leather bomber jacket, but tough for Zia Eli with an arthritic foot. We made slow progress – first through trees and then up piled dinnerplates of slate. I wondered, vaguely, whether this had been a good idea. In the distance, Eagle Crag hovered darkly in the bright fog obscuring Langstrath, while grey-black clouds rolled down from Glaramara and Great End. The wind was picking up and I knew rain was coming, eventually.
After some time, we found the top of the hill and a bonsai garden of wind-twisted evergreens: cedar or juniper, perhaps. At the lookout, there were wreathes of poppies. The Italians admired the view north across the valley as we sat, huddled against the wind, to eat bread and cheese and other picnic things. Mm, mi piace questo formaggio – come si chiama? Il Cedder? Si, Cheddar extra maturo. I did my best to point out places: Bowderstone Pinnacle, Shepherds, Steel Knotts, the ridge line from Catbells to Maiden Moor... other places Detta and I had been.
And then we had finished eating and put everything away. Zia Eli had gone to sit slightly apart from the others, her face a little crumpled. I put my arm around her. Gradually the others drifted over – Detta's mother last, with a hollow look. Siamo pronti? And then I took from a rucksack a plastic bag, and from the plastic bag a glass jar and from the glass jar one more small part of the ashes of my beloved Detta. Daughter, sister, niece. And we took it in turns to spread them, one handful at a time, weeping.
I'm so sorry to hear about your loss but what a beautiful reflection of your partner's life. I'm glad you too have been able to find comfort in the landscape that is Borrowdale and the memories you shared together - I'll be thinking of Detta next time I am climbing in Borrowdale.
Glad to hear you enjoyed it! Conclusion is a slippy one for sure, even more so if it's even slightly sunny or hot.... I actually nearly slipped off the crux as I accidentally covered the key hold in blood from my finger, it felt mildly ironic.... rescued it though and pulled for all I was worth! I did Troutdale Pinnacle in March/April time last year, we had the most stunning day for it and the whole route to ourselves, a very special route!
Thanks for your kind words and thoughts.
To share a couple of small things that occur to me almost at random:
- Being Italian, despite impeccable English, Detta had a few lovely malappropisms. One I particularly enjoyed was calling a nutkey/proddler a "nuthatcher".
- She loved birds and she was like a little girl the day she got to hold a Burrowing Owl at the Coniston Fair.
- She normally only climbed on second up to VS, but the day she onsighted Glass Slipper (E2 5a) on TR she was so excited that she asked me to take a photo to show her mum.
- She would always tell me off for "arguing again on UFCK"... by which, of course, she meant here.
I hadn't expected this.
I'm just stifling a tear whilst sat at my desk in my classroom.
Thanks Elizabeth for the lovely article, and it's very moving to read of other UKCer's connections to Borrowdale in this thread.
Would anyone be able to share the full MMB poem quoted in the headline? I'd love to read the whole thing and haven't been able to find a source online.
That's a very moving and sad piece. It speaks brilliantly to anyone who's lost someone close and who also shared special places with them. Those places will always be linked to that person and going there will always bring up feelings and emotions that can be difficult to bear.
This is very moving to read, I love the name of a "nuthatcher", I can imagine all my wires hatching out the rock after I place them.
I'm actually a vet student and I too am delighted by all things wriggly and feathery. I've got many photos of myself feeding the friendly robbins at Shepherd's - I'm glad you have these thoughts to hold on to and thank you for sharing them with us.
Thank you very much, I'm glad you enjoyed it and that it has sparked other people to share their experiences.
Yes, here's the rest of the poem! It is one of my favourites and Mabel wrote it for two of her friends when they got married in Borrowdale - I found it when reading a book about her in the Pinnacle Club hut in North Wales.
Blow, winds in Borrowdale
And rains down fall—
The voices of the waters and the wild birds call.
Black rocks of Borrowdale
And frost-split slate,
Floods in the valley when the beck's in spate.
Dark tarns and moorland where
The mist wreaths form,
And sun follows thunder on the edge of the storm.
'Neath birches of Borrowdale
The wee mosses bide,
And soft is the bedding there for bridegroom and bride.
Blow, winds of Borrowdale.
And snow down fall;
I would come to Borrowdale the last time of all.
From my heart in Borrowdale
The rowan trees shall grow :
I shall be undying in the earth I know.
M. M. B.
It can also be found in the 1932-34 edition of the Pinnacle Club journal accessible online here: https://pinnacleclub.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/No.-05-1932-1934_mark...
Love it. Thanks very much for sharing that here (and for the journal link) - words to take along on the next visit.