This is a follow up to my recent blog post about the rare Alpine Catchfly. If you haven’t read it then perhaps do take a look there first at a previous blog post from last week which gives a background account to this challenge: An Alpine Adventure
Date: 15th July 2015 Location: Whinlatter, The North Western Lake District.
Well, perhaps only someone with a similar obsession to mine will understand my thoughts as I drove home from my last adventure to Hobcarton Crag. Sure, I visited the location and investigated the rocky recesses which I had judged to be the locations where Wainwright would have looked (if he actually even tried) but ultimately I had ended the day without seeing this elusive rarity. In my mind this was a bit of a failure. Throughout this whole process in obtaining references for the Wainwrights in Colour project I have managed to locate every single place where Wainwright stood to take his reference photographs that would later be used in his drawings. The sketches that illustrated flora such as Saxifrage, or Staghorn moss I have at least seen specimens on my travels to use in my sketches -apart from this one. As I traveled west along the A66 on my way home I was a little downhearted and for the next few days in the studio this preyed on my mind. Time was limited, not only does this whole project need completing but my chances of seeing this plant in bloom were coming to an end for this year at least.
So it was, less than a week later I set off to revisit the rugged crag. Another fine day as Bailey and me set off through the dappled light of Hobcarton Plantation.Familiar territory now as we ventured further through the forest and on towards the crag.The verges of the track were adorned with summer wildflowers like this Wood Cranesbill, strangely enough most blooms were pink, I was hoping this would be a good omen.Bees were busy at work in the summer sun.Self Heal.Hobcarton Crag was again our target for today. The last visit I had spent all along the base of the exposed rock only exploring the reasonably accessible crevasses and the loose scree slopes. This time my focus was to be on the two parallel gullies which seem to scar the crag from top to bottom. Last week I had only really looked into these gullies briefly but perhaps I hadn’t explored far enough? After all AW refers to these two main gullies as a place for locating rare flora including the Red Alpine Catchfly so my hopes were high for today. However he also writes “the rock is unsuitable for exploration” but I was going to have to put this to the test…
We ascended the lower scree slopes in a direct line towards the gullies disturbing a family of ravens that were feasting on a sheep carcass as we climbed. They called their annoyance from lofty perches which echoed around the amphitheatre of rock. Soon we were at the entrance of the right hand gully.This image from last week shows the route ahead. Keeping to the rock face on the right will lead into the right hand gully. The left gully is hidden from view here but lies under the pinnacles (these pinnacles feature in images throughout this route and make a good point of reference.)
We ascended the gully, steep going on short cropped turf. I stopped regularly to survey the vertical rock above me . Soon I realised that this was not the best place to see the plant, it grows on the narrow ledges and these were out of view from this angle. My best chance was to move out onto the narrow ridge which separates the two gullies, from there I could view both ravines to my left and right. That’s what is did, making my way cautiously over towards the heather clad terrain. Bailey was happy to act as advance party, close to hand but just ahead. So far the only signs of blooming pink flowers were the infrequent tight clusters of Wild Thyme.Thyme as shown here forms cushions of pink blooms and I knew that the Catchfly was more of an upright form with its flower-heads on longer stalks.We were now able to view the depths of the left hand gully and its steep course up between the pinnacles. This was slow but steady progress, all the time my eyes covered the likely places out of the reach of sheep where the target may grow. And then……….Looking back down towards the way we had just ascended I caught a flash of pale red. It was only a slim chance but there on the rock-face under which we were a few moments ago was a small plant. Close by to give a sense of scale were a couple of stunted Foxgloves, also in a similar pink. (one is directly above the circle) I couldn’t get nearer, this face was about 20′ high and totally inaccessible. The only way to confirm the sighting was to take a few more photos. Not easy in the breeze and standing on a rather steep grassy slope. But I used the maximum 85mm zoom on my camera (it’s times like this that a 300mm would have been handy) and by reviewing the images on the back of the camera and enlarging the shots I was able to get a better ID.Even with the limitations of this method I was pretty certain that I had struck lucky. There, hidden away from grazing sheep was a group of Red Alpine Catchfly. I can’t tell you how chuffed I was. The Red Alpine Catchfly is in the top 15 of rare plants in this country and there is was before me. Ok, so not a close up quality image but enough for me to tick off what I had come for. Back at home I have been able to enlarge the image further but without much more clarity, but enough for me for a positive ID (see below).Now most sane people would have taken that as a result…..the easiest thing would have been to retreat back down the way I had come and return to the car, job done. However, you know how it is, this was to me merely a taster, are there any more I thought, can I get a better image? There was only one thing in my mind.From where I stood the gully above looked tempting. Yes it was steep and loose but look at all that exposed rock, there must be more Catchfly up there closer to hand perhaps. There was no way I was not going to explore this potential site. Onwards and upwards…literally.
As I said previously, this is not the domain of regular walkers, no path, loose scree and steep, very steep. I must stress that at all times the thing that filled my mind was the safety of myself and Bailey. He is a nimble and sure footed dog. He has become mountain aware having done all of the routes which have higher risk such as Sharp Edge, Lord’s Rake and Skew Gill. However, if at any time he showed trepidation on the route I would have had no hesitation in retreating. His normal place on these sorts of routes is just ahead of me and he stops to wait for me to catch up.
Up we went, up the narrow gully climbing ever higher. The bare rock on my right appeared to be devoid of plants and my hopes of finding other specimens was fading.Looking behind us gave a unique aspect of Grisedale Pike. We were now high above the pinnacles and I realised that the summit couldn’t be far above. I hadn’t intended to actually ascend the whole face but it now seemed the easiest option. Concentration was paramount so the camera didn’t come out that often as we climbed steadily higher.Higher still and the gully narrowed. Not too sure if this gives the impression of how steep this was. I have to be honest, at this stage, the looking for any plant, let alone the alpine was pretty far from my mind.The gully opened out and the sun lit the grass, we were close to the ridge.and then, much to the surprise of some walkers who were on the ridge, Bailey and I popped out onto the welcome flat ground. Down below the top pinnacle looked rather small.Other walkers on the summit were enjoying the afternoon sun.The sun and shadows along the ridge to Whiteside. After a pleasant lunch in the sun it was time to move on to Grisedale Pike.I couldn’t help but keep looking down into the depths of the gullies of Hobcarton Crag where we had been not an hour earlier.Grisedale Pike ahead.A lone walker on the summit of Hopegill Head and we are level with the top pinnacle.The subsidiary summit of Grisedale Pike.Looking back to Hopegill Head.It’s dramatic scenery around here but pleasant walking, part of the Coledale Round.To the east over Coledale, the craggy face of Eel Crag.Near the top of Grisedale Pike was a good place to take stock of our route. Luckily my mother doesn’t look at the internet, she would probably have a fit. lol.Days like these out on the fells are hard to beat. Good weather, fabulous views and fresh air.Skiddaw and Blencathra under a patchwork of cloud shadows.As I descend along Hobcarton End the whole face of Hobcarton Crag is on show. It looks like taking the left hand gully was a good choice as it leads almost all the way to the top. The right hand gully ends directly under the sheer cliffs and retreat would have been the only option.These are the ones who know these hills the best.Along the ridge the view to the Scottish hills was excellent. In fact it was a day of good visibility in all directions.The Skiddaw range from the cairn on Hobcarton End.Blowing in the wind, a lone patch of Cotton grass and the view up to the pike.Me and Bailey admiring the vale of Keswick, well I was, he was looking elsewhere.The view down Whinlatter Pass from Black Crag. All we needed to do here was to follow the path through the forest back to the car which is parked near the house in the centre of the photo.A last look at Grisedale Pike as we are about to enter the dark forest.Foxgloves adorn the verges of the forestry tracks.An old sheepfold hidden away in the forest, actually in remarkably good condition.and a chance for one of those arty black and white images of the weathered wall.and the sun beams through the pines as we reach the car.
What a day. I came to find one of the country’s rarest plants and was successful, ok, not a close up quality shot but seen and identified none the less and I can now do what Wainwright was likely to have done, produce a sketch from other reference sources. An adventurous route which I am sure one or two others have done but so far I have seen no record of such an ascent. It appears that the two gullies may be recognised as winter climbing locations, Cave gully and Thompson’s Gully (the route I took) but I have yet to see records of ascents here either. By no means am I claiming to have found a new way to scale Hobcarton Crag, there are possibly shepherds in these fells who have done it several times in finding lost sheep. As for us mere walkers, not a route that I would recommend, I can’t even liken it to any other route such as the South Rake on Dow Crag as those narrow gullies are well documented and regularly visited. Anyone who decides to re-trace my steps here does so entirely at their own risk, be prepared to retreat. To quote AW “In shadow, the scene is sombre and forbidding. The silence is interrupted only by the croaking of the resident ravens and the occasional thud of a falling botanist. This is a place to look at and leave alone.” He may be right, he often was.
In the meantime I can rest easy, mission accomplished.