Location: Great Gable, a mountain in the Lake District
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"Upon this mountain summit we are met today to dedicate this space of hills to freedom.”
So said writer and mountaineer Geoffrey Winthrop Young, in a ceremony - a 'service in the clouds' - in 1924.
At the very top of Great Gable, covered in hoarfrost, is a war memorial.
Following the Great War and in memory of the friends they had lost, the Fell and Rock Climbing Club bought twelve peaks and 3,000 acres of Lake District land from private landowners, and donated it to the National Trust. This gift, “for the use and enjoyment of the people of our land for all time”, set in motion the development of the National Parks.
Winthrop spoke: “Upon this rock are set the names of men – our brothers, and our comrades upon these cliffs – who held with us, that there is no freedom of the soil where the spirit of man is in bondage, and who surrendered their part in the fellowship of hill and wind, and sunshine, that the freedom of this land, the freedom of our spirit, should endure."
And that is how this land returned to common use.
Great Gable stands at the head of Wasdale, looking over the tiny, ancient, Viking longship-beamed Church of St Olaf, which remembers too those FRCC members who died in the war with a stained glass window: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my strength."
Location: Great Gable, a mountain in the Lake District, UK
Gable Crag, the north face of Great Gable and home of the Lake District’s hardest winter climbing route, Snicker Snap (VIII 9). Though I took the ridge route over Grey Knotts, Brandreth and Green Gable, the common walk-in to this mountain is by a path named Moses Trod.
The path is named for Moses Rigg, an 18th-century quarryman who, before there were proper roads in the Lakes, established the route as the shortest way to carry slate from the Honister mines over to Wasdale and thence down the valley road to the port at Ravenglass.
Word is, slate was not the only thing Moses was transporting over the fells. He was also smuggling wadd - then also called black lead, or plumbago, though now we know it as pure graphite. First discovered near Seathwaite in 1555, its many uses (from medicine to gun lubricant to pencils) made it highly lucrative, worth £70,000 a pony-load in today’s money. Smugglers' deals in the back rooms of Keswick may have given rise to the term “black market”, for the stains it’d have left on their hands.
But intrepid Moses did not stop at smuggling wadd. He also made bootleg whisky using water off Fleetwith Pike (bogwater makes the whisky taste better, he’s supposed to have claimed), distilled in a still hidden high on Gable Crag, accessible only by rock climbing, in an era before climbing was done for anything but direst emergency. A perfect location, then, for staying out of reach of the excise men.
Yet, writing in the Fell and Rock Climbing Journal in 1924, RB Graham fretted that “Everybody has heard of him; everybody knows of him; everybody knows that the track was made by Moses, but who ever saw him in the flesh?” Official records of the man are non-existent.
Wainwright, in his guides, made reference to a hut called Smuggler’s Retreat, “the highest site ever used for building in England” - but it was “now completely in ruins.” Writing in 1999, veteran journalist and mountaineer Harry Griffin reported that the hut had “completely disappeared, its last stones swept down the crag by winter storms.” Gone.
It turns out that all the stories about Moses Rigg stem from but one source: the testimony of Auld Will Ritson, proprietor of the Wastwater Inn in the mid-C19th, who remembered from his childhood an old man called Moses who would bring slate over the Trod in a pony trap which doubled as an illicit whisky shop.
Yet Auld Will himself was also a bit of a local legend: as a teller of tall tales. He started the World’s Greatest Liar contest, which continues to this day at the Wasdale Head pub. So perhaps the legend of Moses Rigg was nothing more than that.
But then in 2005 Guy Proctor, a writer with Trail magazine, heard a rambling story from his old man mountaineering editor Jeremy about a winter climb up Central Gully in 1983, and a strange ruined hut. He went to have a look, and to work out where on this rockface a hobnail-booted quarryman might have been able to climb.
Thirty metres down the rake and around a rocky promontory he found a shelter, still standing. A tiny shelf in the hut’s back wall. And on that shelf, two stones looking like “very old and weathered and slightly manky-looking potatoes. …A gentle rub with a thumbnail, and a small section of the mossy mank came off, revealing underneath a silky gleam. I gently rubbed my sample on the corner of my notepad. The soft black smudge said it all.”
Location: On the slopes of Dale Head, looking out at the blue zigzag of the Honister slate mine road up Fleetwith Pike, in the Lake District
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I’m presently reading Naomi Klein on the sins of the “extractivist” mentality that frames the planet as resource to exploit and dominate. Mining in parts of Canada or Appalachia where that means mountaintop removal, vast tailings ponds, and huge ecological devastation.
Despite that, I don’t know that I see all the Lake District’s mines as “scars on the landscape”, not exactly. Mining was a hard and dangerous job, but slate quarrying doesn’t pollute in the same way as coal or heavy metals spoil. And it’s at a human scale. It changes the mountain, but does not obliterate it.
The Lake District was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status for being a landscape of cultural value, not some ecology figured as “pure” because without people, or a landscape framed as “untouched” because pretending to ignore the touristic gaze. Two thousand years of mining is part of this landscape.
Better that it is visible, to my mind, than we get swept away by dreams of ecological throwback, of “rewilding”, in fantasies of rebuilding a primal landscape in which men once again might confront wolves & wild boar; in which men might once again be men.
Frances Stonor Saunders’ review of George Monbiot’s book ‘Feral’ is astute: “Perhaps the wilderness is itself a human concept, a sentimental idea about the ultimate "authentic" landscape where nature's ethical influence is experienced as the revival of the self. Could we ever imagine a wilderness from which we are excluded, which owes us nothing? Probably not. To take humans out of nature we'd first have to take the nature out of humans.”