Saturday, 23 June 2012

Girl From the South Heads North

Yes - these are my working gloves!
My first two weeks living in the Lake District and working on the Fix the Fells programme have been eventful and I have loved every minute!  Fix the Fells is effectively a programme to reduce erosion and maintain paths on the fells. I have learnt more about erosion, path maintenance and ecology than I thought possible in such a short space of time, met some great people from all the organisations I work with and some fabulous volunteers who help make it all possible.  I have also moved house a lot in search of the perfect longer-term property and had to pack and unpack my rather large pink suitcase more times than I care to think about.  Travelling light was somehow missed out of my genetic make-up (but honestly the curling tongs are essential kit and how could I live without 12 pairs of shoes?)

The key things I have discovered:
1)      I actually love working in the outdoors (although relieved I have office/heel days to balance this new-found passion)
2)      The label on my waterproof mascara is 100% accurate
3)      The label on my waterproof trousers is only 50% accurate 
Erosion on Seat Sandal

So what have been the highlights of my first two weeks?  There have been many but I will focus on the outdoor side and will try and avoid too much detail (as I can now talk for England on erosion and the impact of it!)  On day two, I went to a meeting wearing my mountain-climbing gear!  This was bizarre to me and I had to fight every instinct that told me to put on heels (not sure they would have gone well with the rest of the outfit mind you) but after the meeting we went on a site visit to the fell Seat Sandal and that is definitely not somewhere for heels!  We set off up the steep grassy slope through bracken that has become a path mainly as a result of fell-runners (preferring grass to the rocky Raise Beck ascent) to see if there was some way of protecting the grass from further erosion.  Now I am used to climbing mountains as you know but I was with seven guys who do this every day and are much fitter than me so keeping up was a challenge!  I did my best and they took it in turns to walk more slowly with me whilst being kind enough to pretend I was not slowing them down (thank you).  We also looked at the more severe erosion on the other side of the fell which was causing rock falls.

Swirral Edge
Day three was a path survey up a rather wet and misty Helvellyn via Swirral Edge (monitoring erosion and deciding whether any preventative action needs to be taken) with a smaller group.  Having struggled to keep up the day before, I streamlined my rucksack and took out all non-essential items to try and lighten the load (lipstick and hairbrush remained obviously but the torch, Wainwright book, hypothermia bag just had to go!)  We drove up a track from Glenridding to a youth hostel and began the survey from there.  Part of the area of mountains near the youth hostel is classed as an Ancient Monument and there is the largest area of Juniper in the Lake District.  You can see the old mine workings as well.  The path was more gentle than the previous day and the benefit of path surveying is you get to stop more often.  Thank goodness!  

We had lunch at the foot of Swirral Edge (a rocky arête) and watched how people were using the path.  Rather than keeping to the true top of the arête, many people were branching off on the grassy slope to the left, which was causing erosion and screes to develop that were sending soil and rocks into Red Tarn and impacting on that delicate ecosystem.  I took the arête route to the summit of Helvellyn (the third time I had been on that summit with no views!)  Swirral Edge really is one of my favourite scramble-ascents of Lake District mountains.  

Tuesday's Working Group
The drain I helped build - so proud!
Week two saw me getting stuck into manual labour!  For those that know me you will be picking yourselves off the floor with laughter as manual labour and me have never really be combined before.  I wear gloves to do scrambles and screes so I don’t break any finger nails and rarely leave the house without putting on mascara.  However, I got stuck in and loved it!  On Tuesday I was part of a cycling working holiday on the slopes of Harter Fell near Jubilee Bridge with rangers and volunteers (to be clear, it was the volunteers who were doing the cycling holiday – I don’t do cycling).  I helped build a path drain with rocks, a shovel and a pick-axe!  Hurrah!  Everyone seemed to keep a safe distance when I was wielding the pick-axe for some reason but when we had finished, I felt a real sense of pride in being part of something so practical and I never knew I could move such enormous rocks – it may have lacked elegance as we shuffled and slid them but it was great fun!

View from the path near Jubilee Bridge
The following day I progressed from building path drains to replacing old stone-pitching on Helm Crag.  This is basically where you bury rocks in the ground to create steps on a section of path.  If I had thought the rocks were big yesterday they were nothing compared to these!  I dug out old rocks with an iron bar, collected small rocks and helped shift big rocks.  Everyone who walked passed seemed to appreciate the work we were doing, which was really nice and for those that took the time to say thank you, it was great to hear.  Stone-pitching is much slower work than building path drains however so I did not get to finish the section I was helping with but I remember the rocks involved and beware any visiting friends and family – you will be made to go and look at them (and the drain!)
My little piece of stone-pitching (unfinished)

My final outdoor part of week two was going to look at the work done on Martcrag Moor by the Basecamp Team.  They used sheep wool to create paths around eroded areas of peat as once the grass disappears the peat gets washed away really quickly.  The sheep wool allows water to flow but retains the peat.  I also saw the work on Stake Pass nearby, where rangers and volunteers have created a path by effectively digging the mountain to use the subsoil to create a sustainable path and remove the large erosion scar.  It was a very wet day and hence my discovery of the inaccuracy on my waterproof label as I was soaked by the time I got back to the vehicle!  Stake Pass is part of an old coffin route between Langdale and Borrowdale where coffins used to be carried from one village to the other for burial.  You can still see the flat coffin stones where they used to rest the coffins.

In between my time on the fells, I have managed to find some heel time and met some great people in the National Trust, National Park Authority and Natural England who are all passionate about what they are doing.  Everyone has made me feel very welcome.  I even had the opportunity to pop into the Sticklebarn event at the end of the week.  This is the first National Trust run pub in the country and the food and service were superb.  If you are in the Langdale area I would recommend it.  I have been in warm sunshine with beautiful views, soaking wet with no views, in offices with heels and on the fells with walking boots and even saw the Olympic Torch in Keswick.  I have learnt so much and am really looking forward to taking forward the Fix the Fells programme as I believe so strongly in it.  I am looking forward to week three!
The Olympic Torch in Keswick

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  1. Hard to imagine you doing manual labour! Great blog and photos. Fascinating to learn more about Fix the Fels. Glad you are enjoying your new role.

    1. I think it is possibly the first time I have spent a whole day like that!
      Thanks for comment. I love my role :-)

  2. A fascinating account Tanya. Really enjoyed reading it and pleased you are enjoying your new life Up North. Jill

    1. Thanks Jill! I love still keeping one foot on the Sussex/Kent border though - love my home county too :-)

  3. Loved this post Tanya.
    I was really keen to know what your new job entailed and you have captured it so well.
    It sounds a fantastic project and how great to do work that shows tangible results.
    I assume part of your role is also to spread the word and to educate us so I'm looking forward to the next instalment.

    1. Thanks Chloe! I love the role and yes part of the role is raising awareness of Fix the Fells (and raising money!) So I will be trying to do that through a range of mediums. :-)