Within a couple of miles of England’s deepest point is its highest. Towering a kilometre above the hidden depths of Wast Water looms the sublime massif of Scafell Pike. From here, the rooftop of England, the whole union reveals itself — Scotland, Wales and those glowering guardians of Northern Ireland, the Mountains of Mourne.
Most visitors to Lakeland know Scafell. For the tramping tourist and charity rambler, lured by the thrill of being atop its 978m peak, it’s a must-see goal. Its prominent summit cairn, memorialising Cumbrians who fell in the Great War, is large enough for a cricket team to picnic on. The terrain is astoundingly alien: devoid of any greenery, it presents a surreal, Mars-like boulder-scape.
Yet Scafell Pike is a mere offshoot of Scafell proper, and locals – if not the Ordnance Survey — have always thought as much. The summit of Scafell (pedants note, the first syllable is ‘score’), though so close in distance and only 14 metres below, is strikingly different. Yes, there are prettier peaks and daintier settings in the Lakes, but none more awesome and few so moving. The Norse name Scafell (‘bald mountain’) is fair enough: the land is rugged and remote, windswept and raven-racked. But it affords the most breathtaking panorama and the elixir of utter silence. Gentle slopes to the south run to the isolated loveliness of Eskdale; to the north-west lies Wast Water, brooding beneath near-vertical screes.
To the east, between Scafell and Scafell Pike, stands one of England’s most perfect places — Mickledore, the ‘great door’, a thin col that joins the barren beauty of the pike to the east buttress of Scafell. This monumental cathedral of steel-grey stone is both spectacular and humbling: the wall of near-impassable rock encapsulates the frustrations of nature, reminding visitors that the world is not wrought for man’s convenience. To Alfred Wainwright, that lover of Lakeland and loneliness, it was a ‘spectacle of massive strength and savage wildness’. Fittingly, these faces were the cradle of British rock-climbing, launching myriad adventures into the Alps and beyond.
In fact, this sheer crag witnessed the first recorded rock climb, undertaken by a certain Samuel Taylor Coleridge. During his nine-day solo ‘circumcursion’ of Lakeland, he descended a route that even now is attempted only with ropes. The escapade gripped him with terror, far removed from Petrarch’s reflections on Mont Ventoux; he recorded that every drop ‘increased the Palsy of my Limbs’. Overcome upon reaching the notorious mauvais pas exposed above a lethal ten-metre drop (or perhaps deep in an opiate fug), he ‘lay in a state of almost prophetic Trance and Delight’.
Such feelings can still be felt, for Scafell is our collective possession. Purchased in 1924 from the huntsman and clubman Charles Wyndham, 3rd Baron Leconfield, by Gordon Wordsworth, the poet’s grandson, and Arthur Benson, essayist and academic, it was soon bequeathed to the National Trust. There’s no more stirring place to explore.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator Australia for less – just $20 for 10 issues