Simmer Dim on Scafell

© Norman Hadley

Don't waste the longest day stuck at home! Norman Hadley makes the best of the light to enjoy a solstice wild camp on England's second summit.

Midsummer is a miniature season of its own; the solstice is a sharply-lit fulcrum on which time itself briefly teeters before sliding towards the softer tones of harvest. In this short span of time, there is suddenly a surfeit of time: mornings begin in the small hours while evenings are a languid dawdle towards a darkness that never truly comes.

The stretched light demands you embrace some sort of sleep-deprived madness. You don't have to go full Shakespeare and dream you're a donkey in a wood full of fairies but you have to step outside yourself somehow. If you like crowds you can go to Glastonbury or, for quieter pleasures, head for the hills.

Mist swirling around Gable and Lingmell, wide angle  © Norman Hadley
Mist swirling around Gable and Lingmell, wide angle
© Norman Hadley, Jun 2022

The wild camper on a high summit can add an hour to an already long day, with sunrise thirty minutes earlier than at sea level, and sunset symmetrically later. If winds are light, the ground dry and the midges few, this can be a magical untethering from earthbound cares, sprawling on the grass as your pan gently simmers and the horizontal light projects your tent's long shadow into the wide golden yonder.

All the constraint and urgency associated with nightfall was suspended until further notice. Hurrying was for the other fifty-one weeks of the year

In Orkney and Shetland, the long stretch of half-light is referred to as "simmer dim" but you needn't go all that way to get a sense of it. The solstice offers a glimpse into how far north Britain really is, with Hadrian's Wall at the same latitude as Humpback Lake, Alaska.

A Herdwick awaiting the gathering  © Norman Hadley
A Herdwick awaiting the gathering
© Norman Hadley, Jun 2022

Opportunity Knocks Again

I already had my eye on the date in the diary for a hill trip so when work sent me to Cumbria on the two days straddling the shortest night I felt I was already in credit at the Bank of Luck. Was it too much to hope for good weather as well?

I spent my first day working outside. There was plenty of sun in South Cumbria but occasional furtive northward glances revealed a heavy and unmoving pall of cloud over the Scafells. By contrast, the Coniston fells stayed clear and a less obstinate man might have changed plans accordingly. I, however, nurtured aspirations to go higher and further west. In particular, I wanted to check out a pitch that had caught my eye on England's second summit. I mustered every ounce of optimism and headed off to the wilds of Eskdale with the mumbled mantra, "It will lift. It will lift." 

In the meantime, I had plenty of lifting of my own to do. In addition to my own mass, I had camping gear to hoist to the heavens. True, I was going ultralight, with my patent no-rucksack style, but it was still an appreciable burden.

The Hills Are (Surprisingly) Alive

I'd anticipated a quiet midweek evening on the hills but, as I set off up the lower slopes, I met a cheerful bunch of club runners heading the same way. They were exceptionally friendly and welcoming, instantly inviting me to join them. Generous as this was, I explained that with camping gear on board I would only slow them down. Anyone whose childhood reading included lots of Captain Oates would have done the same.

I hung on their heels long enough to establish they were from Black Combe Runners and we chatted briefly about a mutual friend. They were clearly a strong bunch, as befits people who train on Black Combe's notoriously clustered contours. The two women in the party were formidably quick but there was a chap in a yellow singlet who romped ahead of the pack like this was just a light jog.

Looking down into Deep Ghyll and the West Wall Traverse  © Norman Hadley
Looking down into Deep Ghyll and the West Wall Traverse
© Norman Hadley, Jun 2022

I lumbered in their lightly-clad wake at a respectful distance. Preventing that distance from increasing was a formidable challenge but the discipline of it helped pass the long lope over the damp cottongrass-and-tormentil tussocks of Quagrigg Moss. I eventually caught up with them on the rocky tor of Slight Side and we chatted, took photos and admired the views as the mist slowly lifted. We even got a brief appearance of the summit cairn on Scafell Pike. I took a team photo of them all and even the biddable border collies were keen to strike heroic poses.

We ran on together. I now felt happy to run in their midst, but there was no way I could hold Mr Yellowsinglet's pace. Only later would I learn from the mutual friend that he's the incredibly quick Tim Ripper; I might just as well have challenged some guy called Bolt at my local parkrun. We stopped for more photos at the summit of Scafell, marvelling at how the Isle of Man appeared to levitate above the Irish Sea. We picked out Ingleborough, Pendle Hill and a handful of summits in North Wales. The Dumfries and Galloway hills looked magnificent, especially Criffel. Closer by, the bowl of Upper Eskdale swirled with mist, with the graceful pyramid of Bowfell and the jagged saw-blade of Crinkle Crags poking through.

The Gatewood tarp standing sentinel at the top of Deep Ghyll  © Norman Hadley
The Gatewood tarp standing sentinel at the top of Deep Ghyll
© Norman Hadley, Jun 2022

The Hill to Myself

The club headed downwards, but my evening was just getting going. I trotted across the summit plateau to my favoured pitch. Once the club chatter had receded, it was just me and a few sheep. With a little simple scrambling, I explored the Scafell Pinnacles, admiring the bird-eye view down Deep Ghyll to the thin goat-trod of the West Wall Traverse.

It was everything a midsummer's night should be, and utterly windless. Looking across the gulf of Mickledore, there seemed to be plenty of traffic on the Pike but I apparently had the whole of Scafell to myself. I pitched the tent to stake my claim before going on a scouting mission for water but, as it happened, there was absolutely no competition for spaces. The ground was a delight, with good firm turf offering confidence-inspiring peg placements. This was in sharp contrast to a midwinter solstice trip to the Pike I'd made six months earlier, with no better anchor than friable moss overlaying splintered boulders.

Looking down to Wastwater at sunset  © Norman Hadley
Looking down to Wastwater at sunset
© Norman Hadley, Jun 2022

I knew that fetching water would involve losing height and earlier map research had identified Foxes Tarn as the closest prospect. All the same, it was an undignified slither down the scree and I felt every one of those hundred-and-fifty lost metres. The tarn was scarcely big enough for one fox to lap from, let alone two, and the outflow was barely a trickle so I resolved to both filter and boil the water to make sure it was safe. I scrambled back up to the tent and was amazed to see how late it already was: nine o'clock. But it didn't matter; this was midsummer; all the constraint and urgency associated with nightfall was suspended until further notice.

Midsummer, 9:45 pm over Kirk Fell and Gable  © Norman Hadley
Midsummer, 9:45 pm over Kirk Fell and Gable
© Norman Hadley, Jun 2022

I slowly set about camp chores, to unpack, organise, boil, rehydrate and cook. But every few minutes, a new swirl of mist or splash of light would catch my eye and I would drop everything, pad barefoot to some new vantage point and photograph the view. The cleft of Deep Ghyll was especially watchable, acting as a natural frame for the might of Pillar and Gable towering over Wasdale. Hurrying, I told myself, was for the other fifty-one weeks of the year. The evening saved the best to last, with a warm burst of bronze light pouring in under a sheet of high cloud just as the sun set. I checked the time: five minutes to ten, as if it mattered.

In this languorous fashion, it wasn't until eleven that everything had been eaten, drunk, lofted up, zipped, stowed or brushed, as appropriate. The tent became a sudden focus of fascination to the local sheep: I could see half a dozen staring faces jostling each other to move closer until they lost interest and returned to their turf-nibbling duties.

The pinnacles catch the last of the light, 9:45 pm  © Norman Hadley
The pinnacles catch the last of the light, 9:45 pm
© Norman Hadley, Jun 2022

Nightfall, of a Sort

I bedded down with a thin buff over my eyes to create a small private domain of darkness. Sleep came quickly and uninterruptedly; the next time I was aware of anything, it was four in the morning. The night had delivered a slight breeze and a heavy dew but the partial inversion had held steady. Already there was a warm mango glow behind the Pike, transitioning to a steely blue Crinkle Crags above the simmering cauldron of Upper Eskdale. Again, the tasks of cooking breakfast and brewing coffee were interrupted by attempts to capture the ever-shifting light.

Four a.m. glow over the Pike  © Norman Hadley
Four a.m. glow over the Pike
© Norman Hadley, Jun 2022

A few souls were already gathered at the summit cairn on the Pike for their own solstice experience. It seemed likely that they had camped or bivvied up there rather than set off in the even-smaller hours. But on Scafell I still had no companions other than the tussock-nuzzling sheep and a solitary Violet Oil Beetle busying through the grass, keen to start its day.

A sudden mist turns camp into a scene from The Martian  © Norman Hadley
A sudden mist turns camp into a scene from The Martian
© Norman Hadley, Jun 2022

Scafell Pinnacles catching dawn light  © Norman Hadley
Scafell Pinnacles catching dawn light
© Norman Hadley, Jun 2022

I assured the beetle that I got the message it was sending. But, although I had to get off this hill and clock on at work, it still seemed anathema to do anything too hurriedly. So I packed up slowly and jogged back down to Slight Side and Quagrigg Moss. To vary my route a little, I struck a pathless detour across a very wet and tussocky Cow Cove. It was mucky ground and hot work, which had a certain irony, since my motivation was visiting Scale Force to sluice off the worst of the dirt and sweat for a slightly shinier and sweeter-smelling arrival at work.

That just left an easy canter down to the valley bottom, passing through Taw House farm, the focal point of one of the greatest documentaries ever made: The Great Mountain Sheep Gather, a masterpiece of the "slow TV" genre. The metamorphosis was complete: if not a Shakespearean donkey, I was a grizzled Herdwick tup safely gathered from the fell and dipped, having celebrated all the slow, transformative magic a midsummer night had gifted him.

As I ran down one midsummer morning  © Norman Hadley
As I ran down one midsummer morning
© Norman Hadley, Jun 2022

Thanks Norman, lovely piece. You've inspired me to try to get out with a bivvy bag for the shortest night this week, so long as it's not raining

19 Jun, 2023

Excellent, Dan. I shall look out for pictures of a Ridge Raider gently seesawing on one of the Fasarinen pinnacles.

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