Heavens Above and the Hounds of Hell

© Norman Hadley

Fell-runner Norman Hadley experiences the transcendent beauty of an afternoon canter above the clouds, while finding himself the unwilling fox in a strange and unexpected hunt.

Hello. My name is Norman and I'm an inversion addict. And I'm hoping this is a safe space to say that out loud because I'm willing to bet you are too. Of all the phenomena we are likely to encounter in the hills, the inversion is the most pure, the most other-wordly, the most unashamedly spiritual. Ever since Daedelus and Icarus watched birds soar over their Cretan prison, humans have yearned to transcend our earthbound limits and pass into worlds beyond. Inversions will do that for us.

Well, sometimes. Other times, they frustrate us by settling slightly higher than the hill we're on. A slight lightening of the sky at the summit hints that the clag has a ceiling, but the brightness eludes us and we slink back to the valley, uncleansed by light.

St Sunday from Fairfield  © Norman Hadley
St Sunday from Fairfield
© Norman Hadley

I had eights hounds on my trail. But any concerns I had about being torn to pieces were offset by a transformation in the sky so intense as to feel like the Rapture

In Paradisum

There is only one thing better than an inversion, and that is an inversion you have been tipped off about. Then, the ascent through the gloom is quickened with promise, your footsteps light with hope. Thanks to improvements in forecast computing-power, and the ubiquity of social media, this has become a lot more feasible than it was a decade or so ago.

That's how it was this time. I already had a sharp eye on the forecast and the Mountain Weather Information Service  wording, without actually using the I-word directly, held out hope. When I logged onto social media in the morning, I also saw a photograph taken by a Bob Graham Round runner, with a glittering dawn above a flawless cloud-sea. It looked like Game On.

That just left the small matter of working the day-job through the morning and hoping the sun didn't burn it all away before I could get up there by early afternoon. Driving over Kirkstone Pass and stashing the car at Deepdale Bridge, there was nothing at all to engender optimism. It looked like a middling mid-January afternoon, with a dull, grey pallor settled over the dale and nothing visible above two hundred and fifty metres.

The Helvellyn range does its best impression of an island  © Norman Hadley
The Helvellyn range does its best impression of an island
© Norman Hadley

I set off running up Deepdale and the approach nearly passed without incident. I'd reached the drumlins at the top of the valley when I heard the baying. I'd been pursued by hounds up this valley before and it looked like they were onto my trail again. There is something oddly unnerving about being chased by animals that are immeasurably faster than you, and which can sniff you out from miles away. When I looked around, I was initially relieved that there was only one hound racing towards me. It turned tail before it reached me, but I knew from previous experience that that wasn't the end of the matter.

Sure enough, about twenty minutes later, the baying began again. As I'd suspected, the first dog hadn't retreated with its tail between its legs, but had gone back to base to summon reinforcements. Delta bluesman Robert Johnson was lucky to have only one hell-hound on his trail. I now had eight, and they followed me all the way up to Deepdale Hause.

A brief reminiscence

I should probably mention this was only the third-most-unnerving encounter I'd had with this pack. The strangest occasion was the first. It was seven years ago, on a winter's night. Isn't it always, in these bar-room tales? I was running alone, up the western arm of the Fairfield Horseshoe. It had long since gone dark, but I had a faint glow of reflected light to run by from the covering of snow. A bitter wind had dropped the feels-like temperature to around minus ten.

As I ran, I had the faintest, indefinable sensation that I wasn't alone. I paused and turned around, expecting to see a head-torch or two indicating other nyctophiles following me along the ridge. But there was nothing. I started running again, but the feeling grew stronger. I turned around a second time, to shine the torch into the blackness when two hounds suddenly bounded out of nowhere. Well, you know how everything looks out of scale in the dark, so they looked the size of ponies. What made that encounter weirder still was that they didn't acknowledge me at all, but just ran past and vanished into darkness.

Looking west. Nearly sunset - you don't get long on a winter afternoon  © Norman Hadley
Looking west. Nearly sunset - you don't get long on a winter afternoon
© Norman Hadley

Back to the present day

Odd, the way life pans out. Because here I was again confronted by these huge beasts, but at least I had daylight on my side this time. Yes, they had returned in greater (and, if it came to it, overwhelming) numbers, but any concerns I had about being torn to pieces by a slavering pack were offset by a transformation in the sky so intense as to feel like the Rapture. From the oppressive gloom of the misty valley, I emerged into a world of dazzling beauty.

St Sunday Crag rose as a long, elliptical island, glowing amber. Above me, the pinnacles of Cofa Pike hoisted into the sky, where my trail lay. Across the bottomless canyon of Grisedale, the crest of Dollywaggon Pike, Nethermost Pike and Helvellyn rose up in stark relief. I trotted up to the summit of Fairfield, still shadowed by my retinue of hounds. For a while, they lost interest in me and ran on down towards Great Rigg, their howls echoing eerily out of the misty depths.

The temporary disappearance of the Baskerville Pack gave me respite to savour a remarkable panorama. Now I could see to the west, to the high spine of Lakeland undulating over the Coniston Fells, Crinkle Crags and Bowfell, with the Scafells, Gable and Pillar throwing bold outlines beyond. To the east, the High Street fells looked magnificent, with the Pennines behind. One of the finest prospects was close-at-hand, with streamers of mist blowing over Seat Sandal far beneath my feet.

Outfoxed them!  © Norman Hadley
Outfoxed them!
© Norman Hadley

A sly feint from Reynard

Too soon, one of the hounds reappeared from the mist and ran towards me. It was just one, but it was the noisiest of the pack. I decided to engage in a bit of vulpine subterfuge and set off running back down to Cofa Pike, as if I was going to retrace my steps down to Deepdale. The hound ran with me, then raced ahead. When it was out of sight, I stopped and turned back, figuring it would still be happily following my scent from before. Sure enough, that proved to be the last I saw of them.

Arriving at the summit a second time, I struck east, along the rim of Fairfield's northern crags, then south over Hart Crag and Dove Crag. This being mid-January, the light was quickly softening. I watched the sun dip to the western  horizon and knew the sky would darken quickly too. It was time to descend. On this occasion, descent made everything darken faster still, as I was soon returned to a world of thick mist, bounding down the sketchy path into upper Dovedale. Hearing voices in the gathering dusk, I encountered some young lads setting up camp in the aptly-named hollow of Houndshope Cove, but I was soon down to the lowland pastures and away towards Deepdale Bridge.

The last stretch was gorgeous. By day, it is one of the loveliest paths in Lakeland, along the western shore of Brotherswater. In the gloaming, the lake was a shimmer of anthracite through the trees, and several male tawny owls quavered woo-ooo-ooo in the woods above me. Sadly, none was answered with the flirtatious kee-wick of a receptive female. In sympathy with the luckless suitors, I ran on alone. But it had been an afternoon of superlative, redemptive beauty, and maybe there was the slight sense that the fox had dodged the hounds, to live another day.

Wonderful inversion, but there is something unnerving about a pack of hounds apparently on your trail!

..and I too love walking that Brotherswater path as the light is fading - the perfect way to end a day on the hill.

That sounds a memorable experience Norman. I've met unaccompanied dogs from the Patterdale hunt a couple of times, had a hound join us for a day's climbing at Mart Crag once, but never anything as unsettling as your encounter

21 Feb

Thanks WaW. It was a great outing but maybe would have been even better without the canine attention. Yeah, those Brotherswater woods are gorgeous. I bet they're full of birdsong right now and it won't be long before the flycatchers and chiffchaffs are back.

21 Feb

I'm curious to know if anyone other than us have been pursued up this valley. I'm considering a small investment in aniseed to lay decoy trails.

I have had hound encounters on Rossett Pike and the summit of Whitbarrow, but thankfully I have escaped the attention of the Patterdale Pack.

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