I’ve climbed Steel Fell several times, but I’ve never yet seen any other walkers on it – not even on a sunny summer’s day. Its southern ridge makes for a superb approach, mostly on grass but with occasional rocky outcrops to add to the interest; and it culminates in a rather satisfying view to the north. It’s a steep ascent, but not excessively so; and the top is only 553m above sea level, not exactly a major undertaking. So why the absence of walkers on a fell so close to Grasmere? I’m baffled.
The last time I was up on Steel Fell was no exception. It was an idyllic spring day with little black Herdwick lambs keeping close to their mothers as they grazed among the young green bracken fronds – the time of year when bracken still looks perfectly benign, with no hint of the stifling monster to come. It was warm, there really wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and yet it was just me, the sheep and an occasional sky-lark.
I bounded up the ridge, singing away at the top of my voice when the incline would allow, getting louder and louder as I gained height and more and more fells appeared to the west. I thought I still had some way to go to the summit cairn, and was surprised when, after what seemed like just a few minutes after leaving the valley floor, I was greeted by my first, glorious view to the north: the dark blue of Thirlmere below with Skiddaw and Blencathra sitting either side of it in the distance.
Beyond the summit is some wild, lonely country at the head of Greenburn – an area of often boggy ground that is enlivened by the presence of a couple of sparkling tarns. Maybe it’s this that puts walkers off: it can be a bit unpleasant after particularly wet weather and navigation can be a problem if the cloud’s down, but it’s great to be up here on a sunny day when you know that all around you, the rest of the fells are teeming with people.
Only when I reached the 537m Calf Crag did I encounter other humans – first an enthusiastic Australian woman, three days into Wainwright’s Coast to Coast route and loving it; then three North Americans who seemed to be lost, but declined my offer of help. Leaving the back-packers on the high ground, I dropped into Far Easedale. I’d not walked the entire length of this valley since coming through on the Coast to Coast myself more than 20 years ago, long before I moved to Cumbria and the fells became my second home. It had made little impression on me back then – maybe I’d been distracted by the weight of my pack as I’d neared the end of another hard day’s walking – but on this occasion I took my time, savouring the detail: the steep ramparts of Broadstone Head and Ferngill Crag; tributary becks winding down through dark, steep-sided ravines; gentle cascades, tempting pools and large boulders. These are the finer features of the fells: ones I’d paid little attention to when I was in my early 20s.