• Neil

Dale Head - Lake District, UK - 27-12-18

When I was a kid, my folks would take us out most weekends, and the Lake District was often on the list of destinations. I didn't recall having been to Honister Pass before, but a memory locked away for a good 30 years came back to the forefront once I pulled up there in early November. I'd got out of the car to try and get a milky long exposure shot of the stream that runs through the pass and feeds into Buttermere. As I got to the edge of it, I instantly remembered standing at near enough the exact same spot as an 8 year old and sticking my hands right up to my elbows into the water. It was the middle of summer back then, but that water was ice cold.

It was this sudden recall that made me approach the water with a bit more care. The November weather was miserable and the rains over the previous few days meant the current had more of a punch to it, certainly enough to wash away a camera perched on a slippy rock overlooking it (particularly with the tin pot mini tripod I had at the time). It was this drizzle that forced me to give up and also had me throw in the towel on an attempt up Dale Head. The clouds were really low over the pass so visibility was nil, and having climbed Scafell in August through sideways rain, to get up there with no payoff other than a drenching didn't really appeal.

So, I returned in late December (logic, right there) during a few days off from work and on a much dryer day. Sleep escapes me at the best of times, and I'd had a particularly restless night, which isn't ideal for 4+ hour round trip as well as a trek but my window of opportunity in that period between Christmas and New Year was slim. Plus it was another Wainwright off the very lengthy list. So off I went around 6am right up to Penrith, and along the A66. A brief stop off at Derwentwater to get a few drone shots before moving on through Seatoller, I arrived at Honister Slate Mine just after 9am.


Rather than chance it in one of the laybys dotted along the pass, I opted for the Honister Slate Mine car park, a fiver all day, plus you get some good angles looking down the pass from here (moody photo below taken on that rainy November day in between downpours). And a toilet. Always good to have a comfort break after 2+ hrs driving. Plus if slate mines or climbing are your thing, there's plenty of that too, including a rope infinity bridge. After a trip to Go Ape in Aberfoyle about 2 years ago, I realised me, ropes and heights aren't a good mix. At all. I like both feet on the ground as much as possible.

To start on up Dale Head from here, you head slightly back towards Seatoller until you see a fence leading up the hill. Follow this. It really doesn't matter which side you pick, as it ultimately stops abruptly at the top of the main ridge. If you want an easier initial climb though, pick the right hand side. The left is rockier and a bit more scrambly in places. Of course I didn't know this at the time and opted for it.

There was a method to the madness though. Christmas had just passed and Santa left me a Beschoi Camera Backpack, sizey enough to fit both my DSLR and a few lenses along with my drone and spare batteries, with room left over for water and snacks (incredibly waterproof too). Ever since that dreary day in November I knew I wanted to fly the drone out over the hills and pass so scrambling up the left hand side allowed me to scout out a few locations off the beaten track and away from fellow walkers. So the direct route up turned more into a meander across the breadth, and very much taking the road less travelled as I came off the path and wandered around. I was glad I did. Rocky outcrops a plenty with just enough flat surface to launch the drone, but I also found myself in amongst some of the mine ruins which very much catch you off guard as you can't really see them until you're actually on top of them, suddenly appear on the other side of small ridges set back in the landscape. They made for some rather nice foreground to the looming Honister Crag on the opposite side of the pass.

The ruins made for a welcome addition to the trek up, and if you aren't in a rush I'd recommend a similar mooch. Round the back of the ruins I found this creepy little cave. Clearly used in the days when the mine was in operation as I found an exit further up the fell, but it wasn't something I was about to venture into. I was on my own, it was ankle deep in water and my pen torch just wouldn't have cut it. Plus remember those creepy rat/mole people from that film The Descent?

There's also the view out right down the centre of Honister Pass looking towards Buttermere and beyond which is amazing.

After a good hour or two taking photos and flying the drone (video at the bottom of this post) I rejoined the path and continued on up to the summit. When I trekked up Scafell in August as I neared the crest of each misty ridge I'd found myself repeating a mantra of 'just over this one and I'll be there'. It never was, and I think I kept going for a good hour before the summit very slowly came into view. Dale Head was similarly deceptive, especially from the road below (though nowhere near as challenging). It doesn't look too high, but I think the zig-zagging across it gave me the false impression I'd put more legwork in on the ascent than I actually had. However it does level out somewhat towards the top making for a more gentle incline.

Further up, I decided to veer off to the right. Thinking there might be a few people at the summit (turns out I'd see all of two people the entire time I was on the fell), I didn't want to chance bothering them by launching the drone near them, as I wanted some aerial shots of Newlands Valley and Eel Crags - the view out across Newlands Valley being a huge driver for the walk up there. I found a quiet spot above Dale Head Tarn from where I could see the beginnings of the valley and the sheer face of the crags. I launched the wee beastie and set it off finding a good angle to take in everything. At about 150ft up and a couple of hundred feet away from me I had the drone in a decent place and took a few test shots. I just needed less of the hill I was on and definitely more height. I started it off on a climb. It suddenly became very very apparent that I'd not noticed the clouds were getting very low over the fell. So low in fact that when the drone hit around 225 foot, it disappeared from my line of sight, and the viewfinder on the controller went completely white. Not good.

Cue a frantic panic to bring it down and in view again. Only it couldn't hack being in a cloud could it? Its sensors clearly going haywire and thinking it was suddenly in an enclosed space made it kick into automatic landing mode. A mode I couldn't in turn kick it out of. I had visions of it trying to land on a cloud, thinking the fluffy white nothingness beneath it was solid ground then simply dropping out of the sky. I switched it to sport mode to bring it back faster so at least if it did fall out the sky, I'd have a better chance of seeing where it crash landed. I brought it roughly overhead. I could hear it, but I couldn't see it as the clouds were dropping by the second. Eventually I started seeing the glow of the LED lights illuminating the cloud, then the outline of it as it continued its landing.

I managed to bring it down on a flat(ish) patch of ground. Following the farce that was the Gatwick incident and subsequent media circus, there was a minute or two where I was fearing a sensationalist Daily Mail headline of 'Drone Idiot Brings Mass Panic to the Lake District', not to mention losing a couple of hundred pounds worth of kit. Into the backpack it was returned with no clear shot of the valley, just clearly shot nerves. Onward.

This is also partly why this blog is called 'On Clear Days' for exactly what happened in terms of the change in weather. What started out as a clear day, had turned into a walk through a cloud. All I could see now was the path ahead of me. I heard a few voices trailing off to my left, but couldn't see anyone as visibility had dropped to a few foot.

My phone, which for the best part of the day had served as a brick with no signal (not ideal when out walking alone I admit) aside from acting as a viewfinder for the drone finally had data reception and GPS. I knew then from the OS Maps I wasn't far off the cairn at the summit (early morning fuzziness meant I'd forgot to download the grid in advance). It was pretty apparent that killer views out over Newlands Valley were sadly now no longer going to be an option. Typical.

I reached the top, hours after first setting off due to my walkabout and drone scare. There were two chaps at the top taking selfies on the cairn who left not long after a brief hello. I sat on a rock and chomped on an energy bar hoping the clouds would miraculously part and the view would present itself. Of course it never did. It looked more like The Nothing from The Neverending Story was taking hold of the Lake District one fell at a time.

Given it was by now early afternoon, and I'd have perhaps about two hours of decent light left, I opted against plodding on through the mist towards Robinson, and chose to head back towards the car. For once I made the right call, as even half way back down the low cloud showed no signs of letting up.

As I'd done all the off path exploration on the way up, the descent was much much quicker. By now the Slate Mine was in full swing with visitors and the car park was all but at capacity. As dark as it had been setting off that morning, it was just as dark most of my way back home. 12ish hours all in. I really, really like Dale Head and of course, would like to do it in much clearer conditions and take in Robinson and beyond. Honister Crag is also mesmerising to look at. I won't post a map of the route, as given how often I strayed from the path it'd look like the record of a Benny Hill chase scene. Instead, here's the footage I shot with the drone that day (with a cheeky 5 second blast from Crummock Water further up the road that I took as I made my way home).

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