Fixing the fells – an all-weather task
Barry Capp, Fix the Fells Lengthsman and his dog, Hamish
Fix the Fells (FtF) aims to protect the spectacular Lakeland fells from erosion by maintaining and repairing the upland paths. It is a partnership between the National Trust, the Lake District National Park, Friends of the Lake District, Natural England, Cumbria County Council, and Nurture Lakeland. Since 2007 FtF has run a volunteer lengthsmen scheme, and now more than 100 volunteers have been trained in the basics of upland path maintenance. The title of ‘lengthsmen’ is a traditional old Cumbrian term used for a person who maintains lanes, bridleways and paths so is particularly well suited to the description of the type of work FtF volunteers actually undertake up on the fells. The primary role of the volunteer lengthsmen is to undertake routine unsupervised path maintenance activities such as clearing the fell drains and keeping the fell paths in good condition. However, we also work alongside the National Trust rangers and National Park rangers on a variety of other remedial and restorative repair projects throughout the whole year.
You might perhaps be wondering, what is a typical winter’s day like for your average FtF volunteer lengthsmen? The Lakeland fells in winter can be pretty cold, wet and windy sometimes so it is certainly no place for either the fainthearted or the poorly equipped. Our routine maintenance is undertaken on an informal basis from a network of 8 tool sheds spread across the whole of the Lake District National Park. We normally work in small teams (2 to 8 people typically), although lone working is also allowed on certain specific designated paths as well for those who have gained the appropriate qualifying experience. Your average day will therefore normally start with a
9-00am meeting of a group of volunteer lengthsmen at one of these tool shed locations. Depending on where the folks have travelled from (and some travel considerable distances to participate), this could have meant a very early start perhaps for some people. The FtF volunteer lengthsmen endeavour to maintain a network of more than 150 upland paths across the Lake District, all these paths have been prioritised on a red, amber, green (traffic light) basis to indicate the general frequency with which they may require maintenance visits. Reds are the highest priority and need the most frequent attention i.e. at least
quarterly visiting. Additionally, any route which is actually overdue for review is also separately red flagged to highlight it now needs a visit.
So let us now look at a very recent winter days FtF outing by way of just one specific example. Six volunteer lengthsmen met at our Langdale FtF tool shed, plus we were joined on this occasion by one potential new FtF recruit on an initial introductory taster day as well. One of our team had travelled all the way up from Preston, and is a regular member of the lengthsmen team. The weather forecast for the day was not good with very strong winds and heavy rain anticipated to come in rapidly. Clearly, it was not going to be prudent to attempt a combination of the very high fell routes above Langdale in those forecast severe winds. So after collecting our tools (shovels, mattocks and brushes) from the shed, the seven of us set off for Stickle Ghyll initially along a section of the Cumbria Way. This first path has 13 cross drains on it that need clearing plus a long length of side drainage channel that also requires checking out. On reaching the bottom of Stickle Ghyll, we took the right hand path that climbs steeply up to Stickle Tarn. This path has some 20 cross drains on it and has been pitched (repaired with stone built steps) for much of the way. As we were progressively ascending, and clearing the drains as we went, the sky was continually darkening and the wind further
increasing. Sure enough, before we had reached Stickle Tarn, the heavy rain had also arrived - Cumbrian horizontal rain certainly has to be experienced ifyou want to be an FtF volunteer! After a short stop adjacent to the Tarn to generally regroup, we decided to make our descent via Pike Howe. Our initial walk to reach Pike Howe was directly into the wind which by now had reached gale force proportions, so the going was both somewhat slow and a little difficult at times. The path down from Pike Howe has some 25 drains on it and has also been pitched for much of the route, and we undertook routine maintenance (drain clearing and sweeping, etc) as we gradually made our descent into the relative shelter of the Langdale valley, before making our final return back to the tool shed.
In conclusion, one might say a wholly typical Winters FtF day - one group of very wet but happy volunteer lengthsmen, three FtF designated paths successfully maintained (two of which had been previously red flagged) with 58 drains cleared, and one potential new recruit who had thoroughly enjoyed a first FtF experience and now wants to join the team full-time.