He said he’d show me dinosaurs, but with visibility down to just a few feet, there could’ve been brontosaurus having a garden party and we wouldn’t have known anything about it…
Leo Walmsley lives at the Old Dungeon Ghyll: a climbers’ bar and hotel in Great Langdale. He works for the National Trust repairing and building footpaths and his day can begin with a two-mile trek up a mountain to get to work. He’s also a free climber who is occasionally called in by local farmers to rescue sheep that have become crag fast on the ledges. He’s a great guy with a boyish enthusiasm, who finds a wonder and beauty in the world around him, and the other week he offered me a rare glimpse into the Lost World of Langdale.
It reminded me of when we were kids; finding secret places we thought no one had been to before. We believed, as intrepid explorers, we’d discovered areas new to science and we’d hollow out a den or perch in the low branches of a tree keeping guard. Obviously these days I’m no longer so naïve, but I experienced the same sense of excitement and anticipation when we set out on our adventure.
The slopes of Lingmoor are densely covered in juniper bushes that act as cover for a large variety of insects, plants and mammals that live beneath its canopy. Concealed from birds of prey and inaccessible even to the mountain sheep, it’s a haven and a sanctuary for those that have made it their home. We walked along the edge of the tree line until we found an opening then crawled in and began to make our way towards the summit through tangled trees and gnarled twisted roots that were covered in moss and bright green ferns. The guidebooks tell people to avoid this area: there are no paths and no points of reference to take a bearing from. Its nature is such that however many times you venture in you will never take the same route twice. Occasionally we came upon small clearings where exquisite plants and flowers blushed in the dappled sunlight. Leo reckoned that if you took out all the creatures that lived here and suspended them in the air, they would block out the sky. His gentle wisdom and observation are always endearing. ‘Never hang your washing on a half moon.’ He’d come out with this little gem in the pub a few days earlier: crawling through the thicket, lost and blind, knowing only that we were ascending, I was trying to figure a way of attaching my washing line to the moon without it slipping off – I was getting delirious… He later explained that a half moon brings moisture to the night air so if you put your washing out late it won’t dry.
Three hours after setting out we reached the summit. Scratched and bleeding slightly we sat on a rock among heather and cotton grass smoking cigarettes while three buzzards performed a spectacular aerial display across the valley. Leo’s lost world is a world in miniature where some of the more fragile species can survive unmolested. The things we’d seen and the path that reveals itself and yet leaves no trace of itself once passed; could never be found again.
Leo’s recipe for Sloe Gin
1 large preserving jar
Enough sloes to fill jar
Bottle of gin
Fill jar with frozen sloes
Pour in sugar tapping jar to make sure it fills all cavities
Fill jar to the top with gin: seal and leave for a minimum of three months, shaking jar gently every now and then. The longer left the better.
Next week: The Italian Job