Helvellyn braised lamb shanks

Marc, Bella, Ian and Michele above Striding Edge

Glenridding, Cumbria, November 1, 2006 Autumn half term saw us head up to the Lake District once more for a week of walking and relaxation in what we consider the most beautiful corner of England, if not the world. We love the Lakes and have been coming up here for more than thirty years. Glenridding, at the southern extremity of the stunningly majestic Ullswater, is somewhat off the beaten tourist track. As such, it makes an excellent base for walks on to some of the highest fells.

We have now stayed twice at Helvellyn Cottage, which, apart from the YHA near the old disused mine underneath Whiteside fell, is about as close as you can get to the summit of Helvellyn itself, one of the great peaks of the Lake District. The cottage is basically a simple and cosy two-up, two-down, yet it is one of the most comfortable and thoughtful self-catering accommodations we’ve stayed in and we can thoroughly recommend it. It is very well-equipped and with its cosy woodburner stove and lashings of hot water for the bath, it is always a great place to return to after a day out on the fells.

We’ve been using Alfred Wainwright’s now famous walking guides since the early 1980s, and most of our volumes have torn covers and rainsoaked pages, evidence of consultation on mountaintops in the most severe weather! I’ve always noted the walks we’ve done (or not done – many has been the time when we’ve been forced down due to inclement weather or bad visibility) in the backs of the books. I consult our well-worn Eastern Fells volume to discover that we first climbed Helvellyn on New Year's Day 1985 via Grisedale, up the Tongue to Dollywagon Pike, and so on to the summit of Helvellyn itself, with a return via Lower Man and Whiteside. Quite a winter walk all of twenty years ago!

This time the weather the week prior to our arrival was absolutely diabolical, with intense and persistent rain for days and nights on end all around the country, from Devon up north to the Lakes and beyond. Roads were still half-flooded when we descended the Kirkstone Pass down to Patterdale and the ground looked severely waterlogged. Naturally we were prepared for a wet week. Imagine our delight on the morning after our arrival to wake up to bright sunshine and a windless day. Who knows what might happen the rest of the week? We had to seize the chance and attempt to conquer Helvellyn via Striding Edge and Swirral Edge while the weather was set fair.

This is truly one of the most exhilarating walks in the Lakes, a classic that is really exciting, not a little nerve-wracking yet wholly enjoyable. From Glenridding, we climbed up Mires Beck and across Birkhouse Moor to Hole-in-the-Wall, pausing from time to time to look back at the stupendous views over Ullswater, stretched out behind us. At Hole-in-the-Wall, we looked over to Grisedale and the towering summits of Fairfield and St Sunday, while Helvellyn itself loomed directly ahead of us, framed by the twin knife edges of Striding and Swirral that surround the deep crater-like Red Tarn below. Up here there is no where to go but up, so we began the steep climb up to Striding Edge. This famous knife edge is actually no where near as frightening as it might seem, especially in fine weather. Last April we were up here in wind and ice and it was considerably more challenging. This time Bella and I virtually skipped along the crest, while the others chose to stick to the slightly lower path alongside. The only awkward bit is the rock chimney at the end of Striding Edge; it’s not difficult at all, but it is a 20 foot climb down and you have to take it slowly and carefully. After this, it is a rough and very steep scramble to the summit, again not at all difficult or dangerous, but a rough scramble all the same.

We enjoyed our picnic on the summit, while taking in the most splendid and far-reaching views across all of Lakeland. On such a fine day, it was absolutely stunning! The return via Swirral Edge is initially rough and awkward, but again not overly difficult in good weather conditions. One way or another, the steep and loose top section is negotiated and the path improves before the final climb up to Catstycam, a notable summit in its own right, dwarfed only by the higher fells that surround it. Nonetheless, it provides a dramatic vista from which to survey both Swirral Edge below, and, looking across Red Tarn, Striding Edge, with the silhouettes of walkers moving steadily across the crest of the edge like an army of ants. We returned to Helvellyn Cottage by way of Red Tarn Beck and the old disused lead mine. Feeling very pleased with ourselves and that we had achieved a notable landmark goal, we luxuriated for a moment in the warm afternoon sun in front of the cottage, and afterwards headed down to the nearby Travellers' Rest for a well-earned drink.

Here's a good description of the above route

Though Helvellyn via the Edges was most definitely one of the week’s highlights, we enjoyed other splendid walks. Sheffield Pike can be climbed from directly behind Helvellyn Cottage, with a return down the Gelncoyne valley through the splendid, little visited Seldom Seen. On another day, we set out from Patterdale up to Boredale Hause, then down into Boredale where we saw and heard the rutting of the deer. This walk went around Place Fell, with a return on a path above the banks of Ullswater, a most pleasing and satisfying round.

Another stunning, and more challenging fell walk that we enjoyed took us from Patterdale up Grisedale to the head of the valley, a climb up to Grisedale Tarn, then an extremely steep and loose scramble to the summit of Fairfield.

Kim and Bella on the summit of Fairfield

Again, we were fortunate with brilliant, sunny weather, and though it was cold up top, the views way across the mountains to the Irish Sea, and east to the Pennines were quite astounding. From Fairfield, we scrambled down and up the magnificently rugged Cofa Pike, then traversed the splendid ridge above Grisedale to St Sunday Crag and so back eventually to Patterdale. A tiring but exhilarating walk.

On our return, we made our way once more immediately to the Travellers’ Rest at Glenridding (just below Helvellyn Cottage) to rehydrate with quenching pints of Jennings Bitter (grapefruit and soda for the gals).

Meanwhile, before going out, the previous evening in fact, I'd had the foresight to prepare a slow braise of lamb shanks, cooked simply in wine using some of the seasonings available in the well-stocked kitchen of the Helvellyn Cottage. The warm spicy smells that greeted us as we wearily entered the cottage were welcome in the extreme.

This is hearty, simple food that is really satisfying after a day out of doors on the high fells.

Helvellyn braised lamb shanks
Serves 4

4 large or 8 small lamb shanks
Olive oil
2 large onions, peeled and chopped
2 leeks, cleaned and sliced
4 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
A head of garlic, cloves peeled and smashed
2 teaspoons cumin powder
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
2 teaspoons turmeric
A generous spoon of dried chilli flakes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Half a bottle of red wine
About a half litre of homemade chicken stock

Season the lamb shanks and brown in a cast iron casserole or other heavy-bottomed pot or saucepan. Remove and drain. Add the onion, leeks and carrots to the pot and sautée until soft. Add the garlic and the seasonings, return the lamb to the pot and mix well. Add the wine and bring to the boil. Allow to reduce for about 10 minutes, add the chicken stock, bring to the boil, cover tightly and place in a very low oven (120 degrees C) for about 4-5 hours.

This is best made a day in advance. Place in the refrigerator overnight. Remove the fat from the pot before reheating in a low oven.

Served with mashed potatoes made with creamy milk and plenty of butter.

Suggested wine: Cascina Fontana Barbera d’Alba 2004

Bella the cat

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