A stoop stones story

Ok so what’s so interesting about the two pictures below? Just a couple of stones and a pretty young Nepali girl? What’s the story?

One cold January morning five years ago I remember carrying the large stoop stone on the left of the picture up the bank at The Larches with four other friends to where we planned to erect it beside the breakfast terrace. I had found it in a neighbouring farmer’s field and the owner kindly allowed me to take it for our garden.

It fascinated me because of its age and construction. Made of a huge piece of Lakeland slate, it weighed well over 2 cwt and had six beautifully crafted square holes. This stoop stone, one of a pair, was designed – in the days before hinged gates – for holding cattle in enclosed fields and keeping other animals out. It was probably 200 to 300 years old. It became evident from my research that similar ones could be found in Cumbria, but otherwise they were not widely known or found.

The stoop stone system allows a farmer to place bars in the holes at either side of the opening and remove them again when access was required. One of the stoop stones has square holes to prevent rotation of the pole and the other has round ones to facilitate opening and shutting of the gateway.

I had definitely not thought that this kind of stoop stone gate was found outside the UK, until last month, when I walked through a narrow cobbled pathway in a small village in Nepal near Pokhara. On the track that was leading up towards the Annapurna Sanctuary I was approached by this young girl, who was happy to be photographed beside this lovely old three holed stoop stone.

Is this an example of quite independent technological development in two different countries, or adoption of a practice as a result of travellers or others spreading information and promoting the idea? If you can tell me of other countries, where you’ve seen similar old stoop stones, I’d be really interested! Better still, send me a photo of it!

Sleepless in Seattle

We’ve been spending the last week in Seattle with our family and grandson, Finlay and as usual have been delighted by the facilities and beauty of the city. Not least are the views to be seen from the house where we are staying in the Queen Anne area. The I 5 Freeway shown In the dawn photo below, from our experience is never still whatever time you look out from our deck. Seattle never sleeps!

In the foreground is part of Lake Union, from where the small sea planes take off. But the shock this time was the brilliant display of the Cascade Mountains with the sun rising in the east. We’ve never before seen it so clear. We need to get out for some walking there when we are next here.

On Hadrian’s Wall

We’ve been travelling beside the magnificent Hadrian’s Wall between Wallsend and the shoreline of the Solway Firth in West Cumbrian and exploring bits of it for years.

But one area we had never visited was Vindolanda and the Roman Fort five to six miles to the west. This year we put that right with our cousins and their children at the February half term. It’s an hour and a quarter’s journey by car from The Larches and a must for anyone interested in this fascinating period of our island’s history.

Vindolanda, a large fort for 400 soldiers, built by the Romans to the south before the wall was constructed, and the adjacent village have been excavated comparatively recently. With watch towers, communal latrines, baths and a tavern adjoining the barracks, the site provides an excellent insight into the organisation and practices of a conquering power at the extreme limits of its empire.

The adjacent museum has a fascinating collection of notes and letters inscribed on small stone tablets. These alone for their diversity and range of subjects make the site worth a visit. There’s a cafe serving food there too plus an area outside for eating your own food.

The fort site to the west offers some excellent posters, has a short film of the Wall (commenced in about AD 122) and gives an opportunity for children to try on a Roman tunic, armour and head protector.

This site is ideal for setting off for a short or longer walk up and down the Wall at probably its most exciting point. The attraction of the museum and Wall can be seen from the revealing comments below from Ellie and Owen:

Today was the most historical and intriguing day ever. We marched along the uneven, Roman stone wall. As grey as dawn, the stones went up and down in crags. We felt like soldiers…” (Ellie, aged 11)

It was fascinating to see all the armour, weapons and chariots at the museum. We dressed up as Roman warriors – on went the red shirt, on went the tunic and finally the shield and helmet. We looked ferocious! We just had to see the Wall.

High up on the enormous ridge, Hadrian’s Wall snaked along like a huge stone basilisk, severing the two domains like a knife – Celts to the North, Romans to the South….” (Owen, aged 12)

Moving at speed on foot

I first became in interested in moving at speed in the mountains 29 years ago. Wild camping in Borrowdale, I’d set off early shortly before eight o’clock from Seathwaite Farm and met a couple on Esk Hause about 9.30. They had got there from Grasmere, much further than I’d come.

“How have you done it?” I asked. The answer was footwear and fitness. Their light running shoes were more than half the weight of my leather boots. Later at the end of a long day, I had done about 5500 feet of ascent, and my feet were hot and tired.

Shortly after this encounter, I tried out this new technique with a new pair of Vibram-soled shoes, running down from Caer Caradoc in Shropshire. The next day a large blister on the front of my large toe told its story. I hadn’t found the complete answer, though I still use the same shoes for fellside gardening. The problem I now realize was they lacked a restraining tongue and ankle support.

The practice and technology for running in the mountains and on the flat has much changed and improved over three decades. Now I have five pairs of footwear for different conditions – trainers for the gym, US Asics running shoes for road and cross country, Swiss Mammut approach shoes (See opposite) for longer walking, rubber spiked Innovate shoes for fell running and Teva sandals for summer and alpine walking; and I am mostly free of blisters!

It’s a reminder that outdoor sports and running is now big business. Every day here in Seattle’s Queen Anne district well over 100 people run or fast walk past the house; and last week over 600 people, including myself took part in the annual ‘Crown of Queen Anne’ fun run – in which the winner completed in half my time.

The map of this month’s runs planned for the USA (see opposite) shows just how popular running of all sorts has become and this is a worldwide phenomenon. Companies too like New Balance are noticing this change, according to a New York Times 9 July article in the Business Section, “Campaign redefines running as a social activity”.

The company in 2011 spent $14.4 million on advertising and now dubs this change as ‘Runnovation’. Posters with slogans like “Hit the wall on purpose” and “Redefine Girls Night out”, promoting more women’s involvement will be encouraging more of us to take up the sport – and like me spend more money on running shoes! The photo below shows ‘women hitting the steps on purpose’ in Seattle’s Queen Anne area!

For the record probably the best mountain footwear for me has been a pair of Teva sandals, used at up to 2,500 metres in the Alps, India, North America, Africa, Scotland and elsewhere.

The only big innovation I haven’t yet tried is the Vibram FiveFingers footwear, which some friends swear by. But that could change with a visit to Seattle’s REI outdoors shop. After 29 years maybe I should be giving a Vibram product another chance!

Catbells and fell running

With the weather set fine just now, I’m always keen to get up onto the tops for some exercise, to smell the heather and grasses and feel the wind in my hair.

You don’t need to be a fitness freak, super athlete or regional champion to get started on fell running, which is why I often suggest Catbells as a good place to start, if you think you might become interested and want to give it a try.

Situated about three miles from Keswick, it’s easy to get to by bus, bike and foot. Taking a car to the foot of Catbells is more tricky now as there are restrictions on parking in the immediate vicinity. But if you don’t mind a half mile walk you can usually find somewhere, unless it’s a really lovely day in high season. Evenings are easier too. Bank holidays are best avoided.

You can approach the mountain from the east via Grange, from the southwest via Little Town or from the north, which is the direction I normally choose, as it leads you up the crest of the mountain.

There’s a good path, which unfolds gradually, giving you a growing sense of the local landscape. Derwentwater is magnificent beside Keswick and to the north Bassenthwaite opens up. Then there are the views of the high tops of Skiddaw and Blencathra to the north and the Langdales to the south.

Don’t think you need or should run all the way. Even the best fell runners will walk on the steepest sections. It’s about 1250 feet of climbing to the top of Catbells, which at a good pace will take you anywhere between 20 to 35 minutes.

If the going is getting a bit tough or the weather is changing, you can miss out the top and drop down to the right on tracks over the fellside. This will take you back to your starting point.

From the top you can proceed southwards almost until you reach the saddle, leading up to Maiden Moor. There’s a track leading off to the right, which drops steeply over the grass and then onto a stony track. Take care when you are running here, as the path is constricted in places.

The path veers continually round to the right as you drop down, so that you are now running parallel with the route you had taken on the way up the mountain. The path now is simple and easy for running and the route is clear. (See bottom photo below).

Near the end you pass a farm half hidden (see photo) and then you reach a parking point (See bottom right photo below), about 300 metres before the cattle grid on the bigger road. The descent will be much quicker, so an hour should be enough to complete the whole round.

If you try this out do let me know, by posting a comment below at the bottom of this blog.