Wednesday, 23 October 2013

A Working Week in Wasdale

Having fancied learning some conservation skills for a while I set out to research what was on offer. When I came across the National Trust Working Holiday in Wasdale it sounded ideal; the jobs to be undertaken were varied and included stone wall building, hedge laying, vegetation removal and river clearing. It's a beautiful locaion, and surely the weather couldn't be too unkind in mid October.

I was joined by another Glossopdale Harrier lady too...Rachel. We drove up early on the Saturday as it was Wasdale Show - worth the drive just for the sheep dog trail races alone (yes, dogs run a race - they follow a aniseed trail scent laid earlier in the day, and they are allowed, even expected to jump over walls). We wandered round a bit then headed about a quarter of the way up Kirk Fell to watch the fell race - a true Lake District toughy which we were not tempted by at just 2.5miles with a steep climb of 2500ft!

Sheep pens at the show and Kirk Fell

Herdwick Sheep with their red dye on for the show
Fell runners using hands to help them up the steep slope
Showground and Wasdale Head in the background
Our first day of work was to clear a beck up at Wasdale Head. Prior to that we returned to the showground to help dismantle the sheep pens - I think the farmer was most pleased to have an extra ten pairs of hands on board for that job. Me and Rachel also had a short unplanned lesson on dry stone walling as we made good a small section of wall knocked over by the fell runners. Finally we headed off to our planned work site. Pulling on wellies and gloves we set too...the day basically involved messing about in a river. It was however a much needed job, and very satisfying to see the water level drop, the beck flow quicker and the banks and walls look much tidier. The farmers fields on the far side of the wall we helped to protect will now be much less likely to flood once the autumn and winter wet weather sets in.

Beck prior to being cleared

Fallen down wall

Wall repaired and beck cleared of rubble/vegetation

Finished...water flowing much better
Day two: and our first day of hedge laying. The delights of blackthorn would become all too clear for me, with three or four impressive stab wounds on my arms and hands. Large splinters were still being pulled out five days later! We were working on a stretch of hedge at Ben Garth Farm, Nether Wasdale. After our initial tentative pruning we soon got the idea that we basically needed to massacre the hedge, leave just the main stem/trunk standing with a few short sections of side branches then cut/saw almost all the way through near the base and 'lay' the hedge. I'd never imagined how brutal laying a hedge would be, but the resulting hedge once it's sprouted and had a few years to produce new shoots (which will in turn be laid) will make a very secure and stock-escaping-proof hedge.

Hedge before any work done

During the work and starting to look very bare
Day three: returning to Ben Garth Farm we continued hedge laying and wished we'd brought t-shirts and shorts. It really was that hot and sunny. So far the weather had been favourable, with just a hint of moisture in the air one day and a touch of a breeze blowing. Finally the hedge was laid. After the obligatory photos of us wielding an axe we headed back to the bunkhouse.

The finished laid hedge

It should be a few years!

Day four: a day off. To be fair, the working hours were such that I didn't really need a day off from it, but it was good to have a day to go exploring in the hills. The only dark cloud on the horizon was actually a dark cloud. The forecast was for rain from 1pm, with winds increasing throughout the morning. Rachel and I agreed an early start would be good to avoid the potential horrendous weather that was heading our way. So, at 8.30am we set off for a long run up Whin Rigg and across to Illgill Fell. The views were stupendous. The wind was buffeting. Waterproof tops were donned at the top of the 600m climb just to protect us from the wind chill but it didn't dampen our spirits as we ran along the saddle (delighting in finding some boggy ground to make us feel at home), up Illgill then down to Wasdale Head.

Had the forecast been better there were so many places we wanted to head off to and explore. Dropping down to Wasdale Head we made a quick visit to the Church of St Olaf (one of Englands smallest churches) then the planned cup of tea at the pub was scuppered because it wasn't yet open. Early starts don't always pay off! Nothing for it but to run back to the bunkhouse and brew up there. In total we did about 18km with 800m ascent. Both of us felt good and virtuous for our early start when the rain started pouring and wind howled harder at 1.10pm. Dinner that evening was in The Strands Inn in Nether Wasdale so not wanting to miss out on the open fire (sadly a feature not present in the bunkhouse) we pulled on waterproofs and walked over the fields to get there early, passing time till the others arrives with books and chit chat.

Day five: the day I'd been looking forward to most, especially after the taster session on Sunday - dry stone walling. We were back at Wasdale Head and treated to glorious sunshine yet again.

Lingmell obscuring our view of Sca Fell

Chicken and Kirk Fell
The views around the various valleys leading off from the work site were distracting and enticing me to go off and explore. I resisted and focused on the task of repairing a wall on a winter sheep holding field. Most of the wall was in good order, but there were several low sections and a couple of obvious bits that had fallen or been pushed down by sheep that needed stripping back and rebuilding.

Wall to be repaired

Starting to strip the wall back

and back...

and rebuilding

nearly there

Finished. Two very proud ladies
One thing for sure, the stones in Wasdale aren't square. Nor do they have many flat surfaces. It's therefore a game of reverse 3D jenga to build walls, using non-facing stones to fill in the middle and prop up and balance the stones you see nicely lined up on the surface. Some of the walls around Wasdale are very thick - so much so that sheep can run along the top of them. The one we repaired and rebuilt wasn't too thick, but still required a double wall structure and filler in the middle.

the distracting view, Great Gable dominating the skyline

Another section to made good

and we're done

Looking much better

A robin watches over our work
All in all this was my favourite day. Rachel and I made a great team with one of us on either side of the wall. The larger section we totally rebuilt was so strong that Andrew the National Trust chap climbed over it and it remained standing. It was very nice to chat to the farmer afterwards and see his appreciation of our hard work. Now his "yows" (ewes to me and you) will be safe come tupping time. Gosh that chap had a strong accent!

Filled pot holes
Day six: and our final working day. No big jobs today, just a few hours spent packing in stone and filler into the potholes on the drive down to the bunkhouse. A very valuable job though, making the driveway much less dangerous and reducing the risk of parts of it being washed away in heavy rain. The best bit was watching Rachel using the motorised wheelbarrow. The rest of the day was spent visiting Hardknott Fort and Eskdale. As luck would have it the rain started on cue as we arrived at the fort - dry weather for work and rain for time off was the theme for the week.

Rachel with perfect handling of the motorised wheelbarrow
The week flew by, I learnt loads, got to meet some wonderful local Wasdale folk and contribute to the good work the National Trust volunteers and wardens do. I'll be back for another working holiday, and would recommend them to anyone who fancies learning new skills and helping out others.

Young Herdwick Sheep...they lose the dark colour as they get older

Hardknott Roman Fort

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