I have always had a strange relationship with Black Combe. It was an ever-present part of my childhood. Its looming, aptly named presence was part of family life. You could literally see it from the front door. In winter, my sister and I would crane our necks to see how far down the snowline had crept – anything more than an inch from our vantage point might mean a snow day. Growing up so close to the sea this (literally) never happened but it was Black Combe that was our barometer of the seasons. Black it might be but when you know it well there are tens of shades. Not just the striking Christmas pud effect of snow in winter but the hints of lilac shadow that emerge from the charcoal dips in summer, the hard darkness that stands in such contrast to the first blue days of spring and the disorientating days of Autumn where the hill wears a constant cap of steel grey. ‘Combe’s got his hat on’ was the familiar refrain in our house for years.
Yet until recently I had not climbed this hill in living memory.
Despite its reassuring outline never disappearing, its shoulders sloping away to the sea and the neighbouring White Combe as if in touching distance, in reality I grew up on the Furness Peninsula and Black Combe was the sentry to West Cumbria proper across the tides and shifting sands of the Duddon Estuary. It was so much easier to make the Lake District our playground and if we wanted the sea then we were surrounded by the innumerable, endless stretches of perfect beach and sand dune. Years later, post university and a spell living in the city, I returned to live in Cumbria, yet Black Combe has not the fame of a Scafell nor does it earn you a Wainwright tick (unless you are doing the full set including outliers).
I confess to being inordinately excited when I got an unexpected call from my ‘playing out’ buddy.
‘Conditions for sunset and sunrise photos look perfect – fancy a Black Combe bivvy?’
It was after 5pm when we parked in a layby near Silecroft, shouldered wonderfully light packs and mused if we needed sun cream. Up close Black Combe looks far more imposing than its reputation and my childhood remembered. I hadn’t been very well and I was worried I might have been over-ambitious, even with such a small hill. In the event it was a leisurely stroll up a moderate slope. Ange took picture after picture of the remarkable vista as it opened up. The sun forced its way between the criss cross of waves until a swathe of light danced in a single snaking flash across the bay between us and the forest of the Walney Array windfarm as it spread inexorably across the horizon. I have had mixed feelings about that windfarm for years. I watched it grow from an idea into the dominant presence in Morecambe Bay. As a woolly, liberal, leftie I am all for sustainable power and I can attest that Walney Channel is impressively breezy even on the most still of days. However, I have also watched my home town slowly die (aware that people like me who move away are part of the problem) and I still feel a little resentful that the windfarm robbed Barrow of a real jewel in its crown when the windfarm stopped the uninterrupted view of the sun slipping behind the western horizon and that the project created no employment for a town desperate for jobs. At any one time there are rarely more than a few of the turbines spinning (ironically it turns out that it is often too windy to have them running) and any maintenance that is taking place is being carried out by Danish or Norwegian firms. It doesn’t seem entirely fair on a town and population that had no say in becoming the ‘energy coast.’
I strongly recommend that you take a stroll up Black Combe. That evening, even in the dazzling approach of dusk, Scotland lay across the Solway, a patchwork of purple hills and flashes of green forestry land and the Isle of Man nestled in the Irish Sea, beyond the windfarm, Snaefell distinct and inviting. I told Ange about the often repeated mantra of meteorological optimism Barrovians use: If you can see the Isle of Man, it’s going to rain, if you can’t, it’s already raining. There was no threat of inclemency that evening though the sky was broad and clear of cloud, the late sun still held significant warmth despite the fact it was only early May. Behind us the curve and swell of Morecambe Bay – the fascinating industrial grid of Barrow-in-Furness opening into farmland and various hidden villages and hamlets until the more obvious landmarks settled into their proper places – Arnside Knott, the squat cubes at Heysham, the majestic (even at distance) sweep of Morecambe prom to Kents Bank and Silverdale. It was cinematic in its vast beauty, accompanied by a chorus of wheatears and skylarks. Unbidden the line from Flanders Fields – ‘above the larks still bravely singing fly’ – pushed its way into my consciousness and I was suddenly awash with tears; the beauty, a sense of place and gratitude for the fact that I led a life where I could so easily enjoy and engage with this landscape flooded over me.
I’m not sure Ange noticed; if she did she maintained a respectful silence. By the time we rounded the bend that climbs to the trig I was again in control of my emotions and it was a good job given the view that the summit affords. The fells of the western Lake District chased each other to the coast, their tops still bathed in a warm light, below in the bottle green valley the dark snake of the Duddon glinted here and there, for all the world as if silver scales were reflecting the fading sunlight.
We ran about for a little while, like children, taking pictures, pointing gleefully at the mountains we recognised and had climbed, describing the surprisingly steep gullies and ridges of the eastern flank in fairy-tale terms – dragon’s back, fairy glen and forbidding. There was not another living soul in sight – no people, no sheep and whilst the birds were still in fine voice they were buried amongst the heather and scrub.
I busied myself making a brew whilst Ange scurried around the summit like a wheatear, taking pictures and examining angles as the sun began to race towards its rest behind the inky black of the horizon. It was a grainy monochrome dusk as we ate our very simple rations (vegetable chipotle and a handful of haribo since you ask) and watched the pinpricks of light emerge around the bay. The effect was spectacular. Scotland, Isle of Man, Sellafield, Lakeland farms, the uniform rows of orange streetlamps in Barrow, Heysham, the Ribble, north Wales and the endless spread of reds and greens that was obviously the windfarms but that looked and felt quite magical in the gloaming. We spent a happy couple of hours identifying specific places – Blackpool Tower, obvious and impressively reflected in the water, the winking lights of Douglas, the circus at Sandy Gap brighter than all else. We talked about belonging. About how other’s sense of your history can skew your own perceptions. I have spent as long living away from Barrow as I did living there. I have spent that second lifetime listening to a litany of jokes, some amusing, some plain offensive, about my background. I have been openly laughed at for claiming that Barrow is beautiful. But it is. I suspect those people who tell me that coming from the biggest cul-de-sac in the world isn’t something to be proud of haven’t been. The ‘cul-de-sac’ is made up of a plethora of stunning beaches – the golden beaches at Sandscale with their natural playground of dunes are unparalleled in England, swimming from Biggar is lovely, the nature reserves of rare natterjacks and sunbathing seals are almost unique and at the very tip lies the ‘kingdom’ of Piel with its ruined castle of local sandstone. Add to that one of the most talented engineering workforces in the entire world and a shipbuilding tradition that has shaped British history and I’ll fight to my last breath to say I am a proud Barrovian. Go, you might be very surprised.
Remarkably for May bank holiday it was still light as we crawled inside our bivvy bags, behind the wall that acts as a odd defence for the tall white trig of Black Combe. We talked for a while and watched as the stars came out one by one in a light show theme parks would make you pay to see. Eventually we fell silent and as I drifted off with a great grin on my face I noticed the milky way, its creamy swathe – exactly like milk curling through water – spreading across the now ebony sky.
I was woken by Ange’s metatarsal making firm but careful contact with my kidneys.
‘Get up – it’s amazing.’
And it was.
I sat up. It was just before 6am. The Lake District was a forbidding black outline, the far eastern horizon was a baby pink, a line of warm orange tracing the line of hills as if drawn by a careful artist. Then the pink reached higher into the pale grey above, the orange line grew and faded to yellow to be replaced with a firmer, bolder orange. And then, in a moment that both raced and hung suspended the first perfect halo of sun. The horizon was aflame. A light pink hue flowed along the tops of the fells and across the bay below the huge industrial submarine sheds of Devonshire Dock Hall glowed the kind of colour that my three year old niece would choose for her best party dress. It took a matter of minutes for the entire eastern sky to be on fire and the great, perfect circle of sun was now blurred at the edges by its own light and it wasn’t safe to sit and gaze and longer. Ange was once again flitting and darting around the hillsides, camera aloft. I slithered from my sleeping bag, made a brew and climbed atop the trig point, by shifting myself around from side to side I enjoyed some of the most remarkable views I have had from a Cumbrian hill.
Though she be but little, she is fierce.