The track up the valley is not for the faint-hearted—or if you have a fancy car. It’s a set of inclines which quickly hike in gradient, a loose gravelly surface riddled with potholes and larger rocks. As you progress steep, fern-cloaked limestone walls give way to steep drops with rushing waterfalls seething twenty feet below. Your tentative progress will be watched and judged by Herdwick sheep, unblinking and endlessly curious. Wheel-spin is inevitable. You will almost certainly have to slow to a crawl at some point for walkers.
Just at the point when the terrain starts to level, and a clear path comes into view, you realise the map is pointing you uphill again, to an even narrower and rockier track. ‘This can’t be right,’ you say. ‘We must have gone wrong.’ Visions of the car stuck in a ditch and the prospect of a night in the wilds dance through your head. But you find the nerve and the lowest gear you have, grip the steering wheel a little tighter and take the right.
More sheep. A tumble to the valley floor is barely two feet from the passenger-side door. The car shimmies around on creaking springs. The nerves kick in again, all logic dictating that you’re about to tip off the trail and end up roof-down in a sheep pen.
And then you come round one last inclined bend, and Coppermines Valley opens up before you and everything makes sense.
Welcome to Coniston, jewel of the Lake District. A little town curled snug as a snoozing cat around the bottom end of a five-mile straight shot of glass-clear glacial water. Famously, that water held the remains of the Bluebird, Donald Campbell’s record-breaking boat, which imploded after an engine failure sent it spiralling into a 300+mph impact with the surface of the lake. Campbell is buried in the local cemetery. Some parts of the Bluebird and other paraphernalia from his extraordinary run are on display at the town museum. A full-fledged reconstruction of Campbell’s last ride remains mired in legal wrangling.
On the eastern shore sits Brantwood, home to Victorian critic, thinker and artist John Ruskin. He was a champion of Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites at their most unfashionable. His thoughts on the value and dignity of labour still inform progressive theory on the way working men and women should be treated. He is surprisingly contemporary in his views, and bracingly opinionated.
Coniston is dominated by the bulk of The Old Man, 800m of towering rock which has provided a challenge to walkers for thousands of years. The hill and the lake make Coniston a popular choice for those of an active bent and an ideal base to explore the area. If the best you can manage is a wander round a museum, then fans of Beatrix Potter and Wordsworth are in for a good time.
But let’s head back up the unmarked track from the town (which hopefully hasn’t torn the undercarriage out of your car) and look at the other reason people came to Coniston—copper. The valley was—probably still is—a rich source of the ore. A wander around the slopes instantly reveals rock stained with rusty hues and the remains of mine workings. Great slope-sided cairns of slate, tunnels carved deep as dwarf-holds into the hillsides. The local council have tried to make more of a sense of the history of the place, reconstructing water mills and contextualising the workings with carefully placed signage.
That history thrums through the bones of the valley in a stone-slow heartbeat. Mines operated here from the 1500s to the 1950s, until cheap exports closed the operation down.
Ruskin would have been well aware of the conditions of the workers on the hills, of the women and children forced into eleven-hour days of backbreaking work in all conditions. I’m sure that informed his theories on labour and the plight of the working class. Especially when you realise the valley can be a hard place to get to, and live.
The landscape, luminous in summer weather, becomes harsh and unforgiving once the weather closes in. And the weather will close in. The Lake District has a reputation for the way the skies will darken and rain wash in with little warning. People die on the hillside every year, taken by surprise as a storm closes its jaws around them.
But there are rewards. Even in the foulest of conditions the valley has a raw beauty, wild, shaggy-haired and bright-eyed. The colours, muted in the rain, shining in the sunshine, are purer than any painting or photos can do justice to. More importantly, at least for TLC and I, the relative inaccessibility make the valley a perfect retreat for those times when we need to really get away. All the facilities are in Coniston. If you want food and drink, or wood for the fires, you have to bring them up the track. It’s very easy to leave the world behind.
In fact, it can feel like big life-changing events happen at a remove when you’re here, in the little line of ex-workers cottages locally known as Irish Row. We were in the valley for the announcement of the Brexit result. It was very tempting to simply stay put and let the world collapse into lunacy below us. Similarly the implosion of the new Tory government has, at a distance, felt less like tragedy than farce, the implications like witnessing a supernova. A terrible conflagration up close. From far enough away, just a pretty light show. Crank up the log burner. Crack open a bottle. Let the clown-show play out to a lunatic crescendo back in the world.
And with isolation comes inspiration. Up on Irish Row, the air and the light and the quiet life sink into your head, unkink your shoulders, un-knot your brow. Like Ruskin (because of course I shall compare myself to one of the greatest minds of the last two hundred years) Coniston and the Lakes have the potential to free your thoughts from care and let them fly. I cherish and guard the times spent in the cottage on the hill.
Some day I’ll just rent the place out for a month and write a novel up here in splendid isolation. You’ll have to drag me back down the track in chains.