Last men standing

Low cloud shrouds a snowy Blencathra, reflected in a still Derwent Water.

The first dull thud of a bar hitting frozen ground and making a hole the size of a small full stop is never something to savour if you’re trying to build a metre of drain in a day. It is a sound I have now become very much accustomed to.

It’s December 2017 and we are the last upland team in the Lakes continuing with stonework on the fells. The other upland path teams across the Lake District are sensibly down in the relative ‘warmth’ of the valleys with all the other equally sensible warm blooded or homeothermic birds and mammals that dwell here.

We're still here because Cat Bells was so busy, we couldn't get all the work done before the winter arrived.

This place that was in summertime a hive of busy activity feels so quiet, so quiet that if you listen carefully you can hear the panoptic sound of the billions of tiny crystals of slowly thawing frost that cover the winter landscape. This silence is broken only by the sound of a distant clinking bar on bedrock or the expectant chirrup of the visiting robin, who’s befriended me in his search for worms.

Time to get all James Bond

We’re working our way along the terrace path which wends its way below Maiden Moor and Cat Bells, this much loved path is used by a wealth of visitors and locals alike; and because of the nature of its location and construction allows access to all abilities.

The existing drains here took a bit of a battering at the hands of Storm Desmond back in 2015, with one sections of the path swept away in a landslide (watch a video about the flood repairs here). As part of our prevention work here we’re installing a new series of drains along the path to make the path more resilient to the increasingly intense rainfall we're seeing each winter.

It feels like a long time ago that we were walking the length of the path identifying the best sites for our new drains. This is best done on a wet day as it allows you to see exactly where the water is going. The stone we used to build these drains was then flown in, in dramatic James Bond style underneath a helicopter, always a treat to witness.

Path materials are flown in by helicopter
Helicopter at Cat Bells above Derwent Water, Keswick

We don't have headlice, we're just confused


The drains themselves were a bit of a headscratcher at first. Initially we cut out several wooden formers which defined the basic shape of the drain (basically a half buried sleeping policeman). To get the 40 degree angle required for water to drain we had to dig a hole of grave-sized proportions. Once we began to get the grasp of the techniques and angles that these structures would require the wooden former became slightly redundant (it did however continue to act as a great windbreak and grouting board so all was not lost).

A lot of digging for 40 degrees, I'm just glad it wasn't 90
A metal bar and a spade stand half buried by a large hole dug into the path

The drains are built in much the same way that we would build a path, pitching uphill from the back to the front of the drain, digging-in layers (courses) of stones one in front of the other. The tricky part of this structure is to get the lip that the water will hit at the right height; too steep and you run the risk of making it inaccessible to wheelchair users, too low and water will just run straight over the top.

Here's a half finished drain before we buried our hard work
Half completed stone structure resembling a sleeping policeman sits across path with Rosthwaite fell in the background

Heads sufficiently scratched we’re now putting the finishing touches to the last drain along the path. We’ll return on a wet day (there are plenty of those) in the coming months to check on the completed drains and to see whether we need to build more along the route.