May: Fixing the fells

Rangers fixing footpaths on Helvellyn

Last week we donned our walking boots and all important waterproof jackets and spent the day with our upland ranger team helping to maintain one of the Lake District's most iconic peaks.

The National Trust looks after 25% of the Lake District, and has a busy ranger team keeping this land accessible and in good health for nature to flourish and for people to enjoy.  Here in the South Lakes we have a team of five particularly plucky upland rangers who spend their days fixing our fells.

Not much of a view!
Rangers fixing footpaths on Helvellyn
Not much of a view!

A partnership

The Lake District fells are internationally renowned, and people travel from all around the world to walk here.  Severe weather events, climate change and erosion of footpaths are severely damaging the upland environment. The Fix the Fells partnership includes Natural England, the National Trust, Friends of the Lake District, the Lake District National Park and the Lake District Foundation. Together they look after approximately 200 miles of paths on the fells, from Cat Bells to Scafell.

Digging up some turf for use in repairing the drains
Digging up turf to repair a drain on Helvellyn
Digging up some turf for use in repairing the drains

Slowing the flow

We joined the upland team and large group of Fix the Fells volunteers.  We were to complete a drain run on Helvellyn. I was pretty much in the dark about what a drain run would involve, and was only hoping it didn’t involve too much heavy lifting! We gathered on the Thirlmere side of Helvellyn to collect a spade each.  We climbed to the top of the path (in this case, the top of Helvellyn) and then cleared all the drains in the path on the way back down.  Next time you walk on an upland path, look out for the drains that have been built into the path, quite often every few meters. This slows down the erosion on the path, letting the water flow without causing the stone to run off.  I was shocked by some of the scars on the landscape that had been caused by severe weather events.  We found a cut in the path that was almost 2 metres deep, caused by water and rock flowing down the hill side.  Fixing something like this will be a big project for the team, and was not possible for us to fix on the day.

Sweeping the fells

There are over 100 volunteers who work with Fix the Fells, who are called “Lengthsmen”.  This term has been used since medieval times when lengthsmen repaired roads and unblocked drains.  The volunteers worked quickly and diligently, clearing stones and vegetation from the drains.  Each volunteer carried a little brush, and swept any loose stone off the path to reduce erosion and make it easier to walk on.   Many members of the public looked on in amazement as they watched the team sweep the Helvellyn path.  Last year 664 drain runs like this were carried out (in all weathers!)

Sweeping the path reduces erosion and makes it easier to walk on
Sweeping the steps on Helvellyn
Sweeping the path reduces erosion and makes it easier to walk on

Pitching in

We learnt that the path up Helvellyn is made using a technique called “pitching”. This is used on some of the most popular routes in the Lake District. It looks very natural and needs minimal maintenance.  The team source large, local stones and dig them in the ground to make small irregular steps.  The upland team fill large bags with rocks that are then collected by helicopter and delivered next to the area where the path is being built. A meter of path roughly costs £230, something to think about next time you are walking up a fell. A helicopter costs £1200 an hour and can move a single bag of rock at a time, moving between 9-35 bags in an hour, depending on how far from the work site they are.  Each bag will create a meter of pitching. The two projects our team are working on at the moment require 180 bags and 380 bags respectively!

Pitching footpaths on Helvellyn
Rangers carrying out footpath repairs on Helvellyn
Pitching footpaths on Helvellyn

Head to the Fix Fells website to find out more about the work the team do.