A walk on the wild side

Published: 23rd July 2019

Rich Rowe takes a walk with Glenridding Common ranger Isaac Johnston to learn more about the area’s wealth of natural and cultural history

Isaac at Glenridding - Terry Abraham

Isaac Johnston sets a brisk pace, but that should come as no surprise. Brimming with energy and enthusiasm, he is up and down this track most days, often with a stack of fence posts, tree tubes and other items strapped to his back. Having met at the Trust’s Helvellyn Basecamp office in Glenridding village, we are on route to the crags some 850m up on the north-facing slopes of Helvellyn. Our mission is to find a suitable ledge on which to plant out the pots of water avens that Isaac is carrying in his rucksack. It may seem a long way to go for a spot of upland gardening, but these are no ordinary plants. And this is no ordinary place.

Part of a regeneration project that has seen the Trust, together with local, green-fingered volunteers, propagate seeds collected last autumn, the water avens will help bolster a wider community of rare Arctic-alpine plants that are found almost nowhere else in England. On our way, Isaac has promised to reveal more about the common and the Trust’s work there to date, although I’m also interested to learn how – aged just 21 – he came to be part of a team managing 1,000 hectares of one of the best-loved areas of the Lake District.

A local lad from Windermere, Isaac’s fascination with the natural world started when he was very young. “I was always the one looking under rocks for bugs and toads,” he says. After school, he opted not to go to university, instead taking up a two-year apprenticeship with the Cumbria Wildlife Trust. It proved an excellent grounding, with his ideas, field knowledge and sheer drive contributing to his appointment as Glenridding Common ranger, working under the guidance of the Trust’s vastly experienced property manager, Pete Barron.

“Wildlife trusts don’t manage mountains, they manage nature reserves, so this has been a huge jump,” says Isaac. Not that he appears daunted. “My hobby is my job, and my job is my hobby,” he smiles. “I’m very lucky to be able to say that.”

Pete and Isaac

Industrial heritage

As we clatter up the stony track that leads past Helvellyn Youth Hostel, the old workings of Greenside lead mine come into view. Worked continuously for almost 150 years until its closure in 1962, the mine was one of the largest and most important of its kind. It’s only when we walk past what remains of the mining buildings that the true scale of it becomes apparent; above us, vast spoil tips spill out of shafts that extend several miles into the mountainside.

It’s a scene that seems at odds with the rugged, natural beauty of Helvellyn itself, but Isaac doesn’t see it that way. “It’s a big part of the story here, and was a major employer locally,” he says. “Glenridding largely exists because of the mine.”

As the path steepens, we pass more remnants of the area’s industrial past, from lines of stone water leats dug into the hillside to the old dam at Keppel Cove that burst in 1927 after a night of heavy rainfall, causing terrible damage to the village below. However, it’s the story of ecological renewal on the hill that is most compelling today. From the valley above Greenside, a wave of bird song carries from an expanse of juniper woodland where the Trust, helped by local volunteers, has planted aspen, rowan, silver birch and hundreds of willow pegs – literally sticks of willow that are stuck in the ground to take root.

“Trees are immensely important for slowing run off, storing water and consolidating the ground,” explains Isaac pointing to areas of slope failure above a nearby beck. As slopes fail, they deposit rock and sediment that then raises water levels, often to dangerous levels during heavy rainfall – a problem that residents of Glenridding are all too familiar with. Trees, of course, also provide excellent habitat, with the juniper now more alive than ever. As a recent Trust survey revealed, this expanse of woodland is home to stonechat, siskin, redpoll and skylark, while large numbers of ring ouzel also move through the low cover. “Come here early in the morning and it’s absolutely bouncing,” says Isaac.

Previously fenced off by the National Park Authority as part of an environmental stewardship scheme together with graziers, the juniper has recently been helped further by the graziers who have reduced stocking density by off-wintering sheep. “The whole site is responding really well to the change in management,” explains Isaac.

Pete Barron 35

Crag life

Continuing upwards, we pass the broad, rugged flanks of Catstye Cam where Natural England has been extremely busy replanting cuttings taken from downy willow. Another incredibly rare species, this low-branching dwarf tree only grows in three locations in England, two of which are right here on the common. The Trust has begun to play its part, working with volunteers in the valley on plant propagation to help the process along. Although still very much in its infancy, the project has already seen a good number of cuttings grown on – with the added benefit of helping connect local people with this special habitat.

Higher still, we pass an area of open ground where mountain ringlet – the UK’s only montane species of butterfly – feed during their brief summer flight window before we reach a remote spot fringed by crags in the upper reaches of the cove. Here, in this sheltered bowl, the ground flora looks very different. With outcrops of rock adding a base richness to the soils, there are clusters of lime-loving plants such as alpine lady’s mantle and the vivid green of parsley fern growing from under rocks.

As our eyes follow the flushes of lime, we see patches of purple saxifrage before we are drawn to a section of splintered crags where the ledges are alive with colour. The fleshy leaves and bright yellow flowers of rose root spill from the cracks, while elsewhere there is wood anemone, mossy saxifrage, plus the rich purple of violets and alpine sawort. It’s an extraordinary amount of life in what seems such an inhospitable place. Finding a suitable spot, Isaac moves carefully to a precarious ledge further along the crags and plants out the water avens in their new home – the latest additions to one of England’s most precious plant communities.

With that, we turn and begin our long walk back down to Glenridding through a landscape that is gradually being restored and rejuvenated for all to enjoy. “We’ve seen so many good things happen here in a short space of time,” says Isaac. “I’m excited for what the future will bring.”

Common Ground cover image July 2019

  • This article features in Common Ground (July 2019), which covers the latest on what's happening on the land we manage in the Lake District.
  • Read more about our work at Glenridding Common