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The Lake District: Sca Fell via Lord's Rake

Following on from our successful ascent of Helvellyn via Striding Edge late last year, Alex and I decided to make the most of our time in the Lake District and go up another mountain. After some discussion which involved checking the list of Wainwright Fells and buying another Ordnance Survey map, we decided on Sca Fell – England’s second-highest mountain. This would involve a considerably longer morning drive from Ambleside before we could start walking, for our chosen setting-off point for this mountain would be Wasdale which is on the western side of Lakeland (Ambleside is reasonably central, which makes it a good base for exploring the Lake District; the problem is that the OS’s 1:25,000 Explorer series, which is better for walking than the 1:50,000 Landranger series, has four maps that cover the area).

Another early start, but our journey took longer than expected. After the fun of driving along the Kirkstone pass the previous day, Alex (for we went in his car!) now had two other passes, Wrynose and Hardknott, to look forward to. Alas, the former was closed due to ice on the road so we had to divert to the south, actually leaving the Lake District National Park in order to get to Wasdale via the outskirts of Broughton-in-Furness. Our journey ended with a drive along the shores of Wast Water, not a lake either of us had visited before but which, we learned via the Internet, is the deepest lake in England.

Not long after nine, we parked up at the National Trust’s Wasdale car park and enjoyed a breakfast of tea and bacon rolls from the food van. While chatting with one of the volunteers (who didn’t charge us for parking after I’d claimed – truthfully as it happens – to be an NT member who didn’t have his card with him), we learned that a few days previously, a group of students had had to be rescued after one of their number had tried to go up Scafell Pike naked. Now, I’ve heard of people doing some crazy stuff in the mountains – extreme ironing springs to mind – but this one really took the biscuit, especially given the time of year. Suitably clad, we set off.

Before we go any further, though, a couple of points of order…

Firstly, is it Sca Fell or Scafell? Usage varies, with the Ordnance Survey going for the former and some guidebooks, most notably Wainwright, preferring the latter. My use of the former is purely a matter of personal preference.

Second, why is it that of the peaks in the Scafell range, the highest one is called Scafell Pike (implying that it’s not the highest)? Wainwright explains…

“When men first named the mountains, the whole of the high mass south of Sty Head was known as Scaw Fell; later, as the work of the dalesfolk took them more and more onto the heights and closer identification became necessary, they applied the name to the mountain that seemed to them the greatest, the other summits in the range … being referred to collectively as the Pikes of Scaw Fell.”

So it was a case of mistaken identity – the tallest peak did not appear so. It’s actually true that from some vantage-points, Sca Fell does look like it’s a bit taller than it near neighbour Scafell Pike which is England’s tallest mountain. For the record, Sca Fell is 3,162ft/964m and Scafell Pike is 3,210ft/978m (I’m using Wainwright for the imperial measurements and the OS for metric).

(We’d hiked up Scafell Pike, years ago, which was another reason for choosing to do Sca Fell this time as it would be a new one for us; if memory serves, the ascent of Scafell Pike had been done in the summer and involved walking up from Great Langdale and camping overnight somewhere in the hills. Clearly this has not resonated with us as much as the youthful lunacy that was the winter overnight camp for Helvellyn.)

The climb was gentle at first but got gradually steeper. Our well-maintained path (the National Trust at work!) followed the Lingmell Gill, one of the streams that flows down into Wast Water. This splits into two paths, one of which goes up to Sty Head and the other to Mickledore, both high passes from which the summit of Scafell Pike can be reached. For Sca Fell we wanted the Mickledore option, but we would be turning off before we got that high.

Our turn-off, which did not look at all inviting, was a scree-slope from which we would be able to access Lord’s Rake, a steep gully which passes under the summit plateau (which cannot be ascended directly without proper climbing equipment). Now I am no fan of scree at the best of times and I did struggle to get as far as the entrance to Lord’s Rake, and once I got that far I was wondering whether this was really such a good idea.

During a short break to allow for the consumption of some cofftea and a Mars bar, I took stock of what we were about to do. The gully was full of loose rock, and amid a few discarded pieces of kit the animal skeleton close to the entrance did not bode well (dog or fox, probably, although quite what a fox would be doing at that height is anyone’s guess).

But onwards and upwards! In such cases I am more than happy to bring up the rear of any party, the result being that Alex was able to get some pretty good pictures of yours truly scrambling on hands and knees, apprehensive about whether the next bit of rock I got hold of would be too loose to support me.

It ended at a narrow gap between two rocky outcrops – or so we’d thought, for after that the route (I struggle to dignify it with the word ‘path’) descended and then ascended to another, equally narrow, gap. My descent was not pretty but I take heart from Wainwright (who I read afterwards), who states that “where boots cannot gain a purchase on the sliding stones and polished rocks, other methods of locomotion may be adopted, especially when descending. It is no disgrace even for stalwart men to come down here on their bottoms”.

Lord’s Rake – you may not be surprised to learn that we came up with some very rude alternative names for it – is meant to go up, down, up again, down again and then up one more time before you make it out onto the open fell. I’m not exactly sure what we did, for after dropping down from the second peak we ended up doing a steep climb up an icy gully to get out onto the plateau. Wainwright (again) says of Lord’s Rake that “one’s fellwalking education is not complete until its peculiar delights and horrors have been experienced”, so at the very least I can consider myself educated as a result of this experience.

It was with relief that I staggered – on two feet, now – up onto the plateau. The summit cairn was easy enough to locate, and unlike Helvellyn the day before we had the place to ourselves. 

Celebrating with cofftea and a swig from the hip-flask, I could see across to the slightly higher and much more crowded summit of Scafell Pike – clearly more walkers prefer the glory that goes with standing at England’s highest point to the relative solitude of the second-highest! Looking east, we could see the sea and the Isle of Man. To the east, Bow Fell and Crinkle Crags (the Lake District’s sixth and seventeenth-highest peaks, going by Wainwright) stood out. Helvellyn, which is to the north-east, can’t be seen from Sca Fell because the summit of Scafell Pike is in the way.

What next? Alas, a ridge walk over to Scafell Pike was out of the question, for the Sca Fell plateau ends with Broad Stand, a very steep rocky wall which means that accessing the Mickledore pass (from which there’s a route up to Scafell Pike) is much easier said than done. Descent – considerable descent – is involved before you can walk up to Mickledore. From the plateau, we took the path down to Foxes Tarn (more of a pond than anything else) and then down another gully to get us to the path that goes up to Mickledore. At some point there, we had our lunch with a very nice view to the south-east.

We continued up a combination of grass and scree (albeit not as bad as the scree that took us up to Lord’s Rake) and eventually reached Mickledore. This pass, some 2,755ft/840m up, stands directly below Broad Strand, that steep cliff and theoretical direct route between the two highest mountains in the country which has been described as ‘extremely dangerous’ by no less an authority than the Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team (Wainwright never attempted it, stating that his disappointment at not doing so was “amply compensated by the pleasure of going on living”). From Mickledore, we had a good view across to Lord’s Rake – had we really done that?

Descending back down to Wasdale involved plenty more scree but thankfully it wasn’t long before we were back on more solid ground for a downward walk with views over Wast Water in the fading light. Back at the car park, we decided that a quick visit to the nearby Wasdale Head Inn (a well-known hang-out for climbers and fellwalkers) would be in order before our return to Ambleside.


The Lake District: Helvellyn via Striding Edge

To the Lake District, for a couple of days of walking with Alex on a cold but dry weekend late last year. It had been a while since I went up to Lakeland – I used to go there quite a few times when I was in the Ventures, and this time there was a sense of unfinished business. We used to do a lot of hiking, or fellwalking if you prefer – Great Langdale was a favourite, as I recall – but I always felt, looking back, that we’d missed something.

Helvellyn is the third-highest mountain in the Lake District, which also makes it the third-highest mountain in England. Located on a ridge between Thirlmere and Ullswater, there are various routes up it and we did a couple, but we never did what is regarded as the classic way up. I’m talking about Striding Edge. 

If you approach Helvellyn from the east (ie. if you hike up from Ullswater), there are two ridges that lead onto the summit – Swirral Edge to the north and Striding Edge to the south. The latter is an increasingly narrow ridge which involves much scrambling before the final ascent; a favourite among walkers who fancy a challenge, but it can get very dangerous when the weather turns on you.

(The dangers of walking at altitude in the Lake District are nothing new, by the way. There have been a number of fatalities in the vicinity of Helvellyn, the earliest known one being Charles Gough, an otherwise obscure artist who fell off Striding Edge in April 1805; his body was found three months later with his dog, Foxie – his only companion on his final walk – watching over him. A Lakeland version of Greyfriars Bobby, perhaps, although many accounts of Gough’s demise – which inspired poetry by Scott and Wordsworth, no less – omitted contemporary speculation that Foxie had survived by eating her master’s remains.)

Alfred Wainwright, that legendary fellwalker who casts a long shadow over the area thanks to his seven-volume Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells which remains the standard work of reference for walking in the Lake District despite having been written decades ago, described the ascent of Helvellyn via Striding Edge as “a classic ascent recorded and underlined in the diaries of all fellwalkers”. It was Wainwright who gave his name to the Wainwright Fells, a list of 214 peaks which are the ones he described in the afore-mentioned series of books. Climbing all of them is the aim of many a fellwalker who loves walking the Lake District, just like those who like to ‘bag’ the Munros up in Scotland. We managed a few Wainwrights back in the day (Helm Crag, Scafell Pike, the Old Man of Coniston, various of the Langdale Pikes, etc), although no-one was keeping score.

The closest we got to Striding Edge was a morning ascent of Helvellyn via Swirral Edge which, looking back, was ridiculous to the point of being downright dangerous. Alex, myself and a couple of friends thought it would be fun to walk up to Red Tarn, the small lake located underneath Helvellyn on its eastern flank, camp overnight and ascend Helvellyn itself in the morning. This was undertaken during the week between Christmas and New Year (a favourite time of ours for going up to the Lakes, what with there being no sixth-form or university commitments).

It was as mad as it sounds. Camping overnight at an altitude of over 2,000 feet in December was an ordeal in itself (it turned out that my supposedly four-season sleeping-bag had its limits) and in the morning, after a quick breakfast of tea and Ready Brek (we’d taken a petrol-stove with us) we packed up our kit and went for Swirral Edge. We chose that one purely because we were carrying full kit (the plan was to end up on the Thirlmere side) and Striding Edge would have involved some significant doubling-back on ourselves.

I’ve never been exactly sure what happened next but instead of the expected path, we ended up scrambling up a steep scree-slope before having to do some actual climbing (and no, we did not have a rope with us). At one point I was struggling to get a hand-hold and the only thing I could firmly grasp was a ledge which Matt, who was above me, was using as a foot-hold. If he’d shuffled a couple of inches over to his left, the result wouldn’t have been pretty. When I reminded him of this a while ago, he referred to it as ‘that time we nearly died’. He wasn’t joking … much.

A couple of years later, Alex and I were back, this time on a day-walk up from Ullswater, and once again we declined Striding Edge, mainly because we wanted to see where we’d gone wrong; after making it to Red Tarn we followed a fairly straightforward path up Swirral Edge; the only scrambling was to get to the summit plateau itself. Obviously, we’d missed the path in a big way.

So we never did do Striding Edge. Over the years, it occasionally rankled – there was a sense that, although we had stood on the summit of Helvellyn on several occasions, we’d not done it justice. We did plan to do it a couple of years ago, before my fortieth birthday, but in the event we ended up heading back to the Lakes late last year, shortly after I’d turned forty-one.

After a night in an Ambleside B&B (itself followed by a pint or three in the Golden Rule, our new favourite Lake District pub), we set off early (before the designated breakfast time, although the B&B-owner had kindly left the cereal out for us). One morning drive via the Kirkstone Pass later, we were parked up at Glenridding (one of two villages from which you can hike up to Striding Edge, Patterdale being the other) and on the path before 8am.

Some things had not changed; as we were sorting out our kit – sandwiches, waterproof jackets, a flask of tea, binoculars, Ordnance Survey map and the like – a couple in the car next to us were equipping themselves with much less kit than us, their clear intention being fellrunning. That’s never been our speed; as they were talking about making sure they had one of those water-bottles that’s got a rubber tube so you can have a drink without breaking your stride, Alex and I were asking each other whether we’d remembered the hip-flask, and who had the knife to slice up the block of Christmas cake we had with us!

Ullswater was covered in mist as we climbed out of the valley. It was cold, but it was a clear day, and other than the mist the views were wonderful. I’d been worried about the weather but, to be honest, we couldn’t have picked a better day for a hike if we’d tried. With a couple of stops on the way, made good time getting up to Birkhouse Moor, following which the path levels out and we were rewarded with a view of the Helvellyn summit in front of us, flanked by the two ridges and with the often-overlooked Catstye Cam to the right (“If Catstycam stood alone, remote from its fellows, it would be one of the finest peaks in Lakeland” – Wainwright again). 

We stopped for a break at the Hole-in-the-Wall, a gap in the drystone wall which marks the start of Striding Edge (from there, a separate path runs down to Red Tarn, this being the path we’d taken that time we camped out overnight). The Christmas cake, good walking food that, was duly sliced up and washed down with the tea from the flask. I’d made it black, as I know from experience that the metal makes the milk taste funny, although as the flask in question has been used for coffee many times it gave the tea a certain taste – from there on, we took to calling it ‘cofftea’.

Striding Edge, which is just under a mile long, starts off quite pleasantly with a well-marked path to the right of the ridge itself. This gradually changes as the ridge sharpens, with the path sometimes switching to the left of the high point and sometimes leaving the walker with no option but to walk (or scramble) along the frost-coated top, with views of the Helevllyn summit ahead. We were most certainly not alone, for there were people who’d come up from Patterdale as well as Glenridding (the two paths meet at the Hole-in-the-Wall); such is the allure of Striding Edge that when the weather’s nice (which it was), it is very popular.

For me, the hardest part was at the end of the ridge where you have to descend – awkwardly – before scrambling up a rocky path that leads onto the summit itself. Part-way up, there was a great view to be had of the now-completed ridge itself, and as we approached the summit we stopped briefly at the memorial to poor old Charles Gough (who was just 21 when he died).

The summit itself – the shelter and the cairn which marks the highest point (3,118 feet, or 950 metres) – was busy. As well as our fellow-walkers who’d come up Striding Edge, there were a couple of groups of students and even a few mountain-bikers who’d come up from the (considerably less arduous) Thirlmere side. Having admired the view, we had our lunch at the shelter and Alex took the cyclists’ group photo for them by the trig-point. The hip-flask came out for a celebratory swig, as it always had done years ago (the one thing that’s changed there is that we used to put blended Scotch in it, and now it’s single malt).

Getting down via Swirral Edge was something of a scramble, albeit nothing like the upward one we had done years ago. Looking down from the path, we could see the steep scree-slope that we’d ascended before, including a near-vertical climb to get to the path! What had we been thinking? Down by Red Tarn, we tried and failed to work out exactly where we’d camped before heading back to the car at Glenridding.

Back in the comfort of an Ambleside pub that evening, we plotted our next move. We’d allowed for two days in the Lakes, in case the first day wasn’t good weather-wise, but it had been a fine day and there was another one forecast. What to do next? How about another Wainwright Fell, preferably another of the higher ones, elsewhere in the Lake District? I bought an aerial map that marks the Wainwrights in height order (Helvellyn being number three). It turned out that we’d actually ‘bagged’ more Wainwrights than we had thought, for although by dropping down from Swirral Edge to Red Tarn we had not ascended Catstye Cam (number ten), we had unknowingly included number 78 on the way up, for Wainwright had included Birkstone Moor, that plateau before Striding Edge, as a fell in its own right!

Anyway, after some discussion we decided that the following day we would head west and attempt Sca Fell; having done England’s third-highest mountain, we figured that we might as well top that by going for the second-highest. But that’s another story… 


The coronavirus diary, or continuing to read...

What with being on furlough, I have been continuing to get through the unread novels on my bookshelf…

I was rather looking forward to The Shadow of Doctor Syn. This was the last of Russell Thorndike’s  adventures about the Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn, that fascinating fictional character who is a vicar by day, a smuggler leader by night and a former pirate captain; sadly they have long been out of print (my version is a paperback from the Sixties that originally sold for two-and-six). Although it’s the last published Doctor Syn novel, the action takes place shortly before the events of the original novel, Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh (all of the follow-up ones were prequels). It’s the time of the French Revolution, and the talk in fashionable London is of two things – the Terror in France and the continuing exploits of the Scarecrow, that smuggler extraordinary who is still able to bring bootleg brandy over the Channel and whose reward has gone up to £1,000 (the reader is, of course, aware from the start that this the Scarecrow is Doctor Syn’s alter ego). Captain Foulkes, a bully of a man who cheats at cards but gets away with it because his opponents are afraid to challenge him to a duel, makes a bet that he can bring the Scarecrow to justice; when he makes his way down to Romney Marsh, he’s in the same horse-drawn coach as a certain vicar…

What follows is all rather fun, up to a point. There’s the usual hapless troop of dragoons down on the marsh trying and failing to beat the smugglers. Jimmy Bone, the highwayman who’s in league with the smugglers, is at one point obliged to don the Scarecrow costume so that smuggler leader and vicar can be seen together. Doctor Syn goes across to France and, as L’Épouvantail – the Scarecrow’s French alias – he gets the better of Robespierre himself (as The Scarlet Pimpernel was an inspiration for Doctor Syn, I presume Thorndike had been toying with this one for a while). Lord Cullingford, a young nobleman impoverished by Captain Foulkes to the point where he goes to Romney Marsh to try and capture the Scarecrow himself (and thus claim the reward money), is talked out of this course of action by Doctor Syn and ends up joining the dragoons before they get posted abroad.

And yet. This is one of the later books and it shows, for Thorndike is not just going through the motions but actually repeating himself. The officer in charge of the dragoons is Major Faunce, a name that has been encountered before although this one is actually the brother of the original. Captain Foulkes’s nickname, ‘Bully’, has been used before (it was applied to a character in an earlier novel whose fate was, as it happens, the same as this one’s). Finally, a major plotline of The Shadow of Doctor Syn is the story of the squire’s youngest daughter Cicely, who falls in love with the vicar while becoming fascinated with the Scarecrow, a repeat of what happened to another daughter of the same squire in an earlier adventure, Doctor Syn Returns. Much though I like the Doctor Syn books, the fact that Thorndike ended up re-hashing old plots means that this was ultimately not as enjoyable as I’d hoped.

Following that, I tackled an archaeological thriller from the Seventies which has (also) long been out of print but which I was able to find going cheap (on the £1 stand outside my local second-hand bookshop; back in 1976, it went for £3.75 brand new). The Pontius Pilate Papers is a novel by Warren Kiefer, an American film director who also wrote a few novels but who is rather obscure given that he often used an alias. The main character (and narrator) is Jay Marcus, a somewhat unlikable millionaire playboy who trained as a doctor but is content to spend his time (and money) indulging in his passion for archaeology. He’s endowed a museum in Jerusalem and the adventure starts when an archaeologist who works for that museum gets murdered; the dead man had previously discovered some Roman papyrus scrolls while excavating a site at Caesarea and had been rather secretive about the content of these, which shed new light on the actions of a Roman official stationed in Jerusalem during the first century AD. There are no prizes for guessing who – the clue’s in the title – but this new evidence will inevitably call in to question the Biblical account of the events leading up to the Crucifixion. The scrolls have of course been stolen, and by the end of the third chapter our hero has managed to get lucky with Nicoletta, the dead archaeologist’s beautiful Italian assistant. Everyone else – the museum director, another benefactor who appears to be just as rich as Jay and a seemingly shifty museum employee – is a suspect.

The action of The Pontius Pilate Papers flits from Israel to Paris, Vienna, London and Oxford, during which Jay and Nicoletta have to contend with an array of (mostly) two-dimensional characters. There are cops from several countries who aren’t sure what’s going on (not helped by Jay and his uncle Aaron choosing not to keep them fully in the picture), bitchy academics, bitchy academics’ wives who like to start drinking early, a somewhat ridiculous antiquarian book-dealer and private detectives who are either reckless, incompetent or who moonlight as international film stuntmen and provide Jay with an extra woman when he has to spend the night away from Nicoletta. One of the British cops was called Sergeant Battle, which I presume to be a nod to Agatha Christie who had a recurring police character in some of her books called Superintendent Battle.

I had originally bought the book because I like thrillers which revolve around a potentially very dangerous secret – and, given when this one was published, it would be not so much sub-Da Vinci Code as pre-Da Vinci Code. But it never quite takes off. Jay, the protagonist, is both unsympathetic and unconvincing. There are a few sequences that rather jar, being either implausible or long-winded. There are also parts – descriptive sequences as well as character descriptions – that have not aged well at all. By the time the villain of the piece was revealed I no longer cared (although the fact that I had guessed, and guessed correctly, at said villain’s identity before I was half-way through may have had something to do with this). Finally, the wrapping-up of the plot was spoilt a bit by a final twist on the last page. Here, I think, is one to forget.

There followed much better fare courtesy of Agatha Christie. Sparkling Cyanide is an enjoyable murder mystery which centred around the murder of an upper-class heiress by way of cyanide administered in a glass of champagne at a dinner party (hence the title). This method of murdering someone, by the way, is identical to the murder in the Nero Wolfe mystery Champagne for One, although a quick bit of research told me that Sparkling Cyanide was first published in 1945 and Champagne for One in 1958. Thus, Rex Stout was copying Agatha Christie, not the other way round. 

Everyone initially assumes it was suicide, the victim having been depressed for some time prior to her death. However, a few months later her husband starts to receive anonymous letters hinting that it was murder. He therefore decides to repeat the dinner party with the same guests at the same place on the anniversary of his wife’s death, only to meet the same end as his wife. It falls to Colonel Race (a military intelligence officer who’d previously assisted Hercule Poirot in Death on the Nile) and the original victim’s sister’s boyfriend to work out what’s been going on and try to prevent a third murder. A good read, in which all of the supporting characters are well fleshed out, each of them with a convincing reason for wanting the original victim dead. Recommended.


A Tuscan tower

While in lockdown my thoughts turned to travel. Being unable to go anywhere other than my immediate neighbourhood when doing my permitted daily exercise or running errands for people who can’t get out of their homes, I found myself looking at photos from old trips. I never did get around to writing about trips abroad over the last couple of years, which is not good for someone who once aspired to be a travel writer! Now seems as good a time as any to remedy that.

In late April of last year, we went to Montepulciano – a lovely old hilltop town in southern Tuscany. The house we rented out was actually in the old town itself, located in the narrow streets that are a short walk downhill from the central piazza

There were some lovely wine bars within very easy walking distance from our front door which was a great way to try the local wines, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Rosso di Montepulciano – the main difference being that the former must be aged in a barrel for three years while the latter only has to be aged for one year (rather like the difference between Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino). On warm days, these wine bars are very useful as they often make use of the cellars where the temperature is much cooler, as if we needed an excuse for visiting them! 

Neither of the Montepulciano wines, of course, are to be confused with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a wine with which I am very familiar thanks to it having been included in the ‘two bottles for a fiver’ deal that used to be a major reason for shopping in the small grocery that Allison and I used to live above.

The high point of Montepulciano – the wine aside – is Piazza Grande, the central square/piazza on which are to be found the cathedral and the town hall. The cathedral – the duomo – is striking for its unfinished façade which makes it look very different from most Italian churches and cathedrals (inside, the must-see thing that the guidebooks all mention is an ornate triptych behind the altar, although when I had a look inside there was merely a screen showing what I presume to be a representation of said ornate triptych which was presumably covering up some restoration work).

Both the cathedral and the town hall have bell towers, and this interested me a lot because I am always interested in the prospect of climbing towers. The cathedral’s bell tower, alas, is not open to the public. However, you can walk up the tower of the nearby Palazzo Communale, the medieval town hall which still performs its original function! It looked slightly familiar, which I found odd given that I’d never been to Montepulciano before, but then I realised that that’s because it looks like the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

For five euros I jumped at the chance. Funnily enough, none of my travelling-companions – Allison, my parents and my mother-in-law – fancied coming along too. My guidebook (Lonely Planet’s Florence & Tuscany) stated that there were “67 narrow stairs” following which I could enjoy “extraordinary views” of the town and the surrounding countryside.

What the guidebook hadn’t mentioned was that in order to get to the narrow stairs I had to go through the council offices – up the main staircase and through what looked like the civic archives! Quite what the people who work for the council make of this I do not know (the way to the tower clearly goes right past someone’s desk) but I guess they must be used to it, or maybe not as I did not encounter anyone else on this particular tower adventure.

These stairs led onto the main roof, from which I could look out over the Piazza Grande, and from there I could access the tower itself with its narrow wooden steps leading up to the big bell.

Fantastic! The views from the top are truly stunning; from there, tiled rooftops of Montepulciano simply fall away down the hill, and on a clear day there are wide views of the southern Tuscan countryside to be had. Lucky me, with a tower to myself and clear blue skies...

The cathedral bell tower opposite (slightly lower than my new look-out point, I smugly noted while wondering what this said about relations between the church and the civic authorities) had what appeared to be a couple of plastic chairs which led me to wonder who might be able to access and use these – junior priests sneaking off for a smoke-break was my guess, although they could have been using the tower as a means of getting away from the numbers for more spiritual purposes.

Back down, it was time, I felt, for something red and refreshing in one of those wine bars...