In the Lake District, the scattering of ashes is now so widespread that it’s affecting local ecosystems. We asked BMC members to share their different views on this increasingly common practice - here are their funny, touching and occasionally downright gruesome stories.
“All I ask for, at the end, is a last long resting place by the side of Innominate Tarn, on Haystacks,” wrote Alfred Wainwright, in Memoirs of a Fellwalker. “A quiet place, a lonely place. I shall go to it, for the last time, and be carried: someone who knew me in life will take me and empty me out of a little box and leave me there alone. And if you, dear reader, should get a bit of grit in your boot as you are crossing Haystacks in the years to come, please treat it with respect. It might be me."
Wainwright might be the most famous walker to have had his ashes scattered among the Lake District fells, but he certainly isn’t the only one. If you’re a regular visitor to the Lakes then you might well have noticed small piles of suspiciously rich earth appearing around the best-known summit tops, on the shores of high tarns and even on climbing crags. It’s become a widespread issue, says the BMC’s access and conservation officer Rob Dyer, even affecting local eco systems in some areas: “It is actually increasing the nutrient content of soil on some tops in the Lakes - and as a result common grasses are able to out-compete rare high mountain species, which rely on low nutrient soils that other species can’t survive in.”
Ashes aren’t the only reminders of mortality to appear on Lakeland mountaintops. You might also have seen cairns, memorials, plaques and flowers popping up around Great Gable, Haystacks and Coniston Old Man - but how do you view these additions to the upland landscape? Would you like your mortal remains to be scattered on a peaceful fell-side, or do you feel that summits are best reserved for the living? Here’s what BMC members had to say when we asked them to share their stories.
“Bob is now permanently impregnated into my Gore-Tex and lungs”
“The day after my dad died I fancied a walk in the fells. I popped up Pavey Ark and then wandered across the Pikes. It was stormy and very, very wet.
"On one of the summits I sat down in the lee of a big rock to have a cuppa. I started hearing bells and gongs. I thought I was going mad, so I stood up and turned round just in time to see a group of gong players and a lady chucking ashes into the air.
"I was soaking wet, I was downwind, and my mouth was open. Bob, who was a good lad and mountaineer, is now permanently impregnated into my Gore-Tex and lungs! After a short awkward moment, though, there was a lot of laughter and it was agreed Bob would have loved it.
"By the way, out of choice I would love to be left out on a mountain for the crows to peck at... would that be OK?”
“I’m quite content with the practice”
"Scrambling near Haystacks many years ago, I pulled up on a hold to find it covered in ash. I remember feeling very concerned about being disrespectful, so an amusing traverse was made. It didn't worry me at the time, and looking back at it now I'm quite content with the practice. I think the scores of banana skins on Scafell are a more relevant issue!"
“These guys had their ashes deposited in the highest gents loo in England”
“Last year, as I was taking part in the ‘Real Three Peaks’ litter pick on Scafell Pike, the teams gathered at the summit and many of us noticed ashes between the boulders while picking up banana skins and sweet wrappers. Indeed, the team that had started from Langdale had picked up a marble memorial that had been bolted to the fellside.
"I was chatting with one of the National Trust wardens about scattering ashes and their impact on the mountain environment as he was a botanist. He pointed to a large rock with a flat face close to the summit cairn.
“What do you notice about the vegetation on that rock?"
"Erm, well, it's some sort of lichen or moss and it's a different colour towards the top. There's a sort of line where the vegetation changes. Anything strike you about the height of the line?"
"it's about waist height, wouldn't you say?"
We walked over to the rock, which provided shelter from the wind, and noticed a couple of piles of ashes.
"Sadly, these guys have had their ashes deposited in the highest gents loo in England," he said.”
“I wandered lonely as a cloud…”
"There's a bunch of daffodils which grow every spring on Jacks Rake, always assumed that they mark a special spot for someone, as there's no way they'd grow there normally. I have mixed feelings about them, they're clearly not native that high up, but they're pretty and only appear for a few weeks each year, just enough to mark the spot. There is no plastic and no writing, so I think I'm cool with them."
“I like to think he’s still with me when I put my boots on”
"I scattered dad in a popular location in the Lakes, on the top of a fell he loved. I tried to find a quiet spot off the front of the summit with a view. The kind of place we'd sit for a picnic. I checked the wind and tried to consider the others on the summit above.
"I left no flowers, message or stone memorial. I didn't build a little cairn or mark any stone.
Interestingly, when I went up two years later I could clearly see some very small remains of (his?) ashes in a small hollow between the sheltered bedrock, and it certainly made me think about the impact. The only thing I'd do differently, though, is scatter less (it surprised me how big the ashes were), thus lessening the impact.
"The other thing I did was rub some in my boots! It might sound odd to some, but I like to think he was scattered across the rest of the walk and is still with me when I put the boots on.
"I wish his favourite fell was Loughrigg though, as it takes three hours to reach him!”
Scatter with care...
Thinking of leaving a lasting legacy to a loved one in the Lake District? The BMC’s access and conservation policy officer Catherine Flitcroft and Lake District NPA Ranger Team Leader Steve Tatlock have some advice on how to proceed.
“There is nothing explicit in the legislation to restrict people in disposing of cremated ashes, but problems may arise in getting permission to scatter or bury ashes on someone else’s land. You should try and seek the landowner’s permission and certain places are off-limits – I would suggest the base of a popular climb is one of those. There has been a number of court case regarding ashes so people do need to be careful. There is also some evidence from Scotland that ashes being scattered at some popular summits is changing the PH of soils. If you’re going to do it, be discreet.
"The BMC in general, doesn't support the use of waymarks, cairns or other intrusive features, other than those traditionally established on summits and path junctions. Some cairns are important landmarks but some are also an unnecessary intrusion and detract from the character of a wild and remote setting. Building cairns can also exacerbate erosion and in some areas is the mountain equivalent of graffiti, so we would ask members to avoid doing it. While we sympathise with the grief that the bereaved feel, memorial artefacts shouldn't be a feature of the mountain landscape and nothing should be done without formal landowner consultation and agreement.
"If people want to leave a more permanent memorial then consider organisations such as the Woodland Trust or National Trust who have arrangements where memorial trees, gates or even sections of footpaths can be left as lasting memorials to loved ones."
"It can be upsetting to see large piles of ashes dotted around, so we would ask people to spread them around over a wide area, preferably well away from where people walk and rest, and also well away from water courses and tarns, because heavy concentrations or piles of ashes can not only be off-putting to others but can alter the chemical make up of the soil in the immediate area and affect plant growth and types. It’s about being sensitive and responsible.
"We understand that families want to scatter ashes of relatives and pets in places they enjoyed. However, it is important to take away any containers, and whilst an odd flower or a handful of petals will fade away appropriately, cellophane wrapped bunches of flowers can not only soon look unsightly but would be seen by many as littering.
"By following these few guidelines people can place ashes of loved ones in a loved place and any problems are easy to avoid with a little thought, consideration and preparation."
Got a view on ashes and memorials in the mountains? Email us or tweet us at @Team_BMC
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