The view from the edge of the rope bridge atop Honister Crag is spectacular.

Buttermere valley sprawls two thousand feet below as sheer cliff edges contrast with the carpeted green and brown slopes, which roll into the Lake District waters below.

The only reason I was afforded such an exceptional vista was the result of partaking, perhaps foolishly, in one of Cumbria’s finest tourist attractions, the Via Ferrata Xtreme.

“Are you afraid of heights?” said the phone friendly accent, which appeared to be a mix of Manchester and Yorkshire with just a touch of Geordie.

“Right so, we’ll put you down for the extreme then,” he continued.

“As long as I don’t have to jump off anything,” I replied, meekly.

It’s fair to say that my research for this particular excursion was non-existent. I was going to the Lake District, it was meant to come under the slow-paced category, but when they gave me a form to sign before we set off, I maybe should have sat up and paid a bit more attention.

So the next thing I know, I’m fastening a harness around my waist and between my legs, securing a helmet and listening to a brief lesson on how to clip on and off the safety wire along the route.

There were two clips, or carabiners, to give them their proper name, and the golden rule was to only ever open one at a time – this piece of advice was repeated a few times. I was already anxious as we wandered up to the starting point, high above the famous slate mines of Honister.

Via Ferrata translates as iron road and is based on an old military concept of mapping a route across a mountain using fixed cables, stemples, ladders, and bridges, and was first used by armies in the Dolomite mountains during the Great War.

Clipping onto the ever-present safety wire and straddling the small wall to the cliff face already had the heart racing. The drop of more than a thousand feet led to nothing but slate and rock, so once I found the first of the iron rungs, my eyeline was initially aimed upwards.

Stepping from rung to rung, clipping carabiners – one at a time – and edging along the cliff face is not something that I would ever get used to, but once you got moving, following those in front and trying to stay ahead of the next in line, the experience became quite surreal and looking downwards and beyond no longer scared but somehow soothed.

Well that was until we approached the rope across the gorge. To call it a bridge would be like calling the main road on Craggy Island a motorway.

This Burma Bridge consisted of one rope to walk on and another either side for your hands, while a safety wire ran above with a pulley attachment, which would stop you from falling from the great height.

The footrope appeared tightrope taut, however, watching the first few volunteers edge across soon shattered that illusion as the middle section began to drop with the weight of those who crossed.

So as already mentioned, the panoramas from this lofty location were inspirational, but as I inched onto the rope, the only thing I was looking at was the far side, which must have been at least 100 feet across.

There was no real nerves as I stepped on, as some had already crossed, while another three were making good progress ahead, but my first wobble reminded me that my centre of gravity was not ideal for such a venture, as the ropes sent me on a forty-five degree tilt, the view now not so special as the audible gasps could be heard echoing throughout.

So with well over two thirds remaining, I knew that further drama was inevitable. And it duly arrived, as moments later I slipped off the rope.

Another tilt, a misplaced foot and I lost my balance, my legs now dangling like a swimmer treading water as my arms held me upright in a sort of parallel bar gymnast style.

Eventually, I hauled my legs back up above the rope and gradually found my feet. The gasps were now bouncing around the valley below as our guide helplessly watched from the safety of the other side.

A new technique and a bucket load of adrenalin got me across and a few minutes later we again set off for the remainder of the Via Ferrata.

The second half of the journey was equally exhausting but nothing would come close to the way I felt midway across the gorge. Even the 66-foot cargo net climb appeared a doddle before the harness was released for the final ascent to the summit of Fleetwith Pike, where the views continued to impress and this time they could be truly enjoyed.

The Honister Slate Mine experience is a great day out for anyone visiting the Lake District.

Before setting out on the Via Ferrata, a tour of the, still working, slate mine gave a great insight into the region’s roots and a process that has not changed too much over the past 300 years.

The Honister slate is considered the best green slate in the world and the work that goes into extracting the rock is quite remarkable, and on a par with the story of how the mine was reopened by local tragic hero Mark Weir, who was inspired by his grandfather, a former miner, to acquire Honister, turning it into one of the regions main tourist attractions.

Ambitious plans remain at Honister to fulfil Mark’s ultimate plan for a zip-wire thrill-ride experience to take you from the summit back to base.

The only thing that might stop me going on that trip would be the thoughts of having to cross that rope bridge once again.

Armathwaite Hall County House & Spa Hotel

Set in the secluded splendour of 400 acres of deer park and woodland, Armathwaite Hall sits on the banks of the beautiful Bassenthwaite Lake, framed by the dramatic Skiddaw mountain.

One of the original stately homes of England, the hotel is the ideal base for any adventure throughout the northern Lake District, offering excellent accommodation, several dining options, and a top-class Spa.

The Lake View restaurant offers an excellent menu with both traditional English fare and classical French cuisine options.

The dining experience includes spectacular views across Bassenthwaite Lake, although a dress code (no jeans) is in place so the more casual visitor may have to settle for a scenic breakfast and enjoy dinner in the Courtyard Brasserie.

Post dinner drinks are taken in the very comfortable and welcoming hotel bar and the pint of Cumberland Cream Ale is to be recommended.

A wide range of activities are available at the hotel including clay shooting, quad bike safari, archery, a falconry centre with Hawk Walks, bicycle hire, fishing, as well as backpack lunches with recommended lakeland walks.

One of the hotel’s main attractions is the award-winning Spa, which offers every element necessary for the perfect wellness break.

As well as a wide range of treatments, the Spa facilities include a 16-metre infinity edge pool, a thermal suite and hydrotherapy pool, sauna, aroma room and a great outdoor hot tub overlooking the landscaped garden.

There is also a 'hush' tranquillity room, which will be appreciated by anyone who has traversed the Via Ferrata.


For more information, visit:
www.honister-slate-mine.co.uk
www.armathwaite-hall.com
www.cumbriatourism.org

Ed Leahy
RTÉ is not responsible for the content of external websites.

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