Great Gable's Big Secret

If you enjoyed this month's feature on Moses Rigg and Lanty Slee, here's something else that might tickle your adventure cockles... the full account of the day Trail made historical history on the slopes of Great Gable...

The below article originally appeared in the March 2005 issue of Trail. Words: Guy Procter. Photos: Tom Bailey.

"No-one else knows about it."

Those were the words which piqued my interest. When it comes to a day in the hills, I'm of the Wainwright school. He said life without ambition was just aimless wandering, and the same applied to a hillwalk. Ninety nine point nine per cent of the time a summit is enough of an ambition for me. But here was a whole different order of aspiration. Find something that NOBODY ELSE KNOWS ABOUT? High up on one of our most famous and fantastic mountains? Here was something which offered not only the satisfaction of a simple goal achieved, but which dovetailed neatly with my own ambition to be Indiana Jones. One per cent into the story, and I was one thousand per cent sold.

Which is odd, really, since the story's as patchy as the memory of the man who told it to me. Trail's mountaineering editor Jeremy is an old man of the mountains, a kind of cut-price Harry Griffin. Like Harry, Jeremy used to rock-climb a lot in the Lake District, but now his climbing's mostly been replaced by rambling. Both of the walking sort, and the Grandpa Simpson "When I was in the army, no, wait, the navy..." sort. One day, out of Jeremy's stream of consciousness poked this supermarket trolley wheel of potential interest: "I remember doing a winter climb on Great Gable in 1983 - Central Gully. It's on Gable Crag, the north side. We'd finished the climb and were scrambling out onto the summit when I thought I saw something poking out of the snow on a sort of grassy ledge. There was a lot of snow lying, so all I could make out was the outline of three walls, in a square shape. It was definitely man-made, but in such a bizarre, inaccessible location I couldn't work out what it was. I did a bit of digging when I got back and discovered a sketchy Wainwright reference to a hut called 'Smugglers' Retreat', 'now completely in ruins', and nothing else. I reckon it might have a connection to Lanty Slee, an old whisky smuggler who brewed his stuff up there. I don't think anyone else knows about it."

I contacted English Heritage, the National Monuments Record, and the National Park's own Historic Environment Record: sure enough, no such hut exists on official record.

Jeremy's monologue soon took a turn for the irrelevant, but it had been enough. Great Gable, logo-mountain of the Lake District National Park, home to Napes Needle, the Gable Girdle, the Sphinx, plus Wasdale, Ennerdale and Scafell views, was a more than worthy weekend aim in itself. The mystery of the apparently nonsensical (and possible non-existent) hut was enough to pitch worthy into compulsive.

I'm sure were he real, Indiana Jones would start his adventures with a Google search too. I typed 'Lanty Slee' and hit return. 25 results. Lanty Slee: real name Lancelot, 'a tough and indefatigable Dales farmer and illegal whisky distiller, feared by many, yet in a liquor-thirsty age always tolerated'. 'Lanty Slee' + 'Great Gable'. 1 result. I was evidently entering richly obscure territory. Changing tack I entered 'gable crag' and 'hut', garnering five irrelevant results. Irrelevant except for one, referring to "The remains of a hut high on Gable Crag... possibly linked to the illegal distilling of whisky". So it was known about, by someone at least. Crestfallen, I rang Jeremy to tell him we'd been beaten to it. Is that on the Cumbria Tourist Board site?" he asked. "Don't worry, I wrote that...".

It's great being repelled by Google. It sends you back to the real world with renewed faith that there might still be the odd corner of it invisible from cyberspace.

I packed the car and headed for the Lakes - not, for once, straight to my valley base, but to Kendal. Because here within its imposing library lies an excellent Local Studies department, seat of all hard-core Cumbrian Learning. Here I hoped to stock up on the latest learning about Lanty Slee, smuggling and other illicit activities, and anything that would help me pinpoint our supposed hut in space and time, and enrich the walk we'd planned for the next day with a Bisto tang of adventure.

Two hours later, I would shuffle out of the library a broken man, one line from a 1983 newspaper clipping ringing in my ears: "The last remains of the so-called smuggler's hut, near the top of Gable Crag on the north face of Great Gable, seem to have disappeared."

Phoning ahead to the Kendal Library resulted in a stack of books awaiting our arrival each containing a reference to Lanty Slee, Gable Crag, whisky distilling, or secret huts. It was by turns exciting and dispiriting work. Lanty was an interesting chap, by day a farmer in Little Langdale, by night a brewer of potato-and-bog-water whisky in remote caves. He delivered his brews as widely as Ravenglass and Kendal, carrying it in tough, unburstable pigs' bladders - the origin of the phrase 'had a skinful'. Interesting, but not a damn thing to link him to any hut on Great Gable. In fact not a damn thing to mention a hut on Gable Crag at all.

Another name, with a more persuasive Great Gable link, kept coming up though: that of quarryman Moses Rigg, an earlier figure (18th century to Lanty's 19th), with possible links to the trafficking of something called 'wadd'. Of course: this would tie up with the well-known 'Moses' Trod' path - a slate quarriers' route which broadly speaking contours from the quarries at Honister round Great Gable and into Wasdale. Was Moses linked to the hut? A little more investigation into the subject of wadd certainly suggested a motive. Wadd was the Cumbrian name for the ultra-pure graphite which was mined in nearby Seathwaite. Used for everything from making moulds for coins to lubricating guns and as a medicine, in the late 18th century this 'black lead' was so stupendously valuable it required an armed guard to move it from Borrowdale out of the Lake District. Just how valuable? Well one pony-load could net the lucky smuggler £800 - over £70,000 in today's money. Now that's the kind of moolah to salve a lot of grazed hut-building knuckles high up on Gable Crag.

The next pile of books and folders turned up a rich cache of material by Harry Griffin, the long-serving, recently deceased Guardian correspondent, and authority on all things Cumbrian. Harry didn't merely believe the hut existed - he'd seen it, on more than one occasion. "When I first saw the hut about forty-five years ago," he wrote in 1975, "it consisted of a corner of a wall, three or four feet high, with other signs that this had been part of a small building, perched near the top of Central Gully. No higher building has ever been constructed in Lakeland." This was encouragingly concrete stuff, although it was sad that as diligent an investigator as Harry hadn't found anything much in the way of evidence to point a finger at any particular use: "No sign of whisky distilling activities have ever been found. [...] Nor have any signs been found in the 'hut' of wadd stealing."

Then came the bombshell. The next brown card folder opened to reveal a later Harry Griffin article, this time from the Lancashire Evening Post. Dated 1983, it was entitled 'Hilltop legend bites the dust'. I read on with blood sinking to room temperature and below: "The last remains of the so-called smuggler's hut, near the top of Gable Crag on the north face of Great Gable seem to have disappeared. " I groaned and read on. "Crossing the mountain recently I scrambled down the upper part of Central Gully to see what there was left of the old hut, but there was nothing to be seen." First paragraph, and my Indiana Jones dreams, over. "Probably we will now never know the real story of the 'smuggler's hut'." It was too depressing to go on.

I left Kendal Museum with a shipful of hopes holed below the waterline, and my purpose for tomorrow's walk diluted to truly homeopathic levels: try to find the site of something connected to something nobody will ever know what, that isn't there any more anyway.

A night in the Ambleside Youth Hostel, contemplating a placid Windermere and looking at the dark shapes of the surrounding fells cured me. Boil away the adventure stuff and there was still a damn good hillwalk to come.

Great Gable is a supermodel mountain. Its most famous aspect, from Wasdale, gave the National Park its logo, and no wonder. As Wainwright said: "It is the undisputed overlord of the group of hills to which it belongs, and its superior height is emphasised tremendously by the deep gulf separating it from the Scafells and allowing an impressive view that reveals the whole of its half-mile altitude as an unremitting and unbroken pyramid...". Well, that presses my buttons.

Wasdale might be the most scenic approach from which to tackle Great Gable, but it's a long, long drive, and the mountain's much more accessible from the Borrowdale (north-east) side. Starting from the top of the Honister Pass also gives you a big leg-up, and allows you to quickly pick up Moses' Trod - on your OS map as the spidery path contouring round the side of Grey Knotts, above Brin Crag, and round Brandreth to Stone Cove and the looming Gable Crag.

Shortly after leaving the bleak slate workings at Honister Hause, Moses' Trod diverges from the bridleway leading toward Hay Stacks. Smaller cairns, less erosion, a purpose more obscure than the usual summit-bound paths - the signs soon mount to confirm you're on the old slaters' track. Ennerdale looks fantastic under gothic weather like we had - and Moses' Trod's easy gradient is an easy way to get a great perspective on this lonely, magnificently anti-social corner of the district.

Eventually we reached Stone Cove in coming-and-going cloud, and decided to head up to Wind Gap, up a path of small creamy-feeling small-stone scree. Moses' Trod eschews such unnecessary ascent - but would Moses himself? We wanted to get a closer look at Gable Crag to see if Jeremy could remember where the climb started, and whether any hobnail-shod, booty-laden quarryman could conceivably have climbed it. We also wanted to get a GPS fix on the bottom of Central Gully, to help us locate its top for the down-scramble. An engagingly airy traversing path skirts the bottom of the crag (it's part of the Gable Girdle route, which circumnavigates the mountain). It's a path rich in atmosphere, but it's no springboard for the cliffs above - greasy and forbidding, everything at a neck-cricking angle to your left looks like it would make for a horribly dicey climb.

A flicker of hope: Jeremy thought he recognised the initial few feet of Central Gully in the murk. The GPS moved swiftly to counter our enthusiasm - its batteries died before we could get a fix.

We pushed on, beyond the bottom of the crag, before picking our way up on easier ground up and onto the summit. This was rubbish, I reflected as we slithered on the cloud-sucked rocks. No GPS fix, no view, and I hadn't even bothered to savour the walk because I'd been brooding about the Major Archaeological Find we almost certainly weren't about to make. I looked sourly at Jeremy as we gobbled some sandwiches and wondered why we ever thought the reminiscences of this insane old man would ever amount to anything.

After lunch we began scanning the crag from above - walking along its unnerving lip in the cloud, looking for a cairn that might tally with Jeremy's moth-eaten memory of the one that marked the top of Central Gully. We didn't find one that exactly fitted, but we did find a grassy rake, topped with a hesitant-looking cairn, that looked safe to investigate. Set in cloud like milk jelly, we descended tentatively, waiting for the gradient to call time so we could go away At Least Having Tried.

But things continued not-too-steep, and it soon appeared that - amazingly - the grassy slope was sifting us the right way; towards the top of Central Gully proper. It probably wouldn't even need it in summer, but as it was wet and the rocks were slimy we opted to stop as soon as the ground steepened any further, and use the rope, helmets and harnesses we'd carried. This was the next chew: we could carry on investigating further down the crag, but Jeremy, the only reliable anchor-builder, belayer, and sole possessor of memories relating to the hut, wouldn't be able to come.

I strapped in and began the rather embarrassing 'face in or face out?' descent of a not-too-steep grassy rake leading into the cloud. "Don't go down anything you're even slightly concerned you won't be able to come back up" cautioned Jeremy. Five, ten, twenty metres of wet grass and slimy-but-knobbly rock I clambered down. This would be easy scrambling in dry spring weather, and I only really needed the confidence the rope gave in the last five metres, where an awkward and steep bit required a fair bit of face-in, four-points-of-contact negotiation with the mountain. I slithered the last few centimetres and landed on a flattish grassy balcony, hemmed in by cloud. Jeremy had metered out precisely 30m of rope. I could explore this flat area, supported by a broad rocky rampart, unroped. Further on down in any direction lay cliffs, cloud, a limitless void. I knew as a non-climber that I had hit bottom.

I unclipped from the rope and advanced onto the deck of grass, by now out of sight of Jeremy, and not at all sure what I was going to find.

I headed towards the rocky promontory - it looked more spiny up close - and with a bit of clambering reached a sort of rim on its far side. I knelt on the rock and looked at the space spread out before me. Instead of being the all-swallowing death-dealing void I expected, lay... order. Four walls, perpendicularity, a flat, square floor - angles that issued a still, small voice of man-madeness from the vast chaos of the rest of the crag. This, without a shadow of a doubt, was IT. "This is it!" I shouted.

I clambered over the near wall, which was made almost entirely of one natural slab of rock, and plonked down on the moss-covered stone floor below. The walls around me ranged from between a metre and somewhere approaching two metres tall. I felt immediately protected, calm: this would be a good shelter. The floor was totally clear, with just a small hole in one corner. I spent a few minutes sketching and feeling excited. Then I called for Tom the photographer to come and share the joy.

Once installed in the hut we both continued our learned-from-TV Gentle Archaeological-Type Investigations - in the hope of find something (What? Bottles? Labels? We didn't have a clue) that would somehow link this place to the excitements of illegal whisky distillation. I probed the hole, which by the dim light of my LED torchlight I could see was actually a deep shaft (this could definitely be still-related, I speculated), while Tom sniffed around some dark patches on the rocks in the bottom one corner - 'potential fire blackening' we thought.

It was just then, while I was weighing the respective significance of our discoveries, and finding in favour of my shaft, that Tom hit the Big One. Above and to the right of where he'd spied the blackening, there was a tiny shelf in the hut's back wall. I hadn't noticed it, but he was right. There was a shelf, like a small soap dish really, and on it two stones, or what looked like stones, the size and shape of small potatoes. Very old and weathered and slightly manky-looking potatoes. We took one each in our hands and doled out a little more softly-softly Tony Robinson-style inspection. A gentle rub with a thumbnail, and a small section of the mossy mank came off mine, and then off Tom's, revealing underneath a silky gleam. I felt my giddy heart-rate step up another notch as I gently rubbed my sample on the corner of my notepad. The soft black smudge said it all: this was graphite, black lead, WADD.

Dusk was falling as we scrambled gleefully back up to Jeremy, standing there wearing an expression that said "I am Gandalf. How foolish you were to question me." We were reluctant to leave the scene of our splendid find and begin the walk back over Green Gable, Brandreth and Grey Knotts, back to Honister. But with each step away, our mouths watered at the prospect of popping the lid on this party-pack of a story, and sharing it with our friends, colleagues, and (more shyly, with less exaggeration) to interested experts. Never mind if it would need 2,000 words of context before it would impress anyone. Wainwright had been right: a walk, like a life, without ambition, is just aimless wandering. What he'd failed to say was just how awesome a walk with a mission can be.

What happened next...

Not without a certain amount of childish excitement, we emailed the story and photographs of our find to the Lake District Historic Environment Record, the definitive record of sites of archaeological interest in the National Park. Next day we received a call from senior archaeologist at the National Park, John Hodgson, saying just what we wanted to hear: "You're right to be excited. There's nothing on the records about this. It's a very interesting discovery. We'll make a site visit to confirm identification, and record the information you gave us in the Historic Environment Record, which means it'll be protected from now on." Result!

There's more to be found!

"Only 20 per cent of the Lake District has been archaeologically surveyed, and new and exciting finds are being made by people all the time," says Lake District National Park senior archaeologist John Hodgson. "Recent discoveries have included Bronze Age ring cairns and Neolithic cave paintings, all of which were completely unknown. We rely on the public finding and telling us about sites of potential interest," he adds.

If you find something on your own mission, here's the official advice: "Contact us at the National Park Authority - (01539) 724555 or email If possible, email us pictures - we're always happy to offer advice on what you may or may not have discovered."