By Andrew McCloy
Photographs: Billy Redden
We had puffed our way up Wrynose Pass, broken Red Tarn's first ice of winter, then climbed the bumpy upper slopes of Pike of Blisco to enjoy the fading afternoon sun. The temperature was starting to plummet and so we headed back down for an end-of-walk drink at the pub in Little Langdale. But high up on that wild, inhospitable hillside we left someone behind to brew his own. Welcome to the rough, tough world of Lanty Slee, the Lake District's legendary bootlegger.
About the time that Wordsworth was wandering lonely as a cloud there was far more important business going on in the central Lakeland valleys and fells - the production of moonshine whisky! In order to avoid harsh excise duties, a racket involving illegal stills and surreptitious night-time packhorse journeys was being masterminded by "a stiff, fresh-faced man of great endurance", one-time local farmer and quarryman Lanty Slee; and I was on his trail.
To help me navigate through these furtive whisky mountains I had enlisted the help of Dougie and Mark, two experienced instructors from Kendal-based Mammut Mountain School. Lead by CEO Sam Sykes, their team offers a range of inspiring courses and adventures to motivate, educate and challenge everyone who loves the mountains. So where should our own exploration start, I ask local lad Mark who had grown up listening to fireside tales of the incorrigible smuggler? "Lanty was born about 1800 in Borrowdale," Mark explains, "but lived for much of his life around Little Langdale and in particular at a farm called Low Arnside. He used its isolated hilltop position to keep an eye out for the authorities and it's even said he taught his dog to alert him to uninvited visitors without barking." At the farm Lanty built an illicit whisky still under the floorboards and from a distilling process that essentially involved boiling home-grown potatoes in beck water he would produce a raw and powerful brew - like the Irish potcheen. The secret code for would-be purchasers visiting the farm was to ask Lanty whether he had had "a good crop of taties [potatoes] this year".
We park in a lay-by on the Skelwith Bridge to Coniston road and plod up the drive to view the farmhouse. It's said that an underground pipe ran from the still to nearby fields, so that every so often exhaust steam would mysteriously appear from beneath a hedge when production was in full swing! From the farm we can see all the way up the valley towards the awesome mountain backdrop of the Langdale Pikes, Pavey Ark and Bow Fell. Unlikely as it seems, this was the route that much of Lanty's illegal liquor took on its long and clandestine journey to reach its thirsty customers.
First, though, there were more secret hideouts to discover. He may be portrayed by some as a quick-tempered ruffian, but when it came to smuggling Lanty was wily and had a good business model. As we head west on a path over High Oxen Fell, Mark explains his modus operandi. "Lanty had stills dotted all around the area, so that if the excise men discovered one he'd simply switch production to another. Like any good entrepreneur, he was always one step ahead of the game". Lanty used quarrying as well as farming as a smokescreen for his more profitable activity; and the slate mines of Hodge Close and Moss Rigg just a couple of miles away proved very convenient. We thread our route through this largely abandoned and jumbled landscape of patchy woodland and moss-covered spoil heaps, now mostly owned by the National Trust, peer hopefully into hidden openings in the rocks, and examine crude stone shelters. Could this have been where Lanty prepared the next batch of firewater?
“The sheer faces of Cathedral Quarry provide exciting abseiling and climbing routes”
One such cave at Moss Rigg that Lanty certainly did use was accessible until the 1960s; renowned Lakeland climber and writer A. Harry Griffin describes exploring it by torchlight and finding pieces of rusted barrel hoops, large piles of ash and a home-made water tank. The cave is now blocked up, so instead we search nearby Cathedral Quarry where blasting has left huge holes and fissures in the rock, and sheer faces that provide exciting abseiling and climbing routes. We scramble down the damp, slippery rock to the foot of the main quarry to enter a spectacular 40ft (12m) high chamber, complete with natural pillars and a sinister dark pool (surely ripe for a Tolkienesque monster?). All around are dark crevices, caves, tunnels entrances - ideal concealment for dodgy activities.
From the subterranean to the serene, it's hard to imagine nefarious goings-on in tranquil Little Langdale today. We emerge from a murky underground world to a valley of sparkling green fields and tidy whitewashed cottages; but Lanty also lived here for a time, at Greenbank Farm, so it's reasonable to assume that the hard stuff kept flowing. But who did he sell it to? "Lanty's potent liquor cost 10 shillings a gallon, which was quite expensive in those days," says Mark, "but it was reputed to be very good quality. His customers could evidently afford it, since they included local gentry and even, it was rumoured, a magistrate." This might explain why Lanty, although apprehended several times, was only jailed once; and when he was brought to book his punishment was relatively minor. It was said that Lanty had the gift of the gab, perhaps inherited from his Irish parents, and his appearances at the courthouse in Ambleside were always greeted with enthusiasm in the press and public galleries, if not by the bench.
Enough of the valley bottom - our eyes, like Lanty's, are now raised to the hills. In his case it was to send packhorses laden with hooch over Wrynose and Hardknott passes in the dead of night, then down to Ravenglass on the Irish Sea coast. The ponies' hooves were bound in sacking or straw to muffle their sounds, while for the journey back they would stuff their panniers with contraband tobacco. As was common in those days, the whisky was carried in a variety of containers, including pigs' bladders, which gave rise to today's slang drinking terms having ‘a skinful’, and getting ‘bladdered’.
So far we'd been ambling gently around the valley, even going below ground level, but now it was time to see if we could match Lanty for both stamina and hill legs. For our own sustenance we call in at the Three Shires Inn, almost in sight of Greenbank Farm, although the excellent local beers (from Coniston Brewery and Bowness Bay Brewing Company) would have to wait for our return in a few hours' time. Lanty would have probably stopped instead at Fell Foot Farm, just along the lane before the steep, winding climb up Wrynose begins. This 350-year old listed building, a former coaching inn, was a known smugglers' haunt; and no doubt Lanty would have used it to swap news or possibly even to do business. Beyond lay wild, exposed fellside, which of course for Lanty meant concealment. Wrynose was not just a smuggling route but near the top, possibly above Red Tarn, he set up a crude whisky still; and another was located across the valley on the flanks of Wetherlam.
“Beyond lay wild, exposed fellside, which of course for Lanty meant concealment.”
At the summit of Wrynose the Three Shire Stone marks the boundary between former Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire. Elsewhere in the country criminals have traditionally used such locations to evade the jurisdiction of a local police force by hopping over the county border; but Lanty simply seems to have operated outside the law itself and evidently thought nothing of conducting his business in a cave 1,300ft (393m) up a mountainside. Despite this, and what was clearly a rough and turbulent life, Lanty died in 1878 aged almost 80; and his son, Adam, lived to over 100.
Enjoying the last of the afternoon sun, the three of us stand on the eastern shoulder of Pike of Blisco with some of Lakeland's finest peaks ranged behind - Crinkle Crags, Bow Fell and Great Knott. Two more, Lingmoor and Wetherlam, frame Little Langdale far below, where shafts of sunlight pick out Lanty's Low Arnside farm and the slate quarries where he hid his stills. Ahead, on the distant horizon, is the unmistakable flat summit of Ingleborough in Yorkshire. We are high up on England's roof, in Lanty's world, and it feels invigorating. Time to honour him in the only way possible, I think, reaching for my hip flask...