The Northern Lakes
The first in a two-book series exploring the Lake District, featuring 40 shorter walks, most under 10km, traversing the history and landscape of the Northern Lakes. The Lake District is England’s pre-eminent National Park. Nowhere else is the pattern of mountain, wood and water so compactly and harmoniously arranged. Nowhere else is so artfully entwined within a network of paths, and nowhere else so draped in raw beauty. As a place to explore on foot, it is unique. Contained within this guide are 40 walks travelling through the remarkable history and landscape of the Northern Lakes, from the environs of Shap in the east to the tip of Ennerdale Water in the west. Along the way find the diverse moods around Haweswater, Ullswater, Thirlmere, Keswick, Borrowdale, Newlands, Buttermere and the Western Lakes.
This is legendary walking country, and plenty of people have been this way before – and plenty more will come after – so what follows is an attempt to do something different, making the argument for new looks at old friends, for classics twisted, for overlooked corners and for places you have never been to, nor probably heard of. The sublime glories of the Lake District await – let this book be your companion.
About this guide
This is the first of two books spanning the National Park (a sister Southern Lakes volume follows). Here, the northern half is split into four areas: Ullswater, Haweswater and the eastern fringe; Thirlmere, Keswick and the northern hills; Derwentwater, Borrowdale & the central fells; Newlands, Buttermere & the western waters. There are only a few hard and fast means of splitting the area down, so to an extent there is an arbitrary element to these divisions, bound to provoke incredulity in some – ‘how can you separate Keswick from Derwentwater?’ You cannot, of course, so there is an inevitable crossover at the edges of the chapters. But the divisions do, I think, indicate general shifts in character from chapter to chapter. So, for instance, the Thirlmere, Keswick & the northern hills section represents – with a few glaring exceptions – perhaps the most overlooked terrain in the Northern Lakes. While the chapter on Derwentwater, Borrowdale & the central fells possesses the most concentrated scenery, it is also the busiest sliver of the north, its honeypot. Then, within the final western chapter, you find the purest remains of the old-time sleepy Lakes and the least outward sign of the explosion in visitor numbers. The ground covered rises from easy valley strolls to adventurous mountain scrambles, but none are longer than, at most, a half-day of walking. This seemed crucial; for an area so compact, the emphasis is too often on the long days striving to the very highest mountains, or on looping ridges together into extended horseshoes. These are wonderful activities, but they rather overlook the snappy immediacy of much of the Northern Lakes’ delights. There are forests to enjoy, ruins, mountain tarns, low and mid-height fells, waterfalls, lake shores, tranquil valleys, former quarries and mines, and, in the middle, a rugged town. These are all here, within digestible walks that – to extend the metaphor – are more convivial lunches than lengthy feasts. But the ‘shorter’ in the title does not always mean short (there are serious outings to St Sunday Crag, Great End and Blencathra here) – so take it as the relative term it is. Each route sets out at its beginning the distance and height gained, the relevant Ordnance Survey (OS) 1:25,000 map (which should always be carried) and an indication of the walking time it will take. Duration will always be a moot point, with plenty of variables in play: fit, experienced walkers in spring sunshine will cover the same ground much quicker than novices in mist and rain. So, take it as a rough guide intended to assist with planning your day, and remember it does not allow for any of the stops that you may have in mind. The route map is also a general guide and is emphatically not intended for navigation. Finally, the contents are arranged east to west, which (though sounding odd) is a general reflection of most people’s experience when visiting the National Park – they arrive from the east. So think of this as a journey into the Lakes, reaching its conclusion upon the desolate windswept top of Grike, about as far from the crowds as it is possible to get.
Excepting Ullswater, Haweswater and the eastern fringe, which gravitate to the major regional centre of Penrith, Keswick is the hub around which the Northern Lakes spin: almost every transport link in the arc from the north to the northwest passes through, begins or terminates in Keswick. With major tourism and walking industries to serve, the public transport provision is pretty good too, particularly in the spring and summer when a number of additional bus services operate. These really are to be recommended, not least for environmental reasons, but also for relieving the frustration built by congested lanes and full car parks. What we all need, as Withnail puts it in Withnail and I, is ‘harmony, fresh air and stuff like that’. The most useful bus route is the year-round 78 (Borrowdale Rambler), running the length of Borrowdale from Keswick to Seatoller. This is an excellent means of reaching the Borrowdale start points in the third chapter; indeed, one route (p56) calls upon it for a return to Keswick. On a fine summer day, when an open-topped double-decker plies the route, the swaying journey above the wooded east shore of Derwentwater is worth it for its own sake. The scenic and seasonal 77/77A (Honister Rambler) makes a rickety crossing of the Honister Pass en route to Buttermere and Crummock, calling also at Braithwaite and nipping at the edge of the Newlands Valley. The 208 (Ullswater Rambler), the 73/73A (Caldbeck Rambler) and the 74 (Osprey Bus) also have their valuable moments. See individual walks for which buses are recommended where. Certainly the most memorable and evocative way of travelling is across the waters of one of the lakes – in the north that means the cheerful Keswick Launch on Derwentwater, and the famed ‘steamers’ (though long since diesels) criss-crossing Ullswater. Both should definitely be experienced (see the walks on p18 and p58); they operate year round, with extra sailings in the spring and, in particular, summer.
Despite all of the above, getting to some of the wilder places in the Northern Lakes can still be challenging without a car, especially in winter. While I encourage the use of public transport where feasible (www.traveline.info for more information), it has to be recognised that some of the best walking falls outside the reach of its providers’ routes. So, I have not slavishly allowed public transport links to dictate the start/finish points of the routes chosen.
If cars are useful they can also be a problem, as evidenced by the erection of a lengthy sequence of hideous yellow signs deterring parking near the foot of Catbells. The answer when shackled to a car is to please exercise caution and consideration: ideally use a recognised car park (the start point will often steer you in that direction anyway); if this is not an option, a small, defined parking area should be. In the rare cases where it is not, be wary of blocking gateways, lanes and passing places. If in doubt, don’t – you never know when a much larger vehicle (like a fire engine, say) may have to try and pass your inappropriately parked car.
Respecting the environment
The landscape of the Northern Lakes is remarkably resilient. Even so, millions of footsteps each year and robust weather systems combine to pose a considerable challenge – you don’t have to look far to see evidence of severely eroded paths. A magnificent volunteer organisation called Fix the Fells (www.fixthefells.co.uk) is fighting back – they have repaired more than 100 of the worst paths, with over 70 more in their sights. Please play your part in the process, too: where a footpath exists, stick to it, rather than its fringe, walking single file if necessary. Try not to dislodge stones, build new cairns or cut across zigzags. More generally, remember the farmers. Use stiles and gates where they exist and avoid leaving litter at all costs. Get to grips with the Countryside and Moorland Visitor’s Codes. Keep dogs under control, ideally on a lead, especially when close to livestock and farms. Never come between a cow and her calf (with or without a dog). During lambing time, farmers are particularly and understandably sensitive. Remember this is a working landscape – a little respect goes a long way. All this helps to sustain a harmonious relationship between visitors and locals.
Do not underestimate the mountains, even if your trip into them is brief, and never underestimate how much more hostile the tops can be than the valleys, even in summer. Sudden weather changes, mist, cold, rain and snow are all part of walking in the Lakes, and while there is certainly a peculiar magic to remote fells in inclement weather, it is a situation best avoided unless properly equipped. So you will need to possess a map and compass and have the wherewithal to use them in less than ideal circumstances. Decent hillwalking boots are essential, as too are waterproofs, warm clothing, food and water. Know your own limitations and be sure to carry the relevant OS 1:25,000 map.
A mobile phone is a good idea, but not a panacea in the ills of an emergency – you might not get reception. Always carry a torch, first-aid kit, whistle and watch. Check the weather forecast before you leave and ensure someone knows where you are going and when you are due to return. Remember that in the end most Mountain Rescue calls come down to disorientation, slips and exhaustion. If all this implies that walking in the Northern Lakes is an ordeal to be endured, be assured it is not. If you have the confidence of sound preparation, knowledge and equipment, you can ensure that your happy expedition remains just that, even when the weather turns, which at some point it will.
The legal ‘right to roam’, applied locally in May 2005 under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000), opened up new routes to walkers that may have previously been closed off, adding to existing rights of access in the Lake District. Indeed, that right is exercised to a lesser or greater extent in a number of the walks found in this book. Under the Act, the public has new rights of access on foot to areas classified as open country (mountain, moor, heath and down) and registered commonland for recreational use. The right does not extend to activities such as cycling, canoeing, horse-riding or camping, though existing rights may already be in place for these activities on some land. There are other restrictions in the Act: for instance, walkers must not damage any wall, fence, hedge, stile or gate in exercising their right of access, certain types of land are exempt and landowners have the right to limit access temporarily. It is worth familiarising yourself with the legislation and what it means for walking in the area. The Ramblers’ Association can provide more details through their website (www.ramblers.org.uk).