The Southern 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 comprehensively entwined within a network of paths or cast in raw beauty. As a place to explore on foot it is unique. This is the second of two books spanning the national park, a companion volume to The Northern Lakes: 40 Shorter Walks from the Easy to the Adventurous. Contained within its pages are 40 walks that journey through the landscape and remarkable history of the Southern Lakes, from the Kentmere Valley in the east to the bulk of Black Combe in the west. Along the way, the diverse moods around Ambleside, Grasmere, the Langdales and Coniston are all explored, as are a trio of western valleys – Wasdale, Eskdale and the Duddon Valley.
The Southern Lakes is an area of fascinating nuances and variations. Moving from east to west the tone of the landscape shifts, becoming wilder and less forgiving. More particularly, the extent and manner of human interaction with the landscape changes too. The east is softer and unashamedly touristy, colonised by visitor attractions, car parks and gift shops. Yet, peeking between the trees and over the ridges of the fells, the romance and beauty that first earned the area its reputation survive – pushed to the margins, perhaps, but nonetheless there. Today, of course, the only way to discover those margins is on foot. Economically, the west resembles the side of the valley thrown into shade. Quieter than the east, more obviously rooted in its agricultural heritage and with shadows of both long past and recently struggling industry at its fringe, it is grittier and less focused upon the visitor. None of this should, however, deter the visitor from making the (probably lengthy) journey there, for this is the Lake District arguably at its most spectacular, most challenging and most rewarding.
About this guide
The ground covered ranges from easy valley strolls to adventurous mountain scrambles, although none of the walks last longer than, at most, half a day. In an area so compact, the emphasis is too often on long days scaling the very highest mountains, or on looping ridges together into extended horseshoes. These are wonderful activities, but they rather overlook the snappy immediacy of many of the Southern Lakes’ delights. Here there are ancient woods, nature reserves, mountain tarns, low and mid-height fells, waterfalls, lake shores, sinuous valleys and former quarries to enjoy. These can all be experienced in these digestible walks, which – to extend the metaphor – are more convivial lunches than lengthy feasts. But the ‘shorter’ in the sub-title does not always mean short (there are serious outings to the Langdale Pikes, Bowfell and Great Gable) – so take it as the relative term it is. The description of each route begins with the distance to be covered and the height ascended, the relevant Ordnance Survey (OS) 1:25000 map (which should always be carried) and an indication of how long the walk will take. Duration will always be a moot point because of the many variables in play: fit, experienced walkers in spring sunshine will cover the same ground much more quickly than novices in mist and rain. Timings are intended as a rough guide to assist you in planning your day, and do not allow for any stops you may choose to make. The route map is only a general guide and is emphatically not intended for navigation. Finally, the contents are arranged east to west, reflecting the fact that the majority of visitors arrive in the national park from the east. This is a journey into the Lakes that explores widely and reaches it glorious conclusion upon the summit of Lingmell.
First, the good news: getting to Windermere, Ambleside and Grasmere by public transport, and moving between them, is a doddle, thanks to the hourly 555 (Lakeslink) bus service between Keswick to the north and Lancaster to the south. Windermere also has the rare luxury of a train service connecting to the West Coast main line at Oxenholme. Between April and October, the length of Great Langdale (up to the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel) may be accessed via the excellent 516 (Langdale Rambler) service from Ambleside. Consider seriously the possibility of leaving the car behind – during the school holidays, traffic can be miserable indeed (Ambleside is a notorious bottleneck), with the futile search for somewhere to park an even more glum experience. South of Skelwith Bridge the scene becomes patchier. The seasonal (April to October) 505 (Coniston Rambler) links Ambleside and Windermere to Hawkshead and Coniston, while the year-round X12 runs north from Ulverston (reached by the X35 from Kendal and Barrow) to Torver and Coniston. See individual walks for which routes are recommended where. The bad news is that it is next to impossible to access the western valleys without a car. Yes, there is the Cumbrian Coast train line between Barrow and Carlisle and, yes, there is the sketchy X6 bus descending from Whitehaven to Muncaster Castle (and on Sundays to Millom), but these will only get you so far. Wasdale might enjoy a dial-a-taxi service, and Eskdale can call upon the charms of L’al Ratty (steam railway), but there is no escaping the way in which a car opens up these sparsely settled valleys for practical exploration. When committed to the car please exercise caution and consideration: ideally use a recognised car park (the start point usually steers 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 need to pass your inappropriately parked car.
Respecting the Environment
The landscape of the Southern Lakes is remarkably resilient. Even so, millions of footsteps each year combined with robust weather systems cause considerable wear and tear – you do not 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 over 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 pointless cairns (of which there are already many) or cut across zigzags. In the context of the hills these are anti-social activities. Avoid leaving litter at all costs (there is almost nothing more witless and depressing than the sight of stray drinks cans or crisp packets). More generally, remember the farmers. Use stiles and gates where they exist. 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). At lambing time, farmers are particularly and understandably sensitive. Remember this is a working landscape – a little respect goes a long way and 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 have with you, and be confident in using, a map and compass, sometimes in less than ideal circumstances. Decent hillwalking boots are essential, as are waterproofs, warm clothing, food and water. Know your own limitations and be sure to carry the relevant OS 1:25000 map. A mobile phone is sometimes useful, but cannot be relied on for emergencies – you might not get reception. Always carry a torch, first-aid kit, whistle and watch. Check the weather forecast before you leave and make sure that someone knows where you are going and when you are due to return. Remember that in the end most Mountain Rescue calls are the result of disorientation, slips and exhaustion. If all this implies that walking in the Southern Lakes is an ordeal to be endured, be assured it is not. Sound preparation, knowledge and equipment, will 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 previously have 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 commonland registered 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, and landowners have the right to limit access temporarily. It is worth familiarising yourself with the legislation and working out what it means for walking in the area. The Ramblers’ Association provides more details through its website (www.ramblers.org.uk).