‘I wandered lonely as a cloud, that floats on high o’er vales and hills,
when all at once I saw a crowd, a host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,fluttering and dancing in the breeze’ William Wordsworth
Tucked away in a far north west corner of England and nestled between the northern Pennines to the east and the Irish Sea to the west, the Lake District is a place like no other. Inspiration for many an artist, poet or writer, its beauty has been captured forever on brushed canvases, immortalised in the lines of poems and and brought to life in the settings of stories. Wordsworth was not alone in his lifelong love of the lakes, John Ruskin, Beatrix Potter, Alfred Wainwright and Arthur Ransom all followed along, arriving in this magical and remote place and never really leaving it.
Tourism in the Lakes didn’t start until the late eighteenth century, before this the area was considered a wild and desolate place. With the construction of the railway line to Windermere in 1847 and then further lines to Keswick and Lakeside, the area opened up to the working classes who could easily come from Manchester, Liverpool and other northern places. The arrival of the car and subsequent boom in car ownership in the 60s’ meant people came from much further afield, and come they did! Tourism was no longer a luxury of the elite.
With modern road and rail networks and a change in lifestyles, this trend has continued. In 2019, a whopping 47 million people visited the area! Escapees from city life and busy lives, come to press the reset button and find solace in nature, to marvel at the timeless beauty of the place and (perhaps) bag some peaks while they are at it. Instagram and Facebook are awash with photos and selfies taken up on the Wainwrights; the name given by Alfred Wainwright to the 214 English peaks or fells found here and described in his guide. Little wonder then that this area is now such a magnet for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. With some of the best hiking trails in the UK, plus the highest mountain in England and the deepest and largest lakes in England, Wast Water and Windermere respectively, this little, once cut off and rather soggy corner, is certainly a bootstrapper.
A national park since 1951, the Lake District was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017. A roughly circular upland massif, deeply dissected by major glacial valleys, it has sixteen lakes, or meres. Rolling green hills and brown tussocky fells, streams or becks and craggy peaks galore; its appeal is understandable. Accommodation is plentiful, with something to suit all tastes and wallets and the weather, well, as Wainwright declared, ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing’.
With hikes and trails for all ages and abilities there’s a path for everyone. Here are a few recommendations to get you thinking!
The UK’s highest war memorial, Scafell Pike was gifted to the National Trust just after the end of the first World War in memory of the men of the Lake District who died fighting for King and Country. Part of the three peaks challenge, Scafell Pike, being England’s highest mountain, is obviously a popular one to bag and the National Trust estimate that over 100,000 people climb it each year. Although the smallest of the three peaks at 978m, don’t assume it’s an easy feat. Of the four main routes, the easiest and shortest route at 2.6 miles, leaves from Wasdale and is the one for summit baggers; the top can be achieved in around one and a half hours. The Corridor Route from Seathwaite though, is reckoned to be the best one by far; it gives a better exploration of the rugged and mystical fells and is for hikers wishing to appreciate the journey as much as the destination. Rated as difficult, it is rather long at 9 miles and has 1,000m of ascent, making it a good and great day’s hike.
Pillar from Wasdale via the High Level Path
Usually climbed from Wasdale Head, the simplest route for lesser mortals goes via the Black Sail Pass, the main track between Wasdale and Ennerdale, to around 545m then ascends Pillar via the gentle east ridge. To summit Pillar via the High Level Path however, turns this into a proper challenge and one which experienced hikers and serious adventure seekers will cherish! Splitting off of the traditional path at about 640m, by a small cairn, the High Level Path is a mile and a quarter of exposed, steep slopes, with scree, boulder fields and scrambles. Confidence and experience is required if tackling this route, as once committed there are no exit points and it could be an hour and a half of sheer hell. The views you get from it though are simply stunning, especially on a clear day and with an ascent of 879m over its eight mile course the satisfaction of having completed perhaps the Lake’s toughest hike should make all the sweat and scrambling worthwhile!
One of the classic Lakeland hikes, Helvellyn was named England’s most popular fell walk in 2018. The third highest point in the Lakes, on a clear day it gives a 360 degree panoramic from its 950m summit; you can even gaze as far as the Irish Sea. The shortest and easiest way up is from Thirlmere, it’s just over two miles and takes about three hours. The best route up though is via Striding Edge with the descent via Swirral Edge. At over 8 miles long and with an elevation gain of 842m, this is a demanding hike; they’ll be plenty of hand using and scrambling, plus you’ll need a head for heights for walking along the high and exposed ridges. The compensation for all the sweat and tears in getting there means that you’ll get to see the best views in the Lake District! This route takes around 5 to 6 hours to complete and being such a well loved hike, it gets busy in the warmer weather so set off early to avoid the jams.
The Coledale Horseshoe
This is a high level route in the Wainwright Fells, stretching around a stunning bunch of summits, crags, and passes. The lack of any habitation in the valley gives the peaks and ridges a raw, wild aura and on a quiet day this evokes the feelings of solitude and isolation. The hardest part of the trail is done in the first couple of miles, the hike up Grisedale Pike from the starting point at Braithwaite. After this the path leads along Hobcarton Crag to Hopegill Head, giving glorious views of the coast, then onto Coledale Hause and Crag Hill, this being the mid way point at the top bit of the horseshoe. Then Sail and Outerside follow and make up the standard 8 mile route. If you are up for a bit more of a trial, other fells can be added on as side spurs, Grasmoor, Causeway Pike and Barrow being some of the popular ones. The path is reasonably even although there are some rocky bits and the peaks, while not huge, do come along regularly, giving your legs a good work out.
The Old Man of Coniston
Rumoured to be the inspiration for Kanchenjunga, a mountain in Arthur Ransom’s Swallows and Amazons book series, the Old Man of Coniston is one of the Lake’s most popular hikes. Along with the all-embracing views from the 802m summit, which on a fine stretch to the Isle of Man, Snowdon and Scotland, the climb up to it is a tolerably easy one, making it a great initiation into the world of fell walking. Only 2.5 miles from the centre of Coniston, the town where John Ruskin lived and Donald Campbell died, the summit is reached via ancient tracks made by miners and quarrymen on their way up to the slate quarries and copper mines on the mountain’s north east slopes. Now abandoned, these mines were used extensively for over 800 years and are part of history of the area. Due to its popularity, any clear day in whatever season will see large numbers of hikers on the Old Man’s flanks. If this does not appeal, consider approaching via say Dow Crag from the west or from Wetherlam and Swirl How to the north and bag couple of other peaks at the same time.
A summit of 763m in the Southern Fells, Wetherlam, while not being as popular as other peaks, provides great mountaineering practice thanks to its two ‘edges’ and its plethora of tunnels and old mines make it a great place to have a poke about, although be warned; the tunnels aren’t maintained, so are best observed from the outside. There are three main routes to its summit, the best but not necessarily the most popular, ascends via the Steel Edge and descends via Wetherlam Edge (or vice versa, it is feasible either way). A difficult route of just under five miles, with short, sharp climbs and steep, rocky scrambles, this one is best climbed in the finer months as it’s a shady and exposed track, beginning from Tilberthwaite, near Coniston. The most common route to Wetherlam’s summit is probably from the ascension of the Old Man of Coniston, instead of descending, continue onward to the peaks of Brim Fell, Swirl How, follow a rocky ridge called Prison Band, then Black Sails and finally onto Wetherlam! A longer route at 9.5 miles, it gives you the chance to get a few summits under your belt in one day and ensures you will have a great nights sleep! Lastly, but by no means least, the easiest and most direct route goes straight up the pass or Hause, between Swirl How and Wetherlam. This route misses out any other fells, so is the one if you are only wanting to bag it.
While only 597m at its top, Haystacks has become one of the most popular fells, due to its uniqueness, variety and Alfred Wainwright. The famous author and fell walker claimed this as his favourite and requested his ashes be scattered at Innominate Tarn, near to its summit. Sitting between Buttermere and the upper end of Ennerdale, it is a gem of a hike with superb views over the rolling landscape. To follow in his footsteps, set off from Gatesgarth Farm, near the head of Buttermere, the track climbs the fairly steep Scarth Gap to the pass between High Crag and Haystacks before zigzagging up the slopes of Haystacks to attain its summit. A moderate hike of 5 miles, there are a few challenging sections but nothing too extreme.
If staying in Ambleside, this one is a must do, for there is something very pleasing about being able to begin a trail directly from your front door and this trail does just that. A classic horseshoe trail or ‘round’, it winds its way around the valley of Rydal for just over ten miles, at high levels, bagging eight Wainwrights along its way. Fairfield is the highest summit at 873m and although there is 1100m of total elevation, this is not a particularly difficult trail, just rather long and strenuous. From the high ridges the views out across the National Park and over Windermere are unforgettable and it is little wonder that this is the most famous of the classic Lake District rounds.
Also known as Saddleback, this popular mountain is really more of a small range that a single stand alone; there are six peaks with Hallsfell Top being the highest at 868m. The peaks stand along a curving ridge of 3 miles and depending on the direction the slopes range from being smooth and easy to complex and rocky. As such, there are many routes to reach its summit, but for the main part they are all fairly short, ranging from around 2 miles to 5 miles. The most well known and exciting route is via Sharp Edge, a narrow ridge of rock, or arête, separating two valleys. This is the one for seasoned hikers and those possessing a head for heights and good scrambling skills. A slightly easier ascension is via Hall’s Fell ridge, although again some scrambling is required. If something less intimidating and strenuous is in order, then the route via Scales Fell, from Scales is probably the one to do. With a good path for the most part, it follows a broad grassy ridge south of Scales Tarn. At the summit, Derwent Water and Thirlmere can be seen and on a clear day, the distant mountain is Slieve Meelmore in County Down, Northern Ireland, some 123 miles away!
What Cat Bells may lack in height it makes up for in character! A small peak of 451m, overlooking Derwent Water it gives amazing views of the northern Lakes. Easy to access from the A66, it’s a popular hike and as such gets busy in peak season. A good starter summit for newbies, with the exception of a short steep path at the beginning and a quick scramble to the summit there is nothing too difficult here, making it a good family hike for all; young and old legs and friends with four legs. Several routes lead to its summit, the shortest being three miles long. Starting from the car park at the foot of Skelgil Bank, it’s straight up this bank and onto the summit of Cat Bells, the descent being via Brunt Crag on the western edge of Cat Bells, all in less than a couple of hours. To add a little bit on, in mileage and time, descend via the eastern ridge where there are continuous views of Derwent Water.
Langdale Pikes via Jack’s Rake
While not the highest fells in the Lakes, the Langdale Pikes are the best part of Great Langdale and are noted for their rugged, craggy sides that seem to rise precipitously from the ground. Etched into the side of Pavey Ark, one of the Langdale Pikes, there is a gully known as Jack’s Rake which runs diagonally upwards from right to left. Awkward and difficult, it is more of a scramble and a climb, as it cuts through the crags. Loved and hated in equal measure, this route is a bit of a magnet for thrill seekers and gets busy at times. Around three and a half miles and with an ascent of 600m the track starts from the New Dungeon Ghyll, in Great Langdale and is fairly steep right from the off. From afar Jack’s Rake can be seen in its entirety and Sickle Tarn is a good place for a short respite before tackling it. Jack’s Rake is a drainage line so is usually damp or wet, this is amplified in wet weather, becoming treacherous and slippery. Be careful of loose rocks and falling debris, if there is one route here in which to wear a helmet, this is it! A fair weather track, serious hikers only.
Steam Yacht Gondola Parkamoor to Brantwood Trail
And finally, because this is the Lake District, no trip here would be complete without a boat trip and a great way to experience this and get a hike in at the same time is to take the Steam Yacht Gondola from Coniston Pier. Glide along the mysterious waters’ of this magnificent lake for about 45 minutes, before getting off at Parkamoor jetty, where there is a four and a half mile track through open fell and woodland, rich in both wildlife and views. An easy to moderate trail, it takes around 3 hours to arrive at Brantwood jetty before re-boarding the Gondola to return to Coniston Pier. The gondola is open from mid April to the end of October and makes a great day out for families, and the nearby Herdwicks Cafe and Bistro on Yew Tree Farm, once owned by Beatrix Potter, makes a good add on for foodies.