A trip to Wainwright's favourite fells in the Lake District
BY Richard Webber
14th Dec 2023 Travel Stories
7 min read
Richard Webber follows in the footsteps of British fellwalker and guidebook author Alfred Wainwright, visiting his favourite fells in the Lake District
The grey blanket had lain heavily across the fell tops all morning but as I trudged up the muscle-wrenching track towards the summit of Blencathra, the veil of swirling mist gave way to shafts of sunlight.
By the time I reached the top of one of my favourite Lake District fells, the sky was awash with blue.
"As I trudged towards the summit of Blencathra, the veil of swirling mist gave way to shafts of sunlight"
A fellow walker huddled against a pile of rocks smiled. “Someone must be looking after you. It’s been a real pea-souper up here but you’ve brought the sun,” he said, munching the remnants of his sandwich.
Lakeland is England’s dampest region and I’ve endured my share of drenchings in this corner of the country, but this time the sun was a frequent companion.
Being able to enjoy some cloud-free fell tops was a huge relief because I was spending only a few days following in the footsteps of the late Alfred Wainwright, a hillwalking legend who knew this part of the world like the back of his hand.
It’s over 70 years since AW, as he was often called, first put pen to paper. This piece of writing—covering his ascent of Dove Crag—marked the beginning of his first Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. Six more guidebooks—all beautifully presented with intricately detailed walking routes and appealing ink drawings—followed as well as myriad other books.
His late wife, Betty, once described AW as a “sensitive, shy man who sought anonymity, hiding himself behind a gruff exterior”. He preferred to walk alone and the occasions he enjoyed the most were those when he had the fells to himself.
I must admit, I can appreciate his sentiments because nothing beats walking at one’s own pace, stopping when you want and being alone at a mountain’s summit—and there are enough of those in the Lake District.
Exploring the Wainwrights
Within the seven volumes of his pictorial guides, AW detailed 214 peaks, which became known as Wainwrights, and all but one—Castle Crag—are over 1,000 feet in height.
Interestingly, the Blackburn-born accountant, writer and intrepid walker never intended to publish the guides, he simply wanted a record for his own pleasure. He once wrote: “Drawing brought the mountains to my own fireside…I could wander over them seated in an easy chair, on a bleak winter’s night.”
Time constraints, alas, meant I only had a small window of opportunity to conquer a few fells, starting with Blencathra, which AW regarded as a “mountain that compels attention, even from those people whose eyes are not habitually lifted to the hills.”
It’s near impossible for anyone to miss the imposing grandeur of this fell rising high above the village of Threlkeld. Walkers are afforded various routes to the exposed summit, including Halls Fell Ridge, which I mastered. It’s direct and, at times, a scramble but brings you to within feet of the summit cairn. Another option is the infamous Sharp Edge, the most challenging and discussed crest of rock in the Lakes, and—in my view—best left to very experienced walkers.
Not wanting to be based in one region for the duration of my Lakeland adventure, I opted to stay with The Inn Collection Group, a northern-based company founded in 2013. Among its portfolio are several inns scattered across the Lake District, all conveniently located for exploring a plethora of fells.
For a few days, my base was The Pheasant Inn, close to Keswick and Bassenthwaite Lake. From there, I drove a little further to reach my next fell: Helvellyn, England’s third highest mountain.
AW—who died in 1991, aged 84—described it as a “friendly giant” and it’s easy to see why it’s arguably Lakeland’s most conquered fell. A shapely beauty, its jagged arms—Swirral Edge and Striding Edge—embrace Red Tarn, high up on its eastern flank; and it was from this side that I began my walk.
While the quickest and easiest ascent is from the west, the route from the east is more rewarding. But vertigo sufferers take heed: Swirral and Striding aren’t for the fainthearted. But with it being a windless day and good visibility, I chose the latter where a tiny track weaves along the steep, rugged ridge, with a huge drop either side.
"Just like AW, I enjoy closing my eyes and remembering previous fell-conquering days"
After tackling the ridge with extreme caution, I finally reached the summit, where a stone shelter provides protection when needed from the elements on this rocky terrain. I hauled out my flask and gazed down across the luscious landscape towards gracious Ullswater, the region’s second largest lake, edged by high-rising mountains reflected in its rippled surface.
Before leaving the summit, I joined a small crowd gathered around a memorial stone, marking the place where, in 1926, two brave souls made the first British mountaintop landing in a plane. What an amazing feat!
Just like AW, I enjoy closing my eyes and remembering previous fell-conquering days, such as the warm summer’s afternoon when Place Fell—overlooking Ullswater’s eastern shore—was the sole objective.
My walk began in Patterdale and, eventually, returned to the village via an undulating path along the shores of the lake. It was a route adored by Wainwright who rated it the “most beautiful and rewarding walk in Lakeland.”
Whenever I visit the Lake District, there is never any doubt about whether I’ll head west to Buttermere and Crummock Water because it’s my favourite corner and offers glorious mountains to climb, including Haystacks, which has become something of a magnet for Wainwright fans.
Atop the lumpy-looking fell is Innominate Tarn, some 1,700 feet above sea level. Haystacks was Wainwright’s favourite fell and he spent many hours sitting alongside the tarn. He once remarked: “For a man trying to get a persistent worry out of his mind, the top of Haystacks is a wonderful cure.”
Such was his love for this particular spot that, in keeping with his wishes, his ashes were scattered on the tarn’s shoreline. In his autobiography, Memoirs of a Fell Wanderer, he finished with the words, “And if you, dear reader, should get a bit of grit in your boot as you are crossing Haystacks in the years to come, please treat it with respect. It might be me.”
As I sat, sandwich in hand, contemplating AW’s assessment of this fell top, I decided it wasn’t the grandest around, in my view. But it’s definitely an unassuming, tranquil fell squeezed between loftier Fleetwith Pike and High Crag.
It was also one of several fell tops I bagged that day with my route continuing on to Seat, High Crag, High Stile and Red Pike before dropping down towards Crummock Water—certainly a rewarding, albeit tiring, day on the mountains.
All too soon my time in the Lakes was drawing to a close. As a fitting finale, I decided another lengthy walk was called for—especially as the weather was still playing ball.
A grand finale
Instead of a circular walk, I chose a linear route and jumped on the bus close to the The Swan, just outside Grasmere, which was my base for the night. Allegedly the oldest coaching inn within the Lake District, this 17th century hostelry was William Wordsworth’s local and where he brought his literary friends.
Alighting the bus at Great Langdale, my walk began with another trudge up a muscle-wrenching path. This time, the initial target was the crag-ringed corrie filled by 50-foot deep Stickle Tarn, set against the towering heights of Pavey Ark and Harrison Stickle.
This collection of fell tops dominates the skyline for miles with Pavey Ark, in particular, a superior crag offering a multitude of photo opportunities.
Taking a slight detour, I headed for High Raise, regarded by many—although not necessarily AW—as Lakeland’s most central mountain. While the writer felt the fell’s attractions were limited, he did conclude that High Raise boasted a “magnificent position geographically, many valleys radiating from the wide upper slopes”.
Stretching 2,500 feet into the Cumbrian air, High Raise is the loftiest of the Central Fells. Although its featureless grassy summit wouldn’t win a beauty contest, it offers superb views.
"A frustration of fell-walking is that one always wants to spend longer at a particular spot than time allows"
Perched up against the marker at the summit, I was entranced by the craggy western skyline where peaks with evocative names like Broad Crag and Great Gable rise from the valleys beyond.
A frustration of fell-walking is that one always wants to spend longer at a particular spot than time allows, and so it was on this occasion. I needed to move on with Grasmere my ultimate target.
En route, I dropped down to delightful Easedale Tarn. Sitting in a lofty crater-like spot two miles above the village, it’s often a hive of activity. Such was its popularity in the 1930s, that refreshments were, apparently, sold from a stone hut.
At the 69-foot deep tarn, I rested on a shoreside hillock and savoured the view of high ridges encircling the tarn while a buzzard soared on the thermals above. Even on the way down to the honeypot village of Grasmere, I made regular stops, this time to admire the frothy white plumes of water cascading from the mountain tarn.
Finally reaching Grasmere, I noted how quaint the village is, despite the bustle. Most of the crowds, however, seemed to be queueing for the famous gingerbread. If you want to find the shop selling this delicacy—where customers have included Nicole Kidman and Alan Whicker—just follow your nose.
I strolled along the streets before stopping at a streetside café for coffee and cake. Whilst I watched people wander by, I reflected on my days following in Alfred Wainwright’s footsteps. Memories of reading his autobiography came flooding back with one very poignant sentence firmly etched in my mind. He wrote: “A walk in Lakeland is a walk in heaven.” And I couldn’t agree more.
Want to know more? Visit wainwright.org.uk
Thanks to the publisher, Frances Lincoln, for allowing us to quote from Wainwright’s walking guides. For more information, go to quarto.com.
Richard stayed with The Inn Collection, which has several inns across the Lake District. Visit inncollectiongroup.com.
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