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The Lake District is the English landscape at its most epic: it claims its highest peaks and its deepest lakes, it has moved the pens of great poets and the brushes of Old Masters, it has bequeathed us cultural treasures as diverse as Swallows and Amazons, Kendal Mint Cake and all the best scenes in Withnail and I. It has some of the best walks in the UK too, with trails to suit every kind of rambler – from humble hikers looking to stretch their legs near the car park, to brave souls conquering England’s loftiest peaks via frightening scrambles. With the tough terrain and rapidly changing weather inbound from the Irish Sea, it’s vital to come well prepared: you’ll need proper walking boots and a waterproof shell – especially on heavyweight mountains such as Blencathra, Helvellyn and the ever-popular Scafell Pike, the highest point in the Lake District. For all the walks below (with the possible exception of Tarn Hows) be sure to take a map. Tarn Hows 2-mile circuit, OS Explorer map OL7
Contrary to what its name might suggest, the Lake District contains practically no lakes – instead meres, waters and tarns are the preferred terms for its watery expanses, and such is the case at Tarn Hows. An easy, well-trodden path performs a circuit of the shores, with a fine prospect of wooded islands and the reflections of the Langdale Pikes trembling in the tarn’s cold waters. Much of this land was the property of Beatrix Potter – a conservation pioneer who bequeathed it to the National Trust in her will. It’s only a 15-minute drive to her old cottage, Hill Top, purchased on the royalties from
The Tale of Peter Rabbit. For maps and more details on the trail, see nationaltrust.org.uk Aira Force and the Gowbarrow Trail 4.5-mile circuit, OS Explorer map OL5
Few features of the Lakes’ landscapes weren’t – at some point or other – evoked by Wordsworth’s rhapsodic verses, but Aira Force had a special place in the poet’s heart. This waterfall featured in no less than three of his poems – it was only a little further downstream that the bard was inspired to write
Daffodils. Set out on your very own lonely wandering, following the trail from the car park through a Victorian arboretum of firs, cedars and spruces. Continue on past the waterfall to the summit of Gowbarrow Fell (1,578 feet) for views over the vales and hills beyond Ullswater, returning to the car park via the Memorial Seat. For more on this walk see nationaltrust.org.uk Haystacks 5-mile circuit, OS Explorer map OL4
Alfred Wainwright’s guidebooks unlocked the Lakeland fells for thousands. But of all the soaring peaks, humble Haystacks was his favourite. At 1,959 feet, it is admittedly not a big mountain, but it’s one that is, he claimed, perfect for idle lingering: in whose rocky mazes all worries were forgotten. To lose your troubles, set out from near Gatesgarth Farm, looking back on the waters of Buttermere as you trudge up to Scarth Gap Pass. Cresting the summit, look out for the heather-strewn shores of Innominate Tarn – where Wainwright’s ashes were scattered. Return to the farm passing Blackbeck Tarn, and the paths that wind beside Warnscale Beck.
Ennerdale Water 7.5-mile circuit, OS Explorer map OL4
The western edges of the Lakes are a world apart from the tourist hubs of Keswick, Ambleside and Windermere – the trails are less trammelled, ice creams are scarcer – but the landscape is, if anything, even more majestic. Unsung Ennerdale Water is the only major lake in the park without a road running beside it – from the car park under Bowness Knott, follow a footpath along the northern shore deeper into Ennerdale Forest, as the summits of Steeple and Pillar gather high over the treetops. Return via the southern shore, under the steep cliffs of Angler’s Crag.
Grasmere to Helm Crag 5.5-mile circuit, OS Explorer map OL7
Helm Crag (1,329 feet) is one of the most characterful of the fells, its summit populated by rock formations variously resembling a lion and a lamb, a woman playing the organ and a howitzer. See all of these (and perhaps more) after an ascent from Wordsworth’s home village of Grasmere: a popular path zig-zags north up to the summit over White Crag, whereupon you might retrace your steps, or choose to cross the valley to Easedale Tarn – a little lake beloved of Victorian tourists. Then follow gurgling brooks back to Grasmere itself, pondering Wordsworth’s belief that in all the world, this was ‘the loveliest spot that man hath found.’
Ambleside to Troutbeck over Wansfell 6-mile circuit, OS Explorer map OL7
Supposedly named after the Norse god Woden, Wansfell Pike (1,581 feet) commands god-like views south over the green islands of Windermere, and westward to mighty fells. It’s something of a local mountain for the town of Ambleside, with the relatively easy-going climb to the summit passing the mossy waterfalls of Stock Ghyll Force. From the top, descend the eastern slopes to the village of Troutbeck, where another path contours around Wansfell’s southern slopes back to Ambleside.
Catbells, the Dale Head Horseshoe and the Newlands Valley 10-mile circuit, OS Explorer map OL4
Catbells (1,480 feet) is often regarded as a little hill with the demeanour of a far grander summit – its closeness to Keswick has long made it a summer-holiday favourite. Starting at Gutherscale car park, follow the well-trodden path south, with expansive views of the islands, bays and boathouses of Derwent Water. From Catbells summit most people descend via Hawes Gate, but if you have the energy continue along the ridge, travelling a far quieter trail to Dale Head Tarn. Return via Hindscarth and the beautiful Newlands Valley.
Around Wast Water 10.5-mile circuit, OS Explorer map OL6
Wasdale is the wild valley at whose head some of the greatest Cumbrian peaks assemble – Kirk Fell, Great Gable, and Scafell Pike among them. Forming its southern rim are the lesser-known hills of Whin Rigg and Illgill Head – a grassy balcony from which to admire the glacier-hewn drama beyond. From Nether Wasdale, scale Whin Rigg, proceeding north-east towards Scafell Pike itself. Upon descending Illgill Head you are faced with two options – return on the southern shore of Wast Water on a boulder-strewn path through ‘the screes’ (notorious for sprained ankles), or else choose the easier country road on the northern shore.
Blencathra via Hall’s Fell Ridge and Sharp Edge A serious 7.5-mile circuit with scrambling, OS Explorer map OL5
The most hair-raising of all Lake District scrambles is Blencathra’s Sharp Edge – a ridge that Alfred Wainwright said was ‘sharp enough for shaving’ and that should only be tackled by experienced mountaineers (especially in wet weather, when the slate gets slippery). There are plenty of ways to access the ridge: one lively warm-up is to set out from Threlkeld, ascending Blencathra via Hall’s Fell Ridge (itself requiring a strong head for heights). From the summit (2,848 feet) descend to Scales Tarn, reascending by Sharp Edge itself (for much of the ascent you’ll be on all fours). Descending Scales Fell will bring you back to Threlkeld via a more sedate route.
Helvellyn via Striding Edge and Swirral Edge A serious 8-mile circuit with scrambling, OS Explorer map OL5
Scafell Pike may be the highest and most famous mountain in England, but for many the true king of Lakeland fells is Helvellyn (3,118 feet): the peak at the heart of the national park, soaring regally over the waters of Thirlmere. Its most popular ascent sees you walking west from the village of Glenridding to the base of Striding Edge – where you embark on a sublime (and very serious) scramble up the ridge to Helvellyn summit. Descend on Swirral Edge, Striding Edge’s shorter, steeper cousin. As with Blencathra’s Sharp Edge, both edges should only be attempted by confident and prepared mountaineers.
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