In the heart of England’s rural north-west, lies The Lake District, a landscape of dramatic contrasts and outstanding natural beauty. 500 million years of geological processes have forged a system of mountains and valleys that radiate out from the centre like the spokes of a wheel. For centuries, the prevailing impression among the wider population was of a fearful wilderness to be avoided at all costs. But attitudes changed during the Victorian era and the region began to see an influx of tourists coming to marvel at its scenic majesty.
At the same time, a desire to safeguard the landscape and its traditional ways of life began to grow. In 1895, The National Trust was formed as a charity to conserve places of historical or natural importance. Thanks to bequests such as those from children’s author and hill farmer, Beatrix Potter, the Trust was able to acquire much of Lakeland. In 1951, the Lake District became the UK's largest National Park and this summer, it has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Today, over 17 million people a year come to visit England’s highest hills and deepest lakes. Our mountains are small compared with those of other countries but their steep buttresses and plunging ravines, rocky outcrops and dramatic peaks possess drama and splendour in abundance.
Between 1952 and 1965, Alfred Wainwright produced a series of Pictorial Guides to The Lakeland Fells (fell is the local name for a hill or mountain). Using beautiful pen and ink drawings, hand-sketched maps, poetic eulogies and deliciously opinionated diatribes against the intrusions of the modern world, Wainwright catalogued all known ascents, descents and ridge routes for 214 fells. His books became best sellers and unlocked this remarkable landscape for his contemporaries and subsequent generations of fell walkers.
Wainwright described the southern fells as “a bit of heaven fallen upon the earth”. Among his favourites were Bow Fell and its neighbour, Crinkle Crags. Together they form a crenelated wall that rises above Great Langdale, a verdant valley in the heart of the district. Bow Fell’s broad eastern shoulder is a long ridge called The Band, which splits the valley into Oxendale to the south and Mickleden to the north. Crinkle Crags looms above Oxendale. If any mountain lives up to its name, it’s this one – a fine ridge comprising five crinkled summits, replete with craggy outcrops and plunging scree gullies.
On the south side of the valley is the Pike O’ Blisco, a name evocative of pirate ships on the Spanish Main and it’s just possible that caves below its summit hold buried treasure - but more of that in a while. Today, I aim to make a circuit of all three, starting from the historic Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel.
The Dungeon Ghyll started life as a farm, but in the early 1900's, historian and conservationist, George Macaulay Trevelyan bought and donated it to the National Trust. It was turned into a hotel and the cow shed became the Climbers’ Bar – it still has the cattle stalls. Through the years, the bar has played host to all the stars of British climbing. After becoming the first Brits to conquer the north face of the Eiger, Chris Bonnington and Ian Clough gave a practice run of their expedition lecture here. What an appropriate place to begin a mountain adventure (albeit a slightly less ambitious one than the Eiger).
It’s early July and the fields that flank the farm road are a riot of white daisy and red headed meadow grass. Ahead the Pike O’ Blisco and the Band are cloaked in green; beyond, the lower slopes of Crinkle Crags lurk in blue-tinged shadow, while its peaks bask in sun. The road leads from the hotel to Stool End farm. A penned sheep brays for attention as I cross the yard and take the path that skirts the foot of The Band, heading for Oxendale. Across a field, by an old stone sheepfold, a little wooden footbridge leads over the boulder-strewn bed of Oxendale Beck and I begin to climb beside the bank of Browney Gill. The gradient is steep and it’s a relentless slog up to Brown How, where I pause for breath and gaze down the ravine at the stream that has filled my ears all the way up. Above, are the craggy heights of the Pike O’ Blisco, while behind, over The Band, rises one of the best known and most pleasing mountain profiles in the district – that of the Langdale Pikes. Mercifully, from here on, the gradient eases and before long I reach the glistening waters of Red Tarn, a mountain pond, so named for the colour of the surrounding soil, rich in iron ore.
In the 1800’s the neighbouring valley of Little Langdale was home to a notorious smuggler and illicit whisky maker, named Lanty Slee. Slee was convicted twice during his long and illustrious career and kept the courtroom in Ambleside well-entertained with the razor wit of his defences. He used numerous hideaways for his barrels; the caves around Red Tarn are supposed to have been one. The excise men never succeeded in seizing his moonshine, so who knows - some of Lanty’s whisky may still be here, hidden among these crags. It would be a fine age by now!
I turn left and climb the path that zig zags up to the summit of the Pike O’ Blisco. The effort is richly rewarded with striking views east to the waters of Windermere; and west to Crinkle Crags, whose grassy slopes and dark precipitous cliffs are a palette of dappled green and grey rock. On top, amid the white stone of the summit, a tiny pond is a blue jewel and a stunning vista unfurls over Great Langdale, the lush green of the valley sweeping abruptly skyward to the rocky steeples of the Langdale Pikes.
I tarry a while, then retrace my steps to Red Tarn and continue along the path that leads between Cold Pike and Great Knott to Crinkle Crags. On the way, I'm watched by a curious Herdwick lamb and her mother. Herdwicks are a breed of hardy mountain sheep, indigenous to area. It's thought they were brought here by the Vikings. Visitors assume they are wild as they appear to wander freely across the fell sides, but in truth, each flock is "hefted" to its own patch and never wanders beyond its territory. The lambs are born black but soon acquire their characteristic white faces. Their fleeces turn chocolate brown in their first year and transform to charcoal grey after their first shearing. The grey gradually whitens with age.
We lose each other en-route to the second Crinkle. This is the highest of the five and the mountain's true summit, but a direct ascent is barred by two large chock stones that block the entrance to a steep-sided gully. This impediment is known as "The Bad Step". A lower path skirts the crag and attains the summit from the other side, but the sporting option is to climb the gully’s right-hand wall. The first two footholds are easy enough to spot, but unless you are a yogi adept at curling your feet above your head, the next step is groin-wrenchingly high. There is a small stone spur in between, but in the apparent absence of any further handholds it's simply too slight to balance on. The trick is to reach up and over the smooth stone slab above. Here affords a firm two-handed grip and you can pull yourself up, pushing off from the spur and reaching the next foothold with comparative ease. There is, of course, no disgrace and considerably more decorum in opting for the bypass.
The second Crinkle bears the name, Long Top for the plateau of elevated ground that surrounds its summit. On a day like today, the route ahead is obvious, each of the three remaining Crinkles falling into line before the dominant peak of Bow Fell. But the weather can turn quickly here and in cloud it’s a different matter. The path is sketchy at best and it’s all too easy to find yourself descending to the wrong valley; an error, I very nearly made a few years back. Today, there are no such difficulties and the route over the subsequent peaks is pure joy.
At the end of the ridge lies Shelter Crags, a kind of Ian Stewart to the Crinkles' Rolling Stones; to all intents and purposes a sixth member but never credited as part of the band. I feel a moral imperative to include it, so make a brief detour to its summit before reaching the col of Three Tarns.
Tarn means a mountain pond or lake. The name Three Tarns is at best an approximate average - depending on the season and rainfall, there can be anything from one to five. Today, I count four and they look magnificent, the largest, a rippling pool of royal blue below the wild majesty of the Scafells.
The path down The Band appears on the right and tempts tired legs, but to descend now would be to forego the adventure's crowning glory. Scafell Pike is known as The Roof of England but it tops Bow Fell by a mere 250ft. For my money, Bow Fell has the finer scenery and panoramas.
It's a steep haul to the top, but as the gradient finally eases, one of the mountain's many wonders unfurls to the right, the huge slope of polished rock known as The Great Slab. A river of boulders runs up its side, offering another fine way to achieve this summit. Some daring souls even venture out into the middle. To do so in the rain would be to dice with death, the smooth wet stone, a sheet of ice. One slip and there'd nothing to break your fall till you hit the valley bottom, earlier than planned and a in great many more pieces. Even in the dry, I’d think twice, but three Herdwick ewes are out there with their lambs, scouring the fissures for grass.
I clamber up the remaining boulders to the summit and turn slowly through 360 degrees to feast on the view. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, the image of The Lakes as the spokes of a wheel makes perfect sense. Bow Fell feels like the hub with valleys and mountains radiating out at all points of the clock. I find a sheltered cove just below the summit, overlooking Great Langdale with the Langdale Pikes to my left and the Pike O' Blisco on my right. The sun dapples the slopes and dances among the deep green shadows. This is a landscape formed 450 million years ago by catastrophic volcanic eruptions. Its timeless, rugged grandeur is astounding. To be right here, right now, witnessing all this, is an overwhelming privilege. It’s funny how priorities differ. For some, the ultimate day out involves pampering and spending a small fortune in a fashionable London eatery. I’m caked in sweat, my muscles ache and my feet are burning. I have lukewarm water in a plastic bottle, a pie, a flapjack and the finest seat in England – I wouldn't trade with anyone.
For more walking tales from the English Lake District, visit http://www.lakelandwalkingtales.co.uk