Monday 14 November 2022

Backpacking In The Lake District: A High-Level Borrowdale Circuit

Sunset, Grey Knotts

As a youngster the Lake District was a place of magic for me long before I ever went there. Through Arthur Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons books I fell in love with the fells, the lakes, and the thought of camping amongst them. I so wanted to do that! And when I did many years later it was just as wonderful and special as I had imagined. My early backpacking and wild camping all took place in the Lake District and whilst there must have been rainy days in my mind it was always dry and sunny. In the summer of 1976 that was actually true for weeks on end. I visited the Lake District with friends many times that year and had many superb high camps. 

One of my 1976 camps. Taken with a cheap film camera before I was a photographer!

My backpacking journeys soon took me far from the Lake District for long walks in much bigger, far wilder places. I moved to the Scottish Highlands and visits to the Lake District dwindled. Then Terry Abraham, with whom I’d made a film about winter in the Cairngorms, suggested making one about backpacking in the Lake District. I agreed, wondering if the magic would still remain. And if it would rain.

We came up with a high-level backpacking route that went round Borrowdale and only crossed a road once. It could be done in two or three days (or half a day by fell runners) but filming is a slow process, so we took a little more. It’s not a walk to hurry anyway. There’s too much to see.

Camp on Bleaberry Fell

The first day was hot. I left Derwent Water to climb beside Cat Gill to join Terry and another friend Mark (of online outdoor retailer Valley and Peak) to camp on Bleaberry Fell. The evening was lovely. Dusk came slowly with a gradual fading of the details of the hills and a deepening pink wash over the western sky. Just a few days from the solstice and there was no real darkness, just enough for a few stars to appear. Already the magic of the Lakes had returned.

Dawn was softly beautiful too with a warm cast over the land that hardened and brightened as the sun rose higher. We were reluctant to leave but eventually packed up and headed south along the broad ridge on a dry, sunny day. I marvelled at the landscape spread out around us, both its beauty and its compactness. To the north the Solway Firth was visible, to the south Morecambe Bay. Eastwards the distinctive summit of Ingleborough in the Yorkshire Dales stood out. Only to the west did the hills seem to stretch far, though I knew this was not so. There was cloud this way too, rolling over the Western Fells.

Camp on High Raise

Our second camp was on the side of High Raise, looking out over Langstrath to ranges of ragged hills. Again, dusk and dawn were magnificent, the land bathed in the warmth of the sun. The following day was even hotter. To the west though the clouds were still rising and falling over Bowfell and Esk Pike. Our route was turning in that direction. Soon we’d be heading back north.

Angle Tarn was half in sunshine, half shaded by the clouds. I’ve always found this a magical place. I first came here on a school trip. I was about eleven years old. I’d never been to the Lake District before, never seen hills like this. A lake below a cliff. Just wonderful! It still is.

From Angle Tarn we went past Sprinkling Tarn, the false Esk Hause and Styhead Tarn, places that felt very familiar as I’d been here so often even though my last visit was many years earlier. Close by but out of sight of Styhead Tarn we camped  with a tremendous view down Wasdale and across to the Scafell range. Another friend joined us. There was ample room for four tents.

Inversion, Wasdale

As the sun sank behind the western hills a faint haze could be seen in the valley below, a haze with a distinct upper edge running along the hills. Soon this began to thicken and in just a few minutes had turned into a dense white mist that filled the valley and billowed up the sides of the hills, a quite magnificent sight. Over a few hours the temperature inversion rose and fell, with the lights of Wasdale Head coming and going, before it faded completely.

This was the end of our first filming trip and the next day we descended. The weather had been perfect, the Lake District as wonderful as I remembered. This had been a trip to match those in 1976.

Back again weeks later we sweated up Grains Gill on a heavy, hot, and humid day. Soon we were back on our route. A gentle breeze now mitigated the humidity, but it was still hot. Past Sprinkling Tarn we descended into another heat cauldron in the bowl containing Styhead Tarn. Above us reared the massive distinctive bulk of Great Gable. Climbing its steep slopes didn’t seem attractive in these temperatures. Instead, we took the dramatic Climbers Traverse across the steep rocky southern slopes of the mountain. I’d not been on this narrow, dramatic and often sketchy route for many, many years and I’d forgotten how impressive it is as it winds across steep rocky slopes below the huge, shattered cliffs of the mountain with stupendous views across Lingmell Beck to the Scafell range and down to the neat green fields of Wasdale.

Terry Abraham on the Climbers Traverse, Great Gable

I’d also forgotten that care is needed to find the easiest and safest route as in places there are several paths. ‘Keep to the lower ones’, said Terry, who’d been along it much more recently than me. We did, yet still found paths below us. There were some very easy bits of scrambling but nothing very exposed and the surrounding rock scenery and views down Wasdale were magnificent. Eventually, after we crossed one more steep wide scree slope, we came on Moses Trod and followed this reputedly illicit whisky distillers’ path below dark and foreboding Gable Crag on the north face of the mountain. Rather than complete the girdle of the mountain we then turned away, heading north along the broad undulating ridge towards Honister Pass.

Camp on Grey Knotts

On the boggy, pool-dotted summit of Grey Knotts we stopped and made camp, finding dry pitches on the east side with superb views back to Great Gable and the Scafell range. The sunset was wonderful with dappled clouds slowly turning pink and reflecting in the pools. 

Evening on Grey Knotts

Dawn however came with an overcast sky. The summits were still clear though, just flat and hazy rather than sharp and dramatic. We descended a rather loose and stony steep path to Honister Pass and then climbed up the equally steep but grassy far side. My plan had been to camp at Dalehead Tarn, which I remembered as a pleasant spot. Terry had intimated that this might not be a good idea. When we arrived I could see why. The tarn fades away into reed-filled marshes and the area is very boggy. That camping here was to be avoided was confirmed when we stopped briefly to get water and have a rest and were immediately set upon by biting insects, the only ones of the whole trip. We moved on up to High Spy, another indistinct, rambling summit with, again, plenty of dry spots to camp, though water was further away and the shallow little pool we drew it from rather muddy. I rarely filter or treat hill water. Here I did.

Just a descent back to Keswick was left. The steep path from Catbells was hard on the feet and took us back into the heat and humidity and stifling air. Keswick was reached with relief.

This walk brought back to me the joys of backpacking in the Lake District. I think it’s a superb route, staying high and wild. I’d happily do it again. 

This piece first appeared in Lakeland Walker magazine last year under the title Journey Through The Past.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Chris,that was a lovely read about your Lakeland adventure,mirroring your long awaited ventures when a youth.It was refreshing to read how hopeful you were as a lad,to explore the wilds of the Lake district and then further afield.And my,how you have achieved that over the years!It reminds me of a youth,my old mentor said to me "know your own backdoor first and then explore further" ,and he was correct.Knowing your home area first is critical and something alot of youths nowadays don't get to do,as the world is their oyster so to speak.The Alps are in easy reach for most and some people know the Alps more they do of their own country.A reversal over the years that i don't think is at all healthy.Reading your article and having watched the dvd,which is excellent,brings back memories for me now that I can't get to the wilds anymore,so I thank you for that prompt.Any chance of you making another dvd with Terry Abraham?Now that would be nice.Thank you.