EPIC Hikes in Europe
3 Mountains in the Lake District
3 Mountains in
the Lake District
Scafell Pike 978 m
Helvellyn 950 m
Blencathra 868 m
The Lake District is England’s largest national park, although proud citizens north of the border will surely remind you that it is dwarfed by Scotland’s mighty Cairngorms, which are double in size. At the beginning of the 19th century, poets including Robert Southey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth made sure that this impossibly beautiful corner of Cumbria crept into Britain’s national psyche. Today, the area is home to a mere 40,000 people. But a quarter of its housing stock are second or holiday homes and close to 20 million annual visitors (most of them day trippers) descend on the Lakes, adding some 1.5 billion£ to the local economy. Hence, at busy times in the summer or at weekends, the national park can feel a touch claustrophobic, in particular in those towns and villages that sport a lovely lake-side location, such as Windermere, Ambleside, Grasmere or Keswick.
Given its literature legacy, the rather bureaucratically sounding term ‘Lake District’ could benefit from a more romantic alternative, yet it is nonetheless accurate. A total of 16 bodies of water can be accessed within a relatively compact area of 2,300 km². Yet, only one is actually referred to as a lake (Bassenthwaite), with others described as ‘mere’ (as in Windermere) or ‘water (as in Derwentwater).
The area is also sometimes referred to as the ‘Alps of England’. But high-altitude aficionados might want to curb their enthusiasm. In the strictest definitional sense (which is 1,000 metres), the Lake District does not contain a single mountain, only a (still impressive) range of hills with Scafell Pike, the highest elevation in England, topping the charts at 978 m. But before you get all snobby, you might want to keep in mind that the start of your hikes is almost at sea level, which means that ascents taking 2 to 3 hours are the norm.
The weather can be a challenge. Being so close to the Irish Sea, mist, fog, and rain frequently puts a literal damper on proceedings with the town of Seathwaite claiming the dubious accolade of being the wettest inhabited place in England (with an annual rainfall of over 3.5 litres). Don’t claim you haven’t been warned when horizontal sheets of rain and autumnal temperatures hit you on a previously bright and sunny summer’s day.
The town of Keswick with Blencathra looming in the background
How to get there:
Britain’s major North-South axis, the M6 motorway, skirts by the Lake District with exit 37 giving access to the southern fringe around Windermere and exit 40 doing the same for the northern parts around Keswick.
If you are travelling by car or motorcycle, you might want to check out the crowds at Tebay Service Station (between exit 38 and 39) which has become a tourist attraction in its own right thanks to its promotion of local produce and – more decisively perhaps – for a popular TV series called ‘A Lake District Farm Shop’.
For train travellers, the West Coast mainline runs just east of the Lakes, connecting Oxenholme, Penrith and Carlisle with London and Glasgow (with Oxenholme having Further connections onto Kendal and Windermere). There is also a handy direct train from Manchester to Windermere. From then on, you would have to rely on a rather comprehensive bus network which connects the major settlements in the area.
Where to stay: Just outside of the National Park boundaries, the small town of Kendal with plenty of accommodation options offers easy access to the southern parts. Inside the park, Windermere has arguably the most developed infrastructure (chiefly among them a train station). Yet, the town also gets very crowded with day trippers strolling through the public parks along the lake shore or embarking on a pleasure cruise. Windermere is beset with the conundrum of a popular tourist location: just too many people aiming to catch a slice of its natural setting, and in the process compromising the thing they set out to experience in the first place.
The same problem affects places like Ambleside and Grasmere, although the limited accommodation options there at least means that a serene tranquillity returns in the evening once the coachloads have departed.
By far my preferred spot is the town of Keswick on the northern edge of the park. A sense of community just about hangs on, and I have fond memories of an evening spent in a pub listening to local folk performers. Keswick also has an impossibly picturesque location right on the shores of Derwentwater.
The villages just outside of town and a little further north towards Bassenthwaite Lake provide an even calmer base. This was the location of my accommodation, which I booked through Sykes Cottages. And yes, a cozy pub serving nice food just within walking distance: The Sun Inn, right in the centre of Bassenthwaite.
There are over 1,300 miles of marked footpaths in the Lake District. You can of course follow in the footsteps of local author and illustrator Alfred Wainwright who charted (and walked) nearly all of them. Doing ten miles per day, you can complete the set in 4 months, but for the more time-pressed amongst you, here is my humble selection of merely three day hikes (sorry, Alfred) which nonetheless gets you away from the crowds (most of the time), whilst offering magical views of an iconic landscape of hills, pastures, ponds, streams, and lakes, which surprisingly took until 2017 to be granted World Heritage Status. And yes, check the weather forecast.
Hike #1: Blencathra
Start and Finish: Threlkeld village, east of Keswick, just off A66.
In case you have based yourself in the Keswick area, this is a very convenient first hike up the Lake District’s 14th highest peak. Head to the village of Threlkeld, just east of town along the A66. At the end of this hamlet, you will find a car park (free), with further options along Blease Road and towards the Field Studies Council. Follow the path at the end of the car park, stick to the right of the creek running down the mountain, and continue straight up to the top for about 90 minutes. This is the steepest path of several on offer, but it is also the least crowded. You will encounter a quintessentially English hill landscape: grassy, rocky, treeless with the odd flock of sheep thrown in for picturesque effect, and magnificent views across the northern section on the National Park. Once at the top, walk west along the ridge on a well-trodden path, which will take you down to the Field Studies Council from where you can cut across back to Threlkeld. Or you can continue along the ridge for as long as your heart is content, before retracing your steps and back down into the valley. Once you are up there, it becomes very obvious what your options are.
Hike #2: Helvellyn
Start and Finish: car park (free) at trail head, just north of
Wythburn Church on A591
In a poll conducted by the television channel ITV in 2019, this hike was voted as the UK’s most popular. If that is not enough of an enticement, the magnificent views across lakes and fells surely will be. From Keswick, drive south (or take a bus to Windermere) along the A591, the main north-south axis of this section of the National Park. Halfway towards Grasmere, you will spot a car park on your lefthand side (if you go past Whythburn Church you have gone too far). If taking the bus, I am sure a friendly inquiry directed at the bus driver will result in you being dropped off at the right spot.
Grasmere with Helvellyn in the distance
During my hike in early summer, I encountered yet another cold and windswept day in Cumbria. On a breezy June morning, I climbed the 90 minutes or so up to the top, where a stiff wind, coming in from the Irish Sea made me run for cover amidst the ruins of an animal shelter. Across comes a local dude, casually taking his dog out for a walk (some walk that is). Fixing his gaze on my thermal layers, he dryly remarked that he was grateful to his (I presume) much better half who advised him not to go out in shorts. That’s all he said before making his way toward the next hill. I hugged my flask in a desperate attempt to keep warm and made my way back to the car park, wondering how thick this guy’s blood was. Once back at the car park, yYou can continue on to the beautiful natural settings found in Grasmere and Ambleside, just a couple of minutes away to complete what surely would be a perfect day out.
View from Helvellyn towards Derwentwater
Hike #3: Scafell Pike
4 ½ hours
Start and Finish: National Trust car park (9£) at Wasdale
It might take you a little longer to get to the south-western corner of the National Park with a car seeming to be essential. The drive along single-file tracks surrounded by farmlands, lakes and craggy mountain scenery is worth the effort alone. From Keswick, travel west along the A66, before turning south onto A595. Once you see the massive Sellafield Nuclear plant (which should be near the village of Gosworth), it is time to look for the signs towards Wasdale.
At the National Trust’s Wasdale campsite, you will realise though, that Scafell, after all England’s highest peak attracts the crowds, so get there bright and early. The hike’s first 90 minutes or so are wonderful: cross the bridge at the top of the car park, bear left, and then straight up through meadows, along creeks with the ever increasing elevation revealing magnificent views back down to Wastwater and a landscape that looks just a little like the Canadian Rockies. But the hike also feels like the longest staircase in the British Isles. Step after step, after step. The final 30 minutes or so are a scramble over rocks which have piled up on top of Scafell. Tedious, but of course, you want to reach the summit for glorious views towards the central section of the National Park.
View down to Wastwater
On my way up, I encountered many cheerful souls on their way down, wondering at what time they must have woken up to be so far ahead of me. And then I realised that these hikers were doing the ’Three Peak Challenge’ which requires one to scale the highest mountains in Scotland (Ben Nevis), Wales (Snowdon) and of course Scafell Pike in England. You have 24 hours to do it, with Scafell being the middle one. I came across a supremely-relaxed looking bloke devouring a samosa. When I asked how his 24 hour challenge was progressing, he looked at me quizzically, before stating that he’s not stupid, but merely the back-up crew for his crazy brothers, and in charge of ferrying them from mountain to mountain. Someone who’s got his priorities sorted.