Derwent Fells, Lake District, England
- Introduction to the walk and the Lake District
- The hiking route
- Setting out to conquer Catbells
- Alternative shorter circular walking routes on Catbells
- Walking along the Ridge
- Walking over Dale Head and Hindscarth
- Return walk to Swinside Inn through Newlands Valley
It may be surprising that there aren't more walks from the Lake District on Walking Stories, but there is so much published material on this very popular walking region that it is easy for anyone to find good routes to suit them. Also, although I've walked extensively in the Lake District in my youth, I've not returned there to walk for many years, and all my photos are on old-technology slides which don't convert well to digital format (at least with the scanners that I've got). Checking my old copy of Wainwright's guide to the Northwestern Fells, I saw that I had last walked along the ridges above the Newlands Valley 39 years ago!
However, I got the chance to go back for an overnight stopover last week, before a family holiday in Center Parcs just east of Penrith. If I'd got packed earlier I'd have had more time to go walking! And then I had to take the back road from Carlisle as the A66 was blocked by an accident (fortunately I heard this on the radio in time).
I finally arrived in Newlands Valley at 3 pm and managed to fit in a decent walk (with a bit of running between the tops). It's one of my favourite parts of the Lake District, and since this circuit is less well known than some other routes, I thought it was worth adding to the site. Because of the bright clear weather, there's also a terrific set of photos to be seen in the Gallery.
It's a great example of the kind of ridge walking available in many parts of the Lake District. Once you've sweated up the initial climb, you get a relatively easy high-level ramble with a few more short climbs and, if you're lucky with the weather, ever-changing views over the fells and lakes on either side. And if you pick one of the circuits you can come back down close to where you started from, without the long and tiring trudge to finish which is quite common in Scotland.
- One well-known example is the Helvellyn horseshoe from Glenridding, up Striding Edge and down Swirral Edge (but not for the faint hearted).
- The Fairfield Horseshoe from Ambleside or Grasmere is a superb circuit which can be enjoyed without testing the nerves, and
- the Coledale Horseshoe from Braithwaite is another.
- Pillar, Steeple and Red Pike make up a marvellous circuit, from Wasdale Head; whilst
- there are shorter and longer circuits possible from Buttermere on the High Stile ridge.
The route I planned started from the Swinside Inn, at the northern end of the Newlands Valley, where I had booked in for the night. This meant I could leave the car there, although there's a small car park at the foot of Catbells. After the short but steep ascent of Catbells I would follow the ridge over Maiden Moor south to High Spy, at 2143 ft, then descend to the head of the valley before climbing north-west to Dale Head, the highest point of the walk at 2473 ft. I hoped to continue over Hindscarth then Robinson, each of which has a long ridge running north-east down into Newlands Valley. In fact as I was short of time I had to settle for the shorter descent from Hindscarth.
It was a glorious October day with blue skies and good visibility, with only a slight breeze and some autumn warmth hanging in the air. I had to drive carefully on the narrow roads through Portinscale, past the HF Holidays guest house at Derwent Bank where I had worked as the Centre Secretary in my youth, taking parties of walkers out on the fells. So this was familiar territory and a sentimental journey for me. Parking the car at the Swinside Inn I took in the view over the pastoral landscape of Newlands Valley with the distinctive nobble on the top of of Causey Pike rising up beyond (I would climb that the next morning).
I had eaten my lunch on the journey down and only had a light rucksack, but with enough clothes in case I got stranded for any reason. A collie dog was showing some interest, inspecting the car and my rucksack. At the road I checked the map and realised that to reach the start of the main climb up Catbells I had to walk back along the road around Swinside hill to rejoin the road leading down to the boat landings at Hawse End.
This didn't take long and I enjoyed the sunlit views of Catbells beyond the woodland. I passed the Swinside Lodge Hotel and Restaurant, which looked like another attractive place to stay, and then a couple of women returning from a climb to the top, savouring the memory of the view. At the foot of the hill the road turned left past a very informal car park under trees. The path started on the far side of the car park, cutting across a bend in the road which would continue along the east side of the hill and down to Grange village, in Borrowdale.
I crossed the road again and continued on the path on the other side - realising that the friendly young dog from the Swinside Inn was still with me. Why hadn't she (it turned out to be a female) turned back after going beyond her territory? I didn't know, but I disclaimed all responsibility for her as I climbed up the well-built path at a steady pace and other walkers greeted both me and the dog. (See the Gallery of Rhona's walk).
THOMAS ARTHUR LEONARD
Founder of Co-operative and Communal Holidays
and "Father" of the Open-Air Movement in this Country.
Born London March 12th 1864.
Died Conway July 19th 1948.
Believing that "the best things any mortal hath
are those which every mortal shares" he endeavoured
to promote "joy in widest commonality spread".
Checking up on the internet, the website of the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society reported in 2003 that:
"By 1893 Leonard became honorary secretary of a scheme for summer rambling holidays with social evenings of music and lectures. In the late 1890s it became a small company known as The Co-operative Holidays Association. The name changed to The Country-wide Holidays Association in 1964."
I had spent many of my summer holidays as a child at guest houses of the CHA, so I felt some affection for this memorial. I must have climbed past it before, decades ago, but had forgotten.
There were a few people at the top of the first summit, and rather more on the main summit of Catbells. It's justifiably popular as a rugged hill providing a short but strenuous climb, with superb views on a clear day to reward the effort. I found my reward at the top and spent a few minutes taking in the view over Derwentwater towards Keswick, with the high fells of Skiddaw and Blencathra beyond.
It was a real pleasure to enjoy such a view with other enthusiastic walkers, in the sunshine and hardly a breath of wind. No need to huddle for shelter behind a cairn, just stand or sit and take it all in. At such a time the hills can feel quite tame, yet truly beautiful.
Then I had to move on if I was going to complete the circuit before dark.
It's easy to make a short circuit of the climb up Catbells - half a mile south of the summit, where the ridge dips down to Hawse Gate, a good path crosses over and gives two options for half-day walks:
- Manesty is half a mile south-east, with delightful paths running back north through Brandelhow Park, along the bank of Derwentwater, to Hawse End and the car park at the foot of Catbells. This gives a circuit of about 4 miles, taking a couple of hours or so.
- Little Town is a mile to the west, in Newlands Valley, with a track leading north across the lower slopes of Catbells to Skelgill and Hawse End. This is a similar distance to the Manesty route.
You might even combine these (but climbing the hill only once via Hawse Gate, then returning there to descend on the other side) to enjoy the contrasting scenery encompassed in such a small area.
I was sticking to the ridge though. From Catbells on it was pretty easy going for 3 or 4 miles south along the broad ridge, gaining more height with short climbs up to Maiden Moor (almost a repeat view, with more walkers on the summit), then Notting Hows and High Spy (now with just an occasional walker passing by).
But I wasn't on my own. My companion was enjoying herself, running back and forth, and side to side, checking tussocks of grass and splashing in puddles. There were a few sheep grazing and she tensed up when she saw them, stalking around with her neck outstretched, but never running at them. They looked up, then just carried on grazing. I found that my call to her to stay seemed to have some restraining effect, although I've never owned a dog.
There is a clear path, occasionally muddy or stony, but with no difficulties as it crosses terrain which is mostly short grass interspersed with small rocky outcrops.
The ridge ran above Borrowdale, looking glorious in the sunshine but the wettest place in England, running south towards the highest fells including Great Gable, Scafell and Scafell Pike 6 miles away. A similar distance to the east I could see the long ridge reaching its highest point at Helvellyn. The narrow edges - Striding and Swirral - were out of sight on the far side.
The ridge I was following became broad and fairly featureless, although from Minum Crag (the top before High Spy) there were views of the dramatic crags overhanging the valley below.
Another short climb took me up to the well-built but slightly lop-sided cairn on High Spy, exactly an hour and a half after I had set out from the Swinside Inn. Now Skiddaw and Blencathra were far away in the distance, and the highest summits of Lakeland were much closer, spread out to the south.
I followed the dog down the track in a south-south-westerly direction, descending gently to the pass across the tussocky grass. Just before reaching the headwater of the Newlands Beck another track led off to the right, due north, into the deep valley between High Spy and Dale Head. If I had been really tight for time to get back in the daylight I could have taken this route, probably saving about an hour.
The next section wasn't as easy as it looked. There was marshy ground to cross before climbing up the broad slope to the top of Dale Head, with no clear path (maybe I had missed it). The higher ground to the left seemed a bit firmer, crossing the lower ground towards the hill seemed much more direct. I tried one, then the other, until the dog seemed to get annoyed with my indecision. "OK", I said, "if you know the best way up, you go ahead and show me", so she did. Straight across the marshy ground a short distance then up the hillside, finding a route between the scattered rocks, and finally reaching the southern shoulder of Dale Head. The last stretch was an easy climb up to the tall circular cairn on the summit overlooking a steeper drop down into the valley. The cairn looked in slightly better shape than the one on High Spy, but looked like it could have been shaped by the same hands.
As the dog wandered around the plateau sniffing at rocks I decided I needed some refuelling and pulled out a bag with brownies which my daughter had made. Munching through the first one I felt a bit selfish. I had a companion now, with nothing to munch, so I broke the second biscuit in two and called her over. Slightly suspicious at first, when she saw the food she hurried forward to take the gift. Finishing it quickly she looked back up at me, but that was it. I had a couple of cereal bars but had to keep those for emergencies. The dog had been drinking from puddles, but I needed a long drink as well.
Checking the time (I had taken 2 hours 10 minutes now) I knew I couldn't climb both Hindscarth and then (with some backtracking to the southern ridge) Robinson. It would add about 2 miles over rugged terrain, so at least half an hour. As it was, the descent took longer than I expected.
First there was a mile along the southern ridge and right onto the projecting ridge to the top of Hindscarth. It was all easy going without any steep descents or climbs, with some outcrops of jagged rocks to walk around. Now I had views down to the barren rocky Honister Pass and the blue shimmer of Buttermere about 2 miles to the west, almost like a mirage in the late afternoon sunshine.
One path swung away north, climbing the broad back of Hindscarth, and I was there in under half an hour. A low circular shelter of stones and a cairn nearby overlooking Newlands Valley. Then a descent down the stony slope then an easier grassy stretch, with views north-west towards Causey Pike and Scar Crag (see the story of my climb up these the following day). The low sun picked out the edge of High Snab Bank running north-east from Robinson, parallel to my descent route over Scope End. All very atmospheric, but I had to keep moving.
The path now ran along the right (east) side of the ridge, avoiding High Crags on the left, but the slope down into the valley was quite steep nevertheless, requiring some care and concentration.
Then we were back onto the top of the ridge, descending over and around the rocky bumps covered in grass and heather, still lit up by the last of the sun's rays. This was Scope End and it became steeper with lots of little descents over the rocks. I found that my new, flexible Merrill boots didn't give a very good grip on the smooth stones despite the Vibram soles - the design of these was quite different from the traditional series of wedges that I was used to. So after a couple of skids where I had to steady myself to avoid a tumble I took more care and therefore more time.
And so it took about 55 minutes to descend the couple of miles from the top of Hindscarth to the farm of Low Snab at the bottom. (Interestingly at the bottom of High Snab Bank, off Robinson, there is a High Snab Farm and a Low High Snab as well!) Low Snab advertised tea or coffee and cakes for £1.50 but there was no sign of anyone around and I doubted they would welcome a visit at 6.30 pm!
I had to call out repeatedly to the dog as we walked down the path between fields with lots of sheep grazing, but she held back and we soon reached Newlands Chapel, tucked away in a quiet corner of the valley. The road to the right, climbing through Little Town, provided the shortest route back. I had a last view in the gloom back towards the distinctive summits of Hindscarth and Robinson before descending to Stair, with its large activity centre looking a bit incongruous in this rural setting. A final half mile up the road to Swinside and then the dog ran ahead, to be greeted by a young woman at one of the houses beside the road just before the Inn.
I stopped and chatted to her - she said the dog had been missing all afternoon, and I explained why. It seemed this wasn't unusual for Rhona, and her mother Skye also had a tendency to roam: once she had been sent back on the bus from Buttermere! (See the Gallery of Rhona's walk here).
So that was it, a great day out in the hills squeezed into four hours. I lugged my gear into the welcoming surroundings of the Swinside Inn to be greeted by the landlord and invited to sample the local beer before being shown to my room. The perfect ending (the food was pretty good as well).
Contributed by Andrew Llanwarne - October 2010< Back to England page for links to other stories
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