The Coniston Fells
We tend to think of places like the Lake District as typical natural environments. But look a little closer and you’ll see it’s not as unspoilt as we like to imagine.
After tectonic plate movements, volcanic eruptions and glaciers had done their thing, it’s we humans that shaped the landscape we see today. For hundreds of years we’ve exploited the fells for minerals, the forests for timber, the lakes for water and the land for farming.
Even now, the landscape changes to meet our needs. Ever-increasing visitor numbers means fields evolve into car parks. Eroded paths are diverted and patched-up. And recent weather events have required substantial repairs to protect communities from future devastation.
In the Lake District, nowhere is the shaping of the landscape by homo sapiens more apparent than in the Coniston Fells. The Old Man of Coniston bears the ugly scars of years of mining, as we’ve tunnelled and chipped away at his haunches for those most precious of commodities – copper and slate.
Yet despite the obvious damage to their appearance, there’s a beauty in the Coniston Fells which instills a sense of wonder in all those who visit. The discarded cables and disused tunnels littering the popular tourist trail up the Old Man create an outdoor museum, frozen in time. Pause for a moment and you’ll swear you can hear the sounds of distant machinery over the white noise of the waters tumbling down the mountainside.
Many will see The Old Man as the focal point of this route. But it’s the supporting cast which are the stars of the show. His neighbours are often quieter, yet still allow you to take in the majesty of what Wainwright described as an ‘industrial mess of old workings and dusty access roads’.
Thick, Soupy Clag
Although the forecast for much of the Lake District was promising, there was a chance of some lingering fog banks on the western and southern fells. As I arrived in Coniston, the stillness of the village in the early hours was compounded by the heavy fog which had settled over the surrounding fells. In return for a day of wading through thick, soupy clag, I could expect quiet summits and a cooler day than in other parts of the country.
Walna Scar Road rises steeply away from the village, getting the blood pumping right from the start. The tarmac soon gives way to rougher terrain as you reach a gate and a parking area for more robust vehicles. The track continues around the base of the Old Man, leading to some of its quieter approaches. But this wasn’t the first objective today. I was heading to the neighbouring peak of Dow Crag.
Rocks and Rakes
Wainwright is rightly complimentary about Dow Crag. Not only does he rank its summit as one of his top six, he also praises the impressive rock face on its eastern aspect. The crags, split into five principal buttresses, have attracted rock climbers since the birth of the sport. While it’s not a place for walkers, Wainwright clearly spent a great deal of time documenting the rock face.
The image most people have of Wainwright is of a grumpy old man, bumbling about on the hills with his pipe and tweed jacket. But spend a little time reading his books and identifying his preferred routes will tell you he was quite the agile mountain goat, often recommending ways up loose, steep scree slopes and scrambling over huge boulders.
And it’s this personality trait which perhaps explains why he endorses an ascent of Dow Crag via South Rake – a channel of loose rock, taking the confident scrambler from the base of the crag to the summit. If it’s an adrenaline hit you seek, South Rake is the way to go.
Alas for me on this misty day, walking alone, in the early hours of the morning, seeking out South Rake didn’t seem the best of ideas. So as the path split towards Goat’s Water, I was to continue instead along the Walna Scar Road to its highest point before turning right towards the subsidiary summit of Brown Pike.
Leaving the general low level murk behind, I enjoyed a brief period of clarity as the path climbed towards the top of the pass. But as the path steepened, I was engulfed by the clag which was to remain for much of the day.
This meant that as I approached the summit of Dow Crag, I was deeply conscious of the veiled cliffs to my right with Goat’s Water far below. Being only a few feet away from concealed big drops created an eerie sense of imminent peril; something I was reminded of as I gingerly passed by the entrances to Easy Gully and Great Gully: huge, vertical splits in the rock face which threaten to swallow up those who venture too close.
The summit is unlike many others in the District. There’s no shapely cairn or defined path to take. It’s a case of scrambling over boulders to the high point and not getting too close to the edge!
With the first peak in the bag, I carefully retraced my steps from the rocky summit and continued north along the ridge. The path drops gradually to Goat’s Hawse. From here, a faint track branches off right towards the summit of The Old Man of Coniston.
Wainwright’s advice on route-finding here is to follow the human noise emanating from the summit cairn. No such assistance on a day like today but at least I’d have the summit to myself. Then, as if to emphasise Wainwright’s observations about the ‘clientele’ he clearly objected to, I stumbled across a single, brightly-coloured flip flop, discarded on the path. It seems the stereotypical choice of footwear of the new generation of hillwalker has some truth in it!
With no prospect of seeing Blackpool Tower, much to AW’s delight I’m sure, I retraced my steps heading north. As someone who likes striding out along high ridges, this was the part of the walk I was most looking forward to. And it was certainly pleasant, even in the mist. But I couldn’t help but feel I was missing out on the views, and so kept my head down as I traipsed along the tops.
After passing the checkpoint summit of Brim Fell, with its shapely summit cairn appearing from the gloom, it’s a case of keeping the steep ground on your right until you reach the summit of Swirl How. Or at least that’s the theory! In a moment of lapsed concentration, I felt I’d reached the end point of the ridge as steep ground dropped away in front of me: my catching feature. I turned east and started to descend what I thought was the Prison Band. But I soon felt the unmistakable niggle of doubt that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. And, right on cue, I dropped below the mist.
After the initial thrill of being able to see more than a few feet in front of me, I checked my position against the map, knowing full well I’d strayed slightly off course. The stream-that-shouldn’t-have-been-there and some steeper-than-expected-ground-coming-up confirmed I’d drifted (thankfully not too far) on to Great How Crags. Oops. Time to head back up the steep ground to pick up where I’d left off and restore some of my pride!
End of the line
Lessons learnt, I carried on for another half-kilometre or so until I reached the end of the ridge and the more obvious summit of Swirl How. With still no views to be had, it was time to descend the true Prison Band. This rocky descent requires a little care in places, particularly when the rock is slippery. But it’s a decent path along the ridge and you’ll soon reach the unmistakable crossroads at Swirl Hawse.
If there’s nothing left in the legs, now’s the time to drop straight down to Levers Water before picking up the tourist path back to Coniston. Wetherlam can always wait for another day. But if you’ve come for the full Coniston experience, there’s just one last extended push to go.
Here’s where the walk gets interesting. The mist was starting to burn off, revealing glimpses of iconic fell territory to the north, and the more immediate scenery of the Coniston amphitheatre below. It was like peering into a huge quarry, with signs of industry all around.
Once I’d reached the summit of Wetherlam, the mist started to lift, treating me to views across the central Lakes towards Windermere. To the south, Coniston Water stretches out arrow-straight under a bank of cloud along the valley. The chiselled slopes of The Old Man, Brim Fell and Swirl How plunge into the sapphire-blue tarns of Low Water and Levers Water.
The summit’s not a bad place to spend some time. It’s flat and wide and dappled with rocks. But take care if you intend to explore. Wetherlam is punctured with old mining tunnels so it’s best to keep your eyes peeled.
The final descent took me along the wide spur which drops to the Coppermines Valley. Although there’s no real path, there’s a vague outline of where others have trodden before and it’s easy to pick a route down towards a broad shoulder housing a small tarn.
The final challenge comes in deciding when to leave the spur. If you stay on it for too long, you’ll reach steep ground, so you need to wander down the slope to your left when the ground becomes more manageable and pick up the clear path from Tilberthwaite. Weave your way through the rocks and you’ll soon reach the obvious path across a stream from where it’s a pleasant return to the Coppermines Valley.
The sun was now beating down and hoards of tourists were starting their pilgrimage towards the Old Man. I took one last look back at the fells which have been so heavily shaped by people. Then I noticed the buzzards screaming above, the soothing sounds of the plunging waters beneath the Miners Bridge and the comparative peace of the path alongside Church Beck. And I realised that despite the destruction we are capable of inflicting on the fells, there’s still nowhere quite as beautiful as the Lake District.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Coniston village
Distance: 10 miles (16 km)
Wainwright count: 5
Navigation: There are some steep drops about so make sure you know how to navigate. Apart from on Wetherlam, the initial part of the Prison Band and parts of Dow Crag, there are defined paths for much of the route, which helps when the mist comes down.
Terrain: Classic Lakeland mountain terrain. A mixture of tracks, rocky scrambles, high-level ridges and grassy spurs.
Facilities: Coniston village has it all.
*These routes and descriptions are only ever intended to be a personal record of my adventures, which may inspire your own. Hillwalking involves a degree of risk, so please make sure you are properly equipped and prepared if you choose to follow them.