If it’s scenery you are after, it doesn’t get much better than this walk around Wastwater.
Back in 2009, you weren’t alone if you suffered from the ‘Avatar Blues’ – feelings of sadness after seeing James Cameron’s blockbuster film. The comparative mundanity of our immediate surroundings on Earth and the belief we can never experience the utopian alien planet of Pandora left its mark on some.
Avatar is set in the future at a time when natural resources on Earth are running out and a ruthless corporation is harvesting the minerals from another planet. This leads to an inevitable clash with the native Na’vi, who live in complete harmony with nature.
Ten years on and you can’t help but see parallels with this underlying theme of the film. Every day I read stories about climate change, depleting resources, wastefulness, habitat destruction and an increasing disconnection with nature. All depressing stuff.
The modern business world is generally obsessed with growth and short term gains. Being busy is a badge of honour. Too many people feel trapped in a culture of working as hard as they can in jobs they hate to earn more money to buy more stuff they don’t need to make them feel better after making themselves ill from this unhealthy relationship with work. Phew!
New living spaces cram people on top of each other. We replace hedgerows with fences. Travel to work in air-conditioned boxes and sit under artificial light. Build on our green spaces and expect nature to step aside.
We are cutting our ties with the natural world and despite the evidence this isn’t good for us, it can feel that nothing ever changes. We settle into our old, unsustainable and unhealthy ways.
But there’s hope. People realising they need to get outside and reconnect with our own Pandora. Planet Earth. Do that, and there’s no reason we can’t all live a little more like the Na’vi and get over the Avatar Blues.
If you want to experience a true utopian landscape, the Wasdale valley in the western Lakes is a good place to start. Famously home to England’s highest mountain, deepest lake, smallest church and biggest liar, it’s unbelievably pretty. And a walk around Wastwater is one of the best ways to experience it.
There’s no easy access for most of the country by car – you either follow the never-ending roads around the perimeter of the national park or take your chances on the Hardknott Pass. Walking in is a serious venture over mountain passes, not to be underestimated. Your reward for making the effort? Some of the finest scenery in England.
I’ve been looking forward to completing a circuit of Wastwater all year. On paper, the walk has everything. High sections. Low sections. Dramatic views. Peace and quiet. Tarns. Lake. Ridges. Crags. Screes. Valleys. The list goes on.
I wanted to honour the tranquility of the valley and chose to leave my car and approach on foot. So on a sunny September morning, I woke up in Eskdale before dawn and began the walk from a small car park at the foot of Irton Pike.
High level route
The plan was to ascend the ridge high above Wastwater atop the screes, which plunge into the deep waters from the summits of Whin Rigg and Illgill Head. I’d then drop into Wasdale before returning along the lake shore.
The path rises gently through woodland before crossing open moorland. The early morning sun cast long shadows towards the coast. Sellafield nuclear power station and the offshore wind farm off Walney Island dominate the view over your shoulder, a nod towards heading in the right direction for renewable energy sources in this country.
As you gain height, the ground falls away to your left down the impressive Wastwater Screes. Fortunately, the path doesn’t venture too close. This is a good thing – there are stomach-churning drops through the crags to the water 2,000ft below. There are no safe ways down the screes and it’s an accident blackspot so keep away!
The path between Whin Rigg and Illgill Head has to be one of the finest high-level walks in the Lake District. The massive bulk of Scafell dominates the landscape in front of you with the distinctive shapes of Yewbarrow, Great Gable, Kirk Fell and Pillar congregating to the left.
You’ll pass between two high tarns before climbing again to summit Illgill Head. I paused for my morning coffee here and drank in the views as well as the caffeine. My troubles no longer felt significant as I enjoyed the moment of being a tiny part of these mountains. The views took my breath away.
Reconnected with the environment.
The dark side
Descending into Wasdale, I began to experience the ‘darker side’ of the valley. Chocolate bar wrappers carelessly dropped. Car engines running and people talking loudly in the car park at the foot of the conveyor belt up to Scafell Pike. Traffic failing to slow down for pedestrians. Drivers taking photos with their mobile phones out of the window while moving. Admittedly it wasn’t as chaotic as I’d expected for a sunny Saturday but it did highlight how the actions of a few can spoil it for the rest of us.
I get that beautiful landscapes will attract visitors. I was one of them after all. My hope is that continued efforts to draw attention to the fragile nature of our wild places will lead to a deeper respect in all of us to preserve the landscape and do our bit.
The drama continues on the return leg but from a lower vantage point. I enjoyed fantastic views of Scafell Pike and its neighbour Scafell, linked by the Mickledore Gap – the sun behind creating an ominous silhouette of the rocky summits.
Across the lake are the magnificent screes, which tumble from the ridge you’ve just walked along into the deep waters below. It’s crystal clear, and although Wastwater is the deepest lake in England, its clarity would have you believe you can see all the way to the bottom.
Evidence of people enjoying the landscape in their own ways was abundant. Groups of walkers bound for Scafell Pike. Fell runners skipping along the high paths. Divers donning scuba gear and swimmers tentatively stepping into the cold water for a dip.
Britain’s favourite view
You’ll be stopping regularly to admire the view, voted Britain’s favourite, with the giant mountains standing proudly behind you. The best vantage point comes as you near the far end of the lake. A quiet pebbled beach offers the perfect lunch spot as you leave the crowds behind and enjoy the sounds of the waves lapping against the shore.
It’s difficult to drag yourself away from this spot and just as the final quiet woodland section has relaxed you completely, you’ll need to find some reserves of energy to climb back up on to the ridge to the start.
The climb is short, steep and boggy and you’ll snatch your final glimpses of the valley before it’s swallowed up by its mountain guardians, ready for another day.
As my walk around Wastwater neared its final mile, the Isle of Man visible in the distance, I felt a twinge of sadness at leaving this world behind. The Wasdale Blues if you like. But also real privilege in being able to enjoy these environments and a renewed connection with nature, which I’ll strive to incorporate more of in my everyday life.
It’s important to recognise this symbiosis from time to time. The Earth provides everything we need but, in return, it needs us to care for it.
The more we acknowledge and respect this, the more we are likely to want to redouble our efforts to look after our own Pandora for future generations.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Small car park at foot of Irton Pike
Distance: 12.7 miles (20.5 km) – you could make this a shorter walk by parking in the valley
Navigation: Moderate. You’ll need a map and compass. Paths are clear throughout, even along the ridge between Whin Rigg and Illgill Head. Good compass skills will keep you away from the edge of the screes in mist.
Terrain: Generally good but boggy in places. Some steep climbs. High level route recommended over the path shown on maps by the water’s edge at the base of the screes. This involves some athletic scrambling over boulders and it’s not a pleasant walk. People often get caught out here. You have been warned!
Facilities: Wasdale Head Inn. National Trust campsite. Consider accommodation in nearby Eskdale for more options.
*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.
Enjoyed this walk around Wastwater? Check out Haweswater for another slice of Pandora