The Langdale Pikes
The Langdale Pikes are the boy band of the Lakeland fells. Pike o’Stickle, Loft Crag, Thorn Crag, Harrison Stickle and Pavey Ark can’t go anywhere without having their picture taken. Even from afar, they are instantly recognisable by their adoring fans. Congregate around the north-eastern shores of Windermere on a clear day and you’ll see even the most disinterested visitor proudly posing for a selfie with the Langdale Pikes in the background.
It’s not hard to see how they got their celebrity status. Good looking, approachable and a little bit cheeky – these poster boys of the Lake District continue to draw in the crowds. Even in the most miserable of Lakeland weather, you’ll find adoring fans heading up the well-worn path beside Stickle Ghyll to get close to their idols.
I hate to admit it but I’ve fallen for the Langdales’ charms too. Last year, after a longer-than-I’d-have-liked period of absence from the fells, I was walking along the shores of Elter Water. It was a bitterly-cold January day. And my ears were ringing with the white noise of Skelwith Force waterfall crashing behind me.
The meandering river drew my gaze deeper into the scene. And there, in the background, stood the Langdale Pikes. The sight of these chiselled peaks filled me with emotion and I swallowed the lump in my throat before anyone saw. The sudden serenity and the drama of these jagged summits bestowed a clarity of thought I’d not experienced for years. I’d rediscovered my passion for the mountains and the Langdales were responsible.
Fast-forward to a misty day in early September. The summer crowds had dispersed and I’d secured a backstage pass to meet the Langdales up close. I was keen to find out what the Pikes were really like once they’d stopped posing for photographs and revealed their true colours.
The New Dungeon Ghyll is a popular destination for hillwalkers, climbers, photographers and families alike. Not only does it offer fantastic access to the hills, there’s also a superb pub for you to enjoy your post-walk refreshments.
Popularity means people. But if you know where to look, there are more exclusive routes to the tops. Particularly on this damp and drizzly September day.
Leaving the New Dungeon Ghyll behind, there’s a pleasant low-level start to the walk. I passed behind the Old Dungeon Ghyll and stepped into the Mickleden Valley, feeling like a gladiator entering the arena. Shaped by glacial activity over thousands of years, the sounds of the hills echo around this vast trough. I once took a stroll along the Mickleden Valley when the farmer arrived, his quad bike bombinating contentedly as he jumped off to shake out several bags of feed. All at once, the amphitheatre echoed with the sound of hundreds of sheep bleating, as they descended from the high fells en masse.
Today’s soundtrack included the sound of swollen waterfalls plummeting down the side of the valley. It prompted me to look up and survey the impressive crags of the Langdale Pikes high above. Across the way were the slopes of The Band: a long spur jutting out from the head of the valley and providing access to Three Tarns and ultimately on to Crinkle Crags and Bow Fell. Mist clung to these higher fells, leaving the Langdale Pikes largely clear of the worst of it.
Deep in the valley, I crossed Troughten Beck, which tumbles down the hillside to the left of the conical summit of Pike o’Stickle. Here’s where the walk gets interesting. Leaving the path, I headed straight up the steep slope to the left of the beck. There’s no path here, but it’s easy enough to pick a route. And as you approach the top, the vague semblance of a track appears, depositing you on the flat and boggy plateau of Martcrag Moor.
Meeting ‘The Beetles’
And going off-piste has its rewards – it turns out there’s another boy band metaphor I can exploit! But instead of Paul and Ringo, I was chuffed to find a little dor beetle, with its distinctive purple bodykit, having a whale of a time burrowing into a pile of fresh dung. This sight was soon trumped as I stumbled across the more intimidating Devil’s Coach Horse beetle lurking in the grass. This beetle curls its rear abdomen up like a scorpion and their huge pincers can give you a nip. So I left him well alone and continued my climb.
This approach has the advantage of arriving at one end of the Langdale Pikes. But better still, it allows you to admire the thimble-like summit of Pike o’Stickle at close quarters.
And as you approach the shapely cone, the Pikes reveal their great secret. What appears from the valley to be a set of towering peaks that wouldn’t look out of place in an Alpine setting, is all just a clever ruse. Behind the dramatic facade hides a plateau, as the land rolls gently north towards Thunacar Knott and High Raise.
Unless you’ve studied the map, it can take you by surprise; your mind expects to see the same spiky scene from behind the scenes too. Not that it should dampen your enthusiasm. There’s still the challenge of the final scrambly ascent to the summit of Pike o’Stickle, which feels very much the mini-Matterhorn when you finally reach its puny summit.
With the persistent cloud stubbornly clinging to the surrounding fells, any hopes of far-reaching views of the Lake District were soon put to one side, leaving me to focus on more immediate surroundings. Loft Crag was next on the list, and there’s a fine view of its magnificent crags from its neighbour. And with the wind seriously picking up, I was reminded that the only safe way down from Pike o’Stickle is to head north and avoid the cliffs plunging towards the Mickleden Valley below.
As I retraced my steps down the slippery rock, my hand grazed something sharp and I noticed a number of hard streaks in the rock. “A welded tuft!” I exclaimed, pleased that my geology homework during lockdown had paid off. Welded tuffs are the result of violent volcanic activity which caused lumps of rock to be blasted out and literally welded on to other rocks. These narrow dashes in the rock are relatively common in the Central Fells and are easy to spot, particularly if you happen to graze your hand on them!
Reaching more stable ground again, I continued towards Loft Crag, the weather worsening as I reached the summit. There’s a fine prospect of Harrison Stickle from this high point. But I found myself turning to look back at the pointy cone of Pike o’Stickle instead.
Continuing along this mini ridge, the path drops to a large cairn, indicating the start of the tourist path back to New Dungeon Ghyll. I made a mental note of this way down the mountain and continued my exploration through the clag spilling from the higher tops.
Thorn Crag isn’t listed as a Wainwright and I decided to skip this summit and move on to Harrison Stickle. I advanced into Harrison Combe before finding a safe place to cross Dungeon Ghyll. It is possible to return to the valley along the eastern side of the Ghyll. It requires a little care in the early stages. The path sticks close to an impressive drop and a fall here would mean a much quicker way down than you’d want.
After crossing the stream, I picked my line up the western face of Harrison Stickle. There’s a bit of scrambling to do here. And although there’s nothing nasty, there’s the option to head north a little instead to make a more gradual ascent to the summit.
Reaching the top, the wind threatened to blast me off my feet. My waterproof felt more like a sail as the gusts whipped across the tops. Identifying Pavey Ark as my next objective, I dropped off the summit quickly before the mist obscured the view.
I picked my way around the tops of the steep ground between Harrison Stickle and Pavey Ark. Weaving between rocky tors and stopping on the way to put my waterproof trousers on. The rain was now set in and the wind threatened to soak any part of me not covered in Gore-Tex.
Even in the mist, you’ll know you’ve reached Pavey Ark when you stumble across the broken wall across the summit. After taking some clumsy photos with spots of rain peppering my lens, I tried to locate the exit of Jack’s Rake from above. I first became aware of this iconic Grade 1 route in a pub. I’d just done my first proper scramble with an old school mate on Striding Edge and we were having the inevitable debrief over a pie and pea supper. Talk must have turned to “what’s next?” when a sinister chap who’d been sitting alone at the bar sidled over to tell us all about “Jake’s Rake”. I think we quickly dismissed his tale as fantasy. He couldn’t remember the name of the mountain we’d find it on. And further research couldn’t find anything about Jake and his mystical rake.
Since discovering that Jake was actually called Jack, I’ve found plenty of information about the route Wainwright described as being “at the limit of what your ordinary common or garden fell walker might like to attempt”. There’s not a lot to see from above but I was able to trace the line from below from the waters of Stickle Tarn later on in the day. The thin line cuts across the impossibly steep rock face and is enough to turn anyone’s knees to jelly.
With the Langdales conquered, Wainwright’s route suggests descending Pavey Ark by the north rake down to Stickle Tarn. But I was keen to explore the plateau extending north from the spikier tops and bag three more Wainwrights. These peaks are less frequented by the usual Langdale crowds and it means crossing some sprawling moorland. In the mist, it felt more like a day on Kinder Scout than the Lake District.
Pausing at Thunacar Knott, I zipped up my waterproofs and put my head into the wind before striding out across the moor to High Raise. This is the highest of the Central Fells but tends to be quiet because of its remote location. The wind and rain certainly meant I had no reason to hang about. I set a bearing for Sergeant Man and continued on my way.
The seventh summit of the day is a funny little one. In all honesty, I’d have struggled to identify it as a separate peak. It’s surrounded by scores of similar looking hummocky mounds shaped by the retreating glacier in the last Ice Age. But as you approach, you can see the distinct bump in the plateau, which would ordinarily offer sublime views towards Windermere.
But with the weather showing no signs of improving, I began my descent down the steep slope, tracking a tributary stream of Bright Beck taking me on to Stickle Tarn. Ordinarily a busy spot, the grim weather meant it was relatively quiet. The stream at the outflow of the tarn was in spate and a group opposite was deciding whether it was worth crossing. I managed to find a calmer section and cross safely but Stickle Ghyll was a raging torrent further down.
Backstage tour complete, I looked back up to the Langdales and paused. They say fans shouldn’t meet their heroes. That they’ll be disappointed. And for those expecting jagged peaks and exposed scrambling, that might be the case. But if it’s a classic mountain walk in one of the best valleys in the Lake District you are after, then meeting your heroes will be well worth it.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: New Dungeon Ghyll
Distance: 8 miles (12.8 km)
Wainwright count: 7
Navigation: Can be tricky in mist. With pathless sections and a featureless plateau to negotiate, plus steep crags to avoid, you’ll need strong map and compass skills.
Terrain: Mixture of rocky and grassy sections. The descent from Sergeant Man to Stickle Tarn is via a steep grassy slope. Parts of the route can be boggy.
*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.