The rain, accelerated by the strengthening wind, stings my face like hundreds of tiny pin pricks. Ominous clouds have gathered throughout the morning, jostling for position before choosing their moment to move in on the ridge.
I pass a pair of fell runners. We don’t speak a word but the looks on their faces tell me they won’t be hanging around either. Sometimes there’s no need for a weather forecast to tell you to leave the high ground for another day.
The unfolded map thrashes like a sail against the mast. I commit the final part of the route to memory and tame it back into my rucksack. One last swig from my water bottle and it’s time to descend, leaving the elements to battle it out on the tops. I set a compass bearing, pull my hood tight around my face and turn my back on the summit.
A rearward glance confirms my exquisite timing. The rain hammers an ever more intense rhythm on my waterproofs. Water drops trickle from sky to spectacles to nose, hanging on for a moment before losing their grip and continuing their inevitable fall to the ground.
After 33km of walking, 1,700m of ascent and just shy of 24 hours exploring Martindale, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction at beating the weather. I move with the confidence of a Gore-Tex clad James Bond, striding effortlessly away from the melée in search of the next adventure.
A lazy start
Rewind 24 hours and I am enjoying the perfect start to my walk: a long, gentle ascent up the wide north-eastern spur of Wether Hill. With no deadlines to meet, other than finding a place to pitch my tent before dark, my pace takes inspiration from the low-flying aircraft slowly dragging its heavy body across the sky.
Lazily gaining height, I pause regularly to look beyond the extremities of the National Park to faraway lands beyond the M6. There’s something bewitching about approaching the fells on foot from these peaceful outlying areas.
The air is thick with the sound of skylarks. I often struggle to spot them high in the sky but one bird struggles to gain height quickly and resigns itself to having its photo taken. The motor strains in my camera as I extend the zoom to full lock and snap away.
Reaching the broad northern spur above Low Kop on Bampton Common, a herd of ponies comes into view. We expect to see sheep on the fells but these hardy four-legged friends are as much a part of the Cumbrian landscape. Still, it’s a treat to see these larger animals. They pay me no attention as I pass, oblivious as they calmly munch the grass.
I leave the obvious route and track a north-westerly course, the idea being to emerge on the ridge closer to Wether Hill and avoid any back-tracking. Once on the ridge, I’ll stay high for the rest of the day.
Heading south, I follow the course of the Roman road which once connected two forts near Ambleside and Penrith. I spot a brilliant shade of green scurrying for cover in the dry grass. You’ll find heath goldsmith beetles in the Cairngorms but also locally in the Lake District. There’s nothing creepy or crawly about this little guy.
As I head towards the boulder-strewn summit of High Raise, I pick out iconic fells from across the District. One of the many faces of Great Gable is instantly recognisable at the opposite end of the National Park.
High Raise makes for a pleasant spot to survey different parts of the walk. A frenzied few hours of peak bagging is about to follow and I pick out the summits I’ll soon be ticking off. It feels strange to be so early on in my quest at this late hour in the day. The hills are bathed in the pleasing glow of late afternoon sunshine and clear of any day trippers, who are half a glass down with their post-hill drink by now. I remind myself there is no need to rush. Walking in the hills until your legs get tired is a wonderful feeling.
Kidsty Pike is soon underfoot, with magnificent Riggindale stretching out before me. I feel like a golden eagle, soaring high above the valley from this lofty summit. A twinge of sadness hits me as I recall gazing up at the real thing in this very valley as a teenager. The sight of the Long Stile ridge rising elegantly from The Rigg at the head of Haweswater snaps me out of my reverie.
The summits come thick and fast now with a trio of hills in quick succession. Rampsgill Head offers a sweeping view down towards Martindale with Hallin Fell, one of the smaller Wainwrights, on the shoreline of Ullswater in the distance.
After The Knott, I top up my water bottle before a punishing slog up to Rest Dodd. While it’s possible to omit this one, I’d suggest you don’t. Any efforts in dragging yourself up there are rewarded with views across to The Nab, a fell which arguably shouldn’t have made it into Wainwright’s Pictorial Guides as he had to negotiate a minor trespass to reach it.
Picking a line
Angle Tarn is an achingly beautiful spot to while away the hours. After visiting Brock Crags, a fell I’d not heard of until today, it’s a case of picking a line through the hummocky ground until you reach the tarn. Angletarn Pikes and Place Fell lie beyond this idyllic part of the Lake District.
The race is on
As early evening gives way to late evening, I settle in to enjoy the sunset. Tomorrow means a race against the wind and the rain. Not that you’d know it, as day two starts with Place Fell bathed in glorious early morning light.
I am soon into the clag as I approach the summit. It feels a shame not to linger as I move across Place Fell. I inadvertently creep up on a small herd of red deer. A warning bark echoes around the valley and the crowd effortlessly disappears.
As I pause to look at some beautiful cuckoo flower on my descent, the flower’s namesake floats up on the wind from Sandwick below. The combination brings me back to ground level with a spring in my step, as I pass through this quieter side of Ullswater.
The ‘steeper than it looks’ slopes of Bonscale Pike beckon me on. I decide to head straight up the fell side, not bothering to look for tracks on the ground. The toil doesn’t relent. I am on ground closer to vertical than I’d ordinarily like, particularly with a big pack on. I crab along the slope and, to my relief, pick up the marked track, making for more natural progress across the steep ground.
My legs are feeling the effects of the unexpected exertion on Bonscale Pike now. Plummeting temperatures and gathering storms spur me on to the spectacular views of the northern part of Ullswater and the entire Blencathra range from Arthur’s Pike.
I am left with one final trudge up to Loadpot Hill. The skies have darkened and the race is on. Tired and clumsy legs traipse towards the higher ground.
I am elated to reach the 12th summit just as the heavens open and my camera is safely stowed in my pack. The descent is long. But each step draws me closer to the sanctuary of my car. And the promise of a visit to Shap Chippy: my reward for completing this expedition deep in one of the most underrated parts of the Lake District.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Moorahill Farm – park considerately on the verge opposite the farm.
Distance: 32.8 km (over 2 days)
Ascent: 1716m (over 2 days)
Wainwright count: 12
Navigation: You’ll need good navigation skills for parts of this route. Although there are good tracks, there are pathless sections too and it’s all too easy to drift in poor visibility. Particular care is needed not to stray on to steep ground on Bonscale Pike.
Terrain: Generally good in the summer months although it gets boggy the further east you go.
Facilities: Nearby Shap has a number of options, including Shap Chippy, perfect for post-hill sustenance.
*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.