Matterdale Common and the Dodds
The Eastern Fells in the Lake District form the large mass of high ground between Thirlmere in the west and Ullswater in the east. The jewel in the crown is always going to be Helvellyn, with its precipitous ridges drawing thrill-seekers from the east, and its gentler, yet still-to-be-respected western slopes dominating the scenery around Thirlmere.
Let’s not forget good old north and south too. South of the mountain everyone wants to climb you’ll find Nethermost Pike and Dollywaggon Pike, offering ample opportunity for exploration away from the crowds on Helvellyn.
But the ridge also continues someway to the north, culminating in Clough Head, just a stone’s throw across the A66 from the mighty Blencathra. And it’s north I’ll be heading today, as I find myself back in the Lake District after exploring the quieter parts of the Glyderau in Snowdonia last week.
It’s blowing a hoolie, with plenty more forecast for later on. A tremendous bank of cloud looms ominously to the west, yet I somehow find myself in a sanctuary of clearer skies. I thank the weather gods and pray I’ll sneak in unnoticed before they shift their attention to Matterdale.
The plan for today is to see how far I get exploring the high ground north of Helvellyn. With the threat of thunderstorms ever present, there’s a real possibility I’ll have to scale back my aspirations. But if it does all goes to plan, I’ll be visiting the three dodds – Great Dodd, Watson’s Dodd and Stybarrow Dodd, before heading south to Raise. I’ll then head off piste before climbing again to Sheffield Pike and Hart Side with a final flurry of pathless action towards Dowthwaitehead. It’s a deceptively simple day, but with 18km and over 1,000m of ascent to tackle, I’ll still be asking a lot of my legs.
It feels relatively sheltered at first and I make good progress across the gentle slopes of Matterdale Common. There’s a lovely view of Blencathra’s splendid ridges, looking dark and foreboding as a backdrop to the green, purple and orange patchwork of grass, heather and rusty bog asphodel.
The gradient steepens as I round the corner of Great Dodd to face the wind head on. It’s tough going as I try to snap some photographs.
It’s often said the dodds are remarkably similar. And when you look back at the photos of the summit cairns, it’s hard to differentiate the three. But each has a different character. Great Dodd is perfect for gazing longingly at the northern fells, Blencathra and Skiddaw. Watson’s Dodd serves up views of the western and southern fells, with Thirlmere below. And Stybarrow Dodd, with its ‘double summit’, offers a glimpse of the three huge fells squeezed in between you and the ultimate prize of the eastern fells.
With the three dodds in the bag, there’s a handy shortcut across high ground to Hart Side. The weather’s playing ball, so I push on to the obvious track running west to east across Sticks Pass. I commit to ticking off Raise, one of the more interesting peaks you’ll find in the National Park, but perhaps not for obvious reasons.
Look carefully as you descend Stybarrow Dodd, and you’ll spot the secret. Raise is home to a permanent ski tow and its own ski club, which operates at snowier times of the year. There’s something quite spooky about a seemingly-abandoned ski lift. It creeks and sways in the wind, held up by all manner of pulleys and counterweights. I nervously expect it to start up at any moment.
Pile of stones
Raise means ‘pile of stones’ and there’s certainly plenty of them at the summit. The impressive summit cairn looks as if it’s been damaged recently, hopefully not deliberately.
With the scarier looking clouds hanging out in the west, I leave the summit, heading on a bearing down the eastern slopes of the mountain. I explore the top of the ski tow, with the sounds of Ski Sunday playing in my head. Then it’s time to lose even more height, aiming roughly for the disused chimney, shown on Ordnance Survey Explorer maps. The chimney marks the culmination of a ruined lead-smelter flue, which I can follow to the quarry tips below.
The sun comes out as I linger around the disused quarry, once forming part of the Greenside lead and silver mines. As well as once being the largest lead mine in the UK, it also played a more sinister role as an atomic weapons research facility. Thankfully, this research was short-lived and the mines closed for good in the early 1960s.
Out and back
I normally try to avoid out-and-backs, but it’s a shame to miss out this summit for the sake of an easy climb and a few extra minutes on the route. Plus, the views of Ullswater stretching up with its crooked back are worth the effort. I try my hand at some more obscure navigation legs, skipping between contour features as I explore the summit. This isn’t a place to find your map and compass skills lacking, however. There are precipitous crags and screes lying in wait to trap the unwary.
Now comes the hardest climb of the day, a relentless slog towards Glencoyne Head, particularly in these brutal winds. Hart Side comes and goes before the final summit cairn of Birkett Fell, not a Wainwright but worthy of a visit in its own right.
My way down the mountain lies north east. There’s no path but it’s downhill all the way to the sleepy farmstead at Dowthwaitehead.
It’s a long return along the valley floor. With tired legs and a hungry tummy, I push on to the car before enjoying a brew and a spot of lunch. I enjoyed this walk. Six new Wainwrights and views I wasn’t expecting. It’s my kind of hill walking – long lofty mountains with plenty of ups and downs. Plus lots to challenge if you are looking to get off the path and pit your map and compass skills against the mountain. I’ll definitely be back.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Small car park at High Row
Wainwright count: 6
Navigation: Well-trodden paths across the tops of the three Dodds and on to Raise. Then my route heads off-path where strong navigation are skills required.
Terrain: Long lofty fell walking with leg-busting ups and downs. The second half of the route, in particular, is away from marked paths.
Facilities: Glenridding and Pooley Bridge. Aira Force.
*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.