The Northern Fells
The light is fading. I am cocooned in my sleeping bag. Alone, yet surrounded by old friends. My belly is full of warm pasta as I lay gazing at the inky-blue sky.
I have completed the ritualistic tasks of collecting water, cooking a meal and erecting my shelter. There is nothing more for me to do. My phone is switched off – the only thing requiring power now is my head torch. Everything else I need is within arm’s reach in this canvas home.
A gentle breeze rustles the fabric. A distant jet engine hums high up in the sky. Beneath the thin piece of foam, my tired limbs feel every lump and bump from the ground. Nature’s orthopaedic mattress.
The air is cool around my nostrils. My breath mists before my face. I shuffle down further into my nest and zip the tent door. A solitary bird calls rhythmically from nearby. A ring ouzel. My eyes become heavy with each new verse and I drop into a deep sleep.
Sleeping out in the mountains is a wonderful experience. The mountains’ true characters are revealed when the sun dips below the horizon. Sometimes they are gentle giants. You could be sitting in an armchair by a roaring fire, hands wrapped around a hot chocolate, chatting long into the night. Catch them in wilder weather, and they might as well have dragged you to an all-night rave.
Done properly, and sensitively, wild camping is an experience that remains with you long after you’ve taken nothing but photos and left nothing but footprints. Apart from the physical and mental health benefits, you’ll also have a tactical advantage in extending your hill days at each end, bringing otherwise unobtainable goals within reach.
With lockdown restrictions easing, I was eager to head north…
Rule of thirds
Alfred Wainwright splits the northern fells into three natural groups: the Skiddaw fells; the Blencathra fells; and the Uldale and Caldbeck fells. Skiddaw and Blencathra are the clear figureheads of the family and are undoubtedly climbed more often than the remaining 22 fells in this group. But AW saw a different appeal with the northern fells, dedicating his fifth pictorial guide to the solitary fellwalker. Those who seek companionship with the mountains and the creatures that live there.
I immediately thought Wainwright must have got this wrong, as I left the A66 to find myriad cars parked up in lay-bys along the back roads. Thankfully, most seemed to be visiting the pub and splashing around in the river and I would find it quieter on the tops.
My plan is to split the circle of northern fells down the middle and visit a third of the 24 Wainwrights it contains over the next couple of days. Hidden behind Skiddaw and Blencathra are a number of hidden gems: Carrock Fell, Great Calva and Bannerdale Crags have enough rocks or steep ground or inviting ridges respectively to keep even the most discerning mountaineer happy. But there’s also a sense of space and wilderness in these rolling hills that you don’t always find in other parts of the Lake District.
Gorse, scree and heather
Eventually finding a responsible place to park, my first objective is Carrock Fell. The pathless hump looks impossible to breach. With scree slopes covered in spiky yellow gorse and the air thick with the distinctive smell of coconut, reminding me of childhood beach holidays, I start walking, picking a route towards the summit.
Once you get going, it’s easy enough on this clear day to follow makeshift tracks and I gain height remarkably quickly. Pausing at an old sheepfold, the heather soon becomes thicker as I forge onwards to the summit. It’s hot and thirsty work – sunburn is a real risk today – and the breeze at the top is welcome.
I aim for what is marked as an old fort on the map, before turning towards the summit marked by an obvious cairn. It’s a lovely rocky summit with expansive views all around. The clarity of the day means I can see all the way to Scotland. But it also highlights the vastness of these northern fells, a good chunk of which I’ll be visiting over the next couple of days. On a foggy day it would feel remarkably bleak up here.
Lightening the load
I traipse across the boggy moor towards my next objective, High Pike. In an effort to lighten my pack, I’ve been working on a few upgrades. I get through quite a bit of water and carrying several litres quickly becomes heavy. I’ve invested in a water filter and am keen to try it out. My expedition pack already feels lighter and I am comforted by knowing I can tap into more water sources en route.
Having said that, the first stream I come to, Drygill Beck, is bone dry. Sometimes the clue is in the name… If you are heading out this way, then note that Grainsgill Beck is your first reliable source of water (although you might stumble across some tiny trickles early on Carrock Fell).
I soon reach High Pike. At 658m, it’s perhaps one of the more decadent summits in the Lake District, complete with slate bench to take the weight off tired legs. My head in full expedition mode, I opt for the floor. But either makes for a lovely spot to pause and appreciate the scale of these northern fells.
I pick up the Cumbria Way, which allows for swifter progress than wading through heather and marshy ground. I soon come across what appears to be a large garden shed. This is Great Lingy Hut, managed by the Mountain Bothies Association. This could offer welcome refuge on those days of horizontal rain and relentless mist. But there is no need to hide away today – and besides, I need to top up my water bottle.
Grainsgill Beck is, thankfully, rather more obliging when it comes to water and the ice cool liquid quenches my thirst. It’s later in the afternoon now, and, still hoping to bag two more summits before hitting the hay, I head towards Knott and Great Calva.
The descent from Knott is a joy – the full panorama of the dark side of Skiddaw opening up. Lost in thought, Great Calva is soon upon me. What a wonderful place to bask in the late afternoon sun.
I haven’t seen another soul for a few hours now. A solitary fell runner appears from nowhere, tags the summit and disappears as quickly as he came. I linger a while on the summit, enjoying the peace and quiet, before taking on the ankle-busting descent of Great Calva’s eastern slopes.
It feels relentlessly steep and I lose height quickly; no easy task with a big pack on my back. My efforts are put into perspective when I meet two men heading in the opposite direction. Sweat pours off them and they manage to sneak in a few words between snatching gulps of air. They are on the home stretch of the Bob Graham Round in reverse, which they have been completing over a number of days. It certainly sounds more appealing than the 24 hour efforts attempted by some superhumans.
A new day
Until the day warms up, I am reluctant to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag. But the promise of a dramatic sunrise lures me from my cocoon and I break the silence of the dawn with the roar of my stove. Porridge and coffee in the tank, a steep climb soon warms me up.
The wind picked up in the night, doing its best to keep me from a deep sleep. It is five in the morning and the sun is just starting to glow beneath the horizon. I feel refreshed, despite the broken sleep.
As I gain height, the fiery ball of the sun peaks over the horizon. This is why I come to the mountains. I grin like a cheshire cat as Bowscale Fell, Bannerdale Crags and Blencathra alliteratively draw me in.
My legs want to stride out. Today feels more mountainous than yesterday, yet I hold myself back; there’s no need to rush on days like these. There’s a steep climb to Foule Crag, standing atop Sharp Edge. Looking down on this iconic ridge, it feels deliciously spiky and rather precarious with a big pack on. It’s not part of the plan today.
With much of the hard work now done, I begin my descent of Blencathra to the east of the Doddick Fell ridge. It’s now time to sit back and enjoy the ride. Souther Fell is all that stands between me and a well-deserved lunch of crumbled oatcakes, warm Babybel and leftover chorizo. It’s a gentle climb among wonderful scenery. The quieter side of Blencathra – but no less magical.
The summit comes and goes. A couple of discarded rocks by the path being all that gives it away. What does scream at you is the magnificent presence of Blencathra, its saddle shape very much apparent from this angle. I gaze back at Bannerdale Crags, perhaps the unsung hero of this walk. What seemed a mere add-on to Blencathra at the time now reveals itself to be a handsome thing, with a particularly impressive ridge on its eastern face taking you straight to the summit. I bank my intrigue for another day.
The gentle slopes take me back to ground level in Mungrisdale, again busy with day trippers. It is still early and there’s a longer-than-you’d-like road walk back to the car. With 1km to go, I feel a small patch of heat on the ball of my foot. The tell-tale signs of a blister. Being so close to the car, I unwisely choose to ignore it, knowing full well I’ll pay for it later.
I’d resigned myself to bagging these outlying fells more out of duty than of passion. But writing them off was a mistake. There are sharp ridges and spongy slopes of heather to be found. Clear waters and wildlife in abundance. Expansive views and endless skies. You’ll find rolling moorland and proper mountains. Carrock Fell, Great Calva and Bannerdale Crags would be infinitely more popular were they sited in one of the great valleys of Lakeland.
And perhaps that’s just it. Visiting the northern fells forces you to slow down. To take the time to really get to know them. Taking this time means you’ll soon discover that characters are often quite different from our first impressions.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: You can start in either Mungrisdale, Bowscale or Mosedale. There are a number of lay-bys which allow for responsible parking on the minor road. Make sure you use them.
Distance: 32.8 km (over 2 days)
Ascent: 1755m (over 2 days)
Wainwright count: 8
Navigation: You’ll need good navigation skills in this remote and pathless part of the Lake District, particularly in poor visibility. Chances are you’ll see very few people up here and there’s not always a short way off the mountains.
Terrain: Boggy in parts. Long sections away from defined paths. Lots of heather to negotiate. Some steep climbs.
Facilities: Mill Inn at Mungrisdale.
*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.