Some well-known mountains in the Lake District go by more than one name. Which one you go for could depend on the map you read, the people you talk to, or even just the one you like the sound of.
Let’s start with Blencathra. You might know it as the more descriptive (but less poetic) Saddleback. While you’ll still find both names printed on Ordnance Survey maps, Wainwright made his opinions on this very clear, so choose wisely!
Crag Hill in the North-Western Fells forms part of the Coledale Round and hillwalkers tend to know it as Eel Crag. OS backs Crag Hill, saving Eel Crag specifically for the cliffs which adorn this fell’s northern face. Harvey maps sides with the hillwalkers.
Then there’s Catstycam, Catstye Cam or Catchedicam. All refer to the same magnificent mountain, of course, but you’d be forgiven for any confusion.
As far as my limited research reveals, Skiddaw is, and always has been, Skiddaw. And that’s perhaps surprising, given it’s the oldest mountain in the Lake District, giving countless generations enough time to tinker with its name. And while I’m not about to make an official application to change its epithet, I often think of Skiddaw as ‘The Chameleon’.
If you are a regular visitor to the Lake District across the course of a year, you’ll know what I’m getting at here. Skiddaw is a mountain that changes colour every time you see it. Its sheer bulk means Skiddaw accommodates scree and forest and heather and rolling pastures. Colours morph across this patchwork canvas. Evolving slowly with the seasons, yet changing within seconds as clouds pass overhead and sunlight breaks through.
Skiddaw is unfairly touted by some as ‘boring’. But I’ve always had a soft-spot for this gentle giant. It was the first big mountain I climbed and one I return to often. Despite this familiarity, there are always new routes and features to explore. And when I’ve eventually discovered all its nooks and crannies, I’ll be content to experience it all again in another one of its infinite combinations of colours.
It’s easy to think of Skiddaw as one huge mountain. But it’s really the figurehead of an extended family of fells. It forms an impressive massif, discrete from other ranges in the Lake District. And while the majority of people who reach the summit every day do so via the Jenkins Hill path, those in the know take in the smaller family members too. So with a plan made and the car packed up, I was ready for an early start in the fells…
I insist on reversing into spaces and take a perverse pride in my ability to ease a car into the tightest of spots. That’s all well and good in the daytime, or when there are streetlights about but in the inky-blackness of Dodd Wood, my reversing lights can’t deliver the illumination I need. After a tense few seconds of inching my way backwards, I cut the engine and am plunged into darkness.
The air is cold and damp. Clouds and the night competing for which can obscure my vision the most. My other senses heightened, I hear sounds in the trees. The rational part of my brain tells me it’s the hoot of an owl. But that visceral feeling of some veiled spectre watching my every move is ever present.
My head torch lights up the lay-by like a flare. I leave the warmth of the car to begin the steep climb behind the Ravenstone Manor Hotel. The sudden exertion in full waterproofs makes for clammy progress. I feel like a pigeon breast, vacuum-wrapped in plastic being gently simmered in a water bath at some fancy restaurant.
I’m soon at the base of the ridge with three separate milestones lined up before me: Ullock Pike; Long Side; Carl Side. Skiddaw proper towering above them. Their vastness still apparent in the darkness. But despite its size, Skiddaw is no monster. Even a cursory glance reveals an air of grace and beauty beneath its formidable features.
Using my senses
I wind my way steadily up the ridge, occasionally swapping sides in an attempt to avoid the icy blasts of wind from the unlit slopes below. I know that the secluded and sequestered valley of Southerndale lies to my left. I sense the company of Bassenthwaite Lake to my right. But all I see is condensation on my glasses and drops of water hanging precariously from the wire rim of my hood. Like tiny stalactites in a dank cave. Today is not a day for views. But it is a day for enjoying the unbeatable feeling of being in the mountains.
I sense rather than see that I’ve reached the summit of Ullock Pike. The sharp summit invites me to linger and imagine the commanding prospect of Bassenthwaite beyond the gloom. Even thought I can’t see the lake, it’s a captivating location with an ever increasing presence of the giant Skiddaw calmly watching on.
The ridge plateaus as I continue. The summit of Long Side comes and goes. Just as I am getting used to the isolation, my sharpened faculties detect a presence nearby. I turn to see a solitary fell runner emerging from the fog – his only protection from the elements a tiny pair of shorts, bobble hat and lightweight windshell. He canters past me before announcing the imminent arrival of two more in his party. ‘Not that they’ll attack you or anything’, he kindly reassures me. If I wasn’t imagining a herd of angry fell runners intent on taking out anyone standing in their way before, I am now!
Sure enough, his two accomplices soon pass by without incident. Other than maybe a cheery ‘hello’ and an imperceptible nod of mutual respect for braving the elements while others rest soundly in their beds below.
The main path continues around the base of a wide knoll, leading directly to Carlside Tarn. But to complete the hat trick, I take a bearing before heading off the main path to bag the summit of Carl Side.
Gusts of wind hit me from nowhere. Bombarding the senses and threatening to knock me off my feet. The rain bites into exposed skin – nature’s exfoliant. I hunker down into my hood and abandon any hope of keeping my glasses clear on the final push to Skiddaw. Thoughts briefly turn to descending to complete instead a pleasant loop through Dodd Wood. But the shelter of trees and a warm car isn’t tempting enough when the fourth highest mountain in England has so much to offer, even in these conditions.
To earn the lofty heights of the summit ridge means a relentless climb up a steep scree slope. You won’t find the crowds here but you’ll have to work in return. Wainwright advises heading straight up as the faint trace of a path is frequently obscured by the shifting stones. But years have passed since the penning of those guidebooks and there’s a definite line on the ground leading to the summit ridge.
That’s not to say it’s easy going. I keep telling myself I’m only a quarter of the way up as I drag my soaking wet form up the slope. The sight of the south summit cairn on the horizon comes as welcome relief.
But ridges don’t tend to abate the wind. It’s blowing a hoolie as I trudge north towards the true summit of Skiddaw. As I stand there, cold and wet from the drenching I’ve endured on the ascent, I think how miserable this experience should be. But instead, I grin from ear to ear and laugh like a mad man. Calm and sunny days are what we all hope for in the mountains. But sometimes the raw energy from climbing a hill in these conditions is what makes us feel alive.
Out of the wind
I crouch behind the summit shelter, taking a moment to wipe my specs and review my route choices. Wainwright suggests descending along the Broad End spur into the beautifully-backwoods valley of Barkbethdale. But I’m not ready to call it quits yet. And with Bakestall lying so close to the northern summit of Skiddaw, it seems rude not to extend my walk.
I descend gradually from the summit as the wind intensifies. I eventually drift away from the path to locate a fence, which leads me unerringly to Bakestall. A 100m out-and-back from the corner of the fence at the summit takes me to a cairn at the top of a broad spur. I imagine this would ordinarily be an ideal spot to admire the views but that’s not possible today.
Now it’s decision time. I could follow a bearing west, skirting the top of Dead Beck before descending the Broad End spur to reach the summit of Cockup then the fell wall. But two thoughts echo around my head. The first is AW’s description of this route in ascent as “the least interesting” way up the mountain. The second is the weather. Already on to my second pair of gloves, I detect a brief moment of respite from the relentless winds as I step just a few feet on to the leeward slope. With the added promise of seeing a waterfall, my feet don’t need any further convincing and turn instead down the slope towards the Cumbria Way.
Despite the slippery progress, the wind eases and the views open up as I drop beneath the clouds behind Skiddaw. It’s from this vantage point I realise what a vast range I’ve taken on. The back side of Skiddaw is wild yet peaceful, revealing a different character to this most familiar of fells. The National Park with its cafes and gift shops feels worlds away.
The Cumbria Way
It’s muddy going as I reach the Cumbria Way and a more assured path. Here begins the long walk back around the flanks of Skiddaw. Not that this is a bad thing. With plenty of features to hold my attention, I do like it when interest continues beyond the main event of summiting a mountain.
Whitewater Dash is first on the list. More impressive than I was expecting, it fits perfectly into the wild landscape. The sight of a waterfall always lifts the spirits. As does a steep crag. And the cliffs of the ominously named Dead Crags towering above make me feel small.
The Cumbria Way eventually joins a minor road. But don’t get too complacent: you’ll soon be back on to farm tracks where a bit of brain power is required to navigate the various twists and turns across quiet pastures. Add in a few Covid-related path-diversions and you’ll realise it’s not quite time to put away your map.
I soon find myself once more at the base of the Ullock Pike ridge. There’s no need to tackle it a second time. Unless you want to of course. A path skirts around the base of the ridge offering excellent views of the majestic Bassenthwaite Lake. A shaft of light pierces through the clouds, serving up a final sense of drama in this already awe-inspiring scene.
I’ve experienced Skiddaw across all seasons in many different hues. And while the colour of Boy George’s dreams might have been red, gold and green, I’ve had to settle today for dishwater grey. But throw in a stiff wind, negative temperatures and thick clag and this placid lizard all of a sudden becomes a proper dragon. And that makes this a perfect mountain day, whatever you decide to call it.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Road near Ravenstone Hotel
Distance: 9 miles (14.5 km)
Wainwright count: 5
Navigation: As with any mountain walk, strong map and compass skills are necessary.
Terrain: Classic Lakeland mountain walking. Sinuous curves characterise this group of mountains made up of sedimentary rocks.
Facilities: Head to Dodd Wood car park for the Sawmill Tearooms (including toilets). Keswick is nearby.
*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.
Check out another walk around Skiddaw, this time taking in Skiddaw Little Man and the more popular Jenkins Hill path.