Sometimes, you just don’t need the hassle. You want a solid day on the fells but without the drama. No agonising over escape routes should the mist roll in or that oh so clear footpath turning out to be a dwindling sheep track whose only purpose is to spit you out halfway up a steep, slippery scree slope. No, sometimes you just want to turn up, rack up the miles, tick off some summits, drink in the views, forget all your troubles and return thinking, yes, that was a good day…
Autumn is well and truly established now, meaning the colours you’ll see in the mountains are as vivid as they’ll be all year. But there’s also a sense of the number of hill days diminishing as Winter approaches and the high summits start to close their doors, allowing only those with the proper kit and expertise into their midsts.
That’s why, at this time of year, you just need a walk where you can enjoy the mountains without the aggro and I think this one takes some beating.
I was heading to Skiddaw – a place dear to me as this was the first proper mountain I climbed. I’ve since been to the top a few times but have never explored the outlying fells, which Wainwright personifies as Skiddaw’s older children in the family portrait – a fitting analogy when you see the iconic vista of the southern aspect of this mighty massif.
The weather on the drive up didn’t look promising but positivity is key, and, as I made my final approach, it was clear the trip had been worth it. Pockets of mist settled in the valleys and the sun cast a warm glow across the fields. The calm of the hills was instantly soothing and the silence was the perfect soundtrack as I stepped out, laced up and set off.
My route was based on Stuart Marshall’s sojourn around Skiddaw in his excellent-for-route-ideas Walking the Wainwrights book. You can easily tailor this by cutting out some of the peaks in the group depending on your requirements. I like that in a walk as it makes the planning really easy and allows you to adapt if the weather turns or you just feel a bit more knackered than you were expecting!
Unusually, you’ll spend the first part of the walk heading downhill. Always a good way of warming up gently if you can engineer it that way. I had the place to myself, apart from a cheeky red squirrel who ran alongside me for a few minutes. After passing through the hamlets of Applethwaite and Millbeck, you’ll begin the climb through the forest towards peak number one for the day – Dodd.
This is a fell I’ve nearly climbed before, when I went to see the nesting pair of ospreys from the viewing hut they have on its slopes. They are off in sunnier climes at this time of year but you should definitely check it out and try to catch a glimpse of these incredible birds in Summer.
Dodd Wood is one area where I advise disregarding what you see on the map and just following the signs for the Dodd Summit Trail. The Forestry Commission’s works meant what’s on the ground compared to my ancient map and guidebook is completely different. I ended up doing a full circuit of Dodd, determined to find one of the three or four clear (but non-existent) paths shown on my map. The diversion was hardly an unwelcome one and I saw my second red squirrel of the day while soaking up the atmosphere of the forest.
Peak number one nailed, you’ll descend before picking up the path to Carl Side. This path rises steeply before intersecting the main track up from Millbeck. The views open out across Bassenthwaite Lake as you gain height and begin to see the highest point of the Skiddaw range in front of you. The combination of scree slopes and black clouds made for an ominous scene on this occasion but it’s just one of the many changing faces of this mountain.
The flat summit of Carl Side presents you with more options to tailor your walk, depending on how much energy is left in your legs. You could always leave Skiddaw for another day and simply head along the ridge to collect Long Side and Ullock Pike before descending to the road for a long walk back to the car at lower levels. I guarantee, though, you’ll find it difficult to resist the lure of Skiddaw’s lofty ridge across the Southerndale valley when standing on the summit of Ullock Pike and on you’ll tread.
So, after turning 180 degrees, you’ll once again find yourself at the Carl Side col to begin the ascent of Skiddaw. The climb looks worse than it is, although I was lucky to have the mist roll in, meaning I had no idea how far I had left to go and could only concentrate on the simple rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other.
Make sure you visit the true summit of Skiddaw and don’t stop at the shelter when you reach the summit ridge. Turn left along the clear path and you’ll get there soon enough.
You’ve done the hard bit now and can enjoy striding out along the main Jenkins Hill path back to the car. I’d recommend you take the diversion to the top of Little Man. I’ve always dodged it in the past but it doesn’t take much extra effort and you’ll be rewarded with an alternative view of the Borrowdale valley.
On rejoining the main path, you can trek across open fields to the summit of Lonscale Fell. On this occasion, I decided to leave it for another day and retreat to the car to enjoy the pork pie I’d forgotten was in my rucksack. That’s the beauty of a walk like this – you can make it as epic as you like depending on your mood, knowing it’s one you can easily repeat another time.
The sun came out on the descent and afforded some outstanding views of the Eastern Fells. As a youngster, I would long for a glimpse of some of the iconic fells – Helvellyn, the Scafell range, Bowfell… and always pestered my dad to point them out. It’s still something I love to do and Skiddaw is a pretty good place to see some of the favourites.
The final treat of the day was watching a brave / bonkers paraglider soaring beneath some particularly aggressive-looking black clouds. Thought I’d done well to cheat the weather but it just shows how most activities are within reach, even if the weather doesn’t look too promising.
Back at the car, I drank hot coffee, ate a squashed pork pie and smiled. Yes, that was definitely a good day…
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Underskiddaw car park at start of Jenkins Hill path
Distance: 13 miles (21 km)
Navigation: Moderate – follow the signs to Dodd summit
Terrain: Well-trodden mountain paths
Facilities: Refreshments and toilets in Dodd Wood car park (not on route but could call in); coffee and cake from back of van in car park (probably not there every day)! 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.