Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Caldbeck Fells

caldbeck_fells
Here is an easy circular walk of eight and a half miles into the Caldbeck Fells at the northern extremity of the Lake District. The walking is easy and generally on grass apart from a fascinating ravine walk and 4 summits - all Wainwrights - are reached. The route perhaps lacks the dramatic scenery of the central Lakes but the empty spaces and far reaching views that typify the Caldbeck Fells, you will have to yourself. The start is from just south of the small hamlet of Orthwaite reached up the minor road about 5 miles north of Keswick on the A591.

The previous day had been one of the warmest of the summer with temperatures in excess of 30C in the South of England and 26C at home 200m above sea level. This was not the case today however and the thermometer stood at 11 degrees while ragged grey clouds hid the top of Skiddaw and a thin rain blew in on the fresh north westerly wind. From the almost tropical warmth of yesterday the weather now reminded me of the damp chill of Reykjavik in Iceland which was hardly surprising really as that was where it was coming from.

Hood up, I set off through the gate opposite and up the bridleway on its far side. I was about seven and a half miles north of Keswick and just south of the hamlet of Orthwaite above Bassenthwaite Lake and the path here was signposted to Burn Tod though I'm not sure why because there's nothing there. After a short distance the path left the farm track (which goes to Dash Farm) and climbed gently up to the left across the slopes of the fell known as Great Cockup which has to be one of the funniest names ever given to a hill. After passing a small summit which is actually a great viewpoint, the path meandered its way along the slopes towards a great grassy hollow in the fells ahead with views on the right of the Dash Valley and falls. These remote hills are known as the Ulldale Fells and join up with the (slightly) better known Caldbeck Fells the northernmost range in Lakeland. The character of the area though is not typically Lakeland but has more in common with the Howgills or the Southern Uplands of Scotland - vast sweeping slopes and rounded summits, the exception here being the northern aspect of Skiddaw fronted by the shadowed crags of Bakestall and the spectacular Dash Falls.

My path descended into the hollow surrounded by clouded hills and at an area of tall foliage the path disappeared and the rain started up again with renewed vigour. I crossed a stream and by passed the reedy area to its right and just beond a ruined wall, the path was rediscovered up to the left. Here I entered an exciting steep sided ravine which was a change from the open grasslands but didn't stop the wind which funnelled up behind me. The path mainly keeps on the left side of the river on the ascent and though rough in a few places is not hard, climbing steadily up the ravine which makes for an interesting walk.

As the top is neared the ravine splits in 2 with the main river descending from the left branch while the right one is almost dry. A path does exit up to the left but the far easier way is to keep on up the right branch which soon ceases to be a ravine at all, emerging on the grassy ridge at the top. Here I turned left and followed a faint path up the wide ridge in dense mist buffeted by an icy wind and horizontal rain which - just for good measure - was mixed with face stinging hailstones.

After a cairn on the ridge, the path climbed again indicating that the cairn hadn't been the summit of Knott after all - the true top being revealed ahead as the cloud finally broke up around me giving tantalising glimpses of distant hills and wild empty spaces to the east. That was Skiddaw Forest and the Caldbeck Fells - Lakeland's Empty Quarter. It is very important if you come walking up here in visibility as bad as this not to get lost by heading too far east - the walk home will be too much for many!

Knott is the highest point of the Caldbeck Fells and the highest Lakeland fell north of Skiddaw and today it was positively arctic - after the recent heatwave this was one of the coldest days I remember walking in the UK in summer - it was now only 5 or 6 degrees more like winter really.

The view was revealed suddenly as the mists cleared away - blown at speed by the gale - and the rain ceased. My route lay to the north west to the grassy hump of Great Sca Fell which is nothing like its namesake above Wasdale though now the sun was out it was a very pleasant spot indeed. The only human for miles, I sat on the cairn which was the only rocky object in a sea of grass and admired the sweeping vista of the Cumbrian plain and the sands of the Solway backed by the hills of Scotland while all around the cloud shadows chased across the breezy heights.

Now my heading was west along another path and I soon descended a surprisingly steep though easy and grassy slope that was unseen from above. This led in due course to Meal Fell - for the peak baggers the third Wainwright though not a two thousander - whose summit is crowned by a fine stone shelter. Here I rested again and looked back to Great Sca Fell and the slope I had descended. There were 2 or 3 walkers coming down now appearing as ants half a mile away on the green expanse of Great Sca Fell.

To the West of Meal Fell is an interesting little pass known as Trusmadoor - a steep defile through the hills which I crossed to the South where it is easier. Now the path led steeply up a stony ridge on its far side until the gradient eased and followed the wide whaleback to the summit of Great Cockup - yes the name is still amusing but it's a good viewpoint as well!

From the far end of Great Cockup a descent to the left through heather soon picks up the track we started on earlier and a reluctant return to civilisation can be achieved by turning right when it is reached. Then again one could always bring a tent!

Summits >>> Knott 710m/2330ft >>> Great Sca Fell 651m/2136ft >>> Meal Fell 550m/1805ft >>> Great Cockup 526m/1726ft Essentials >>> 8.5 miles or 13.5km of walking >>> 1900 feet or 580m of ascent >>> Start and finish at Orthwaite >>>

Pete Buckley July 2010

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