Rain pelted the old sash windows like bullets as we sat by the fire at the 17th-century Burnthwaite Farm in Wasdale, a remote valley in northwest England. My wife, Katy, and I sought to complete the Mosedale Horseshoe, a circular hiking route taking in several of the highest fells, or small mountains.
We’d attempted part of the hike the previous year but were defeated by fog, high winds, slippery rocks and common sense. Farmer Andrew, our host, had consoled us that day: “Wise decision. Come back next year. The mountain will still be there.”
So return we did last September, and, sure enough, there it was: the mountain. And, sure enough, it was raining.
A month prior, our friends who live in British Columbia threw doubt on the very idea upon hearing the plans: “Mountains? In England?”
Our micro-adventures in the British hills didn’t register for the mountaineering types: “Himalayas. Those are mountains. The Alps or the Rockies. But … England?”
The English Lake District, which is the largest area of mountainous semi-wilderness in that country, is a pipsqueak when compared with the vast unknowable tracts of Canada’s national parks. But it’s a jewel-box of a pipsqueak – loaded with astounding variety, laced by eminently walkable trails both taxing and gentle, and sprinkled with ancient villages that ooze charm and mystery. It’s the tiny, exquisite portion in a Michelin-starred restaurant, made to savour and wonder at – not the heaped plate Hungry-Man dinner of a vast wilderness.
In the western part of the Lake District, Pillar is a modest 892 metres, and nearby Scafell Pike, England’s highest fell, only 978 m. They’re mere blips on the chart compared with Canada’s highest peak, the 5,959-metre Mount Logan, yet these are just numbers, and in many ways meaningless in the moment of the climb. Comparison, as the saying goes, is the thief of joy.
Our base in Wasdale lies at the end of a sinuous single track: “No Through Road,” reads the sign at the valley’s entrance, pointing to a dead end. But once you get there, there is little reason to leave. The modern world came late to the valley, electricity only arriving (sporadically) in the late 1970s. It’s a Tolkien-esque place of atmospheric names: Buckbarrow, Illgill Head, Nesther Wasdale, Wastwater.
When the day dawned, the rain stopped. We set off to complete the Mosedale Round, 18 kms of ups and downs with a total ascent/descent of more than 1,700 m, and a chance to add the names of eight summits and five Wainwrights (peaks named by Alfred Wainwright, Cumbria’s most famous hillwalker) to our growing tally. We knew what awaited: The chance to be tempted onto paths that snaked up into the mist, then cruelly clobbered by soul-destroying false summits and knee-destroying descents that would never seem to end.
After a zigzagging two-hour uphill slog, we ate lunch in the shelter of a rock cairn on Pillar. The wind howled past us, and we caught glimpses of the Irish Sea to the west as ragged clouds scudded past. We dipped into a windy gap between two peaks, spying the Ennerdale valley to the east from an eagle’s perspective. This is one of the most remote of Cumbria’s valleys and has a sense of tranquil wildness and self-will. Landowners and conservation groups are working to rewild Ennerdale and reintroduce, among other things, the beaver, hunted to extinction in 16th-century England.
The clouds were gathering and with them a growing sense of foreboding. We kept moving. Scoat Fell and Red Pike followed and then the precipitous scramble up Yewbarrow and a traverse of its long spine, the back of a petrified beached whale.
This seven-hour trek wasn’t the same kind of challenge as an Everest expedition, not even close. And yet it was a mountain and one that came with stark warnings. A fall from a 50-metre cliff would be as deadly as from a 500-metre Rocky Mountain one. And the isolation: Could it really be that, out of a British population of almost 68-million, no one else was on this spectacular trail on this autumn day?
We were treated to a fine sunset as we picked our way down off the scenic circular ridge. Nursing our aching feet in the Wasdale Head Inn, Victoria, a London transplant and the bar manager, invited Katy for a wild swim in the lake the next morning: “It’s not one of your Canadian lakes, but I’ll wager it’s as wet. And as cold.”
England’s Lake District is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited national park in Britain with 15.8 million annual visitors and more than 23 million annual day visits. But in more than a dozen visits, I’ve rarely seen a crowd in the hills, or waited in line for a stile. I once, however, encountered a group of Llama walkers exercising their charges in the quiet Newlands Valley.
There are the thrumming towns, of course, such as Windermere and Ambleside, where tour buses disgorge crowds of day-trippers to buy their cream teas and daffodil souvenirs. Groups of Woodsworth acolytes and clutches of Beatrix Potter aficionados gather. Potter herself would have been the first to disappear over the nearest fell to escape the crowd. She worked tirelessly to protect the landscape she loved. When she died in 1943, she left 4,000 acres of Lake District land and countryside in the National Trust’s care, as well as 15 farms. Her home, Hilltop Farm, can still be visited.
A few days after our climbing in Wasdale, we travelled 70 km by road to Keswick (it would have been one-third as far had we taken the mountain pathways), the walking capital and base for exploring the northern fells such as Skiddaw and Blencathra. Resting in the Horse & Farrier pub in the tiny village of Threlkeld after a knee-crunching descent from Saddleback, we took stock: Did we finally know the Lake District now, after so many visits?
The answer, found somewhere in the amber depths of a pint of Thatcher’s Gold, was a definite “no.” This bite-sized slice of semi-wilderness is not vast, but seemingly unknowable. We knew that this compact world of mist-shrouded fells, precipitous ridge walks, narrow cart tracks and fog-cloaked villages would draw us under its spell again soon. And farmer Andrew was right: The mountains will still be there.
If you go
The summer offers fine weather, but much busier trails and accommodations. September and October can be a wonderful time to hike the Lake District National Park, often with dryer days and significantly fewer crowds.
Self-guided walks are well-documented and available for every level of experience. Guided hiking tours abound. The Lake District can be reached by train from major airports such as Manchester, and it’s also a straightforward three-hour drive. Remoter areas such as Wasdale and Ennerdale definitely require a car and are trickier journeys on much narrower roads.
Hiking circular ridge routes is a great way to sample the challenging but attainable heights and the superb views that inspired the Lakeland poets like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey. In addition to the Mosedale Horseshoe, the Deepdale and Fairfield Horseshoes are some of the best and a bit easier to access. There are plenty of online resources, and Cumbrian hiking stores, especially the venerable George Fisher store in Keswick, are rich with maps and guidebooks. For details, visit visitlakedistrict.com.