The Ennerdale Horseshoe: a Lake District gem

A sunny bank holiday weekend in northern England was the signal for a visit to the Lake District. I couldn’t quite believe it, but it was five years since my last visit. Five years. That’s a whopping 1,825 days (or thereabouts) since my last tramp among England’s highest hills. Where on earth had the time gone?

My last trip was a little backpacking microadventure in the hills around Mardale in 2013. I needed to introduce Edita to the Lake District, and what better way to do it than a two-day backpacking route from one of the Cicerone Backpacker’s Britain guides by Graham Uney (a.k.a. The Felltop Assessor).

The reason these seemed appropriate was because I have difficulty keeping up with Edita and, as I’ve mentioned before in this blog, Mr Uney’s Backpacker’s Britain routes have a tendency to be tough. Could they manage to peg her back a little?

Ascending above Ennerdale Water
Ascending above Ennerdale Water

And so it was that that we found ourselves starting out from the car park at the western end of Ennerdale Water, looking to do a giant horseshoe ridge walk all the way around Ennerdale, over at least 15 summits.

The secluded valley of Ennerdale lies on the west side of Cumbria, facing onto the north-east corner of the Irish Sea. The valley is about 12km in length, much of which is carpeted in conifer forest, controversially planted by the Forestry Commission between the wars. The lower end is occupied by the 4km-long glacial lake, Ennerdale Water where, slightly weirdly, former US president Bill Clinton proposed to his wife Hillary (perhaps I should have said former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was propositioned by her husband Bill, but it pains me to use passive over active voice).

Ennerdale was new ground for me. I was expecting it to be a real treat, though we would be spending the weekend high on its rim, where we didn’t expect to see much of the lake or the forest.

My first cock up was to volunteer to do the driving. It took seven hours to drive up from London, which meant leaving our flat at 2.30am. I was already tired before we started. Luckily, I didn’t know it, but Edita was carrying all the food, so she had a little more weight on her back than I did.

Looking down on Ennerdale Water from the flanks of Starling Dodd
Looking down on Ennerdale Water from the flanks of Starling Dodd

A powerful easterly wind was billowing its way down the valley, and my cap blew off twice as we walked along the shore of Ennerdale Water. This suggested it was going to be super windy up on top, but there’s not much you can do in these situations. You’ve just got to put your head down and get on with it. I took solace in the belief that with a 15kg pack on my back, it was going to be harder for the wind to knock me over.

We left the lake shore and started climbing up across moorland on a trail that led north of Ennerdale into the next valley. At a field boundary we spied a faint trail that led up a ridge called Steel Brow. This took us up to the first peak of the walk, Great Borne (616m) at the western end of Ennerdale’s northern ridge.

After losing my cap at least three times on the way up Steel Brow, I had to carry it in my hand. This was a risky strategy, because the day looked like being a sunny one. There was a time in my youth when I sported a rich mane of blond hair like Edita. Alas, these days my head is more egg-like, and to avoid it ending the day as boiled egg it was necessary to replace my cap with a beanie that was less prone to taking flying lessons.

After a quiet start to our walk, we were surprised to find around a dozen people on the summit of Great Borne who had come up from the south side. This is because, despite being a ‘shitty little hill’ (as I described it to Edita), Great Borne is officially classified as a Wainwright. In other words, it’s one of the assortment of 214 mountains, hills, knobs, hummocks and grassy knolls described in the seven-volume lakeland bible written by Lake District messiah Alfred Wainwright in the 1960s (you may have gathered from this description that I’m not a Wainwright bagger myself, although I’ve probably tripped over a few of them).

On the broad grassy ridge between Starling Dodd and Red Pike
On the broad grassy ridge between Starling Dodd and Red Pike

However, from the top of Great Borne, we could see a proper peak (by English standards), the bell-ended Great Gable (if you’ll excuse the adjective), rising up at the top end of Ennerdale. This was a significant peak for us, because it marked the far end of that day’s walk, and we intended to find a campsite somewhere below it.

We looked east across heather-clad slopes to the next two significant peaks, Red Pike and High Stile. We headed towards them across another Wainwright, Starling Dodd (633m). There was a funny metal cairn on the top of this one that looked like the rusty skeleton of a dalek.

There was pleasant walking across the moors to Red Pike (755m), with views of Crummock Water down in the valley to the north. The ridge is wide here, and there was a real roof-of-the-world feel. Red Pike was one of the very first hill walks I did on my own in my early 20s, when I was still a novice, not that confident of my navigation. I climbed it from the Buttermere side in thick cloud, intending to continue along the ridge over some of the other peaks. I wouldn’t think twice about ploughing into thick mist these days, but back then I was unsure of myself, so after managing to follow the path up to the summit, I turned around and went back down.

The hat's gone again: on the summit of Red Pike, with High Stile behind
The hat’s gone again: on the summit of Red Pike, with High Stile behind

There was no chance of getting lost in the beautiful clear skies today. We could see to the far horizons. But the wind wasn’t quite so friendly. I lost my hat again on the summit of Red Pike. It was 1.30 and we were hungry. Before continuing along the curving ridge to High Stile, we took shelter behind some rocky outcrops just below the summit of Red Pike, and had some lunch. Once out of the wind it was beautifully warm. In fact, it was such a balmy spring day, that we never felt cold, even in the howling wind. There was almost a tropical feel.

High Stile (807m) was something of a plateau, with 600 summit cairns (or thereabouts). We selected one of them for our summit photos then continued along to the next peak, High Crag (744m). The ridge narrowed here, and at High Crag it dropped steeply to a col.

We now had a good view of the rest of that day’s walk to Great Gable. Below us Haystacks was almost invisible against the grassy hillsides rising behind it. It’s always a surprise to recall that this was one of Alfred Wainwright’s favourite peaks, and the place where he asked to have his ashes sprinkled. It was almost a non-entity from where we were standing, although it displayed some interesting crags separated by grassy tiers.

Beyond it, a hillside of grassy moorland led up to the top end of Ennerdale, where it curved around gently to Green Gable. Great Gable looked like a more formidable ascent to end the day with, but directly below it was the obvious col of Beck Head, where we knew there to be a tarn (small lake) we could camp beside.

Descending from High Crag, with Haystacks on the ridge below, and the bell shape of Great Gable on the horizon
Descending from High Crag, with Haystacks on the ridge below, and the bell shape of Great Gable on the horizon

We had to descend about 200m down steep scree to reach the col between High Crag and Haystacks. This needed care with big packs on our backs; we overtook a young couple who were similarly laden, and finding it more difficult without walking poles. But there was some enjoyable easy scrambling up Haystacks, with the next day’s big peak, Pillar, as a backdrop across Ennerdale on one side, and the dark waters of Buttermere below us on the other.

We passed the tiny pond on the summit of Haystacks (597m), and descended to the paradoxically named Innominate Tarn (innominate means ‘nameless’, but it has a name, surely?) This tiny lake is the subject of arguably Mr Wainwright’s most famous quotation.

All I ask for, at the end, is a last long resting place by the side of Innominate Tarn, on Haystacks, where the water gently laps the gravelly shore and the heather blooms and Pillar and Gable keep unfailing watch.

This sentence uses a bit of poetic licence, as the shore was more boggy than gravelly, but that doesn’t sound quite as idyllic. He ends this paragraph with the slightly macabre sentence:

If you, dear reader, should get a bit of grit in your boot as you are crossing Haystacks in the years to come, please treat it with respect. It might be me.

He may well have been horrified if he’d seen what we saw. Someone was flying a drone up there, while their dog took a crap by the shores of the tarn.

We reached the lake at four o’clock. We were both hungry and somewhat dehydrated. I refilled my bottles in the water (it’s OK, I had purification tablets, but I hoped there weren’t too many dog owners who allowed their pets the same freedom).

We had a second lunch and studied the route beyond. The campsite was still a way off, and Great Gable looked increasingly daunting. Unusually, Edita was the downhearted one, so I reminded her of our ascent of Monte Prena and Monte Camicia a year earlier. We left the summit of Prena at 3.30, but agreed to press on over Camicia instead of cutting the walk short. It was a tough climb with some tricky snow and rock sections. We didn’t reach the top of Camicia until after six o’clock, and arrived back at our car as the last rays of sunshine dimmed at 8.30pm. We had no regrets about our decision to press on, and had a great deal of satisfaction as we drove back to Rome that same evening.

Scrambling up Haystacks, with Pillar across the valley
Scrambling up Haystacks, with Pillar across the valley

‘Great Gable is just a walk,’ I said. ‘It’s much easier. We could be down at the col by 7pm, and then we just have to put up the tent and relax.’

This cheered her up a lot. Even so, Great Gable did have one thing in more abundance than Monte Camicia – wind.

We had a moorland section between Haystacks and Green Gable that felt more remote. It would probably be boggy for most the year, but today it was dry and we avoided wet feet. We didn’t meet a single hiker between Innominate Tarn and the bottom of Green Gable, and it was one of the few times we had the hills to ourselves.

Green Gable (801m) is a little sister peak of Great Gable, separated by a small col. It was windiest of all on the way up, and we had doubts about the wisdom of ploughing on over Great Gable (899m), but plenty more people were coming the other way, so we pressed on. In fact the col seemed to be the channel for the easterly winds. I had to lean forward and push to get beyond it, but once on the flanks of Great Gable it wasn’t so blustery.

I was pretty tired as we stepped over boulders to the summit.

‘It’s a bit windy up there,’ said a cheerful chap coming the other way.

No shit, Sherlock.

‘Wait till you get to the col,’ I replied by way of discouragement.

Approaching Green Gable and Great Gable, but which is which?
Approaching Green Gable and Great Gable, but which is which?

We had the clearest view of Scafell Pike and Sca Fell from the top.

‘That’s the highest peak in England,’ I said to Edita, pointing to the one on the left.

‘But the one on the right looks higher,’ she said.

She was right, it did. And she made another great observation. Looking west across the col of Beck Head, where we intended to camp, she spied the silver shine of another small tarn on Kirk Fell. It looked idyllic. A rocky crag should provide some shelter from the wind, and its position on a mountaintop meant that it would have the sun for longer than Beck Head, which was already falling into shade.

We descended Great Gable on shitty scree, with lots of dead ends and hazardous gullies. We could see Beckhead Tarn, our camping spot down below, but some hikers coming the other way had some bad news.

‘The tarn is completely dry. I’ve never seen it like that.’

‘But I can see it,’ I replied.

‘It’s a mirage.’

Descending to Beck Head from Great Gable, with Ennerdale below
Descending to Beck Head from Great Gable, with Ennerdale below

I took my sunglasses off and, sure enough, what looked like a black lake turned into a pile of muddy rocks.

‘Kirkfell Tarn it is then,’ I said to Edita. She looked happy.

It was seven o’clock by the time we reached the bottom. The wind re-emerged from beside Green Gable, and it was so strong that I worried about being lifted off my feet and tossed onto rocks.

We passed Beckhead Tarn, which was now a sandpit filled with brown boulders. It was astonishing how it had become so dry, and we kept our fingers crossed Edita hadn’t seen a mirage on Kirk Fell too.

‘There only needs to be ten litres of water up there,’ I said hopefully.

The hours after seven seem to be when the crazy fell runners come out (sorry, that’s a tautology. I meant to say ‘fell runners’). We expected to have Kirk Fell to ourselves at that time, but there were dozens of them coming down in the other direction.

There was one other tent on the top, but it had been pitched away from the water, and by the time we erected ours we felt like we had the place to ourselves. It was an amazing camping spot. The ground was flat and soft, the tarn shone like a mirror, and there was a perfect view of Scafell Pike to the south-east.

Edita looking happy at our wild camp on Kirk Fell, with Scafell Pike on the horizon
Edita looking happy at our wild camp on Kirk Fell, with Scafell Pike on the horizon

But the best was towards the west. We were sheltered from the wind behind a large boulder, and we were able to keep the porch door open all evening. We watched a pink sun sink beside Pillar and disappear behind the Scottish Uplands across the Solway Firth. Only when the last light faded at 10.15pm did we zip up the door. We had even been carrying a delicious bottle of red wine to have with our dinner, though I was too tired to finish it. Heavenly.

By morning the wind had changed direction and the tent was flapping violently, but it stood firm. I lit the stove at 6.30; we had a leisurely breakfast, packed up, and were away by eight o’clock.

It was still windy as we completed the short walk up to the summit of Kirk Fell (802m). We descended a gentle summit plateau and were then surprised by the trail down Kirkfell Crags. The word ‘trail’ was perhaps generous. It was quite a scramble, and at one point we had to take our big packs off, and I lowered them down to Edita.

We saw our first walkers of the day on Black Sail Pass, the col beneath Kirk Fell. Then came our big climb of the second day, up to Pillar (892m). It was a long peak with many rises and false summits, and an extended plateau halfway up. I was expecting to reach the top more quickly, and was quite tired when we reached the summit trig point at ten o’clock.

True to its name, Pillar’s trig point was a fine stone pillar. However, the peak doesn’t take its name from this tiny man-made erection, but from a much larger natural one, Pillar Rock, on the Ennerdale side. Some people consider its first recorded ascent in 1826, by a chap called John Atkinson, to be the birth of British rock climbing (there were a few of these, so take your pick).

Looking towards Pillar from Kirk Fell
Looking towards Pillar from Kirk Fell

I badly needed some energy, so we stopped in a wind-sheltered spot on the other side, relaxed for half an hour in the sun and ate a sandwich. We gazed west across Ennerdale Water, our first view of the lake since the previous morning. It still looked a long way to our car at the far end.

First we had to cross our next two peaks, Little Scoat Fell (828m) and Great Scoat Fell (841m). The first was really just the high point on a grassy ridge, and the first was more of a plateau.

‘What’s a scoat?’ said Edita as we approached it.

I didn’t know the answer, so I had to guess.

‘A cross between a squirrel and a goat,’ I replied.

I still know what a scoat is. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as ‘to prop; to scotch’, but this doesn’t make any more sense than my crock of shit.

Great Scoat Fell had a long stone wall all the way across the summit. At the far end we could see a some fell runners taking a short diversion to a small pointed peak hanging off the side of Scoat Fell, like the handle of a mug. It looked like a good isolated spot from which to survey Ennerdale. Edita suggested we follow the runners across to it. This was Steeple (819m).

A figure surveys Ennerdale from the summit of Steeple
A figure surveys Ennerdale from the summit of Steeple

‘It means a church tower,’ I said, pre-empting Edita’s question.

‘Is there anywhere in the world nicer than this on a day like today?’ said one of the runners as he passed us on the way back.

In the world? That’s a bold claim. I could have said: ‘Well, yes, many places. This is good, but it’s not that good.’ But that would have been churlish.

‘It’s lovely today, isn’t it,’ I said, as banally as I could.

Steeple was a good place to look down the valley towards Ennerdale Water and the sea beyond, but the green dome of Pillar blocked its view up the valley.

There were only grassy hillsides to follow as we approached the end of the fells, but we still had many hours ahead of us. We had the rest of our lunch below the next summit, Haycock (797m). Luckily Edita didn’t ask me the meaning of this one. It brought great joy when I remembered that we still had half a bottle of red wine left. A few moments later it was gone.

A last sight of the highest point in England (left): Scafell Pike and Sca Fell from Caw Fell
A last sight of the highest point in England (left): Scafell Pike and Sca Fell from Caw Fell

The most notable feature in the view from our lunch spot were the towers of Sellafield nuclear power station on the coast a short distance away. I told Edita about an incident from my childhood, when I went there on a school trip. A flashy tourist bus took us across the Sellafield site to the visitor centre, and we drove across a small stream.

‘There are still many salmon in this stream,’ said our tour guide.

A high-pitched voice at the back of the bus piped up: ‘The salmon are now twenty-six feet long’ (it wasn’t me, but I joined in the roars of laughter).

We didn’t have far to go now, but it still took us nearly five hours to get back to the car. The reason for this was what you might call offroading. Fans of Graham Uney’s guidebooks will know that he likes to spring a little trap on his unsuspecting readers by sneaking some bushwhacking into his walks. These usually occur somewhere at the end, when backpackers are at their most tired.

This route had one of his best. We crossed the flatlands of Caw Fell, then took a direct route off Ennerdale Fell (640m) down to the flatlands at the east end of Ennerdale Water. First there was a steep boulder field to cross, where the chances of setting off a rock avalanche were high. We tiptoed nervously down it. Then there were steep heather slopes, with lots of holes to surprise the unwitting leg. Finally, there were both of these things together, with heather growing out of a boulder field, so that you had no idea where you were putting your feet. It felt like an episode of Total Wipeout. Our descent was painstaking, but happily we made it without mishap.

Yay! Edita nears the end of Ennerdale Water, and the end of the trek.
Yay! Edita nears the end of Ennerdale Water, and the end of the trek.

It was a relief to find a tiny trail that took us down through the forest to a firmer trail along the south shore of Ennerdale Water. We were sufficiently tired to stop for another sandwich beside the lapping water, before completing the final section. It was a beautiful afternoon as we walked along the shore. The winds of the last two days had finally died away, and we had renewed energy as a warm sun dropped towards the horizon in front of us.

We reached the car at six o’clock. We had been walking for ten hours, just like we had the previous day. It had been far too long since my last visit here, and this time I will return much sooner. For Edita it had been a perfect introduction, both to the Lake District and to wild camping in the UK hills. Hopefully we will have more opportunities over the summer.

You can see the rest of my photos from the adventure in my Ennerdale Flickr album.

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