Up to Robinson, round to Hindscarth,
Over Dale Head, magic viewpoint.
Don’t touch! Don’t touch!
The wild mushrooms, wild mushrooms.
Down to Honister, giant eyesore,
Up to Brandreth, have a sandwich.
Get lost! Get lost!
In the big bog, in the big bog.
On to Hay Stacks, down the big gap,
Back up High Crag, on the staircase.
High Stile! Red Pike!
I’m exhausted, have a sit down.
The Buttermere Round by Alfred Knottwright
If you belong to my generation then you may remember having to sing Alfred Knottwright’s famous ode to hillwalking in school assemblies. It was sung to the tune of London’s Burning, with boys and girls following each other in unison, and verses endlessly repeated until the headmaster got bored and rang the bell for lessons.
Then again, maybe you don’t, given that I’ve just made it up and Alfred Knottwright is a joke name like Sillius Soddus and Biggus Dickus. But that’s OK, because it’s quite plausible and some people will believe anything these days.
One thing that certainly does exist is the epic Buttermere Round hiking route in the Lake District. I have photographs to prove it.
When I was growing up, aside from the aforementioned ditty where different people sing different lines in unison, the word ‘round’ was most commonly used when purchasing a round of drinks. These days, however, the word is often associated with something more extreme. We now live in an era of epic endurance challenges. Instagram is buzzing with people who believe there is no point getting outdoors unless you do something bigger, longer or quicker than everyone else. Apps like Strava encourage us to out-compete each other instead of just going for a bike ride like we did in the old days.
The Bob Graham Round, for example, involves a 106km circuit of the Lake District with 8,200m of ascent (which is almost the height of Everest). To do it properly, you have to run it in less than 24 hours with a team of support runners. The Paddy Buckley Round in Wales, covers nearly 100km in distance and 8,500m of ascent, while the Charlie Ramsay Round in Scotland is 93km with 8,700m of ascent. Every year over 1,000 fitness fanatics challenge themselves to complete the Lakeland 50, over 50 miles of Lake District mountains. If that’s not enough for you, there is the Lakeland 100.
‘Challenging’ is one word to describe these routes; but other adjectives like bonkers and barking are equally appropriate. Similarly, people who complete such challenges are known as ‘ultramarathon runners’ or by the more concise ‘nutters’.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. It’s also possible to have a challenging walk and enjoy yourself at the same time. I’ve recently been revisiting Richard Gilbert’s classic guidebook 200 Challenging Walks in Britain and Ireland, which contains a generous number of day hikes all over the British Isles. The walks range from moderate pootles in the Cotswolds to ultramarathons (i.e. routes longer than 26 miles) over challenging terrain. A couple of things unite all of the routes in the book: they pass through wonderful scenery and Gilbert doesn’t suggest at any point that you run any of them. In other words, you can have a tough day out that leaves you well satisfied and – crucially – have fun while you’re doing it.
Our cottage in Kirkland (from where we launched our attack on Grasmoor End the previous day) provided easy access to Buttermere, one of the Lake District’s best loved tourists spots for the more active type. Tucked away across the Honister Pass on the western side of the mountains, a tranquil lake is enclosed by two broad ridges of linked peaks. Aside from a couple of short scrambly moves on the western side of Hay Stacks, the peaks are easy walk ups that offer magnificent ridge views without being at all hairy to climb.
Walk 97 in Richard Gilbert’s guidebook is ‘The Buttermere Circuit’, a yomp across all the main peaks of both ridges, linked by a drop to the Honister Pass about a third of the way around. You may be wondering, what’s the difference between a circuit and a round (or indeed a horseshoe which, unlike an actual horseshoe, always seems to start and finish at the same place)? The answer is don’t worry about it. It’s been a long-held tradition in the Lake District to call a circular walk a round. In any case, having started this account with a ridiculous ditty, it would take the point out of it if I then called it a circuit.
We started at 8am from the National Trust car park above Buttermere village, on the road to Crummock Water. There was still a chill in the air. On a bank holiday weekend (as this was) the village is a lively place, buzzing with tourists, but at that time in the morning the place was still waking up. There were people up and about, but not many.
We turned north on the road up to Newlands Pass to find the footpath up Robinson, the first peak on the northern ridge. A cyclist whizzed past us on his way up the hill to the pass. This is something else that I have difficulty comprehending. Probably the main reason I’ve never really taken to cycling, despite a few attempts to get into it, is hills. Going up them on foot can be quite fun, but going up them on a bike is the definition of torture. There are a significant number of cyclists, however, who make a point of seeking out the biggest hills they can find. Madness, but I guess we’re all different.
We turned off the road and headed up grassy slopes to Robinson. As we gained height, the road to the pass became more distant beneath us. Every so often I glanced down to the road and saw another cyclist zooming up it. Behind us, three of our peaks of the previous day – Grasmoor, Wandope and Crag Hill – opened out across the Newlands Pass, all of them flat-topped like sleeping dinosaurs.
As we rounded the top of the delightfully named High Snockrigg, we passed some wild campers heading down to Buttermere for breakfast. We reached a high meadow at 500m called Buttermere Moss. At the far end, the final 200m of Robinson rose as a dark shadow as the sun remained behind it. I remarked to Edita that the meadow looked like a nice place to wild camp, tucked away above the bustle of the valleys. I soon revised my opinion as we crossed it. It would be nice if sleeping in a few inches of water is your preference. The name ‘Buttermere Moss’ suggests a grassy bed of soft turf; ‘Buttermere Bog’ would be less poetic but more accurate. By the time we had squelched across it and started up the final slope to Robinson’s summit, my feet were thoroughly wet.
You may be thinking that Robinson is a funny name for a mountain. It’s obviously named after someone, but who? Is it Smokey Robinson, the Motown singer, or the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson? Or perhaps it’s named after the actor Tony Robinson, a.k.a. Baldrick? You’ll be surprised to learn that the answer is none of these. According to Alfred Wainwright it’s named after one Richard Robinson who owned much of the land around Buttermere in the 16th century.
Robinson is not the most exciting summit, a vast, dry plateau topped by a circle of gravel. But it was our first view of Britain’s highest summits for a few years. The bell-like dome of Great Gable is usually the only Lake District summit that Edita is able to identify from all angles. From Robinson it looks slightly different. Great Gable and Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain, lie directly in a line so that the latter’s distinctive summit table appears to perch neatly on the former’s summit and the two mountain’s are merged into one.
We were now in hot sun. It was a glorious April day with hardly a cloud in sight; it felt like the height of summer. The next part of our route opened out before us: our next peak Hindscarth lay on a promontory the other side of a col. It was flat and table-like; hardly a summit at all. Dale Head peeping up to its right looked more like a mountain. One of the more arresting sites in view was the Honister Pass, bedecked with buildings at the top end of the valley to our right, and the scarred outline of a road snaking up towards it.
We dropped down to the col then angled back up to Hindscarth. It may have looked like a boring, flat summit, but it’s actually quite a nice viewpoint because of its isolation, a lonely plateau ringed by Lakeland’s northern peaks.
The views from the summit of Dale Head are better still. The peak is aptly named. A chimney of plate-like rocks marks the summit, overlooking a verdant dale. Like on top of Crag Hill the previous day, the dale formed a grand avenue with Skiddaw rising prominently at the far end. The dale is the Newlands Valley, the place that was to earn a degree of fame the following week when some hikers had to be rescued after consuming a hallucinogenic salad of wild mushrooms.
The obvious path down to Honister Pass followed the left-hand side of a sheep fence. An extraordinary number of people were ascending rough slopes on the wrong side. Only at the bottom did we discover why. The path from Honister Pass started from the other side, but 50m up from the start it crossed the fence over a stile. About half of the hundreds of hikers starting out from the car park at Honister Pass noticed the stile and the trail on the other side; the other half just continued on up the grassy slopes.
Honister Pass is a true Lake District monstrosity, what King Charles would call a ‘carbuncle’ (though the same could be said of many of the costumes on display at his coronation). The car park lies in the scarred remains of a slate quarry. It is, in fact, still a working slate mine. Diggers and dumper trucks parade around, and the associated buildings and visitor centre blend in with the scenery like a smallpox pustule. We passed through it as quickly as we could, pausing only briefly to do a double-take at a sign advertising ‘Mine Tours’ (I thought it said ‘Wine Tours’).
We had another steep climb up to Grey Knotts, the first peak on the southern ridge. The path disappeared briefly and we found ourselves wading through bog again.
‘Is there supposed to be a path?’ Edita said.
‘It depends what you mean by “supposed”, I replied. ‘There’s one on the map, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it exists.’
‘Then there must be.’
‘There is no path,’ I said, secure in the certainty that we’d lost it.
Literally about two seconds later we fortuitously blundered across it again, and were able to follow it to the summit. Or summits. It’s not obvious which of the numerous rocky outcrops atop Grey Knotts is the highest.
We continued onwards on a nice flat section to the next peak, Brandreth, following a fence. It was a refreshing respite from the bog. We had lunch at 1.30 atop Brandreth, another hill with a profusion of potential summits. We leaned against a sofa-like boulder looking south to Great Gable, which had now resumed its usual distinctive outline.
The next section had been a painful slog five years earlier, when we’d come the opposite direction with big packs during a backpacking tour of the Ennerdale Horseshoe. Today it was a joy to descend, looking along the ridge we were about to traverse, framed by the blue of the sky and the twin streaks of blue on either side, of Ennerdale Water to the south and Crummock Water to the north. We managed to find a trail alongside a fence that didn’t take us through the middle of the bog that I knew to exist across that stretch of terrain.
It was busy at the oxymoronic Innominate Tarn. Many people were having lunch, and many more trekked past. We skirted the left-hand side of the lake to rejoin the main path to the summit of Hay Stacks.
Hay Stacks was known to be one of Alfred Wainwright’s favourite Lake District mountains, the place where he asked to have his ashes scattered. Clocking in at just 597m, or 1,959 feet, it’s not actually tall enough to be classed as a proper mountain. It was, however, our most interesting summit of the day, composed of a couple of jagged ridges divided by a rock pool. There was also a little bit of scrambling – the only scrambling of the Buttermere Round – down the other side to the deep pass of Scarth Gap, which links Buttermere with Ennerdale.
We had another 300m of ascent back up to High Crag. Much of it was on steps, like climbing a staircase. I raced up them, looking at my feet all the way up. There were hundreds of people coming the other way, the busiest section since Honister Pass. We seemed to be going against the flow, and it was tiring to keep looking up to say hello to everyone. There needs to be some sort of etiquette about this. There should be a set number of people beyond which it’s no longer considered rude to walk past without saying hello. If I did this on Oxford Street I’d be considered a weirdo. In the lowlands, close to a car park at a scenic tourist spot, you would also draw blank stares if you tried to greet a stranger. What is it about hills and footpaths, and where does it end? I could feel my neck stretching like an ostrich from the constant looking up and looking back down again.
Thankfully it was quieter on other side of High Crag as we walked along the ridge that linked it with High Stile. It was mid-afternoon now and most people were heading down. To our left we looked down into the forested valley of Ennerdale, a success story in habitat regeneration. To our right Buttermere flashed up at us from the valley below. Ahead of us, the ridge curved to the right as it rose up to the summit of High Stile, at 807m the highest point of the walk. Its two summits stand some distance apart. The highest is the least imposing, one of several cairns on the corner of a bend in the ridge. We went to both.
I was still feeling remarkably good, given the distance we had come, but then a group of three appeared behind us going even faster than we were. They overtook us on the summit of Red Pike, the final peak of the round: two youngsters and one man in an orange tee-shirt who was more our age.
We stopped for a second lunch on a grassy bank overlooking Crummock Water. We now had a choice of descent routes. The quickest one went straight down to Buttermere village, immediately beneath us, via Bleaberry Tarn. The more interesting, if longer one, took a loop to the north down a moorland shoulder above Crummock Water called Lingcomb Edge. Ling is an interesting word that is associated with mountains both in the British Isles, where it means ‘heather’ and refers to heather-clad moorland, and in the Himalayas, where it means ‘penis’ in Hindi and refers to pointy summits. The three racers had taken this route, and we saw the chap’s orange tee-shirt skirting its slopes as we ate our sandwiches.
Although it would take us longer to go this way, it wasn’t as steep and was likely to be kinder on tired legs. It also offered a couple of other attractions that I didn’t want to miss given that we’d come so far. We decided to go that way.
We left the summit of Red Pike at 5pm. The route was gentle at first as we descended through the heather, walking along the edge of an escarpment with Crummock Water beneath us and yesterday’s peak of Grasmoor on the other side. The path became rougher and more abrupt as we approached the mountain stream of Scale Beck, where there was a bonus in store for us.
We reached a wooded gully and a scenic path that crossed a bridge at Scale Force, one of the Lake District’s most famous waterfalls. Composed of three slim cascades totalling about 60m in height, it’s a sight to drive poets into raptures. Samuel Taylor Coleridge described Scale Force as ‘the white downfall of which glimmered through the trees, that hang before it like the bushy hair over a madman’s eyes’. Besides being grammatically awkward, this doesn’t actually make sense and is the sort of nonsense that only a poet could get away with spouting. Was he saying that the waterfall was a pair of eyes while the trees resembled hair hanging over it? Most of the trees that I could see were growing upwards, while the waterfall was about as eye-like as a stream of piss. The waterfall is worth a visit though, wedged into the crack of a steep gorge choked with greenery. My description might not be as poetic as Coleridge’s, but hopefully it gives you a better idea of what it looks like.
We had a pleasant final hour of walking beside the shores of Crummock Water. Buttermere village was heaving with tourists when we passed through, and we weren’t remotely tempted to stop for a pint in either of its giant hotels. We returned to the National Trust car park at 7pm, eleven hours after setting out. Edita had hoped to do it in 9½, but I was well-satisfied with our day. It had been challenging and enjoyable, exactly as hiking should be. I’m almost tempted to write a song about it.
You can see all photos from our walk in my Northwest Lake District Flickr album.
Trip data: Robinson (737m), Hindscarth (727m), Dale Head (753m), Grey Knotts (697m), Brandreth (715m), Hay Stacks (597m), High Crag (744m), High Stile (807m), Red Pike (755m)
Total distance: 25.81km. Total ascent/descent: 1,972m.
View route map and download GPX