Catbells and High Spy
Key information: Catbells and High Spy
- This ravishing narrow ridge sits directly above Derwent Water, with magical views across the lake and up to Skiddaw to the north – and south and west, while we’re at it.
- Very popular, which detracts a bit.
- Walkopedia rating87
- Natural interest15
- Human interest10
- Negative points3
- Total rating87
- Note: Neg: Catbells VERY popular
- Length: 3km upward
- Maximum Altitude: 653m
- Level of Difficulty: Moderate
The ravishing narrow ridge of the Catbells sits directly above the western shore of Derwent Water. It has magical views across the lake and up to Skiddaw to the north - and south to beautiful Borrowdale and west to Grisedale Pike and other Lakeland majors.
The Catbells are a relatively short walk, so as a result very popular although a steep near-scramble in places.
You can walk the Catbells as a there and back, or make a circuit with some attractive traverses on the ridge’s flanks.
This long ridge extends south to the charmingly-named High Spy, and then potentially on further to some superb edges and summits above Buttermere.
Walkopedia walked the length of the high ridge as an upland day on the Cumbria Way/High Way, climbing steeply to High Spy from Rosthwaite in Borrowdale. Although the very tops were in cloud, this was an outstanding day's walking by any measure, albeit not a wildly long one, with a beautiful, generally steady descent northwards down the ridge, revelling in visual glories throughout. We were specially lucky with our showery October day, catching peculiar light effects looking back up Borrowdale and a beautiful stub-rainbow on Skiddaw’s eastern foothills.
This is moderately demanding walking in mountains with unreliable weather. Come prepared, be ready to improvise. Some of the Lakes’ most beautiful light is on showery, broken cloudy days, so don’t be disheartened by a mixed forecast!
See our Lake District page for further photos and general and practical information.
The following is Silja Swaby’s piece on walking here, which was on our shortlist for our 2011 Travel Writing Competition. Thank you, Silja, for bringing this walk to our attention!
"Julia! Julia Bradbury! Wait!" I dashed across the refreshment marquee dodging chairs and the wax jackets obstructing me. Julia, natty in country chic, her brown leather jacket and casual jeans, her hair salon smooth, her skin flawless and tanned. A horse trials official in earrings and tweed, was offering her drinks from the coffee machine. The woman, who'd seen me, whispered something to her.
"It's OK," said Julia raising her hand. "Can I help?"
"Yes," I gasped. "My boyfriend has booked a weekend in The Lakes. And we've watched you on telly, the series you did, on Wainwright and walking, the crags and the peaks. I'm not sporty, outdoorsy or anything like and we've not been together long and?" I lowered my voice. "He is younger than me."
Her easy smile broadened.
"Is there a walk we could easily do? Not remote or too steep," I continued.
She pressed my arm. "Catbells."
"What bells?" I said.
"Catbells. But go on a day when the weather is fine. The view will be worth it."
Catbells sounded friendly, and suitably sized, not like brutish Helvellyn, Scafell or Skiddaw.
"Thank you," I said, as the woman stepped in with whispers for Julia - important no doubt. She lifted the flap and guided her out. I took the flap, held it as Julia disappeared amongst Barbours and Mustos.
The day of the walk was luminous, clear. The parking space waiting for us to pull in, I took as a sign that my luck would hold.
With my hiking boots fastened, I stood on the path and scanned the gradient cautiously. Julia's definition of easy didn't match mine, but coming from Somerset, a hill is a climb. The top was in view: something to aim for. How hard could it be?
I slammed the car door as a couple passed by, some five, maybe ten, years older than me. He, wavy-haired, a lean Burt Lancaster; she with a Gloria Hunniford look, but her ample proportions in pink t-shirt, beige pedal pushers and a bold panty line. But for the walking poles, I'd have put them down for trolley pushing round a supermarket.
"Ready?" he asked me.
"You bet," I replied. "Let's make a start."
I struck out, light of step, confidence high. The gradient rose and then steepened some more. We passed Burt and Gloria, I nodded hello keeping my smug opinions to myself.
It wasn't long before my thighs complained. Calm breathing was helpful, as was placing my feet. It sustained me - for a further 100 metres. It was hard to ignore the pain messages firing in my brain. Mind over matter, I thought. I mind and this matters.
"You want a drink?" he asked.
I paused for a moment and glanced down the slope. Gloria followed, Burt marching behind. She'd got in her stride and was gaining ground.
"No," I said firmly stomping up the path. "I'm fine really." I wasn't.
Every cell in my body insisted on ceasing. My lungs were stretched beyond reason. Nor did red blotches enhance my complexion, and my underarm sweat rings were unmissable - even from space.
I kept glancing back. Gloria pounded. I must stay ahead. The top wasn't far. I would not give up.
My heart pounded harder and my leg muscles stung.
A little further; keep going.
You... are... almost... THERE!
When the ground levelled out, I veered right and then left. I crumpled as graciously as I could, comforted by my private success.
"We'll rest here for a while," he said handing me things: a bottle of water and a Snickers.
I sucked on soft chocolate. Gloria rose over the brow, Burt right behind her. I admired her pluck as she lowered her frame, but I'd never concede when so much was at stake.
Basking in victory, I took in the view. Julia's judgement was spot on. Yes it was tough, but so worth it.
"You ready?" he asked startling me.
"For what?" I replied, thinking pub lunch, a boat trip, a tour of the town.
"For the summit." He pointed up at another ascent, like the one I'd just hauled myself up.
"The summit? You mean it?" I choked on the words.
The walk, my new boyfriend and all self esteem faded away. Then Burt handed Gloria her poles. Fuelled into action, I pulled my weak form off the ground. Catbells? Hell's bells more like. If I ever saw that Julia Bradbury again, I'd dash across the refreshment marquee and punch her up the bracket.
We set off, my heart pounding fit to bust, my legs demanding to be hacked off at the pelvis with a blunt axe. My glances back were no comfort. Gloria was never far behind. I knew I had to dig deeper to beat her.
With tunnel vision I fixated on the summit, and plodded up and up, telling myself, mantra-like, it isn't receding.
My inner dialogue cast time aside until that glorious moment when the summit actually seemed achievable.
A little further; keep going. You... are... almost... THERE!
I staggered over the open terrain looking for somewhere to consign my remains. I collapsed and lay like a salmon in shallows, lactic, limp, spent. I stared up at the sky, uncaring of my disarray, what anyone thought of me and eternally grateful I didn't have to move.
A comforting hand on my arm brought me back. He leaned over me and smiled. "Well done! What do you think of the view?"
I propped myself on his broad back, scanned the long slopes, the languid lake before me, the sun tinted pikes. Elation and a sparkle of achievement glowed within me. I stretched out, contented.
I shouldn't have been surprised when Gloria came into view, followed closely by Burt, but truth was I'd forgotten all about her. She and Burt strode past me and like seasoned explorers, struck out over the lengthened plateau onto the next peak.
But my triumph was tinged with guilt: Julia. Of course I wouldn't dash across the refreshment marquee and punch her up the bracket. Quite the opposite. I'd press her arm and say, "Hey, remember me? The boyfriend? Catbells? You were spot on. Where next?"
And her easy smile would broaden.
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