Coast to Coast, Lake District
England, Lake District, United Kingdom
William Mackesy’s account of this walk
Day 1 – Ennerdale Bridge to Rosthwait (in Borrowdale) ( 23 km/ 14.5miles)
We set out from Ennerdale Bridge in a good mood, partly at being back out on our feet, and partly relief to have apparently missed the forecast terrible weather - although we are under low cloud the whole way up Ennerdale, so the high ground is usually cloaked and the light unsparkling.
We start by following roads through fields and pretty woodland to the lake foot, giving our first real Lakeland view up the valley to the shrouded highlands at the far end. The north shore is patched in luxuriantly green fields, usually sheep-cropped to a tight carpet on close inspection. Our southern side winds up the shore, under the sheer Angler Crags and the steep slopes beyond, sporting tender little bracken shoots and a haze of bluebells. A superbly intact wall (EU grants, we cynically assume) labours improbably up the hillside. We stop for a drink in a patch of charming open woodland by the lakeside.
At the lake head, we cross a few fields, then take to the north side for a long trudge up the increasingly spectacular and lovely valley, through woodland, much of it pretty, beech-dominated mixed trees, although with patches of dreary coniferous monoculture. We hear cuckoos the whole way up the forest’s end.
The upper valley is famously dramatic: we pass below the huge cliffs of Pillar, with Haystacks to our left, but they are shrouded in cloud, so we see little.
We emerge into the open ground of the superb valley-head at Black Sail Youth Hostel. Great Gable (well, its base) presides on the centre of the bowl. Heaps of glacial left-overs make pretty patterns on the floor.
Lunch outside the Youth Hostel, rather unadventurously.
The fun really starts here. A delightful traverse up the hillside through moraine tummocks, then we turn up beside the Loft Beck for the day’s big climb, 1,000ft or so straight up the steep little valley.
Half an hour or so later, we are on our first high ground, the trail curving delightfully round the contours a mile or two away Crummock Water, then Buttermere, come into view to the west, immaculately pretty between their high hillsides. I camped by Buttermere – and had my first unaccompanied pint – as a 15 year old. A line of Cairns shows the way, presumably because the flat top is featureless in snow or cloud.
We swing round the contours to the sound of singing Larks, on the old Moses Trod slate route. We reach the top of an old tramway for carrying slate from the long-standing mines up here to the Honister Pass far below.
The weather is really opening up as we descend to Honister, gorgeous dappled light and vivid colours.
We drop, beside the road, down into beautiful Borrowdale, with lovely hills all around, and a high tributary to the right, leading up toward the Scafell massif.
We’ve walked over 15 miles and are getting sore-footed. Having booked late (1.5months ahead), we are in different accommodation, and separate on the outskirts of Stonethwait. We find we are with a characterful great-granny, who has a group of Aussies and their Norwegian friend (international place, Borrowdale) sitting in her garden with a tray of tea and biscuits. The Norwegian produces some aquavit, and our landlady brings out a bottle of Glenmorangie, my second-favourite whiskey, on the basis she doesn’t drink and we might as well use it up. Nectar. Farewell, fatigue.
We walk round to meet Reggie at Stonethwait, a delightful 15 minutes across vivid sheep-studded fields to this absurdly pretty hamlet. A delicious supper in the busy pub, serving cider at 8% strength (careful, William!). Booked out midweek in a remote mountain valley. The economic benefits of the Coast to Coast are hard to calculate.
Day 2 – Rosthwait to Grasmere (11.3km / 7miles or more)
We’re in luck – it is cloudy but dry when we tentatively open the curtains. The forecast was for rain in the early afternoon, and so it for once turns out.
A fine plate of Full English at 7.30 as promised, then we have some time to kill – Reggie’s older proprietors asked slightly pleadingly for breakfast not to be before 8.30. I write a bit of this account and we pack at leisure.
At 9am dead, we are at Stonethwait, and hailed from the bridge by a fully ready Reg. We head steadily upstream for some way on a very pretty track beside Stonethwait Beck then Greenup Gill. The streams are a joy, and sport a series of cascades as the gradient increases. Eagle Crag frowns above the split in the streams, where the (main) Langstrath Beck emerges from its own lovely glen to the right through a pretty stand of trees.
The Cicerone guide catches the loveliness so well, I can’t improve: “the encompassing scenery is so extravagantly beautiful and inspiring you could almost believe nature is showing off! This is Lakeland at its best”.
The landscape gets tougher, and we climb through an area of moraine tummocks to a damp little plain strewn with glaciall detritus, surrounded by steep hillsides and crags, a gentle cirque of sorts. A steep few minutes get us to the Lining Crag, where we drink and snack in the lee of the rocky top, gazing over the cirque and the upper slopes of Borrowdale below.
Another 15 minutes gets us to the wide, flattish, boggy, craggy ridgetop that is Greenup Edge, gaining views of the Helvellyn ridge, and a corner of Windermere and the hills of Lancashire in the distance. We creak down the craggy slope on its eastern side to the source-springs of Wythburn, which run north into Thirlmere, and climb to the low ridge from which long slopes and cliffs drop to lovely, rugged upper Easedale and the Grasmere bowl.
We are taking the long way round. Instead of dropping into Easedale, we turn left round the hillsides, and swing round to Calf Crag at the head of the ridge which sinks, gradually, via Gibson Knott and Helm Crag, to Grasemere.
We lunch out of the breeze in the lee of a rock, contemplating the beauties of Easedale.
Then it is on along the rough ridge, a lovely 2+ hour walk with fine views in all directions, proof that you don’t need to be on the highest point to get the best views. The Helvellyn ridge looms ahead, dark under a cap of cloud. The ridge across Easedale sinks to reveal Easedale Tarn in its lumpy bowl, the Langdale Pikes poking their heads over the mass behind. Steel Fell to our north is host to a display of constantly moving shadows.
A steep but ravishing descent gets us to a wall above an open wood which is thickly carpeted by wild garlic. There are two red squirrels shimmying on a trunk 10 yards away.
We are tired and footsore again when we wander through the pretty suburbs of Grasemere, back to the world of mass tourism.
We are booked into the Dale Lodge in the middle of the village and have that ultimate luxury, a deep afternoon snooze. We eat our best meal of the journey at a characterful restaurant round the corner.
Day 3 – Grasmere to Patterdale (via Helvellyn) (11km/ 7 miles or more)
Today was always going to be a lovely day’s walking, but becomes a marvel, as the weather allows us to divert to Helvellyn and Striding Edge. It didn’t appear thus when we peered out of the window first thing: glistening paths and the beginning of a shower.
After paying our respects to Wordsworth’s grave and Grasmere’s decidedly unusual church, we take the back road via Goody Bridge to where the path up beside Tongue Gill leaves the main Keswick road. This is one lovely valley, climbing north-east between the steep slopes of Great Rigg and Fairfield to the east and Seat Sandal to the north, amid whole hillsides of tawny old bracken which light up when the sun comes out, which it increasingly does between the showers. High up there are waterfalls to admire as we clamber up to a fine grassy cirque and on to the Hause Gap ridge. The changes of world at these ridges are always something to look forward to in the Lake District, and this does not disappoint: below us is the quiet sheet of Grisedale Tarn (when does a tarn become a lake? This one is substantial) in its perfect bowl between three hills: beyond its foot we can enjoy glimpses toward Grisedale and the Ullswater hills. Gorgeous, and definitely time for a snack.
With the clouds off the tops and the sunny interludes getting longer, we decide we can tackle the Helvellyn ridge, starting with the long trudge up the southern side of Dollywagon Pike, Walkopedia’s favourite among a host of contenders for Most Eccentrically Named Hill. So, we miss the Brother Parting Stone (another Wordsworth moment) and the beautiful descent through the Grisdale Forest and Patterdale Common to the Grisedale valley and finally Patterdale.
This is an unremarkable climb on a well maintained path (grass now grows between the securely laid stones, erosion is kept to a minimum, but descreetly), with reasonable gradients and enlivened by grander views which open up further we climb: there beyond the Langdales is the Scafell massif. Reaching the summit ridge is a gasp-inducing moment: there before us is the full panoply of the north-east fells: St Sunday Crag next door, the High Street ridge looming beyond the fells by the pewter sheen of Ullswater. Far below are the wild upper reaches of Grisedale. A huge, inspiring view. Lunchtime, although, with a stiff breeze up high (coats on), we creep behind a rock of shelter. A blissful 15 minutes.
Then it is on up the western flank of the long Helvellyn summit ridge, below the peaks of Dollywagon, High Crag and Nethermost Pike. It has to be said, Helvellyn would be a dull mountain were its western side the only aspect: steep grassy slopes persist, and it is a long, unvaried slog to the summit ridge from the deep valley below. Fortunately, that is not all, as we are to experience. The traverse around the backs of the peaks is a pleasingly easy walk made glorious by the views north and west, the fells dappled by the rapidly moving clouds.
We reach the top (England’s third highest mountain) with lots in reserve – there’s still some fight left! We slightly rush Helvellyn’s peak: the lee of the cruciform wall-shelter is packed, so I say I’ll go over for a quick look down at the famous Striding Edge arête, which we’ve agreed to miss in favour of northerly and easier Swirral Edge. We should have gone back for more peak time and then a march north the Swirral Edge, but Reg decides on the spur, as we gaze down on the zig-zag path descending the sheer slope to the start of the great knife-edge, that this is for him, so off we go.
The descent to Striding Edge is fine, steep but not dangerous. The views and atmosphere are nothing short of ecstatic for the next hour, the odd gut-wrench aside. Far below, the blue waters of Red Tarn lie quietly below Swirral Edge and the wonderfully named Catseye Cam. Some 1,500ft. below are the Glenridding valley and, on the southern side of the knife-edge, the upper end of Grisedale.
At the start of Striding Edge proper, we are confronted by a tower the far side of which looked sheer from Nethermost Pike, so, while Reg and Ali clamber off up it, I give it a miss and drop down the slippery slope to the right and round its base. It looks like it was perfectly doable when I get round to the other side, which Ali confirms with a hint of pleasure, but what’s done is done. Reg has shot forward, the bit suddenly between his teeth, so no chance for him to crow.
Thence it is a scramble up onto the next tower, to strike poses on its flat and wide top. An easy climb down gets us to another little gap.
I had thought there was a cable/chained stretch but none is to be seen.
We have a choice of a long scramble along the ridge top in a stiffish breeze, or a traverse across the cliff fast below – Ali and I take the latter.
We get back to the high ridge, now a pavement of broken upended strata. The views over upper Grisedale are unforgettably pretty. Farewell to the high emptiness, apart from the many well-established paths, of the Red Tarn cirque and valley: the bright fields in their orderly walls begin, hemmed in by rough grass and rock on the slopes above.
We now have a long and lovely walk down the ridge that becomes Striding Edge, then gradually down the huge hillside to the valley floor. Ali’s knee, hurt in a slip yesterday, becomes painful on the downhill, and we move very slowly.
We are pattered by flecks of rain – out of an apparently clear sky, although clouds are now gathering above the ridge top far behind. We reach the end a few minutes before the heavens burst. A lucky day.
A pretty road walk at the bottom, then on the main road through Patterdale, such as it is. The Youth Hostel, when we finally get there, is much smarter than the last time we visited one – they have moved upmarket. Our dorm has a carpet!
Supper in a cheerful Patterdale pub. Two glasses of 8% cider leave their mark…
Day 4 – Patterdale to Shap
The day we tread the Roman road on High Street – or not. The rain is torrential, and Ali’s knee not great, so we chicken out and run for the Lowlands.