June 2, 2023
Destination: The North
Top 10 Wainwright Lake District Walks
When visitors come to the Lake District, they’ll often base their itinerary on Wainwright’s well-documented walking routes and will try and bag as many fell walks as the time (and their legs!), will allow.
The Godfather of the Lake District, Albert Wainwright, mapped, documented and published a staggering 214 fells, of varying lengths and climbs, with descriptions so delicately written, you’d think he were a poet.
Today his name is synonymous with the Lake District, and is a resource any sensible visitor to the Lake District would consult before embarking on a walk or climb. His seminal 7-volume fell series, “Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells”, published in the decade between 1955 and 1966, brought his 214 fell walks to life in stunning visual and written detail.
But to save you time sifting through his catalogue of routes, we thought we’d bring together our top ten Wainwright Lake District walks, each offering something slightly different, so that, whatever your ability or taste, you’ll be sure to find something to suit you.
Alfred Wainwright listed Blencathra in his top six favourite mountains and, in particular, the Sharp Edge approach. “Blencathra,” he wrote, “is one of the grandest objects in Lakeland… This is a mountain that compels attention, even from those dull people whose eyes are not habitually lifted to the hills.”
He also admitted that Blencathra is “most of all a mountaineers’ mountain”, probably because of its regular stretches of scramble and rough terrain. That being said, it’s an accessible spot near the motorway and is more manageable to non-mountaineers than Wainwright would have you know. There are, for example, varied routes, with Hall’s Fall being a particular favourite among tourists.
It’s possible to avoid some of the scramblings on the Hall’s Fell route, and the views across The Dodds towards Helvellyn from the summit are reward enough to keep you motivated.
The east-west route along Blencathra is also a gentle option, taking you along the main ridge.
2. Castle Crag
“Such is the artistry of nature,” pens Wainwright in his characteristically poetic way, “such is the mellowing influence of the passing years, that the scars of disarray and decay have been transformed in a romantic harmony, cloaked by a canopy of trees and a carpet of leaves… Naked of trees, Castle Crag would be ugly; with them, it has a sylvan beauty unsurpassed, unique.”
Wainwright felt that, although Castle Crag wasn’t technically a fell, he couldn’t help but include it because of its rugged beauty. And quite right too. There’s something uniquely interesting about it.
It’s also manageable for beginners. A gentle stroll from Rosthwaite along the River Derwent will make for a good warm-up before visiting Lodore Falls Hotel for lunch or afternoon tea.
3. High Street
High Street, so-called for the Roman Road that once traversed the summit, is a popular choice among walkers. It’s long, flat and great for a brisk march, unencumbered by obstacles.
For this reason, Wainwright humorously argued that it was a spot only fully enjoyable to the imaginative, particularly at the summit, which was “barren of scenic interest”.
“All is quiet here,” he wrote, “ and only the rising larks disturb the stillness. A pleasant place but- to those unfortunate folk with no imagination – so dull!”
There are various options for climbing High Street from Mardale, but Small Water path is probably the most straightforward.
Part of the Southern Fells, Glaramara is a tranquil hill despite being in the midst of some of the Lake District’s busiest hotspots such as Ullswater and Borrowdale.
There are various options for starting up Glaramara. One of which is setting off at Seathwaite and up Thorneythwaite – although it’s a scramble to the summit. Not one for beginners, there’s no distinguishable path, and it’s imperative that you check weather conditions before setting off. The summit of the mountain (according to Wainwright) is Bessyboot, which is strangely 50 metres lower than Rosthwaite Cam (many try to reach both, just to make sure!). It’s also worth visiting the Tarn at Leaves.
Located in the Eastern Fells of the Lake District, Fairfield is a relatively popular walk. In the words of Wainwright himself, Fairfield is “a grand mountain with grand satellites in support. From the south it appears as a great horseshoe of grassy slopes below a consistently high skyline… but lacking those dramatic qualities that appeal most to the lover of hills. But on the north side the Fairfield range is magnificent: here are dark precipices, long fans of screw… desolate combes and deep valleys… full of interest and well worthy of exploration”.
The best route for hill walkers is to start at Ambleside or Rydal and ascend Nab Scar, Heron Pike and Great Rigg to reach the summit of Fairfield. The descent goes like this: Hart Crag, Dove Crag, High Pike and Low Pike to High Sweden Bridge and eventually Ambleside.
A more challenging route goes from Patterdale going along the lower part of Link Cove and then surmounting Greenhow End and The Step. Worth noting: this is definitely more of a climb than a walk!
6. Helm Crag
Affectionately known as the “Lion and the Lamb” after the looming shapes of the rocky outcrops on the summit, Helm Crag towers over Grasmere village, dominating the skyline. That said, Wainwright felt that it was hugely underestimated:
“The virtues of Helm Crag have not been lauded enough. It gives an exhilarating little climb, a brief essay in real mountaineering, and, in a region where all is beautiful, it makes a notable contribution to the natural charms and attractions of Grasmere”.
It’s not the most extreme climb, and nor is it one of the easiest, but it will give you a challenge. Start your walk at Grasmere village and head along Easedale Road and continue until you reach open grassland. The lane continues through the middle of a field with Helm Crag looming up ahead of you. Go through the gate and turn left and then right onto the track that is signposted to Helm Crag.
Another gate later and you continue to your right and then left along a zigzag path. You’ll eventually come to some stone steps which you follow until you reach the summit.
Skiddaw is a photogenic mountain with its patchwork of heather, bracken and scree, and beautiful proportions of steep flanks and gentle slopes. It stands out for being in a slightly isolated location, but this is its charm. It means that views from its summit are almost entirely unrestricted.
The Jenkin Hill Path is the best route up to the summit of Skiddaw, made popular by the Victorians as a pony route for tourists. The panoramic views from the summit, however, are some of the best in the Lake District.
8. Scafell Pike
Eric Robson, Chairman of the Wainwright Society, writes that when making a TV programme on Scafell Pike, he was asked to carry out a risk assessment. “Dangerous,” he wrote on the form. “If wet or windy, bloody dangerous.”
Scafell Pike, one of the Lakes’ most well-known mountains (or range, as Wainwright argues), deserves respect. Standing at 978 meters, it’s England’s highest mountain, doubling up as a National Trust war memorial.
And even though it’s scaled by thousands of keen walkers each year, it doesn’t mean it’s not challenging, especially towards the top. In fact, it’s imperative that you check weather conditions and wear the right footwear before starting out. There are steep inclines, scrub, and often visibility is poor.
Haystacks is long-held as Wainwright’s favourite peak and is where his ashes were scattered after his death in 1991. It’s largely due to this that Haystacks (although Wainwright maintained it was actually ‘Hay Stacks’) is one of the Lakes’ most popular spots.
The peak of Haystacks stands below several higher peaks including Great Gable, High Stile and Pillar, and its summit holds small tarns and small rocky peaks. Some of the many reasons it’s such an interesting place to visit.
There are two popular routes to the top of Haystacks. One is to the east via Warnscale Bottom, and one to the west via Scarth Gap. There’s nothing to divide the two options in terms of views, and they both make for interesting walks to the top.
10. Coniston Fells: The Old Man of Coniston
In his book, “A Pictorial Guide to the Lake District Fells, The Southern Fells”, Wainwright personified the landmark atop the highest peak of the Coniston Fells. “The Old Man of Coniston”, was described as being “cruelly scared and mutilated by quarries”, but nevertheless kept his dignity intact.
He “raises his proud and venerable head to the sky,” writes Wainwright, “his tears are shed quietly into Low Water and Goats Water, two splendid tarns, whence, in due course… find their way into Coniston’s lake, and there bathe his ancient feet.”
Coniston Fells are a challenge, taking a number of peaks as you make your way around the Wainwright route. We recommend starting at Coniston Station and heading out along Walna Scar Road towards the first summit, Brown Pike. From here, traverse the high ground towards Buck Pike, Dow Crag, Old Man of Coniston, Brim Fell, Great How Crags, Grey Friar, Great Carrs, Swirl How, Black Sails, and Wetherlam, before descending to where you began.
It goes without saying that this is a long trek, requiring good footwear, provisions and refreshments, as well as warm layers. It pays to check weather conditions before you start out and good navigation skills are needed in places, particularly at Black Sails.
We could have chosen 10 more Wainwright Lake District walks, but these are a good starting point. There’s something for every ability, every type of walker.
But if you’re looking for a more structured fell experience, why not take a look at our guided walking tours in the Lake District?