With no road running through it, few buildings and a forest that’s slowly being allowed to return to a more natural state, Ennerdale feels wilder and more remote than most Lakeland valleys. Steep-sided, often craggy fells enclose a glorious valley that is home to the ribbon lake of Ennerdale Water at the dale mouth, the untamed River Liza and a mixture of broadleaf and conifer woods.
The gateway to this far western dale is Ennerdale Bridge, a small village with a couple of pubs, some B&Bs and an excellent little community-run café that also stocks a few groceries. The first overnight stop on the popular Coast to Coast long-distance route, the village welcomes a lot of through-hikers during spring and summer. A short drive west of Ennerdale Bridge (there’s no public transport here), are the two small road-end car parks that allow access to the valley on foot or by bicycle: Bleach Green at the lake’s western tip and Bowness Knott on its northern shore.
The seven-mile circuit of the lake is the most popular low-level walk, although there are paths in the woods too. These often brush up against some of the many hundreds of archaeological sites that have been discovered in the valley. Although little more than earthworks or piles of stones, these include a medieval bloomery for smelting iron ore using charcoal, a 600-year-old longhouse and an Iron Age settlement.
If you’re a fell-walker who enjoys solitude and doesn’t mind putting in the miles, Ennerdale’s the perfect place. Red Pike, High Stile, Hay Stacks, Great Gable, Kirk Fell, Pillar and Steeple are among the many highlights but, as there are no roads into the valley, you’ll have a long walk in before reaching the high ground. For those who like to feel rock under their hands as well as their feet, Pillar Rock provides challenges of various grades including the Slab and Notch route, often used by experienced and well-equipped scramblers transitioning to climbing.
Black Sail Hut, one of Lakeland’s most remote youth hostels, provides a good base for those looking to explore the valley head and its surrounding fells – and for younger walkers in particular, it’s an adventure in itself. It’s almost six miles from the nearest road, there’s no mobile phone signal, no television and no internet connection. Facilities are simple and visitors are encouraged to muck in, helping out with small tasks around the former shepherd’s hut. The limited space also means that, by the end of their stay, all the guests are more than likely to be on first name terms.
Since 2003, the valley’s main landowners have been working together to allow natural processes to play a greater role in Ennerdale’s evolution without too much human interference. The regimented conifer plantations that once dominated are being felled, and broadleaf trees and heather are filling the gaps. Otters have moved back into the valley; both red and roe deer frequent the area; there are reports of the elusive pine marten having been seen; and the River Liza, home to rare species, is being allowed to chart its own course rather than being constrained by man-made channels.