The diminutive Cat Bells is one of the most popular fells in the entire Lake District. View it from the west on a sunny Sunday and you’ll see a line of walkers strung out all along its northern ridge. Its summit may be only 1479ft, or 451m, above sea level, yet it provides some truly sublime views of the northern part of the National Park – an outlook that takes in Derwentwater, an array of peaks including Skiddaw and Blencathra, and the sumptuous oak woods of Borrowdale. A toposcope, or view indicator, helps walkers to identify exactly what it is they’re looking at.
But the view is only half the story behind why it’s held in such high regard... The climb to the top is particularly beloved of families because the bare rock on the approach provides young fell-walkers with some added frisson that’s usually absent from other fells of a similar stature.
The usual way to ascend the fell is straight up its steep northern ridge. There is a tiny car park at the base of this, close to the hamlet of Skelgill, but roadside parking is not allowed. Because of these parking limitations, many walkers travel across from Keswick on the launch, alighting at the Hawes End jetty. Aside from it making practical sense, the boat trip is a sublime way to start and end the walk.
The best descent, unless intending to continue along the ridge, is via Hause Gate, the saddle between Cat Bells and Maiden Moor. At the bottom of this path, walkers are then spoiled for choice... There’s the superb terrace path along the base of the fell, or a glorious lakeside walk partly through woodland. Or maybe you just want to catch the boat back to Keswick from one of the Brandelhow piers...
Cat Bells is the first summit on a ‘horseshoe’ route known as the Newlands Round. This 10-mile roller-coaster walk also takes in Maiden Moor, High Spy, Dale Head and Hindscarth, the summits that form a semi-circle, or horseshoe shape, around the head of Newlands Beck. Along the way, walkers are faced with a total climb of more than 3500ft, making for a fairly tough outing but one guaranteed to leave them with some wonderful memories.
A cluster of white-washed buildings squats at the western base of Cat Bells. This is Little Town, the home of Lucie in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle. The writer spent many family holidays on the shores of Derwentwater, and local scenes figure highly in many of her illustrated children’s stories. Indeed, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, that most house-proud of hedgehogs, lived on Cat Bells; a “door in the hill” leads into her home.
Another famous Cat Bells dweller, this time of the human variety, lived on the opposite side of the fell. The twentieth-century novelist Hugh Walpole lived in Cumbria from 1924 until his death in 1941. He lived at Brackenburn, which he called his “little paradise on Cat Bells”, a house that received many literary visitors including JB Priestley, Arthur Ransome and WH Auden.
Dating back 5000 years, to the late Neolithic period, Castlerigg is not just one of the oldest stone circles in Britain, it’s among the oldest in Europe. It’s partly this antiquity and partly its fantastic location that makes it a big draw for tourists: it sits on a small, grassy plateau watched over by mighty Skiddaw, Blencathra and the northernmost summits of the Helvellyn range. At dawn and dusk, it becomes a truly breathtaking sight, particularly in winter when the sun is low in the sky and the stones cast long, sinister shadows.
The first written record of the circle was that of the antiquarian and Anglican clergyman William Stukeley. When he visited in 1725, he counted 50 stones and claimed there was a second, even larger circle in a neighbouring field. However, no evidence has ever been found to back this up.
As with many other prehistoric sites throughout the world, nobody’s really sure what the people of the New Stone Age would have used the circle for, although theories abound. It may have had astronomical or religious significance. Or maybe both? Archaeological excavations at the site have been limited but the discovery of a Neolithic stone axe, from Great Langdale, in the nineteenth century suggests it may have been used as a trading centre. The two massive uprights guarding the northern entrance to the circle seem to confirm that it was some sort of meeting place. It continues, today, to be a place of gathering – with people meeting here for the summer and winter solstices.
The circle is 100ft in diameter and consists of 38 stones, varying in height from about three feet tall to almost eight feet. Just inside the eastern end of the circle is a group of 10 stones forming a rectangular enclosure known as ‘The Sanctuary’. This mysterious feature is found only at one other stone circle in Britain – the Cockpit near Pooley Bridge in the eastern Lake District.
Castlerigg Stone Circle is located in a field less than two miles from the centre of Keswick. It’s a 45-minute walk, but there is also some roadside parking next to the stones. There are no admission charges and no restrictions on visiting times – simply wander as and when you please but remember, if you’ve got a dog with you, the site is often grazed by the sheep. An interpretation panel near one of the gates into the site explains the circle’s history and shows a model of the stones as they are today.
A trip to the stone circle could be combined with a walk on to High Rigg. Passing Tewet Tarn and crossing the atmospheric moorland of Low Rigg along the way, it’s little more than two miles from Castlerigg to the top of this little fell. Often described as the Lake District in miniature, the ridge that then leads south from the summit is home to hidden tarns, dark crags, various other knobbly tops and a short, heather-covered spur – all with breathtaking views of Thirlmere and the Helvellyn range.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘Queen of the Lakes’, Derwentwater is one of the most regal bodies of water in Cumbria; guarded by majestic, steep-sided fells and with a shoreline cloaked in rich woodland, it is the glittering jewel in the crown of the North Lakes. From its northern shores on the edge of Keswick to the wetlands fringing Great Bay in the south, it is almost three miles long.
To take in its full splendour, jump on one of the boats of the Keswick Launch Company, operating all year round and stopping off at eight jetties around the lake. The full cruise takes 50 minutes, although it’s common for people to hop on at Keswick and then hop off at a distant pier to walk back along the shore path. The company also rents out rowing boats and small motor cruisers. For a wider range of vessels, head to Portinscale where both Nichol End Marine and Derwent Water Marina hire out single and double kayaks, Canadian canoes, small sailing boats, windsurfers and stand-up paddle boards. On the opposite side of the lake, near Lodore, Platty Plus hires out boats, leads paddle tours, runs coaching sessions and will even take groups out on dragon boats and a Viking-style longship.
For landlubbers who’d rather enjoy the water from terra firma, there are several great viewpoints around the lake. Friar’s Crag, for example, is a ten-minute walk from Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake. Visitors can sit on the bench here and gaze up the full length of the lake and into the Jaws of Borrowdale. The Victorian social theorist and art critic John Ruskin once said the “first thing I remember as an event in life was being taken by my nurse to the brow of Friar’s Crag on Derwentwater”. He was five at the time and it was, he continued, “the creation of the world for me”. There is a memorial to him among the trees on the crag.
The top of Walla Crag, rearing up over the lake’s eastern shore, is another superb viewpoint. Again, it can be reached on foot from Keswick – it’s less than three miles to the top, but the walk does get fairly steep in its later stages. From the precipitous edge, you can look down on Derwentwater’s four permanent islands. (It also has a floating ‘island’ of plant material that occasionally appears.) They are Rampsholme Island; Lord’s Island, once the home of the Earls of Derwentwater; Derwent Island, the only inhabited island; and, the largest of the lot, St Herbert’s Island. The latter was named after a seventh-century saint who had a hermitage here; it was also the inspiration for Owl Island in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.
The nine-mile circuit of the lake is a wonderfully varied outing, taking walkers in and out of the ancient woodland, along the edge of peaceful bays, over wildlife-filled wetlands and across stony beaches with breathtaking views. And, if you get tired, or the weather closes in, you can always jump on the Keswick Launch to end your outing in comfort.