Cross Lakeland’s steepest, remotest passes or venture around the little-visited south-western tip of Cumbria, and you enter a visually stunning world where England’s highest, most rugged mountains drop away to the sea. Here lie the less accessible valleys of Eskdale, Wasdale, Ennerdale and Buttermere.
This is where serious hill-walkers come to climb England’s highest mountain Scafell Pike, to stride out along the rocky crest of the High Stile ridge or to tackle Great Gable, one of Britain’s best-loved peaks. Many would-be fell-walkers cut their teeth on lower summits such as Hay Stacks, one of legendary guidebook writer Alfred Wainwright’s favourite fells. The western Lakes is also where rock-climbers and mountaineers have, for generations, honed their skills. These peaks claim many ‘firsts’ in the climbing world, including Walter Parry Haskett Smith’s 1886 ascent of Napes Needle, regarded as the birth of rock-climbing as a sport. Even earlier, in 1802, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ascent of England’s second highest mountain Scafell – and subsequent, terrifying descent of Broad Stand – is possibly the first recorded climb for leisure purposes.
But there’s plenty here for lesser mortals too – lakeside ambles along the shores of Buttermere and Crummock Water; strolls through ancient woods that are among the last strongholds of the cute but endangered red squirrel; and walks to some of Lakeland’s most spectacular waterfalls, including Scale Force and Stanley Ghyll Force. Or you can simply find a great picnic spot in the valley bottom and gaze up at those imposing, rocky peaks.
The western Lake District also contains a 12-mile stretch of coastline, from Silecroft in the south to Ravenglass in the north. But you won’t find amusement arcades or rows of deckchairs here; it consists almost entirely of long, empty beaches and sand dunes. There are no towns, just a scattering of farms and hamlets connected by the Cumbria Coast railway line. The largest settlement is the quaint seaside village of Ravenglass, which falls within both of Cumbria’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the Lake District and Hadrian’s Wall. The Roman remains here include a bath house and, just up the road at the foot of Hardknott Pass, the dramatically positioned ruins of Hardknott Fort. Take a trip up serene Eskdale on the narrow-gauge steam railway, known locally as the La’al Ratty, or watch the bird of prey flying displays in the gorgeous grounds of Muncaster Castle.
The unspoilt valley of Eskdale is one of the best-kept secrets in the Lake District. It lies on the far western edge of the National Park, a long way from anywhere. Many people are put off visiting by the time it takes to get here: if you don’t come by train, you either face a long drive around the coast or you have to negotiate the hair-raising bends of both the Wrynose and Hardknott passes, often impassable in winter. But those who make the effort are richly rewarded.
On its short, exciting journey from the highest of the Lakeland fells to the Irish Sea at Ravenglass, the River Esk has carved out a beautiful and eclectic dale. From the remote amphitheatre of Upper Eskdale, bound by fearsome walls of rock and scree, it plummets into the main part of the valley, where it gently meanders between meadows and patches of woodland. There’s a chance of catching a glimpse of the increasingly rare red squirrel in the woods. This small, bushy-tailed native has been pushed out of much of England by the North American grey squirrel, but it still clings on to its territory in parts of Cumbria.
This is a quiet valley, sparsely populated. The sheep grazing the valley bottom and the low, grassy fells probably outnumber the inhabitants of its two main settlements, Eskdale Green and Boot. These villages are where you’ll find the valley’s main facilities – campsites, a few B&Bs, a couple of tiny shops and several pubs, all of which serve food. Most of the valley’s main attractions are within easy walking distance, including Stanley Ghyll Force, one of the Lake District’s most spectacular waterfalls, the La’al Ratty narrow-gauge railway and the Japanese Garden in the Forestry Commission’s Giggle Alley, where you’ll find bamboo thickets and colourful maples.
Boot is home to Eskdale Mill, the last working water-powered corn mill in the Lake District. Visitors can learn about the history of the site and then tour the buildings to see how the nearby stream powered the traditional waterwheels to grind grain. The buildings that exist today date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although a mill has existed on the site since medieval times. Stepping even further back in time, visitors can make a trip further up the valley to where the spectacularly located remains of a Roman fort guard Hardknott Pass. Hardknott Fort, also known as Hardknott Castle, protected the road linking the Roman port at Ravenglass (Glannoventa) with a fort at Ambleside (Galava).
A good network of well-signposted paths makes easy work of exploring the valley bottom on foot, passing old packhorse bridges, the tiny St Catherine’s Church and lovely old farmhouses. There are stepping stones across the river for the nimble-footed, or bridges if you don’t trust your sense of balance. On either side of the dale, old peat roads – grassy, zig-zagging tracks once used to bring this important fuel down from the fells above – provide easy access to moody moorland and hidden bodies of water such as Blea Tarn and Burnmoor Tarn. Lakeland’s largest tarn, Devoke Water, sits in a lonely spot to the south-west of the main valley. Surrounded by mysterious Bronze Age remains, it makes for an atmospheric outing.
At 3209ft, or 978 metres, above sea level, Scafell Pike is the highest mountain in England. The views from its barren, rock-strewn summit – when not covered in cloud – take in much of the Lake District as well as the Isle of Man, the hills of southern Scotland, north Wales and the Mountains of Mourne in Northern Ireland.
The fell, composed largely of the resilient igneous rocks of the Borrowdale Volcanic Group, lies to the south-west of the central ‘spoke’ of the geological dome that makes up the Lake District. It can be approached from several valleys, although the route from Wasdale is the shortest and most frequently used. This steep pull to the summit – 2.5 miles long – is the preferred route of those attempting the National Three Peaks challenge, which involves ascending the highest peaks in England, Wales and Scotland, usually within 24 hours. Like many of the most popular paths in the Lake District, it has suffered considerable erosion in recent years – due to a combination of heavy footfall and high rainfall – and path repair teams, led by the National Trust, work hard to maintain it.
Another well-used route starts in Borrowdale – climbing to Esk Hause and then tackling the mile-long, broad but bouldery spine linking Great End, Ill Crag and Broad Crag with the Pike. Walkers then return via the Corridor Route, a rough, rugged trail that traverses the craggy north-west face of the range. This passes above Piers Gill, a deep, dark and horribly steep-sided ravine that has been the scene of many accidents over the years. The longest route on to the Pike starts at the Old Dungeon Ghyll in Great Landgale, 5.3 miles from the summit. Trickier still, and less well-used, is the approach from Eskdale, involving a lot of rough ground and requiring particularly good navigational skills.
Scafell Pike’s nearest neighbour is England’s second highest mountain, Scafell (3162ft/964m), but the two are separated by the rocky saddle of Mickledore. Dropping into Mickledore is one thing, but getting out of it is another. Broad Stand, the formidable buttress looming over it, is no place for walkers; the only way up on to Scafell is to go down first, on steep, loose scree, and then clamber up on routes suitable only for the sure-footed.
In 1919, soon after the end of the First World War, the summit of Scafell Pike and about 40 acres surrounding it was gifted to the nation by the landowner Lord Leconfield in memory of the local men who had died during the bitter conflict. An inscription on the summit cairn, the highest war memorial in the country, commemorates the men who “fell for God and King, for freedom, peace and right in the Great War 1914-18”. Four years later, members of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club, after much negotiation, managed to purchase an even larger tract of the surrounding land, encompassing no fewer than 12 summits including Great Gable. This too was handed over to the National Trust in memory of the fallen, some of whom had been members of the club and were among the leading climbers of their age.
For seven glorious miles, the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway chugs its way from the pretty seaside settlement of Ravenglass up through the Eskdale countryside to Dalegarth Station on the edge of Boot village. Known affectionately as the La’al Ratty – la’al being local dialect for ‘little’ – this narrow-gauge line passes along the base of Muncaster Fell, stopping along the way at Muncaster Mill, Miteside, Murthwaite, Irton Road, The Green, Fisherground and Beckfoot. The 40-minute journey makes for a lovely, relaxed way to see Eskdale, especially if you’re sitting in one of the open carriages on a hot summer’s day. (There are also covered carriages should the Cumbrian weather do its worst.)
The three-foot gauge line opened in 1875, and carried iron ore from the mine in Eskdale, as well as passengers, to the main railway line on the coast. It closed in 1913 but, just two years later, it was relaid to an even narrower gauge (15 inches) as a test track for miniature locomotives. After being used to haul granite for several years, it looked like its life was over when the local quarry closed. Then, in 1960, the Ravenglass and Eskdale Preservation Society stepped in and the heritage line was born.
Today, there are five steam engines serving the railway, including the River Irt, which was built in 1894, making it the world’s oldest working 15-inch gauge locomotive. Trains run from March to October, although the Santa Express runs on selected dates in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Other seasonal specials include Halloween ‘Ghost Trains’, school holiday ‘Wildlife Wednesdays’ with the RSPB and summer opportunities to ride on the footplate and fulfil long-held dreams of being a train driver.
There are cafés at both Dalegarth and Ravenglass stations, and the latter also houses a museum charting the history of the railway. Here, visitors can learn how steam engines operate, working the controls themselves on part of a boiler from one of the Ravenglass and Eskdale locomotives.
For a good, all-round experience of Eskdale, walk to Boot from Ravenglass and then catch the train back. The varied route, 8.3 miles in total, heads up through the grounds of Muncaster Castle, along the top of Muncaster Fell – for fantastic views of some of England’s highest mountains – and in and out of woodland beside the River Esk. Watch for red squirrels as you make your way up into the valley. Eskdale is one of the last strongholds of these cute, bushy-tailed native mammals, eliminated from much of England by their North American grey cousins.
For cyclists, there’s the fully way-marked Eskdale Trail which links Boot and Ravenglass via a mixture of quiet lanes, rough tracks and fields. All trains are equipped to carry bicycles but cyclists need to pre-book at least 24 hours before their journey to guarantee a space. Mountain bike hire is available locally.