Skiddaw and Blencathra are stars of the show, and Sharp Edge is a name to get scramblers excited; but there's far more to the Northern Fells, a name first coined by Wainwright. From the best fell walks to walkers' pubs and budget accommodation, discover a quiet corner of the Lake District with this area guide.
Standing out on a limb from the rest of the Lake District, a separation defined by the A66 road, the Northern Fells are a distinct and self-enclosed group, a more or less circular range about eight miles in diameter. In contrast to the rough-textured central fells this northern outlier is cut largely from a smoother cloth, it summits more rounded, its contours gently rolling.
Skiddaw is an obvious case in point. One of only four English 3000-footers, it looms dramatically above the rooftops of Keswick. But though attractive for its sheer scale, and not without grace, this is a peak almost entirely bereft of crags, a great big teddy bear of a hill. Climb it for the easy walking and for the joy of the lofty views; but don't come expecting a challenge. There is however one glaring exception to the cuddly Northern Fells theme: Blencathra - you can't miss it. With its craggy coves and ice-chiselled ridges this is among the most majestic of all Cumbria's fells, steep, scrambly and more than a little edgy. The gentle giant Skiddaw and the in-yer-face attractions of Blencathra between them soak up most of the crowds. Yet beyond these high southern ramparts of the range the Northern Fells roll out for many more miles. These lesser hills are wild at heart, moorland peaks with a quiet backwater feel rarely matched elsewhere in the National Park.
The Northern Fells in a nutshell
1. Getting high on Skiddaw, one of the four Lakeland 3000-ers; 2. Thrilling scrambling on Sharp Edge; 3. Wide open spaces at the Back o'Skiddaw; 4. A night far from the road in Skiddaw House, the UK's highest hostel
"I often muse how Skiddaw and Blencathra peer south in a very paternal mother/father like way. There is no doubt they offer a unique long range perspective upon the mountain heart of Lakeland. Yet in themselves they promise marvellous walking and shield from view a promised land, Back o'Skidda a fell domain where the hill-goer may find peace and rich reward in their solitary wanderings"
Mark Richards, author of Great Mountain Days in the Lake District
Blencathra via Sharp Edge and Hallsfell Ridge
The headline route on the area's prime fell, Sharp Edge needs little introduction. But just in case you didn't know, it is the best ridge scramble in England, a shelving crest of slippery slate with exciting - if straightforward - scrambling in an imposing position high above Scales Tarn. The only thing this grade 1 classic lacks is a little length. For more in a similar vein, albeit less so, descend via the craggy arete of Hallsfell Ridge to complete a memorable circuit of the mountain.
- See the UKH Route Card here
Skiddaw via Glenderaterra and Skiddaw House
The giant of the Northern Fells may look its biggest and best from the Keswick side, but it's a fair old trudge usually endured in company with dozens of other walkers. For something completely different come at it from another angle. An impressive traverse path above the Glenderaterra Beck to lonely Skiddaw House (Britain's highest hostel) gives access to Skiddaw's grassy eastern flank, the hidden side of the hill.
- See the UKH Route Card here
Skiddaw by the Long Side ridge
The fine-honed ridge of Longside Edge and the Whitewater Dash waterfall are among Skiddaw's best features. Visit them both, and the main summit too, on this classic round from Bassenthwaite.
Bannerdale Crags East Ridge
It doesn't get much publicity, and a fraction of the footfall of nearby Sharp Edge, but the obscure little east ridge of Bannerdale Crags is a superb route to the fell tops, with some optional very basic scrambling. For a full day out try linking it with Blencathra and Souther Fell.
- See UKH route Card here
Bowscale Fell by Bowscale Tarn
Though it looks grassy and rolling, this northern end of the Blencathra range has a hidden heart, the high bowl of Bowscale Tarn. Typical of the northern fells there's a feeling of empty spaciousness here, and wide views out over the nearby farmland of the Eden Valley.
- See UKH Route Card here
River Caldew circuit
A whopper, this, treading the high ground around the head of the wild head of the River Caldew to make a comprehensive circuit of all of the main fells in the range. Carrock Fell, Knott, Great Calva, Skiddaw, Little Man, Lonscale Fell, Blencathra, Bannerdale Crags and Bowscale Fell - if that sounds a tall order for a single day then this is prime wild camping country. And there's always the hostel at Skiddaw House.
A wooded lump overlooking Keswick, the mini fell of Latrigg offers a quick ascent from the town and an even quicker one from the high car park to its north. The summit may not be much to write home about, but the view over Derwent Water certainly is.
Ordnance Survey Landranger (1:50000) 90
Ordnance Survey Explorer (1:25000) OL4 & OL5
Harvey British Mountain Map (1:40000) Lake District
Harvey Superwalker XT25 (1:25000) Lake District North
From Wordsworth via Wainwright, to the scores of walking guidebooks available today, the Lake District might be the most written-about mountain area in the world. If you laid out all the pages you'd have enough acres of print to cover a good proportion of the National Park. For a selection of routes in the Northern Fells try Great Mountain Days in the Lake District by Mark Richards (Cicerone). The Blencathra scrambles are covered in detail in several books, including The Ridges of England, Wales and Ireland by Dan Bailey (Cicerone).
Lake District forecast from MWIS
Lake District Mountian Weather from the Met Office
Local forecast from Lake District Weatherline 0844 846 2444
Keswick and Skiddaw from George Fisher
Sitting at the foot of Skiddaw, Keswick is very handy for the Northern Fells, with easy access to the southern flank of the area. A pretty (and hugely popular) tourist town, it has all the facilities you could possibly need by way of places to stay, supplies for your walks and things to do when it rains - including one of the densest concentrations of outdoor gear shops in the country.
For a more peaceful place to stay head for the cute country villages dotted around the perimeter of the Northern Fells: Threlkeld, Bassenthwaite, Ireby, Uldale, Caldbeck or Mungrisdale. They'll generally have a B&B or three, a pub, and access to trails into the fells.
Skiddaw House YHA 07747 174293 www.skiddawhouse.co.uk Billing itself as the UK's highest bunkhouse (it's about 470m up), this basic friendly hostel is a superb base, with the major peaks literally on its doorstep. Accommodation for the Northern Fells doesn't get more central - it's slap bang in the middle of the range, the only building for miles in any direction, and a couple of hours' easy walk from the nearest road.
YHA Caldbeck Bunkhouse 01768 812280
YHA Keswick 0845 371 9746
Burns Farm campsite and caravan park near Threlkeld 01768 779112
Mainline rail to Penrith, then regular buses on the A66 to Keswick via Threlkeld.
Pubs and Food
The Horse and Farrier Inn, Threlkeld 01768 779688
The Mill Inn, Mungrisdale 01768 779632
The Sun Inn, Bassenthwaite 01768 776439
The Dog and Gun, Keswick 01768 773463
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