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One Minute Mountain: Cross Fell

For our long-running series on Britain's best-loved hills, Alex Roddie gets his feet wet in search of the Helm Wind, on the moody giant of the Pennines.


Great Dun Fell from Cross Fell  © Dan Bailey
Great Dun Fell from Cross Fell
© Dan Bailey

Height: 893m

Personality: Vast, daunting, stern – a landscape that takes no prisoners. At just under 3000 feet, Cross Fell's summit is the highest point in England outside the Lake District, and although this mountain is more plateau than peak, its sheer bulk gives it an undeniable physical presence. This is a place of big horizons, blanket bog, and peat hags. But on a warm summer's day it can be less bleak than you might imagine, with skylarks trilling overhead and a good chance of other walkers to chat to coming along the Pennine Way, which traverses the summit.

What's in a name? The origin of the name isn't known for sure. One theory suggests that a cross once stood at the summit, while another claims that the fell was thought to be the haunt of angry (or cross) spirits. Perhaps they hadn't been paying attention to their compass bearing across the featureless plateau…

Cross Fell  © Lankyman
Cross Fell
© Lankyman, Jan 2012

Best route: A complete circuit of Great Dun Fell (848m) and Cross Fell from Dufton, returning via the route of A Pennine Journey through Milburn, is a classic way to enjoy this mountain. The route is around 30km (18.7 miles) in length with just over 1,000m of ascent. If you're looking for even more of a leg-stretcher, start by climbing up into High Cup Nick, the wonder of the North Pennines, and navigating over largely pathless terrain to join up with the Pennine Way on Knock Fell. Fair warning: there are bogs.

A variation on this bigger theme is to walk the whole North Pennine watershed from Hartside to Dufton, taking in Cross Fell and High Cup:

A less frequented route: While Cross Fell is regularly climbed from both the south-east and north-east along the Pennine Way, the north-west ridge from Melmerby Fell is comparatively little trodden. Melmerby Fell is rather like Cross Fell in miniature, but it has the advantage of being accessible from the road at Hartside Top (575m) to the north. There's a little extra interest, too, in the rather grandly named Melmerby High Scar – a low band of broken cliffs overlooking the village of Melmerby.

Cross Fell from Little Dun Fell  © Dan Bailey
Cross Fell from Little Dun Fell
© Dan Bailey

The Pennine Way connection: Cross Fell is perhaps most frequently climbed by Pennine Way hikers. The Pennine Way is the UK's oldest long-distance trail, threading a route along the spine of the Pennines, and Cross Fell is its highest point. The 20-mile stage from Dufton to Alston is regarded as the hardest day on the entire route. In bad weather it can be a real test of your skills and fitness.

Not any old mountain weather: The chance of bad weather's to be expected on any British hill, but Cross Fell has a unique meteorological phenomenon up its sleeve. The Helm Wind is a very strong (and cold) north-easterly wind that sometimes blows down the flank of the fell facing the Eden Valley. It's created by the unique topography of the area, and is associated with the unusual cloud formations of the Helm Cloud, a heavy bank of cloud capping Cross Fell itself, and the Helm Bar, a long, snaking formation of rolling cloud that sits just above the ridge. When the Helm Wind's blowing, walking up or down the western flank can be difficult.

eden valley from cross fell  © r_o_b_h2
eden valley from cross fell
© r_o_b_h2, Mar 2009

Summit landmarks: There's a truly impressive cairn some distance away from the trig pillar. This solid and very well-constructed edifice is about 8ft high and has four walls protruding out to offer shelter, plus stone seating. If viewed through mist from a distance it might be mistaken for a landed flying saucer.

Summit view: On a clear day, the view westward from the summit is extensive, looking across the broad vale of the Eden Valley towards the Cumbrian fells. Identifying individual Lakeland peaks from this distance is likely to test your knowledge, but Blencathra is reasonably easy to identify, with Sharp Edge appearing prominent.

Gregs Hut, mountain bothy  © John Bamber
Gregs Hut, mountain bothy
© John Bamber, Jan 2018

The highest bothy in England: Greg's Hut is located just to the north of the summit, next to the Pennine Way, and was once used as a blacksmith's shop as part of the nearby lead mines. It's the highest bothy in England at 700m, and also one of the busiest, with hundreds of visits a year.

Hidden gem: The most direct route up or down Cross Fell from the Eden Valley side is via Wildboar Scar, and this path passes close by a small 412m summit called Grumply Hill. In addition to having an excellent name, it's a nice quiet spot for some lunch with good views back down into the valley:

Elsewhere on Cross Fell, you'll find the usual Pennine assortment of disused mines and curious ruins – approach with caution, and never enter abandoned levels.

Where to stay? There are several options in Dufton, including YHA Dufton and Dufton Caravan Park, which has a camping area for tents. On the other side of the hill, there's YHA Alston and Haggs Bank Bunkhouse (which also offers camping).

Local pub: The Stag Inn, Dufton, offers real ale and bar meals.

The hills around Cross Fell are scattered with interesting cairns  © Dan Bailey
The hills around Cross Fell are scattered with interesting cairns
© Dan Bailey

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Cross Fell-manjaro as I like to call it. Its sheer bulk always impresses me when you see it 12 miles away towering over Penrith when travelling east on the A66, especially when it's snow capped. An under appreciated mountain in my opinion.

The name is a bit of both according to my understanding of the legend. It used to be Fiends Fell on account of the angry spirits until St Augustine visited during his mission from Rome (597-604) to bring the pagan English to Christianity and to try to bring the Celtic church of the British under the dominion of Rome. This would have been about the same time as British Cumbria became nominally part of English Northumbria. He put up a cross on the summit and banished the evil spirits and it thereafter became known as Cross Fell.


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