The 10 Greatest Lake District Fells...?

© bowlingj

If you had to narrow down the Lakeland fells to a desert island shortlist, the best of the best, which would be on it? Norman Hadley sees if two-hundred and fourteen into ten will go

You've gotta love a list. Whether you're shopping, conscious of the time before kicking the bucket, or choosing desert-island records, you need a list. When it comes to Lakeland fells, we've inherited a very fine list of 214, and plenty of folk spend a lifetime working their way through them.

The craggy conundrum of Scafell, a proper mountain  © Norman Hadley
The craggy conundrum of Scafell, a proper mountain
© Norman Hadley

But not all the Wainwrights are five-star belters. To my knowledge, the romantic poets have penned precious few odes in praise of Branstree. So how do you pick a top ten? You don't want to be annoyingly hipsterish and plant your flag on Shipman Knotts (fine knobble though it is), or downright perverse by plumping for Mungrisdale Common (least said…); Selside Pike and Lank Rigg are definitely out. Personal history must be put aside, too: one person might have fond memories of Wether Hill but it would be a tough sell to promote that grassy lump to anyone else; there has to be a measure of objectivity.

New Year's Day scramble on Sharp Edge  © bowlingj
New Year's Day scramble on Sharp Edge
© bowlingj, Jan 2020

Height, therefore, has to be a key criterion. The lower fells are often delightful but rarely elicit the requisite awe to make it into the Premiership. Even with his love of Haystacks, Wainwright's final pick at the end of Book Seven are over 850 metres. Exposed rock is a non-negotiable feature. To make it more selective, a fell should look rugged from at least two directions. For that reason, it would be hard to include Fairfield, which throws fine buttresses to the north-east but smooth slopes to south and west. High Stile and High Street are similarly imbalanced. This criterion challenges some firm favourites: Scafell and Blencathra both have large, unexciting flanks to the west-north-west. But "at least two directions" is not the same as "every direction", so they both qualify. Lastly, a fine fell must be blessed with unmistakeability. Distinctiveness. We'll have no anonymous rounded lumps round here.

Here's my stab at the nearest thing I can manage to an objective best-of:


My one nod towards hipsterism is preferring the parent fell over the upstart Pike. Although fourteen metres higher, I'd say the Pike has marginally less majesty than its lower neighbour. If that seems heretical, imagine cropping a photograph of the pair together taken from, say, Yewbarrow or Adam-a-Cove. Which top would pain you more to crop out? It's a hard choice, and not one to be advised, because they go well together as a pair of bookends. But I'd argue Scafell has the edge, thanks in large part to its famous crag, a shoe-in for a place on a climber's top ten of greatest mountain cliffs.

Greatest of all? Hard to argue with Scafell  © Norman Hadley
Greatest of all? Hard to argue with Scafell
© Norman Hadley

Where to view it from:

The face above Hollowstones is one of the wonders of Lakeland. But the lesser-known Eskdale flank is equally impressive. It's worth spending a bit of time (perhaps an overnighter) on Hard Knott for an intimate appraisal of this tremendous face.

How to climb it:

There's Broad Stand if your name's Alex Honnold, or the terrace route from Wha House if you want to keep the gradients steady. In between those extremes, the West Wall Traverse is a gem. Yes, there's plenty of slithering in the lower reaches of Lord's Rake, and the exit from Deep Ghyll is a bit of a tussock-clutcher. But the bit in between, the Traverse itself, is a magnificently easy excursion through astounding crag scenery. From above, it's even more extraordinary, like somewhere Sir David Attenborough would breathlessly marvel at the agility of goats. 

Scafell Pike

Of course I'm not going to omit the Biggest Beast of All: I'm not a monster. 

Scafell Pike has its wild and craggy sides too  © Norman Hadley
Scafell Pike has its wild and craggy sides too
© Norman Hadley

Where to view it from:

Great Gable is perhaps the ultimate viewing platform for what are formally known as the Pikes of Scafell. This includes the impressive subsidiaries of Ill Crag and Broad Crag. Arguably you could count Great End as well. For a view that focuses on the Pike alone, if you can keep your footing, the backward glance from the base of Lord's Rake shows the summit crown well. Stand on Pike de Bield for a close-up of the mighty Dow Crag (not the Coniston one) face.

The Eskdale flank of the Scafell range - a grand chunk of mountain scenery  © Norman Hadley
The Eskdale flank of the Scafell range - a grand chunk of mountain scenery
© Norman Hadley

How to climb it:

The Pike can reasonably be climbed from five valleys: Wasdale, Borrowdale, Great Langdale, Eskdale and the Duddon Valley. The order listed roughly corresponds to the popularity, with the Cockley Beck route featured as an esoteric route on UKH: 


There are so many reasons to love Helvellyn: the swooningly romantic name, the distinctive ice-scooped escarpment, the huge choice of routes. Often (too often) it is Lakeland's sole abode of winter snow, making it a much-prized destination when there's an "R" in the month. It is much-trodden in all months, of course, but it seems to shrug that off. 

Heading for Helvellyn in the late afternoon light  © Dan Bailey
Heading for Helvellyn in the late afternoon light
© Dan Bailey

Where to view it from:

The Red Tarn headwall is a fine sight: arrivals at the Hole in the Wall in winter conditions are given the full "What mortal wakes me at this hour?" experience. The northern ramparts, too, are an imposing spectacle from White Side.

How to climb it:

The eastern edges, Striding and Swirral, make a superb circuit, of course. Depending on stamina and transport availability, the complete ridge is a memorable expedition, with the option of one leg of the Fairfield Horseshoe as an hors d'oeuvre; with daylight and energy on tap it might even be worth contemplating the complete traverse oif the Dodds and Helvellyn from Keswick to Ambleside. For more esoteric ascents, Helvellyn and its neighbours are amply blessed with interesting coves to explore.

Great Gable

When you clap eyes on Gable, it is mandatory to murmur, very softly, "you magnificent bastard". There are no exceptions.

Gable, as great as its name implies  © Norman Hadley
Gable, as great as its name implies
© Norman Hadley

Where to view it from:

The familiar chevron at the head of Wasdale is a projection into two dimensions, of a complex, three-dimensional shape. Twist the viewpoint round to Lingmell, and Gable morphs into a giant diamond. From east fells, Gable resembles a colossal muffin, with a gently rounded crown fringed by tightly-curved shoulders. Swivel to the north and your eye is drawn to an immense arched eyebrow of rock overtopping Stone Cove. Now scuttle round to Kirk Fell to admire a giant, twisted cylinder of scree. They are all the same hill.

How to climb it:

Only three paths brave the stony flanks to the summit, so you're likely to approach from Windy Gap, Sty Head or Beck Head. My favourite approach is via Moses Trod, then up the northwest ridge for the dramatic prospect down Wasdale, and the final clamber. Don't be tempted by the gnarly screes of the Wasdale flank and treat names like "Great Hell Gate" as fair warning.  


With a name that evokes the heroic magnificence of the Classical world, Pillar delivers on the promise. Yes, the name properly applies only to the rock that squats on its north flank. Fanciful folk (OK, maybe just me) see a likeness to the way the Dru squats on the Aiguille Verte. 

The sun dips towards the mighty Pillar  © Norman Hadley
The sun dips towards the mighty Pillar
© Norman Hadley

Where to view it from:

On the approach-march to Gable from Honister, the eye is temporarily drawn away from the day's objective to the soaring lines of Pillar's Ennerdale flank. Round about Brin Crag is where the composition arranges to perfection, but seekers of foreground reflections will also find good pickings at Gillercomb Head.

The rugged Ennerdale side of Pillar, with the mid-height traverse line of the High Level Route obvious  © Norman Hadley
The rugged Ennerdale side of Pillar, with the mid-height traverse line of the High Level Route obvious
© Norman Hadley

How to climb it:

For retro charm, the High Level Route is a fine outing, evoking the adventurism of the early climbers. Just as you get going on the East Ridge, a path improbably veers onto the steep Ennerdale flank. There it continues, broadly contouring until the triumphant arrival at Robinson's Cairn, with its front-row seat view of the Rock. The route then reveals its finale: an easy but spectacular shimmy along the Shamrock Traverse.


Again, a lovely name adds to the charm of a lovely hill, conveying a glimpse into Cumbric history. "Blen" or "highest point" is analogous to the Welsh "Blaen", seen in Blaenau Ffestiniog. "Cathra" means seat and maps to the Welsh "Cadair", but also "cathedral". So the name is always Blencathra; only a barbarian would call it anything else.

The south flank of Blencathra dwarfs the village of Threlkeld   © Norman Hadley
The south flank of Blencathra dwarfs the village of Threlkeld
© Norman Hadley

Where to view it from:

The southern and eastern aspects are the finest. On a clear day, from the summit of Clough Head, the riven south face of Blencathra is one of the noblest fellsides in the district. To westbound pilgrims on the A66, the jutting prow of Sharp Edge is a joyous waymark and many a motorist has been witnessed slewing into a layby in reverence. As mentioned above, the slopes down to the Caldew and Glenderaterra lack drama, although the subsidiary summit of Atkinson's Pike is an imposing presence from the north. 

How to climb it:

Hall's Fell ridge and Sharp Edge are the most spectacular routes, but Doddick Fell and Gategill Fell are also fine substitutes. If you aren't in the arete market, the flanking shoulders of Blease Fell and Scales Fell offer easy slopes of turf, merciful to descending knees.

Crinkle Crags

Anyone in possession of a pulse will respond to that name: simultaneously rugged, playful and to-the-point. The reality measures up, with a delightful crest of five, six or seven summits to explore, depending how you count them. The Bad Step can be a tricky obstacle in wet or icy weather, but it can be turned on the west side. The ridge is notoriously difficult to navigate in mist. Tales of magnetic deviation are a little exaggerated, but you'll need your wits about you with so many twists and turns. As if it wasn't enough to have so many knobbles, Crinkle Crags has a whole other bonus fell to its south. You might call it Little Stand, Stonesty Pike or the South Ridge, but whichever you prefer, this is fine terrain for exploring. 

Crinkle Crags sunrise  © Ice Nine
Crinkle Crags sunrise
© Ice Nine, Nov 2020

Where to view it from:

The fell makes a spectacular backdrop to the Langdale side-valley of Oxendale, with Crinkle Gill splitting the face down the middle and Hell Gill a deep gash on the right. The prospect from Pike O' Blisco is very fine, as is the prospect from higher neighbour Bowfell. 

How to climb it:

The cunning ruse of starting from Wrynose Pass will make the ascent an easy amble (at least, until the Bad Step). Crinkle Gill is an excellent expedition if you can reconcile to a drenching, or the south ridge from Cockley Beck if you want to explore a little-known, scrambly alternative.

An unusual view of Bowfell and Crinkle Crags from 'the back'  © Norman Hadley
An unusual view of Bowfell and Crinkle Crags from 'the back'
© Norman Hadley


Bowfell has the distinction of shedding its waters the furthest of all the fells: the Langdale flanks ultimately disgorge into Morecambe Bay, the northern slopes drain to the Derwent estuary at Workington, while the little-trodden Eskdale side connects to the sea at Ravenglass. That makes Bowfell the apex of Lakeland's principal watersheds, a strong contender for hub of the big spoked wheel. (Rival claims by Dollywaggon Pike have been subjected to a stewards' enquiry and mired in accusations of beck-tampering in the region of Dunmail Raise).

Bowfell & Crinkle Crags  © Fbrimblecombe
Bowfell & Crinkle Crags
© Fbrimblecombe, Dec 2022

Where to view it from:

Lakeland's sixth summit presents a noble profile to all points of the compass and is perhaps more consistently pyramidal even than Gable.

How to climb it:

For such an accessible, visible and famous top, Bowfell offers a tremendous amount for the explorer to discover. The Climbers' Traverse is a delight, leading away from the well-known Band into a world of hidden springs, soaring buttresses and surprise slabs. The once-quiet trod (now part of the Bob Graham Round) heading up Hanging Knotts from Rossett Pass is also work seeking out. There are hidden delights in Oxendale, never mind the rarely-courted Eskdale prospect.  

Ill Bell

Ill Bell is an enigma because it is distinctively bell-like from pretty much any angle. But one thing that makes it stand out is having a scaled-down copy, Froswick, immediately to its north. That's pretty cool, yes? To receive this sincerest form of flattery has to put it into the top tier. Yoke, to the south, may lack a gracefully tapered summit but, like Ill Bell and Froswick, throws an impressive truncated spur, Rainsborrow Crag, to the east. Symmetry, balance and self-similarity add interest to the group.

The Ill Bell ridge in winter garb  © Norman Hadley
The Ill Bell ridge in winter garb
© Norman Hadley

Where to view it from:

The Kentmere face is the finest feature, and looks tremendous on any walk up the valley. Even though the Troutbeck flank is not as rugged, there's an elegance to the swooping roller-coaster curve coming down from Thornthwaite Crag, well seen from the environs of the Queen's Head.

How to climb it:

Most will include it as a waypoint on the Kentmere Horseshoe. And why not? A little exploratory sport can be had on the north-east ridge, especially under snow. This flank is especially rich in wildlife, with deer, badger and foxes skulking round the hollows of Rainsborrow and Over Coves.

Thunacar Knott

Just kidding. But the Langdale Pikes are too numerous to pick out a singular winner. They are also an oddity in being so one-sided: the grand facade to Thunacar's uncelebrated plateau. But it would be extremely grumpy to deselect the Pikes merely because their drama is confined to only three of four directions.

The Pikes from Langdale - is there a more alluring sight in Lakeland?  © Norman Hadley
The Pikes from Langdale - is there a more alluring sight in Lakeland?
© Norman Hadley

Where to view them from:

For easygoing adoration, just saunter up the bridleway from Robinson Place to the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, your jaw resting gently on your chest. For an even better perspective, climb Lingmoor Fell for the celebrated composition with Side Pike as foreground. Try Blea Tarn for moody reflections, but you might need to wield your tripod like a bludgeon to chase away rival photographers.

How to climb them:

Let me count the ways. Choose Stickle Gill and Jack's Rake if you're after excitement, Mickleden and the Troughton Gill zigzags if you seek solitude and the peeping of ring ouzels. Pike Howe and Mark Gate are excellent compromises.

16 May

Solid choices there, Norman. But of course, other lists are available. How about choosing the best viewpoints out of the 541 Birketts? Birkett covers the whole of your list, but includes many lower fells. Try Border End, Demming Crag, Little Stand or Yew Bank for grandstand views of the Scafell massif: Heron Pike, Glenridding, for Ullswater: White Pike, Birker Fell for the Cumberland plain and the Isle of Man. Want remote and rocky? Have a look at Pen, above the wilderness of upper Eskdale; or for a decent day out, the top of Pillar Rock via New West.

Wisely, Birkett omits Mungrisdale Common although there are some truly anonymous lumps (Bigert? Really?).

16 May

Being miserable and easily satisfied any hill I don't have to share with hordes gets my vote. I will say though that the Scafell massif, taken as a whole ranks highly along with the best in Britain. Looking across from Border End is as inspiring as anywhere to me.

17 May

Some excellent suggestions there, gammarus. Just that eastern flanks of the Scafells offers a wealth of routes and a huge array of viewpoints, from Walna Scar all the way to Pike de Bield. Nice to hear you mention Pen. I'm very fond of it and included it in the "Scafell Pike Untrodden" route card. I have a long history in that my first ascent of the Pike was by this route at the tender age of four.

17 May

Absolutely, Lankyman. That Eskdale flank is a gem for solitude without sacrificing grandeur - a place to be simultaneously miserable and satisfied. 😉

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