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The Big Routes: Old Crown Round, a Circuit of the Northern Fells

© Rosie Robson

The Lake District's far northern fells are too often overlooked. Viewed from the south, two giants hide the rest of their neighbours - the much-beloved and ever-interesting Blencathra, and the rounded mass of Skiddaw. Many visitors to the Lakes don't look behind these big masses, instead feeling the pull of the crowd-pleasers in Borrowdale and Langdale. The rounded hills 'Back O' Skidda' may lack the craggy peaks, ridges and tea rooms of those further south, but they are all individually interesting in their own right. Although the overall character is smooth and heathery, there is so much interest packed into this corner of Lakeland.

Striding out towards Blencathra from Bowscale Fell  © Rosie Robson
Striding out towards Blencathra from Bowscale Fell
© Rosie Robson

Not a route as such, but a linking of several summits in the Northern Fells, the Old Crown Round is named after an excellent pub in Hesket Newmarket. The beers here are named after Lake District fells, some of which can be done in a day walk from the pub. I should mention that this is quite a long day walk.

we hadn't seen anyone, a reflection both on the ground that we had crossed and the hour we had started

Starting and finishing at the pub, and choosing their own route, the walker or runner should pass over the tops of Blencathra, Carrock Fell, Great Cockup, High Pike and Skiddaw. Yep, that's right – pretty much an entire circuit of the Northern Fells. The annual fell race run by the Northern Fells Running Club has replaced the Great Cockup summit with that of Knott, but we thought we would cover our backs and do it anyway. Plus, it rounds the distance up to the nice (but rather large) number of 25 miles. It's also a very efficient way of knocking off Wainwrights, if that's your thing, with 11 of the 24 in the Northern Fells being summited on this walk, and the option of a few more if you are really keen. But this isn't about the ticklists - it's about a tour of this special corner of Lakeland and appreciating each of its unique fells, and it's about the challenge of a big day. Oh, and because of the start and finish location, it's also about that well-deserved pint at the end, whichever beer you choose.

This walk deserved a bit more planning than a standard jaunt in the fells. Firstly, careful route planning would reduce unnecessary distance and get the harder stuff over with first; to that end we chose to go clockwise. Secondly, due to a lack of clear ridges for the most part, if the mist comes down severely, parts of these fells can look the same in all directions. Thirdly, a support party was meeting us with pasties that we didn't want to miss just because of poor time estimates.

The two giants of the Northern Fells, Blencathra and Skiddaw, seen from Carrock Fell  © Rosie Robson
The two giants of the Northern Fells, Blencathra and Skiddaw, seen from Carrock Fell
© Rosie Robson

The route plotted and rucksacks stuffed with snacks, we departed the sleepy village at 6.30am on a cool, clear morning. Heading south on the footpaths through the fields, my grand plans of maintaining dry feet were soon scuppered by a combination of a deteriorated Gore-Tex lining and dew-soaked long grass. This didn't dampen my mood, however, as the top of High Pike caught the first rays of morning sun which swept downwards over its slopes, and a beautiful glow filled the air. Soon we were stripping off our fleeces and gloves and turning away from what would be our final summit, towards the first objective.

I've lost count of the number of times I have been up Carrock Fell. Being the most accessible mountain from where I grew up, it has always been the default choice for a quick walk. A couple of years ago, I remember feeling a bit bored of this little mountain, but I'm not sure why. It takes maybe 45 minutes from road to summit, and although the path itself is relatively uninteresting, the views to the north and east are so beautiful, especially on a still, sunny morning with nobody else about. The top is crowned by the debris of an Iron Age hill fort, and offers a wonderful panorama. Suddenly, there is the Eden Valley and the Lake District. Apart from pesky Great Cockup, hiding at this point behind Knott, we could see our whole route. Skiddaw was really far away.

From Carrock, Bowscale is separated by very little distance but a good deal of descent  © Rosie Robson
From Carrock, Bowscale is separated by very little distance but a good deal of descent
© Rosie Robson

Next stop, Bowscale Fell. It's just a couple of kilometres away from the top of Carrock Fell, with its classic glacial tarn nestled into its northern slopes. However, in order to get to it, we have to lose and then gain a lot of height. Compared to the other Lake District fells, Carrock Fell is unique in that it is comprised primarily of gabbro, giving it its craggy eastern ramparts and boulders strewn by the roadside. The southern slopes are very steep, cloaked with heather and scree. The most direct route to Bowscale Fell is pretty much due south from the summit of Carrock, down to the road in Mosedale. It is also pathless, and can only be recommended if you are confident on your feet on this kind of rough terrain, want to save distance, have fresh legs, and enjoy a bit of an off-the-beaten-track experience. We thought that all applied to us, and soon enough we were down, those of us in shorts pulling vegetation out of boots and describing the effect heather has on bare legs as "exfoliating".

Next, we set about regaining all that height we had lost. We crossed the footbridge over the Caldew (crossing anywhere else in the valley will result in wet feet) and ascended steeply up Bowscale Fell. This was hard and hot work. The tarn opened up below us, once a popular spot for Victorians on their grand tours, now relatively remote and serene. Once atop Bowscale Fell, there was a fair bit of bog-hopping, with the impressive precipices of Bannerdale Crags dropping away to our left. All the while, Blencathra was tempting us ever closer.

When you reach Blencathra's summit, there's a sudden spectacular view over the Lake District  © Rosie Robson
When you reach Blencathra's summit, there's a sudden spectacular view over the Lake District
© Rosie Robson

After a lot of consideration, I think Blencathra might be my favourite mountain in the Lake District. Seen from the south, dominating the view from St John's in the Vale, it is stunningly symmetrical, its fine buttresses interspersed with dark and mysterious gills. There's a myriad of interesting ways to the summit, and it offers a rare bit of hands-on action for this part of the Lake District in the form of two fine ridges, Hall's Fell Ridge and (of course) Sharp Edge.

My sore feet and scratched legs carried me back to The Old Crown exactly 11 hours 30 minutes after our departure... ready for a beer

But instead of scrambling, our walk approached Blencathra from the quieter northern side, with the excellent visibility perfectly picking out the profile of Atkinson Pike, the lower end of the saddle. Until this point we hadn't seen anyone, a reflection both on the ground that we had crossed and the hour we had started. Now the silhouettes of happy scramblers were dotted along the crest of Sharp Edge, and when we got to the top, suddenly there were quite a few people around. One of the best things about approaching Blencathra from the north is that the magnificent view southwards across the fells is left until the end, when it really packs a punch.

There wasn't time to linger though, as we still had many miles to cover. We retraced our steps above Foule Crag and then turned westwards, the next target being Skiddaw House and, if our planned timings worked out, warm sausage rolls and cold fizzy drinks. We took in Mungrisdale Common on the way, which somehow scraped into Wainwright's book despite being scarcely more than a levelling off of the ground on a pretty insignificant slope.

Skiddaw House, a haven in the wild northern fells  © Dan Bailey
Skiddaw House, a haven in the wild northern fells
© Dan Bailey

We made it to Skiddaw House at 11.40, and sure enough were joined by family members, dogs, and a plethora of snack choices. After stuffing our faces, the chill got us moving again and we started dragging ourselves up Skiddaw, feeling a bit heavier than we had been half an hour previously but quickly warming up. To put it bluntly, it's a bit of a trudge up over Sale How, but height is gained quickly, and soon we joined the motorway and stream of walkers heading up from Keswick. It felt odd to suddenly be surrounded by this many people, having marched fourteen miles hardly seeing anyone, and knowing that once we left the summit we would be pretty much on our own again. Still, meeting that path held its own significance for our walk, as we were now over halfway and turning north, and therefore on our way back to the pub.

Heading over Mungrisdale Common towards Skiddaw House, with Skiddaw to the left and Great Calva straight ahead  © Rosie Robson
Heading over Mungrisdale Common towards Skiddaw House, with Skiddaw to the left and Great Calva straight ahead
© Rosie Robson

From the north top, we followed the fence down to Dash Falls via Bakestall, which can't really be called a summit but does hold a pretty impressive position over the worryingly named Dead Crags. After hopping over the stream, we picked up a fairly sketchy path that skirted down the hillside through the heather. Having forded Hause Gill, we made our way up to Great Cockup, fourth of our five beer summits. By some way the smallest, it is still a nice mini-mountain, with far-reaching views to the north-west, and the bulk of Skiddaw dominating the southern perspective.

From Cockup we dropped into the wonderfully named Trusmadoor, which is truly beautiful and peaceful, before reluctantly heading uphill again, this time onto Meal Fell. The pull up to Great Sca Fell was, quite frankly, uncalled for this late in the day. I kept my head down, focussing on the little steps carved out by footfall on the soft path, putting one foot in front of the other. That was the last significant climb of the day. From Great Sca Fell, Knott is gained easily, a big broad fell and the highest in this northern segment of the Northern Fells. Finally, after a bit more bog-hopping past Lingy Hut, we reached the top of High Pike, the final peak being just 3km away from Carrock Fell which we'd stood atop in that fresh morning sun almost nine hours before. It was now overcast but still very clear, with that chill in the air that had been with us all day if we ever stopped for too long.

I allowed myself a very brief sit on the lovely bench next to the trig point before heading downwards for the final time. High Pike is another familiar hill to me, with its classic rounded shape and yellow-green grass, as well as the pretty little gills that carve deeply into its western and eastern flanks. High Pike has been extensively mined for an abundance of minerals, but with the help of the paths we safely negotiated these workings, bringing our weary legs gently back to Wood Hall. We rejoined the footpath we had left earlier and said hello to the cows again, who looked at us as if they thought we might have just sat in a neighbouring field for a day.

Big skies over the Solway towards the end of the day  © Rosie Robson
Big skies over the Solway towards the end of the day
© Rosie Robson

My sore feet and scratched legs carried me back to The Old Crown exactly 11 hours 30 minutes after our departure, ready for a beer. I hadn't bagged any new summits today, or even been anywhere I hadn't before. But I had walked a really long way and packed in a proper tour of these fells, and got new perspectives on them. The area has a wild, remote, and expansive feel that is distinctive, whilst each fell holds interest and offers something different. And I am pretty confident that, with the exception of the summits of Skiddaw and Blencathra, solitude will be easy to find in this area for a long time to come.

Start / Finish: The Old Crown, Hesket Newmarket. There is a car park 100m away (NY342386)

Distance: 41km

Ascent: 2512m

Maps: OS Landranger (1:50:000) 90; OS Explorer (1:25;000) OL4&5

Terrain: Generally rolling grassy hills with very little rocky ground, and often boggy, but with some steeper sections. The descent from Carrock Fell described here is pathless and very steep, with deep heather and scree, but paths can be used if a longer route is taken.

Winter: This would be a significant undertaking under snow given the length of the walk, although devoid of mountaineering technicality. There are some steep slopes though, and navigation could be difficult in poor weather.

Overnight options: Skiddaw House is a Youth Hostel and handily placed about halfway round the route. Lingy Hut is a (very) small bothy towards the end of the walk. Otherwise there are some nice places for wild camping; Trusmadoor struck us as being a particularly pleasant spot.

Shortcuts and escape routes: Numerous shortcuts, and you could cut out many of the summits, but then it wouldn't be The Old Crown Round. Escape routes lead directly off the mountains to surrounding villages and also down any of the three valleys which separate this group of fells: Mosedale, Glenderaterra Beck and Dash Beck.

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UKH Articles and Gear Reviews by Rosie Robson



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