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Too Windy for Tops? Britain's Best Cwm and Corrie Walks

© JCameron

We're well into autumn now - the stormy season. At this unsettled time of year the hills can be scoured by a relentless succession of gale and downpour. When summit weather is really hostile and the views are swallowed up in the general murk, you might do better to keep off the tops. Peak ambitions are all very well, but playing to the conditions is a valuable tool in the hillwalking box of tricks. Lower level walks can save a wind-lashed day; but they needn't be considered a second best option. With their austere crags and remote, rugged grandeur, the cwms and corries of the British hills are among their greatest features, making them the perfect pretext for a summit-free day that lacks for nothing in impact. Here are 10 crackers to get started:

Coire Ardair, Creag Meagaidh

Cliffs of Coire Ardair rising above Lochan a' Choire.   © JCameron
Cliffs of Coire Ardair rising above Lochan a' Choire.
© JCameron, Oct 2009

The sprawling bulk of Meggy is more a range than a single entity, a high central plateau radiating whalebacked ridges, and bitten into by several impressive cirques. Foremost among these is Coire Ardair, one of the great corries of the Highlands and showpiece of a thriving National Nature Reserve. From the birch woods of the lower slopes to the huge verdant crags at its head, this is a superb approach to the hill but also makes an obvious focus for a low level walk in its own right. The well-made trail to Lochan a' Choire is easy enough even on a wild day, and the sense of scale when you get there is, literally, awesome.

High Cup, North Pennines

High Cup and Murton Fell  © Dan Bailey
High Cup and Murton Fell
© Dan Bailey

High Cup could be the single most unusual landscape feature in England. The must-see natural attraction of the North Pennines, it forms a mammoth and strikingly symmetrical glacial cirque, biting deep into the rolling hills. It's the kind of geological curiosity you might expect to see in Arizona or Utah, supplanted into the green hills of Cumbria. Edging the bowl is a level tier of crags, columnar buttresses, gullies and pinnacles crumbling into the screes below. Composed of volcanic dolerite, these form part of the famous Whin Sill complex that stretches as far as Hadrian's Wall and the Farne Islands. Every walker should see the High Cup amphitheatre at least once - and since the Pennine Way runs along one edge, loads do. The hike up (ahem) from Dufton is an easy 4km to the rim. For full effect, it's best to continue along the cliff edge to High Cup Nick at its head, then descend bouldery slopes into the base of the cirque.

Loch Avon basin, Cairngorms

Loch Avon basin - not often this idyllic, but it's always impressive  © Dan Bailey
Loch Avon basin - not often this idyllic, but it's always impressive
© Dan Bailey

For in-your-face rock scenery, few corries beat the Loch Avon basin. A glacial trench carved into the heart of the Cairngorm plateau, it's a big haul destination for an autumn walk, particularly if the direct route over the shoulder of Cairn Gorm is shut down by high wind and you're forced to take the longer, and only relatively low-level, approach up lonely Strath Nethy. But do make the effort. The aura here is unique, with a sense of wide open space and almost arctic-like isolation. A circuit of Loch Avon is packed with interest, from white sand beaches to waterfalls tumbling down the headwall of the corrie, where deep snow patches can cling to the slabs right through summer and into autumn. Far above, the basin is walled by a roll-call of impressive crags, some of the greatest in the Cairngorms: vast rambling Carn Etchachan, the monumental Shelterstone Crag and the slabs of Hells Lum among them. Hunt out the Shelter Stone itself. A dank 'howff' secreted beneath a house-sized boulder, it makes a sheltered (if drippy) refuge in the rain, and an atmospheric place to spend a night.

Cwms of Snowdon

Clogwyn Du’r Arddu  © johnhenderson
Clogwyn Du’r Arddu
© johnhenderson, Sep 2014

Weather too bogging for a Snowdon summit? You're in luck. It's the greatest mountain in Wales, hands down, but though the Snowdon massif is famous for its sharp peaks and airy, sculpted ridges, as the centrepoint of a walk - or rather a whole series of walks - its many deeply carved cwms easily equal the high bits in between. From the hub of the range, the summits of Yr Wyddfa and Carnedd Ugain, spurs radiate like the spokes of a wheel, and as a result in every direction of the compass there's a corresponding cirque. Each has its own character: rugged Cwm Glas/Cwm Uchaf, a hard-to-reach sanctuary under the serrated wall of Crib Goch; the idyllic pool of Llyn d'ur Arddu backed by the great wall of Cloggy; rarely-trodden Cwm Clogwyn; the waterfalls and industrial heritage of Cwm Llan & Cwm Tregalan; and grandest (if busiest) of all, the textbook glacial scoop of Cwm Glaslyn, the vast space between the arms of the Horseshoe.

Hollow Stones, Scafell range

Scafell crag, Wasdale  © Mark Eddy
Scafell crag, Wasdale
© Mark Eddy, May 2008

It's threatening rain and the summits are buried in cloud. Sure, you could grit your teeth and plod up to the roof of England anyway; but on a day like this, what's to be gained from that last few hundred metres? The Scafells are wonderfully rugged and full of Cumbrian character, but - dare I say it - the best bits of the range are not so much the summits, as all the coves and craggy corners below them. Slung between the pointy mass of Pikes Crag and the stern wrinkled face of Scafell Crag, the evocatively named Hollow Stones is the epitome of a mountain cirque. Stagger this far against the wind and you needn't feel obliged to battle any higher; you've already reached somewhere very special.

Coire Mhic Fearchar, Beinn Eighe

Coire Mhic Fhearchair - not a bad spot  © Dan Bailey
Coire Mhic Fhearchair - not a bad spot
© Dan Bailey

It's not a short walk, this, but the challenge is part of its appeal. Dominated by the monumental Triple Buttress, and the gothic mass of Sail Mhor, Coire Mhic Fhearchair is perhaps the most impressive single place in Torridon - no faint praise - and a worthy contender for the title of Scotland's greatest corrie. Rising beyond the lochan, the Triple Buttress reflects Beinn Eighe's composite geology, with a lower sandstone tier topped by three tremendous quartzite prows that are renowned among climbers. Rough paths run along both shores of the loch, allowing you to make a circuit around it.

Cwm Bochlwyd and Cwm Idwal

Llyn Bochlwyd  © Nicholas Livesey
Llyn Bochlwyd
© Nicholas Livesey, May 2015

Glyder derives from the Welsh for heap of stones, and the name is apt. The summits of Glyders Fawr and Fach are a stark moonscape of spikes and blocks, huge piles of boulders like abandoned gravestones. It's nature's answer to the nearby slate quarries; and just like the quarries, where there are great big piles of grey spoil you'll also find awesome holes. A series of cwms bite deep into the northern flank of the Glyderau. Best for scale and scenery are the neighbours Cwm Bochlwyd and Cwm Idwal. Hit Bochlwyd first and enjoy the comparative silence before braving the Idwal crowds. No wonder this place is so popular; just a stone's throw from the Ogwen car park, but a truly a monumental cirque, sweeping from the Idwal Slabs and Glyder Fawr's many-tiered crags, past the sinister black cleft of the Devil's Kitchen, to the gentle giant Y Garn. Have a peek at the Devil's Kitchen, then make a lap of Llyn Idwal. If the weather is coming over all Welsh there is no more evocative place to be.

Riggindale and Blea Water, High Street range

Blea Water  © mikemartin
Blea Water
© mikemartin, Dec 2008

When autumn rain slants out of a lead sky the head of Haweswater is a bleak and lonely place - but in a good way. While they lack a certain vertical scale, the far eastern fells enjoy a peaceful atmosphere of their very own. Hill walking isn't all about the crags, after all. If tops are off the agenda a productive half day can be spent poking around the hollows on the eastern flank of High Street - empty Riggindale, until recently the haunt of England's solitary golden eagle; Blea Water in its perfect bowl; and the little rugged cove of Small Water below the historic through-route of Nan Bield Pass.

Coire Toll an Lochain, An Teallach

An Teallach  © Colin Wells
An Teallach
© Colin Wells, Mar 2008

No corries listicle would be complete without An Teallach. It's probably the finest mountain in Scotland (in which case, the world), and while the famously jagged ridge has a lot to do with it, of no less significance are its two vast corries. Were it almost anywhere else Glas Tholl would get the attention, but it is neighbouring Coire Toll an Lochain that really steals the show. With a remote lochan cupped below huge tiered cliffs, topped off by an improbable jagged skyline, nowhere says northwest highlands better. An October gale would be no weather to scramble the Corrag Bhuidhe Pinnacles. Luckily there's this backup plan.

Garbh Choire, Beinn a' Bhuird

Mitre Ridge, Beinn a Bhuird  © Captain Solo
Mitre Ridge, Beinn a Bhuird
© Captain Solo, Aug 2009

The Cairngorms are not short on impressive corries, and definitely earn a second entry on this shortlist. We could easily have gone for the magnificent Lochnagar; likewise it would have been hard to quibble with Braeriach's monumental An Garbh Choire. But for its combination of unparalleled remoteness and sheer craggy spectacle, not much can touch the Garbh Choire of Beinn a' Bhuird. It's a long way from anywhere, a journey made easier by mountain bike. The approach from the south offers glimpses into the mountain's craggy eastern corries, but it's worth persevering over the high saddle of The Sneck and into the Garbh Choire itself. As you've come this far, why not make a weekend of it and hunker down among the boulders below the imposing bastions of Squareface and the Mitre Ridge.



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