Are the Lake District Fells Too Busy?

© Dan Bailey

Scafell Pike on a sunny Bank Holiday can be more manic than the cities people left to get there. As increasing numbers flock to the fells, has the Lake District become a victim of its own popularity? Is this any longer a place to visit for those who value the peace and freedom of the open hills? Look beyond the headlining summits, says Matt Poulton, and there's still space for everyone.

A long line of walkers lies ahead of me as I make my way up Cat Bells. I dodge and weave past them, offering thanks when way is given, slowly moving up the bustling trail. I am on the first hill of the Espresso Round, a 15-mile route starting and finishing at George Fishers in Keswick. Despite it being relatively early in the day, the way ahead is too congested to sustain a good, consistent running pace. Grimly, I slow to the tried and tested hands-on-thighs powerwalk that is fast enough to stop me from falling too far behind on my schedule while limiting the exhausting stopping and starting I had been doing up until now.

On days like these, you can't expect to be alone for long on Striding Edge   © Dan Bailey
On days like these, you can't expect to be alone for long on Striding Edge
© Dan Bailey

You'll often hear people say that the Lake District fells are too crowded, and as just one among the throngs of people ascending the ever-popular Cat Bells, I can't help but wonder if they may be on to something.

I only got into walking and running on the fells around ten years ago, and even in that comparatively short time I have seen them becoming more and more popular, with a weekend walk acquiring the status of, dare I say it, a trendy thing to do. This seemed to be exacerbated after the various Covid lockdowns, which had the twofold effect of making people realise how much they needed nature and also preventing holidays abroad, meaning that already-busy places like the Lake District became even more popular as holiday destinations. While it's not fair to begrudge anyone getting out, the net result of everyone doing so in a concentrated area is hard to miss: Hills where formerly you might hardly see a soul all day are now bustling with day trippers, and once seemingly abandoned paths choked with visitors.

Looking down on a busy Buttermere, a place rarely free of parked cars  © Matt Poulton
Looking down on a busy Buttermere, a place rarely free of parked cars
© Matt Poulton

Can the fells cope, or are they just too busy? Where can you turn, if you don't want to become part of the problem?

Should you only visit the more popular of the Lake District fells, there is certainly a case to believe that they are over-done these days. The best-known and most-travelled hills can attract crowds by virtue of their height (either very big or conveniently small), their view (preferably Instagram-able), and in many cases their proximity to a honeypot town. There'll be an obvious easy way up that sees a lot of footfall - a 'tourist' path such as the routes up Skiddaw from Keswick or Scafell Pike from Wasdale - and there may also be a famously challenging round, such as Striding and Swirral Edge, with a reputation that serves as a magnet in itself. Whether it's the lofty top of Helvellyn or the accessible summit of Helm Crag, there are some key fells on which solitude and peace are rare commodities.

Timing your visit makes a big difference though. Come during school holidays, or on days with a nice weather forecast, and of course you'll have company. Midweek, out of season, the picture can be rather different.

Pick your moment - late afternoon in November, say - and even a crowd hotspot might be deserted  © Dan Bailey
Pick your moment - late afternoon in November, say - and even a crowd hotspot might be deserted
© Dan Bailey

Perhaps the headliners tend to be popular for good reason. Who could argue with the quality of Coniston Old Man, or the Langdale Pikes? Days out on Blencathra are rarely enjoyed alone, but they're always memorable. If you do opt to share these hills with hundreds of others then it's worth putting that choice in perspective, and remembering - you're not in the traffic, you are the traffic.

Yet look beyond the big names and you'll find a host of less well-known fells that may offer just as much reward, with far fewer of the downsides of that sheer popularity can bring. In busier periods you may still have company, especially as you near the top, but it's a fair bet there'll be no egregious queues up the side of the hill, and no waiting in line to pose by the summit cairn. Across the whole of the Lake District, there is still plenty of opportunity for quiet, isolated contemplation, and that sense of freedom and peace that so many people go to the fells for.

Even on the most-mobbed hills there'll be alternate ways to ascend that avoid the busy tourist route. Climb Helvellyn, for instance, from either Thirlmere or Patterdale, and you will almost certainly encounter many more walkers and runners doing exactly the same. An ascent from St Johns in the Vale however, will mean a far more pleasant (in my opinion) walk to the same summit, and fewer folk to share it with.

The Scafell range - crowded fells but with plenty of quiet corners too  © Matt Poulton
The Scafell range - crowded fells but with plenty of quiet corners too
© Matt Poulton

And while the 214 Wainwrights are the best-known classification of Lakeland Fells, it is often forgotten that there are more than just Wainwrights in the Lake District; looked at another way, there are 541 fells over 1,000ft, referred to as Birketts. While 212 of these are also Wainwrights (Castle Crag and Mungrisdale Common did not make the cut), this still leaves 329 extra fells that are yours to enjoy. There are, admittedly some Birketts (and let's face it, Wainwrights) where the views and the walk could be described as lacklustre at best, but there are many more, outside of the public consciousness, that offer commanding views rivalling those from the iconic fells. Should you venture to one of these lesser-known fells and see a fellow walker, you will know you are in the presence of another hardy eccentric, a kindred spirit. It would be difficult, while standing on any of these more obscure Lakeland summits, to dismiss all fells as overcrowded.

Is it then just a matter of distribution? Should the sheer weight of people who flock to the small number of core fells decide to visit the full suite of Lake District summits rather than just the popular ones, then surely it would not seem so overcrowded. Or is it more a matter of opinion from those who have grown up going to the hills and knew how quiet they once were? It is beyond doubt that the fells have become busier over the years. Are those people who have grown used to abandoned tracts of open fell disproportionately aggrieved at the thought of sharing a once-solitary pastime? While it is certainly the case that the roads and car parks are choked - trying to drive down to either Wasdale or Buttermere on a busy day is a traumatic experience - once you start ascending a fell, especially if you avoid the tourist path, the number of people you see will drastically decrease. You're unlikely to be fully alone, but to say it is crowded would be an overstatement.

Looking to the high fells from Whiteless Pike - a view all to myself  © Matt Poulton
Looking to the high fells from Whiteless Pike - a view all to myself
© Matt Poulton

The day following my Espresso Round I am standing on Whiteless Pike, a cool breeze blowing errant strands of hair across my face. At the summit I am alone, not a soul in sight. The few groups of walkers and runners I passed to get here now seem a distant memory. The beauty of the Buttermere valley lies before me, the stunning, pristine lake with the high fell of Red Pike rising above it. I knew there would be a vast number of people walking around the lake, but up here all is quiet. "No", I think to myself, "I don't think the fells are too busy". Perhaps it's all down to where you view them from.

29 Jan

Very good article. I agree there are still plenty of fells you can go to and get solitude. I guess a lot of the problems now are with the infrastructure - parking, volume of traffic on narrow roads, etc.

29 Jan

Totally agree! Plenty of fells to get some solitary picturesque walks, just finding parking etc. Great piece Matt.

Yes and no.

If I relocate the question to Eryri just because I am more familiar with the mountains in the area it could be said Yr Wyddfa is too busy. However if you choose carefully say Arenig Fawr, Rhobell Fawr and the Rhinogydd you could go up to the summits everyday and stay up there most of the and seldom see a sole.

It is good to see people out however it does cause issues with litter and erosion so it can be a double edged sword.

29 Jan

More parking just encourages more cars. Perhaps better to focus on improving public transport?

29 Jan

yes , but if you are in traffic you are traffic haha.

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