Coast to Coast - East to West 2006

Author: George Tod

This walk is illustrated with photographs. Click on small photo to enlarge in situ, or click caption to enlarge into new window.
Part 6 - Days 9 & 10 - Shap to Grasmere

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Day 9 - Tuesday 13th June - 19 miles - 3,400 ft ascent

Shap to Helvellyn Youth Hostel

Breakfast was available from 7.30, as the other two chaps had requested it then, so I decided I might as well get off to an early start and join them. After a very good breakfast and a good chat, I picked up an enormous packed lunch and was off at 8.30.

It was nearly a mile from the B&B to the northern end of Shap, where the route turns off to Shap Abbey. Shap used to have very heavy traffic through it many years ago, before the motorway was built, but now it is quite quiet, with only local traffic using the main road. The route to the abbey was easy, with a footpath running parallel to the access road for part of the way, but the route to Haweswater requires some care, as it meanders around through farmland. There were several Coast to Coast walkers about already, some of them being Americans – they must have been staying at Burnbanks at the foot of Haweswater. Along Haweswater Beck, a small permissive diversion takes the route past Thornthwaite Force, which is somewhat hidden by trees, though it is possible to get a better view down by the beck side.

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Ruins of Shap Abbey
Ruins of Shap Abbey
Thornthwaite Force on Haweswater Beck
Thornthwaite Force

Burnbanks, where a lot of construction work was taking place on an estate of houses, claimed to be a "Model Village". The new houses were fairly well surrounded by trees, so they did not impact too much on the landscape. The weather was rather overcast, but the cloud was high enough to be clear of the fell tops, and there was an occasional ray of sunshine breaking through. I intended to take a route over the fell tops rather than along the side of Haweswater and soon found a path signposted to the fell side, leading up through the new building site. Once out on the open fell side, I climbed up onto the ridge to make my way towards the main footpath higher up, then stopped for a break overlooking Haweswater Dam with a view down the reservoir to Kidsty Pike and High Street.

Setting off again just after 11.00, I climbed up towards Bampton Common, intending to make for the Roman Road at Wether Hill, but the path I was following led towards the footbridge at Fordingdale Bottom, lower down and closer to Haweswater. There were some fine views of the head of Haweswater at various points along the way that, from the higher vantage points, were far superior to those from the lakeside route. From here the best option was straight ahead up the steep end of the ridge leading to Low Raise, and in many ways this was a more appropriate route, as it kept Haweswater in view, as would the main route. The steep ascent ahead gave good views back to the foot of the lake and beyond to Shap and the Northern Pennines with Cross Fell now visible in the distance.

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Haweswater from Bampton Common with Harter Fell behind
Haweswater from Bampton Common

It was good to be in the craggy mountain scenery of the Lake District at last, even though the weather was rather dull. After quite a tiring day yesterday, I wasn't feeling at my fittest for steep climbing, but by taking it a little bit at a time with short rests, it wasn't long before the steepest part was behind me. As the ridge rounded off, the path became less and less steep, and I could walk further between each little rest until the slope was gentle enough to carry on at a normal pace. Much of the view was lost at this point, with only the high fells visible until I came within half a mile of High Raise and found a convenient place for a lunch break on the crags overlooking Haweswater.

It started to get a bit chilly after a while, so I decided to press on, skirting round the hillside to keep Haweswater in view for some time, then making my way to the summit of High Raise. When I reached there, I was greeted with a fabulous view of mountains including Helvellyn, Catstye Cam, St Sunday Crag and, in the distance, Great Gable. There were glorious views down into Martindale and of Ullswater. A little further on at Twopenny Crag, after I had rejoined Wainwright's route, there was a fine view of Kidsty Pike overlooking Riggindale and the head of Haweswater. What a difference from the Vale of Mowbray!

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Martindale and Ullswater from High Raise
Martindale and Ullswater
Hayeswater and High Street
Patterdale and Glenridding by the head of Ullswater (Helvellyn Youth Hostel is by the trees high up the valley)
Patterdale and Glenridding

I started my descent past The Knott, with a view of Hayes Water, then on to Angle tarn, all the way having views of mountains all around. A weak sun shone for a short while, which made the views even better, but for most of the time it remained rather cold and dull. A Coast to Coast couple passed by me as I was resting - they were heading for Patterdale. I had been unable to get into the Youth Hostel there, so had booked into Helvellyn Youth Hostel, a couple of miles further on and a little way off the route. As I continued down to the valley below, I had to resort to wearing my fleece because of the cold wind, even though I was now a lot lower down. Once at the bottom of the fells, I was able to bypass Patterdale and make my way to Glenridding, then up the steep track to the Helvellyn Youth Hostel, about a mile and a half beyond.

On the way through Glenridding I called at a shop to get some batteries for my camera, as I had forgotten to bring my battery charger to recharge the ones in my camera, which was now showing "Battery Low". I also bought a four pack of John Smith’s bitter, as I didn't want to walk all the way down to the pub in Glenridding later on. There was a call box in Glenridding, so I reported back home as I had the usual problem of "No Network" on my mobile phone. It was a long, steady climb up the track, but the advantage was that there would be less of a climb in the morning on my way up Helvellyn. Arriving at the Youth Hostel, I made my dinner choices of soup, Cumberland sausage, and sponge pudding before having a much-needed shower. There was an excellent drying room in the hostel, so I washed out my walking things and was able to remove much of the water using their mangle, which is so much easier and more effective than trying to wring the wet out by hand. It is simple things like this that make a big difference for walkers. Some modernized hostels have washing machines, but this is a bit of overkill for just a few small items of clothing.

I had dinner with a couple from Derbyshire who were staying at the hostel plus their friend who was camping down the road. They had climbed Scafell Pike earlier in the day before driving here ready for climbing Helvellyn tomorrow. Then they were going down to Wales to climb Snowdon on Friday before returning home.

After dinner I walked a little way up the hillside where there was a view across to some of today’s route, and sat drinking some of my John Smith’s, though I needn’t have worried about getting it, as the hostel had a very good selection of beers on sale. There was quite a bit more sunshine than earlier, though that was lost quite early in the steep sided valley and, with the cool wind, it started to get chilly.

In some ways it was quite nice to get away from the Coast to Coast route, as there can be just so many people doing the walk. When there is a lesser number of walkers, it is interesting to meet up with them to chat about each of their schedules and how they are getting on with the walk. With the numbers walking at the moment, there are just too many of them for me to get involved and, after the first couple of days, I have tended to just give a cheery greeting and continue walking. The exception to this is with the few people who are walking in the same direction as me, who I keep meeting from time to time, and with whom it is possible to build up more of a rapport. This would be different, of course, if I had been walking in the normal direction, in which case I would have met a far smaller number of people and would have seen much more of most of them.

Some of the stories that come across from people are rather frightening, as many Coast to Coast walkers go up onto the high fells of the Lake District with little idea about map reading, relying on meeting others who will point out the way. They often have only a guidebook and not even a compass, not that many of them would know what to do with one anyway. Considering how the weather in the mountains can change dramatically, with mist descending over the tops, together with cold wind and rain or even snow at times, it is surprising that more people do not get into difficulties.

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Day 10 - Wednesday 14th June - 9.6 miles - 3,350 ft ascent

Helvellyn Youth Hostel to Grasmere via Helvellyn and Striding Edge

Breakfast was at 8.00 and I sat with the couple I had met last night, along with another lady who was on her own. The only other two who were having breakfast were late down and sat at a different table. This hostel is one that is still run on more traditional lines, which encourages people to eat together and mix far more, whereas there is a growing tendency to have a cafeteria type service, which is much more impersonal. The breakfast was quite good by youth hostel standards, but not up to the standards of many B&Bs, who tend to go a bit over the top in what they provide both in quality and quantity. All in all, this is a very good hostel in every way, not being too big and impersonal, whilst having all the facilities that a walker requires. I only hope that the YHA don’s see fit to change this and other similar hostels, but unfortunately these hostels are out of line with current thinking and current trends.

The couple had done all sorts of things on various holidays including bungee jumping in New Zeeland, climbing Table Mountain in South Africa plus many adventure activities that I cannot remember. Their next ambition was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, and they also intended to buy a place in Andorra. I was not in a rush to get off, as I didn’t have very far to walk, so it was interesting to linger for a while and have an interesting chat.

I started out at 9.20, having picked up the large packed lunch that I had ordered and paid for in advance. Had I realized how much I was going to get from some B&Bs, a small one would have been more than enough, as I still had a lot of things left over. The weather was quite good and I had decided to take a fairly roundabout way up Helvellyn via Sticks Pass and Raise, just to make the walk a little longer. At first there was a steady zigzag path climbing up the steep fell side above the mines near the hostel, and this then levelled out onto the high valley bottom of Sticks Gill, where there was more evidence of old mining activity. At the head of the valley there was another steady climb up to Sticks Pass, none of which was too difficult and I was able to just plod along steadily up the steeper parts, taking my time.

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Helvellyn Youth Hostel towards Glenridding and Ullswater
Helvellyn Youth Hostel & Glenridding
Thirlmere from Lower Man
Thirlmere from Lower Man
Ullswater and Catstye Cam from Lower Man
Ullswater and Catstye Cam

The weather was quite bright with a mixture of sunshine and clouds and a cool northeasterly wind, which was a change from the westerly wind of yesterday. Near the top of the valley were a couple of buildings, one with an overhead electricity supply, and I wondered if they might be some sort of mountain rescue post, but the latest O.S. map shows that they are for a ski lift. On the way up there were good views of Catstye Cam, with the path to Helvellyn via the more direct route below, and I could see across to Glenridding and the head of Ullswater. There was nobody about in this part of the mountains, so it was very peaceful for a while.

At the top of the pass the view towards the western fells opened up ahead, from Scafell Pike, Great Gable and High Stile to Grasmoor and Grisedale Pike. I stopped for a drink and a rest overlooking the view, and then climbed the steadily ascending path up to Raise, where even more came into view. Skiddaw and Bassenthwaite Lake could be seen to the north as well as much more of Ullswater to the east. As I progressed further along the ridge to Whiteside and Lower Man, a large part of Thirlmere also came into sight. The climb up to Lower Man was steep, but with then only a gentle slope to reach Helvellyn. In a remarkable coincidence of timing, the couple from Derbyshire and their friend were approaching the summit trig point from the opposite direction as I approached it, and we got there at exactly the same time. They had come via Striding Edge and were going to return to the hostel by a similar route to the one I had taken coming up.

The views from Helvellyn are impressive, with Red Tarn down below, enclosed on two sides by Swirral Edge and Striding Edge, looking particularly good when lit by sunshine from time to time. To the east were Ullswater and the mountains around High Street, and to the west a whole array of mountains of the central and western fells, including a good view of the start of my route tomorrow over Helm Crag and Greenup Edge, though there was still quite a bit of cloud over in that direction.

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Red Tarn from Helvellyn with Striding Edge to the right
Red Tarn from Helvellyn

By now there were quite a lot of people coming from paths in every direction, as this is an extremely popular mountain, being only about a hundred feet lower than England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, but far easier to access by road and with, arguably, better views from its summit. There were also a group of workmen emptying large bags of stone that had been deposited there. They were scattering it randomly about on some of the more eroded places, presumably hoping to make them look less eroded and to discourage people from walking over those areas.

I still had quite a lot of time to spare and, as I watched a steady stream of people making their way along Striding Edge a few hundred feet below, it seemed like a good idea to walk along there too, even if it did mean that I would have to come back the same way and scramble back up the steep path onto Helvellyn. There was no need to carry my rucksack, so I left it by the memorial at the top and made my way down, then along the steep sided ridge, taking as high a line as possible on the way out to the eastern end. Although this has some precipitous slopes down either side, it is neither as long nor as steep as the Crib Goch ridge onto Snowdon, and it was quite easy going without the weight of my pack. On the return trip, I took a quicker and easier line, using some of the paths that bypassed the craggiest parts of the ridge. There were times when it was necessary to wait for people to come by from the other direction, or wait for a suitable place to overtake some of the slower ones going the same way, but this is not the sort of place to hurry – far better to take time and err on the side of caution. The final climb back onto Helvellyn, though very steep, was remarkably easy without a pack to carry – it is amazing just how much difference it makes, especially when climbing.

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Striding Edge, Red Tarn and Ullswater
Striding Edge
Grisedale Tarn from Dollywagon Pike
Grisedale Tarn

It was then time to make my way onwards via Nethermost Pike and round the edge of Dollywaggon Pike to Grisedale Tarn. The main Coast to Coast route takes the low route along Grisedale but, if the weather is good, those who follow that route miss a great deal of the real mountain scenery that the Lake District has to offer. The route down to Grisedale Tarn is a very steep zigzag path, which was very slippery in places. On paths like this, stones get crushed and rounded into smaller ones by thousands of boots over the years. In some places it is like stepping on a lot of ball bearings as they roll and slide about, especially in dry weather. Fortunately, this is one of the paths where work is being undertaken to improve matters, so it should be a lot safer when this has been completed.

From Grisedale Tarn, there was just a short uphill stretch to take me over into the next valley, before the descent, quite steep for much of the way, to Grasmere. It is one of those irrefutable facts that the height that you have gained with so much effort when climbing a mountain has to be lost again, often with considerable effort or difficulty on the way down. There was a fine view down to the head of Grasmere, which was now bathed in sunshine and overlooked by Helm Crag, the first climb tomorrow.

I reached Butharlyp Howe Youth Hostel at about 5.30 p.m. and checked in. When I had booked the bed, I had asked for an evening meal and packed lunch, but they had only taken payment for bed and breakfast, as is often the case. In most hostels dinner is at 7 p.m. and meal choices have to be in an hour before, otherwise there is a risk of not getting anything to eat. When I asked about dinner, the girl at reception said she wasn’t sure whether I was too late. Some hostels, particularly the ones who cater for a lot of school parties, have dinner half an hour earlier, and that was the case here. However, a quick check with the kitchen confirmed that I was OK to order, though it would not have been a disaster if I couldn’t have done so, as there are plenty of eating places in Grasmere, though some are rather expensive.

When I got to my dormitory, there was the same German chap I had shared one with at Helvellyn Youth Hostel. He was travelling by car and didn’t consider walking to be any kind of holiday at all. After a shower and phone call home, it was soon time for dinner. There must have been about forty children in the main part of the dining room, so there was quite a lot of noise. The few other diners were in an area partially separated from the rest, which helped to reduce the noise a little. It is a modernized hostel with cafeteria service, so I got my soup, and pizza and chips (not a very adventurous menu and aimed mainly at children) plus a bottle of Jennings’s Cumberland Ale, followed by a fresh fruit salad. Although it was noisy, the children were all very well behaved and good-natured, so it could have been a lot worse.

I sat on my own for dinner, as this is what the cafeteria system tends to encourage, it seeming to be rather intrusive to join someone else at a table when there are other ones free. After dinner, however, I got talking to a couple from the next table, who said that they were walking the Cumberland Way, with days out to do extra things along the way. I had not heard of the Cumberland Way before, but it sounded a bit like the Westmorland Heritage Walk, which it mirrored along the boundary between the two former counties, following the opposite side of Ullswater to Eamont Bridge.

On this very pleasant evening, I took a stroll into Grasmere, past all the expensive shops, restaurants and galleries, passing by Wordsworth’s grave in the churchyard, then Dove Cottage, where he lived for part of his life. At this point, having walked almost to the lake, I decided to continue and walk right around it. The first part follows the main road before taking a path to a footbridge then returning to Grasmere via the opposite bank. It was very tranquil and beautiful round by the lake, especially after I left the road behind, not that it was too busy at this time of the evening, and it was easy to see why Wordsworth was inspired so much by the place. Half way round the western side of the lake there was no longer any lakeside access, so the footpath diverted off to a road. However, not only did this still gave some good views of the lake for much of the way, but also views of many of the large houses nearby, their grounds ablaze with bright colours from the rhododendrons which, like most things this year, were late flowering and still in full bloom.

Back in Grasmere, everywhere was caught up with World Cup fever so, not having any interest in football, I sat in The Lamb Inn, drinking a pint facing away from the television set, whilst everyone else was watching it. My evening stroll was about three miles, and just the right length to pass away the evening.

After returning to the hostel, I had a very disturbed night not, as I might have expected, from the children, from whom I heard not a sound, but from the bunk above me, whose occupant fidgeted around all night and every time he moved, his bunk creaked and groaned. This used to be a major problem in hostels, especially with the old style bunk beds that had springs all around the base, but I have not generally noticed this with the newer style of bunk like these ones.

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