Loving the Wainwright Fells

March 24, 2022

A recent walk up Sheffield Pike from Glenridding reminded me how exceptional the fells of the Lake District actually are. The 214 fells were the brainchild of a grouchy book keeper with an exceptional attention to detail. The 7 guide books are the best guide books ever written, the memories climbing them never forgotten.

Great and Green Gable

A Bit of History

My own affinity with the Wainwrights came from the cradle. Each holiday we were hauled over the A66 to a little cottage in Threlkeld. Almost before I could walk (which admittedly was a while) I was made to shuffle up the few hundred metres to Latrigg. From then walks became bigger and longer. As a boy my eldest brothers and dad led the way. My abiding memories of these climbs was trailing on after my father with his raggy blue shorts and deep blue varicose veins. The other memory was my mum buying a badge of the mountain climbed and sticking it on to the sleeve of my (non) waterproof jacket.

Later, as a youth, my dad’s knees gave up the ghost and my elder brother’s had moved beyond their annoying younger brother but I still headed out. Often with a friend or two, often on my own. By then my ‘sense of order’ was kicking in and the Wainwright listing of 214 fells had caught my attention. Different valleys and out of the way fells proved a magnet for me. By the time I was 22 I had climbed the lot.

The Wainwrights gave me a focus/purpose to my walking.

Grey Crag and Hayeswater

The Power of the Guide Books

However that was really only the start. The power of the 7 fantastic guide books that Wainwright wrote still drives me to discover some interesting and alternative routes. The books do not only describe the ‘hand written’ route options but notes on the individual fells, crossing between fells , views from the summits and of course some beautifully drawn illustrations.

Add in the Outlying Fells (number 8 in the book series) and the differing combinations of fells is endless. Recently I walked the Bannisdale Horseshoe (encombassing 6 ‘outlyers’) which was excellent with not a soul to be seen. Now I leave the books at home and take them down for new walking ideas and simply as a good read. Its O/S maps that accompany me on to the fells.

FIND THE FILL LIST OF WAINWRIGHTS

Harter Fell

Testing the Alternatives

So if the Wainwright guide books and my dad inspired my initial love of the Lake District fells what has kept me climbing them 20 years after completing my first round? In my 20s and 30s my focus shifted to Scottish mountain ticking and completed the Munros (and Tops). They were memorable and made for an epic change but in more recent years the drive up to Scotlad became too long and the distances to walk too large. I still travel to Scotand and climb but only with a specific purpose in mind and only to the very best mountains. I am heading for the Cairngorms later this summer to do the Round of Loch Avon.

Similarly I have come to enjoy the beauty of the Yorkshire Dales and its wonderful landscape but try as I might the walking does not have the raw pleasure of a good day in the Lake District.

High Crag from Haystacks

Why the Wainwrights are so good

1. The Scale of the Challenge

There are 214 Wainwright Fells…which is a lot. However once you have completed the most popular mountains (Helvellyn, Scafell Pike, Catbells, Lion and the Lamb, Blencathra etc) there becomes a moment when you think, Why Not? The list of 214 appears and all of a sudden you have are hooked and have a concrete reason to return. Like many such things, the list becomes addictive. Having a list to offer a purpose and structure to a re-visit makes repeat trips so much more straightforward.

However there are still a lot to complete. Many are situated in parts of the Lake District you will never have thought of visiting. But there is one of the appeals. Anyone who completes the Wainwrights knows not just the fells but also the Lake District itself. It makes for a great life experience.

Trig Point on Branstree

2. The Beauty of the Lake District

It would be wrong not to say that the simple beauty of the area is not a (if not the) major attraction. The combination of lake, valley and mountain is addictive and I for one always get a thrill simply by driving in to the area. It is the geology that creates the landscape. Differing rock types split the area, the older slates to the north combined with the more recent volcanic debris of the south and west. Coupled with some intensive glacier and river action in more recent (relatively) years have created a spectacular site within its overall small geographic area.

The Lakeland hills are of course beautiful; crags, stone walls, sheep, lakes and tumbling streams all help give the area a unique character. Each fell is different, each summit has its own character and one of the joys is recognizing them, familiar ones and those less so. I bet Wainwright thoroughly enjoyed sketching his panoramic summit views that feature in every fell chapter in all his books. We all do it when we are there, spot them rather than drawing them though!

Yewbarrow

3. Different Seasons, Different Weather, Different Challenges

There is nowhere where the different seasons are more obvious than the fells of the Lake District. The summer can be glorious, a warm walk in shorts on a summer’s day is lovely. Contrast that with a clear cold winter’s day and the same Wainwright fell is a completely different experience. Autumn colours make that season possibly my favourite, the golden glow of the bracken on the slopes of the fells unique whilst Spring has the first breath of better things to come.

Of course the weather in these seasons is not predictable. Some of my favourite days in the fells are when the weather does the unexpected, I always remember the cloud inversion on Dove Crag. Breaking out of the clag for the most glorious views is something special. Do not deride our weather, it can make the day’s climb.

The more I did, the more I looked for differeng challenges. This may be different seasons, different routes in different weather but it may also be different challenges. This may be a multi Wainwright bagging day or it may be to enjoy a night or two Wild Camping in the higher fells. Try it.

Skiddaw

4. The Variety of each fell, terrain, summit or route

Each Wainwright fell has its own character. It is not just the obvious difference of rock versus grass although that is part of it. In simple terms the most rocky and spectacular summit lie to the centre and west, the long wide grassy ridge more to the north and east. However it is more than simple geography. Each Wainwright summit has a story to tell (and Wainwright in his guide books does it better than anyone since). Each has different views, some may be more spectacular than others but each is good. My personal favourite is Yewbarrow for its wonderful situation overlooking Wastwater. However others would include Pike O’Stickle, Pike O’Blisco, Haystacks, Hallin Fell, Steeple and Rest Dodd.

Its not just the summit though, it is the entire fell which can feel different depending on the route chosen. A climb of Blencathra from the south is very different than a more relaxed ascent from the north and east. Similarly High Raise can be approached by the rough Langdale Valley or a more serene climb from Easedale. Planning a route up the Wainwrights has its own challenges but is a large part of its enjoyment.

The fells are more difficult in the south and west, the paths rougher, the fells generally steeper with more exposed rock and I now have to admit that I enjoy some of the long, grassy ridges to the north and east best of all.

Exposed limestone on Whitbarrow

5. Completing the day with a pint

In the Lake District I love completing a walk and being sat in a pub with a pint of Wainwright (thank you Thwaites). With or without companions (maybe a dog) there is little that makes me happier. The satisfaction of a tough climb completed is combined with a nice pint in, without fail, a lovely setting. I am not talking about the pubs in towns or the large villages but the ones that stand isolated in the valleys. The Three Shires in Little Langdale is one I visited only last week.

In Scotland and Wales the pubs tend to be universally disappointing (with a small number of exceptions) and a let down after a long day out. In the Dales the pubs are full of character but it is rare the day’s walk has been so satisfying. However the Lake District combines the pub with an exhilarating walk perfectly. In addition if you can sit somewhere and enjoy the views even better. In many cases you can. A nice pint at the end of the walk adds a lot to the day.

Swinside Inn, Newlands

I am not sure why I wrote this blog. It was not meant to be a love letter but, once started, my enthusiasm for the Wainwrights, from which I have had so many great days (and hope to have many more), just got the better of me. Maybe I started just looking for an excuse to publish some of my favourite photos, the Wainwrights make a photographer out of each of us.

Enjoy your walking

Jonathan

1 Comment
  • Kathleen Wesley says:

    Keep writing blogs like this. I now live in Canada, but the lakes are still precious memories of my younger days. If I can’t walk the hills then I can enjoy reading blogs like this, and relive them in my memories. By the way- love Holly-Border Collies are the best. Thanks and keep writing and sharing! Kathleen Wesley

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