or, why it took me 50 years to saunter round the Wainwrights.
In 2022 John Kelly, an American ultra-runner, ran a 320 mile course round all the 214 fells described in Alfred Wainwright’s seven “Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells” in just over 5.5 days. Other mere mortals typically complete the challenge in a year or two. It took me over 50 years.
In this post I confess to having been wrong to resist the challenge for so long and try to convey the sense of satisfaction and unexpected joy in finally ticking off all the summits in AW’s books. I also want to encourage others of an opinionated and stubborn disposition to get out and explore fells that don’t appear on tea towels or tee shirts.
Before I saw the light
I first became aware of Wainwright’s celebrated guide books in the mid-sixties. While attending a “mountaincraft” course led by Lake District National Park rangers and based at Grasmere Youth Hostel, one of the lads on the course shocked the rest of us, largely law abiding citizens, by pinching a copy of “The Central Fells” from the village bookshop.
Despite it being a proceed of crime, we enthusiastically passed the book around and I recall being well impressed by the drawings and maps. However, at that time I didn’t really appreciate the wonderfully lyrical writing or realise what a monumental achievement producing all seven volumes was. I also had no inkling that “doing the Wainwrights” would become such a “thing” and a big deal for so many people.
Time passed and as I continued exploring the Lakeland fells from my home in Lancaster, I gradually became aware that some walkers were seeking to climb all of the fells AW described. My reaction to this was to dismiss these obsessives as nothing more than “train spotters” and to consider myself in some way superior by refusing to indulge in this unseemly activity unworthy of a true aficionado of the hills (i.e. me).
I clung to this ridiculous notion for many years. During this time I climbed all of the higher fells, some many times over by most of the available routes, always assuring Wainwright disciples that they were wasting their time on the piddling lesser heights.
When I retired in 2011, aged 58, I sought new challenges. Firstly, I walked the whole 633 miles of the South West Coast Path ( an account of which can be found here), then did a few long challenge hikes, including the Tour de Mont Blanc. Throughout this period I started to reflect on the urgings of friends who had completed the Wainwrights and I began to wonder if – heaven forbid – I had been wrong for all those years!
In 2014 we bought a log cabin just outside Keswick. This meant we were spending more time in the Lakes, giving me ample opportunity to pursue what up until then I’d always regarded as a pointless exercise.
So, I got a list of all the Wainwright fells and was surprised to see that I’d climbed far fewer than I’d fondly imagined. I’d been blithely telling folk that I’d knocked off “most of them”, but found I had over 60 left. Still, how hard could that be? (spoiler alert – a lot harder in my 60s than it would have been in my 30s).
Finally bitten by the Wainwright bug, I got out the maps, set up a spreadsheet and started planning a series of walks to enable me to complete the list, which I did in 2019.
I was accompanied on these walks by my long-suffering wife Pat, who I’d roped in to this fell walking lark just a few years earlier. Without her companionship and enthusiasm, I don’t think I’d have bothered, which in retrospect would have meant missing a lot.
What would I have missed?
Well, a sense of achievement, of course, along with some really fine views, often providing quite different perspectives on familiar groups of fells. We also shared many friendly, often uplifting, conversations with folk we met who were pursuing the same objective.
Other common threads uniting my remaining Wainwrights are that, generally, they were grassier and more rounded than the rocky peaks I’d always been drawn to (more moorland than mountains) and also less frequented. I also learnt that size definitely isn’t everything- but of course I’ve been saying for years.
To try and illustrate the “joys of ticking” I’ll describe four of the walks I did to complete my list, one from each point of the compass. I hope this might encourage fellow reluctant peak-baggers to join the club.
Hills of the north? Rejoice!
Until we bought our cabin in Keswick, Skiddaw and Blencathra had been the northernmost points I’d ventured in the Lakes. However, to complete the Wainwrights I would have to go further north into the totally unfamiliar area comprising the Caldbeck and Uldale fells and the hollow of the Skiddaw Forest – an area known as Back O’Skidda.
To me, this large tract of unspoilt land has a totally different and isolated feel compared with the mountains to the south; rounder, less rocky, boggier and with fewer footpaths. It feels more of a wilderness and closer to my local national park, Dartmoor (although just a bit steeper!).
This walk began just south of Longlands, at a layby (GR 265358) on a minor road that heads NE off the A591 just before it reaches Bassenthwaite.
Following the footpath to the pass at Trusmadoor we turned right to climb Great Cockup. Skiddaw dominated the view to the south, as it does from all of this walk, but to the north we were rewarded with an uninterrupted, distant view of the Solway Firth and Scotland beyond. Variants on this view are seen from all the peaks on this round, with occasional glimpses of western and southern fells thrown in.
Returning to Trusmadoor we ascended Meal Fell and completed a fine circuit of rolling hills by traversing Great Sca Fell, Brae Fell and Longlands Fell, from which descended to the car.
The circuit is a relatively modest 6.5 miles, but felt further, perhaps on account of the 2,000ft of climbing?
An added attraction of this walk is that, after your exertions, it’s not far to the Old Crown at Hesket Newmarket, one of my favourite pubs; it’s run by a community-owned cooperative, as is the excellent micro-brewery in the back yard. At this ale-drinkers paradise the brewery’s rather moreish produce can be sampled at a lower price than you’d pay in the bright lights of Keswick.
Swindale – full of eastern promise
This 11 mile walk, from the delightful valley of Swindale, involves 2,300ft of climbing and takes in Selside Pike, Branstree, Tarn Crag and the most easterly Wainwright of all, Grey Crag.
Swindale is a wonderfully remote and unspoilt valley and its beauty more than compensates for any weariness on the long slog round its surrounding hills. It is also a valley that has been transformed by a conservation project that has the distinction of benefitting both people and the environment by radically improving the valley’s habitat for wildlife while at the same time preventing flooding further downstream. The remarkable tale of how this RSPB led project put the bends back into the river can be found here.
There is no parking by the farm at Swindale head, so the car was left just beyond the dam at GR 516133.
After walking down the valley road to the farm, we turned right onto a track leading to the Old Corpse Road that heads over the ridge to Haweswater. This road transported Mardale’s dead over to Swindale on their final journey to Shap.
Cheered by thoughts of death and dying, we turned left just before cresting the ridge and trod good, grassy tracks past the impressive cairns on Artle Crag to reach the less than impressive summit of Selside Pike. As with all of the summits on this walk, the most extensive views were well to the east, towards Shap and the Pennines.
The route continued to the nondescript grassy summit of Branstree, which afforded a fine view of the Kent estuary to the south and a glimpse of the Scafells to the west.
Tarn Crag next, situated at the head of Longsleddale. Here there are the remains of an old survey post, used during construction of the tunnel carrying water from Hawsewater to conurbations to the south. Again, views of Lakeland fells are limited, but the Pennines and Morecambe Bay amply compensate.
Finally we reached Grey Crag, before descending the long valley back to Swindale Head. The route was straightforward, but we did it after rain and found it hard going underfoot. However, despite the tired, wet feet, for those like me who love walking in wild surroundings with excellent views (albeit generally to sights beyond the national park) it’s a grand day out.
Into the weary wild west
We headed to the far west for what was the toughest walk needed to complete my project – a 14 mile round involving 3,500 feet of climbing.
Starting from an old gravel pit on the Ennerdale Bridge to Calder Bridge road (GR062135), the route followed a clockwise circuit taking in 5 Wainwrights (Grike, Crag Fell, Caw Fell, Haycock and Lank Rigg).
The hills were smooth and rounded, like most of my final Wainwrights; with the highest and only rocky summit, Haycock, giving an excellent all round panorama taking in the Scafells, Pillar, High Stile and the Helvellyn ridge. Other tops had excellent distant vistas towards the sea and Morecambe Bay but views of other Lakeland biggies were largely obscured. The sight of Sellafield was less inspiring.
We loved most of this walk, not least for the barren surroundings and sense of achievement in finishing it, but found it hard going towards the end. The 1,500 foot descent from Caw Fell (which feels really remote, probably because it is) deep into the valley of Worm Gill was tough, but after 10 or 11 miles of walking, the steep climb of 1,000 feet up the other side of the valley to the isolated summit of Lank Rigg was even tougher – for us, truly “a hill too far”. AW observed that “this is a fell most visitors have never heard of” and we were certainly wishing we’d never heard of it as we toiled up its steep slopes; once on the top though it had a nice “on the edge” feel about it and a very imposing cairn.
The fun didn’t end at Lank Rigg, as we then had a dispiritingly long tramp back to the car. As is usually the case though, any hardship was forgotten once we’d finished and were sipping our drinks in the Fox and Hounds Inn at Ennerdale Bridge; we didn’t stay long though, leaving after a swift one as the pub filled up with irritatingly loud Coast to Coast walkers. Having walked so many of his hills was I now beginning to channel that avuncular funster Alfred Wainwright?
Celebrating in the south
I’d climbed all of the Coniston fells bar Grey Friar, which is a bit off the beaten track; it lies slightly away from the main group and as a result is probably less frequently visited than the rest.
I chose this modest 6m walk, with just under 2,000ft of climbing, as my grand finale for wholly sentimental reasons; only after climbing it did I realised that it’s unprepossessing dome shaped top offers a panorama of the fells that is as good as any you’ll see.
The very first walk I did in the Lakes was as a 12-year-old, while camping with the scouts in Dunnerdale. We were taken to Coniston and walked back to camp along the Walna Scar track, an easy walk that skirts the fringes of Coniston Old Man and Dow Crag, but one that sparked a life-long love affair with the fells. I left Grey Friar until last because the route starts from this path – soppy eh?
The route begins where the Walna Scar track crosses Long House Gill at GR 240968. An easy access road rises gradually to Seathwaite Tarn, a reservoir, after which a short but sharp climb gives easy access to the summit. Cue a feeling of elation, a plastic medal presented by Pat (no expense spared) and celebratory pics, including one of the stunning view mentioned above. On a day when the visibility seemed limitless we were presented with a fantastic panorama of the Scafells. But it’s not just the view to the west that’s jaw dropping – turning clockwise we were treated to distant sightings of Skiddaw, Blencathra, Hellvelyn and closer to hand, the rest of the Coniston group. All in all, a good place to finish my quest.
After returning the way we came we drove to Coniston for further celebrations at one of my favourite pubs, the Black Bull. A couple of pints of Oatmeal Stout went down very well indeed.
Writing this post, I’ve reflected a few times that, when I was younger, I’d have considered some of the routes I walked to complete my Wainwrights pitifully short. Sadly, tempus fugit and there comes a time when you can’t canter round the fells as quickly as you once did. Not that I’m complaining in the least; I remember discussing aging with a friend at a time of life when you think you’ll live forever, probably in my 30’s and us both speculating that we’d be so lucky if we could still get out on the fells in our 60’s (which seemed very old then). As I approach 70 (which of course now doesn’t seem old at all) and just about still capable of climbing the highest fells, albeit at an out-of-condition snail’s pace, I consider myself very lucky indeed.
If you’ve stuck with this account so far,
you need to get a life, or at least a hobby you’ll realise that I now fully acknowledge the error of my ways and wish I’d not been so stubborn in my youth and middle age. Judging by the number of people we meet out on the fells, folk need no encouraging to undertake the Wainwrights challenge, but in case there are still a few obdurate twerps like me, I would unreservedly encourage others to embark on this odyssey and not risk missing a real joy, as I almost did.
I’ve been asked if there were any of my remaining Wainwrights that I wouldn’t want to do again, or would warn others away from. It’s a testimony to the quality of my “remainers” that I can only think of two; Mungrisedale Common, which isn’t a hill at all and one that, providing more evidence of his eccentricity, AW included in his guide but then suggested that you don’t bother visiting, the other is the group of fells around Matterdale, because of the amount of road walking involved.
While accompanying me in completing my list, Pat became enthused by the idea of “completing” herself and in 2022 she summited her final Wainwright – it took her significantly less than 50 years. Supporting Pat meant that I had to repeat some of the higher fells that I’d done a few times before, but that was no hardship (even if they took me a lot longer than did earlier ascents). Her final walk was a reduced version of the classic Mosedale Horseshoe, for us a challenging, indeed epic, 12 miler involving 3,480 feet of climbing. We were quite pleased with ourselves; although I’m not telling you how long it took us.
The summit of Steeple was a perfect place for Pat to achieve her final tick.
It would have to be a more modest challenge and to that end I’ve been eying Wainwright’s “The Outlying Fells of Lakeland”; I know I’ve done many of them, but haven’t dared count what remains yet for fear I’ll get another shock. Of course, I could try and perambulate all 214 Wainwrights again, but fear I might end up traversing most of them in an urn……….