It’s the most dramatic part of the Lakes isn’t it? The highest mountain, the deepest lake, the smallest church, and the biggest liars all hail from here. If you want to experience some of the extremes that the Lakes District has to offer, then Wasdale is the place to head to.
Whilst the crowds flock to Windermere, Ambleside and Keswick, Wasdale offers visitors a sense of isolation. If you want to disappear from civilisation for a few days, then Wasdale can provide this service for you. Of course, given that the valley is home to England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, then there is a steady stream of walkers parking up at the end of the single road into the valley and heading up to be on top of England. However, for walkers and climbers the valley has plenty more to offer and there is a rich history of walking and rock climbing here.
I can remember the first time that I visited Wasdale, parking up at a lay-by next to Wast Water, and soaking up the view. It felt so much more wild and dramatic than the rest of the Lake District. The rolling hills give way to steep screes that shoot vertically out of deepest, darkest, Wast Water. The Scafell range looms ominously to the north east of the lake, but the eye is constantly drawn towards the triangular form of Great Gable at the head of the valley. It is the Lake District at its very best.
On my latest visit I arrived on a beautifully sunny spring evening. Unusually for the Lake District there was not a cloud in the sky on a lovely drive through Broughton-in-Furness and then up and over Birker Fell where there were great views over to the Old Man of Coniston, Swirl How, and the hills south of Langdale Valley. I timed my arrival into Wasdale perfectly and spent an hour on the banks of Wast Water watching the changing colours of the sunset before heading for my home for the night; the excellent YHA Wasdale Hall.
This beautiful 19th Century Manor house sits at the south shore of Wast Water and is a great base for exploring the area. The communal area has a huge lounge, an inviting open fire, board games, and an extensive library. In the cavern-like cellar there is a games room with a pool table, table tennis, and table football, whilst back on the ground floor there is a licensed bar that offers local ales that are most welcome after a long day in the fells. However, its best feature is its location and I dragged myself out of bed at first light to take in the lake and the tranquil early morning calm.
I was joined on my stroll around the south shore by one of the resident dogs from the YHA who seemed to be keener on engaging me in a game of throw and fetch than enjoying possibly the best view in England, but not all dogs are mountain lovers. The lake was like glass, the sky was crystal clear, and the view north to Kirk Fell and Great Gable was magnificent. The weather wouldn’t remain so clear all day, this is the Lake District after all, but the views in this peaceful first hour justified my early start.
For those not keen on communal living then there are other accommodation options in Wasdale. There are several B&Bs and cottage letting options, and there is a National Trust campsite at Wasdale Head. Also at the head of the valley is the historic Wasdale Head Inn. A traditional walkers’ pub for over 200 years, it is also famous for the ‘World’s Biggest Liar’ contest which is still going strong today but now held down the road in Santon Bridge. The inn is full of character and its rooms chart the history of rock climbing and walking in the valley through the old black and white photos that adorn its walls.
Also of interest in the valley is St Olaf’s Church, which is said to be the smallest church in England. Another place synonymous with climbing in the valley, one of the windows of this 16th Century building contains a small etching of the famous climbing pillar of Napes Needle on Great Gable with the words ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my strength’ written underneath it. And it was towards these hills that my eyes were constantly returning to.
There are many great routes to be found in Wasdale. By far the most popular is the walk up Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England and I have done the straightforward route from Wasdale on a number of occasions. For those who like a little more hands on rock action then the scramble up Broad Stand to Scafell is much more rewarding as is the scramble up Ill Crag but of course these should only be undertaken by those comfortable with scrambling or climbing techniques.
The Mosedale Horshoe is another classic walk. The route takes you up to the Black Sail Pass from where you can drop down into Ennerdale or visit the remote Black Sail Youth Hostel. The Mosedale route takes you up to Pillar where you have great views down to Ennerdale and over to Buttermere, before heading on continuously high paths over Black Crag, Scoat Fell, and Red Pike, before heading down via Yewbarrow to complete a marvellous, if long, day out. There are other long distance routes that take you over mountain passes into Borrowdale and through to Keswick, or via the wild camping spot at Sprinkling Tarn on the way to Langdale Valley, and these can form part of multi-day summer treks.
My path on this day however was going to take me somewhere new to me and to do the peaks that I’d spent so much time admiring; Kirk Fell and Great Gable. After my early morning start I headed up the Black Sail Pass with the sun on my back and was soon peeling off layers as I trudged uphill by the side of Mosedale Beck. As the wide expanse of the Mosedale cirque began to open up in front of me, the rest of Wasdale began to disappear behind me as mighty Yewbarrow closed off the view to the valley.
In early Spring there was still large patches of snow and ice on the western faces of Kirk Fell and Great Gable. As I summited each of the peaks the clouds rolled in to enshroud me in thick fog, and then without warning they would lift to reveal the view of the surrounding fells and valleys. I enjoy feeling the forces of nature, sitting on a mountain top and experiencing the unpredictability and rapid changes that these microclimates can bring. I sat on top of Great Gable watching the clouds rapidly rising up the western face, giving brief glimpses of Pillar and Ennerdale, Haystacks and Buttermere, before closing all around me to leave me alone on the hill again.
On the peak of Great Gable there is plaque commemorating members of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club who died during the First World War and each November a memorial service is held on Remembrance Sunday there. In the years after the war landowners and the Fell and Rock Climbing Club gifted 12 summits to the National Trust in memory of the fallen. Geoffrey Winthrop Young, the leading climber of his time led the final commemoration ceremony on top of Great Gable reading the following words which still resonate today.
‘‘Upon this mountain summit we are met today to dedicate this space of hills to freedom. Upon this rock are set the names of men – our brothers, and our comrades upon these cliffs – who held, with us, that there is no freedom of the soil where the spirit of man is in bondage, and who surrendered their part in the fellowship of hill and wind, and sunshine, that the freedom of this land, the freedom of our spirit, should endure.”
My day continued by heading down the eastern side of Great Gable, which gave me great views of the snowy Scafell range. The becks that would normally flow down the ravines on the western wide of Great End and Lingmell seemed to be frozen solid. From Sty Head I could have dropped down into the valley and followed Lingmell Beck back to the car park, but I had one more Wasdale icon that I wanted to visit first.
If you spend enough time reading about the Lake District at some point you will see a photo of climbers ascending a short, sharp, pinnacle with Scafell Pike as its back drop. Napes Needle is possibly the most famous climb in the history of the sport and its first ascent, by Walter Parry Haskett Smith in 1886, is said to mark the birth of modern rock climbing. As I scrambled across the lower face of Great Gable the sun had returned and for the first time this year I saw heat shimmering off the rocks on the side of the hill. I walked under and passed Napes Needle before scrambling up a gully and perching on a boulder to get my view of the famous rock. There were no climbers to keep me entertained so instead I had to make do with the beautiful views all around me.
From my lofty perch I had a fabulous view down the length of the Wasdale Valley and to the far end of Wast Water where I had started my day looking up to this point. From this vantage point the valley looked gentler with the coast and the Irish Sea visible in the distance beyond Wast Water. An hour later and I was back at the car park at Wasdale Head, and then passing the lake on my way back home but assured that this most dramatic part of the Lake District was still as special as I had remembered.