On stern Blencathra's perilous height
The winds are tyrannous and strong;
And flashing forth unsteady light
From stern Blencathra's skiey height,
As loud the torrents throng!
- from 'A Thought Suggested by a View of Saddleback in Cumberland' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Situated at the northern end of the Lake District National Park above the road between Keswick and Penrith, Blencathra forms an imposing 868-metre-high1 barrier with around a dozen routes of ascent. An old favourite of fell-lover Alfred Wainwright, the fell is said to take its name from the old Cumbrian for 'Devil's Peak', having apparently been home to Afallach, Celtic god of the underworld2. Three gills and a beck3 divide the broad southeastern slope into five finger-like fells, namely Blease Fell, Gategill Fell, Hall's Fell, Doddick Fell and Scales Fell. While the northwestern side is nothing special, the summit of Blencathra sweeps down and up again to reach Foule Crag to the north. Despite the many features of the mountain, including the infamously narrow Sharp Edge, it is this mild undulation of the summit, clearly visible from the east, that provides it with its alternative name: Saddleback.
Routes to the Top
Part of the appeal of Blencathra is the sheer number of different ways of approaching the summit. While we'd love to describe every route to the top in glorious detail, we don't quite have the nerve to do so and will refer readers to Book Five of Wainwright's Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. Please note the advice given at the end of this Entry when planning any walk.
The two main starting points for walks are Threlkeld and Scales, though Mugrisdale offers an interesting alternative. Having been bypassed, the village of Threlkeld appears as a set of roads heading uphill off the main road (A66) about three miles from Keswick. The car park at the top of the village should be easy enough to find, with the path towards Blencathra heading off from here. Scales, on the other hand, is a small farm served by a slip road off the A66, and hikers are better off parking a short way west of the farm so as to be closer to the footpath.
A long path connecting the various routes to the top runs roughly along the contour at the base of the fell, passing very close to Scales and close enough to Threlkeld. This path can be used to create any number of circular walks, climbing up along one finger of Blencathra and then down another. Going from west to east, the routes from the Threlkeld-Scales path up to the top are:
Roughten Gill - this long route involves heading west to reach the Blencathra Centre4 and then continuing beyond the end of the road along the path towards Skiddaw House. This route allows walkers to skirt the base of Blease Fell via the Glenderaterra Beck valley, leaving the way open for a dull ascent via Roughten Gill that Wainwright recommends for those afraid of heights and precipices. The Gill is the second of three streams running off the right hand side of the valley and is crossed by a footbridge. A footpath starting up along the gill's south side can be followed most of the way up, following which a bee-line can be made for the top.
Blease Fell - the side of Blease Fell is grassy all the way to the top and provides plenty of drudgery, which Wainwright can only recommend as 'good exercise'. The path heads up from next to the Blencathra Centre.
Blease Gill - much the opposite of both the above, this route involves heading straight up from Threlkeld alongside Klinhow Beck and then Blease Gill. The route includes much scree and cross-country rambling, with the reward being a choice of steep unmarked routes towards the top.
Gategill Fell - this route involves heading alongside Blease Gill until the drystone walls either side open out, from which point it is possible to climb up Gategill Fell to the right. The higher segment of this walk is the most exciting, with the rocky arête at the top giving way to what Wainwright describes as a 'miniature Striding Edge'. The top of this ridge is Gategill Fell Top, which is a short way from the summit of Blencathra.
Middle Tongue - this route begins just north of the kennels and disused lead mine at Gategill, a short way northeast of Threlkeld. The route follows Gate Gill (the stream) past some old mine levels, then runs up the tedious grassy slopes to reach a point between Gategill Fell Top and the summit of Blencathra.
Hall's Fell - this route branches off from the Middle Tongue route, immediately heading up towards the top of Hall's Fell instead of staying in the valley. The first part consists of grass, heather and bracken, but the slopes soon converge into an exciting ridge ('Narrow Edge' or 'Hall's Fell Ridge') that leads to the summit of Blencathra. This route is one of the more satisfying but requires care and at least some experience. It should be avoided in bad weather.
Doddick Gill - this route begins partway between Threlkeld and Scales, but is a tough cross-country ramble at first and then involves difficult scrambling along the stream bed and then up through scree. Though an escape towards Doddick Fell is possible where the confluence of the stream's tributaries is reached, it is a route that Wainwright includes in his book so as to expose it as 'the roughest way of all' despite its straightforward appearance on maps. Wainwright advises that this is not a route for descent.
Doddick Fell - Wainwright includes this route in his book for the view that it affords. The route passes over Doddick Fell and is accessed by heading uphill somewhere just west of Scaley Beck or by taking the path above the eastern side of Doddick Gill. The view is found standing on the Doddick Fell side of the confluence of the gill, with the contrast of fell and gill providing what Wainwright claims to be the finest close-up of Blencathra.
Scaley Beck - the path up alongside Scaley Beck is straightforward and easy to find, lying just west of Scales. Having reached the top of the stream, the route continues up the grassy slope to Scales Fell, and thence on to the summit of Blencathra.
Sharp Edge - one of the most enjoyable and frightening routes to the top – see the section on it below.
Scales Fell - the path up Scales Fell is popular and easily followed. Having at first followed the path up round Scales Fell that eventually leads towards Sharp Edge, the route then heads straight up the hill where it zigzags a few times to make the ascent easier. From the top of Scales Fell, the walk involves a friendly grass slope on the right and a precipitous drop to the left, reaching the summit of Blencathra via the top of Doddick Fell.
Then there's Mungrisdale, which offers the longest route of all. The straight line towards Blencathra is blocked by Bannerdale Crags, forcing hikers to either walk most of the way to Bowscale Fell and then hike cross-country towards Foule Crag, or to follow the River Glenderamackin round past Scales Fell to reach the area around Scales Tarn.
Views and Ridge Walks
One point worth making is that the initial view on most of the ascents is spoiled by the noisy main road beneath, which Wainwright had criticised long before it reached its current incarnation. However, another highway through the valley below is worth noting on the way up – the dismantled railway to Keswick can clearly be seen, with its abandoned viaduct sitting isolated in a dip between fields across the valley from Scales.
At the summit, the views are spectacular provided the weather is behaving. To the north, one can see the saddle dipping towards Foule Crag, with the rolling hills providing a backdrop to the gentle slopes to the northwest. The routes via Blease Fell and various others are to the west, with Skiddaw House visible in the valley below and Skiddaw itself acting as the backdrop in this direction. Looking to the southwest one can see the ridge of Gategill Fell, behind which in the distance is Derwent Water. Helvellyn and its range are visible to the south, with the route down over Hall's Fell heading off south-southeast from the summit. To the east one can see the bodies of Doddick and Scales Fells, beyond which is the exit from the Lake District along the A66 to Penrith. On a good day, you can see the Pennines in the distance.
There are two ridge walks available from Blencathra. One consists of a dull walk down over Scales Fell and then up along the narrow end of Souther Fell. The other is slightly better, consisting of a descent over Foule Crag and around the hause at the top of the River Glenderamackin, following which it is possible to approach the top of Bannerdale Crags via its long, non-craggy side.
Running off Foule Crag around the northern edge of Scales Tarn, Sharp Edge is second only to Helvellyn's Striding Edge in terms of Lakeland fame. With severe drops on both sides and some rather exposed points, the ridge is wholly unsuitable for those wearing trainers and flip-flops5, and should generally be avoided in any sort of inclement weather whatsoever. You have been warned.
The lower end of Sharp Edge is most easily accessed by first walking up to Scales Tarn from Scales – the path runs up around Scales Fell and then traverses the hillside above the River Glenderamackin. Note that Scales Tarn is not at the end of the valley, but hidden up to the left along an obvious path6. From the tarn, walkers are afforded a choice between an easier route to their left and the imposing Sharp Edge, by now clearly visible on the right. There is a short grassy slog uphill before reaching the start of the ridge, though there is no other satisfactory way to the top from there without first returning to Scales Tarn.
The ridge is relatively easy at first, with the more well-trodden path leading walkers round to the north side (the right hand side when walking up the ridge). However, those shy of mounting the ridge will find themselves running out of room as the ridge demands a somewhat holistic view of its surroundings. At first the top of the ridge is shielded by large rock formations on the left hand side, but the walker will soon reach an exposed point where a flat table of rock offers room for one person to sit and rest. A rather narrow section of ridge must then be traversed, following which the walker is free to attempt the long scramble up the rock towards the grassy top of the ridge. As Wainwright puts it, this ridge will put all other troubles on hold, even a raging toothache.
Blencathra was once used as a source of various minerals. The largest mining works are on the western side of Hall's Fell in the Gate Gill valley, with the disused lead mine near Threlkeld being one of several levels driven up to a mile deep into a seam that yielded lead and zinc. Disused since the 1920s, the levels can still be seen when following the valley up to Middle Tongue, and are worth a look from a safe distance. There are also a couple of old mines in the Glenderaterra valley next to Blease Fell, with lead and copper being mined from two smaller seams until the 1920s, and a few unsuccessful workings that produced limonite were driven during the 1890s near Scales Tarn and in Mousthwaite Comb east of Scales Fell.
Fellwalking can be a serious undertaking, especially if the mountain you're climbing is anywhere near as big as Blencathra. Walkers should always wear proper hiking boots and bring warm clothing7 and waterproofs regardless of the weather. A good supply of food and water (think 1.5 to 2 litres of fluid and a healthy packed lunch for each person, plus emergency chocolate rations) is essential, as is a map. This Entry is designed to act as a rough guide only - what you really need is a 1:25,000 OS map8, a compass, and Book Five of Wainwright's Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. This Entry doesn't pretend to give advice on the safety of any of the routes in mist, but instead reminds walkers to be cautious and use their best judgement instead of pushing on regardless. Note particularly that the old lead and copper mines around Blencathra should be admired only from a distance, as they are inherently unsafe and their entrances may well lead to vertical shafts. Oh, and watch where you're putting your feet - it always helps.