Taking the high road
Mention the Haute Route to any keen skier and the chances are they will get a faraway look in their eyes and start waxing lyrical about endless slopes of pristine virgin powder and awesome scenery. The Haute or High Level route links the great alpine centres of Chamonix and Zermatt. Boasting Mont Blanc as the starting line and the Matterhorn as the finish flag, it is difficult to think of a more inspiring series of mountain passes anywhere. Hundreds if not thousands of skiers tour the route every spring and in summer trekkers from all over the world flock to the Alps to trace the path of the skiers.
There are other less well known Haute Routes, the Pyrenean which follows the border between Spain and France and the Hinsdale Haute Route in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Here in the British Isles there is not an equivalent, is this an oversight, should it be addressed? Our mountains may lack the altitude of the Greater Ranges of the World, but they are no less spectacular and can be equally as serious a proposition.
The Lake District is a Mecca for hillwalkers, climbers, mountain bikers and a plethora of other outdoor enthusiasts clambering over its many paths, peaks and gills. It is classic walking territory, with breathtaking views and fierce crags interspersed with quaint little villages.
There are at least three existing long distance paths in which the National Park is included; The Cumbria Way meandering through the central fells; The Coast to Coast popular with walkers and cyclists alike is born in St Bees Head cutting across the area before heading out to Yorkshire and finishing at Robin Hood’s Bay; Windermere is the final destination on the Dales Way. There is not however any walk that Lakeland can call its own and certainly nothing which links major centres or ‘the high peaks’.
Routefinding in the Lakes
Spending ten days starting at Coniston and finishing in Windermere a year or so back I attempted to link most of the major Lake District high points. Wherever possible choosing to camp wild. This meant that all my equipment was carried, tent, sleeping bag, stove, rations and fuel for five days at a time. Contending with the unpredictable weather and some problems with kit it provided an interesting and enjoyable challenge.
Setting out around midday from Coniston and following a track that leads directly out of the village. Passing by the Coppermines Youth Hostel, the old mine workings and Low Water eventually arriving at the crowded summit of Coniston Old Man some two hours later. This was the start of a great Lakeland adventure and I was really looking forward to it.
Enjoying plenty of good weather for the majority of the ten days, with only the occasional light shower to test my waterproofs, there was even a little unexpected sunburn!
The route follows a horseshoe shaped imaginary trail which links many of the highest peaks in the area. The ‘Old Man’ maybe the first of these but Bowfell, Scafell, Great Gable, Grizedale Pike, Skiddaw, Blencathra and Helvellyn are all included before eventually arriving at Windermere.
The ‘true’ haute routes usually follow the high level passes that link the villages in the Alps or Pyrenees. They are already at a higher altitude however this route required dropping into the valleys to move between the various ridges that made up the bulk of the walking.
In many areas this loss and regaining of elevation would be tiresome but due to the pleasant nature of the Lakeland Fells and because none of the peaks are exceptionally high this is not an issue.
Often the valleys themselves provide some of the best memories, visiting the three shires stones, the meeting place of the old Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmorland counties felt a little special and somewhere worth taking a moment to pause.
A visit to St Olaf’s Church in Wasdale which dates back to at least the fifteenth century and is allegedly the smallest church in the Lake District was a highlight. Located close to the deepest lake and highest peak the cemetery is filled with the graves of men that lived and died in the mountains, and is a poignant reminder of how serious these lovely fells can become.
A couple of days were spent in the Lakeland towns and villages, provided a chance to complete some trek administration; a shower and some much needed washing or enjoying the chance to mix with other visitors.
Buttermere tucked away deep in the heart of the Lakes is one of my favourite villages, nestled on the shores of the lake from which it gets its name and below the brooding peak of Haystacks. It is also home to the wonderful Fish Hotel, which is a great place to stop for a meal, a friendly ‘local’ which is highly recommended.
Eat breakfast like a king!
Braithewaite has a small village store which serves an amazing breakfast, really great value and one which for me was just too good to pass up. Enjoying a chat with the owner and a couple that I had bumped into a couple of days earlier on Grizedale Pike whilst tucking into my freshly made full English was a pleasant start to any day.
Being a sociable individual meeting people is great but sometimes the solitude of a wild campsite is a very welcome change. Pitching tent in the imposing shadow of one of the Lakeland ‘giants’ or next to a remote tarn is one of the special pleasures of this type of adventure. A bracing swim followed by an ‘al fresco’ meal under a gradually darkening but increasingly star filled sky, it does not get much better than this.
An evening beside Blea Tarn above Buttermere was made to feel extra special by two anglers that provided a fresh trout for dinner. We sat and chatted awhile before they left and I started preparing the dehydrated pasta that would accompany my unexpected fish supper. It was a meal fit for a king; albeit a slightly dishevelled one that was sleeping in a small tent.
The real beauty of a route like this however is its flexibility, it is possible to adapt it to remain mainly in the valleys and close enough to a hostel or even a hotel if these are the preferred accommodation choices. Low level paths and trails in some of the most stunning countryside, winding around the base of the fells and shores of the lakes; Wastwater, Buttermere, Derwentwater, tarns such as Harrop, Blea and Red some quite remote but all extremely worthy of a visit.
The more adventurous can include scrambles up the ridges of Helvellyn and Blencathra, such evocative names as ‘Striding Edge’ or ‘Sharp Edge’ will provide plenty of excitement.
There is no doubt however that at the start of such an expedition there is a distinct feeling of setting out on an epic adventure. This feeling is only enhanced when surrounded by some of the highest peaks in England or when it is realised that there has not been an encounter with another person for several hours. This is not always possible in one of the most popular tourist areas of the country.
All things considered a route such as this is certainly worthy of consideration even if only as an ‘unofficial’ Lakeland Haute Route. It may not initially conjure up the same images and excitement as its alpine cousins but it does have its own series of challenges and highlights. It is worthy of merit and there is plenty to recommend along the way; jaw dropping scenery and excitement by the hatful, it is definitely worthy of the title of Haute Route.