Britain: Steep, stony scree, and the surprise of Blencathra

Fell walking is an acquired taste, writes Ronald Turnbull - but this Lakeland mountain may appeal even to a 10-year-old
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The Independent Online
Where in the Lakes do you take a couple of children who are sure they're not going to take to fell walking? Adults will go up a stony slope for two or three hours, crouch behind a cairn peeling oranges with cold fingers, and then come back down again on sore feet - and persuade themselves that they've had an awe-inspiring tussle with the elements.

But kids are realists. Children don't even get to that windswept cairn. They stop after half an hour and say they're tired now, and they propose to eat the oranges right away and then go back down. They aren't really tired at all; they could keep going all day if they could see any good reason to do so. But it takes more than a mere parent to persuade them.

However, a mountain called Blencathra may just do the trick. Blencathra is the first hill on the right as you come in along the A66. Its trick is this: it starts as nasty as they get - stony, loose, and relentlessly steep. And then, when you've done about a third of it and can't see how you're going to bear another two-thirds, it turns into a rocky crest.

Rocky crest bears the same relation to hill walking as computer games do to computer-assisted learning. It is hill walking; but it feels as if it isn't. You only have to do the first 1,000ft of Blencathra. The rest of the mountain just does itself.

Well, that's the theory. But daughter-aged-10 scrambles up the first of the rocks, stops at the top and bursts into tears. Was this all a big mistake? No; but it was a small one.

I'd failed to point out the Path Round the Side. We're doing these rocks because we want to, not because we have to. It's a distinction I should have remembered from my own schooldays. On Tuesdays we had compulsory cross-country - with a gym teacher at the end with a stop-watch: intended to be, and being, hateful. On Thursdays we had voluntary cross-country with Mr Finch the French teacher - and everybody went.

Mr Finch's physical psychology works again for Jessie. Like the guardian angel at the bed-foot, the path consoles simply by being there, while the rocks are what we actually go up on. On either side, steep heather plunges into stream valleys that really are quite a long way below. Back down the ridge, there's a helicopter-type view of the A66 and the field patterns of Threlkeld.

A couple with a cocker spaniel are having difficulty here as they lead the dog around the rocks on steep grass that's really rather dodgy (and would be even dodgier in the wet). Bravely straight up the front is, here, the easy way to go - but I refrain from pointing a moral so dangerously inapplicable to real life as lived away from Blencathra. The ridge hauls us rapidly upwards, and deposits us, like a lift set for "roof", at the very summit cairn.

"Is that it?" asks son-aged-12 - not what children, or even grown-ups, usually want to know at the top of a 2,500-ft ascent.

Blencathra's plateau is a wide, flat place, short-grassed for picnics. Although it's on the rim of the Lake District, it's in fact the 12th highest. The deep slots of Borrowdale and St Johns-in-the-Vale are laid below, leading the eye into the central fells, and naturally you start to wonder whether you might manage England's highest, Scafell Pike ...

The way down is even more important than the way up. Walking up is tiring, but walking down hurts. This path goes down beside - or, if you prefer, inside - a small, splashy stream, then wanders horizontally along the side of the Glenderamackin valley, which is almost as long as its name. This horizontal is important; it's the relentless descent, turning out to be even worse than going up was, that makes a mountain such as Great Gable so particularly mean and horrible. The path drops into a small car park at the back of the Scales Inn. The idea of this car park was that they'd hang around finishing up the mint cake while I got a bit of healthy exercise running back to Threlkeld, where we'd left the car. But nobody except me wants to do that.

So we walk back around the bottom of Blencathra, looking down on farmhouse and A66, up at Our Ridge being spiky against the sky, and forward to the sunset and Cat Bells.

No mountain is altogether perfect. At the bottom of Blencathra there isn't anywhere at all that sells ice-cream.

Blencathra for beginners

Given suitable conditions - warm, dry rock and no strong wind - the Halls Fell Ridge can be happily undertaken by children of eight upwards, and even some six-year-olds. An adult for every child is a sensible ratio. Children aged 10-12 often have a sense of adventure combined with a lack of judgment, and need close supervision.

As on all hill walks, the top can be unexpectedly cold, and children chill more quickly than adults. The best map is the Outdoor Leisure 5 (North-east Lakes). The walk, with stops at summit and tarn, takes about five hours.

There is car parking in Threlkeld. The tarred lane at the west end of the village leads up through a farmyard; a path above a stream leads to the foot of Halls Fell. The small car park at the foot of Mousthwaite Combe fills up early in the day.