Pastimes: Get yourself in mint condition

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The Independent Online
Late autumn, and the Lake District is a uncrowded haven. Matthew Brace takes a tranquil hike up Cat Bells.

Lake District novices test their stamina on Cat Bells, scuffing the toes of their new boots and putting their luminous waterproofs through their paces. Its summit offers some of the best views in Lakeland (if you are lucky enough to escape the relentless Cumbrian hill mist). The short climb is quite steep in places - several guidebooks describe it as "strenuous" - but the stunning panorama takes your mind off aching calf muscles.

The pretty village of Grange on the river Derwent is a good place to start from. Stock up with Mars bars and a flask of tea (friendly B&Bs usually oblige) and head north on the Tarmac side-road towards the western side of the lake. After a little over half a mile take a path leading off to the left signposted for Cat Bells. It climbs steadily at first, but is steep and zigzags at the top, where it has been painstakingly restored in recent years to protect the fellside from erosion.

When you reach the top you will find yourself at a hause (the lowest point of a saddle between the fells of Cat Bells (to your right) and Maiden Moor (left). Get your breath back, have a cup of tea and strike out again following a wide, gentle track up to the summit of Cat Bells (1,400ft). It is not long to the top, and once up there the full force of a fresh, westerly wind will clear your mind and fill your lungs.

Look north to the grey, squatting mass of Skiddaw, west to moody Bassenthwaite Lake, east across Derwent Water to Castlerigg Fell and High Seat, south to the Jaws of Borrowdale. Below the western flank of Cat Bells lies the Newlands Valley - beautiful, and mercifully unexplored. Its whitewashed farmhouses shine brightly in the sunlight. Such a view must have inspired Beatrix Potter, for Mrs Tiggywinkle's house was in this valley next to Little Town.

There were mines, too, in the Newlands Valley, gouging out copper and lead back in the 18th century, and one dates back 400 years. These have gone now, but sometimes their old spoil heaps can be seen.

Local knowledge has it that Cat Bells is so named because of the wild cats that used to roam the Lake District 200 years ago. The wildest thing you will see now is the occasional bearded, solitary walker standing astride the summit, braced against the wind. In summer months it can get congested on top - scouts dropping their Kendal Mint Cake in the mud, coach parties munching on soggy sandwiches and arguing about whether they can see Blackpool Tower in the distance; even the odd pram makes an appearance.

Head north from the summit and you will drop down via a signposted zigzag path to Hawes End, a tiny hamlet about two miles from Keswick. Stick to this path - and avoid falling into the hated category of "direct routers" who believe paths are merely for lower mortals, and so march willy-nilly across any part of the fell they fancy. They have scarred much of the grass cover on Cat Bells and elsewhere in the Lakes.

At the car park at the foot of the fell follow signs past Hawes End House towards Derwent Water. The path takes you through woods and two kissing- gates and then runs along the shores of the lake through Brandelhow Park.

You will pass small boathouses straight out of Swallows and Amazons where, on wet days, the rain fizzes on the water and there is a great sense of tranquillity. Look out for the spoil left by an old silver mine tucked behind the brambles (no ingots here now, I'm afraid).

Eventually you will come to Manesty Woods, one of the most magical woodlands in the north of England, and one of the National Trust's first acquisitions almost a century ago. This is real Hobbit country, with shaded dells and a carpet of leaves.

The path is easy to follow through the woods and eventually brings you back to the road near to where you started your ascent. There are usually some cars parked here, full of disgruntled, damp walkers steaming up the windows and dreaming of a hot bath. Follow the road back into Grange in time for high tea and a chance to dry out at the Grange Bridge Tea Rooms, next to the River Derwent. If Lakeland brandy butter is on the menu, don't miss it.

Length of walk, about six miles

Ordnance Survey Landranger map 90


l Leave Grange on side-road and follow the sign for Cat Bells

l Follow path up side of Cat Bells to hause, turn right and go to summit

l Go over summit and down north side, sticking to path

l At car park, look for signs for Brandelhow Park and the Derwent Water

l Past Hawes End House, through gates and to lake shore

l Follow shore and go through Manesty Woods to road

l Follow road back to Grange, and indulge in high tea at the Grange Bridge Tea Rooms