There are quiet spots in the Lake District, even in summer, says Stephen Goodwin

There is an awkward move in rock climbing called a "mantelshelf". Imagine standing in front of a mantelpiece about six feet high. Climb on to it as best you can, probably pressing up on the palms of your hands until you can wind a leg up high enough to get a toehold on the mantelpiece. Starting to panic now. Ease upwards ever so gently, arms splayed across the chimney breast, face pressed against the wall. Resist the overbearing sensation you are about to fall backwards. And stand up.

You have just simulated the most sensational move on the most famous rock climb (and one of the first) in Britain - the mantelshelf on to the summit block of Napes Needle above Wasdale in the Lake District. But this is not an invitation to join the muscle-bound or sinewy ones scaling cliffs. Rather the mantelshelf was a little mental exercise, an excursion into the mind of Walter Parry Haskett Smith, first ascensionist of the Needle and central figure in the story of Wasdale. And what a mind it was. Haskett Smith graduated in classics from Trinity College, Oxford in 1880 and was reading for a degree in Literae Humaniores when he first visited Wasdale a year later.

"For eight hours in every day we absorbed Aristotle and Plato; for six or seven we scoured the surrounding fells and climbed furiously," he recalled. On a later visit, in 1886, he discovered the 60ft Needle, standing out from a rampart of crags 2,000 feet above the green floor of Wasdale, and climbed it solo, "feeling as small as a mouse climbing a milestone". The blood runs cold. Few tackle it today without the security of a partner and a rope.

The view from the Needle is little changed - save for parked cars - since Haskett Smith and his Victorian pals played here. Wasdale Head is a cluster of farms, a whitewashed inn and a tiny church, set amid a web of stone walls and pasture at the foot of the highest mountains in England. Approachable only by a winding lane, it is the jewel of the quiet corner of the Lake District National Park, a place spared the blight of tea-rooms, visitor centres or any sniff of Wordsworth or Beatrice Potter. Twelve million people a year visit the Lake District but only a small percentage penetrate this south-western fold. The coastal approaches, from the M6 south of Kendal or from the north, are time-consuming. The mountain route, over the 1,200ft Hardknott Pass, is a lane of hairpin turns and one-in-four gradients.

Waking at the Wasdale Head Inn, I listened to a chorus of chaffinches and gradually realised there was no sound but birdsong, no drone of distant traffic or early morning train. Nor was there any murmur through the walls of television or radio, absent as a matter of inn policy.

Rooms at the inn start from £45 per person, including a breakfast sufficient to climb Everest on. Many climbers and walkers stay on nearby campsites, but it is worth digging deep and staying at the inn. It has the feel of one of the grandes dames of mountain hotels in Chamonix or Zermatt, tempered with Cumbrian earthiness. Olympians of climbing look out from photo-portraits and the tread of nailed-boots seems to echo in the passageways.

Haskett Smith lit upon Wasdale Head as the ideal place for a reading-cum-climbing party because the contours appeared enticingly close together on the map. But he was by no means the first intruder and for today's tourist one of the less physical pleasures is exploring the past of this shut-away land. Along the coast and in neighbouring Eskdale armies and industries have left their mark. At 800ft above sea level, just below Hardknott Pass, stands the Roman fort of Mediobogdum, built as Hadrian embarked on his coast-to-coast wall. Its well-preserved watch towers command a view down Eskdale towards the coast and the site of Glannoventa fort. The leisurely way to see lower Eskdale is from one of the diminutive carriages of the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, the oldest narrow-gauge railway in England, built in 1875.

For me, though, the enduring magic is Wasdale itself; the special moment when one crests the outlying moor and sees the cliffs of Wastwater Screes above the austere lake, then the amphitheatre of Yewbarrow, Great Gable, Lingmell and the Scafells. So many superlatives here - Scafell Pike is England's highest mountain, Wastwater our deepest lake, and St Olaf's the smallest parish church in the land.

There has been a church at this place of ancient yew trees for 1,000 years. Maybe Christianity was brought into the dale by the Vikings, along with the grey-fleeced Herdwick sheep. Nobody is quite sure. The current theory is that the Wasdale Vikings were not invaders at all but refugees seeking sanctuary. And a sanctuary of sorts Wasdale Head still is.

Wasdale Head Inn (01946 726229; www.wasdale.com) offers b&b from £45 per person per night. Further information from the Cumbria Tourist Board (0808-100 8848; www.golakes.co.uk) or Egremont tourist office (01946 820693).

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