A sultry afternoon walk over Wetherlam, followed by the mother of all thunderstorms and a sublime wild swim.
10th-11th August 2020
I’ve been resting an injured knee this last couple of weeks, and had planned to lay off hill walking for a while, saving myself for a planned family trip to the Highlands next Sunday. But I felt as if I was going a bit stir crazy, and had to get out into the hills, despite a weather warning for thunderstorms….
I left the car in the decent sized free car park at Tilberthwaite, north of Coniston, and was on the hill by 1515. My rather ambitious plan was to climb Wetherlam, Swirl How, Old Man of Coniston and Dow Crag, and then drop down to camp at Blind Tarn.
Rather than climb up through the quarries as I did the last time I was here, I decided to take the well made miners path that climbs up the northern side of the gill. I could hear the sound of heated shouting and a quad bike being revved vigorously, so I climbed up onto the hillside with caution – but the farmer had got the escapee sheep under control and back out on the fell by the time I arrived on the scene. In fact, I probably helped him by driving them further up the path as I climbed.
The going was slow: it was hot, despite there being not much sun, and humidity levels were exceptionally high. I had a heavy pack and was still favouring my knee, so I really took my time climbing up above the gorge into the open valley beyond.
I met a few people coming down off the hill, they were interested in where I was going to camp, but for some reason I felt a bit reticent about letting them know, and was frustratingly vague – perhaps all the bad publicity about Fly Campers has made me unnecessarily defensive, as their interest was genuine.
The valley above the gorge contains some old copper mines, but the path led above these, and I couldn’t be bothered to drop back down the hill to have a poke around. There were more mines at the head of the valley; a delightful spot, with a scattering of mature larch trees. Less delightful was the sight of some stone steps directly tackling the slopes of Birk Fell, and the ramparts of Wetherlam Edge, which looked intimidatingly steep – does the path really go that way?
After having a peep at the disused mine, I tackled the staircase, which was well constructed and wasn’t half as bad as I expected, and the view back down the valley gave me an excuse to take a photo break.
The stone staircase petered out and I soon crested the brow of Birk Fell, my efforts rewarded by lovely views of the hills to the north – the Langdale Pikes being the stars of the show.
From here my route took me south westwards, the pleasure of walking along a level ridge tempered by the sight of Wetherlam Edge rearing up ahead. I couldn’t really see how the path weaved its way in and out of the crags that defended the fell.
So I set to it – having to put my hand to rock on several occasions. The scrambling would be easy in normal circumstances, but I was weighed down by my pack and my heartrate soared in the heat and humidity – I was a bit of a mess! No option but to struggle onwards, taking the easy line wherever possible, and eventually I broke out through the crags onto easier summit slopes.
What a relief to reach the summit! I dropped my walking pole and threw off my accursed pack, and just sat for a while admiring the view. I took a look at my watch and realised that time was marching on – it was 1750 – it had taken me two and a half hours to cover just over 2 miles! Time for some much needed sustenance – a battered but delicious Higginsons chilli jam pork pie: just what I needed.
To my west were Black Sails and Swirl How. I still entertained thoughts of continuing on over Swirl How towards Blind Tarn, or perhaps dropping down to Seathwaite Tarn for the night, but the climb of Prison Band was playing upon my mind. I angled westwards towards Black Sails before realising that the main path misses the top, instead skirting above the steep ground above Greenburn Beck, a remote valley that is, I suspect, rarely visited. Black Sails, despite being quite a prominent top, fails to make it onto Mr Wainwright’s list, which perhaps explains the lack of a path up to the top. In the heat I took the easy way and followed the path, beginning to think of cutting the walk short and spending the night in the Greenburn valley below.
As I descended towards Swirl How with the prospect of the climb up Prison Band ahead, in all likelihood every bit as bad as Wetherlam Edge, I caught sight of Levers Water below me to the south, a jewel amongst the crags, and I decided there and then that that was where I would spend the night. Surprisingly I had a good signal, so I called my wife to let her know about my change of plans, and started picking my way down the path into the valley, a relief now that I had made the decision.
I dropped down from the path into what is charmingly called The Prison, a boulder chaos below forbidding crags, and followed the beck down towards Levers Water, eventually crossing it and finding a delightful pitch above the lake.
Up with the tent, and then time to relax and take in my surroundings.
After a walk down to the shore followed by a simple evening meal, I settled in for the night, barely in my sleeping bag at all as it was so warm and humid. I must have dozed for a while, because I woke up to the sound of distant thunder as it was getting dark. The tent was being lit up every few seconds, so I opened up the zip to enjoy the show – at this stage all I could see were flashes of sheet lightning, and it didn’t seem that threatening. I must have dozed again because when I awoke it was quite dark, and the thunder was closer. The flashes were more intense, and if anything more frequent, and I began to realise that I was not going to enjoy a good nights sleep!
Closer still the storm came, and I started counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder, to gauge how far away it was, difficult as the flashes were so frequent. Then the rain started, gently at first, and the storm intensified – by now I had done up the zip so all I could see was an X-ray impression of the tent seams every few seconds. Particularly intense flashes momentarily blinded me, and I was only counting to ‘Two’ before being pummelled by the following peals of thunder, which echoed off the cliffs above and left me feeling quite dazed. I began to wonder what on earth I was doing there. Thankfully I remembered that I had packed some foam earplugs, and these helped, although it was a long night, truly a humbling experience.
The storm must have petered out some time after 0300, as I awoke at 0520, the only sound being that a small bird calling. I contemplated having a lie in, but I could see flashes in the sky over towards Yorkshire, and there were still some dark clouds around, so I decided to pack up and get out whilst the going was good. I was on my way at 0615.
After all the rain I did wonder whether I would have difficulty in crossing the stream, but it proved to be no bother, and I angled down to join the path that skirts the eastern shore of the lake, the weather improving all the while.
At the foot of Levers Water there is a well made weir across to the stone built dam, the weir proved to be easy to cross, and I enjoyed a snack on the broad grass topped dam. Whilst I was crossing the dam, the sun rose above the ridge to the east, and thoughts of a wild swim entered my head – the water looked so inviting.
There are some old copper mines at the southern tip of the lake; the crushed spoil from these making a small beach – the perfect spot for a wild swim! The water was deliciously cool and the swim was sublime – possibly the best that I have ever had, and it certainly made up for the tough night. It was hard to drag myself away.
After this refreshing interlude I climbed past the nearby copper mines and dropped down into Boulder Valley to the south.
Boulder Valley certainly lived up to its name – I don’t think that I have seen so many huge boulders before in Britain, but the star of the show was Low Water Beck tumbling over the cliffs above – this is not even marked as a waterfall on the map, but was quite spectacular after all the rain.
From here the walking was easy, level paths cutting across the hillside leading me to the car park on the Walna Scar Road. I met several people heading out on their ascent of the Old Man, some well prepared, others less so, and said ‘Hello’ to some people sitting beneath the awning of their motor home – their idea of wild camping I suppose.
I returned to Tilberthwaite via the Walna Scar Road, Coniston village, and a new bridleway that runs parallel to the busy Coniston to Ambleside road, nice easy walking giving me ample time to reflect upon my latest outing, one that I will not forget in a hurry, that is for sure!