What better way to celebrate the easing of England’s third national lockdown than with an open-top bus ride from Keswick, bound for “England’s loveliest square mile” (Alfred Wainwright, The North Western Fells 1964)?
This journey took us along the eastern flank of Derwentwater deep into the famed ‘jaws’ of the Borrowdale valley through the villages of Grange and Rosthwaite.
Seatoller was eerily empty of people and cars when we arrived but the loos were open. We could have headed from here for Scafell Pike – England’s highest mountain (978 m) – but Scafell would have been a hard walk on a day in early April like this one, when temperatures remained below 5 degrees Celsius even in the valleys. We headed instead for Castle Crag, smallest of all the so-called Wainwrights (summits ascended and penned by Lakeland’s best known fell-walker and guide book writer) but no less loved for that.
One of the loveliest things about this crag is how you approach it – in our case, on an old miner’s path out of Seatoller, winding up above the Borrowdale valley across becks and over stiles through fields peppered grey with Herdwick hoggets (last year’s lambs, yet to have been sheared).
One fork from the path climbs up towards the Honister Pass, home to the Honister Slate Mine and Via Ferrata – a highwire “experience” for dare-devils with a head (or stomach) for heights. Meanwhile, huts huddled high on the fell next to an old quarry glimpsed through blackthorns from the bridge over Tongue Gill recalled the rich mining past of a valley that has yielded not just iron, lead, copper and slate, but also graphite, from England’s only graphite mine, giving rise to the world’s first pencil making industry in nearby Keswick and a quality product loved by artists the world over.
Castle Crag is scarred by slag, tumbling down its southern face, and, as Wainwright observed, wouldn’t be much at all to look at, were it not for the yews and views at the top. Access to the scree path winding up to the summit was provided by a ladder stile watched over by yet more Herdys, resting in the shade on an April day as sunny as it was cold.
At the top, we picnicked in a sheltered spot blessed by views of Derwentwater in one direction, and the fells of Glaramara, Great End and Great Gable, together with a just about visible Scafell Pike in another.
We paused to pay respect to the brave men of Borrowdale commemorated by Castle Crag – the mountain gifted to the National Trust in 1920 by the Hamer family in memory of the men of the valley who died in the First World War.
Descending the crag gingerly on 50-year-old knees, we could have headed out from here for picturesque Rosthwaite and the tarn at Watendlath. Instead we made for the double packhorse bridge at Grange, following the river Derwent past shingle beaches through woods that are particularly spectacular in autumn, but magical too in early spring, when silvered by the sun. Along the way, a signposted fork in the path leads to the cave of Millican Dalton, Lakeland’s very own “Caveman of Borrowdale” and self-styled Professor of Adventure, who – like so many after him – gave up life in a busy city for the romance of a life outdoors and a spiritual home in the Lake District.
Click here for advice on how to stay safe in the hills before heading out on any adventures in the Lake District.
Note also that as with all public transport at the present time, you must wear a face covering unless exempt when travelling by bus in the Lake District.