South from High Seat
Looking south from High Seat, towards High Tove and Ullscarf. Much of the walk looks similar.

Date completed: 13th June 2018.

Weather conditions: Although considerably cooler and cloudier than of late, it remained decent for walking. The most important thing was the dryness of the ground underfoot — see the route notes below.

Summits bagged: Bleaberry Fell (1932 feet above sea level, number 148 of my second round), High Seat (1995’, no. 149), High Tove (1690’, no. 150), Ullscarf (2382’, no. 151).

Cottongrass is definitely the dominant lifeform on today’s walk: and it grows on boggy ground, note

All four fells were previously bagged on separate first-round walks — and that’s the first time that has happened with any of these second-round walks that have bagged more than two summits. The other walks were:
Bleaberry Fell: walk 41, 25/7/11
High Seat: walk 69, 24/11/12
High Tove: walk 11, 2/3/10
Ullscarf: walk 45, 7/10/11.

Walla Crag could easily be added to the walk with only minimal extra effort, the only reason I did not do this was that I’ve already bagged it twice and I’m not (definitely not) embarking on a third round. Armboth Fell is not too far away either, but would involve a detour over boggy ground. Very energetic people could ascend Calf Crag from Greenup then finish the walk over Steel Fell (option 1) or Gibson Knott and Helm Crag (option 2).

And finally, in the wastes north of Ullscarf, Birketts come with the indefinite humps of (in order) Middle Crag (1,588′, #362 by altitude on that list), Shivery Knott (1,611′, #352), Watendlath Fell (1,690, #318) and, more obviously, Standing Crag (2,005′, #216).

Approach to Grasmere
On the final approach to Grasmere, looking back to Tarn Crag.

Start and end points: I started the walk at the road junction at the bottom of Chestnut Hill, to the east of Keswick town centre. The X4/X5 buses from Penrith rail station stop here. However, if you are on the 555 bus to/from Thirlmere and Grasmere, start instead at the end of the Rakefoot lane, where we started walk 41. This would save walking the first three-quarters of a mile or so.

I ended the walk in Grasmere, where I caught a 599 bus back to Windermere train station.

I hauled ass to some extent today, and fitted the walk between the 11:00am drop off at Chestnut Hill (departed Penrith 10:21) and the 16:45 departure from Grasmere. In fact I was in Grasmere early enough to have caught the 16:25, but this would have made no difference to the remainder of my journey home.

Distance walked: 14 miles approximately.

Jaws of Borrowdal
The Jaws of Borrowdale: King’s How (Grange Fell) nearer the camera, Castle Crag behind. As seen from Bleaberry Fell.

Total ascent: 2800 feet approximately.

Pub at end: The 1769 Bar at the Inn, Grasmere. Perfectly decent beer; the interior looks like every other bistro/brasserie does these days. If the weather is clement drink your beer over the road, outside the “Little Inn” annex, not least because this is right next to the bus stop.

Route: There is one very important thing about this walk that needs saying right up front. It is very clear from the relevant pages in Wainwright, particularly the ridge route descriptions on pages High Seat 7 and Ullscarf 13, that this will usually be a very wet and swampy walk. Wainwright goes so far to as to call this “the swampiest ridge in the district”.

Peat bog, High Tove
Peat bog on High Tove. Dry today; not normally so.

I specifically chose to do this walk today because we have had a very dry period; six weeks since significant rain. The ground today was therefore very good. That I did 14 miles in five hours and fifteen minutes indicates this (last time, with Joe, I spent three hours more time going a mile less distance). From the summit of Bleaberry Fell south, until I was slowed up by Standing Crag, I was averaging over three miles an hour, which on a fell top is damn good going.

BUT: I stress that it really has been bone dry lately. We have not had a drier period in the nine years I have been doing this project, and nor can I really expect one again before it ends (there is rain forecast tomorrow). And it is clear that in wet weather, or even normal conditions, this would be a very swampy walk, particularly in the passage between Bleaberry Fell and Standing Crag (which is at least three miles). Far Easdale is pretty wet, too.

Bleaberry Fell from High Seat
Looking back from High Seat to Bleaberry Fell, Skiddaw and Bass Lake in distance

In short then, you have been warned. I made the most of exceptional conditions and it was a reasonable walk though not over-exciting. But in the wet I would not recommend it at all, and you should also avoid the top of Ullscarf in mist. Do what I did and nab it on a fine day at the end of a few weeks of drought.

If you do get the chance, what this walk does allow is the opportunity to explore an area of the District that, despite being right in the centre of things, is very unfrequented simply because of these usual barriers. Except for a sole fell runner on Ullscarf I met no one from High Seat to Greenup.

If you are on the bus from Penrith, get the driver to drop you at the bottom of Chestnut Hill then walk up that road, passing the first road on the right and then taking the second, signposted “Castlerigg”. Stay on this until the road ends at a gate with a ‘Private’ sign, cross the footbridge and climb up by the beck a short way. You can either stick on this main path, which will take you to Walla Crag, or bear left over Low Moss. On walk 41 we stuck close to the beck but today I missed that path for some reason and ended up on the main route from Walla Crag up Bleaberry Fell, but what the hell, it’s a perfectly decent ascent.

Standing Crag
Standing Crag, the day’s only real rockface (and one of its Birketts)

After that it is straightforward, with only one path to follow the whole way to Greenup, but it is after Bleaberry Fell that the boggy ground starts. If you can get to High Seat with dry feet, you’ll be fine for the rest of the way. The path is sketchy thanks to lack of use, but once it joins a fence on the approach to High Seat, it does not leave it, so allow this to guide you over High Tove (barely noticeable as a separate fell) and then around the deep and rather unexpected hollow that contains Blea Tarn. The fence goes over the top of all four additional Birketts mentioned above, though you’ll struggle to notice the first three.

The fourth of these, however, is the only real obstacle met en route, Standing Crag; which looks quite impressive if only because there’s so little else around here. The fence will lead you round to the right but there is a shorter and less awkward route up to the left that I did not try, but should have — if I’d had my copy of The Central Fells with me then all the maps in the Ullscarf chapter make this clear. (This route is visible on the picture above.)

Head of Far Easdale
The remains of the old gate at the head of Far Easdale

As the summit of Ullscarf is approached, the route finally parts company with the fence which descends to the right. You need to head straight on, following the occasional old, rusty fence posts and what evidence there is of a path. Go up over the summit then keep following this trail in the direction of High Raise. It will eventually drop to Greenup, where you will meet walkers again and can descend to the left.

The valley opening up ahead is the Wythburn valley: also notoriously wet, but still, a possible route for descent, for Thirlmere (where there are buses, but no refreshments). For Far Easdale and Grasmere, stick to the path. At the one junction you pass, the left branch will take you up Calf Crag; if you don’t want to do this, stay right and you will be taken down Far Easdale (a very beautiful valley, but wet underfoot) all the way to Grasmere.

Wythburn valley
The desolate Wythburn valley, from Greenup

Northern Fail commentary: In my nine years of walking in the Lakes I have had several opportunities to complain about Virgin Trains and their punctuality on the West Coast Main Line that takes me between Preston, Oxenholme and Penrith. But credit where credit is (grudgingly) due: things have improved over the last couple of years, at least when I’ve been in the vicinity.

However, all this has been superseded in the last few weeks by the cloud of sheer ineptitude that has descended over Northern Rail. Since Arriva — unaccountably — were handed back the franchise that they lost in 2005 (rightly so, they were crap), rail travellers in the north have suffered a decline in service and, particularly, in the quality of the trains provided (regularly short-formed and dangerously overcrowded); and all this tipped right over the edge when a ‘new timetable’ was brought in on 20th May that the company were palpably unable to fulfil. We all expected disaster and our expectations were heroically fulfilled.

High Seat from Bleaberry Fell
Walkers on High Seat, seen from Bleaberry Fell.

Virgin’s ability to meet the connection at Oxenholme for the Windermere line, always a crucial one when it comes to reaching anywhere in the south of the district at an hour early enough to permit a proper walk, and reach buses like the Coniston and Dungeon Ghyll services, is now an irrelevance as Northern have simply announced that because of ‘driver shortages’ the whole Lakes Line service has been suspended. There are no trains at all through Kendal, Staveley and Windermere until, apparently, the end of July.

People are pissed off about this, sure. There was a protest march from Windermere to Oxenholme the other day. But governmental oversight of public transport in Britain is so weak that Northern can arbitrarily refuse to fulfil this aspect of their franchise obligations with near-impunity. Users of the Windermere line simply have to suck it up. Though I don’t imagine that Tim Farron, the local Tory MP (majority 770) is sitting too comfortably in his seat at the moment.

Ullscarf summit
The summit of Ullscarf. Not a place to be in the mist.

None of this should have mattered to me today anyway, in that I was heading first for Penrith, then out into the west, as I have frequently promised over the last few walks. I had The Western Fells in the pack — honestly — and was going to climb Hen Comb and Mellbreak, using the logic that as this walk requires a crossing of the marshes of Mosedale, it was a good one to try at the end of this long period of dry weather But the Hebden Bridge – Preston train came in 12 minutes late due to ‘signalling problems’. Not enough in itself to make me miss my connection, but it then dawdled and dallied and got me into Preston too late to catch the 08:03. All this meant I would not have been starting walking until noon today had I stuck to the original plan.

I therefore invented today’s walk almost on the spot, using the same logic as would have applied for Mosedale, that is, risking a boggy one. The fact that all four of today’s fells were previously bagged on different walks shows how on my first round I took horizontal slices through the central ridge, but avoided the ridge itself for fear of swamps. The long passage between High Tove and Ullscarf was, to be honest, a part of the District I assumed I would never actually experience. Wainwright himself, in the introduction to his volume 3, calls this whole area ‘unsuitable territory for walkers’.

View south from Bleaberry Fell ascent
View south, in the early stages of the walk

So today felt a little like when drought causes reservoirs to drop and old villages (like Mardale Head, under Haweswater) to be revealed. It’s a rare event and worth taking advantage of. And now I’ve done it? Well, it’s not a bad walk. You’re in the centre of things, so the views are quite good, yet it remains very lonely territory. Blea Tarn, in particular, looks sort of desolate. And most likely I will never come here again.

As I ended up in Grasmere it made sense to go home through Windermere anyway. Brilliantly, a combination of the rail replacement bus arriving in Oxenholme ten minutes earlier than advertised, and a late running Virgin train to Euston that was sat right there, meant I got home an hour earlier than I would otherwise have done, compensating for the hour extra I took getting to Keswick this morning. The rail services giveth — and they taketh away. Who knows whether I will get to the west next time? Should it have to be such a lottery?

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