Wetherlam summit view
On the summit of Wetherlam, looking east.

Date completed: 29th November 2022. Five years to the day since walk 139, which took me over the Helvellyn range in some snow and ice.

Weather conditions: This was the first winter walk of the season for sure, with a chill in the air and frost (but not ice) on the ground. But the only word for today’s weather is ‘wow!’. A temperature inversion kept the valleys clamped under cloud all day but a few hundred feet up all was sunny with blue skies, and no wind. Mountains floated in and above lakes of whipped-cream mist, and there were all sorts of atmospheric effects including a Brocken Spectre and a mistbow (see pictures). This one definitely joins the ranks of superb November walks (e.g. walk 27, walk 121).

Brocken spectre
My Brocken Spectre makes its debut on the blog. (Caused by a projection of my shadow onto the mist behind.)

Summits bagged: Only one Wainwright, that being Wetherlam (2,503 feet above sea level, number 304 of my second round). This was first bagged on walk 6, on 16/9/2009, so at 13 years, 2 months and 13 days, takes over from Eel Crag as the fell with the longest gap between my first and second visits (though the Red Screes/Middle Dodd pairing waits in the wings to usurp it, in turn).

There are a huge number of Birketts defined in the vicinity — probably more around here than in any other region of the Lakes. I believe that Bill Birkett was (and may still be) a resident of Little Langdale, which probably explains this. It will take at least one, and probably more, walks to pick all of them up, but I managed two today: Birk Fell Man (1,736’, #295 on this list by altitude) and Black Sails (2,444 feet, #99).

Start and end point: Started in Elterwater village, and finished in Coniston. The walk took me five hours, and fitted comfortably between a drop-off time of around 10am for the #516 bus to Elterwater from Ambleside (this ran late) and the 15:40 pick-up for the #505 bus from Coniston back to Ambleside. Both of these bus services run daily all year, for now.

Little Langdale
Holme Fell in the background, above Little Langdale. (For another version of this view see part way down the walk 172 page.)

I would not attempt this walk the other way around: I do not believe a descent of Wetherlam Edge would be a comfortable experience. See the route notes.

Distance walked: 8.66 miles approximately.

Total ascent: 2,700 feet approximately.

Pub at end: Always good to find a reason to go into the Black Bull in Coniston, one of my favourite Lakeland pubs, thanks, principally, to it also being the home of the Coniston brewery who make a fantastic range of beers on the premises.

View to Langdale Pikes
View over to the Langdale Pikes.

Route: While the weather helped a lot, on the whole I did enjoy this walk even if it did have its difficult sections, and the final descent to Coniston outstays its welcome somewhat. Views are magnificent, even in normal conditions, and it’s a relatively dry walk underfoot. I wouldn’t do it in mist (meaning, unlike today, when the hills are covered). You should also bear in mind that the ascent of Wetherlam Edge, while never dangerous, is certainly a long, rocky scramble, so don’t bring young children or fellwalking novices up this way. Gird your loins for some hard climbing.

The bus will drop you outside the Britannia Inn in Elterwater. From here, head south along the lane across the river, climb a little and then bear right at the Eltermere Inn, along the track signposted as a “Challenging Alternative To Coniston” — this is for the benefit of cyclists, but it can apply to us walkers today as well. This track climbs a bit more then drops into Little Langdale, offering some excellent views of Wetherlam, your target, dead ahead.

Slater Bridge
Slater Bridge and the River Brathay.

On reaching the road in Little Langdale, go almost (but not quite) straight over it and down the next track, then, once past the farm, follow the signposted footpath down to Slater Bridge (pictured). This construction is surely centuries old, and crossing it while it was rimed with frost took steeliness of nerve and a tight grip on the rickety handrails.

Above the bridge, turn right along the track that leads past the climbing huts of Low and High Hallgarth, and then out into the open country of Greenburn. The first signposted track to the left leads to Tilberthwaite, and this does offer a potential route of ascent (see pages 9-10 of the Wetherlam chapter in the Pictorial Guide, and also my note below), but I carried straight on, slanting up along the second track on the left, heading into the valley ahead.

Side Pike and Pavey Ark
Side Pike and, in the background, Pavey Ark.

All has been easy walking so far, but this is about to change. The key to the ascent of Wetherlam itself, from Greenburn, is to reach the col of Birk Fell Hawse. The OS map shows a right-of-way heading straight up to this point from where the track intersects with a substantial wall at about NY295023, but there is no path on the ground that corresponds with this: just oodles of bracken and boulders. Wainwright depicts a route that takes a slightly longer way, round by the old copper works, but I didn’t think to consult the book when there and in any case, with Birkett-bagging in mind I decided I’d rather reach Birk Fell Man first, rather than have to go up to it from its Hawse and then backtrack.

So what I chose to do was to climb up beside the wall for a while, planning to then bear right up the ridge that, on the map, seems to connect Birk Fell with the prominent Low Fell (another Birkett I have to come back for). I found that while there is a ridge, it is very rocky and not suitable for direct ascent. I did find a route up from the wall that stayed below the crest of this ridge, but this involved both steep, pathless climbing, and dealing with bracken. With hindsight I’m sure it would have been a lot easier to come up via Tilberthwaite all along, via the route mapped on page Wetherlam 10, but never mind.

Birk Fell Man summit
The summit cairn of Birk Fell Man, with Wetherlam Edge rising behind.

The top of Birk Fell Man is cairned, and you might like to sit down there and have a rest, as the spot offers plenty of opportunity to peruse the ascent that still remains, that of Wetherlam Edge. This is a definite scramble, not as hard as that of, say, Yewbarrow, never dangerous or very difficult, but long (I took 45 minutes from this cairn to the summit), constant, with no place to have a rest, and only sporadically cairned, so you do have to give plenty of consideration to the route. And I would not come down this way, personally.

All slopes do end, though, and once on the top, most of the day’s climbing is over. The effort of gaining Wetherlam’s summit should be repaid by a spectacular view, one of Lakeland’s best: not so much because of the mountains (though these look very good) but more the array of lakes to the south with, beyond them, Morecambe Bay. Or, as on 29/11/22, an ocean of cloud below, spreading all the way to the Pennines in the east. (See the picture at the top of the page).

Black Sails summit
Black Sails summit cairn.

You can go straight down to Coniston from here via the Lad Stones ridge, but I wanted to pick up the subsidiary Birkett of Black Sails, which is the obvious rise nearby, over in the direction of Swirl How. This was a straightforward detour, though it manages not just one, but two ‘false summit moments’. From its summit cairn (pictured), while there is no path, it’s not difficult to return to the main track that leads down to Swirl Hause.

The sight of Swirl How from here should dissuade all but the most ardent masochist from attempting a full round of the Coniston range. Instead, do the sensible thing and turn left at the Hause. Coniston is further away from here than you’d think, and the track is not always that clear either, but take your time and eventually you will come to the shore of Levers Water.

Swirl How
Swirl How (and Great Carrs on the right) from Black Sails.

Below the outlet the quality of the path does improve, and it brings you down into Coppermines Valley, with its waterworks and youth hostel, then, becoming a firm road, down into the village and — if you’re anything like me — straight into the bar of the Black Bull. The bus stop is outside the Crown nearby: note that the 15:40, having first picked up children from the nearby school, will stop on the opposite side of the road from the shelter, where every other service will take on passengers.

Commentary: I believe that the idea of the ‘four-day week’ is currently trending, the belief being that it might make us more productive at work, rather than less. I’m all for that. Particularly with a day of such magnificent weather, truly one of those walks where it could be said that the weather fully upstaged the fells. I notice there’s only one photo of Wetherlam itself, I mean, as a mountain, which has ‘made the cut’ of shots and thus been uploaded here. And it’s a good-looking hill, too, as the images on its fell page prove. But there were plenty of reasons today to point the camera all over.

Wansfell Pike
Wansfell Pike (background) and part of Loughrigg Fell have a float for the day.

I doubt I was the only one doing the 4-day week thing, either. For a weekday at one of the year’s lowest points, holiday-wise, there were plenty of people around. This included a youngish chap, Liverpudlian going on his accent, who was behind me in the vestibule as we sweated out the usual minutes of anticipation regarding whether The Oxenholme Connection would have been held.

(This is one of the few occasions on which I sympathise with Northern. Why the hell the powers-that-be don’t just change the timetables that little bit, one way or another, to acknowledge that Aviva can never run the 07:53 Preston to Edinburgh service dead on time, not once, no not ever — this continues to escape me. Every time, it is up to the guard and driver of the 08:27 branch line service to Windermere to wait a few minutes, and, in my experience they have started doing this more in recent years. But they shouldn’t need to. Not so frequently, anyway.)

Mistbow, seen just below Swirl Hause. The sun is directly behind me at this point, and shining through mist, but onto blue sky. I’ve only ever seen one of these before, on walk 102 — and didn’t depict it on that page, so take my word for it.

Back to the Liverpudlian guy…. seeing as we were both clearly on our way up somewhere high, we struck up a conversation. I assured him that this lottery was a regular event, but he also seemed to take confidence that I had been regularly coming up by train all this time. Good for him, and it would be nice to think that this confidence will continue to be justified. A change of government might do it.

He was on his way up the Ill Bell ridge, and noted that he was just beginning a round of the Wainwrights. Over 200 to go, apparently. But he did sound like he was counting. And I thought back to how I felt, and must have seemed, thirteen years ago: say on the day when I first went up Wetherlam, which at the time was my 23rd bag, leaving me with 191 still to do. I can allow myself a little envy, if he really is going to do it all.

Langdale Pikes in cloud
Pike o’Stickle and Loft Crag get a cloud bath.

If there’s a difference between now and how I was in 2009, in terms of how I approach the walks, it’s that I think I am more aware of my limits, of what constitutes to me a decent challenge, what is not too easy, but not too hard either. I’ve learned to trust Wainwright: he’s not ominscient, nor does he necessarily write for every preference, so sometimes his guidance is a little amiss in my opinion. But when it comes to descriptions of what it will be like off the principal routes, I find he can mostly be relied upon. Wetherlam Edge was hard work, but the book made clear that it would be, and, tiring as it was — particularly with the haul up Birk Fell that preceded it — I’m glad I tried it.

There may or may not be another walk in 2022. Even if there is I will still only get the total up to 9, the same as in 2021, so this might be the fewest Lakeland walks in any given full year since I started. But this is just a change of habit, it certainly doesn’t mean I’m going off the place. Not when it can still deliver days like today, anyway. See you next time.

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