Saturday, 17 May 2014

The Coniston Round

GPS Track
Date: 17/05/2014
From: Coniston Village

Parking: Roadside parking in Coniston
Start Point: Coniston
Region: Southern Fells

Route length: 15.5 miles (24.9km)
Time taken: 06:53
Average speed: 2.3 mph
Ascent: 1,596m
Descent: 1,632m

Wainwrights on this walk:
Wetherlam (763m), Swirl How (802m), Great Carrs (788m), Grey Friar (770m), Brim Fell (796m), The Old Man of Coniston (804m), Dow Crag (778m)

Additional Summits: Birk Fell (529m), Great How (770m), Little Carrs (692m), Hell Gill Pike (692m), Buck Pike (744m), Brown Pike (682m)

Other points of interest: Coppermines Valley, War Memorial, Blind Tarn

Route: Coniston, Church Beck, Miners Bridge, Hole Rake, Tilberthwaite Gill, Dry Cove Bottom, Birk Fell Man, Wetherlam Edge, Wetherlam, Keld Gill Head, Swirl Hawse, Prison Band, Swirl How, Top of Broad Slack, Great Carrs, Little Carrs, Hell Gill Pike, Wether How, Fairfield, Black Spouts, Grey Friar, Fairfield, Swirl Band, Great How Crags, Levers Hawse, Brim Fell, The Old Man of Coniston, Goat's Hawse, Dow Crag, Buck Pike, Brown Pike, Walna Scar Road, Blind Tarn, Goatfoot Crags, Walna Scar Road, Dixon Ground, Coniston

The Coniston fells are a hugely popular collection of mountains located, not surprisingly, near to the village of Coniston. The fells have been alive with activity for over 500 years, mining was a huge economy is this small part of the Lake District. Man made scars litter than landscape though, after many years of silence, nature is slowly returning to reclaim and cover up old mine workings. The current benefactor is now the walker, the fells of Coniston provide some of the finest fell walking in the area. There are also some more personal stories hidden amongst the crags, we'll have a look at those later.

I'd spent a fine weekend camping at the nearby Low Wray campsite, a weekend spent lounging around the tent and contemplating what walks could be completed in the future. I've had it in mind to walk the Coniston fells for a while, we almost started a route back in February but 100mph winds quashed any hopes of that. So it was saved; saved for a day exactly like today with blue skies and endless views, a day worthy of the stately 2,000ft Coniston fells.

With the car parked in Coniston village, the plan was to start to walk by climbing Wetherlam Edge. The more attuned among you may realise that Wetherlam Edge, and subsequently Wetherlam itself, lie at the very northern end of the range with Coniston village exactly to the south. That meant a fair walk just to reach the start of any real climbing. For now, a brisk stroll up alongside Church Beck leads to the old Miners Bridge and in to the Coppermines Valley; one of the most obviously named valleys in the Lake District.
Yew Pike guards the northern entrance to the Coppermines Valley
Church Beck tumbles over a number of small waterfalls
The old Miners Bridge
The Coniston coppermines go as far back as the 1500s, possibly longer. That said, much of what is still visible on the surface dates from the mid-19th century. The mines were worked up until the English Civil War of the 1640s but then there was a break before they were revived. Sadly, for the miners at least, the Copper-based prosperity did not last. By the end of the nineteenth century the mines had closed, forced into submission by cheaper imported copper from South America. Now, the valley is silent and much of the mine workings still remain - either decaying into nothingness or having been renovated by some entrepreneurial types. The YHA has a hostel up here though you put the underside of your car at severe risk of a decent bashing trying to reach it.
A large road leads into the valley
The white building is the youth hostel, beneath the mass of Swirl How
To reach Wetherlam, more specifically Wetherlam Edge, I followed the path towards Rascal How on the eastern side of the valley before it switchbacks underneath Sweeten Crag and heads into Hole Rake. The pass, important in its time I'm sure, links the Coppermines valley to Tilberthwaite, crossing a marshy depression in the lap of Wetherlam on the way. This provided a nice warm up prior to any serious climbing and provided a fine view of Wetherlam that grew with every step. There was even a foreboding quarry entrance to pass, long since abandoned and slowly being re-naturalised.
The old workings of Red Dell
The Old Man of Coniston
Hole Rake climbs out of the valley
Fairfield in the distance
One of the many abandoned quarries
From the head of Tilberthwaite Gill, the view of Wetherlam is superb. The reason I had decided to walk all this way was purely to see the eastern face of Wetherlam, the great corrie of Dry Cove Bottom and the crags of Hen Tor and Hen Crag, they were looking particularly imposing. In addition to these features there are the two ridges that connect Wetherlam to valley below; Steel Edge, a tidy spur joining Dry Cove Bottom to Lad Stones and Wetherlam Edge, a northern arm that reaches the summit from Birk Fell Man.
Tilberthwaite Gill
The full sweep of Wetherlam
Dry Cove Bottom; Hen Crag and Hen Tor are the darker crags to the left
The path leading towards Birk Fell Man
Heading towards this point, I passed a number of intimidating looking holes in the ground, shafts to give them their proper mining name, marking the sad remains of Tilberthwaite Copper Mine. I must note, as nearly all websites do, that these mines should only be accessed by those who are truely experienced and equipped. I had absolutely no intention of stepping anywhere near them.
Some of the abandoned mine shafts below Wetherlam
Dry Cove Bottom and Steel Edge
After the long, flat walk along Hole Rake, the path finally starts to climb again as you reach Birk Fell, a series of cairns now start to accompany the route. Upon reaching the top of Birk Fell Man (Birk Fell's summit) a wonderful panorama is revealed containing the famous pikes of Langdale, the notable Bowfell and Crinkle Crags and the popular fells of Lingmoor and Loughrigg. Sat in front of them is the quiet valley Little Langdale and the largely deserted valley of Greenburn. Greenburn contains the remains of a natural water-body that was dammed in the early 18th century to provide water for one of the many mines in the area. The 250 yard long barrage has now been breached to leave behind a collection of pools and bogs.
Crinkle Crags and Bowfell
The Langdale Pikes
Lingmoor Fell and Little Langdale
Greenburn and Little Langdale
Pike O'Stickle
Wetherlam Edge
To reach Wetherlam's summit from this already lofty location requires a stiff but entertaining and pathless scrabble up Wetherlam Edge. Part walk, part hands on scramble the route leads directly to the summit which is a bonus. Not nearly as challenging as more severe arĂȘtes but great fun all the same.
Wet Side Edge ahead of Pike O'Blisco
The view down Wetherlam Edge
As I said, Wetherlam Edge spits you out right on the summit, a nice tidy cairn marks the highest spot. Further views of the Scafells are revealed in addition to the fells surrounding Great Langdale. Also noticeable is the great rock wall of Great Carrs next to the tidy peaked summit of Swirl How. The main path passes beneath Black Sails before dropping to Swirl Hawse, a high pass that connects Greenburn to the Coppermines Valley and a fine vantage point to gaze upon the crags of Great Carrs. A further ridge, not dissimilar to Wetherlam Edge, reaches up ahead of you towards Swirl How. This is Prison Band.
The summit cairn on Wetherlam
The Old Man, Black Sails, Swirl How and Great Carrs
Swirl How and Great Carrs
Swirl Hawse and the beginning of Prison Band
The path up Prison Band is more pronounced that it is on Wethelam Edge and, once again, it's a short but demanding climb. Up until this point it had been very warm, the bulk of Swirl How sheltering me any refreshing breeze. It came as bit of a surprise when the wind finally did catch up with me as I reached to top of Swirl How, despite the time of year it did have a noticeable chill in it. Almost enough to consider extra clothing. Almost.
Wetherlam and Levers Water 
The Old Man, Brim Fell and Great How Crags
Swirl How is a fell shrouded in doubt and unknowns (for now at least). Firstly, its name, the origins of which seem to be a bit obscure. A Norwegian dialect word "svirle" meaning to swirl or whirl around, perhaps a reference to the all-to-familiar Lakeland clouds. How is a little more clear cut, believed to derive from the Old Norse word "haugr" meaning hill or mound. In addition to this uncertainty is some doubt over exactly how high Swirl How is. Ths OS maps claim 802m while BMC maps claim 804m. This difference might seem trivial however, if the fell is found to be the higher of the two, it would make it the highest of all the Coniston fells, beating The Old Man by a few feet.
Great Carrs from Swirl How
Swirl How's summit
The high Scafells in the distance
To the west of Swirl How lies a vast area of gracefully rolling fellside, leading off towards Grey Friar. It's a stark contrast to the precipitous crags found on the eastern flanks. To continue to Great Carrs, an obvious path follows the rim of Greenburn, around the top of Broad Slack - a steep grass rake that falls sharply away to the valley below. The keen-eye amongst you might notice something in Broad Slack seems a little out of place.....
Swirl How from the Top of Broad Slack
During a night time navigation exercise in 1944, the RCAF Halifax from RAF Topcliffe became lost in thick cloud while over the north west on England. In an attempt to wait out the blanket of grey, they circled in hope the cloud would clear, ultimately becoming hopelessly lost. To try and get a visual fix for the navigator, the pilot dropped the bomber out of the cloud base, with no knowledge of what was below him. Unfortuntely, for both him, the crew and the aircraft, they were greeted by the great rising fells of Swirl How and Great Carrs. With no time to react, the aircraft hit the mountainside killing all on board.
Parts of the Halifax bomber in Broad Slack
Despite the crew perishing in the impact, the bomber remained largely intact and, to prevent other aircraft from spotting it and reporting it repeatedly, the wreckage was cut into a number of smaller, moveable pieces and discarded down Broad Slack, where parts of it are still visible today. Over the years, two of the four Rolls-Royce engines were recovered from the crash site by an RAF helicopter, one of which is now on display at the Ruskin Museum at nearby Brantwood. The undercarriage, together with a wooden cross and memorial cairn is on the top of the ridge, a sad reminder to us all of those men who never returned from the war.
A memorial cairn marks the location of the crash
The names of the bomber's crew are etched onto a slab of slate
The cross marking the top of the cairn
A short distance from the memorial stands the summit of Great Carrs - the head of Greenburn. It provides a grandstand view of the valley and the crags of Swirl How as well as a quiet refuge from the main Coniston ridge. So much so, instead of aiming directly for Grey Friar, I continued northwards a short distance to Hell Gill Pike to seek a spot out of the wind for a bite to eat. It had been a long morning.
A cairn is perched on the summit of Great Carrs
Grey Friar from Hell Gill Pike
A faint path links Hell Gill Pike to the col of Fairfield (not THE Fairfield) before slowly climbing up to Grey Friar - a real outlier of the group. Despite being a large fell (it forms most of the eastern side of the Duddon Valley, it is the least visited of the group, thanks to its location off the beaten track. It has a very pleasant flat summit with a neat covering of grass, a real joy to stroll along on a day like this one. The summit rocks, capped by the traditional cairn, offer a wonderful view of the dark mass of the Scafells. It's well worth the visit. In the other direction, Brim Fell appears as a great mass ahead of the The Old Man and Dow Crag, across the valley, takes on a wonderfully mountainous profile.
Brim Fell
Dow Crag
The path slowly climbs Grey Friar
The proud cairn on Grey Friar
Harter Fell stands in the distance
Another panorama of the Scafells
The col of Fairfield and the sloping sides of Great Carrs and Swirl How
I returned to Fairfield by the way I had climbed, the path ahead branches off in three directions, one path to Great Carrs, one aimed at Swirl How and one longer one directed towards Great How Crags. I took neither, instead making my own way up the hill to the beginning of Swirl Band, the main Coniston ridge that runs south to The Old Man.

Swirl Band passes along the top of the arrestingly steep crags the form the western wall of the Coppermines Valley, Great How Crags provides a fine vantage point to survey it in its entirety. The path, wide and easy to follow, continues south over Levers Hawse, a small depression between Swirl How and Brim Fell. Beyond that, it steadily rises over the mass of the aforementioned fell before reaching the rock strewn summit.
The path up to Swirl How branches off in a trio of directions
Great How Crags and Brim Fell
Swirl How and Swirl Band
Swirl How once again, this time from the flanks of Brim Fell
Cairns lead to way
Brim Fell is unusual in having no footing on the valley floor on either side of the ridge. On the east its boundary streams converge at 800 ft and the flanks of Coniston Old Man and Wetherlam continue to the lake. Above the Duddon, Brim Fell is nipped off by Dow Crag and Grey Friar at an even greater altitude. The area of the fell is therefore small, but full of interest. The Coniston face is all crag, a stark contrast to the sloping western flanks. Topping the entire mountain is a proud, rotund cairn.
Summit cairn on Brim Fell
There is very little difference in height between Brim Fell and The Old Man, the connecting ridge appears almost flat as the path continues along it. It takes no time at all to reach The Old Man, certainly one of the more popular fells in the park thanks to its proximity to Coniston and the well marked paths that lead up to the top.
A trig pillar shares the summit of The Old Man with...
...a large cairn
The Old Man is the highest fell of the group (only just, as I've mentioned previously), pipping Swirl How by just a handful of feet. Topped by an odd slate platform/cairn combo - no doubt a result of its slate mining heritage. The nearby slate mines on the North East flank of The Old Man, are known as "Old Man Quarries", though sometimes given the individual names of: Brandy Crag, Saddlestone and Moss Head. These slate mines have been worked since at least the 13th century. All the workings are more or less underground, apart from Low Brandy Crag, which was opened out into an opencast quarry in the 1980s by Burlington Stone, and is still operating today. Most of the lower levels in Saddlestone are blocked, though the Moss Head Quarries are still open.
The buttresses of Dow Crag
The summit ridge of The Old Man
I had originally planned to head back down at this point, following the steep path back towards Coniston however, with the afternoon still young and Dow Crag beckoning, I decided to continue on. The path falls steeply to Goat's Hawse before making the final climb of the day up to Dow Crag. Dow Crag is a proper mountain with on of the finest and most accessible cliff faces (to climbers at least) in the whole National Park. Viewed from The Old Man, there are no better crags than those that front Dow Crag. It's a haven for rock climbing for obvious reasons - there are over 150 routes for climbers to choose from.
The Old Man, Goat's Water and Dow Crag
Dow Crag
Great How Crags and Swirl Band
The summit consists of little more than a large outcrop, perched perilously above the crags below. It's an exhilarating and exciting place to be, as is the walk along the ridge as you begin your descent. The views down the series of large gullies are enough to invoke a sense of dread into all but the most hardy of hill walkers. They're definitely the realm of the climber, the exclusion to the rule is the so called 'South Rake', an accessible strip to the southern end of the mountain.
Approaching the summit of Dow Crag
The summit outcrop
The view down to Goat's Water
The summit once again

The top of Great Gully
Great Gully
The top of Easy Gully
The choke stone at the top of Easy Gully
The top of the South Rake
The ridge leading away from Dow Crag
As was the theme of the day, a very noticeable path descends over a pair of subsidiary peaks - Buck Pike and Brown Pike. They're nice little mountains in their own right, I certainly think worthy of more attention than they receive. Brown Pike cradles a lovely little body of water, Blind Tarn, so called because it has no noticeable inlet or outlet. I thought it was definitely worth a closer look.
Blind Tarn and Brown Pike
Buck Pike and The Old Man of Coniston
After crossing both the peaks of Buck and Brown Pike, the path meets the summit of the Walna Scar Road - a wide bridleway that links Coniston to Seathwaite in the Duddon Valley. Shortly after, a small paths leaves the road and climbs around the flanks of Brown Pike to a number of eerie old mine buildings, still complete with the odd rusty tool. Below these sits the idyllic Blind Tarn. It's a wonderful little tarn, totally deserted at the time I visited it, a worthwhile place for a sit down.
One of the abandoned mine buildings
Blind Tarn and Buck Pike
The shores of Blind Tarn
After letting the boots and feet cool down a bit (it was still warm after all), I made my way back to the Walna Scar Road down one of the old mine tracks. All that remained was to follow the road all the way back to Coniston while avoiding a number of mountain bikers that certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves. It's a long walk back, my decision to include Dow Crag had added a couple of miles to the overall walk length. Still, there's nothing difficult about it until a very steep descent down the road into the village.
Walna Scar Road winds off into the distance
The Old Man of Coniston
Torver Beck
Foul Scrow
The long road back to Coniston
As you can see from the pictures, the Coniston fells are certainly an impressive collection of mountains. They are deservedly popular thanks to the sheer number of obvious and well marked paths. As with most of the high level walks in the Lake District, this is one to save for a day like this; cloudless skies and truly endless views.