The route that takes you right into the heart of Cumbria, without seeing a soul.
I can hardly believe this exists: a pathless, abandoned wilderness that leads directly into the Lake District’s Southern Fells. I’d believe it of Scotland; but this is one of the busiest National Parks in the country, so how is it possible that this supposed traverse hasn’t been well and truly discovered already?
Maybe it’s because it’s awkward to get to, or perhaps it’s just another example of big mountains attracting the most attention. Whatever the reason, this was one rumour that definitely needed investigating.Starting in the southern Lakes, this route rolls 21km from the coast along a series of the area’s highest points right into the Southern Fells. The starting point, Black Combe, is a hill that rises in places only 1km distant from the sea, its flanks even and regular as though it’s been roughly gathered from the estuary sands. Though it tops out at a humble 600m, nothing around it gets anywhere near its height – and this prominence continues all the way to the finishing point of Devoke Water. It begs to be walked...
The day we arrived, a decisive-looking bank of cloud had settled over the ridge. Expansive views from all directions were our main reason for being there, and now they were being held hostage. I squinted up at the summit and imagined wielding a leaf blower of massive proportions and blasting those hilltops to a bright, clear day. Nevertheless, we booted up and set off. The summit may not have been in our sights but the way up there was.
A grassy path nibbled trim by sheep led up Black Combe’s gentle flanks through bracken and into a cleft in its southern face. You might realistically expect to scan the view partway up, refocus on your trudge and then admire the panorama once you’d reached the top. After only 400m, though, a lazy glance over the shoulder stopped us in our sheep tracks. To the left swept the storm-grey Irish Sea, edged with the pale curves of the coastline. The Isle of Man seemed to drift on the horizon haze, indistinct from the surrounding low cloud. We stood for a moment on a flattening that marked the move from tended heath to grubbier moor and watched the shape of the weather as it blew in from the west. We’d only been walking for half an hour.
Unfortunately that view included an enormous cloud, imposing, black and trawling across the sea towards us with the inevitability of a supertanker. Our summer’s lawn of a path had now become an industrious track of broken rock, the heather at our feet scorched by the unchecked sea air to ashy, spidering fingers. Below us it rolled out like burnt gingerbread. Some previously lost soul had arranged a rocky arrow that directed us to the summit… and not long after turning right to follow it the path disappeared altogether. It really was beginning to seem quite wild.
The summit, when we reached it, was still gathered in mist; but that tanker-like cloud had swerved improbably to the south and missed us. As we made our first slight descent of the day the rest of the mist began to burn off. We stopped for a moment on the edge of Black Combe’s eastern face, the land falling away in exposed rocky notches to the valley floor, and looked behind us to see the smooth sheen of Duddon Sands estuary gleaming in the south. Ahead, for the first time, were revealed the lower slopes of the Lakeland mountains, their ramparts wrapped in cloud, summits invisible in the murk. The main ascent of the day was done and we were heading straight for them with nothing but gentle swells in our way.
You might think these low hills would be less exciting (kudos, after all, usually goes with scale); but the absence of paths should get some reverence too. A clear and well-maintained path can tame the most towering mountain while smaller, less attended peaks retain some of their rigorous wildness. A good, solid path is no bad thing but some of the most satisfying walking is made of picking your own route towards whichever summit the day has in its grasp. The attention this demands helps you actually tap into the landscape rather than drift absent-mindedly across it. With a path you can switch off; without one you’ve got to be really switched on.
The path that led us up Black Combe veered to the east and dropped quickly towards the sea. It was the last sign that this might be a frequented top. We bade the snaking track farewell and struck a wavering route north to the next peak. After only about 40 minutes we’d tagged the summit and it was only another 45 to the one after that. During most of this time I’d become immersed in hummock-hopping and bog negotiation, my little world focused on the dark moor. Idly looking up I was astonished to notice the bright coastline again and the fells in the distance getting yet closer.At Buck Barrow the first characteristics of this mountain territory began to emerge – massive tors rose from the ground, cleaved with asymmetric cracks and perfect for a mid-walk scramble. The traverse was beginning to seem something like a magic mirror, reflecting landscapes in an undulating rise of rock, grass, coastline and bog. We
were now about halfway along and things were beginning to feel properly remote.
Considering this, the walk is surprisingly accessible and variable. With two cars you can take the ridge in one long, satisfying go; or if you have more time walk one way, wild camp, and walk back again. If you can face extending it a bit further there’s a train station 8km from the finishing point that will return you to the start. For us, however, with only a single car between us, it was a two-day mission. At Whitfell we turned our gaze from the darkening mountains and started back towards Black Combe. With so many summits to reach it had been easy to forget about the ones we’d passed, absorbed as we were in views, path-forging and the peaks to come. When we did turn it was to a surprising new vista of Black Combe – and one that was decidedly more ominous. Approached from the south it had appeared bright: bracken glowing, path clear. Now we were seeing a different side of the hill in more ways than one.
Our second day started from the north, on a road that wound its singletracked way around awkward corners, through farm gates and up into the hills. The previous day had begun with a farmhouse, a manicured path and a road with a pub on it. Here, though, there was nothing but an old rusting signpost and around us only mountains. The morning drive had deposited us right in the middle of genuinely wild territory.
We began this leg of the walk at Devoke Water, the finishing point if you walk the ridge in one go. Around it was a landscape of dark bog, bristling grass, heather, gorse and tufted cotton, so while a defined bridlepath led the way, the feeling was one of beautiful desolation. Here was a place that really felt untended, with none of the gentleness that characterised the beginning of yesterday’s walk. The lakeshore when we reached it only increased that feeling. I stood on its pebbly rim and looked across at the water, roughly rippled by the wind, its romantic loneliness enhanced by an old stone boathouse jutting into the shallows.
Lack of human presence can sometimes feel like a bit of a void until the beauty of the mountains rushes in and fills it to the brim. Devoke Water felt just like that. The mountains, closer now than they had been at any other point, showed themselves as high, rugged and knotty, lit through the gloom with shafts of light. Yet again we had to abandon the path early to make our way to the first peak of the day: Woodend Height.
The fells at this end of the walk were noticeably wilder than the ones we traversed the previous day, which had themselves become progressively more rugged. Starting at 230m – Devoke Water’sheight above sea-level – our climb to 494m didn’t feel arduous at all. In fact, if it wasn’t for the wind it would have been an easeful stroll through grass and hopping over mountain streams. Again though, the feeling of wildness sat in gleeful opposition to the size of the hill. If anything, this paltry height gain covered some of the most dramatic and remote landscape we’d yet traversed, helped in no small part by the sight of the rocky summit, its cairn silhouetted against the grimy sky. We’d started gently and ended with the fists of the mountains starting to punch up around us.
The view when we reached that rocky peak was a full panorama of everything we’d been promised. Curving round from the north the Pillar group gave way to Great Gable and Scafell Pike, while further east still Bowfell protruded from the horizon. We were so close to the mountains that it felt like we were in them, and yet we’d only climbed 264m.
Each of the following peaks granted similar views. From Stainton Pike we overlooked a precipitous drop to the sunnier shore. It seemed somehow incongruous on the edge of this dark moor, but the contrast only made it the more striking. You could legitimately spend a clear day perched on top of any of the fells surrounding Devoke Water, shifting yourself around by degrees in a little circle. And if you finally did get bored of that there are plenty of short diversionary scrambles to be had.
The wind that day had been strong enough to make anything like that a very sketchy idea indeed. As we descended, rain and hail battered in from the sea. We’d been up on the hill for approximately three hours, and in that time we had experienced enough wildness to make the heated car seem like the cosiest place in the land. If it’s possible to do a three-hour expedition, we cracked it up there.
I’ve managed to get away with it so far but I might as well admit now that this was my first ever trip to the Lake District. Living in Scotland, whenever I’d found myself with a few days to spare and a tingling sense that I hadn’t been quite wet, cold and exhausted enough for a while I’d always headed north, west and further north. Scotland is massive, its landscape sprawls, wilderness is easy.
I wasn’t sure whether you’d be able to find anything of a similar feel in the Lake District, but the rumour had been true. The traverse from Black Combe felt like it started in one country and ended in another. In a sense, it did. Not the sort of country that is traditionally bounded by borders and presided over by kings, but the country that nature dictates – where one particular kind of land ends and another of different character arises. We’d explored from south to north, covering a total of 35km; and as I got back to the car I realised another thing was true. There hadn’t been another soul around.
A SOUTHERN LAKES MISCELLANY
- Guidebook writer Alfred Wainwright described the Black Combe area as “...wild upland... excellent territory for walking, with enough... variations of routes to cater for a full week afoot”.
-All the fells covered in this walk were originally part of lands run by the monks of Furness Abbey.
- Devoke Water is stocked with brown trout from Loch Leven in Scotland (and the tarn was regularly poached by locals!).
- Ravenglass was a key Roman sea port, and it was linked to the fort at Ambleside via a road over Hardknott and Wrynose Passes. In turn, Ambleside was linked to Carlisle and Hadrian’s Wall via the Roman road over High Street.
- Hodbarrow lagoon at Millom was originally a huge open-cast iron ore mine. It was the biggest in Britain until it was flooded by the sea.
- The Furness in ‘Furness Peninsula’ comes from this ore smelting.
- The odd booming sounds occasionally heard on this route aren’t coming from Sellafield nuclear station, but from the MoD range at Eskmeals on the coast.
- The airfield at Millom was a Coastal Command base for U-boat hunting during World War Two.
- Mountain bikers love Black Combe’s Whicham bridleway.
WORDS SARAH RYAN
THIS FEATURE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN TRAIL MAGAZINE