Take a wander around the head of Buttermere to discover two fells that, while splendid in their own right, are scintillating as a pair.
A superb ridge, a fairy-tale tarn and a hidden bothy: how this often forgotten corner of the Lakes can surprise all who seek it.
Aconfession. Over the years I’ve watched a LOT of episodes of Bargain Hunt, Antiques Roadshow, Cash in the Attic,
and Lovejoy. While this might at first seem like a grotesque waste of life, I have picked up a few things. For example, I’ve learned that certain objects are at their most valuable when they come as a pair, such as matching carved bookends, vintage gold cufflinks and things like that. The advantages of coupling can be applied to the wider world, too, and not just for the obvious candidates like shoes, bike wheels, and chopsticks. Take mountains, for example. More specifically, consider the two superstars of Buttermere: Fleetwith Pike and Haystacks. In isolation, each can stand on its own as a fell worth bagging, and whichever you choose to tackle you’ll come away beaming. But tag them both together in a climbing, looping horseshoe above the right-hand terminus of the Buttermere valley, and you’ve got a whole that exceeds the sum of its parts.
It all starts with Fleetwith Edge, the long, tantalisingly tempting ridge that divides the end of Buttermere into the Honister Pass and Warnscale Bottom. The initial scrabbly path leads up onto its back, but not before traversing below a landmark that gives ascenders cause to pause. A white cross is set into the cragside in memory of a young girl with a delightfully vintage name; Fanny Mercer. Fanny was the servant of a school teacher and his family and in September 1887 she accompanied them on their Lake District vacation. During a descent of Fleetwith Edge, the inexperienced hillwalker Fanny lost her footing and tumbled down the crag. She was taken to Gatesgarth Farm below the fell, but died before medical help arrived. The cross is easily visited (it’s shown on OS 1:50,000 mapping, but, surprisingly, not on 1:25,000), although it requires a short scramble, and if the story of Fanny Mercer teaches us anything, it’s that even the picturesque Lakeland hills can be unforgiving; best take care.
Fleetwith Edge is, for the most part, relatively easy going, occupying the grey (and in many parts green) area between hillwalking and scrambling. It’s a fun ascent, albeit a breezy one when the wind’s whistling up the Buttermere valley. The gradient is steep enough that the full height of the fell is gained quickly (although one or two false summits are thrown in along the way), and the occasional dash of handon-rock action makes it far more interesting than a tedious slog up a slope. But however arduous the climb could be, reaching the top would make it worth it. The summit of Fleetwith Pike is a pedestal. But rather than a platform on which to place a glass-cased antiquity, it’s one from which to enjoy the full palette of nature’s art. The tops of Pillar, Kirk Fell and Great Gable are all within sight, but the most impressive view is the one that’s been at your back on the ascent.
“LOWESWATER GLINTS GOLD AMONG THE FELLS; LOWESWATER GOLD – GOOD NAME FOR A BEER, THAT…”
The waters below reflect the sky overhead, leading your eye westwards, beyond Buttermere village and the bridge of land that separates the lake of the same name from its neighbour Crummock Water. On into the distance, Loweswater glints gold among the fells; Loweswater gold – good name for a beer, that… The northern crags of Fleetwith Pike – Honister Crags – have been quarried for slate since the middle of the 18th century, and Honister Mine is still in operation today, having diversified into via ferrata and subterranean adventures for thrill-seeking tourists in addition to its slate production. Such industry leaves a mark on the landscape, and areas to the east of Fleetwith Pike are expansively scarred. But leave the summit directly south, skirting Striddle Crag and dropping through secluded gullies and lichen-clad scree, and that man-modified landscape is avoided. Well, mostly. On the far banks of Warnscale Beck, cascaded spoil heaps and deep, dark seams in the rock indicate that this area was not immune from exploitation, but clearly not on the same scale as Honister. Indeed, tucked away in the folds of the fells, this remnant of an industrial heritage seems almost natural. And one entirely artificial construction particularly has, over the intervening years, become melded into the landscape.
If you want a building to blend into the landscape, you could do worse than to build said building from the landscape it’s in. It seems likely that availability of materials, rather than deliberate camouflage, is the reason Warnscale Head bothy was constructed from the very same rock being dug out of the hillside above it. But the end result is that the small, roughedged, one-storey hut is nearly invisible from above, blending almost seamlessly as it does into the crags, scree and spoil around it. The Warnscale mining operation opened in the 1750s in direct competition to the Honister workings on the other side of Warnscale Beck. Unfortunately for the owner, James Spedding of Armathwaite, it proved to be a loss-making business, and closed in 1775. But Spedding’s endeavour left
us this magnificent little mountain retreat. Having been recently renovated with wooden sleeping benches, a wood-burning stove and, if you believe the scratched slate notice above the fireplace, free Wi-Fi, it’s a cosily rustic place to spend the night. Alternatively, if overnighting’s not on the cards, it’s a great shelter for a cuppa and a pasty.
The high terrain linking Fleetwith Pike to Haystacks is part of the enormous plateau of undulating fell that flows west from the twin summits of Grey Knotts and Brandreth. While these may be the higher peaks, they lack the character of Fleetwith Pike or Haystacks. The elevated ground connecting them all holds a lot of water. Much of it escapes via the vein-like network of streams, including the often churning Warnscale Beck that flows past the bothy. But some of it is held captive – for a while at least – in the tarns that pattern these
fells. Blackbeck Tarn is the first encountered on the way to Haystacks, jealously holding on to its aqueous contents before releasing them to pour down Black Beck on their way to join Buttermere. High above its western shore a perched boulder sits implausibly on an airy plinth. Whether a glacial erratic, the result of cumulative weathering and freeze-thaw cycles, or delicately positioned by a Zen giant with a penchant for feng shui, it’s an interesting decorative addition. But it’s not enough to hand Blackbeck the title of ‘Most Idyllic Tarn’ in these parts. That accolade goes to another.
Lakeland’s favourite enthusiast, Alfred Wainwright, spent much of his life exploring, charting, and writing about every corner of the fells. But when his pipe eventually went out – literally and figuratively – it was Innominate Tarn that he requested be his final resting place. ‘Innominate’ means ‘unnamed’ – making it either a wryly ironic or grossly inaccurate monicker for a tarn that had a previous name – Loaf Tarn – before it was deemed nameless. Title inconsistencies aside, there’s something vaguely magical about it. Other lakes around Britain may lay claim to Arthurian legend and tales of mythical beasts, but if fairies exist you’ll find them here. When it’s still, the glass-like water reflects the surrounding fells, presenting their
“THE ONE-STOREY HUT IS NEARLY INVISIBLE FROM ABOVE, BLENDING SEAMLESSLY INTO THE CRAGS AND SPOIL AROUND IT.”
mirror image in a frame of rocks and reeds. When ripples are ruffled into life by the wind and the clouds roll steel-grey overhead, what Innominate Tarn loses in tranquillity it gains in drama. Unusually the summit of Haystacks gives space to another small pool not large enough to justify a name of its own; a genuinely innominate tarnlet, if you like. Surrounded by ridges of rock and elevated above the parallel valleys of Thirlmere and Buttermere, its location gives it far more impact than its modest proportions might otherwise deserve.
Unfortunately, all good journeys must have their home stretch, and the descent from Haystacks marks the beginning of the end of this one. But it’s not over yet. The climb down to Scarth Gap, the pass slung between Haystacks and its neighbour Seat, is just that – a climb. Or at least a clamber. In ascent it would be a relatively straightforward scramble, potentially scraping into the lower realms of grade 1 territory. As with all scrambles, it’s slightly more awkward on the way down, and one worth taking steady – remember Fanny Mercer?
The path from Scarth Gap across the flank of Buttermere Fell provides both more views down the length of the valley and an excellent opportunity to admire Fleetwith Edge in profile. And it looks great. So much so that, once down from the mountains, crossing Warnscale Bottom and heading back to Gatesgarth Farm, it’s tempting to start the journey anew. Maybe not right away, but some other day. Because, all clumsy antique comparisons aside, collecting a pair of classic fells will never go out of fashion.
“All I ask for, at the end, is a last long resting place by the side of Innominate Tarn, on Haystacks, where the water gently laps the gravelly shore and the heather blooms and Pillar and Gable keep unfailing watch… And if you, dear reader, should get a bit of grit in your boot as you are crossing Haystacks in the years to come, please treat it with respect. It might be me.” Alfred Wainwright Memoirs of a Fellwanderer
Hauling up Fleetwith Pike with Haystacks casting long shadows behind.
Left: the memorial to Fanny Mercer – an unfortunate victim of Fleetwith Edge.
Fleetwith Edge plunges into the valley, directing the eye over Buttermere and Crummock Water beyond. Lake District views don’t get much better than this.
Warnscale Head bothy; reassuringly rustic, both inside and out.