How a rainy day mission to visit Lake District tarns resulted in the discovery of dramatic ravines and hidden valleys. And all in one of its most well-walked places...
Do you remember going out to play as a kid? Running outside in a kind of bewildered frenzy. Sprinting, jumping, shouting, chasing, hiding. It was just you, your feet, your mates and your imagination. And whatever the place near you had to offer. On one wintry day in Wasdale we were keen to get out and play, but the place that day didn’t seem to offer much. Shows what we knew…
A wispy ceiling of cloud lay over the hills, hiding anything over 500m in cool grey, and fat raindrops left glassy erratic trails on the window pane. In the breakfast room of the Wasdale Head Inn, I held a mug of hot coffee as photographer Tom, buddy Jack and I discussed our plans. Above the cloud, snow coated the highest tops. Wanting to stay below the snowline, but still get into the deeper wildness of the hills, we had decided to do something a little different. Go somewhere we hadn’t been before. Rather than bagging summits, we were going to bag tarns.
Located high in the hills, enclosed in arms of rock and often inhabiting areas of rugged remoteness, we hoped that making these the subject of our trip would lead us on a bit of an adventure. We had spotted three tarns within easy striking distance of each other, creating a rough horseshoe around Nether Beck, a quiet valley slightly aside from the big honeypot hills. It’s not especially famous, but in a place as richly populated with epic hills as Wasdale, that anonymity is actually quite something. We stacked our plates, abandoned the last dregs of tea and went out into the bleak grey to play.
Outside, the rain had ceased and diffuse sunlight cast a pearly sheen on Wast Water – an appropriate start and end point for our tarn-bagging adventure. The scree on the opposite slopes reflected darkly on its surface, the air cool and freshly washed. The path towards Greendale Tarn, the first on our list, broke off from the road, gently rising. An easy, rocky track through rain-bowed bracken, gorse and sheepmunched turf. It soon steepened, coming closer to the white bolt of the Gill. The burn flows straight out of its namesake tarn, fed by several streamlets flowing off Seatallan above. This slightly wonky, misshapen hill leans heavily to the southeast, as though it has sunk a little in the marshy ground. Rainwater runs down its long slopes on this side, into numerous burns which gather and plough into a steep ravine. The drama of it appeared early and took us by surprise. Here, only a few hundred metres from the road, was a wild-feeling gully, with dark rocks and jags of white water, bounded by gorse with buttery yellow flowers.
We continued upward, hopping between damp, lichen-spotted rocks, heading towards a grassy crest, beyond which our first target lay. The closer we got, the more our sense of the hills changed. We saw no other walkers, not even any boot prints. We heard nothing but the splash of the river and our own panted laughter. This didn’t feel like the busy hub of the Lake District we had left only an hour before. A few more steps on firm grass between rain-slicked rocks led us to the cusp of the hanging valley. The sky expanded and Greendale Tarn glimmered beneath.
Here, there are no waterfalls to draw hoards – no largeness, height or depth to get it on any lists. The tarn simply spoons quietly between Middle Fell and Seatallan. But when I say quietly, I mean silently, with the atmosphere of a cathedral. On one side, it is enclosed
by a slope of rusting grass, on the other by slate-grey tumbled rocks. It sits there, clear and somewhat slightly ruffled by the breeze. It feels entirely private.
I plunged our collector’s bottle into the water, which closed on my hand like cold steel, and part filled it before tucking it away in my bag. The path we had followed up trundled off along the eastern shore to return over Middle Fell – an easy variation on a shorter day. But on this day, we had more to explore, we wanted fewer paths and – despite our claims to the contrary – we still wanted a summit.
Seatallan’s top lingered in the cloud, just under 300m above. From it, we might, if the weather broke, be able to see the watershed summits that are partly responsible for the creation of two of the Lake District’s most dramatic and beloved valleys. Rain that falls on the more northerly slopes of the line of hills from Pillar to Cawfell runs into Ennerdale, feeding the river and forming the valley. Rain that falls on the more southerly-oriented slopes gurgles into Wasdale. As we climbed neighbouring Seatallan we hoped for a glimpse of this
piece of natural geological engineering.
But the forecast prevailed, and Seatallan that day was a frozen, bald summit before a featureless white backdrop. It was a bit like being actors in front of a blue screen. Except it was white, and we were hillwalkers, and there would be no glorious panorama projected across it on this day. We’d have to go elsewhere.
After tapping the trig point and scoffing snacks in a frozen shelter cemented with crusted snow we resumed our mission. One tarn bagged – or bottled – another two to go.
Scoat Tarn is a messy puddle-splodge sitting at 600m between Scoat Fell and Red Pike whose outflow runs 200m downhill, bundling into two other burns and becoming Nether Beck. Greendale Tarn had felt removed from the big familiar fells, albeit it with a proper footpath leading towards it. This one had no such thing, just a black dashed line on the map that shrugged and promised nothing. But on this trip, the promise of nothing was precisely the opposite – it was the promise of something, we just didn’t know what that was yet... We set off down the northern slopes of Seatallan, skirting between crags and mossy boulders, carefully navigating over streams to the base of the valley and the dark glide of Nether Beck. Above us, misty cloud swirled around the tops, hiding a land of bitter cold, snow and rock. Crags, dark with dampness, sailed out of the white.
Where Nether Beck split into a confluence of burns, we began again to climb. In his book of the Western Fells, Alfred Wainwright gives Scoat Tarn only a brief
“LOW TARN BEING, EXPECTEDLY, LOWER, WAS LESS DRAMATIC ON THE APPROACH AND WE SKIRTED ITS EDGE QUICKLY”
mention, a footnote on the ascent of Scoat Fell from Wasdale. Beneath a sketch of a shattered boulder, he writes: “The biggest attraction en-route is Scoat Tarn, the grandest of the western tarns and itself sufficient to justify the walk.”
And grand it is indeed. The climb alongside the lively slosh of the burn, enclosed by tufted grass slopes and rockfall, was captivatingly desolate. A curtain of white cloud brushed the ground ahead. On the cusp of that grass and misty white, we stepped onto a small flattening and followed the aisle of the burn onward. At its end, an amphitheatre of icy rock, the tarn gleaming beneath a blue sky.
I stood at its edge, the wind blowing snow-cold across my face and fingers, which curled in response into the sleeves of my jacket. The relentless white cloud had momentarily, and perfectly, broken apart and the tarn churned, rippling in a scene of quiet drama. This, indeed, was enough to justify the walk.
Barely resisting the masochistic urge to strip down for a dip in the leadcold water, we scooped a little of the tarn into our collector’s bottle and set off for the last on our list – Low Tarn.
At this point we left behind any trace of a path, cutting south over a hummocky shoulder to the second highest point of the day, where the wind ran down the slopes with a terrier-tooth nip. Low Tarn being, expectedly, lower, was less dramatic on the approach and we skirted its edge quickly, stopping only briefly to add a scoop to our collector’s bottle before resuming our yomp, coming into sight of one of the area’s most compelling hills.
The buttressed western face of Yewbarrow captivated each of us from the moment it loomed into view. “That’s one of my favourite hills in the Lake District,” mentioned photographer Tom as we gazed at it, transfixed. Jack and I, neither of whom had climbed it before, eagerly began tracing ascent routes with wide eyes, scanning its sheer walls and taking in the easy sloped skyline, which dropped to a rocky, precipitous prow. It had just ploughed straight out of Wasdale and onto the top of my ‘to climb’ list. In the pass between it and Red Pike, we glimpsed the grim, snowy top of Kirk Fell and its neighbouring dark peaks. We soon rejoined the path, crossed a footbridge to a better one and emerged on the shores of Wast Water. Our collector’s bottle needed one final, completing scoop and I picked my way down to the pebbly shore. The screes, as before, reflected in the water, seemingly paused mid-rush in their tumultuous descent. Water gurgled into the bottle, filling it to the top.
We had set out to discover a rarely trodden area of the Lake District, to have an adventure and to let our imaginations roam over the hills. We’d discovered all that, and the natural splendour of wild, unremarked upon places.
A slow-moving, calm lake, and two slow-moving, calm walkers. At Wastwater, about to begin the quest.
It might look like a desert but this was very, very wet. The slopes of Seatallan heading to the Pots of Ashness.
Inspecting a rain gauge on Scoat Tarn.
Heading over Over Beck. Cheers! Feeling high at Low Tarn.