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


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.

Greendale Tarn

In­spect­ing a rain gauge on Scoat Tarn.



Head­ing over Over Beck. Cheers! Feel­ing high at Low Tarn.

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