After one full day on the Isle of Man, we departed Douglas via the ferry to Heysham on the mainland. We used the 3 hour ferry ride to relax in the lounge area, since there wasn’t a ton to see in the empty Irish Sea – except for a huge wind farm.
Upon landing in Heysham, we attempted to catch a bus to Windermere. Unfortunately, the money we had gathered in change on the Isle of Man was Manx money, not widely accepted on the mainland. But of course they will take Sterling on the island… traveler beware! We were able to scrape together enough to get to Lancaster nearby. It seems like a town worth visiting, based on our brief glance as we sat down to lunch prior to catching a train the rest of the way to the Lake District.
The Lake District has lakes, it is true, but also England’s largest mountains. Windermere, the entry point to the central Lakes, is a small town with a resort feel. There are a variety of outdoor shops, our clue that this is a walker’s paradise. “Walking”, the British term for hiking, is how the locals connect with the “fells” (hills/peaks).
After our arrival we walked a short distance from the train station to a viewpoint called Orrest Head. Most of the trails in the National Park are actually on privately owned sheep rangeland, and a variety of creatively engineered self-closing gates keep the sheep where they’re supposed to stay.
Windermere is the largest in England, at more than 10 miles long! It’s tiny compared to the Great Lakes I grew up with but beautiful in the mountain setting.
We found a particularly wonderful park by the lakeside to enjoy a picnic dinner and an astonishing sunset, joined by some wildlife.
The next day we caught a bus to the town of Grasmere to hike a route we found in one of the local guidebooks. We visited the town center and began our walk along a road with pastures, fields, and streams – stereotypical English countryside.
Our first landmark was called Helm Crag – at 1,329′, not exactly the biggest peak but a fun short hike with an exciting 30′ summit scramble over challenging, near-vertical rock variously known as the Lion, the Howizer, or my favorite “The Old Woman Playing the Organ.”
We continued along the open ridge top to the West with easy routefinding. The ground was short grass (“moors”), mowed down by the sheep grazing all over the hills. As we ascended higher, the ground got very boggy and muddy – unexpected given the lack of recent rain! Ultimately we hiked most of the day with soaked shoes but that didn’t dampen our spirits.
Travelling over this open ridge was easy apart from the mushy ground. We felt like we were making progress along the ridge super quickly – an optical illusion due to the low prominence, yet rugged appearance, of the hills making them feel bigger than they really were. Eventually we came to the head of the valley where the ridge merged into a broader North-South saddle where we stopped for lunch.
It was an easy climb from there to the summit of High Raise (or “High White Stones”), the tallest of the Central Fells at just 2,500′. Due to its prominence, all of the tallest peaks of the Lake District were visible, from Scafell in the west to nearby Hellvellyn (at a whopping 3,000+’). Not to make light of these hills – the weather here is notoriously bad which increases the seriousness of adventuring on them.
High Raise is a very rounded summit, so finding the true summit is not actually straightforward. It’s the one with the informal stone wind shelters, not the one with the iron tripod. My guidebook gave me confusing directions on which was the true peak but if you visit both it’s clear.
The wind started to bring the chill so we descended along the continuing ridge below a sub summit called Sergeant Man, which we tagged quickly before continuing our descent. (Three “peaks” in one day! Andrea doesn’t know it yet but she’s been initiated into the ranks of peakbagging now). The ground was extremely soggy in this area and I actually briefly lost a shoe trying to navigate around a big pond.
I think we had just missed the snow melt season which left a great deal of moisture in the alpine. The descent to complete the loop hike got steeper and more rugged than the path used to climb up here. There was loose rock in a couple of places, very different than the soft grass on the other ridge. The routefinding was also a bit more challenging – it’d be easy to get sucked into the wrong valley which would complicate the hike out for sure. We were aiming for Easedale Tarn and it wasn’t too hard to locate the right turn off.
Once we reached Easedale Tarn the trail was well worn again and we made good speed through the farms in the valley below back to Grasmere where we capped off the day with a meal at the pub – a refreshing change from the Cascades where the next step is a 1.5 hour drive home from the wilderness. This is the double-edged sword of adventuring in Europe as I commented on during my visit to Germany’s Berchtesgaden National Park. You can reach great trails by bus, train, or walking and there are wonderful post-adventure amenities; but you never really feel like you’re fully in the wilderness, appreciating absolute solitude and an escape from the everyday.
The following day we had a relaxing visit to Ambleside (a perfectly named town) via the Windermere ferry. We visited the ruins of a Roman fort (really just a few foundation stones left in the ground) and had a sunny picnic in the local park before catching our train back to London that night.