Oxendale, with Crinkle Crags and Bowfell behind
The walker with a car has the unbeatable advantage in the Lake District of being able to get to exactly the right, and closest spot from which to begin any walks he or she undertakes (subject to the obligation to park sensibly and responsibly, and certainly not illegally). On the other hand, the walker with a car suffers from an not unimportant disadvantage: that all walks must end where they began, which can often demand an unwelcome artificiality to the chosen route, or even an inferior route, to bend the footsteps back to the motor.
This Great Walk is a perfect example. If you propose to tackle Crinkle Crags, Bowfell and Esk Pike in a single day, which will give you an absolutely magnificent experience, the most sensible course would be to base yourself at the head of Middle Eskdale, parking in the car park set up at the foot of Hard Knott Pass, and make an easily planned and winningly ‘pure’ circuit from there.
If, however, you choose to start from Great Langdale whilst based from a motor vehicle of your choosing (or economic standing), you have to face up to the fact that the last of these fells lies outside the valley, and represents the furthest point on the walk. If you were not so bound, if, perchance, you had the considerable advantage of a driver who has no interest in the high fells but is willing to drive to a place of your nomination and amuse themselves there until you arrive, sweaty and content, hours later, you can descend from Esk Pike to Esk Hause and make for Borrowdale by a choice of superb descents or, if you happen to be verging on the superhuman, along the northernmost continuation of the Scafell massif, over Allen Crags and Glaramara.
But you can still do this walk without feeling that you are committing yourself to a long and dreary return journey, though this aspect should be reserved for those who are experienced walkers, for reasons that will be explained later.
From Langdale, the start and finish should be the car park of the Old Hotel, Dungeon Ghyll (and preferably at the back). The head of the valley is immediately before you, with the Band thrusting down and outward from the dominant vision of Bowfell, at an angle that exposes the wide expanses of Mickleden whilst simultaneously concealing the alternative branch of Oxendale, but it is by the latter that the walk commences.
The initial approach is on tarmac: return to the road and go forward up the valley for a short distance, until the road executes a ninety degree left turn (much in the manner that certain political parties need to be doing). Leave it at the gate opposite onto a farm road leading to Stile End, sitting at the very foot of the Band. The track leads out of the farm yard onto the toe of the Band, but escape the broad path leading upwards to the right, go straight on and quickly descend into Oxendale itself, a short, narrow valley with very high walls closing in, making it a complete contrast to Mickleden.
It’s impossible to go far in Oxendale without starting to climb. Cross the footbridge and follow the path on the southern bank and this is demonstrated as it begins to rise across the lowest flanks of Pike O’Blisco. Bluffs thrust out ahead and the path angles to pass behind these, into the upper reaches of Browney Gill, where it continues as a narrow trod, high above the beck. This section is a typical, if miniature glacial valley. It shouldn’t be too long before walkers can be seen crossing around the head of the valley, from left to right: they will be preceding you on the long approach to the start of the summit ridge of Crinkle Crags.
The long approach to the Crinkles
The path emerges at the edge of an area of wide, level ground, with Red Tarn visible half left, near enough to visit if the mood takes, although walkers bound on the full ridge as far as Esk Pike and beyond should beware of extraneous diversions. There is a long, and in some minds tedious trudge ahead, across a wide, sloping moorland. The walking is easy, but long, and the improving views behind, towards Windermere, and south westward, towards the slowly opening Duddon Valley, are ample justification for halts.
Another, more apposite diversion might be to take a thin track left, not far after leaving Browney Gill behind, crossing rough ground to the miniature peaks of Cold Pike. But even more than Red Tarn, this should be undertaken only by the supremely fit (and confident).
Instead, the walker in tune with the day should be experiencing a rising tide of anticipation, heightening all the more after the first rocks of the First Crinkle come into view ahead. This is the road to high adventure, to the most sublime ridge-walk in all the Lakes.
The First Crinkle is the most extensive. The path leaps up onto naked rock, and twists and turns upwards until it emerges above the world. This Crinkle is detached from the main ridge, a wide col below before things start getting continuously hairy. The Second Crinkle looms high above a gentle foreground, and presents you with your first opportunity to assess the Bad Step.
The Bad Step
This lies part way up a direct gully rising to the right of the Second Crinkle’s highest point. It’s the obvious route to the summit, but it’s choked by two fallen chockstones, wedged together about a third of the way up. Escape is possible by climbing the wall to the right, but this is genuine, albeit short climbing. Those of us who are not confident about clinging on to relatively sheer rock without plentiful hand- and footholds everywhere to be seen will baulk at this route, but they should nevertheless obey the tradition of following the gully as far as the Bad Step and studying it, as if planning to conquer it ‘next time’. As long as this is done, it is permissible to find an easy route by contouring around the shattered base of the rocks to the left of the gully, as seen on the approach, until the land above eases sufficiently to pick a mild scramble upwards, to come upon the summit of Crinkle Crags from behind.
The main summit is but the beginning. The path follows the spine of the ridge onwards, snaking behind the backs of the Third, Fourth and Fifth Crinkles, each of which lie between 10′ and 50′ above the path: these are not diversions, but part of the ridge and must all be visited for their subtly altered views into the green pastures of Great Langdale. Beyond the Fifth Crinkle, the path crosses the long top of Gunson Knott before beginning to lose some height. Each step along this ridge demands attention and concentration: this is not a park stroll, for the bones of the mountain are on plain view here, the more so for the millions of steps that have kicked into and scarred the way.
Bowfell lies in promise ahead, but it is not until the descent from Gunson Knott to the col at Three Tarns that it can be seen without obstruction. The serried ranks of Bowfell Links are directly ahead, an angry scar of a path climbing to their right, onto the broader part of Bowfell’s summit, making it plain that, however unpleasant the forthcoming sea of stones may appear, there is no other practical path to progress this walk.
Bowfell from Gunson Knott
Choices can be made at this point. If weather conditions or strength are failing, bear right onto the unmistakable path down the band, which will return you to Stile End: Bowfell is a dangerous place in cloud and rain, and you won’t necessarily get away with it as I did. There is also an alternative to the scree-scar directly ahead, but this is a more roundabout, and testing ascent, and should not be considered if the original plan to continue to Esk Pike is to be adhered to. Just accept your fate, commit yourself to the stones and climb upwards with fortitude, until the path bears left to round the end of the Links, the gradient, and the rubbish underfoot, eases, and it is possible to make a civilised, but possibly queuing approach to the summit rocks, set away to the left of the path crossing the top.
When the view has been drunk in to sufficiency, return to the path and follow this across the top. A short digression, right, to the top of the Great Slab, visible from the path, is recommended, but otherwise, continue on, leaving Langdale behind, until the ground begins to fall away and descend on rough but negotiable ground to Ore Gap. This is a final chance to cut short the full route, if it is so desired, by descending on the right as far as the route from Angle Tarn to Esk Hause. Stronger walkers will reach this point an hour or more later.
Rather than retreat, ascend out of Ore Gap on an equally well-established path bound for Esk Pike. The way is of a similar degree of steepness and stiffness as the descent from Bowfell, and should be regarded as the last substantial test on the walk. There are no difficulties in route finding, though the path crosses the fell to the Eskdale side of the summit, which requires a brief diversion to attain.
Esk Pike from the descent from Esk Hause
From here it is easy to see your proximity to Esk Hause, and the foot of the Scafells. It would be sensible to turn back at this point, drop down to Ore Gap and gain the homeward path from there, because every step along the ridge takes you further away from Langdale and the car, but on a gloriously sunny afternoon, with Esk Hause so near, it will be a very disciplined walker indeed who can resist carrying on to the cairn at the top of the tilted plateau. And it can be done with little extra drain on energy which must, by now be starting to get depleted. Go forward, enjoy the walk to its utmost, including a couple of sections where the path follows shelves of rock, and come to the top of Esk Hause.
But don’t dawdle. The miles back are long and, if not overly taxing, should not be taken lightly. Descend to the wall-shelter on the lower, transverse path, enjoy the silhouette of the two Gables in the west, and turn east for Langdale. The descent to Angle Tarn crosses the fellside in a series of levels and drops. The path from Ore Gap is passed after the Tarn comes into sight, dark in its rocky bowl under the shadow of Bowfell, but light and cool once you wearily cross its outflow.
Descending towards Rossett Pike
What lies ahead is the most painful trial of the day. After reaching the final fell, after turning for home and after descending for so long, there is one final, cruel ascent of 300′, to escape Angle Tarn and come to the top of Rossett Gill. Those whose legs can stand even more ascent at this point can divert to the left on a narrow path that leads to the summit of Rossett Fell, but unless this is a once-in-a-lifetime visit, an unrepeatable peak-bagging opportunity, it is respectfully suggested that the fell is too far out of the class of the walking today as to be not worth the effort.
When I was last here, the uppermost section of Rossett Gill remained the torn and tattered remnant of the route that had made it a place to be avoided. No doubt that has now been corrected by the National Trust, and a well-laid highway is now underfoot. In case this should not be the case, descend cautiously, keeping the eyes peeled for a path angling away to the right, and when it appears, get on it straight away. This route follows the two easeful zigzags of the former Rossett Gill route, and have been so successfully restored that the fellside has long since recovered from the ugly scars of the impatient hordes who charged up any old way. If an easy life is sought, descend these without incident, cross the bridge at the foot of Stake Gill and followed the long, flat route through Mickleden, free from gradients, under a sun descending towards late afternoon, or even early evening.
If, however, you are an experienced walker, a better alternative is available, for which it will be necessary to have a copy of Wainwright’s Southern Fells (First Edition), open to Rossett Pike p3. This depicts the former pony-route of ancient times, which meandered in gentle gradients across the eastern flanks of the Gill, joining the main route only for the final section of the upper zigzag. According to Chris Jesty’s Second Edition, no traces of the path can now be found on the ground, which is an awful thing. However, for an experienced fellwalker, it should remain possible to follow the old route, and give yourself a more fitting finale to this already excellent day.
Those who set out to repeat this route should leave the upper zigzag where it doubles back on itself. Continue across the pathless fellside maintaining the same angle of descent as the relaid path. This is the key to tracing the pony route: a straight line will bring you within sight of a grassy tongue, dropping to the left. A tiny pool behind a natural weir stands above the tongue and, if your route has been sufficiently exact, it will take you across the weir, at which point start to curve down to the left. The old path, which was very intermittent when I walked it, headed down the centre of the tongue in patchy zigzags: emulate this until the gills at either side are starting to converge and get deeper, threatening to be difficult to cross if you go much further. before this, escape to the right onto the other side of the gill, and continue downwards. This should not be possible for too much longer, due to the increasingly steep banks of the gill, so break across the fellside and around, through scrubby gorse, to gain an easier route of descent as far as the intake wall, where it appears that the path persists.
A judgement must be made as to when to cross it and descend into the soft area of moraines below. Be warned that the ground is soft, and a certain amount of careful stepping will be needed to reach the Beck, let alone find a possible crossing place.
Once this is done, however, the Mickleden highway will not be far away and now it is only a matter of time and distance before the path narrows, crossing behind the Old Hotel. Gaps lead down into the car aprk where, if correctly judged, the car will be only a handful of paces away.
It will have been a day to place in the memories.