Little Gems – Black Fell

Ambleside and the head of Windermere from Black Fell

The Lake District is not just good for the big, all day walks, through stirring country, striding out in the sky all day, returning fatigued with satisfaction. It’s also blessed with little fells, miniatures in the midst of high country that offer nothing better than an afternoon’s quiet and gentle exercise, and views that are an over-reward for the effort necessary to reach their tops.
They’re fells for those who are ageing, whose stamina and agility is not what it once was. For those who have families adorned with small children, whose safety and stamina has to be the first consideration, for those whose time is restricted, for walkers who are starting their holiday in the middle of the day and want a good little leg-stretcher, a loosener before the serious business of Helvellyn or the Pike in the morning.
They’re fells for days that started with cloud and rain overhanging everything, and not just Skiddaw, only to clear unexpectedly at 2.00pm, leaving the air smelling fresh and clean. They’re even fells for that long summer evening, when the sun shows an extreme reluctance to leave the sky and the light is soft and rich.
It’s a bit of a cliche, but for one reason or another, they’re little gems and I’m going to write about a few of them in this new series.

First, and almost the lowest of the low in the Wainwrights is Black Fell, in the Southern Fells, a low and rambling wedge of land taking up a surprising length of Windermere’s western shores. Geographically, it’s the easternmost extension of the Coniston Group: where that range traditionally is bounded by the Yewdale fells limb of Wetherlam, the ground extends beyond the Tilberthwaite Valley, encompassing the little top of Holme Fell and, after being crossed by the main Coniston-Ambleside road at its lowest point, rises to touch the 1,000′ contour one last time, at Black Fell’s summit. Beyond it, the ground falls away at last towards Windermere.
Whilst it’s possible to force away up through the trees that cluster on the eastern flank, paths are not easy to follow in the plantations and there is little to see among the trees. The usual route crosses the fell on a well-established bridleway, from the north-western corner, overlooking the lowest part of Langdale, as far as the plantations south of the fell, which hold the famous Tarn Hows. The path itself simply doubles back, uphill, to the surprisingly isolated summit and its impressive cairn.
The start of the walk is a white gate on the east of the Coniston-Ambleside road, just before the road disappears into the trees to drop, quite sharply, towards Skelwith Bridge. There is a lay-by which doubles as the approach to a farm access on the opposite side, about 100 yards away in the Coniston direction: do NOT block the farm road.
From the gate, the walk starts immediately, and surprisingly steeply up a grassy bank about fifty feet high. This is actually the most strenuous walking between here and the summit.
The bridleway levels off just beyond the crest and trends gently up and down across the wide flank of Black Fell, heading generally in a direction south of south-east. Trainers are good enough for this section, although overall walking boots are preferable, particularly for the last section. The way bypasses a working farm – the path becoming heavily-rutted in this area – and ambles forward until it is south of the summit. Then it begins to descend noticeably, into a wide and shallow col. Plantations appear ahead, behind a well-constructed drystone wall, and the path heads towards a prominent ladder-stile. look, however, left for a path breaking off and doubling back uphill.
After an initial section of very easy scrambling, the path emerges into the open. The summit rocks are visible half-right and the path heads fairly directly towards them, emerging on a broad platform decorated by a substantial cairn, a substantial wall b=with a massive step-stile leading over it, the whole thing guarded by a surprisingly steep trench close at hand to the west.
There used to be some doubt about whether there were rights of way across the wall. Most people will cross the stile just to see what it’s like on that side, but wandering too far is not recommended, there being no discernible paths and the ground soon starting to fall away.
The view is exceptionally good for such a low summit, but it comes from Black Fell’s relative isolation. Windermere is seen at length, a side-on view of the upper two-thirds of Lake, with the islands opposite Bowness Bay being a particular highlight under a high sun. It’s a superb station for the Ambleside-based walker, on the first day of his holiday, to get a sense of the local geography, and a good look at the major fell-groups – the Conistons, Bowfell and the Crinkles, the Langdale Pikes, the Fairfield Horseshoe, Red Screes and Kirkstone Pass and the Ill Bell Range: a week’s walking to study for so little effort.
Those who do not have such ambitions will experience the joy of reaching a summit for very little expenditure of time or energy, and will relish the views as a proper reward.
Enterprising walkers, especially those conscious of geography, will have worked out that the route back involves a biggish detour to the south, and will want to consider the possibility of just striking out west and hitting the bridleway overland. This is perfectly possibly, but the presence of the trench complicates things and a long, rough detour about its head, north, is necessary, on surprisingly rough terrain. Care is necessary and the detour ends up not really being a saving, especially on time, but if the weather is good, it can be a fun exercise in primitive route-finding. Once at the bridleway, walk home.

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