Among the many things that the Blessed Wainwright achieved was the rescuing from obscurity of the beautiful name of Blencathra for the magnificent mountain standing to the north side of the broad Keswick – Penrith gap. When I was young, and first introduced to the Lakes, this splendid fell was known only by the prosaic name of Saddleback (from its appearance from the east, which highlights it’s twin-topped peak).
Skiddaw and Saddleback: the alliterative pair were the two dominant peaks, southward facing, their satellites grouped around them. If you looked hard at an Ordnance Survey map, squinting up your eyes, it was just about possible to read the bracketed qualification (or Blencathra) for the latter.
But already The Northern Fells had been published, last of the original volumes to be self-published, under the kindly-lent name of Henry Marshall, and Wainwright had devoted 36 pages, the most required for any fell in the Pictorial Guides, to a name he was determined to promote.
Nowadays, the map reads Blencathra (or Saddleback).
Blencathra presents a glorious frontage to the main A66 road, its symmetrical, batwing shape clawed by four deep and narrow gills, gouged out of the fell, leaving three upright, narrow-crested ridges reaching towards the skyline. Add in the rounded, grassy outliers at either end and the southern aspect offers nine separate routes of ascent before we even begin to consider approaches to Blencathra from other points of the compass.
I’ve climbed the fell twice, by different routes, each resulting in a memorable day, if not for exactly the same reasons. One route goes by Narrow Edge, the other by Sharp Edge. They’re not really suited to a round walk, though a strong walker who doesn’t mind a couple of miles of road – even if it’s a very busy dual carriageway – can link the two. Even then, I wouldn’t advise it, since both routes, and especially Sharp Edge, are routes of ascent, not descent.
To take Sharp Edge first, this walk lies slightly around the corner of the fell, on its eastern side. There are a variety of approaches. Walkers with a taste for long-distance routes can park at Mungrizedale and follow the valley of the young River Glenderamackin, crossing it at a footbridge to gain Scales col, but it is more convenient to either park at Scales and follow the path round the base of Scales Fell, or to do as I did and take to the old road from Scales and park in the little car park at the foot of Mousthwaite Comb.
Take the path to the left of the beck, the upper part of which can be clearly seen curving across the upper part of the Comb to reach the col. The path is distinct and offers no difficulties, but is not as enjoyable an ascent as it looks from below. The views are confined, and these are not greatly enhanced by reaching the col.
All is grassy on this flank of Blencathra, and the Glenderamackin runs through a largely featureless valley, none too far below the col, running from north round to east. Don’t descend to it, but turn to follow the path left, a wide groove running above the infant river.
Before long, Foule Crag – the lower half of the ‘saddleback’ – comes into view over the near skyline, an impressive and thrusting peak, arced above rugged rock. This grows steadily larger until the path crosses Scales Beck, where take the path turning upwards on its further bank, scrambling into the deep bowl containing the dark waters of Scales Tarn. Sharp Edge is the arête of naked rock occupying the skyline right.
The Edge, which is as little known in comparison to Helvellyn’s Striding Edge as it is more severe, dominates this walk. It should only be attempted by experienced fellwalkers, and should be avoided entirely if windy, wet or icy conditions. It is so central to the day that the walk can easily be divided into a trepidatious and cautious approach and a full of relief aftermath.
It can be avoided entirely by crossing the outflow of the Tarn and taking a broad path that joins the ascent over Scales Fell, and this should be done if weather conditions are adverse, but really, you have come this way in order to tackle Sharp Edge and it would be a serious failure of nerve not to even approach it.
The path leads onto the base of the ridging, curving to the left above the Tarn to reach the beginning of the rocks. The crest is narrow and will attract adventurous scramblers, but as with Striding Edge, a well-made path follows the ridge, mostly on the other side, about ten feet below the crest.
But as progress is made, in safety, this option runs out, the path moves upwards and meets the crest along a ledge of rock that comes to an end above a naked strip of knife-edged rock. This is the acid test. To proceed, it is necessary to follow the ledge to its end, to sit down and, very carefully, shuffle off onto the knife-edged. Walkers over six foot tall have the advantage in being able to get a foot on the arête before letting go above, instead of having to slide off onto it.
A similar ledge is on the other side, which you will need to grab and pull yourself up onto before shuffling round to the right and safety. But there is a moment between where you have to take a single, unsupported step on the knife edge, with neither ledge to hold.
Everyone must approach this point in their own manner and there will be those who are unable to face it. I knew that if I didn’t do it immediately, without hesitation, I would lose my nerve and be unable to do it at all. And afterwards, with my heart pounding for five minutes and my legs elastic, I found myself rattled: cloud had descended on the ridge and I found myself frozen, between what I couldn’t see ahead, and what I knew I couldn’t face going back.
In clear conditions, there is nothing to fear on the remainder of the ascent, though there are still two sections where scrambling on rock is necessary, and even fun, until the gradient eases off to bypass the peak of Foule Crag, and lead to an easy stroll across the depression to the summit.
The best return on this ascent is over Scales Fell itself, to Scales, though peak-baggers will turn their eye to the unlovely, shapeless bulk of Mungrizedale Common, backed onto Blencathra. It’s ‘top’ is only a tiny distance above its unappealing roundness, it’s generally wet underfoot everywhere, and a bee-line can be made to join the faint path making an arrow-straight way for the cairn.
But it’s in Wainwright, so do it, count it off and follow the path back to the Glenderamackin col to take the path downstream until it’s possible to break off for Scales col, Mousthwaite Comb and the descent to your car.
Looking down Narrow Edge
Every walker should, when they have gained the necessary experience and confidence, test themselves against Sharp Edge, but as an approach whose every step is thrilling, and which leads unerringly to the summit, the frontal assault via Hall’s Fell cannot be equalled.
For this route, park at the eastern end of Threlkeld village, off the main A66, and take the old road towards Threlkeld Hall, turning left along a lane to the open base of the fell, passing Gategill, where the Blencathra foxhounds are kept. Gate Gill lies directly ahead, another of the myriad routes up this face, but bear right and strike up a steep, zig-zagging path up the base of Hall’s Fall.
This part of the walk is as close as it gets to being tedious. Height must be gained, and with effort. At 1,400′, the walks levels out slightly, and veers across the broadest beam of Hall’s Fell, until the adjacent Doddick Fell and Scales Fell come into view, at which point the route begins to trend back towards the west, approaching the point at 2,000′ where Hall’s Fell narrows and becomes a rocky ridge, ascending a succession of turrets, eyes fixed firmly forwards upon the unwavering peak above.
From here to the summit, every step is a delight, as the ridge tightens, allowing no variation or escape. Care is needed, and the experienced walker is favoured, especially along a short section, midway, where the path becomes a rock groove, along the side of a narrow crest, which is best dealt with by keeping your hands on the crest and edging crab-wise: walkers unfortunate enough to be under 5′ 10” will be progressively disadvantaged on this section.
Even here, the sense of danger is minimal to a cool head, and it cannot be compared to the bad section on Sharp Edge. Beyond, the ridge curves west, then back to north, before making a bee-line for the summit, which is literally only a couple of yards beyond the crest.
Though it’s a surprisingly short ascent compared to other walks, Narrow Edge is pure delight because of that long, high, steep-sided ridge, poised above shattered territory to either side, and its abrupt, unequivocal end. Relish it.
The best descent is westward, following the rim of the fell over Gategill Fell Top and descending in a smooth, wide, grassy curve around Blease Fell to return to Threlkeld. Indeed, the return was so smooth that just about an hour after leaving Blencathra’s summit, I was staring back up at it from the centre of the Castlerigg Stone Circle. And that’s fast!