Obscure Corners: The Calder Valley Circuit


The Calder Valley, seen from Whoap Beck in descent

There is more to the Lake District than the Great Walks and the Little Gems that attract walkers and visitors by the bushelful.
Though solitude and privacy gets harder to find by the year, especially in high summer, there are still walks that can offer, for the most part, loneliness and silence.
They may not rival the highest ground for excitement, or the vigour required to conquer the tops, but they offer a change of scene, and they offer visions of Lakeland that cannot be had from the more conventional days. Very few fells in the Lake District, in the Wainwrights are not worth walking. Even those that are not among the higher echelon offer the opportunity for a pleasant day.
Beyond the heads of Wasdale and Ennerdale, and the lesser valleys between them, long ridges reach seawards, grassy summits declining and, eventually, merging into, the West Cumberland Plain. I’ve taken to referring to these lonely, lowly fells – some of them Wainwrights, other relegated to the Outlying Fells, as the Western Margins.
If you’re looking for a pleasant and easy ramble in unvisited country, there is a circuit of the River Calder that takes in the fells on the southern shore of Ennerdale Water, together with Lank Rigg, the fell that Wainwright himself regarded as the loneliest in Lakeland. In sunny conditions, this is a refreshingly peaceful alternative to Great Gable, Pillar and their ever-busy ilk.
The major drawback of the walk is that it avoids sight of the rocky face of Crag Fell, overlooking Ennerdale Water. A start can be contrived from the Ennerdale Bridge area which would compensate to some extent for this, but which would leave to an excessively long road walk back, and can’t be recommended.
Instead, approach Ennerdale along the Cold Fell road, leaving Egremont on the coast road and rising to cross the foothills of the Western Margins. The road has widespread coastal views, although the inland vista is primarily of featureless green slopes.
A hundred or so yards short of the Kinniside Stone Circle – a modern day circle created by a geology teacher in 1925 as an example – the old, rutted mine road descends from a nearby fringe of trees. This is the key to the ascent and there is ample verge parking in the vicinity.
The approach to Grike has changed substantially from Wainwright’s day, with the establishment of another Ennerdale sub-forest on the southern flanks of the fell, reaching up within sight of the summit. The mine road is an easy, gently angled ascent, though much of it is confined within the forest which, being of Forestry Commission design, is glum and dark. In some places, I found the ruts almost impassable due to deep slutch.
Where the road emerges from the fringes of the forest, use a stile to escape onto the open fell to the left and bear uphill towards Grike’s penny plain top, an easy conquest. The views are not spectacular: the bulk of Crag Fell lying immediately eastwards restricts the view into Ennerdale, the lower end of the Lake being the most prominent sight from here. Nevertheless, the first summit of the day is always a welcome point: there’s a sense of achievement to being on any summit, and on a ridge walk there is always the feeling (and often the fact) that the hardest work has been done and the rest of the day can be spent in the metaphorically rarefied air of the tops.
Wainwright used to recommend descending to the continuation of the mine road at this point, to avoid the worst of the damp depression before Crag Fell, but the forest fence precludes this now. And on a sunny day, keeping to the ridge looks the more attractive prospect anyway. I don’t recall much in the way of soft ground to hinder me, but Chris Jesty is adamant that it still exists. Perhaps a sunny summer is the best time to test this?
Crag Fell is the highest point of the walk, and its highlight. Though the crags that award the fell its name are not viewable from this approach, the summit’s closer proximity to Ennerdale itself offers superb, if slightly lop-sided views down into the valley: of the head of the Lake, the deep forests and the relatively staid northern wall of the valley. Bear in mind, though, that Crag Fell’s top is at exactly that wonderful mid-height to emphasise the height and majesty of the surrounding fells.
Lunch is recommended here, to take advantage of the views. When ready to leave, take the path dropping away on the right, heading for the least appealing sector of the skyline, the rounded, unphotogenic Caw Fell.
From here, this lonely and distant fell can be reached in another three and a half miles, though it lacks in appeal except for long distance walkers who like to test themselves. From the Cold Fell Road it’s six miles there, and six miles back, without excitement or intrinsic interest: a long walk with little reward, either en route or on arrival, and lonely country if you sustain an injury.
This walk does not require you to make more than a token gesture in that direction, descending surprisingly steeply through the burgeoning forest before escaping over a stile into the open air, onto the end of the old mine road. At this point, we’re near the bottom of a dip, and the path now turns to the right and climbs, unusually steeply for the day, alongside a wall. Follow this to the  wall corner, where wall and path turn away left towards Caw Fell, and instead bear right, across grassy grounds, in the direction of the rounded hump of Whoap.
Whoap’s a bit of an oddity, apart from its unusual name. In The Western Fells, it looks substantial, with an isolated top and falls of 200 feet on either side, enough to suggest it qualifies as a separate fell. On the ground, it’s easy to see that it is nothing but a sea of grass, thick grass, so that the approach and descent are more like wading than walking, and Whoap lacks any kind of individuality. One gets the impression that Wainwright opted not to treat this as a separate fell because he didn’t want to bore himself tramping all over it, and most honest visitors will probably agree.
There are no paths on Whoap because it is carpeted in thick grass, and it will never ever have remotely enough visitors to blaze any kind of track along its placid ridges. But it does offer solitude, and the sounds of the wind and the birds, and  these are often precious things in the Lake District.
Descend from Whoap and climb the opposing slope to reach the littered top of the day’s last fell, the lonely Lank Rigg, scene of Wainwright’s amazing largesse by leaving a two bob bit near to its cairn in 1966 as a reward to one of The Western Fells‘ readers (it had been claimed by 6.00pm on the day of publication). There is little here to excite except solitude and privacy, although some searching under flat rocks may be worthwhile: it has become something of a tradition for walkers to leave coins for other searchers, and if you don’t find anything yourself, you can always play the game by sticking 50p under some likely stone, though it won’t get you the fish’n’chips Wainwright planned to spend his rash bounty upon. The views inwards to the fells are not impressive, but Lank Rigg enjoys a wide sea-vista that creates an amazing sense of space, which is worth the visit alone.
To return, retrace your steps in the direction of Whoap but, once in the saddle, bear left down easy slopes into the valley of the Calder, here in infant form. The valley is shallow and the walking easy, with a path forming on the right hand (northern) side of the river. Follow this until a track appears on the right, rising towards the low horizon. The Cold Fell Road comes as a complete surprise, being about ten feet away and in the process of bending around a corner. There is about a half mile to walk back to the Kinniside Stone Circle and the car.

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