Tarns – Burnmoor Tarn

As flattering a view as it gets…

The beauty of the Lake District lies not in its Lakes, nor its mountains, but rather in the combination, the amalgam of them: water and wood and stone.
But when it comes to bodies of water, the Lakes boast more than just its Sixteen Lakes. There are over 200 hundred bodies of water, tarns of every size and shape and elevation, decorating pastoral valley floors, or perched in rocky cwms. These too are essential to the beauty and drama of the Lake District.
During the course of my wanderings, collecting all 214 Wainwrights, I’ve seen tarns by the score. How many, I don’t know, I never kept a check upon them the way I did on summits. But whether at close range, or via the panoramas of 214 summits, I’ve probably laid eyes on all but a few.
Some are more memorable than others. One such is Burnmoor Tarn.
Personally, I find Burnmoor Tarn a dull, tedious, featureless sheet of water in a dull, tedious setting. Given how much I dislike it, it’s no doubt ironic that I have seen it at close quarters more often than the vast majority of Lakeland tarns. And I’m prejudiced because of my first visit to it.
This was way back in the Sixties, in the very early days of walking, when I was not yet in my teens and my sister six years younger, and our expeditions were correspondingly limited. The adults decided that we’d combine a day out on the ‘Ratty’ with a walk out of Boot as far as Burnmoor Tarn, a decision in which I was not involved.
A trip on the ‘Ratty’ was more or less mandatory on our early Lake District holidays and our stayover in Eskdale usually meant a walk up the road to Boot, the ‘capitol’ of Eskdale. There’s only a short road into the village, terminating at the footbridge over the river, which was guarded by a telephone box painted grey: the first non-red kiosk I ever saw. Three paths led onwards: that through the gate on the right, before the bridge, was a sandal-friendly rough lane which climbed windingly up beside the Whillan Beck. We never went far, just up to where low but safe falls were easily visible in the Beck and we children could play.
Across the bridge, two footpaths ascended steeply out of the village. We would, at my urging, take that directly ahead one day in the seventies, leading to the foothills of the Boat How ridge, but this day, Dad led us onto the path ascending to the right, beside a wall, angling across the wooded, scrubby fellside.
It was steep, or so I remember it being: too steep, at least, for my liking, so I was not best happy to start with. I don’t remember the conditions under which we started, but probably they were dull to begin with. Certainly, that’s the way it was going.
At the edge of the valley, the path leveled out, leaving behind the woods and the wall, and opening onto a shelving green moorland, the path leading towards the brow of the nearby slope.
Given that Burnmoor lies between foothills to the west, and Scafell’s grassiest, least interesting and completely unphotogenic flank, I don’t think there would have been much to look at on the best of days. But the sky was getting greyer, the probability of rain growing ever nearer as we walked on, across an undulating moorland of little grassy ridges, interminable.
We’d trudge up a ridge to reveal a shallow grassy dip to cross to trudge up the further ridge to reveal a shallow grassy dip to cross, over and again, and it got colder and duller, and the rain got closer and the mood got gloomier and Dad kept encouraging us by saying it was only over the next ridge, probably far less often than memory now suggests but still too often for any of us to retain any faith that we would ever get there.
Then, at last, it was just over the next ridge, a flat, low-shored, spreading body of water, steel grey, with no features visible around it either close to hand or at distance, and we trudged down to the shore, which was the exact moment the rain chose to start, so we didn’t stay above a few seconds, just turned round and started back over that same undulating moor and the equally distant valley edge.
That first visit has coloured every subsequent visit to Burnmoor Tarn, or even the mere sight of it in a view. It has no appeal.
I’ve been back several times. The route we’d walked was, though I’m not sure if we knew it at the time, part of the Wasdale Corpse Road, a relic of the days before there was a church and consecrated ground in Wasdale, when bodies had to be carried across the fells by horseback for Christian burial in Eskdale. There is a Ghost Story associated with this route: in centuries past a young man of Wasdale Head died and was taken on the Corpse Road, his grieving mother following. It was a day of rain and low cloud and, in the vicinity of Burnmoor Tarn (where else?) the horse took fright at something and galloped off into the cloud. Despite desperate searching it could not be found.
The heartbroken mother returned to Wasdale but died herself within the year. Her body was carried along the Corpse Road on another day of rain and cloud. But in the vicinity of the Tarn, her horse was similarly spooked and ran off. This time the search was even more intensive, for no-one could accept the loss of two members of the same family. And a horse carrying a body was found. But it was that of the son, the previous year. That was taken to Eskdale and interred, but the mother’s body was never seen again. And it is said that, sometimes, travellers crossing the moor in low cloud, will hear the pounding of hooves and see a shadowy horse shape gallop past then with a coffin on its back.
There were no such conditions on the day we decided to climb the other part of the Corpse Road, out of Wasdale on a sunny, clear afternoon. The ascent from the valley was nothing like as steep as at the Eskdale end, but the views were considerably better. Wasdale Head lay behind, ringed with fells that looked at the more impressive from the climb. The saddle at the lip of the valley was at that exact mid-height point that gives the mountains heft and substance, a stunning proportion impossible to capture in a photo.
The Tarn lay ten minutes walk beyond the saddle, in its shallow and, this time, green bowl. Its waters were almost blue, almost sparkling. There could not be a greater contrast to that long ago walk out of Eskdale, but Burnmoor was still flat and dull, and we were on the way back within ten minutes, enjoying far more the views into Wasdale.
Since then, I’ve seen the Tarn at relatively close quarters three to four times, twice after walking to, and out of Miterdale Head to again examine the geographical curiosity that separates the two.
My last ‘close encounter’ was another Miterdale expedition, but this time a more ambitious one: ascending from the lower valley to the ridge on a day of low cloud, following the top of the Screes with will-o’-the-views into Wasdale, and descending from Illgill Head towards the saddle on the Corpse Road.
A formal route would require me to descend as far as the Corpse Road, follow this around the head (and foot) of Burnmoor Tarn, then break along it’s eastern shore as far as Miterdale Head. In short, I was supposed to walk around three sides of this big, dull, tedious tarn in dull, overcast conditions, right? Not likely!
Contouring across that flank of Illgill Head on pathless, tough, grass, sometimes softish underfoot, was in no way a pleasant experience, especially with the Tarn down there on my left, spread out as if it were on a map, but it was far better to get it out of my sight sooner rather than later! I dropped down into Miterdale with gladness in my heart.
So that’s Burnmoor Tarn, and why I don’t like it, and why it’s one of the few places in the Lakes where, given the complete restoration of my walking abilities, I am far from eager to return. On the other hand, I am tickled by the recollection of that rotten day so long ago, and it might be instructive to climb once again out of Boot, just to see if my memories of the walk accord with its reality. I am, after all, prejudiced.

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