Tarns – Goatswater


I’ve written about Goatswater before, in the context of it being one of the family’s ‘stock’ walks, repeated from holiday to holiday. Tarns were just some of the easily-achievable destinations to which the family was limited by the respective strength and stamina of its two youngest members, my sister and myself. Targets like Throstlegarth and Mickleden were flat, but walks to places like Goatswater introduced us to the uphill climb that was neither too distant nor too strenuous for little legs.
On the main road from Broughton to Coniston, on the approach towards the Village, there were a number of Public Footpath signposts, pointing fellwards towards Coniston Old Man. On a rare holiday without my Uncle, the four of us tried one of these, only to have it peter out in the open on the moor east of the Old Man. We wound up in the Village, three of us hanging around in the sun whilst Dad walked back to retrieve the car: I still have a vivid memory of a crowd of lads walking up the road chorusing the Lovin’s Spoonful’s big hit, ‘Daydream’ a song perfect for the conditions.
Though I’ll never know, perhaps that experience is what prompted Dad to first buy a Wainwright: the Southern Fells would have been the book of choice, given our habit of limiting ourselves to the south western quarter. Certainly, when we next tried a walk from the Coniston Road, it was from much further away, near Torver, it was along a route described by Wainwright, and it took us to Goatswater for the first time.
The approach is gentle enough, starting along a farm lane at a bend in the road, and easing upwards through woods to gain a path following the beck that descends from the tarn, high above. There’s not much to see in the early part if the walk, between the trees and the outwards swell of land from the edge of Cover Moor, but it’s quiet and a gentle uphill walk.
The first point of interest on the walk is Banishead Quarry. It’s developed a certain degree of fame now, but in the Sixties it was completely unheralded, despite the spectacular waterfall pouring into the unnamed ‘tarn’ in its bed. Even Wainwright passed it by with nothing more than a cursory mention.
Admittedly, both tarn and waterfall are artificial, but they’re no less a sight for that. Dad and I tried to find the source of the waterfall and, despite obstacles, squirmed round just far enough to see that it actually fell sideways out of an otherwise untroubled beck. And clearly there must have been an underground outflow as the water level never increased over the following years when we passed: no danger of the quarry filling up and spilling over.
Banishead Quarry was the true beginning of interest in the walk beyond its exercise. From here, the way came out into the open, still below the lip of the Moor, but only a short distance below the line of the Walna Scar Road, rounding the foot of Coniston Old Man’s south west ridge. But the section up to the road, and again beyond it, was on steep grass, the steepest gradient of the walk.
When it was done, we were let out onto the upper part of Cove Moor, on a path that hugged the wings of the ridge, in a wide, fractal curve around the edge of the moor, aiming for the turn into the corrie that holds the tarn. A little bit of uphill scrambling to round the final outcrop and take that first sight of Goatswater’s rocky shores, where we would fetch up.
For my sister and I, Goatswater was the destination: the intrinsic fascination with water, and shores, where we would stand, compulsively throwing in any stones that would fit our little hands. Goatswater was long and narrow, contained within its steep-sided hollow, with the rough, wall-like flank of the Old Man behind us and, across the tarn, the cliffs of Dow Crag.
That was what drew Dad and his elder brother. They’d stand side-by-side, twin binoculars fixed on the crags, sometimes calling me over and trying to direct my trembling hands to find little flashes of red or blue that were cragsmen, suspended by rope on vertical stone. My Dad and Uncle would have been up there themselves if they had the chance, the equipment, the experience: instead, they would find miniature climbs on the rocks behind us, rope up and scramble up.
One year, at least, they roped my sister and I in, literally. One would stand above, with the rope belayed, whilst we would make our way up stiffly, the other to one side, filming our endeavours with the cine camera. I heard Dad praising my sister to her mother as a natural, commenting on how she would clean handholds out with her fingers. When it was my next turn on the rope, determined to win the same praise, I spent so much time digging the moss out of a spectacularly easy crack that the whole sequence of the film is of me stood there, making no upwards progress.
For all that it was so easy to access from easy country, Goatswater was a rough place. It was always cold, the surface of the tarn white and choppy from the wind hissing through the corrie. Dow Crag leant a great tone to the atmosphere, but we were so regular in our visits.
We never went further than the shore beside the outflow, the path petering out yards from there. There were no heights from which to get a perspective on the tarn so I always think of it in that first sighting, as I ’rounded the corner’.
A couple of times I suggested going further on, following the shores of the tarn, then heading up the trackless wall of Goats Hause. That would have enabled us to look down upon Goatswater as a whole, and also to see out the other side. I was always curious to see what could be seen on the other side: it was the foundation of my urge to climb all the Wainwrights. There was no path, but there were no difficulties, and it wasn’t too steep, but my suggestions always fell upon deaf ears. Eventually, we’d pack up and set off back, down the way we came, to Torver and the car. Until the next time.
Since those days, I’ve never been back to Goatswater itself, though I have twice seen it by the view from Goats Hause that my family wouldn’t stir themselves to see.
Both times I was crossing the Hause as part of a walk between summits.
My first occasion was years ago, at the very beginning of my solo walks, a day spent in the southern part of the Coniston Range. There was no visit to Torver, nor any diversion to Banishead Quarry, just a crossing of Cove Moor on the Walna Scar Road, to the top of the Pass, and then the switchback route along the ridge of Dow Crag and its subsidiaries, before descending to cross the Hause en route to the Old Man.
And, a decade and more later, in the bright sun of a late afternoon of a glorious day, the tail end of a walk along the whole range, from the Old Man to Dow Crag, and Walna Scar Pass and back.
To be honest, from the Hause, Goatswater is nothing much to look at, though for once the sun glittered on its waters the way it never did from the shore. It belongs to Dow Crag’s crags, sombre and dark, as if on the edge of a storm. Sun does not suit it. The view from the Hause is not the view I remember when I think of Goatswater.

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