Stage Three of the Grand Tour takes us from Wasdale to Keswick, West to North. This was the great unknown, the unexplored territory of that rainy day back in the Sixties. My family walked in this sector only a handful of times, less even than that, but over time I have driven these roads many times over, and climbed all the fells to be had in this distant quarter.
In Wasdale, we’d only got halfway down the lake, as far as Greendale, where the only other road in the valley escapes northwestward. Wasdale Head itself is not so far away that it’s a bind to drive on, but the valley is a cul-de-sac and there’s no option but to drive back. And this is a long drive to begin with. So, with a diversion or not, drive away from the lake, towards and through Gosforth, back to the coast road and continue north.
At Egremont, it’s back to the moors, Ennerdale 7m and a long ascent out of the village, onto the long grassy slopes of the area I’ve taken to calling the Western Margins, where the ridges descending from Wasdale, Blengdale and Ennerdale grow rounded and green, and expand like a Weight watcher at Xmas. The road passes the Kinniside Stone Circle, a fake circle created by an archaeologist as a demonstration for a class, and the forest road that provides access to the ridge that, long miles hence, leads to Pillar.
Once, parked on this road whilst setting off for a walk along the forest road, I returned to my car and, whilst removing my boots, put on the radio. It must have been Radio 4, for some obscure reason, because I found myself listening to a programme about Russian history, back far enough that it was still the Grand Duchy of Muscovy. The programme proved so fascinating that once I’d got rid of my walking gear, I sat up there listening through to the end, before descending, long and straight, to the mouth of Ennerdale.
Ennerdale Water, low and dark, fills the mouth of the valley and is seen, though not well, on the descent from the moors. On that first visit, the Anglers’ Rest Hotel still stood on the lakeshore, and my Uncle drove down to the hotel, on the worst and most rutted road I ever knew him to take. A few years later, in anticipation of the raising of the water level, to provide water to Whitehaven, the Anglers’ Rest was demolished, only for the plans to be rejected. Ennerdale Water is as it is since the days before the Forestry Commission moved in.
The valley is forbidden to cars, but it is still possible to drive to within a decent view of the lake without taking yourself out of the way for the next leg. There is no stable route: a number of little roads, fell roads that don’t get too high, twist and turn in the loop around the outside of the Loweswater Fells. Just follow the signposts to the village of Lamplugh, and from there signposts towards Loweswater.
Loweswater is the Odd Lake Out, the one that flows inwards, deflected from the coast by a low bar of green, wooded land over which the road slides, finding the lake unguarded among its fringes of trees. Loweswater’s never going to give anybody palpitations, but it’s an oasis of quiet.
A glance at the map inclines the casual visitor to think of Loweswater as one of a group of three Lakes in a single valley, but the geography is not so. Loweswater drains north into the wide Vale of Lorton, as do the two linked Lakes of Crummock Water and Buttermere. The road veers north towards Cockermouth, along with the beck, and there is a sharp turn back at a Y-junction to head towards the Buttermere Valley. Crummock Water is already in view before reaching this point, filling the mouth of the valley, and away beyond its head is the unexpected sight of Great Gable, from a completely different angle, this time complete with its younger sister, Green Gable, forming the high skyline beyond the irascible Haystacks.
The road is tight to the shore of Crummock, and there is nowhere to stop and relish the sight across the lake to Melbreak or the High Stile range. Next up is Buttermere Village and, almost before Crummock Water has disappeared out of sight, tranquil Buttermere, a simple, almost geometric shape in the head of the valley.
The escape from Buttermere is by Honister Pass, a side valley into which the road turns, with a long, flat bottom lead to a steep, narrow climb more severe than anything my Uncle had set his car to before. I’ve crossed Honister myself now, more than once, and I’ve yet to reach its crest in anything above First Gear, the upper stages being so strenuous. It’sa steep and unnerving climb from the bridge, after the long, long approach through Honister Bottom, the road hemmed in by cliffs and rocks as it heads ferociously up.
But it has to be done: the only other escape is to go back to Buttermere Village and tackle Newlands Pass, and the Buttermere side of that is so unremittingly steep that I have only ever crossed the pass from Keskadale, over the Hause.
Besides, whereas Honister drops you into the head of Borrowdale, Newlands emerges in the Newlands valley, which then requires a bit of contrivance to go back and see Derwent Water.
In any event, a drive through Borrowdale is hard to resist, even in the worst of conditions, though the day I came over Honister behind a woman too scared to go at faster than 20mph all the way to Grange was something of a trial. Even my passenger got frustrated!
Derwent Water comes into view just beyond the bridge at Grange. The orthodox route would be to go straight ahead, along the east shore of the lake, to Keswick and a welcome break, not to mention the end of the stage. It’s more fun though to cross the bridge into and through Grange and ascend to the unfenced road high above the western shore, with it’s broader vistas. And, as you’re on the side away from the edge, it’s completely safe too.
This route is much more useful given that the Grand Tour also needs to take in Bassenthwaite Lake before heading for home. The high road descends into the lower Newlands Valley, where quiet roads can be used to navigate back to the main A56 on its way to Cockermouth. The road runs along the western shore of Bass Lake (as it is locally known), though the road runs in two channels. Northbound is the old, undulating road, now a single track highway, whilst the southbound carriage offers the better, closer views. When the route merges, carry on a short distance to the Castle Inn and turn right, to cut across to the Carlisle road, which should be followed back to Keswick. A drink – non-alcoholic for the driver – can be enjoyed now.