The Kentmere Round
The Kentmere valley is a slice of heaven. It was gifted to Richard De Gilpin in 1206 as a reward for slaying the Wild Boar of Westmorland, and it remains one of Lakeland’s most remote and most beautiful spots. The river Kent begins life high in the fells that ring the valley head. A circuit of these peaks is a long and exhilarating hill walk, known as the Kentmere Round. As I follow the route on a glorious late summer day, I discover the valley is home to a vanishing lake, and also, it seems, a vanishing mountain.
The Wild Boar of Westmorland
Drive along the Crook Road from Plumgarths to Bowness and you’ll pass high-end hotels with names like The Wild Boar Inn and the Gilpin Lodge. Their billboards tempt the well-heeled traveller with warm hospitality and fine cuisine, but their names recall a time when this journey risked much more than a waxing waistline and damage to your wallet.
At the start of the 13th Century, a holy cross stood at Plumgarths and a chantry chapel on St Mary’s Isle, Windermere. Both sites were stops on the pilgrim trail, but it took a righteous faith to make the journey between them for the woods around Crook were inhabited by a ferocious boar with a fearsome reputation for attacking unfortunates who happened across its path.
Mercifully, deliverance was at hand. Richard De Gilpin, known as “Richard the Rider”, had accompanied the Baron of Kendal to Runnymede for the signing of the Magna Carta. His assistance was invaluable as the baron could neither read nor write. However, for De Gilpin, the sword would prove mightier than the pen. On his return to Westmorland, he tracked the boar through the forest to its lair near Scout Scar and engaged it in a fierce battle, eventually slaying the beast and emerging as a hero. The Baron of Kendal was so grateful, he rewarded Richard with the lordship of the manor of Kentmere.
De Gilpin had been gifted a slice of heaven. Kentmere is one of Lakeland’s most beautiful and remote valleys. Both the valley and the town of Kendal take their names from the river Kent, which has its source high in the fells at the valley head.
Say the words “Lake Windermere” to any good pedant and they’ll tell you that the prefix is redundant as “mere” means “lake”. A hundred years ago, you’d have been forgiven for thinking Kentmere was a misnomer – its mere had vanished. Curiously, industrial interests have been responsible for its reappearance.
Kentmere Tarn lies on private land near the foot of the valley. Its shallow waters provide an ideal habitat for algae known as diatoms. When diatoms die, their organic matter decomposes leaving their hard silica skeletons, called frustules to sink to the bottom and form a layer known as diatomite. Over the centuries, the tarn silted up with diatomite, turning it into a boggy marsh. In the 1840’s, it was drained to improve the surrounding farmland, but the exercise was largely unsuccessful, and the land reverted to marsh.
Diatomite has significant heat-insulating properties and in the 1930’s, commercial operations began to extract the substance for use in insulating boards. Extraction ceased in the 1970’s, when it became cheaper to import, but forty years of dredging had restored the mere. Well stocked with trout, it is now the preserve of angling clubs.
The Kentmere Fells
A fine mountain ridge runs from the Garburn Pass, which links Kentmere and Troutbeck, to the Nan Bield Pass, which once linked Kentmere and the lost village of Mardale Green. Defined by the conical peak of Ill Bell and its smaller mirror-image in Froswick, the skyline is iconic; equally recognisable from the West Coast Mainline or the beach at Bardsea.
Beyond the Nan Bield Pass, the ridge swings around over Harter Fell and Kentmere Pike to Shipman Knotts to form a horseshoe. The full circuit is a long but exhilarating hill walk, known as the Kentmere Round; and it’s my mission for the day.
A single-track road runs out of Staveley, crossing over the River Kent and roughly tracking its bank for about four miles until it reaches the picturesque village of Kentmere. Parking is limited, but it’s only 06:30 am and there are a couple of free spaces by the village hall. Twenty years ago, I might have considered it a “result” to be crawling into bed at the time I crawled out of it this morning. These days, I can imagine no finer time to be out.
It’s August – high summer – a time of dusty tracks and straw-coloured grass, wilting and yellowing as long warm days edge lazily toward autumn…
Only that doesn’t really happen anymore. Such notions are wistful nostalgia for halcyon summers, long-since lost to the vagaries of climate change. In recent years, August has become the rainy season. But today is a rare exception. The sky is a clear expanse of cobalt, streaked with slender strands of cirrus, and thanks to all the rain, the meadows are green and vibrant, retaining something of their spring vitality.
From a paddock, a huddle of herdwicks eye me with idle curiosity; birdsong fills my ears and the day feels pregnant with possibility. Faint wisps of mist cling to the valley’s pockets as I start up the Garburn track, passing the monumental Badger Rock: a prodigious rhyolite boulder and a popular challenge for rock climbers. I pass old gnarled trees, with twisted roots protruding, and craggy outcrops, dressed in purple heather. The stony track climbs steadily at first, then more steeply after Crabtree Brow. After about a mile and a quarter, it reaches the crest and I turn right on to the grassy path that climbs to the summit of Yoke.
Beyond the walled green meadows and dark woods of the Troutbeck valley, the long blue ribbon of Windermere snakes south toward Morecambe Bay; the sea, a silver haze, dissolving into the horizon. Across the valley, Red Screes rise above the Kirkstone Pass. Yoke’s eastern face is the formidable cliff of Rainsborough Crag, but on top it is a grassy hill, remarkable mostly for its views. From the summit on though, the ridge assumes a mountain countenance. The path makes a small dip then ascends to the imperious peak of Ill Bell.
A trinity of well-built cairns stands guard; little stone towers that bookend the vista over Windermere. This is a majestic grandstand. Ahead, the ridge sweeps on over Froswick to the wide grassy plateau of Thornthwaite Crag, then curves east over High Street’s shoulder to Mardale Ill Bell – Ill Bell’s namesake – which thrusts out a grassy spur in greeting.
The spur is Lingmell End and it splits the valley head in two. Beyond, lies the Nan Bield Pass, but on this side, Gavel Crag and Bleathwaite Crag enclose the deep bowl of Hall Cove, where the river Kent springs into life. You can trace the nascent stream as it cascades down the fell side to feed the Kentmere Reservoir.
Imagine for a moment, that you’re standing near an old stone bridge in Kendal watching the river gently lap its arches. Games of bowls play out before the Georgian opulence of the Abbott Hall Art Gallery. The scene is one of civic order and serenity; the river a benign presence, whispering an ambient lullaby. Out here though, you realise the Kent is born a wilder beast. When engorged and enraged by a storm like Desmond, it’s not hard to imagine how it could burst its banks and wreak violence on a trusting community that had mistakenly considered it tame… And how it would take a lot more than De Gilpin’s sword to stop it.
Beyond the summit, the stony path drops steeply to the saddle. A fell-runner stops to say hello, breaking her arduous jog up the slope. She’s the first person I’ve seen.
Froswick’s summit stands ever so slightly west of Ill Bell and gives an even grander view down Windermere. Ill Bell itself presents a steep green flank and the Kentmere Reservoir nestles at its foot. The reservoir is not a natural lake but was built in 1848 to provide a controlled water supply to a gunpowder mill, a wood mill, a snuff mill and the James Cropper paper mill, now the sole owner.
It looks half-drained. Perhaps the paper mill is conducting repairs. The water supply is no longer required for paper making, but James Cropper dutifully maintains it with an environmental focus.
Beyond Froswick, the path splits. The right fork leads on to High Street. I take the left and climb to the summit of Thornthwaite Crag, its fourteen foot cairn, known as The Beacon, a stately slate tower commanding attention. A drystone wall runs out to meet it then crumbles into a straight line of stones, stretching out into the distance like a Richard Long artwork.
Perception is easily tricked. You would swear Ill Bell is the highest of these fells – steep sides tapering to a point suggest elevation – but the flatter top of Thornthwaite Crag is higher. Higher still is High Street, the parent peak, rising in a whale-back between Hayeswater and Haweswater. Thornthwaite Crag is part of the High Street ridge, but it has its own ridge too, running out over Grey Crag to encircle the head of Hayeswater.
Gazing back, I spot the second person of the day. He’s carrying a mountain bike up the long slope from Froswick. He must have hauled it all the way from the Garburn Pass. He waves when he reaches the top, then mounts and heads off towards Mardale Ill Bell to ride the Nan Bield Pass. Providing he doesn’t catch a pedal and catapult himself into the reservoir, it’ll be an exhilarating experience. I hope so – it’s a long way to hike with a bike on your back for a thrill that will be over in minutes. Wraparound shades and a helmet can’t hide the look on his face, however. I know it instantly. It’s freedom.
The Missing Peak
After a while, I set off along the ridge towards High Street. I was up there a fortnight ago, so I’ll skip the summit and make straight for Mardale Ill Bell. Before I do, my attention is distracted by the view to the west. Hayeswater is an azure reflection of the sky, glistening at the foot of sun-gilded slopes. Beyond, wispy clouds part to unveil the brutal bulk of Fairfield and its northern turret, Cofa Pike, dropping to Deepdale Hause to rub shoulders with St Sunday Crag. Behind them, stands the entire Helvellyn range. Blencathra dominates the scene to the north, while further west, Great Gable is a mighty dome.
I’m transfixed. With the changing light, the scene is transforming, coming into ever sharper focus. I stop every few yards to take photos in the vain hope I might capture something of its splendour. I’m aware I need to bear right soon, but the sun catches Striding Edge and I’m fumbling for my camera again. I just can’t tear my gaze away.
When I do, I have a disorienting realisation – High Street has disappeared. It should be straight ahead. I wonder if I’ve missed a turn and come too far west. The summit must be further over, but I can’t work out why I can’t see it.
I cross a wall to the east side of the ridge, expecting to see the Kentmere Reservoir. And there, indeed, is water. Only it’s significantly bigger; and it’s gained an island.
There is a fell where Mardale Ill Bell should be, but it’s an entirely different shape. Everything is somehow familiar and yet completely wrong. It’s as if I’m drinking tea but expecting coffee and can’t make sense of it.
I look behind – I can see Thornthwaite Crag, but Froswick and Ill Bell are obscured by a large summit that wasn’t there before. On the left, a long ridge leads up to it, at once alien and familiar, like someone you know, but bump into out of context and can’t place. I reach for the map.
“Are you heading for High Raise?”, a cheery voice asks from behind.
I turn to see a white-haired man with a big smile and bags of enthusiasm. He sees the map and can’t help himself, he’s straight over to compare routes. “We’re missing out High Raise this time and heading straight for Kidsty Pike”, he says and nods at the shape-shifting Mardale Ill Bell.
With those words, I know exactly where I am, I’m just at a loss as to how I got here. I look back at the large fell behind me. The wall runs up over the top with a scraggy path in tow, but a better path traverses the western side, a little below the summit. This is the route I followed, so entranced by the view, that I managed to walk all the way over the top of High Street without noticing.
My new companion is scratching his head. “I can’t make out where we are on here”, he says, puzzling over the contours.
“You won’t”, I reply. “It’s the wrong map”. High Street spans the divide between two. I dig out the one that covers the northern region and fess up about my half-wittery. He chuckles and I bid him farewell as he heads for Kidsty Pike. I look down at the lake where I thought the Kentmere Reservoir should be. It’s a reservoir right enough. It serves Manchester; the remains of Mardale Green lie below its surface. It’s Haweswater.
Across the valley, the ridge has every right to look familiar. It’s Riggindale Edge – the finest way up High Street and a route I’ve taken many times – most recently, just two weeks ago. And yet then, as on every previous occasion, I turned left at the summit and returned over Mardale Ill Bell and Harter Fell. Why have I never come this way to visit Rampsgill Head, High Raise and Kidsty Pike? They look magnificent and I resolve to return.
It’s a promise I’ll keep twice in the weeks to come. The first time, I’ll meet a man from Lincolnshire in the gloom as the cloud descends. Together we’ll seek out these summits in fog. A month later, I’ll retrace our steps in the golden light of autumn. This time, the fells will echo with the bark of rutting stags…
I follow the wall back to the top of High Street.
It starts to cloud over as I reach the summit of Mardale Ill Bell, adding drama to the vistas over Haweswater and Small Water.
The rocky path to the top of Harter Fell looks tough as I descend to the Nan Bield Pass but its bark turns out to be worse than its bite. The path zig zags up through the crags and doesn’t test tired legs as much as I feared. Before long, I’m standing by its strange summit cairn, wrought from old iron fence posts.
From here, I follow the fence south over increasingly boggy ground. The sun retreats behind the building cloud. It’s an unwelcome reminder that summer’s almost gone. As if to reinforce the darkening mood, the top of Kentmere Pike is drab and featureless. The perfect pyramid of Ill Bell rises opposite across a plain of russet grass, but it feels autumnal now – the late summer sunshine I enjoyed on its summit seems an age ago. The wind whips up and starts to nip. I plod on through black mud, trying not to sink.
But like a feisty boar, summer’s not so easily defeated. Ahead, shafts of light pierce the gloom and hit the Kentmere valley, conjuring a vivid green oasis beyond the sombre brown of the fell. As I reach a ladder stile and start the climb to Shipman Knotts, the clouds roll back, and summer’s reign is gloriously reinstated.
Where Kentmere Pike lacked interest, Shipman Knotts is a beguiling maze of tumble-down walls and rocky outcrops. Heather sprouts from the crags and bracken-clad slopes roll away to Longsleddale. All is lit with the warm glow of afternoon sun and a sense of deep contentment kicks in.
At Wray Crag, a steep descent down rocky steps brings me to the Sadgill to Kentmere track. I follow the track towards Kentmere, relishing the soft afternoon light. Shortly after joining the road, I climb a stile into the first of two bracken-filled enclosures. They lead gently down to a small wooden footbridge over the Kent. It’s pretty beyond compare – a leafy parade of dappled sunlight, sparkling waters and foliage in every shade of green. I’m still smiling as I walk through Kentmere churchyard and back to the car.
Some days are simply perfect. This has been one of them. A tremendous ridge walk and a late rallying of summer. With the coming autumn, the days will shorten, the green will fade, the leaves will wither, and a damp chill will pervade. But today will stay with me and its memory will bring warmth.
Many of our finest poets have extolled the restorative powers of the countryside, but it’s the Foo Fighters who are playing in my head, “Times like these, you learn to live again. Times like these – time and time again”.
To find a map and directions for this route, visit WalkLakes.co.uk