Although we had previously hiked Scafell Pike, it was Cat Bells that first sparked my interest in climbing all 214 Wainwrights.
Before I became passionate about fell walking our Lake District visits would always be centred in areas around Coniston, Ambleside and Windermere: we never ventured much further North. I am an art historian and a big fan of the Victorian art-critic, John Ruskin, so the first point of call would always be Coniston and Ruskin’s house at Brantwood, which has the most beautiful views of Coniston Water:
It rained on every trip so we amused ourselves by exploring the towns; enjoying pub lunches, cafes, boat trips, National Trust properties and museums etc. On one occasion in 2015 we visited Ruskin’s grave at Coniston churchyard and found a rasher of raw bacon lying on top of it. I couldn’t fathom the symbolism of this strange item (most people lay flowers) but decided it had likely been dropped there by a passing animal rather than placed there as a sacrificial porcine offering to the great Victorian art critic.
Our first proper (boots on) hike in the Lake District, the same year as bacon-gate, involved following one of Ruskin’s own trails. I forget where it was meant to take us but the route led us up a very steep hill outside of the town and deep into a large, unkempt group of ferns which were as high as an elephant’s eye. It was hard to imagine an elderly Ruskin traipsing through this wild, wet undergrowth like some kind of Victorian Rambo but it was clear from the dusty map we had bought at the Tourist Information Centre that we were in the right place. The whole experience was very unpleasant and, after having one of my many tantrums and insisting it was impossible to go any further, we gave up beating back ferns and returned to the car covered in bites.
My small tantrums have become quite a feature of our Wainwright walks, so much so that we have renamed them the ‘Wainwright wobbles.’ Perhaps it isn’t fair to call it a tantrum as such, I don’t lie on the floor and refuse to move or anything like that, it’s more of a minor panic attack whereby I feel the need to communicate to Pete the gravitas of my hiking distress. My irrational inner child is very much on the surface of my personality and a Wainwright wobble resembles that tense moment just after a toddler has dropped their ice cream or fallen and grazed their knee but hasn’t quite registered the event yet. There’s a sort of wide-eyed, stunned silence and a slow-motion cry ripples through their face in a series of silent sobs, giving any nearby adult a millisecond to respond before all hell breaks loose. With me it tends to happen when I realise that we’ve reached a false summit, or when I freeze on a rocky scramble or if I lose sight of Pete in the fog/ferns. He is very good at diffusing these wobbles and reminding me that getting a bit hit by ferns never killed anyone, to which I usually respond “yet…” and then describe to him the horrors of Lyme Disease.
This short walk in the ferny footsteps of Ruskin became the start of something much bigger (no, not Lyme Disease). The next day we decided to attempt the Coniston Old Man and would have made it our first Wainwright if the weather hadn’t been so awful near the summit. The clouds rolled in pretty quickly after I took this picture at the bottom:
It did give us a taste for the fells though and, after many visits to Brantwood and boat trips on the Lakes we started to get a little weary of this heavily populated tourist area and longed for something a bit different. Not to say that Coniston isn’t a lovely place, it is, but one can have too much of a good thing. So we decided to drive into uncharted territory … up the A591 to Keswick.
I remember that the first thing I noticed when we got there was Cat Bells.
As you can see, it is really rather stunning and hard not to notice.
Cat Bells stands out from the surrounding scenery because of its pointy summit right at the edge of Derwent Water. I was hoping that there would be some interesting tale behind the name of this fell but, alas, Cat Bells is likely a corruption of cat bield, meaning a wild cat’s shelter. The wild cats that once roamed the fells have long since disappeared.
Thanks to its modest height (451m) and proximity to Keswick it is a popular destination for families and the ill-prepared. But the climb to the top shouldn’t be taken lightly: it’s actually pretty steep and has some grade-one scrambling sections nearer the summit. There are also plenty of abandoned mine shafts to fall into that date back to the lead mining here in the nineteenth century, though many have been closed off. On our first drive to Keswick we merely admired this glorious fell from the water’s edge but in June 2017 we decided to make it our second Wainwright. After a three-hour car journey from Stoke-on-Trent we set up our tent at the nearby Castlerigg Hall Campsite which, as campsites go, is one of the best I’ve stayed in.
I’m going to say it: I hate camping. I’ve tried to like it and perhaps a wild camping experience is more my style, away from other people. I know Pete hates it too, he is just being stubborn about admitting it. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of camping – waking up in the fresh air with nature all around – but let’s be honest, you don’t get that experience at a campsite do you?
This, for example, is the face of a man who is pretending he is having a good time after spending a sleepless night with tree roots sticking into his back because we got to the campsite in the twilight and couldn’t see the ground we were pitching on very well. Our torch ran out pretty soon after so we couldn’t cook anything and instead ate a Thai take away in the pitch black silence of the forest using a shared spoon. This was at Low Wray National Trust Campsite back in 2015:
I don’t believe anyone who tells me that they are honestly having a good time at a campsite. Pete is a school teacher so our holidays always have to be taken when school is out and the piercing screams of other people’s ‘little darlings’ can be heard reverberating across the valley.
Here are some of my reasons for hating campsites:
There is nothing fun about brushing your teeth in a public bathroom whilst a strange woman has a full body wash in the sink next to you.
There is nothing fun about having to get up in the middle of the night, don a headtorch, waterproofs and boots over your pyjamas and walk across a sodden field into a muddy public toilet just to have a midnight piss.
There is nothing fun about having to listen to other people’s gurglings and night time activities through a thin sheet of canvas.
There is nothing fun about waking up in the dewy, life-sapping dampness of dawn knowing that in order to have a revitalising cup of tea you have to go to the car and get out the stove, matches, pan, mugs, teabags, milk, spoons etc. and then crouch on the wet ground for 15 minutes whilst the water boils or, failing that, wait three hours for the sh*tting shop to open.
And there is nothing, I repeat, nothing fun about sleeping on the cold, hard ground after a long day in the hills. I know, I need better camping equipment.
Castlerigg Hall Campsite was full of families and some very loud campervan parties but the shower blocks were the cleanest I’ve ever experienced by a long way and there was a resident’s lounge with a kettle, much to my delight. We had also remembered to pitch the tent in a way that meant our feet, not our heads, would be at the bottom of the slope; another mistake we have made on previous trips. After setting up camp at around lunchtime (never again will me make the mistake of turning up to pitch at dusk, you live and learn) we set off to Cat Bells. Having read that it was a fairly simple hike to the summit it seemed like a good warm-up for our attempt at Skiddaw the following day.
There is a tiny car park at the beginning of the route. The local area is thwarted by tourists and hikers parking along the narrow lanes on the approach to Cat Bells but we were lucky enough to find a space. I would suggest that anyone who wants to try out Cat Bells could make a nice day of it by taking the little ferry across Derwent Water, thus negating the need for a car at all. Map in hand, we set off up the path, which climbs steeply at the start.
The route is obvious and there are always a lot of people around. Although I had to stop a number of times to catch my breath on the steep bits, I was doing surprisingly well for an uphill struggler: no Wainwright wobbles just yet. However, we were hiking behind a family with two young boys who were all completely underprepared for the occasion. The man was wearing sandals, jeans and a tank top and carrying a plastic Tesco bag. The woman had on pumps and a skirt. Both of them were understandably finding the terrain challenging underfoot, particularly when we got to a little section of scrambling. The children were sobbing on the rocks above us. When we reached them they let us pass and we never saw them again.
Scrambling is great fun. I used to hate it because I would always anticipate the difficulty of coming back down. But I’ve since discovered that most scrambles can be renegotiated on the way down using one’s bottom as a fifth (and substantial in my case) point of contact with the ground. However, steep scrambles can be misleading. Cat Bells is one of those Wainwrights where you think you’re almost at the top and then you clamber up to a false summit and see this:
But it still wasn’t enough to bring on the Wainwright wobbles. As you can see there was a paraglider out on the ridge that day who was distracting me from my usual mental struggle. We watched in awe as they took off and then, after gliding gracefully around for five minutes or so, landed in the exact same spot. What a great way to see the fells.
Looking back along the ridge towards Bassenthwaite Lake was a treat and we stopped to admire Skiddaw (top right), which we would be tackling the following day:
It wasn’t long before we reached the summit after another fun scramble to the top. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the walk up Cat Bells, it was a great introduction to the smaller fells and had something for everyone without overdoing it. A combination of some effort, plus scrambles, plus a modest height really makes it a good afternoon’s walk.
Here I am enjoying myself for once. I don’t look like I’m particularly happy with those frown lines and half smile, but I promise you I was. Pete just isn’t great at taking photos at the right moment, hence why I am always official expedition photographer:
There was no summit cairn back in June (I think they have actually been erecting one this week) so I have no pictures of us at the summit. But looking onwards to the South you can see the path up to Maiden Moor, which we would leave for another day:
Instead we chose to do a circular route, heading down along a set of stone steps that led around the edge of Derwent Water and back to the car. My iPhone has a habit of switching itself off if it gets too cold and, having been buffeted around by the winds in my coat pocket, it was dead by the time we got off the summit so I couldn’t take any more photographs of our descent.
There is not much more to say about Cat Bells. It was probably my favourite so far as it struck a good balance between challenge and enjoyment. We didn’t fall into any of the disused lead mines nor did we meet Mrs. Tiggy-winkle, Beatrix Potter’s loveable hedgehog washer-woman who lived behind a ‘door into the back of the hill called Catbells.’ I can only assume that lead poisoning must have gotten the better of her.
Next: Skiddaw and Skiddaw Little Man