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Ridge walks in the Lake District

I’m not going up that!” Our eyes rise towards the glistening rock of Striding Edge, the most famous – and infamous – ridge walk in Britain. Admittedly, it looks pretty fearful from down here, two-thirds up Helvellyn, the third-highest mountain in England at 3,118ft. Helvellyn is one of the most popular climbs in the Lake District for walkers of all ages. Above us, black fangs sink their teeth into a lifeless sky, dark jaws plunging sharply thousands of feet into the abyss. To call it vertiginous scarcely does it justice. And my wife suffers from vertigo.

Having been married several years, I have learnt that remarks such as, “I’m not going up that!” really mean, “I am going up that but only after kicking up a huge fuss about it.” It was like this the day before on Helm Crag (1,299ft), our diminutive debut climb on this outing to the Lakes.

Clementine, 12, galvanised by the sight of a ridge I had been hyping relentlessly for the past fortnight, speeds ahead. This is her first time in the Lake District and she can’t wait. A few minutes later, Striding Edge announces itself in a tableau of rock with nothing but sudden sky all around. I have been playing down this stretch of the walk to my wife as assiduously as I have been exaggerating it to our daughter. I read out the words of legendary Cumbrian walking guru Alfred Wainwright to calm her fears, glossing over the preamble about how “early writers regarded Striding Edge as a place of terror,” in favour of, “contemporary writers … are inclined to dismiss it as of little account. In fact, Striding Edge is the finest ridge there is in Lakeland for walkers … always an exhilarating adventure … can be made easy or difficult according to choice.”

Now the drama of the place is immediate and inescapable. With lowering cloud, we appear to be stepping into nothingness, not so much striding as teetering. Not ideal, I have to admit, for someone with vertigo. “I’m not going across that!” my wife gasps.

The next 900ft are a touch-and-go scrape. Yelps, tears, threatened U-turns. We are overtaken by seven-year-olds and by neatly trotting Labradors. Generous-spirited walkers help us along in tight spots. At last, in a flurry of vertical drops, the knife-edged arête comes to a close and from there it is a hop, skip and slog to the summit, a perennially freezing, wind-whipped vastness. It is too cold – despite the shivering summiteers munching away on Kendal mint cake – to stop for lunch. The classic descent to Patter-dale via Swirral Edge elicits a few more heart-stopping moments, not to mention knee-throbbing jolts and a volley of complaints (“I’m not going down that! You never said there would be another ridge like that …”).

Clementine reverently records her first big climb in the log at the back of our much-thumbed Wainwright. “Mummy was brave on my favourite bit, Striding Edge. Scary but very exciting.” Her understatement of “a bit of a climb in places”, to describe a walk that was steep enough to shred my lungs, warms the cockles of my heart.

Just as welcome is the sight of our temporary home. The Masons Arms, tucked away in the lonely Winster Valley east of Windermere, is a superb place to put up for a few days. Log fires, flagstone floor and a menu designed for famished walkers with monstrous portions of hearty fare. Beef and Hawkshead ale cobbler with horseradish dumplings becomes a staple over the week, with occasional forays into lamb Cartmel, half a beast submerged in rosemary-infused gravy. All the calories so painfully burned off during the day are replaced quicker than you can say, “A pint of Hawkshead, please.”

After the drama of Striding Edge and Helvellyn, we pencil in an easy walk for the following day. We are bound for Catbells, 1,481ft, which Wainwright records, unpromisingly for altitude fetishists, as “a family fell where grandmothers and infants can climb the heights together”. As short walks go, it is a great success. The sky is cornflower blue. From the domed summit the view extends beyond the mirrored calm of Derwentwater north towards the smooth slopes of Skiddaw, England’s fourth-highest mountain (3,053ft). The lovely Borrowdale valley rolls away far beneath us and somewhere down there, I can’t help thinking, must be a pub or an inn.

The Langstrath Country Inn in Stonethwaite fits the bill perfectly. After our meagre exertions, a bowl of spicy parsnip soup is enough for lunch. A plaque on the outside of the inn – “In loving memory of a sunny day in Borrowdale” – reminds us we have been lucky with the weather, always a likely bugbear on a walking holiday in the Lakes.

As a trio we are starting to get into our stride now. Aches and stiffness have been banished. Fell walking has become a daily fix, at least for the adults. We need another hit. After outings to Helm Crag, Helvellyn and Catbells, thoughts turn to Haystacks (1,958ft), another all-time Wainwright favourite, the mountain he loved so much he asked for his ashes to be scattered near the summit.

“I thought we were having a day off,” says Clementine irritably. A shopping expedition to Windermere and a visit to Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in Grasmere have been mooted and just as quickly dismissed. We are Coleridge fans. “Get your boots on.” The years of total parental control are fast running out. We must enjoy them while we can.

Haystacks is a treat. Under another cloudless sky we hike past tracts of burnt-tobacco ferns and subdued heather to the head of Warnscale Bottom, then sharply up towards a time-shattered slate quarry, the view behind us opening up magnificently with every step we take away from the valley floor.

Dwarfed by its neighbours, Haystacks somehow manages to eclipse the lot of them with its ragged twists and turns, its scruffy charm and a series of tors and tarns that continue right up to the summit. You would be hard pushed to find a more exquisite place to down your rucksack and stop for a picnic lunch, overlooked by mighty Great Gable, Pillar and a clutch of other sombre peaks. Striking a rare note of consensus over pork pies, sandwiches, chocolate and tea, we judge it our favourite climb.

Only a day to go. It has to be High Street (2,718ft) to finish with heft and a flourish of historical interest. The route was once marched along by Roman cohorts travelling between their garrisons at Ambleside and Brougham. Shepherds and farmers once flocked to the vast flat summit for annual summer fairs and horse races until well into the 19th century. Clementine is unimpressed.

“You said we were having a day off,” she says in a fit of pre-teen pique.

“Come on, it’s our last day and our last walk. We won’t be coming back for ages.”

“I’m not coming.”

“In the car.”

Rising above oily-black Haweswater reservoir, as sinister a body of water as you’ll find in the Lakes, High Street is all savage splendour, culminating in the ancient remnants of the Roman road on the wind-chilled, wide-skirted summit that Clementine, recovering from an initial sulk, is the first to reach.

On the way back to London, while we are gridlocked in stop-start traffic, a voice from the back seat pipes up.

“Can we come to the Lakes every year?”

Justin Marozzi’s ‘The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus’ is published by John Murray



The Masons Arms, tel: +44 (0)1539 568 486;
The Langstrath Country Inn, tel: +44 (0)1768 777 239;