Grange Fell

Published 17 May 2020

Admiring the view from Grange Fell

Borrowdale has more than a couple of great family walks. One is Grange Fell where you can combine a hill with a great view, with a visit to a giant boulder with a ladder on it. What more could any family wish for?

Drips of water fell from the moss growing at the entrance to the cave. It wasn’t a deep cave, but you could go a reasonable way into it, on the dark, damp floors. Right at the back, a pile of animal bones, the flesh long gone. And some litter of course. Because wherever humans have been, there will inevitably be an old crisp packet and a squashed drinks can.

Exploring an old cave near a quarry was an atmospheric start to a walk, and no mistake. Something for the children to explore and wonder over. Because when you’re taking a three year old and a six year old around a fell in the Lake District, having something unusual to pique the interest is always helpful. And our walk on Grange Fell was going to have plenty to do that.

A replica of an old Bowder Stone poster at Quayfoot Quarry car park (the car park is the nearest to the Bowder Stone)

From our base in Keswick, we’d leapt enthusiastically onto the open top bus that had whizzed us along the winding roads to the National Trust car park for the Bowder Stone just beyond the village of Grange. Ah, the Bowder Stone. That would be another thing to enthuse the children with, although much later in the day. As would a cafe and an ice cream at the end. Hey, who doesn’t like an ice cream? Especially in October? A cave? A large boulder? An open top bus? Ice cream? Man, where these children being spoiled with this Wainwright bagging trip! They even had two grandparents with them, to cajole and encourage!

Not that our six year old son needed much encouragement. He was ready to go, and after we left the cave, was storming along up the steep path uphill through Cummacatta Wood. Bracken lined the path, initially made of stone, but soon becoming a set of steps cut into the rock. Streams flowed merrily alongside it, and said son was regularly distracted by the desire to dam the streams with stones and pebbles. Three year old daughter was less inclined to run ahead, and soon retreated to the comfort of being carried on her mum’s back.

The enchanting, Autumnal world of Grange Fell

It became quite a steep climb at parts, but the effort was firmly rewarded with splendid views over to Catbells, Derwent Water, the town of Keswick and the fells that surrounded it. There’s a reason I like Keswick. Good fells, good views, and good pubs in the evening. Assuming there’s someone to look after the children anyway.

The steep climb led us to a bit of a col, where some large stones provided a perfect stop to rest weary legs and have a few reviving biscuits. And then it was onto more important endeavours. Summits.

Grange Fell actually has three. The best known is King’s How, where we were heading first. And without doubt, it’s the one with the best views thanks to its commanding position overlooking the Borrowdale valley. We squelched and squerched our way along the muddy col, then made the final climb up to the heather-topped summit. On a sunny October day, it was a perfect spot for a lunchtime picnic.

Who couldn’t love the Lakes in the autumn?

The view of Bassenthwaite and Derwent Water was without the doubt the star, but there was something about the view towards Brund Fell – one of the other two of Grange Fell’s three summits – that kept drawing my eye. It was something about the rather unearthly look and feel of the terrain. The colours, the bumpiness of it. Bumps, rocks, greeny grass and browning heather. All mysterious, quirky and interesting.

Interestingly, in his Pictorial Guide to the Central Fells, Wainwright didn’t seem massively fussed about which of the three summits of Grange Fell you visit. Well, as long as you get to King’s How anyway. That mustn’t be missed, he declares. It’s “exquisitely lovely” he informs the reader. “Sacrifice any other walk, if need be, but not this!”

But King’s How is the smallest of the three summits. And being an earnest fellbagger, I thought it best to head to the highest point.

Looking down Borrowdale from King’s How, on Grange Fell

Back at base, some hours later, I learned that a few years ago, Ether Knott was declared to be Grange Fell’s topper-most point at 419m in height. And maybe if Wainwright was writing his guidebooks today, that’s what he would have marked as the summit. But he barely mentions Ether Knott, and in his guide book, the highest ground is deemed to be Brund Fell at 415m. So Ether Knott wasn’t on my radar.

It was here that the group split up. Two grandparents, a mum and a daughter all followed the path off King’s How down towards the Borrowdale Valley, whilst son and myself headed off to the Brund. I’d originally expected to be travelling alone, but he seemed keen to come with me and I wasn’t going to argue at that. He’d been rather happy at his achievements at reaching King’s How, and was clearly keen to make sure he got to the very highest point.

A reasonably good, if a little boggy, path took us the way, past a couple of ruined sheep folds, and over a ladder stile that was at least double the height of my son. We bumped upwards, leaping over puddles and streams, and made our way to the rocky summit. Every now and then we looked across to King’s How, to see the sight of three adults and a small child waving from across the hillside; the occasional sound of cheering drifting with the breeze.

Brund Fell – the supposed highest point of Grange Fell

King’s How had been a simple summit. Small, flat, covered with grass and heather. There was heather too on Brund Fell, as well a boggy patches, but there were rocks too. Oh so many rocks.

It was hard to tell exactly where highest point of Brund Fell was. We scrambled up one rocky summit – son doing so with ease – only for me to look over and see a tiny cairn on another patch of rock about 50m away.

“I think we need to go other there for the highest point,” I said.

The rocky top of Brund Fell is a contrast to Grange Fell

“Why do we need to go to the highest point,” came the reply.

Hmm. I wondered. How do you explain the rather irrational need to visit the absolute top of any summit?

“Well, err. It’s just what you do.”

It seemed to be enough for him.

To stand on the very highest point required a scramble. Before I even knew it, son was sat right next to the top, making his own mini cairn next to the already existing mini cairn. I hadn’t even noticed him climb up there, but we celebrated the achievement together for a moment, before the ultimate question came.

The summit of Grange Fell according to Wainwright

“Where’s the stone then?”

Ah, the Bowder Stone. It had been a big focus on the build up to the day’s activities. Clearly, it was time to get on and do it.

We picked our way back towards Kings How, initially on a path, then making our way over rough, swampy ground, until we met the path that was snaking its down to the valley below. Grandad was stood there near a wall, waiting to ensure we didn’t take a wrong turning, and the three of us headed through a steep path downhill through the woodland on the south flanks of Grange Fell. It was hard enough going down, but when we passed a Scandinavian family going the opposite direction, I decided we’d definitely done it the “right” way round!

Heading down Grange Fell, with Castle Crag in the background.

We arrived at the main Borrowdale Road, and found a welcoming party of three waiting for us next to the River Derwent. And after a little rest and some skimming of stones in the water, it was time to check out what must be the highlight of any walk on Grange Fell. And one that could have been done in just a short walk from the bus stop. The Bowder Stone.

9m high, and an estimated 1,253 tonnes of weight, the Bowder Stone is a huge chunk of lava rock that’s believed to have fallen down from a great height at some point in a region of 13,500 and 10,000 years ago. So not much of a range then.

It’s been a tourist attraction in the area for centuries. A large lump of rock that looks precariously balanced on a narrow strip at the bottom. Some say it looks like the keel of a ship. When you see it in real life, you can see why.

Perhaps the only large rock with a ladder to the top.

In 1798 the land it was on was purchased by one Joseph Pocklington, who also cleared the area and installed a ladder for people to climb up to enjoy the views. For a long time, you could purchase refreshments and gifts having paid your fee to access the stone.

It was Pocklington who discovered a natural hollow underneath the Stone where a person can, lying down, can reach through and shake hands with someone reaching through from the other side. A feat now demonstrated before my eyes by a Grandad who made sure he shook hands with his two grandchildren.

These days the stone is owned by the National Trust. You don’t have to pay to see the stone, and a ladder up the stone still exists. Indeed in 2019 a new ladder was installed, and we climbed up it excitedly. At the top, a narrow grove in the top allowed us to sit down and enjoy the view; the stone highly polished by centuries of visitors.

Family shot on top of the Bowder Stone

The ladder’s not the only way to the top. As the six of us sat there, trying to keep the youngest two from getting too close to the edge, another person joined us. A child, probably ten or eleven, had climbed up the rock from the ground, who then shuffled past us having decided that the ladder would be the safest descent route for him!

And with that, it was time for refreshments. Unlike in the Victorian era, there’s no tea rooms or gift purchasing facilities. So we headed back towards where we started our walk, at the nearby Bowder Stone car park, and leapt on the next bus back towards Keswick, stopping off at Grange village for a reviving tea, scone and – of course – an ice cream for two children who had obviously finally reached the highlight of their day.

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