Raven Crag

Published 12 February 2023

Raven Crag, seen from Thirlmere Dam.
Raven Crag, seen from Thirlmere Dam.

It’s September 2022 and I’m back in the Lake District for another three days of fell bagging in glorious weather. My first day was spent a-wandering round Weatherlam and its near neighbours. After a good nights rest, I was ready to start a walk of epic proportions, visiting four quite spread out Central Fells all in one day. And it all started at a bus stop near Raven Crag…

It’s well known that Alfred Wainwright didn’t drive. The writer of the most famous guidebooks to the Lake District’s fells didn’t use a car when writing them. He explored – in minute detail – every nook and cranny of the Lakeland fells without once sitting behind the wheel, starting the engine and driving off. Although not adverse to getting lifts, Wainwright also used public transport to get around.

So it was more than probable that Wainwright made the journey I was making. The 555 bus has run for decades. So long that I struggled to find out quite out when it was introduced. But it was around when Wainwright was doing his research. A search of photo sharing website Flickr revealed a photo of a 555 bus reported to have been taken in 1956.

The rear of the 555 bus at a bus stop near Thirlmere Reservoir
The mighty 555.

Introduced by Ribble Motor Services, and now part of Stagecoach Cumbria, the 555 runs from Lancaster to Keswick. Its route takes it to Kendal, Winderemere, Ambleside and Grasmere. It passes through the valley between the Central and Eastern fells. From its seats you can see fell giants like Helm Crag and Hellvellyn. Wainwright would have known the service well.

I was on the 555 travelling to the top of Thirlmere reservoir for the start of an audacious plan. An arguably bonkers one. And definitely going-to-be-tiring plan. My aim was to walk four Wainwrights in the Central Fells. Two were on the same ridge. The other two were close to each other. And each pair was a long walk from the other.

For I while I’d assumed I’d need to tackle them in two half days – two fells per walk. Or even, all four on the same day but doing two then getting the car or bus to do the others.

But on staring at the map I’d spotted another option. It would require a long day – 14 miles or of walking. I’d start at the top of Thirlmere, walk along the spine of the Central Fells and end at Grasmere village. It would be a linear walk, so I’d need to get the bus at some point, even if I’d taken the car. But why would I do that when I could enjoy a bus ride that would allow me also to see the fells I was going to tackle. So after a hearty breakfast to keep me going, I headed to the bus stop at Troutbeck Bridge, in time for the 0912 service to Keswick. And fifty or so minutes later, I got off again at a bus stop not far from the top of Thirlmere reservoir.

A journey of most likely epic undertakings had begun.

A path through the woods near the base of Raven Crag.
Into the woods on Raven Crag.

Raven Crag is full of trees. Although there could be less than in the 1950s when Alfred Wainwright roamed it. It appeared that, in the intervening 65 years, many of the trees on the fell side had, well, been felled. That was evident from the number of tree stumps littering the hillside.

In his description of Raven Crag, Wainwright described “the silence and gloom of the forest are too oppressive to be enjoyed.” Whether he would have approved of the changes, I wasn’t sure. It wasn’t gloomy any more, that much was true. Although it was still a little too quiet for my liking.

In the map of the fell that Wainwright drew, it shows no forest roads and very few tracks. That’s something else that’s changed. There’s now lots. But the main ascent route up the hill looked to be very similar to the one Wainwright documented in the 1950s. A steep path, winding its way up hill, making every step up one of much exertion.

A barely visible path going up a hillside, in an area full of tree stumps.
Spot the path.

It was hard work. Sweat was pouring off my forehead as I strode up the hill. Later I’d see two fellow walkers, one of whom declared he’d looked at his watch as he felt he’d been walking for absolutely ages. It was then he found out he’d walked only a kilometre. I knew what he felt.

Whilst the trees had been thinned out lower down, near the top they were still heavy and thickly planted. And there was something not found in the 1950s. Someone – probably landowner and water company United Utilities – had installed a series of steps leading to the summit.

A set of wooden steps going up the hillside, and surrounded by trees.
Good solid steps up Raven Crag

The summit itself even had a substantial platform built from which you could take in the view. It was all rather well made, suggesting Raven Crag was usually used to far more visitors than I’d seen that morning. I’ve been on packed Lakeland fells that have been far less well equipped. In Wainwright’s day, he declared the summit path was “just possible to work out a route free of entanglement in trees and undergrowth.” Now all you had to do was follow the obvious path.

It was at the top that all the effort was rewarded. For it’s at Raven Crag’s peak that you can get a view of the whole of Thirlemere Reservoir. This giant expanse of water was created by the Manchester Corporation to supply the city with drinking water. Near the start of my walk stood a giant plaque celebrating the opening of the reservoir. An opening done by “Alderman Sir John James Harwood, Knight”. The word “Knight” added in case you didn’t know what “Sir” meant… Anyway, I digress.

A near-full length view of Thirlmere reservoir, viewed from the top of Raven Crag.
Almost the full length of Thirlmere Reservoir.

It was a sight to behold alright, even if Thirlemere’s water stock was only about 40% capacity after a particularly dry year. Even so, it’s a wonderful sight.

And here’s a wonderful fact about all this water. This water flows to Manchester in a 154km long underground aqueduct. It takes a day to get there, flowing by the power of gravity. No electric pumps or anything like that. It literally flows downhill, down the county. Victorian engineering at its absolutely best. Of course you can’t see any of that from Raven Crag. But it’s nice to know none the less.

Next time: on to Armboth Fell.

A wooden platform structure at the top of Raven Crag, with a view of fells and a reservoir in the background.
The summit platform of Raven Crag.

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