Gowbarrow Fell

Published 20 August 2013

A dinky little fell, visited with a dinky little character. Still, a grand view.

It wasn’t by any particular design, nor ideological that I’d never used a car to get to any Wainwright before. It was more that as I didn’t own a car, I’d never used one to take me to parts of the Lakes for my walks.

However for our Lake District trip in the summer of 2013, we’d ended up having a car. We hadn’t planned it that way. When we booked the trip we’d contemplated hiring one, but decided not to on the basis that we’d be staying in Ambleside and there would be lots of buses. By coincidence though, at the exact same time we’d be in the Lakes, Catherine’s parents would be in Canada. “Why not take our car?” they said. “It won’t be doing anything.” So we did.

Just because we had a car at our disposal didn’t mean we always wanted to use it. Frankly, wherever possible, I much prefer it if someone else does the driving which is where the bus comes in most handy. Although, as our trip to Catbells showed, it always helps if the bus turns up.

However for some fells, it’s handy to have a car. And Gowbarrow Fell is one of them. Gowbarrow Fell is one of the more northerly fells in Wainwright’s Pictorial Guide to the Eastern Fells. It’s a small lump of a fell, with no connections to any other fells. It’s tucked away in a quiet corner of the Lakes near Ullswater and the buses to it only run five times a day. Oh and during weekdays during term time, they only run from Penrith. Should you want to travel from Windermere, you either have to wait until weekend, or the school holidays.

National Trust sign for Aira Force

Despite that, Gowbarrow Fell is actually near a big tourist attraction. Most ascents start from the National Trust’s property at Aira Force. The Force itself is a 21 metre high waterfall which tumbles down majestically from a stone bridge, and which is accessed via a simple walk through an enchanting woodland. Even on a slightly soggy Thursday in June, the car park was heaving with visitors.

We’d opted for Gowbarrow Fell for a walk for a simple reason. It looked a simple fell with little in the way of scree or scrambling. When you’re carrying a small wriggling child on your back, simple fells have their benefits. We’d only had the back carrier a few weeks which meant neither San nor ourselves were massively used to it.

Often, Wainwright can be a touch dismissive of fells that don’t feature masses amounts of crags and rocks. But his view of Gowbarrow Fell seemed reasonably favourable, praising its green and pleasant paths, and fine views of Ullswater. It sounded perfect for our goal.

After strapping Sam safely in to the back carrier (and having spent much time wandering around the car park trying to find someone who could give me change for a fiver for the pay and display ticket machine) we headed off towards the enchanted woodland.

Despite being only a relatively simple fell (if one can call a fell that is 464m high “simple”), finding the right path wasn’t particularly straightforward. Gowbarrow Fell is one of those annoying hills where the Ordnance Survey map shows not a single path to the summit, whilst the maps in our copy of Wainwright’s Eastern Fells dated back to 1955 so had the potential to be hopelessly of date. There was little for it but to follow the paths through Aira Force and try and find a gate that led on to the fellside proper.

A gate leading into trees

Which turned out to be easy. We found one date that led out of the trees and dutifully followed it. The fell looked lovely. There was just one problem. Within seconds the path we’d followed had taken us to another gate and back inside the woodland again.

After a moment of confusion, we spied a second gate back on to the fellside, and found it much more to our liking.

A clear path, surrounded by ferns, took us slowly but surely up Gowbarrow. Behind us Ullswater lay, with the fellside giving a good view of it despite the low cloud everywhere, which was also providing a good layer of drizzle. Sam gurgled and giggled happily as he admired his surroundings and the many new things he was being given to see, before promptly zonking out and sleeping with his head rested on my back.

The author and his son on Gowbarrow Fell with a view of Ullswater
Sam admires Ullswater

Gowbarrow Hill proved to be a fell that was a master of false summits. As we followed the path on and on, we kept spying lumps that had a summit like feel to them, only to find as soon as we got there, that there was something ever so slightly higher nearby. When we got to the top of Green Hill, and the path changed to going north, it got even worse with every step seemingly bringing another false summit. How could such a small fell cause so much confusion, I wondered? Only when a rocky looking top eventually appeared in to view; the trig point on top giving the game away that the true top of Gowbarrow was nearing.

The ferns gave way to heather and just a hint of bogginess as we approached, spying two fellow walkers also braving the drizzle to admire misty Ullswater. Despite the busyness of the car park, few others had headed out on to Gowbarrow and until now we’d had the fell to ourselves. We joined them on the summit, and hastily took the obligatory photographs of views and trig points as the weather began to get worse. Sam may have made it to his first Wainwright summit, but he wasn’t wearing the latest in baby orientated Gore-tex; who knew how much water his M&S anorak would repel?

The author with a baby approaching the top of Gowbarrow Fell

Since Wainwright had drawn his maps in the 1950s, a new path had been laid heading west towards Dockray and we opted to head down that. Initially being a wide, well made path, it soon gave way to a set of slippery rock steps – just the kind of fun you want when you’ve got a heavy baby shaped lump on your back who has just started crying because they’re hungry and they want their lunch.

To be fair, I was hungry as well. Well it was 1pm after all. But the rain was getting worse, and our attempt to shelter under some trees at the side of the path only saw us (well me) get bitten my a hoard of midges who had clearly set up camp there in an attempt to find unsuspecting walkers.

There was nothing for it but to follow the path back to Aira Force and the car, which with a crying baby on your back, is no mean feat. It’s impossible to say to a hungry baby, “just hold on – we’ll be there in half an hour”. Even “Hey Sam, you’ve just done your first fell! Only another two hundred or so to do!” did little to console him as we made our way back to the car and the shelter it offered.

A gate leading to the car park of Aira Force

Back in the shelter of a metal box, Sam scoffed himself on fruit, cheese and bread and felt much better. But our suggestion that we should head back out and go and see this waterfall that was apparently so good, didn’t go down very well. With the rain coming down even more heavily, we pulled out and drove on our way.

Still, Sam had finally made it up a Wainwright. He hadn’t had any choice about doing it, had been carried all the way and had been asleep when he got to the top, but still, for a seven month old baby, it was quite an achievement. Although when he, inevitably, wanted to start doing Wainwright’s properly later in life, he’d probably decide this visit didn’t really count.

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