Helvellyn

Published 9 September 2015

A padlock attached to Helvellyn’s trig point

The first fell of a four fell walk taking in Helvellyn, Nethermost Pike, Dollywagon Pike and Seat Sandal.

At 950m above sea level, Helvellyn is the highest peak in Wainwright’s Pictorial Guide to the Eastern Fells, and the third highest of all the Wainwrights. In fact, it’s a mere 27m shorter than Scafell Pike, and the third highest mountain in England. And for many people, the ascent of Helvellyn starts at Wythburn, at the foot of Thirlmere reservoir. Yet Wainwright lists seven different ways to ascend this mighty fell from the west (and another seven from the east), and looking through the list I’d decided to start my trek from nearby Thirlspot instead, using the “White Stones” route.

I never made it. By the time I’d got near to the top of White Side, one of Helvellyn’s neighbours, I could see that the top of Helvellyn was covered in snow. I hadn’t expected snow. Goodness knows why not. After all, the Lake District usually has plenty of it in March, especially in its high points.

I’d bottled out, turning my back on Helvellyn and instead going off to bag Raise, an assorted collection of Dodds of the Stybarrow, Watson and Great variety.

The 555 bus stood outside the pub at Thirlspot

After a failed attempt to ascend Helvellyn, I was back at Thirlmere to try again. And this time I had Catherine for company.

Now though it was a year later, and in July. The snow had gone. The weather looked tolerable. It was time to get that bus back to Thirlspot; time to stand outside a deserted looking King’s Head Hotel; and most definitely time to head up the White Stones route once more.

And this time I’d have company too.


“Are you sure it’s that way?” asked Catherine looking up at the bracken lined path, and asking in such a way that implied quite strongly that she didn’t believe a word I was saying

“Yes. There was a big sign saying so,” I replied, pointing to the chunk of stone with a big arrow and the word “Helvellyn” embossed on it. “Couldn’t be clearer.”

She didn’t seem to be massively convinced, however I certainly was. Even a group of students doing their Duke of Edinburgh who looked at it, and then wandered off in a different direction, didn’t persuade me I was wrong. It was a sign that 15 months earlier I’d completely ignored. And not long after I’d got lost. There was no chance I was going to make the same mistake again!

Looking down on Thirlmere reservoir

“Up we go then!” I called as we began to tackle the steep climb on the path alongside Fisherplace Gill. Hard work, but still, the views of the Skiddaw range, and of Thirlmere reservoir more than made up for it.

Constructed out of two smaller lakes in the late 19th century by the Manchester Corporation, the reservoir still provides water to the city today, with the water travelling along a 96 mile long aqueduct, and all of it’s moved by gravity. There’s not a single mechanical pump on the whole journey, yet the water still manages to zoom along at a whopping four miles an hour, taking just 24 hours to get there.

The path we’d chosen showed off the reservoir to its best, although it seemed that few people used it to get those views. The White Stones route, and the nearby Pony Route, were once popular ones to take for those heading up to Helvellyn, but these days most of the traffic from the western side sets off from nearby Swirls route that sets off from nearby Wythburn. The Swirls route has a good solid clear path, and, perhaps more importantly, starts off from a car park.

Looking towards the Northern Fells on the way up Helvellyn

The result of this change in walking behaviour is that the White Stones path is now a bit overgrown. In his Pictorial Guide Wainwright noted that the white painted stones that mark the route had gone a little grey. Now they seemed to be mostly non-existent, perhaps hidden under bracken and undergrowth along with the rest of the path. Catherine’s doubt that we were going the right way was, perhaps, just a tad understandable. Mind you, there did seem to be confirmation from below that we were going the right way.

“Look, those teenagers are now following us.”

The Duke of Edinburgh gang, with their oversized rucksacks, appeared to have changed their minds and were now, slowly but surely, heading up the White Stones route behind us. Overwhelming confirmation, if ever it was needed, of my navigational skills, and no mistake.

Shame then that a little after we completely lost the already difficult-to-follow path. Somewhere below us, it had wandered off to the right but we had no idea where. Still, we knew roughly where we were going. The Swirls and White Stones routes both meet, and being a mile away, it was just about possible to spot the Swirls path making its way up Helvellyn. All we had to do was roughly follow the hillside until we got there.

A large boulder to the side of the main path up Helvellyn from the west

Eventually we stumbled across the path we should have been taking, and not long after we’d crossed Helvellyn Gill and joined the stone built track that comes up from the Wythburn car park. A good, solid, dependable path; certainly not one that we would have mislaid if we’d followed it from the bottom.

Oh well.

The path may have been viewable, however the top of Helvellyn certainly wasn’t. A thick layer of cloud was hugging it, and it seemed like it was in no mood to lift. Slowly but surely the world of Thirlmere disappeared, leaving us to merely remember what had been as we wandered through a vaguely ethereal landscape made up of mist and rocks.

“Did you get to see anything?” Catherine unoptimisitically asked two walkers heading down from the summit.

“Not much,” came the reply. “We were up there for ages. The cloud parted for a bit, but not for long.”

We looked at each other, sighed, and carried on. Well we’d got this far; there was to be no turning back.

Bicycle near the Helvellyn trig point

Like its near neighbour, Fairfield, Helvellyn has a rather flat top. Likewise it’s not particularly rocky. Despite its rank as the third highest fell in England, it’s summit is mostly a grassy plateau. Yes there are some rocks and boulders, but it’s still easy enough to cycle over.

What’s that? Cycle? Why., yes. The sight of at least one bike leaning against Helvellyn’s trig point is a common one, and one we saw for ourselves, just minutes before it’s owner mounted it and cycled off. But not to worry. A few minutes later, a replacement appeared.

As well as cyclists, several walkers were milling around, waiting expectantly for the clouds to part, and Helvellyn’s glorious views to reveal themselves. Word had clearly gone around that there was a chance this would happen, and everyone was determined not to leave until it had.

Swirral Edge, near the top of Helvellyn

But rather than the long, tedious wait we expected, the clouds opened rather quickly, revealing a view of Red Tarn and Swirral Edge, the latter being one of the two, rather pointy and dramatic looking ridges on Helvellyn’s eastern side. Along with its neighbour, Striding Edge, Swirral allows access to the fell top for those heading up from Patterdale; Swirral Edge from the dramatic looking Catsycam, and Striding Edge from Birkhouse Moor. And then, after a few minutes, they were gone again.

For whatever reason, the actual summit of Helvellyn has no cairn, and the trig point, built out of stones rather than concrete, as is the custom in the Lakes, is the only real marker that you’re at the summit. For whatever reason, some previous visitor had left a padlock attached to the trig point, but even that can only entertain for so long before the walker feels the need to explore elsewhere. Inevitably they head off in the direction of a stone shelter a short distance away, and lower down in height too, which feels vaguely unsatisfying. But still, we went there.

Catherine walking towards Helvellyn’s summit shelter

It was also absolutely chocker, and instead we rested on a slope of stones as we munched on sandwiches and buttered scones. And as we chinked water bottles to toast our success at reaching another of Lakeland’s fine fells, the cloud departed again, and this time it wasn’t coming back. Suddenly the whole of the summit area was free to view, along with everywhere around it; the finest views inevitably of the two Edges, with Ullswater in the background.

With the cloud gone, it was also time to explore Helvellyn’s memorials. One, the Dixon Memorial from 1858, sits on Striding Edge, however the other two can easily be found on the summit. The Gough Memorial, near the turnoff for Striding Edge, is the most obvious. It’s dedicated to artist Charles Gough who died in 1805 who, it has to be said, is far better known for the manner of his death than he ever has been for his art. For in April 1805 Gough set off to walk over Helvellyn, via Striding Edge.

The Gough Momument, dedicated to artist Charles Gough who died on Helvellyn in the early 19th century

At that point Helvellyn was far quieter than now. Only a handful of people went walking for leisure, and walkers usually hired a local guide to ensure their safety. But with the Napoleonic wars in full stride, and the guide Gough had arranged to accompany him, was busy trailing with the local militia. As such, Gough headed out with only his dog for company.

It was the last time anyone saw him alive, and when he failed to turn up at Grasmere as planned, no one went out looking for him. It took three months for him to be found, when a local shepherd found Gough’s bones near Red Tarn, guarded by his still living dog. Such was the romantic notion of the hound guarding her master, that the scene was painted by two different artists, and marked with a poem by Wordsworth whose final verse has the lines:

Yes, proof was plain that since the day
On which the Traveller thus had died
The Dog had watch’d about the spot,
Or by his Master’s side:
How nourish’d here through such long time
He knows, who gave that love sublime,
And gave that strength of feeling, great
Above all human estimate.

Why yes, how did that dog manage to survive? Some, mysterious hidden power? Or perhaps, as suggested in the press at the time, by feeding off the flesh of her master’s bones? The dog was, incidentally, female, not male as suggested by Wordsworth; that being obvious by the remains of a pup she’d given birth to that hadn’t managed to survive.

Monument from 1926 marking the occassion of a plane landing on Helvellyn

In contrast Helvellyn’s third memorial is of a far less gruesome event. More subtle than the large cairn of Gough’s, the stone tablet sits a short way from Helvellyn’s stone shelter and marks an event in 1926 when a small aeroplane flown by John Leeming and Bert Hinkler landed on top of the hill, having flown there from Woodford Aerodrome near Manchester. Yes, Helvellyn’s that flat that planes can land. This particular one even took off again, and after a close miss with Striding Edge, returned to base unharmed.

Our own departure off the fell would be far less dramatic than either. It wouldn’t involve Swirral Edge or Striding Edge either. We’d be taking the far simpler and easier routes of heading over the gentle ridge to Nethermost Pike; the second of four fells we’d end up visiting. And looking at the watch, it was time for us to get going.

Next fell: Nethermost Pike. View all 57 of my Helvellyn and More walk photos on flickr

Striding Edge, seen near the summit of Helvellyn

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