Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:26 am
Motivated by Jo Williams’ suggestions for five easy walks in the Lake District, a bright April morning found the ABAB team resolutely heading in the direction of the northern English Lakes, with the ultimate destination being Cat Bells. Look elsewhere for furry friend gadgets. Cat Bells, or Catbells, is, for the benefit of the uninformed, a fell, or modest mountain, a few miles from the Cumbrian town of Keswick and on the western shore of Derwent Water. As a walking project, Cat Bells offers several advantages. Firstly, at 1481ft (451m) high, it is relatively low, easy to conquer and therefore an ideal mountain for virgin hikers. Secondly, because it is fairly popular, the path is well-trodden so it is hard to wander off and get lost. And last, but definitely not least, the views are terrific from start to finish. Let’s be honest: there is limited value in undertaking this walk in poor visibility. Actually, I don’t know about you, but I’m way past the age when I consider it a jolly jape to walk anywhere in bad weather; and if an inability to see where I’m going increases the risk of falling off a large rock, count me out.
It had been many years since I had skipped and danced my youthful way up Cat Bells. We met long ago during a school geography field trip and my first visit to the Lake District. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the area was; and Cat Bells was the gentle baptism of fire chosen by the teachers for their willing, shining morning-faced, charges to tackle. It saddened me to discover, a few days after my recent, belated, return visit, that the leader of that trip all those years ago, an exceptionally kind and inspirational schoolmaster, had died just the week before. Perhaps I was paying unconscious homage to him, and what he gave. One of the good guys – thank you, Bob McFadden; RIP.
Moving on – aren’t you intrigued by the name? The prevailing view seems to be that it is a corruption of ‘cats’ bield’, harking back to a time when wildcats were widespread in Britain, ‘bield’ being an archaic word meaning home, shelter or refuge. So – a place of wildcats, then. Sadly, these creatures are now on the verge of extinction in Britain and only found in the Scottish Highlands. They disappeared from the south of England in the 16th century and I read that the last one in the north was shot about 150 years ago. The European wildcat is a distinct breed, felis silvestris, similar in appearance to a large domestic tabby, but more muscular, with a thick, blunt, tail. They can grow up to almost a metre long, but are threatened by loss of habitat and hybridisation – breeding with feral domestic cats. I was surprised, but pleased, to read there are at least two programmes to reintroduce these shy, native, wild animals to the wild during the 2020s. I doubt they would last long on Cat Bells, though; it is far too busy.
Of course, there is more than one way of skinning a cat, but most people approach Cat Bells from the north. The starting point is near a cattle grid about a ¼ of a mile west of Hawes End. A car park is shown on the OS map, but this is so small we completely missed it – unless it was a patch of worn earth big enough for about 3 vehicles under some trees with unobtrusively dangerous tree roots that would tear the underparts off my low-slung saloon. There is very limited roadside parking – just a few makeshift pull-ins – and parking restrictions are rigorously enforced. So, if you’re driving get there early. Given the popularity of Cat Bells, tackling it at the beginning, or end, of the day is good advice anyway, to avoid the crowds. An alternative, civilised, start could be via the regular ferry service that runs from Keswick to Hawes End; or you can walk from Keswick – it’s about 3 miles.
We have suggested – and this is supported by every other source you will find – that to walk up Cat Bells is easy. And it is – relatively. The official distance from the cattle grid to the top is, as you can see, given at just a mile, or about an hour. However, I should point out that these figures are completely unreliable and may even discriminate against slightly over-weight, over-middle-age, blokes. I was cheerfully wheezing after a few hundred yards and, feeling it was the right thing to do, carried on wheezing until I reached the summit. And it certainly felt longer than an hour. The path is simple to follow, though, a kind of hikers’ version of the M6, and there was plenty of room for everyone else out that day to pass us with ease. “Surely, you can’t see much,” I mused, “walking that fast?” Two warnings: steps and scrambles. The National Trust, which owns Cat Bells, has carried out extensive repairs to eroding paths by inserting tough rock-steps; these are great, and will protect the mountain, but can be hard on the feet. There are also a couple of places where scrambling on hands and knees is necessary. These do not present any real difficulty, and aren’t particularly dangerous, though the more vertically-challenged might struggle in places and it would be slippery in the wet.
Mid-way up the first rocky scramble, Skelgill Bank, is a memorial plaque to Thomas Arthur Leonard. Thomas Arthur Leonard (1864-1948) was a pioneer in developing organised outdoor holidays for working people through the Co-operative Holidays Association, which he founded in 1893, and was also instrumental in establishing both the Youth Hostels and the Ramblers’ Associations. He continues to be regarded by many as “father of the open-air movement,” which is mentioned on the plaque along with the epitaph, “Believing that ‘the best things any mortal hath are those which every mortal shares’ he endeavoured to promote ‘joy in widest commonality spread’.”
The views on this walk open up almost as soon as you set off. Cat Bells sits on a ridge with Derwent Water to the west and Newlands Valley to the east. To the north is Skiddaw and, to the left of that, Bassenthwaite Lake. Over to the north east is the distinctive shape of the Blencathra range, or Saddleback. Derwent Water is one of my favourite lakes, an elegant expanse of water with intriguing-looking islands and, at its southern end, the theatrically-named Jaws of Borrowdale, where the valley narrows between the steep rocks of Castle Crag and Kings How. It is like being in the pages of a Tolkien novel.
As if being there wasn’t exciting enough, the RAF treated us to a short display on our way to the top of Cat Bells. First, out of nowhere, a Eurofighter Typhoon spine-jarringly roared across the lake from the east, banked suddenly, displaying its delta shape, and peeled off, in warp drive, over Bassenthwaite leaving us more breathless than we already were. Later, a Hercules rumbled into view, beneath us, taking a similar route. This reappeared from the south a little while after, flying very low the length of Derwent Water. Frankly, if I hadn’t been watching in colour it could have been a scene from the Dam Busters. Left a bit; right a bit; steady, steady… And, before someone who takes themselves far too seriously pipes up that 617 Squadron flew Lancasters, thank you, it’s not necessary.
The second small scramble is just before the very top, where there’s a neat little slate summit cairn. The adjacent slopes seemed a good spot for an early lunch, so we happily munched our butties while enjoying the views. The way down is a continuation of the path south, which leads temptingly deeper into the mountains of Mordor, before taking a zig-zap path left. This eventually joins a serious pathway, the Cumbria Way, which provides a more or less level and effortless stroll back to the start point. Before we got there, we rested a short moment on a splendid stone bench overlooking the lake and, immediately below, a simply lovely house built in local slate. On the rock behind, a plaque told us that the seat was erected in memory of Hugh Walpole of Brackenburn by his friend Harold Cheevers. Hugh Seymour Walpole (1884-1941) was a well-regarded novelist – in fact, a best-selling author in the 1920s and 1930s. He lived in the lovely house, Brackenburn, from 1924 until his death, describing it as, “this enchanted place, this paradise on Catbells”.
And there seems an appropriate place to end. Unless you’d like to watch a short film.
And you’ll need this map