Helvellyn, England’s third mountain

Last updated on March 28th, 2024 at 11:59 am


England, unlike Wales, is not a mountainous country.  Indeed, it is fair to say that other countries, with the possible exception of Holland, have mountains that come in larger sizes than England’s.  But England does have some fairly serious lumps of rock and Helvellyn is one of them.  At 3,117 feet (950 metres), it is England’s and the Lake District’s third highest peak, relatively accessible, with interesting and varied scenery, exhilarating views, the added magnetism of the infamous Striding Edge…and is not to be trifled with.

Helvellyn, Ullswater

I have walked, or scrambled, up and down Helvellyn at least half a dozen times now.  My introduction was decades ago one September, often a good month to visit the Lakes.  I was between jobs and spending a week with my mother, who hadn’t seen much of Britain north of Watford.  We took rooms in a Patterdale farmhouse. During the day, she would disappear with her sketch book, I would drag my protesting body up and down rock-strewn slopes and we’d meet up in the evening for dinner.  Years on, I cannot remember the route I took the day I stumbled over and up Helvellyn for the first time – though at least I had a map, good boots and a waterproof, which was more than some of the sandal-clad half-wits I met on the summit had. Some of them are probably still there.  I found Striding Edge (technically a glacial arête) on the way down, a narrow spine of fear some half a mile in length, with misleading tracks that inexplicably terminated against impenetrable rock-faces, or disappeared in near-sheer drops. That day, the mountain was wreathed in a mist that lifted as the day warmed and I descended, gradually revealing a stunning vista over sparkling Ullswater, far below. It was magical.

Red Tarn, Helvellyn, Swirral Edge

Helvellyn is part of a mighty range of ancient peaks all more than 1,900 feet (600 metres) high, running about 6 miles from north to south.  The rocks in these parts are known to geologists as ‘the Borrowdale Volcanics’, and were spewed forth in molten magnificence just before your grandmother was born about 450 million years’ ago.  This, in mountain years, is relatively young; the Highlands of Scotland are much older.  The west slope of the Helvellyn range rises relatively steeply and inexorably from Thirlmere, but the eastern aspect facing Patterdale and Ullswater is (arguably) far more interesting – a product of the last Ice Age, sometime between 26 and 10,000 years back.  Here, deep U-shaped valleys have been carved by ice with arêtes either side (sharp ridges left by two parallel glaciers), basins have been scoured out to form corries filled with glacial melt water known as tarns, brooks babble their way down hill across peat and over multi-coloured stones and you can, with precious little effort, imagine that the 21st century is a very long way off.  Having said that, Helvellyn is a popular climb, particularly from the east.  In high season, it can be as crowded as IKEA on a wet Saturday, so if you crave total solitude, set off early or approach it from another direction.

Striding Edge

The routes from Patterdale via Grisedale, or from the more touristy Glenridding, are along well trodden paths – to a point.  But this is not one of the Lake District’s easy walks.  Depending how fit you are (and if you’re concerned about fitness, then maybe it’s better to read about it than tackle it) the trudge to the top and back should take anything from 3 – 6 hours.  In fairness, to describe Helvellyn as a walk is a little misleading.  From Grisedale, once you’re off the valley bottom it is, quite frankly, a relentless slog up cut steps to your first named feature, Hole in the Wall – which is actually, a series of scattered rocks and a stile.  The route from Glenridding is only marginally kinder on the lungs and legs.  The views all the way are immensely rewarding, though.  From Hole in the Wall, you start a gentler, but more challenging, stagger up onto Striding Edge.  Striding Edge must be treated with considerable respect.  It is not for the faint-hearted and, if you have no head for heights, do not try it – though I know from experience you can work your way along the northern (Red Tarn) side, with care.  Even so, in places, a slip can be fatal.  If someone is nervous, don’t hassle them, and keep both children and dogs under control.

Striding Edge

As you begin the ascent from Hole in the Wall, Red Tarn will come into view on your right and you’ll see the brooding mass of Helvellyn’s summit beyond.  The tarn is in a horseshoe, formed by the arêtes of Striding Edge and Swirral Edge.  Once off Striding Edge, you’re immediately confronted with a scramble, mostly on hands and knees, up jumbled rocks and bits of scree, an ascent the height of several houses, to the top of the mountain.  The slope seems vertical at times, but is probably a gentle 45 degrees.

Helvellyn's summit

Helvellyn is not a classic inverted V-shape peak – try Great Gable for that: it is a broad plateau where, in 1926, someone actually landed an aeroplane.  And it is on the plateau that you may come across several memorials.  The most famous of these is to Charles Gough, tourist and artist, who disappeared on the mountain in 1805.  His skeletal remains were found three months later, by a passing shepherd, where he had fallen.  Trixie, his faithful (and presumably well-fed) dog still guarded what was left of her master’s cadaver.

English mountains

But don’t dwell on that.  Provided the summit isn’t shrouded in cloud, wander about and enjoy the stunning views.  They have been enjoyed by illustrious visitors before you, such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Your path down is along Swirral Edge – not as daunting as its sibling on the opposite side, but still to be treated with respect – skipping is not advised.  Once you’re back at Red Tarn, pick your preferred path back to civilisation and, possibly, a well-deserved pint.

Swirral Edge

Conquering Helvellyn is an immensely rewarding achievement.  Take a camera, a picnic and enjoy yourself.  But it does claim lives and even experienced hill walkers can get into trouble.  So, do not undertake this hike without suitable preparation, clothing, equipment and supplies.  It is not suitable for casual shoes and you should take a map (you probably need Ordnance Survey North East English Lakes OL5).  Look at the route before you set off.  Make sure you can be back before dark.  Check the weather; conditions can change very quickly and it is easy to go astray.  Unless you’re very experienced and well equipped, or tired of living, no one should attempt Helvellyn in bad weather or mid-winter.  I wouldn’t.

Finally, let’s say something about the name, which you may think looks faintly Welsh.  That’s because it is Celtic, from the Cumbric language that was spoken in what is now northern England and southern Scotland until the 11th or 12th centuries.  It probably means ‘pale yellow moorland or upland’.

71 thoughts on “Helvellyn, England’s third mountain”

  1. I’ve walked up both Ben Nevis and Snowden, but I think I’ll have to give Helvellyn a miss if the only way up is along an arret. I don’t have a good head for heights at the best of times, and knowing that a misstep could lead to serious injury or death would definitely put it into the category of worst of times.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful virtual journey, Mike! A mountain is a mountain, is this one – with the surrounding looks great. Never before had heard about. Thank you, and have a beautiful day! Michael

      1. Its best for a short weekend travel. Here the mountains are higher, but on them to much forest, and industrial usage of the trees. Sometimes there you have more traffic as on the highways. Lol Have a beautiful weekend, Mike!

  3. Helvellyn was on our walking list when we were in the Lakes.. I worked in Cumbria for two years and commuted back and forth from Southport so it was a great place to meet up at the weekends. David was a mountain climber in those days having done most of the Welsh peaks and knew the Lake District well… Lovely post and brought back happy memories.

  4. Thank you for yet another lovely trip from my couch in New England to your magnificent Britain. I always enjoy your narratives — and love the way that you insert a little bit of humor/perspective here and there (“The rocks in these parts are known to geologists as ‘the Borrowdale Volcanics,’ and were spewed forth in molten magnificence just before your grandmother was born about 450 million years’ ago.”)

      1. I’ve climbed Helvellyn by Striding Edge twice. It’s a favourite along with Scafell Pike and Scafel via Mickeldore and Lord’s Rake. Also Great Gable via the Climber’s Traverse to see Napes Needle. O to be young and fit again!

  5. Hi Mike – I’ve been up there … but I’m quite certain I had the easiest climb of all – my Daddy’s back aged 6 months!! Stunning views you’ve given us – and a wonderful conversation on how and what to do … I’m still not going to be doing it ever. We used to stay with my mother’s first in-laws (war death) just outside Ambleside … beautiful area – I still remember it well. Thanks for this – fun and cheering for our times – Hilary

      1. Did they think about insurance in the late 1940s? Crumbs what a thought … !! It was the coolest way to climb that mountain!

  6. A fabulous account of walking/scrambling Helvellyn Mike. Your words are wonderfully descriptive and conjure up a magical experience of a fantastic part of England. I’ve always wanted to go up there but never have, so a big thank you for showing me what I’ve missed.

      1. I meant I’ve never been up Helvellyn Mike. I’ve been to the Lake District a fair few times, and I think there was one time it wasn’t raining :-).

    1. It’s about 300 miles, Jim. 6 hours to drive – more if the traffic’s bad – less than 3 hours by train from Euston to Oxenhome on the edge of the Lakes. Drop me a line if/when you need to know more.

  7. This post has brought back memories of climbing it in my youth. I don’t think I could do it now, though. My heart says yes, then my head says, ‘Don’t be so blinking stupid. You’re not 18 any more.’
    Lovely photos, though.

  8. Ah, it brings all those geography lessons back. Talk of arrets and the like. I know the Scots claim to be a kin of longer lineage than the English, but they get to claim that even their hills are older too! It’s not fair. Tempting indeed to give it a try next time I am wandering around the Lake District, alternatively I might just skip the walk and go straight for the rewarding pint. Though it probably wouldn’t taste as good. I could always try rewarding myself with a pint after I walk the dog for about 25 minutes I suppose. Happy Days!

  9. You have very beautiful views from up there, wow! Thanks for this, I’ve wondered what this area looks like. 3100 feet is a pretty good altitude. Some of the foothills just west of my home are around that altitude.

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