Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:29 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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’.