Natural lines

Posted by Jon Sparks on 02/11/2003
Photo: Jon Sparks.

Breaking out of the circular rut with linear walks using public transport.

What’s the finest ridge-walk in the Lake District? It depends what you like, but if you want to stride out for hours, staying as high as possible, then there’s no question: it’s the Dodds and Helvellyn. This great ridge keeps you above 750 metres for over 10 kilometres. Most of the walking is easy, the views are fabulous, and peak-baggers will appreciate the tally of eight summits. So why doesn't it appear in every guidebook and classics list?

It can only be because, oh dear, it’s a linear walk. But hang on, the A591 runs along the base of the ridge for most of its length, doesn’t it? And isn’t there a bus service? In fact, this particular route (555) is the backbone of the Lakeland bus network, with services roughly hourly throughout the year: disembark at Bridgend and begin with Great Dodd, taking a look at Castle Rock of Triermain on the way.

Routes like this are one of the best reasons for using public transport. There are lots more: I’m sure every reader is familiar with the economic and social arguments. But dwelling solely on these makes it all too easy to feel that using public transport is something we ought to do - or, all too often, something that other people ought to do - as if it necessarily involves hardship and sacrifice. My point is that people who don’t use public transport are missing out. Buses, trains - and boats too, in the Lake District - offer us a different, and frequently better, walking experience.

Yes, you can use public transport to access many of the classic ‘circular’ walks. You’ll feel virtuous - smug, too, when the car parks are overflowing - but this is only the beginning of what you can do with public transport. Unfortunately, most guidebooks give sketchy details, at best. Many barely acknowledge that it exists. And the vast majority are locked into the circular walking mindset, where every route must start and finish at a car-park.
Hence Car-Free Cumbria, which began as one book and evolved into two slim volumes, North and South, offering 30 one-day walks plus a five-day expedition right across Lakeland, all of them linear. I could have described any number of circular walks, too, all easily accessible by public transport, but they were already in loads of other books, even if many neglected to tell you how to get there.

As I studied timetables and maps, I realised afresh how easy it was. There were just so many possibilities in most parts of the district. Admittedly there were very sketchy services to some of the western valleys - the Duddon, Wasdale and Ennerdale - but it was a different story elsewhere. A number of seasonal services targeted specifically at walkers helped bring places like Buttermere and even Haweswater in reach. But the majority of the walks relied on regular, year-round services. Of the 31 walks, 21 were possible year-round and 17 were possible seven days of the week throughout the year.

There was a special quality to the walks, too. Beginning the day with a ride on the Ratty railway or a wooden launch was always a treat. But even when the transport was a regular, workaday bus, the walks felt different. Setting out to walk from A to B adds a particular flavour: these walks were more like journeys. As I wrote in the Introduction, ‘there is nothing particularly natural about walking in circles. We are all descended from nomads, and walks that go from place to place appeal to something deep within us.’

If that sounds a bit mystical, consider this. If your idea of a comfortable day’s walking is, say, twenty kilometres, then a circular walk is unlikely ever to take you more than seven or eight kilometres from where you started. Go linear and you at least double this range.

Most circular walks are rounds of a single valley, or take you up and down the same side of the same hill or group of hills. Go linear and for the same effort you can traverse a major ridge, cross a few passes, go from one valley to another. You can even start on the edge of the district and walk in to its heart. And if you want things easy, catch a bus to the top of Honister or Kirkstone Pass or Dunmail Raise and do a walk with more down than up.
The Helvellyn traverse is one of the great year-round classics. Another possibility based on the same key 555 bus is the walk from Keswick to Ambleside over Ullscarf, High Raise, and half a dozen lower tops. Despite its lower altitude, this is a much tougher proposition than the Helvellyn route, but there are plenty of places to bale out - yet another advantage of not having to get back to your car. This walk could be at its best in winter, but only if the bogs of High Tove and High Seat are frozen. (See High 232, March 2002, for a summer description.)

The 555 also opens up a traverse of Skiddaw. To my mind this is simply the best way to do the mountain: up by the elegant Ullock Pike ridge, down by the ‘Pony Track’, with its fabulous views out over most of Lakeland. Save the empty spaces ‘Back o’Skiddaw’ for a separate journey, from Mungrisedale to Bassenthwaite. (But if you want to do it in winter, you’ll have to go on a Saturday.) I didn’t put this one in the books but it’s a mouth-watering prospect, and there are lots more like it.

It’s not all about peak-bagging, either. Borrowdale is a natural for linear walks, high or low, and has a great bus service. The southern part of the district is particularly rich in routes over the lower fells. These come into their own when clouds blanket the higher tops, but should not be underestimated: the walking can still be rough and challenging. A personal favourite journeys from Coniston to Dungeon Ghyll via Yewdale Fells, Greenburn, and Blea Tarn. There’s no big-name summit, just the marvellous unsung viewpoint of Hawk Rigg, but the whole walk is fascinating. Perspectives change all the time, in a way that high ridge-walks rarely manage.

Another gem explores the moorland and forest east of Coniston Water. This is definitely at its best on a clear day: the views over Coniston Water to Dow Crag and the Old Man are unbeatable. Not to mention that the route is virtually trackless in parts. You’ll see few, if any, other walkers for most of the way.

This is just one more plus point for the linear approach. Breaking out of the circular rut can take you away from the less liberated crowds. Of course it would be a thoroughly good thing if more people discovered the advantages of using public transport. But then some of these quiet corners wouldn’t be so quiet any more. I guess you can’t have everything.



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