Mention a tour of the Lakes and the usual places spring to mind: Windermere, Grasmere, Ambleside, Borrowdale and more - all the traditional tourist spots. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these places - I enjoy visiting all of them - but for those who enjoy scenery without the crowds, there is a corner of the Lake District to the north of Keswick - or, to be more exact, north and east of Skiddaw - that offers what so many people desire above all else: peace and quiet.
While the fells north of Skiddaw may lack spectacular scenery on the scale of Borrowdale or Langdale, they reveal little gems to those that seek them out: the waterfalls of Roughton Gill and Whitewater Dash; the old mines of the Caldbeck Fells; and the remains of the Carrock Iron Age hill fort. Why, if they are so attractive, should these few square miles be the least visited and most underexplored part of the Lake District?
The reasons are not hard to find: Skiddaw and its neighbouring fells effectively block the view to the north, while - in the opposite direction - Borrowdale and points south jostle for your time and attention. When you have walked up Cat Bells, had tea at Grange and taken a couple of trips on Derwentwater, time for exploring further afield has often gone.
The Northern Fells.
The northern fells are neatly outlined by the A591 as far as Bassenfell, and the minor roads through Uldale, Caldbeck, Mosedale, Mungrisedale and back from Threlkeld along the A66 to Keswick. The clockwise trip starts northwest along the A591, with Bassenthwaite Lake on your left and the steep slopes of Skiddaw to your right. In summer the fells on either side of the lake are a patchwork of pastel brackens and heathers, with the occasional muted green of a softwood plantation.
My personal preference is to leave the main road before reaching Bassenfell and to turn north on minor roads towards Melbecks and Orthwaite; this has the advantage of taking you to Peter House and the 'back door' to Skiddaw. Most of this area provides ready access to the fells and simple walks more suited to the occasional stroller than the dedicated strider.
One of the most spectacular features of the northern fells is Whitewater Dash; just a short walk from the road, these waterfalls are well worth a short diversion. A few hundred yards more will take you up the slope into the wide bowl in the hills known as Skiddaw Forest. The only noise up here is the crunch of your boots on the path, the bleating of the Herdwick sheep, and the cry of the curlew.
Skiddaw from Aughertree Fell.
The road on to Caldbeck by-passes the tiny village of Uldale and brings you out on the B5299 at the beginning of Ellerbeck Common, in genuine John Peel country. The huntsman of legend - not the clean-cut horseman of myth, more of a roughneck whose hunting (on foot in this part of the world, not on horseback) took precedence over his family - was born in a tiny farmhouse at the lower end of the Common, and he is buried in St. Kentigern's churchyard in Caldbeck village. Forget Caldbeck for the moment, though, and turn right towards Greenrigg, Greenhead (the setting for Margaret's Forster's novel The Bride of Lowther Fell) and Branthwaite.
In the 16th and 17th centuries the commercial success of the mines in this area led to the saying that 'Caldbeck and the Caldbeck fells are worth all England else'. While you are here, drive on the extra mile or so to Fellside, park the car and walk the ancient track to Roughton Gill. The hillsides are strewn with evidence of mining activity stretching back over hundreds of years, possibly to Roman times; mines such as Hay Gill, Red Gill, Mexico Mine, St. Emmanuel and the beautifully-named Lady on Horseback.
Howk Bobbin Mill.
Caldbeck is one of the few areas north of Keswick which draws tourists in significant numbers. The John Peel connection has been the salvation of what was once the thriving centre of the local mining industry, but which gradually declined as, one by one, the mines closed down. Most visitors, however, fail to see the more interesting side of the village.
At the top end of Caldbeck is a footpath sign point to Howk, a steep water-cut gorge hiding the ruins of an old bobbin mill. With some detective work you can trace the route of the flume (a wooden trough) that carried water from Whelpo Beck to power the bobbin mill's waterwheel, one of the largest in the country in its heyday.
Summer in Howk valley is characterised for me by the aroma of garlic. Garlic? Look at the white flowers you have just crushed - Wood Garlic - the real thing! Following the path down the little valley brings you out in a quiet corner of the village by the old fulling mill; a stone lintel with the date 1671 sets the timescale.
Caldbeck is a village of waterwheels, and standing on the fulling mill bridge you can see the remains of the mill wheel in its housing. Follow the stream on, down past the packbridge and St. Kentigern's church, and you will come to the site of the last of the three waterwheels, this time the former woodmill. Cheap, reliable, non-polluting and environmentally-acceptable - whatever happened to water power? Leaving Caldbeck behind, the road goes on through Hesketh Newmarket and round to what the Norsemen called 'dreary valley' - Mosedale.
Not dreary by any means, Mosedale provides interest to a wide range of visitors: the young but powerful River Caldew which drains the Skiddaw Forest basin; Carrock Mine, one of the few places where wolframite (the ore of tungsten) is to be found in workable quantity; the birds of prey always floating over the hillsides; and the ruins of the Iron Age hill fort on Carrock Fell.
The Lake District has a long history of Quakerism, and sitting in the stone-built Quaker Chapel at the foot of the valley provides a welcome respite from the summer heat. The road leads on from Mosedale via Mungrisdale to the main A66, and the downhill run past the flanks of Helvellyn back to Keswick. If your holiday plans include a visit to the Lake District, explore the area to the north of Skiddaw - you won't be disappointed.