My Lake District adventure: a climb, a walk and a swim | Lake District holidays

In the eating room of the Wasdale Head Inn, explorer and climber Leo Houlding is inspecting the partitions, trying again 150 years to the origins of mountain journey as a sport. On a shelf is a stack of outdated hobnail boots, a pair of ice axes crossed above a brace of canvas haversacks, and superb black-and-white pictures of the pioneers: the tweedy chaps who first got here up with the nonsensical notion that scaling rock faces and mountains is likely to be enjoyable.

Leo is a person who has conquered a few of the most distant and difficult rock partitions on Earth, and but he’s in awe, stating the archaic tools to his two youngsters, Freya, 9, and Jackson, six. “What they did,” he says, “with out climbing footwear or something like fashionable gear, is wonderful.”

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Leo, Freya, Jackson and I are going to scale a basic – arguably the route that began all of it: the 18-metre Napes Needle, an igneous rock formation that tasks from the vertiginous sides of Nice Gable above Wasdale. In 1886 Walter Parry Haskett Smith got here right here, alone, and climbed the needle.

When {a photograph} of a determine on high of the pillar was displayed in a London store window a number of years later it precipitated a sensation, inspiring a technology of climbers. Leo is the trendy equal, an inspiration for anybody wanting journey. His new e book, Nearer to the Edge, catalogues his exploits.

View over Wast Water from the Wasdale Head route up to Scafell Pike.
View over Wast Water from the Wasdale Head route as much as Scafell Pike. {Photograph}: Anna Stowe Landscapes UK/Alamy

Journey, these old-timers had realised, could be good for you and, what’s extra, you don’t need to go far to seek out it. I’m hoping to find recent challenges throughout the UK, and never simply climbing: I wish to kayak, scramble, stroll and swim, too.

For inspiration I’ll flip to pioneers resembling mountaineer Haskett Smith and books like Traditional Rock, a 1978 assortment by influential author and photographer Ken Wilson – but additionally to more moderen publications just like the sequence of Wild guides. In every of 4 areas throughout the nation I’ll discover new experiences and concepts.

The stroll

Walkers cross Morecambe Bay.
Walkers cross Morecambe Bay. {Photograph}: Kevin Rushby

Earlier than the climb, nevertheless, I determine on an adventurous route into the Lakes, strolling throughout the shifting sands of Morecambe Bay. This space, 120 sq. miles of it, has claimed many lives through the years, however the treacherous tidal flats could be crossed with a information, native fisher Michael Wilson, who leads walks throughout from Arnside to Grange-over-Sands for varied charities most weekends. I’m right here with Ali Fairly who’s main Bay Traces – Seaside of Desires, a inventive mission celebrating the shoreline, pathways and tales of Morecambe Bay.

Arriving at Arnside, I’m astonished to seek out about 500 folks ready for Michael, who wants a loudhailer to offer the protection briefing. “If anybody will get caught, depart them.”


“I’m critical. If there’s any rescuing to be completed, the tractors will go to them.” That’s the second shock, two veteran machines will chug alongside. Much more curious, Michael tells me these are his “boats”: his fishing method is to depart nets out in a single day, then examine them when the tide goes out. That’s how he turned an professional on the treacherous sands and their unpredictable actions.

We set off down the coast, then out throughout the sands, following a line of pre-planted branches that act as markers. Is it harmful, I ask Michael, who’s out in entrance, his tractors and varied assistants protecting the lengthy caterpillar of walkers on the best path. “It may be,” he says. “We cross three water channels and they’re always altering. One in every of them has began reducing a deeper path, which can trigger us issues sooner or later. Not immediately.”

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The role of guide here dates to the 16th century when they brought monks safely across the sands to Cartmel Priory, avoiding the lawless mountain route. Incumbents tend to stay in post for years. Michael is only the 26th and his predecessor, Cedric Robinson, lasted 56 years. As a fisher who knows every corner of the bay, Michael was an obvious choice. “When I left school, I went to the sands. I never wanted anything else.”

We wade thigh deep across channels. A flat fish skitters away. In one place the sand seems to bounce. In another, my feet break through a hard crust and sink a little. Sudden burial up to your neck is unlikely, but you may lose a wellie if you choose to wear them.

Most people go barefoot, but shoes make the ridged sections more comfortable. We walk a couple of miles south then stop for a picnic amid a 360-degree panorama. From there it is a straightforward stroll along a sandbar into Grange where there’s a railway station and a lido under refurbishment. The walk has proven a magnificent, and unusual, way to approach Lakeland.

The climb

Looking down Wasdale from the top of Napes Needle.
Looking down Wasdale from the top of Napes Needle. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

An hour after we leave the campsite at Wasdale Head, Leo Houlding and his wife, Jess, are proving to be champions at inspiring children to keep going. Games and stories are the favourites. “We don’t reach for the chocolate too soon.” It’s a searingly hot day and the route to Napes Needle is shadeless. Leo predicts, very precisely, how any child will react. “Hill walking is boring, but once we start climbing – you’ll see – they engage.”

He’s right. The climbers’ path that traverses Great Gable can be a hands-on scramble and as soon as Freya and Jackson start using their hands there are no more calls for stories, games or snacks: we are in our own adventure now. It makes me think about the attraction of climbing, how the enforced use of feet and hands, the return to being a four-legged creature, switches off parts of the brain, and awakens others. This climbers’ path, between Sty Head and Beckhead Tarn, is a good option if you fancy hands-on scrambling without ropes, but with vast panoramas.

The needle is not considered a tough climb these days, certainly not for Leo who takes less than two minutes to reach the summit, where he sets up ropes for lesser mortals. I follow. The route has been climbed so many thousands of times that in places the rock is as polished as a kitchen worktop.

Leo Houlding in Wasdale Head Inn with a photo of the Abraham brothers who took the famous photo of Napes Needle.
Leo Houlding in Wasdale Head Inn with a photo of the Abraham brothers who took the famous photo of Napes Needle. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

It’s not a climb for anyone who does not have considerable experience to lead, but it is possible to follow with a qualified guide (look for the Association of Mountaineering Instructors badge with outfits like Lake District Mountaineering or check listings on UKClimbing).

The first section leads to a broad ledge from where you clamber up the last boulder. How Haskett Smith dared this last move is a marvel because the most obvious fact, as I wriggle awkwardly on to the top, is that getting down will be harder. For a minute I enjoy the views down Wasdale, but the summit can only hold two people so I head down, secured by Leo, then Freya and Jackson shin up – the latter apparently devising a new more difficult route while talking continuously.

After we are all down, the Houlding family adds an extra dimension of risk to the adventure, running down the scree slope to the valley.

The swim

Swimming in Wastwater, with Great Gable at the far end of the lake.
Swimming in Wastwater, with Great Gable at the far end of the lake. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

A day in the sun, a bit of climbing and a lot of knocks on the scree slopes leave me wanting a good cold soak. I head down along the north shore of Wastwater, which is Lakeland’s most remote large lake and England’s deepest at 79 metres.

There are a number of easy places to reach the water. Getting in, of course, is harder. Even on a summer’s day, this lake retains its chill. Once immersed, however, the pain fades and I swim out towards the vast scree slopes under Illgill Head, the water pockmarked by rising fish – probably trout although Arctic char also live here. A fantastic way to finish.

Accommodation was provided by Wasdale Head Inn (camping £6, no large tents; double rooms from £140). The writer was a guest of the Bay Lines – Beach of Dreams project on the Morecambe Bay walk. Join walks across the sands by charitable donation at Guide Over Sands Trust

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