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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Beating the rush up Great Gable in the Lake District

By Ben MacGregor

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The view towards Wastwater.
The view towards Wastwater.

The English Lake District is a small area of mountains and lakes about the same size as Caithness. Over 40 million people visit each year, a dozen times as many as come to the whole of the Scottish Highlands, with an annual income for the area of around three billion pounds.

There is a dense network of mountain and lakeside paths, and most of the 214 "Wainwright" summits are far busier than Scottish Munros.

With many large cities within a couple of hours' drive, weekends are especially busy. Then is not the time to drive the narrow roads or attempt to find parking! Nor can you expect solitude on the hills.

It is surprising, though, that the paths do not seem busier than they are, the knobbly craggy landscape with wooded valleys absorbs a lot of people.

Of all the mountains, Great Gable is one of the most famous, a mecca for English hillwalkers. Anyone who enjoys the hills will aspire to climbing the peak and admiring the famous view of Wastwater from the Westmoreland cairn.

The history of rock-climbing is also closely entwined with Gable – Napes Needle is where the sport took off 150 years ago and is still one of the most photographed pinnacles in the world.

The summit of Great Gable.
The summit of Great Gable.

It was not yet nine on a fine Sunday morning in mid October. I took the winding road above Derwentwater on the bike, already cars were piling in to the few parking spaces and people were setting off up Cat Bells, probably the most-climbed hill in the UK.

The Borrowdale road through steep woods was increasingly busy as more and more people headed for the hills.

Honister Pass is one of our steepest, 1000 feet of mostly 1 in 4, but an e-bike takes the sting out of the climb. Harder is the rough road which leads from the busy top of the pass, with its café and shop and youth hostel, to the slate quarries high above. With a combination of loose stone and a 1 in 3 gradient it’s not easy even pedalling an e-bike. If you stop there is no way of getting going again.

But I was now more than halfway up Gable, and left the bike to take a slowly climbing path wending its way above Ennerdale and the Buttermere valley. The four-mile walk around Buttermere, 1500 feet below, is one of the region’s most popular and there would be a queue of walkers on a fine Sunday.

Autumn light, towards Pillar.
Autumn light, towards Pillar.

The valley would be full with no remaining parking anywhere. Ennerdale is quieter with no public road, its "rewilding" of former conifer plantations is famous.

Ahead rose the stony top of Green Gable, a lower top to cross before a steep scramble up scree and rock steps to the final summit. More and more people were appearing from below, many with dogs – Keswick is sometimes called the dog capital of England.

A drone whined overhead. But I was ahead of the main rush and could enjoy the view from the top in relative quiet, a magnificent panorama of the Scafells, England’s highest peaks, and that famous view of Wastwater.

Every step of the way has been written about and photographed countless times. The infamous screes of Aaron Slack above Styhead Tarn were busy with pilgrims. Descending the scrambly bit was like being on a single-track road, with frequent waits for people at passing places.

Most folk like to talk, even to their dogs, rather than keep quiet and enjoy the scenery! Apparently "quiet walking" without headphones or company is being rediscovered as something new.

The route up Gable from Honister Pass is, though, one of the less popular, and once back over Green Gable I could again enjoy some peace along the path heading back to the bike. I think of autumn as a quiet time in the mountains and it was strange to see such throngs of people.

On the Hopebeck Road.
On the Hopebeck Road.

The road round Buttermere and Crummock makes a good cycle but there are too many narrows and blind corners for a pleasant drive. However, even in the Lakes there are one or two routes few know.

A very narrow gated road climbs from Hopebeck between hedges and stone walls then crosses the open hillside, with views out over the Solway to the Galloway Hills and even to the Isle of Man, before coming out halfway up Whinlatter Pass.

Few drive it and risk meeting another car, so it’s a great cycle route. A short climb to the summit of Whinlatter Pass and a fast descent took me back to my starting point after my first ascent of Gable for many years.

A view down towards the Buttermere and Ennerdale valleys.
A view down towards the Buttermere and Ennerdale valleys.

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