Just to be clear, the Catbells referred to in the title of this post is a picturesque hill in the northern part of the English Lake District, and not some weird tradition involving cats, their bells and my size ten walking boots. Please don’t call any animal rights groups, no cats were hurt during the entirely harmless activity of fell walking. Well, I say entirely harmless, but after ten months in the Netherlands my legs were in pieces on the hills.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the Lake District but it is quite rare for me to visit the northern edge of the National Park. The moment I started the steep ascent up Skelgill Bank to Cat Bells I remembered why: whenever I walk in this area the weather almost always turns violent, typically involving strong winds and driving rain. True to form, I was greeted by a sudden downpour which turned to hailstone. I’d been warned.
Once, climbing Skiddaw – a short distance away – I was forced to crawl on my hands and knees by winds gusting in excess of 100mph. I actually saw someone blown off their feet that day. The winds on Catbells weren’t that vicious, but when I reached the top of High Spy I could hear the wind roaring up the valley and through a gap in the crags. It sounded like a jumbo jet taking off.
On a good day this is one of the most beautiful walks there is in the northern Lakes. There are sweeping views over Derwent Water, Bassenthwaite Lake, Newlands Valley, the Skiddaw range and Blencathra. It is stunning, but who wants perfect weather conditions when you can have gale force winds, driving rain and low cloud obscuring the views?
My plan was simple, walk the horseshoe which goes over Catbells, Maiden Moor and High Spy before dropping down to a gap at the top of the valley and climbing up Dale Head and Hindscarth before winding my way back down into the valley below. Fate, and the weather, had different plans.
Descending from High Spy to the top of Newlands Valley where Dale Head Tarn sits bleakly on the fell, I started the long slog up Dale Head. A small voice in my head had urged me to descend into the valley and head back, but I persevered upwards only for the cloud to suddenly obscure the entire top of Dale Head.
This sort of thing happens all the time in the Lake District, one of the reasons walking here can be tricky, sometimes dangerous. It is easy to be caught out by the weather and find yourself lost. I wasn’t especially keen to spend the next two hours in cloud, spotting a zig-zag route down to the valley I made good my escape.
Catbells is a relatively easy walk offering great views and is rightly popular. Get beyond the short loop that drops into the valley from Catbells though and you soon find yourself alone, occasionally bumping into another walker. If Catbells is the epitome of picturesque Lake District, things get a little more rugged further up but the scenery is never less than spectacular (at least when you can see it).
Amidst all this natural beauty it is hard to imagine that you are walking through an industrialised landscape. Every now and then you can spot some old mine workings, evidence of the once thriving lead mining industry which this area was famous for up until the end of the 19th Century. Long gone now, but the physical scars still remain.