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Coniston Fells Walk
Map of the walk
Coniston Bridge
Start (OS ref):
Map (1:25,000):
Car parks or side streets
9.5 miles (15.2 km)
6 - 8 hours
Very Hard
1,205 metres
Some scrambling required
Route Map:
Summary: The walk on the Coniston Fells with the brilliant ridge walk between The Old Man Of Coniston and Swirl How has been a favourite of mine ever since I first walked it a few years ago. The stiff climb to the Old Man, the ridge and then the exciting crossing of the Prison Band to Wetherlam was a memorable experience on my first walk in Coniston. This time I wanted to make the walk even more interesting and thus after all the classic bits I planned a different route from Wetherlam back to Coniston. Instead of heading straight back I drew up a course which would take me north east on Wetherlam Edge to Birk Fell and then on a circuit of the fell to Tilberthwaite Gill. From the gill I would follow the path through Hole Rake to Coniston. Join me on the walk and I'll try to convince you to try it. It was absolutely superb with the beautiful and quiet Tilbertwaite area making for a fitting conclusion to a brilliant walk.

elevation profile of the Coniston Fells walk

The Story of the Walk:

Cloud clearing from The Old Man Of Coniston
Old mine buildings on The Old Man Of Coniston
Cloud clearing from The Old Man Of Coniston
The Old Man can rest now as the mines are derelict

The weather forecast was not promising. The breakfast report on the BBC told us heavy skies were approaching from the west and that they would arrive in the Lake District in the early afternoon. Time to get a move on then. After eating our Ambleside guest house breakfasts (the 4th full brekkie in a row for me - it was getting tougher to eat them) Steve and I drove along the winding A593 road to Coniston. As we arrived in the popular lakeside village we noticed cloud was swirling around the top of the Old Man at about 2,000 feet. Had the bad weather arrived already? As it wasn't raining we set off on the walk, I with anticipation and (although I was of unaware of it at the time) Steve with trepidation. (I knew the walk we were embarking on and Steve didn't. Coupled with Steves dread of walking at height in unknown areas in no visibilty I can, with hindsight, understand his concerns) Oblivious to Steves concerns we began the climb into cloud straight away. The first two miles of this walk are gruelling, a meandering climb up the mountain with the gradient getting more severe the higher you get. As usual Steve soldiered on with me striving to keep up although as this was now our 4th day in the lakes I found the climb easier than the first. During our climb we met a threesome making the ascent, a lady with her son and daughter. The lady was climbing the Old Man for the second time. She told us the first time she climbed it was over 50 years ago!

Low Water is the Old Mans highest tarn
Looking north to Swirl How from the Old Man
Low Water is the Old Mans highest tarn
Looking north to Swirl How from the Old Man

The Old Man Of Coniston is a magnificent mountain. It dominates the skyline of the village which bears its name making it almost an obligation to climb it when visiting the area. Indeed Wainwright wrote "there are few days when the Old Man does not play host to visitors and in summer the blazed path to the top carries processions of pedestrians young and old, and there is often a noisy congregation at the summit" The Old Man is simply very popular. It has also been a very obliging mountain for practically all the dwellings in the area are built with stone and slate from its flanks. Evidence of frenetic mining activity are clear as soon as walkers from Coniston emerge onto the open low fells at Miners Bridge. About 400 metres up the valley the right of Levers Water Beck is a terrace of old mining cottages. Just beyond them are more old mining buildings, one of them now converted into a youth hostel. Slate heaps are scattered close around them on the valley floor. The walk up the path to the Old Mans summit passes close by old mine workings too (see photograph at top of walk report) with rusting machines, disused tunnels and collapsed buildings next to the path route. Somewhere to pause and contemplate the past while catching breath on the severe climb up. A final respite can be taken by the side of Low Water, ironically named for it is the mountains highest tarn. Once at the tarn you can take heart for although it is a very steep final section you are nearly there.

Swirl How looks inviting from Levers Hawse
Descending on the Prison Band from Swirl How
Swirl How looks inviting from Levers Hawse
The Prison Band links Swirl How to Wetherlam

And so it was for us for less than fifteen minutes after leaving Low Water we arrived at the summit cairn. During that final push we had walked into the cloud which had badgered Coniston Old Man's top during our ascent. It wasn't any worse and there was no hint of rain during our break at the summit but it was here Steve told me he wasn't continuing. "I'm off straight back down. I don't fancy being stuck up here if, as forecast, the weather closes in" he stated. Despite my explanation of the easy ridge walk to Swirl How in the north he couldn't be shifted and so after my vain attempts at reassurance he left and headed back down the Old Man. It was a weird departure. As soon as Steve left the cloud began to lift off the Old Man. I could clearly see the entire ridge to Swirl How. I could see the cloud lift off Wetherlam. Despite the forecasts of a close in the opposite was happening - the sun was breaking through! Although milky the sun was shining laying out the magnificent ridge walk before me. The walk from Coniston Old Man to Swirl How is one of the best 2 miles walking in all of the Lake District. I thoroughly enjoyed the walk along the ridge as I chatted with the lady I had met earlier and looked over to the Langdale Pikes and Scafells to the north west.

Little Langdale as seen from Wetherlam
It is lovely and peaceful at Tilberthwaite Gill
Little Langdale as seen from Wetherlam
It is lovely and peaceful at Tilberthwaite Gill

During the ridge crossing to Swirl How the weather continued to improve which was just as well for the trickiest part of the walk was almost upon me. At Swirl How take a break. The views are tremendous from here and probably the best vantage point in all of the Coniston Fells. The height here is 801 metres, only 2 less than the Old Man itself. The views back along the ridge are great and although it is only a 2 metre difference the Old Man looks massive from Swirl How. Enjoy the full panorama and then make your final look to the east to Wetherlam. This great mountain is the next target on the walk but to get to it you have got to go to prison! There is only one path linking Swirl How to Wetherlam, the Prison Band. The band goes straight down from Swirl How to Swirl Hause, a drop of almost 200 metres and in some parts it requires the use of hands as well as feet. It is never precarious or exposed, just steep and rocky so care is needed. After Swirl Hause the climb to Wetherlam is straight forward, a steady climb of 130 metres over a kilometre, a little more if you choose to include bagging the peak of Black Sails. After Wetherlam the traditional walk tracks south off the mountain back to Coniston but as I had done the traditional before I wanted to make this different. I'm glad I did for I feel I found a superlative enhancement to a classic walk.

The path through Hole Rake back to Coniston
The waterfalls of Church Beck near Miners Bridge
The path through Hole Rake back to Coniston
The waterfalls of Church Beck near Miners Bridge

I left the summit of Wetherlam by following a path north east along Wetherlam Edge. The descent was thrilling and like the Prison Band another occasion where hands as well as feet were sometimes required. The views to Little Langdale during the descent were delightful. After 600 metres on Wetherlam Edge I lost 250 metres in height and the descent tapered off. I was now at Birk Fell Hawse. I took a last refreshment break in shelter and admired the scenery of Greenburn and Little Langdale before trekking east over Birk Fell Man and then south to Dry Cove Bottom then the enchanting Tilberthwaite Gill. What a special place I had stumbled across. There was a quaint old wooden bridge then an interesting small disused mine. Close by was a secluded ravine with waterfalls. There was interesting features all around and I could have explored here had I all day. I may another time. For now I had to leave and follow the track over Hole Rake and back to meet Steve in Coniston. I still had time to explore a quarry cut into the side of the Rake and then the waterfalls at Church Beck before heading back into the village. It was still fine when I met Steve who was waiting patiently in Coniston. We went for tea in a cafe. As we had our refreshment it started to rain. Too late!

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