There are plenty of good reasons to visit Blencathra, but knowing the mountain’s geology reveals ridges of rare and raw beauty, says Graham Thompson.
Distance 10km (6 1/4 miles)
Total Ascent 650m
Time 5 hours
Start/Finish layby near Scales on A66 (NY340267)
Nearest Town Keswick
Terrain High level fell-walk along clear paths with some steep slopes that may contain snow in winter; care is required to avoid cornices of soft snow that may project over cliff edges.
Accommodation hotel, B&Bs and campsites in around Keswick and Threlkeld; Keswick Youth Hostel 0845 371 9746
Public transport regular trains to Penrith with bus services to Keswick that stop at Scales (01228) 606000; www.cumbria.gov.uk
Guidebooks A Pictorial Guide to the Northern Fells by A Wainwright, pb Frances Lincoln; Lakeland Rocky Rambles by Bryan Lynas, pb Sigma Leisure
Tourist info Keswick (017687) 72645
Blencathra rises majestically to 868m above Keswick in the north of the Lake District, and provides a grandstand view of the fells at its feet. These views are one of the major attractions of the mountain, but there's also Sharp Edge, the classic Grade 1 scramble that picks its way to the summit. Furthermore the roadside access from the A66 means that in winter you have a good chance of being able to get to the foot of the mountain easily.
However one reason for visiting Blencathra that is seldom mentioned is its geology. This is a mountain that is oozing with interest, thanks to its Skiddaw slate rock type and its elegant contours, which combine to give it a unique character.
Wainwright described the dramatic southern slopes of Blencathra as looking like “a tremendous convulsion ... tore the heart out of the mountain and left the ruins ... in a state of tottering collapse.” This ‘convulsion’ was the movement of glaciers, which ripped into Blencathra to leave the spectacular curves that are on display today. There are many ways to climb Blencathra, but this route makes a complete traverse of the mountain – so the views, the spectacular ridges and the geology can all be enjoyed from its easy roadside access.
Blencathra is entirely made of Skiddaw slate, a rock that forms all the Northern Fells of the Lake District. These grey rocks comprise of thin layers of sand, silt and clay particles, which were laid down on the sea floor between 500 and
470 million years ago at a rate of a few centimetres per thousand years. Scales Tarn is a classic glacial lake, gouged out by the retreating ice around 12,000 years ago, which is partly dammed by a small terminal moraine. Sharp Edge is the arête that is perched between Scales Tarn to the south and the glacial corrie to the north that Foule Crag overlooks.
The most popular staring point for this walk is the lay-by at Scales on the A66. You only need to wa
lk a short distance eastalong the road to find a path leading onto the fell. A clear track climbs north-east steeply up and around the lower slopes of Scales Fell, with heady views views down into Mousthwaite Comb on your right.
NY306260 You reach path junction after about 1km and here you need to turn south-east towards the base of the steep slopes that tumble from Blencathra. The path leads to Blease Gill just above Blease Farm and then follows a clear route above the intake walls all the way back to Scales. En route you have to cross a couple of ghylls and some of these demand a little scrambling down a rock step, but generally the walking is easy.