Twixmas walking in Ambleside, Cumbria

It’s a tradition in our house that during Twixmas (the boring bit between Christmas and New Year) the rest of the family fly over to Ireland to catch up with family whilst I head north to walk in the mountains. This year I was a little worried that the combined efforts of Storm Desmond and Storm Eva would curtail my plans but I was assured the Lake District was open for business. Waterproofs packed, I headed out of the door ready for the long trawl up the M6 to Ambleside.

Rydal Water
Rydal Water from Nab Scar

A minute later I realised the brown liquid dribbling out the car wasn’t normal. I lifted the bonnet to find oil dripping down on me; something was horribly wrong. It soon became apparent that when my other half had helpfully topped up the oil he’d forgotten to screw the cap back on. I’d driven 40+ miles the day before (accompanied by an ominous smell of burning) but luckily the oil cap itself was still safely nestled on top of the tank. I took this as a good omen; where would I have found a replacement at 9am on a Sunday morning? Oil tank refilled and car cleaned up; I was ready to go once more.

Several uneventful hours later I arrived at my base for the next few days, Ambleside Youth Hostel. I was returning, once again, to walk with Country Adventures and it was great to see familiar faces and some new ones already in the lounge area.

Joe, the owner of Country Adventures, briefed us on the walks on our arrival evening. There were two options, high and low level, on both full days of walking and a third half day walk for those who wished to get a last taste of the hills before heading home.

Fairfield Horseshoe

The start of the Fairfield Horseshoe
The start of the Fairfield Horseshoe

On day one I chose to walk the classic Fairfield Horseshoe. I like to take advantage of long walks when I don’t have the kids as there’s no worrying about whether they’ll enjoy it or not. Our 11 mile route would, amongst others, take in the summits of Great Rigg, Fairfield and Dove Crag; around 3000 foot of ascent over the day.

Whilst Joe led the low level walk we were by accompanied by two experienced guides, Pete and Andy, on the high level route. One of the things I enjoy most about the holiday is leaving the route finding to someone else; navigation is not one of my strengths.

Fairfield horseshoe

Starting from Rydal we tackled our first fell, Nab Scar. This warmed us up and got a lot of the day’s ascent out of the way early on. At the top we stopped briefly for a breather and to enjoy the views down to Rydal Water and Rydal cave which the low level group were visiting. It was also a good chance to catch up with the other guests, many of whom I’d walked with on previous holidays.

Fairfield Horseshoe
Fairfield Horseshoe

Our route continued on to Heron Pike, Great Rigg and eventually the plateau of Fairfield. There was a fair bit of up and down along the way but nothing too hard. All around were spectacular views although many of the higher peaks were hidden in clouds and the mist briefly interrupted views on Fairfield itself. We ate lunch in a relatively sheltered spot before following the horseshoe route back towards Ambleside.

Heading towards Great Rigg and Fairfield
Heading towards Great Rigg and Fairfield

The return walk took us alongside a seemingly never ending, but impressively built, wall which provided shelter from the wind. Towards the end there was a short scramble down from some rocks; I was quite glad for the warmer weather as I’d have had kittens if they’d been covered in ice.

Sunset over the Fairfield Horseshoe
Sunset over the Fairfield Horseshoe

However, the highlight of the walk was still to come. The sun sets early in December and although we’d hardly seen it all day it made a spectacular appearance as it sank behind the hills. The sky turned pink, yellow and orange; I took way too many photos. I’ve rarely viewed sunsets whilst still on the hills so this was a real treat although it did mean a quickening of pace to get down to Ambleside before darkness. Yet we still took time to watch a barn owl hunting low over the land. Definitely a sign that night was on its way.

That evening we dined in one of Ambleside’s Thai restaurants. Our waiter kept us entertained, the food filled us up and I think we all managed to pay the right contribution towards the meal. Afterwards the hardened drinking crew went to the pub whilst the lightweights, including me, headed back to the hostel to sleep.

Red Screes

On our second day the high level walk option took us to the summit of Red Screes. The group was smaller than before; the appeal of a pub visit on the low level walk being more attractive than a day of wind buffeting (as the forecast aptly described the approach of Storm Frank).

We started with a walk through Sykeside campsite, pretty empty at this time of year, but in a fantastic location and one I’ve bookmarked to return to during summer. A young sheepdog accompanied us through some waterlogged fields before taking itself off to round up some sheep.

Start of our route up Red Screes
Start of our route up Red Screes

The weather forecast hadn’t mentioned any rain but within about 15 minutes we stopped to pull on our waterproofs. I was envious of those with more expensive waterproof trousers that could be pulled on over the top of walking boots. I meanwhile hopped around on one leg whilst undoing muddy boots and gaiters in an attempt to get mine on.

Our route took us up gradually beside Caiston Beck, an easier alternative to the steep 1000ft ascent straight up Middle Dodd. However it was sometimes difficult to work out if we were walking in a stream or on a footpath and I couldn’t help thinking the other option might have been drier underfoot!

Caiston Beck
Caiston Beck

It felt much harder walking than the previous day. Even after we left the stream-path the slopes of Red Scree were pretty boggy and most of us ended up ankle deep in the mud. It also became progressively windier but I love walking in strong winds; they certainly make you feel alive. And they dry your waterproofs off.

Path up Red Screes
Path up Red Screes

The view from the top is evidently excellent in all directions but as you can see we were beaten by the mist. The group paused for Andy to take a summit photo before Pete pointed out that we weren’t quite on the highest point. No-one will ever know though and it was way too cold and windy to take another in the right spot!

The view on Red Screes!
The view on Red Screes

The bogginess and mist accompanied our descent for a while and then suddenly we saw Lake Windermere emerge from the gloom. Lunch was eaten whilst sheltering from the wind beside another wall; I felt a little sorry for the solitary walker who had probably been enjoying some peace and quiet before we invaded.

Rather than head straight back to Ambleside by the road we took a short detour via a farm track past a field of Highland cows. Being a southerner I don’t get to see many of these so couldn’t resist a few photos.

Highland cow, near Ambleside
Highland cow, near Ambleside

We finished our day with a walk through the grounds of Stock Ghyll Force. One benefit of all the rain is that the Lake District waterfalls are at their most impressive. Stock Ghyll is on the outskirts of Ambleside so relatively accessible and it’s definitely worth popping to see if you’re in the area.

Stock Ghyll Force, near Ambleside
Stock Ghyll Force, near Ambleside

We were back in Ambleside pretty early and had a couple of hours spare before dinner at the hostel. I had vaguely thought about bringing my running gear with me to help with the marathon training but am glad I decided against it as my legs were starting to signal dissent. Equally optimistic I’d bought two books with me. I fared a little better with these and spent an enjoyable hour catching up on my reading.

Storm Frank arrived in the night and faced with a long journey ahead of me I chose not to walk on the third day. However the storm had the last word and followed me home. Six hours of driving along motorways in torrential rain was a stressful finish to the holiday but I’m already looking forward to next year’s walking break.

More info:

  • Country Adventures offer a variety of walking and activity breaks around the Lakes, Peak District and Yorkshire and I highly recommend them. You can read more about my previous trips with them in Elterwater and the Peak District.

Three of the best views near Fort William, Lochaber


As regular readers may know I’m a sucker for mountain scenery. With a spare day in Fort William after our trip to Eigg I was keen to see what the proclaimed outdoor capital of the UK had to offer. Whilst the town isn’t particularly scenic there are plenty of great views just a short drive away. Here are my top three suggestions:

1. Steall waterfall

The walk to Steall waterfall is billed as one of the best short walks in Scotland. The drive in along Glen Nevis is impressive, with mountain views all the way to the car park at the end of the single track road. The midges greeted us when we stepped out of the car and were less welcome. Fortunately a few squirts of Smidge repellant soon stopped them.

Walk to Steall waterfall
Walk to Steall waterfall

As we left the car park I was a little disconcerted to see a sign warning visitors of ‘Danger of death’. If you’re properly equipped for the weather and familiar with walking in rocky landscapes you’ll have no problems at all. That said, I’d think twice about walking the path during icy conditions.

The path leads walkers through lush woodland, up and down rocky steps. Down in the gorge you can hear, and at times see, the river. Keep your eyes on the path though!

Walk to Steall waterfall
Walk to Steall waterfall

The track was busy; some visitors looked better prepared than others. Going by the number of camper vans and foreign plate vehicles in the car park I’m guessing this walk appears in most tourist guidebooks.

Steall Bridge, near Fort William
Steall Bridge, near Fort William

At the top of the gorge the view opens up across a meadow and out towards Steall Falls. Before you reach the waterfall there is one further diversion; the famous wire bridge across the river. There’s no need to cross it to see the falls but my other half wasn’t going to pass up a chance to do so. The kids were eager too but I only let them walk across as far as the start of the river section. My daughter would have been fine but my son wasn’t tall enough to reach both of the wires. And I didn’t fancy a dip in the river to rescue him!

Steall waterfall, Fort William
Steall waterfall, Fort William

Dropping from a height of almost 400ft Steall waterfall is an impressive sight. We visited after a relatively dry period so I’d imagine it’s even more exciting after rain. From the waterfall I also took the valley picture below, almost a classic geography textbook photograph.

View along valley from Steall waterfall
View along valley from Steall waterfall

Heading back to the car park I wondered why my son and other half took so long to reach the car. It turns out they were clearing up rubbish left by campers. I really don’t understand why people believe it is OK to leave bags of rubbish and used portable barbecues behind.

2. Viewpoints via the Glen Nevis gondola

In the afternoon we drove out to Glen Nevis for a ride up the Nevis Range gondola system. During the winter this is a popular ski destination but in the summer it’s busy with tourists, walkers and mountain bikers.

Nevis Range gondola, Fort William
Nevis Range gondola, Fort William

The gondola takes about 10 minutes to transport visitors 650m up Aonach Mor. As you’re swaying gently above the treetops you can watch mountain bikers whizzing down the boardwalk tracks beneath you. Whilst it looked fun I know I’d have been squeezing my brakes hard for the entire route!

Nevis Range gondola station
Nevis Range gondola station

At the top are two signposted walks to viewpoints, each in different directions. They’re relatively short (20-30 minutes each way) so it’s easy to complete both. Follow the blue rope and you won’t get lost!

Sgurr Finnisg-aig viewpoint walk, Aonach Mor
Sgurr Finnisg-aig viewpoint walk, Aonach Mor

My favourite viewpoint was Meall Beag. We sat for a while on the chair, looking out over Loch Eil and Loch Linnhe. Although I felt a little guilty for enjoying such great views with so little effort.

View no 2: Meall beag viewpoint
Meall beag viewpoint

Walking back towards the gondola it’s hard to ignore the visual impact it has on the area. It’s primarily a functional ski area and I’m sure looks much better when everything is covered in snow. On the plus side there’s a restaurant, bar and toilets and it would have been amiss of us not to check out these facilities.

Snowgoose Bar, Glen Nevis gondola station - a cafe with a view!
Snowgoose Bar, Glen Nevis gondola station – a cafe with a view!

3. Ben Nevis Inn

This last suggestion requires minimal effort. Unless, like us, you decide to walk to the pub from town.

I’ve climbed Ben Nevis in summer when the summit was knee deep in snow and the views obscured by mist. This time we contented ourselves with a seat in the Ben Nevis Inn. There are not many pubs where you can look out the window and see a view as incredible as this!

View from the Ben Nevis Inn, near Fort William
View from the Ben Nevis Inn, near Fort William

The Ben Nevis Inn certainly deserves its number 1 Trip Advisor rating. Between us we ate some great food although I made the wrong food choice; I know now that I don’t like vegetarian haggis!

If you’re thinking of travelling to Fort William you can read more about our journey on the Caledonian Sleeper train. After visiting Fort William you might like a trip to the fabulous white sand beaches at Morar and Arisaig or a drive through the highlands to Gairloch.

More info:

  • The Steall waterfall walk directions are on the Walk Highlands website.
  • The Nevis Range gondola is open year round except for a maintenance period from mid-November to mid-December and during strong winds. A family ticket for 2 adults and 2 children costs £32.50; season tickets are also available.
  • The Ben Nevis Inn is open daily during the summer months but check the website for opening dates and times throughout the winter period.

A family walk up Pen-y-Fan, Powys

I’ve climbed Pen-y-Fan, the highest hill in southern Britain, a couple of times without the kids. As the kids are older now I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to stretch our legs on the way back from our holiday in Pembrokeshire.

Having only visited outside of the summer season previously I had no idea how popular the walk was. Our first hint was the long line of cars parked along the edge of the main road. There are a couple of off road car parks but as these were both full we parked on the grass verge like everyone else.

Start of the route up Pen-y-Fan
Start of the route up Pen-y-Fan

There are several routes up Pen-y-Fan. If we’d had the time and energy it would have been good to tackle one of the circular routes which takes in several of the peaks. However with a 2 hour journey behind us and another 2 hour drive home we settled on the standard route up from Pont ar Daf car park, also known as ‘The motorway’.

The Pen-y-Fan motorway

The main track is broad and well made, obviously used to thousands of walking boots. The route was straightforward and relatively easy; it was just a pity that some people had decided to leave dog poo bags alongside the track.

Pen-y-Fan walk
Pen-y-Fan walk

As we walked my son recounted part of the Bear Grylls book he’d just read. Bear’s SAS selection process took place in these hills and although we had an easier time than Bear this mountain shouldn’t be under-estimated. The ease of access means that people can and do get into difficulty, particularly in poor weather.

The first summit (with the flat top shown in the picture above) is actually Corn Du. We skirted around the edge, saving it for our return journey, and walked on to Pen-y-Fan. The views open up at this point and it’s a pretty spectacular view down the Neuadd valley.

A rather busy Pen-y-Fan summit!
A rather busy Pen-y-Fan summit!

A short final climb took us up onto the summit of Pen-y-Fan. I would guess there were a couple of hundred people up there enjoying the views, many more than I’ve seen on any other hill. Families with children of all ages, runners, walking groups and plenty of dogs.

Summit photo, Pen-y-Fan
Summit photo, Pen-y-Fan

We queued for a few minutes to take the obligatory summit photo. Just behind us is the view you see in the feature photo at the top of this post, incredible!

We’d been organised enough to bring a picnic and managed to find a relatively empty spot to eat it in. On bad weather days the wind would be howling across the summit but we were lucky and enjoyed our sandwiches in glorious sunshine.

Picnic on the Pen-y-Fan summit
Picnic on the Pen-y-Fan summit

On to Corn Du

Heading off of Pen-y-Fan we tackled the summit of Corn Du, the second highest peak in South Wales. It’s similar to the summit of Pen-y-Fan; in fact I had to let one family know that they weren’t quite on Pen-y-Fan, much to their kids disappointment.

Route down from Pen-y-Fan
Route down from Pen-y-Fan

It’s pretty steep coming down from Corn Du and I was pleased we’d chosen to walk up the route from Pont ar Daf rather than Storey Arms. The path drops down to a stream before climbing back up a little. We saw a couple of runners filling their water bottles in the stream but rather them than me. I’ve seen too many dead sheep in streams higher up the mountains to even consider this!

We were soon back at the car, ready to hit the M4 again. I’m glad to report that we all enjoyed Pen-y-Fan more than the usual motorway stopover.

If you’re looking for other walks in the Brecon Beacons check out my family walks near Abergavenny post. On a wet day you might like to explore Caerleon’s Roman history or Blaenavon’s industrial heritage.

More info:

  • This route starts from the Pont ar Daf car park on the A470 between Brecon and Merthyr Tydfil. We followed the 4 mile walk outlined on the National Trust website.
  • There are a couple of burger vans and some pretty foul toilets at the start of the walk.
  • We visited on a sunny clear day and there were loads of families walking the hill. However remember that the weather and visibility on top may be very different from your starting point. Always take appropriate equipment and clothing, check the weather forecast and walk within your abilities.

A walking break in Elterwater, Lake District

I was lucky enough to get some ‘me’ time a few weeks back. I’m not the kind of person who enjoys spa breaks; instead I indulged in my pre-kids hobby and booked a short walking holiday based in Elterwater in the Lake District.

Summit of Harrison Stickle, Elterwater
Summit of Harrison Stickle, Elterwater

This was the fourth time I’ve walked with Country Adventures so when I finally arrived at Elterwater Hostel (thanks M6) I already knew the leader, Joe, and some of the others in the group, many of whom are regulars.

That evening Joe outlined the walking routes for the next day. Our walks were based in and around the Langdale Valley, and as there were several leaders we had a choice of a challenging walk or a more moderate option. As I was walking without kids, I was happy to go for the slightly harder route up Harrison Stickle. I cannot remember the exact distance but I think it was around 9 miles long with 3000 ft of ascent in total.

Day 1 – Harrison Stickle

I’d been checking the weather forecast religiously the previous week and was prepared for rain. Not just any rain, but torrential rain and wind; this being the Lake District after all. Instead we were greeted with a cold sunny day and not a cloud in the sky. A perfect day for walking.

Views of and from Harrison Stickle
Views of and from Harrison Stickle

Our day started with a short minibus ride to Dungeon Ghyll car park. Packs on, we headed off in the opposite direction from most walkers who all seemed to be walking straight up to Stickle Tarn. Instead our route took us on a gradual ascent up between Harrison Stickle and Pike of Stickle.

Higher up we started to encounter snow. It was still in the light and fluffy stage. Lovely for walking in except when it gets down the back of your boots and melts inside them! Despite this I was still walking with just a fleece jacket; hard to believe it was the middle of winter.

Walking up Harrison Stickle
Walking up Harrison Stickle

We seemed to reach the summit pretty quickly. The views from the top of Harrison Stickle were stupendous. Looking back at these photos I am reminded how perfect the day was. Our guide helpfully named the peaks around us although I promptly forgot them all. Instead I was happy to just stand and take in the panorama.

Snow views from Harrison Stickle
Snow views from Harrison Stickle

I could have sat on the summit cairn all day but lunch called. We first had to negotiate a rather icy downhill stretch which I didn’t particularly like. It was a relief to get out of the shade and back into the sun. We skirted around Stickle Tarn; my camera once again working overtime.

View of and from Harrison Stickle
View of and from Harrison Stickle

As we walked away from Harrison Stickle it was hard not to turn round and check the view every couple of minutes (top photo in collage above). The peak and it’s shady descent are imprinted on my mind for ever more.

The route back to Elterwater
The route back to Elterwater

Despite having reached the summit the bulk of the mileage was still ahead of us. We walked back to Elterwater across the fells, passing by Blea Cragg and Lang How. The best views were behind but we were still treated to a glorious winter walk, arriving back into Elterwater just as the tea shop was shutting (boo!).

That evening we ate at the hostel and enjoyed one of Joe’s quizzes. Some of the questions had made a repeat appearance from previous years, time for some new ones Joe!

Day 2 – Lingmoor Fell

There was just one walk on the second day but it came with an option to shorten it. We were walking from the hostel, on the southern side of the Langdale valley, up and over Lingmoor Fell.

Views from Lingmoor Fell
Views from Lingmoor Fell

The views were never going to surpass those of the previous day but it was impressive to see the fog cloaking Windermere below us as we emerged from the woods. I wonder if those in Windermere knew we had such great weather?

Walking over Lingmoor Fell
Walking over Lingmoor Fell

Standing atop of Lingmoor Fell gave us another view of the Langdale Pikes. The weather wasn’t quite as agreeable as the previous day so we didn’t hang around on top for too long. Once again we were faced with an icy descent which involved some detours over bracken; at least this made for a soft landing when the inevitable happened!

View from Blea Tarn
View from Blea Tarn

Lots of walkers appeared as we hit the road and tourist hotspot of Blea Tarn. After stopping for the obligatory photo of the Langdale Pikes (above) we followed the well made track back past Little Langdale and into Elterwater. Once again arriving home as the tea shop shut.

No quizzes on day 2. Instead a game of film and TV Pictionary. Some of the drawings had us in stitches, I haven’t laughed so hard in ages.

Day 3

I’d have loved to walk on the last day. But with another M6 journey to contend with I decided it was best to head off early. First though a browse around the outdoor shops in Ambleside and, at last, a visit to an open tea shop!

More info

  • I travelled with Country Adventures, a company that offers walking and other activity holidays in the Lake District, Yorkshire, Peak District and Wales. I’ve always enjoyed my trips with them and I think the fact that many of their clients come again and again speaks for itself. Our group had sole use of Elterwater Hostel but Joe can arrange alternative accommodation if you prefer.