My Lake District adventure: a climb, a walk and a swim | Lake District holidays

In the dining room of the Wasdale Head Inn, explorer and climber Leo Houlding is inspecting the walls, looking back 150 years to the origins of mountain adventure as a sport. On a shelf is a stack of old hobnail boots, a pair of ice axes crossed above a brace of canvas haversacks, and glorious black-and-white photographs of the pioneers: the tweedy chaps who first came up with the nonsensical notion that scaling rock faces and mountains might be fun.

Leo is a man who has conquered some of the most remote and challenging rock walls on Earth, and yet he is in awe, pointing out the archaic equipment to his two children, Freya, nine, and Jackson, six. “What they did,” he says, “without climbing shoes or anything like modern gear, is amazing.”

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Leo, Freya, Jackson and I are going to scale a classic – arguably the route that started it all: the 18-metre Napes Needle, an igneous rock formation that projects from the vertiginous sides of Great Gable above Wasdale. In 1886 Walter Parry Haskett Smith came here, alone, and climbed the needle.

When a photograph of a figure on top of the pillar was displayed in a London shop window a few years later it caused a sensation, inspiring a generation of climbers. Leo is the modern equivalent, an inspiration for anyone wanting adventure. His new book, Closer to the Edge, catalogs his exploits.

View over Wast Water from the Wasdale Head route up to Scafell Pike.
View over Wast Water from the Wasdale Head route up to Scafell Pike. Photograph: Anna Stowe Landscapes UK/Alamy

Adventure, those old-timers had realized, can be good for you and, what’s more, you don’t have to go far to find it. I’m hoping to discover fresh challenges within the UK, and not just climbing: I want to kayak, scramble, walk and swim, too.

For inspiration I’ll turn to pioneers such as mountaineer Haskett Smith and books like Classic Rock, a 1978 collection by influential writer and photographer Ken Wilson – but also to more recent publications like the series of Wild guides. In each of four areas across the country I’ll find new experiences and ideas.

The walk

Walkers cross Morecambe Bay.
Walkers cross Morecambe Bay. Photographer: Kevin Rushby

Before the climb, however, I decide on an adventurous route into the Lakes, walking across the shifting sands of Morecambe Bay. This area, 120 square miles of it, has claimed many lives over the years, but the treacherous tidal flats can be crossed with a guide, local fisher Michael Wilson, who leads walks across from Arnside to Grange-over-Sands for various charities most weekends. I’m here with Ali Pretty who is leading Bay Lines – Beach of Dreams, a creative project celebrating the coastline, pathways and stories of Morecambe Bay.

Arriving at Arnside, I’m astonished to find about 500 people waiting for Michael, who needs a loudhailer to give the safety briefing. “If anyone gets stuck, leave them.”


“I’m serious. If there’s any rescuing to be done, the tractors will go to them.” That’s the second surprise, two veteran machines will chug alongside. Even more curious, Michael tells me these are his “boats”: his fishing technique is to leave nets out overnight, then check them when the tide goes out. That’s how he became an expert on the treacherous sands and their unpredictable movements.

We set off down the coast, then out across the sands, following a line of pre-planted branches that act as markers. Is it dangerous, I ask Michael, who is out in front, his tractors and various assistants keeping the long caterpillar of walkers on the right path. “It can be,” he says. “We cross three water channels and they are constantly changing. One of them has started cutting a deeper path, which will cause us problems in the future. Not today.”

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The role of guide here dates to the 16th century when they brought monks safely across the sands to Cartmel Priory, avoiding the lawless mountain route. Incidents tend to stay in post for years. Michael is only the 26th and his predecessor, Cedric Robinson, lasted 56 years. As a fisherman who knows every corner of the bay, Michael was an obvious choice. “When I left school, I went to the sands. I never wanted anything else.”

We wade thigh deep across channels. A flat fish skitters away. In one place the sand seems to bounce. In another, my feet break through a hard crust and sink a little. Sudden burial up to your neck is unlikely, but you may lose a wellie if you choose to wear them.

Most people go barefoot, but shoes make the ridged sections more comfortable. We walk a couple of miles south then stop for a picnic amid a 360-degree panorama. From there it is a straightforward stroll along a sandbar into Grange where there’s a railway station and a lido under refurbishment. The walk has proven a magnificent, and unusual, way to approach Lakeland.

The climb

Looking down Wasdale from the top of Naples Needle.
Looking down Wasdale from the top of Naples Needle. Photographer: Kevin Rushby

An hour after we leave the campsite at Wasdale Head, Leo Houlding and his wife, Jess, are proving to be champions at inspiring children to keep going. Games and stories are the favourites. “We don’t reach for the chocolate too soon.” It’s a searingly hot day and the route to Napes Needle is shadeless. Leo predicts, very precisely, how any child will react. “Hill walking is boring, but once we start climbing – you’ll see – they engage.”

He’s right. The climbers’ path that traverses Great Gable can be a hands-on scramble and as soon as Freya and Jackson start using their hands there are no more calls for stories, games or snacks: we are in our own adventure now. It makes me think about the attraction of climbing, how the enforced use of feet and hands, the return to being a four-legged creature, switches off parts of the brain, and awakens others. This climbers’ path, between Sty Head and Beckhead Tarn, is a good option if you fancy hands-on scrambling without ropes, but with vast panoramas.

The needle is not considered a tough climb these days, certainly not for Leo who takes less than two minutes to reach the summit, where he sets up ropes for lesser mortals. I follow. The route has been climbed so many thousands of times that in places the rock is as polished as a kitchen worktop.

Leo Houlding in Wasdale Head Inn with a photo of the Abraham brothers who took the famous photo of Napes Needle.
Leo Houlding in Wasdale Head Inn with a photo of the Abraham brothers who took the famous photo of Napes Needle. Photographer: Kevin Rushby

It’s not a climb for anyone who does not have considerable experience to lead, but it is possible to follow with a qualified guide (look for the Association of Mountaineering Instructors badge with outfits like Lake District Mountaineering or check listings on UKClimbing).

The first section leads to a broad ledge from where you clamber up the last boulder. How Haskett Smith dared this last move is a marvel because the most obvious fact, as I wriggle awkwardly on to the top, is that getting down will be harder. For a minute I enjoy the views down Wasdale, but the summit can only hold two people so I head down, secured by Leo, then Freya and Jackson shin up – the latter apparently devising a new more difficult route while talking continuously.

After we are all down, the Houlding family adds an extra dimension of risk to the adventure, running down the scree slope to the valley.

The swim

Swimming in Wastwater, with Great Gable at the far end of the lake.
Swimming in Wastwater, with Great Gable at the far end of the lake. Photographer: Kevin Rushby

A day in the sun, a bit of climbing and a lot of knocks on the scree slopes leave me wanting a good cold soak. I head down along the north shore of Wastwater, which is Lakeland’s most remote large lake and England’s deepest at 79 metres.

There are a number of easy places to reach the water. Getting in, of course, is harder. Even on a summer’s day, this lake retains its chill. Once immersed, however, the pain fades and I swim out towards the vast scree slopes under Illgill Head, the water pockmarked by rising fish – probably trout although Arctic char also live here. A fantastic way to finish.

Accommodation was provided by Wasdale Head Inn (camping £6, no large tents; double rooms from £140). The writer was a guest of the Bay Lines – Beach of Dreams project on the Morecambe Bay walk. Join walks across the sands by charitable donation at Guide Over Sands Trust

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