Map based on Ordnance Survey mapping by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of the Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. © Crown Copyright.
Distance: 9 miles/15km
Height gain: 1,970ft/600m
Walking time: 5 hours
Type of walk: A bouldery lakeshore path followed by moderate upland fellwalking.
Start/Finish: Near the National Trust Campsite, Wasdale Head. GR183075.
There must be many casual visitors to Wasdale who look across the lake at the Wast Water Screes and are awe-struck at the sight. Shattered black buttresses of rock have been riven with dark gullies which spew vast fans of bouldery scree into the dark waters of the lake. Some imagine that walking there must be impossible, then they notice the thin path above the water-line, and see an occasional walker picking a way along it. Improbable, but not impossible; it is a fine walk above and below the Wast Water Screes.
Parking is available near the National Trust campsite at Wasdale Head. Park after turning off the narrow road at the head of Wast Water, then continue on foot across a bridge spanning Lingmell Gill. Note the smooth, rounded boulders in the stream bed, which tell of the volume of water when the beck is in spate. Turn right along the access track towards Wasdale Head Hall Farm.
The access track runs along the shore of Wast Water for a short while, before turning towards the farm. Don’t walk to the farm, but continue along the shoreline path, eventually leaving the enclosed pastures near the farm. The path rises slightly above the shore, and the slopes falling from the fells towards the lake are rugged, but not yet spectacular. The walk is quite easy as the path is reasonably well surfaced and simply contours across the rugged fellside without getting involved with the vegetation.
Later, the path begins to cross some of the fans of scree. Some walkers begin to tread gingerly and speak in hushed voices, imagining that one step out of line will bring the entire stony slope sliding inexorably into the lake. Be assured that it won’t happen, but all the same, if a boulder comes crashing down from the broken crags above, it would be advisable to step out of its way!
The scree slope suddenly changes from being composed of gravel and cobbles into an altogether more chaotic arrangement of boulders. Some of these boulders are simply enormous, and lie slumbering in drunken postures with their roots deep in the slope. The path becomes a more patchy affair, and eventually hands have to be brought into play to grapple a way past some of the rocks. Progress may well slow down to a crawl, and the prospect ahead may not look too good at times, but all the difficulties end suddenly. Continue along the scree path and cross a rugged slope to reach the foot of Wast Water. A little building with an access track is found here, and walkers can enjoy a short, easy stroll for a moment.
Wast Water looks natural, but it is used as a reservoir. Water is pumped away to Sellafield, where it is used as a coolant at the nuclear power plant along with additional supplies from Ennerdale Water. Wast Water is also notable for being the deepest lake in the Lake District. Its surface altitude of 200ft/61m and great depth of 258ft/79m means that its lowest point is 58ft/18m below sea level.
Don’t go through the first gate reached on the track, but turn left and start climbing uphill alongside a wall. This wall reaches the tremendous cleft of Greathall Gill. Do not cross the gill, but start climbing uphill alongside it. The slope is rough and relentlessly steep, but it does ease slightly as height is gained. If excuses for occasional rests are required, the view across to Buckbarrow and Seatallan is improving all the time. The brackeny lower slopes give way to grassier slopes above, and eventually the crest of the fell is reached and other paths are joined.
Turn left to walk up any of the parallel paths which have been blazed up the slopes of Whin Rigg. They are all basically going the same way. Look out for the summit cairn at 1,755ft/536m, and pause to enjoy the view across Wasdale. By teetering on the brink of the cliffs, there is a fine sense of space and the shores of Wast Water only recently traversed can be observed from this height. Further afield there are fine fells in view, ranged all around Wasdale, but including other groups such as the Coniston Fells and Black Combe.
The choice of route onwards is a matter for the individual. There are those who would prefer to stay on the clearest path and head across the broad dip before climbing on to Illgill Head. Others will make the most of the views from the cliff edges, and wander around the heads of gullies and perch on prows of rock to sample the best views of the Wastwater Screes fanning out towards the lake.
Either way, Illgill Head is the next summit in line, and a gradual, grassy ascent leads to the summit cairn at 1,983ft/609m. The view towards Wasdale Head improves, and the fine lines of the fells around the dale-head soar skywards, completely dwarfing the tiny hamlet scattered among the jigsaw-piece fields. The Wasdale Head Inn is easily spotted as it is the largest building, painted white, and has the word “INN” on the nearest gable. Wast Water is best appreciated by walking towards the edge of the fell.
The descent from Illgill Head is made by walking roughly north-eastwards down a slope which gradually steepens. There are a couple of paths which might be used, and both head towards a broad gap in the fells. The vegetation underfoot changes from grass to heather and bracken. By keeping to the left, a clear path will be joined which runs straight across a rugged slope as it descends towards Wasdale. A stand of trees is passed and a drystone wall accompanies the track downhill. The Fell & Rock Club hut is passed at Brackenclose, where a left turn leads back towards the National Trust campsite and car park.
From ‘Lake District: Western Fells’ by Paddy Dillon
The information given in this walk has been provided in good faith and is intended only as a general guide. Whilst all reasonable efforts have been made to ensure that details were correct at the time of publication, the author and Country Publications Ltd cannot accept any responsibility for inaccuracies. It is the responsibility of individuals undertaking outdoor activities to approach the activity with caution and, especially if inexperienced, to do so under appropriate supervision. The activity described in this walk is strenuous and individuals should ensure that they are suitably fit before embarking upon it. They should carry the appropriate equipment and maps, be properly clothed and have adequate footwear. They should also take note of weather conditions and forecasts, and leave notice of their intended route and estimated time of return.