For late October, the weather hadn’t been too bad. Honestly. The walk from Threlkeld to Helvellyn via the Dodds on Monday had been grey and windy, but mostly dry. The tops east of Patterdale – Beda Head then across to High Raise – had been greyer and windier, but with occasional bursts of sunshine through the low cloud. And hiking through to Langdale on Wednesday had been the standard four seasons in one hour: sun, rain, even a little snow near Grisedale Tarn. So far, so autumnal.
Thursday was different, though. Thursday was grim.
My friend Stephen and I passed the first hour eating porridge, drinking coffee and regularly refreshing the Mountain Weather Information Service website, hoping it might have radically changed its forecast in the last three minutes. No such luck, meaning we were left to wonder if they really meant there was only a five percent chance of cloud-free summits. And hey, look on the bright side: five percent is still a chance, right? Unfortunately the views up and down Langdale offered little reassurance that, just for once, the weather bods had got it wrong somehow. Even Lingmoor Fell, across the dale from our bunkhouse and a mere 400-odd metres high, was invisible.
Time to accept it. Either we changed our plans, or we were walking up Bow Fell in the cloud. And not just any cloud, but an angry behemoth, packed with cold and moisture and daring us to come and have a go. We’d had three days of walking in and out of cloud and neither of us fancied another one that would offer little respite and no views. Instead, we started scanning the map for alternatives.
The night before, a very local walker – from the farm where Langdale splits into Oxendale and Mickleden – had told us how the first tourists to the Lake District came for the water, not the mountains. Windermere was the big draw back then, not Helvellyn (and, judging by the crowds in Bowness the following day, perhaps it still is). With his historical wisdom in mind, we lowered our sights from Bow Fell’s summit to its flanks. And there it was...
Whorneyside Force sits high up in Oxendale, a waterfall fed by the streams that run off from Bow Fell and Crinkle Crags. We followed the track to Stool End, then entered the rough ground beyond the farm buildings. After a wistful pause at the path up to Bow Fell – no, stick to plan B, that cloud really isn’t going anywhere – we continued beside Oxendale Beck.
There was evidence of rewilding in the valley as we climbed, a young forest of spindly trees hidden by plastic sleeves, no doubt wondering how they’d ended up being planted in this unforgiving corner of the world. They only needed to consider the gullies across on the far side for a bit of encouragement. These trees had been around for decades, and some clung onto the steepest slopes, proving that anything was possible. With luck, Oxendale could look very different – dare I say more like its natural self? And in among the trees was a wealth of colourful autumn fungi; evidence that efforts today will yield biological rewards later on.
The clouds were starting to break as we headed uphill, making any further diversions an unwelcome delay. But soon enough, we were at the junction where a thin path heads around a spur and up to the waterfall. A youth group from Liverpool were just ahead of us, buzzing with an enthusiasm that put our middle-aged grumbling about the rain to shame. And, as we reached Whorneyside Force, there was further evidence of our feebleness: a man our age swimming in the dark waters of the plunge pool. At least he had the decency to look utterly frozen as he climbed out.
The walk back down to Langdale seemed much faster, and was certainly easier. The drizzly rain that had been with us since breakfast even eased off, ever so slightly. And we could look back contentedly on Whorneyside Force as a place to revisit. It was dramatic in the gloom, but surely worth seeing in the sunshine too. Bow Fell will still be there, too, waiting for a day when the cloud is absent. And, if my next visit to Langdale coincides with even worse weather – and the Lakes has plenty more tricks up its sleeve, as I know from experience – then there are new pubs popping up in the valley to enjoy, which is what we did, untying sodden boots as the pints were prepared. And that’s the beauty of the Lake District: whatever the weather, there’s always something to do.
Regular buses travel to Langdale, from Windermere and further out.
Where to eat
There’s the Old Dungeon Ghyll, the New Dungeon Ghyll, and the fairly new Lanty Slee’s in the National Trust’s Stickle Barn. We tried them all and they all come recommended.
Where to sleep
We stayed at the Great Langdale Bunkhouse, which is a good value option in the region and very near the pubs. There’s no cooking area, though.
All photos by Stephen Adam.