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Blencathra ... The Myth Behind the Mountain

Sunrise from Sharp Edge on Blencathra, Lake District.
Sunrise from Sharp Edge on Blencathra, Lake District.

"The mountain rises steeply and in isolation above the broad green fields of Threlkeld … This is a mountain that compels attention even from those dull people whose eyes are not habitually lifted to the hills … to sightseers passing along the road or railway at its base, between Keswick ad Penrith, its influence is magnetic, to the dalesfolk it is the eternal background to their lives, there at birth, there at death. But most of all it is a mountaineers’ mountain.” Alfred Wainwright.

A snow covered Blencathra, Lake District
A snow covered Blencathra, Lake District

Blencathra is an incredible site, looming over the horizon and dominating the skyline for all approaching the Lake District from Penrith.

The name Blencathra is thought to have derived from the Cumbric elements ‘blain’ (top/summit) and ‘’Cedeair’ (Seat/Chair) translating to ‘The summit of the seat like mountain’ although it also translates to ‘Seat of Arthur’ linking it to the many Arthurian legends in the area.

The ‘mountaineer’s mountain’ was originally listed as ‘Saddleback’ by Ordnance Survey (a reference to its distinctive shape when seen from the east), Alfred Wainwright however popularised the use of the old Cumbric name ‘Blencathra’ which is now used almost exclusively.

Standing at 2,848 ft at its highest point (Hallsfell Top) Blencathra is an impressive sight, consisting of 6 separate fells, it is more of a small range than a single fell and is one of the northernmost mountains in the Lake District.

The Northern Fells of the Lakes form a rough, circular upland area approximately 10 miles wide. At the centre of these fells sits Skiddaw Forest; a marshy, treeless plateau of 1300ft. A number of rivers flow outwards from this plateau, dividing the Northern Fells into sections. The South East section between Blenderaterra Beck and the River Caldew contains Blencathra.

Rory the Embark dog tackling Blencathra, Lake District.
Rory the Embark dog tackling Blencathra, Lake District.

The series of fells that form the mountain reach approximately 3 miles in total. When viewed from the south the mountain looks almost symmetrical, as if carved by giant hands. Wainwright detailed how the imposing southern front forms a tremendous façade above the valley and makes a dark, towering backcloth to the stage below. Blencathra is tackled countless times each year but rarely from the southern front as the shattered cliffs and petrified rivers of stone seem to hold a perpetual threat over the community below. The North and West sides, in contrast, are made up of somewhat smooth and relatively easy slopes.

From each of the 3 central tops, a spur runs out at a right angle to the main ridge, beginning as narrow, rocky, aretes (formed when two corries are formed back to back) and widening into a broad buttress’ which fall 2,100 ft to the base of the fell.

Four streams separate the fells which run down the South East side of the mountain, trickling between each of the spurs (Blease Gill, Gate Gill, Doddick Gill and Scaley Black.)

Hallsfell has a ridge to the North, resembling a saddle this giving the mountain its alternative name. The saddle is hemmed by Tarn Crag and Foule Crag to the East while Atkinson Pike rises beyond the dip making up the 6th peak of Blencathra.

Nestled between Tarn Crag and Foule Crag is ‘Sharp Edge,’ second in fame amongst hardcore hikers and mountain explorers only to Striding Hedge on Helvellyn. “A rising crest of naked rock of sensational and spectacular appearance, a breaking wave carved in stone. The sight of it at close quarters is sufficient to make a beholder about to tackle it forget all other worries, even a raging toothache.” This description by Alfred I feel sums up not only Striding Edge, but Blencathra perfectly. The site of this incredible mountain standing solitary before you and dominating the skyline really does take your breath away, as do the enchanting views in every direction encompassing Skiddaw, Bowfell, Scafell Pike, Pillar and even the Isle of Man and the Mountains of Mourne on a clear day.

Scales Tarn on the slopes of Blencathra, Lake District.
Scales Tarn on the slopes of Blencathra, Lake District.

Sitting below Sharp Edge and nestled in a hollow between the Edge and the main ridge is one of the most characteristic mountain tarns in the region – Scales Tarn. A tarn is formed when the glacier, responsible for the forming of a bowl-shaped corrie, (**) melts and fills the structure with water, resulting in a tarn lake. The bed of Scales Tarn plunges steeply to approximately 25ft and its waters are far from fruitful as both plants and fish are scarce here.

Like many of the Lake Districts northern fells, Blencathra is composed of laminated mudstone and siltstone with greywacke sandstone. These are both sedimentary rocks formed during the Ordovician Age approximately 485.4 million years ago when sediment was moved in water and deposited, eventually these sediment compress under the pressure and form layers of rock. Different forms of erosion and weathering throughout the ice ages and in the millions of years since have shaped the rock into corries, tarns, aretes and many of the other formations we see today.

Like much of the incredible Lake District, Blencathra is shrouded in myth and legend. The Lake District has many connections with the legend of King Arthur and claims to be home to many of its most famous locations; The Round Table on the outskirts of Penrith, Arthuret Church is said to house his grave and Bassenthwaite is said to be where the Lady of the Lake gifted the King his mighty sword Excalibur and where it was returned after his death. (The local connections to the Arthurian legend are certainly something we will explore in future posts.) Blencathra is no exception and it is here Arthur and his brave knights are rumoured to be waiting in an enchanted sleep until their next call to arms. (Not unlike a similar legend discussed last week while exploring Alderley Edge in Cheshire.)

The legend dictates that having been fatally wounded at Camlann (the site of his last battle) Arthur asked to be taken to a nearby shore where a boat would be waiting to take him to Avalon, or Blencathra in this case. Arthur’s last journey would have taken him along the ancient road Maiden Way, leading South from Birdoswald to Pendragon Castle (the homeplace of Arthur’s father Uther) crossing the River Eden at Appleby.

The mountain is also said to be home to Afallach, a Celtic God of the underworld. In old Celtic ‘Blencathra’ actually means Devils Peak which is quite relevant as home to a God who rules the underworld.

With its majestic magnificent and beauty, it is no wonder Blencathra is rumoured to be the resting place for the King of the Britons and home to a Celtic God. The mountain has mystified people for centuries and continues to do so to this day with countless people taking the numerous routes to the summit to discover its magic and bask in its spectacular views in every direction. The real magic of Blencathra seems to somehow outdo even the myths behind the mountain.

Sunrise over Derwent Water with views across to the summits of Blencathra and Skiddaw, Lake District.
Sunrise over Derwent Water with views across to the summits of Blencathra and Skiddaw, Lake District.

** Corrie Formation:

A corrie is a bowl-shaped hollow formed by glaciation. The culmination of snow in a small hollow compacts squeezing out any air and resulting in ice. Freeze-thaw weathering (the continuous freezing and melting of the ice causes rocks to crack and break) and plucking (when water freeze It picks up small rocks, the movement of the ice causes the rocks to rub against other surfaces and cause erosion) shapes the back wall of the corrie while the corrie continues to get deeper due to abrasion (frozen rocks at the bottom of the glacier wearing away the base of the hollow) . As the ice gets heavier and heavier it begins to move in the hollow in rocking motion back and forth (rotational slip) making the corrie bigger and deeper.



Wainwright, A (1964) A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, Book Five, The Northern Fells.




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