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Blencathra. - - 101157.jpg
View of Blencathra
Range: Lake District Northern Fells
Summit: 2,848 feet NY323277
54°38’23"N, 3°3’2"W

Blencathra, also known as Saddleback, is one of the most northerly fells in the Lake District. It has six separate fell tops, of which the highest is the 2,848-foot Hallsfell Top. It is in Cumberland.


For many years Ordnance Survey listed Blencathra under the alternative name of Saddleback, which was coined in reference to the shape of the mountain when seen from the east. The guidebook author Alfred Wainwright popularised the use of the older Cumbric name, which is now used almost exclusively. Ordnance Survey currently marks the summit as "Saddleback or Blencathra".

It is likely that the name Blencathra is derived from the Cumbric elements blaen (a bare hill top) and cathrach (a chair). This would give a meaning of "the bare hill top shaped like a chair", which perfectly describes the shape of the hill.[1]


The Northern Fells comprise a roughly circular upland area about 10 miles wide. At the centre is the marshy depression of Skiddaw Forest — a treeless plateau at an altitude of 1,300 ft — and flowing outward from here are the rivers which divide the area into three sectors. The south eastern sector, between the Glenderaterra Beck and the River Caldew, contains Blencathra and its satellites.[2]

Blencathra is more of a small range than a single fell, a series of tops standing out on a three-mile-long curving ridge. It has smooth, easy slopes to the north and west, whilst displaying a complex system of rocky spurs and scree slopes to the south and east.

When viewed from the south east, particularly on the main Keswick to Penrith road, Blencathra appears almost symmetrical. To left and right the ends of the fell rise from the surrounding lowlands in smooth and sweeping curves, clad in rough grass. Each rises gracefully to a ridge-top summit, Blease Fell on the west and Scales Fell to the east. Between these 'book-ends' are a further three tops, Gategill Fell, Hallsfell and Doddick Fell, giving a scalloped profile to the ridge. From each of the three central tops a spur runs out perpendicular to the main ridge, beginning as a narrow, rocky arête and then widening into a broad buttress which falls 2,000 feet to the base of the fell. Separating the five tops are four streams which run down the south east face between the spurs. From the west these are Blease Gill, Gate Gill, Doddick Gill and Scaley Beck.

In addition to the spurs on the south east face, Hallsfell also throws out a high ridge to the north. This is the saddle that gives Blencathra its alternative name, rising beyond the dip to the sixth top, Atkinson Pike. This is the focal point for connecting ridges to Bannerdale Crags and Mungrisdale Common to the north. The 'saddle' is bounded by crags to the east, Tarn Crag and Foule Crag being the principal faces.

Sharp edge

Between Tarn Crag and Foule Crag is Sharp Edge, an aptly named arête which provides one of the most famous scrambles in the area. Wainwright noted that

  • The crest itself is sharp enough for shaving (the former name was razor edge) and can be traversed only à cheval at some risk of damage to tender parts.[2]
Sharp Edge
Scales Tarn, beneath Sharp Edge on Blencathra

Below Tarn Crags is Scales Tarn, an almost circular lake filling a corrie. The bed plunges steeply to about 25 feet and plants and fish are scarce.[3]

To the east, beyond Scales Fell, is the connection to Souther Fell at Mousthwaite Comb. This ridge continues north east to the vicinity of Mungrisdale, surrounded on all sides by the River Glenderamackin.

Geology and mining

In common with much of the Northern Fells the Kirk Stile Formation of the Skiddaw Group predominates. This is composed of laminated mudstone and siltstone with greywacke sandstone and is of Ordovician age.

There has been considerable mining activity beneath the slopes of Blencathra. Threlkeld mine lies at the base of Hallsfell. From 1879 to 1928 it was a profitable venture for the raising of lead and zinc ores and is believed to hold further reserves should the economic situation improve.[4]

A small trial working can be seen beside Blease Gill near the 2,000-foot level. This is believed to have been driven for lead.[4]

Saddleback Old Mine had workings near Scales Tarn and at Mousthwaite Comb. The mine was driven for lead but in the 1890s raised mostly limonite. This was marketed unsuccessfully as a pigment and the mine closed in 1894.[4]

In the Glenderaterra valley to the west of Blease Fell were Brundholme and Blencathra mines. Lead, copper and baryte were raised between the middle of the nineteenth century and the final closure in 1920.[4]


The south face showing the symmetrical structure

Blencathra is a popular mountain, and there are many different routes to the summit. One of the most famous is via Sharp Edge, a knife-edged arête on the eastern side of the mountain. Sharp Edge provides some good scrambling for those with a head for heights. Hall's Fell ridge, on Blencathra's southern flank, also provides an opportunity for some scrambling, though of a less serious nature. Wainwright described the ascent from Threlkeld via Hall's Fell ridge as "positively the finest way to any mountain-top in the district".

Wainwright recorded more routes of ascent for Blencathra than any other fell.[2] Blease Fell and Scales Fell provided easy walking on grass and fast routes of descent. Gategill Fell he noted as dull until the final arête is reached, while Hallsfell and Doddick Fell both received praise. Of the intervening gills Scaley Beck was reckoned the most practicable, the other three being overly rough and devoid of interest. An ascent from 'behind', beginning from Mungrisdale, was also described.[2]

Summit and view

The highest point is directly above the Hallsfell spur, marked by a sprawling cairn only feet from the edge. A good path connects the five summits on the main ridge, giving excellent views down the south east face. Northward on the fine turf of the 'saddle' is a large cross laid out in white stones. Its origin is uncertain but extension to its current size (in excess of 10 feet) is attributed to a Harold Robinson of Threlkeld, a frequent visitor in the years after Second World War.[2]

The view is very extensive, enhanced in every direction by the sharp fall of the slopes from the summit. To the west is the bulk of Skiddaw, and from west round to north east the Back o'Skiddaw fells make up the foreground, backed by the mountains of Galloway, the Southern Uplands, the Border hills and the Cheviots.

The Pennines form the horizon from north east to south east, with Cross Fell, Mickle Fell, Wild Boar Fell and Great Whernside visible. To the south east are the Far Eastern Fells and to the south the Helvellyn range is seen end-on, with vistas of the Forest of Bowland and North Wales to its left and right respectively.

The skyline from south to WSW is the best feature: a serrated skyline of all the major Lakeland peaks, these being, clockwise, Coniston Old Man, Crinkle Crags, Bowfell, Esk Pike, Scafell Pike, Great Gable, Kirk Fell, Pillar, High Stile, Grasmoor and Grisedale Pike. To the right of this the Isle of Man and the Mourne Mountains are visible on clear days.

Derwent Water and Thirlmere are the major lakes visible; the most distant mountain visible is Slieve Meelmore in the Mourne Mountains, 123 miles away.


  1. Hawley, Robert (November/December 2008). Lake District Life [What's in a Lakeland Name?]. p. 28. "When you look at the shape of Blencathra this meaning makes perfect sense" 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Alfred Wainwright|Wainwright, Alfred: A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells,Book 5 The Northern Fells: ISBN 0-7112-2458-7
  3. Blair, Don: Exploring Lakeland Tarns: Lakeland Manor Press (2003): ISBN 0-9543-9041-5
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Adams, John: Mines of the Lake District Fells: Dalesman (1995) ISBN 0-85206-931-6

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