The quest for a king’s crown

Mathilde walks

A series of walks that give you the chance to stop for coffee, cake, lunch or brunch at Mathilde’s at the Heaton Cooper Studio, the Lake District’s centre for mountain art. All the walks are free to everyone, connecting visitors with the natural surroundings of our unique landscape in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Today we go in search of a legend, to find the resting place of a mythical king’s crown, and to see the slopes where an acclaimed Lakeland sculptor learned to ski. We are walking to Grisedale Tarn.

There are several Grisedales (or Grizedale) in the Lakes, meaning valley of the wild boar, but none so majestic as the tarn at the head of this valley, a tarn which lies at almost 2000ft up in the mountains, and is one of Lakeland’s deepest.

Grisedale Tarn by W Heaton Cooper

Our walk is from Grasmere, where you might have had breakfast at Mathildes; a strong recommendation, for while this walk doesn’t reach any mountain summits, it is nevertheless a substantial mountain climb. The start is about half a mile north of the village, just beyond the Travellers’ Rest inn on the main road to Keswick, and there’s a big parking area on the left just before the inn is reached.

Head north around the bend from the inn, then take the path on the right signposted to Patterdale. This climbs between stone walls to a wooden gate, and then the path itself becomes more stony until a second gate is reached. Here cross the beck, by stepping stones or footbridge, and walk straight on ahead; don’t turn right to cross the second wooden bridge.

Tongue Ghyll will be down on your right, with the massif arm of the Fairfield horseshoe, Great Rigg, rising above it. The bulky fell on your left is Seat Sandal. It’s a stiff climb at first, but pleasant and grassy underfoot. Eventually you reach rockier territory, and a few ups and downs before you get to Hause Moss.

You might want to call this the Valley of False Hope. Expectation is that the tarn will be here in this depression but no, it’s a flat reedy plateau, probably the dry bed of an old tarn. There’s some more climbing to do yet before you pass through a gap in a low stone wall and suddenly there is the magnificent and kingly Grisedale Tarn.

There’s nothing pretty about this view. It has a savage beauty, with mountain slopes dropping directly into its deep waters. And here you have options. You can continue on the pass and head down Grisedale itself into Patterdale. You could climb the zig-zag path to the north onto the deliciously-named Dollywaggon Pike and the Helvellyn ridge. You could head north east onto St Sunday Crag, east up Fairfield, or west onto Seat Sandal.

Or you could search for the crown of King Dunmail. It’s why we called this tarn majestic, for legend tells us that when Dunmail, the King of Cumbria, was killed in battle (a cairn on Dunmail Raise is said to mark the spot) his soldiers carried his crown up here into the hills and threw it into the tarn.

William Heaton Cooper, the second generation of the artistic dynasty, loved this place. He said that “being half Norwegian and half English, I find that many semi conscious ties of heredity bind me…to Grisedale, one of the most lovely of Lakeland valleys to walk down”.

In The Tarns of Lakeland he wrote: “The tarn is one of the windiest of them all, for it has wide open windows to the south, the west and the north east. A strong north-easter will sometimes blow the powdered snow from the area of the tarn right over the col into the head of Tongue Gill, providing the skier with magnificent runs off Fairfield.”

And here, it seems, is where his wife, the sculptor Ophelia Gordon Bell, “gained her first experiences of ski-running on a pair of skis we had made the night before from two ash planks.”

William also recalled that he swam in Grisedale Tarn in summer after walking over Fairfield and Helvellyn. If you’re inspired to do likewise, take the greatest care.

The walk back to Grasmere follows the other side of Tongue Ghyll, taking the left path at the bifurcation (a good word beloved by the guidebook writer Wainwright). It’s been improved in recent years with steps to ease the erosion, and brings you eventually to the bridge at the sheepfold and little reservoir building.

This route is only about 4.5 miles round trip from the main road, but the climb alone will take a strong walker an hour and a half, so allow three hours in all. And maybe take a spare bag in case you find that crown and want to carry it back!

Then it’s down to Mathilde’s where you have most certainly earned lunch or afternoon tea. Or even both.

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