Discovering the Tarns
One November day in 1959, two men shivering in a bitingly cold shower of hail, scrambled out of a Lake District tarn near Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain. They had just finished a remarkable venture that had taken them over eight years. Nobody had done it before and it may not have been done since. These two resilient gentlemen had succeeded in bathing in every one of the National Park’s tarns – all 463 of them. Nobody ever saw them bathing and they never used swimming costumes. This was ‘extreme skinny dipping’!
A tarn is a small mountain lake and, like many other local words e.g.beck (stream), fell (mountain), thwaite (clearing), gill (ravine) and holme (island), has its origins in Scandinavia. The Vikings arrived in N.W. England, probably from Ireland, in the 10th century and maybe half Lakeland’s place names can be traced back to Norse languages. Tarns can be found on almost every mountain hike, some hardly bigger than puddles and a few actually larger than some of the main lakes. All are different in character, all have their own stories to tell and many are in scenically outstanding locations. Here’s our top 10, in reverse order:
Tarn Howes and Yew Tree Tarn are both close to Coniston village and have a common heritage in that they are on land once owned by Beatrix Potter. The circuit of Tarn Howes, now the property of the National Trust, is one of the best short walks in the park. There is wheelchair access and all-terrain mobility scooters are available. The lake is shallow and a popular skating venue in frosty winters.
Peaceful Yew Tree Tarn is nearby and a hike through the woods close to the lake and into the fells behind leads to a most interesting historical area. There are atmospheric old slate quarries and shafts of copper mines that date back to Roman times. Levers Water, nestling under the high peaks of the Coniston Mountains, in bleak and rugged surroundings, was at the centre of mining activities. Some tunnels went right under the lake.
The Langdale Pikes have perhaps the most distinctive shapes of all Lakeland’s mountains, their summits once forming the rim of an ancient volcano. Stickle Tarn lies just below the highest of the main peaks and is reached by a stiff climb from the valley below. Picturesque waterfalls tumble down the gill alongside the path and the surroundings of Stickle Tarn itself are magnificent.
Those with tired legs may be happy to now abandon all thoughts of a climb to the mountaintops and settle down to enjoy a picnic by this appealing little lake.
Neolithic Man was the first to roam here and a stone-age axe factory has been discovered on the upper slopes of the nearby wonderfully named mountain, Pike O’Stickle.
Easedale Tarn is at the head of a valley close by, and the best approach is on foot from Grasmere Village beside Sour Milk Gill – whose frothy white waters are spectacular after heavy rain. The tarn is surrounded by an amphitheatre of fells that look alpine in winter. In Victorian times, gentlemen used to escort their ladies to this tarn for afternoon refreshments. The ruins of the old tea hut can still be seen.
Harrop Tarn, hidden away in the hills north west of Grasmere, is rarely visited because it doesn’t lie on any fashionable walking trails. It is an absolute gem and reached from the shores of Thirlmere Lake by a short climb through mixed woodland. This is the ideal place for quiet contemplation and a gentle paddle in its chilly waters – if you can find a gap in the muddy reed beds!
Adventurous hikers now strike west and tramp over some of the boggiest hills in Britain to reach Watendleth Tarn. Here they will find heaps of tourists, as its usual access is by road from the town of Keswick. Its popularity does not decry from its loveliness, however, as Watendleth Tarn is justifiably one of Lakeland’s favourite beauty spots. Its waters eventually flow down into Derwentwater via the celebrated ‘Cataract of Lodore’. Robert Southey wrote about this waterfall in an English language masterpiece, of which this is just a snippet:
……and flapping and rapping and clapping and slapping,
And curling and whirling and purling and twirling,
And thumping and plumping and bumping and jumping,
And dashing and flashing and splashing and clashing……
All at once and all o’er with a mighty uproar,
And this way the water comes down at Lodore.
Sprinkling Tarn lies amongst the highest peaks of the Scafells at the head of beautiful Borrowdale. It’s main claim to fame, apart from its magnificent location below the crags of Great End, is that it is the wettest place in England – averaging 5 metres of rain per year.
Britain’s rarest fish, the Vendace, was recently introduced to the cold waters of this tarn, as a security against its possible extinction from the main lakes due to the potential warming effects of climate change. A superb high-level walk west from here brings hikers to the popular mountain of Haystacks overlooking one end of Lakeland’s ‘Secret Valley’ containing Buttemere and Crummock Water.
Black Beck Tarn is very close to the summit of this lovely mountain. This small tarn is only a couple of metres deep and sits in a sheltered bowl with rocky heather-clad slopes all around. There are superb views of the surrounding peaks and it is an ideal spot for wild camping.
There is no better way to finish a discovery expedition of Lake District tarns than to climb up to Blea Water, which lies in an isolated glacial corrie in a dramatic situation in the far eastern mountains – the High Street range. It has crags on three sides, is the deepest tarn at 63m, and was once known as Bley Water – the old Scandinavian word for dark blue.
Soldiers from Roman legions once gazed down at its blue waters as they marched along the High Street above and north towards Hadrian’s Wall.
Red Deer and wild fell ponies now graze these remote hills and, until very recently, England’s only pair of Golden Eagles soared above. These magnificent birds used to nest every year in nearby Riggindale, but there have been no sightings since 2015.
Blea Water is our favourite tarn and the perfect location for a swim on a hot summer’s day. In our more youthful years, we used to ‘skinny dip’ in tarns like this, to cool down after a day’s hiking through the mountains. We weren’t trying to break any tarn-bagging records, but it was a lot of fun and a great way to freshen up before a pint in the pub in the valley below!
By Nigel Wright
Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal 13 years ago and live near Guia. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and seek out new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening and photography.