Wicked mermaids, wild wallabies and Darwin – prepare to be immersed in the wondrous world of Britain’s mountain lakes

This feature was first published in the October 2018 issue of The Great Outdoors.

Tarn-bagging is peak-bagging’s watery cousin and arguably equally deserving of a collector’s time and energy. After all, if the weather is too gnarly for a summit tick then what could be more satisfying than seeking out a serene body of water hidden high in the hills? Some tarns are little more than glorified puddles, but others are true mountain lakes that occupy the space excavated by ancient glaciers. Here are some strikingly spectacularly tarns, llyns and lochans to get you started.

1. Lochan Urr, Glen Etive

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Tucked away in the remote heart of Glen Etive, this sheltered little lochan is a favourite with landscape photographers. On calm days it morphs into a mirror, reflecting the looming shapes of Buachaille Etive Beag and Buachaille Etive Mor. Use it as a starting point for exploring the peaks and lochans of the surrounding mountain ranges, including Stob Dubh and Bidean nam Bian.

2. Llyn y Fan Fach, Brecon Beacons

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Few mountain lakes have the sheer wow factor of Llyn y Fan Fach. Edged by vertical crags in the verdant heart of the Black Mountains, its clear waters and spectacular outlook make it a popular spot with walkers. Local folklore tells of a fairy maiden who arose from the lake and married a young farmer, on the condition that he would never strike her more than twice. He did, of course, and the fairy returned to the lake – but their sons became the famous doctors who are known today as the Physicians of Myddfai. Combine Llyn y Fan Fach with its larger neighbour Llyn y Fan Fawr on a 15km tarn-bagging circuit.

3. Suilven’s lochans, Assynt

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Scotland’s most distinctive peak is marooned in the heart of a lochan-strewn wilderness. Mountain lakes surround it on almost every side, but you’ll find the most plentiful supply below the mountain’s north-western rim. Some have official names – such as Loch na Barrack and Loch a’ Choire Dubh – while others are just nameless specks of blue. If you’re looking for a wild camping spot or simply a place to paddle your toes after a hot descent, they make for alluring exploring.

4. An Lochan Uaine, Cairngorms

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The ‘Little Green Loch’ in Glenmore Forest Park really does live up to its name, with waters of the most ethereal sapphire tint. Local legend has it that pixies dyed the lochan this unusual shade by washing their clothes here. Whether you credit that or not, it’s a magical spot – surrounded by ancient Caledonian pines and hemmed in by the peaks of Meall a’ Bhuachaille and Creag nan Gall. See the lochan as part of a 10-kilometre circuit that takes in the Ryvoan pass, or use Ryvoan bothy as a base for exploring the surrounding wilderness. Incidentally, the Cairngorms hide a second Lochan Uaine that fills a hanging corrie above the Garbh Choire of Braeriach. Higher, wilder and trickier to reach than its more famous namesake, it’s another worthy addition to your bagging list.

5. Stickle Tarn, Lake Distict

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This beauty spot in the heart of the Langdale Pikes is the first stop on plenty of classic hillwalks. It’s accessed via a short walk (or exciting ghyll scramble) from the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel. The climb is steep but the views are worth it, particularly if you continue on to summit Harrison Stickle or neighbouring Pavey Ark. There are more mountain lakes to visit if you head north-east from here across Blea Rigg, including Codale and Easedale Tarns.

6. Malham Tarn, Yorkshire Dales

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It might not have quite the wilderness feel of some tarns on this list, but the glacial lake above Malham village is a classic Dales beauty spot. Just a short tramp from Malham Cove, with its remarkable limestone pavement, Malham Tarn is the highest marl lake in the UK. The Pennine Way loops around its north and eastern shores en route to the summits of Fountains Fell and Pen-y- ghent. For a challenging but rewarding day out, combine tarn and peaks in a linear walk between Malham and Horton in Ribblesdale.

7. Angle Tarn, Lake District

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Described by Wainwright as “among the best of Lakeland tarns”, this shimmering body of blue water lies on a broad ridge below the Angletarn Pikes. It feels fabulously wild (peregrine falcons and red deer are regular visitors) and the views across to the Helvellyn range from above the tarn are something to write home about. A series of tiny islands lure braver visitors into the water while those who prefer to keep their clothes on can have a ball exploring the hillocky shores. Patterdale is just a 2km walk away, but if you’re in line for a bigger day out then continue on to bag High Street and its surrounding tops.

8. Llyn Idwal, Snowdonia

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The accessibility of this famous Snowdonian lake is both a blessing and a curse. It’s popular with day-trippers, who brave the slog up from Idwal Cottage to admire the grandeur of the surrounding crags – but if you can avoid peak times, there are few more appealing spots. Supposedly named after an ill-fated 12th Century prince, it lies in the hanging glacial valley of Cwm Idwal. The geology here has mesmerised scientists since the days of Darwin, while the crags around the head of the cwm are a historic training ground for mountaineers. It’s possible to make your way steeply up from the lake via Devil’s Kitchen to begin a circuit of the Glyders and Tryfan.

9. Doxey Pool, Peak District

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It may be small (just 15 x 10 metres) but that hasn’t stopped this windswept pool atop the Roaches from inspiring a whole host of local legends. If the tales are to be believed, it’s home to a malevolent mermaid called Jenny Greenteeth. Other stories say that it’s bottomless, or connected to nearby Blake Mere via a mysterious subterranean passage. Keep your eyes peeled for the local wallabies (yes, really) as you take a stroll along the Roaches and return via the chapel where Sir Gawain supposedly slew the Green Knight.

10. Sprinkling Tarn, Lake District

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It may officially be the wettest place in Britain, but don’t let that put you off a ramble up to Sprinkling Tarn. Surrounded by the giants of the Western and Southern Fells – including Great Gable, Great End and Glaramara – this high mountain tarn is a top starting point for some serious peak- bagging. Its famously icy waters tend to repel all but the keenest swimmers, but there are some glorious wild camping spots to discover in the vicinity.

Header image Lochan Urr © VisitScotland _ Kenny Lam