The Old Man of Coniston is an über-classic for good reason, says Norman Hadley. But there is an alternative to the usual (and busy) route up also taking in Dow Crag.
The Old Man of Coniston is an über-classic for good reason. With a modicum of deviousness, you can sneak up on it from the back, avoiding the busy, stony zigzags coming from Low Water. Better yet, you can include the Dow Crag (nominated by Wainwright as one of his six finest summits) as a preamble, approached from the delightful gorse-filled valley of Torver Beck.
This short loop has it all: a shy valley full of gorse-flower and birdsong, interesting quarry workings, a surprising (and illicit) waterfall, a curious beehive shelter, a mildly scrambly summit, a bird’s-eye circuit of Goat’s Water and an almost certainly deserted descent of one of Lakeland’s most frequently-climbed fells.
And if you’re wondering what constitutes an “illicit” waterfall, this one was apparently created in the late fifties by some wayward schoolboys mucking about with a mattock. The Great Outdoors does not endorse freelance geoengineering but notes in passing that this example is a rather pretty example and well worth rambling past on this quiet alternative route to visit the Old Man.
Dow Crag & the Old Man of Coniston: route description
START/FINISH: Little Arrow near Torver | MAPS: OS Explorer South-western Lake District OL6 (1:25k), Harvey Ultra Map Lake District West (1:40k) | DISTANCE: 12.6km / 7.8 miles | ASCENT: 820m / 2,690ft | DURATION: 5 hours
START/FINISH: Start at Little Arrow. If you are arriving by car, park sensitively: there are a couple of laybys but the one closer to Little Arrow is right next to some houses so it’s as well to seek permission from the residents. The one towards Coniston village is opposite High Ground farm, so be mindful of gates and turning tractors.
1. SD290950: Go up the drive through the little cluster of cottages, emboldened by the Public Footpath sign. The driveway swings left, leading to a cattle grid and stile. Gain the fell path up a narrow dell and through another gate. You’ll soon be established on a good path on a shelf above Torver Beck. The route-finding going up is straightforward, but take careful note of two paths joining you obliquely from your right as these can be confusing on the return leg.
2. SD280958: Ignore the bridleway joining from your left. Pass to the left of a sizable spoil heap. The scenery is a lot prettier than that sounds. Soon you’ll skirt the fenced off pool of Banishead Quarry. This is an impressive crater with, in sunny weather, a bright blue eye of water inside, backed by the waterfall. Take the path through the bracken, parallel to the beck, to join the Walna Scar road just below Cove Bridge (labelled Torver Bridge on the OS Map)
3. SD273964: Turn left on the Walna Scar road, over the bridge and zigzag up past the curious beehive shelter to the high col.
4. SD258965: Turn hard right at the watershed and follow the well-defined ridge over Brown Pike and Buck Pike to the thrilling turret of Dow Crag itself. The downward glances to Goat’s Water are impressive, as are the rearward prospects of Blind Tarn and the big seascapes beyond the Duddon lands. Keep heading north on an easy-to-follow path down to Goat’s Hause. From the hause, take the right of three forking paths curving up rightwards to the distinctive top of the Old Man himself, with his trig point and pedestalled cairn.
5. SD272978: Your navigation skills will need to be on point for this next section. Head south and look for a thin trod in the grass, which becomes more defined after a couple of minutes, sticking to the south ridge of the fell. This then softens to a rounded fellside, with a thin trod zigzagging down. In general, the trend is south-eastwards, with more leftward zigging than rightward zagging, if that helps. As an ascent, this is one of Wainwright’s favourite quiet alternative routes. It’s also one of mine. Just be aware that, when descending, there are crags and quarries, especially on the right.
6. SD282968: If your navigation was sound, you’ll arrive back on the Walna Scar road by Boo Tarn, at the bottom of a steep quarry road. Turn right and follow the Walna Scar road until you can see a good path leading down through the bracken to Banishead Quarry and your return leg. Just be aware of the false tracks mentioned in step 1.
PUBLIC TRANSPORT: The X7 or X12 bus services will get you to Torver.
TOURIST INFORMATION: www.visitlakedistrict.com, 01539 822222
NEAREST YHA: YHA Coniston Holly How