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Are the Lake District Fells becoming too busy?

A long line of walker lay ahead of me as I make my way up Cat Bells. I dodge and weave past them, offering thanks when way is given, slowly making my way up. I am on the first hill of my Espresso round, and already the way ahead is too busy to sustain a good, consistent pace. Grimly, I slow to a fast walk that allows me to not fall behind on my schedule by too much, while limiting the frustrating stopping and starting while trying to overtake the crowds. I often hear people saying the fells are too busy, and, as I make my way through the crowd, I can see why people think this. Even in my lifetime, I have seen the fells becoming more and more popular, with going up them becoming, dare I say it, cool. Hills where once you would hardly see a soul all day, become near bustling with day trippers, and once near abandoned paths become choked with visitors. Can the fells cope, or are they just too busy?

Should you only visit the more popular of the Lake District fells, especially on days with nice weather, there is certainly a case to believe that they are too busy. There are many iconic fells in the Lake District, be that due to height (either very big or conveniently small), view (preferably Instagram-able), proximity to a honeypot town as well as a whole host of other reasons, and, on busy days these hills can get swamped by visitors. Often, there is a classic, or an iconic route up that either takes someone up the easiest way (a tourist path as it is often known), or an iconic route (such as Striding Edge on Helvellyn) which actively draws people to that particular fell. On top of this, should you only visit during school holidays, you will find the numbers of visitors far higher than should you visit outside of them. Should your only experience of the fells be on these routes on these iconic fells, then you could be forgiven for thinking the fells are too crowded.

While there are many iconic routes and fells, and while they do provide the fell goer a sensational day out, there are many more, less iconic or well-known fells that offer just as much. While you will see other hill goers, especially at the summit, on these fells during school holidays and on days with nice weather, there is no egregious queues up the side of fells, and there is plenty of opportunity for quiet, isolated contemplation between hill goer and mountain. As well as this, should you want to do an iconic fell, there are often alternate ways to ascend that avoid the busy tourist route. While ascending Helvellyn, for instance, from either Thirlmere or Patterdale you will almost certainly encounter many more walkers and runners doing exactly the same. An ascent from St Johns in the Vale however, will mean a far more pleasant (in my opinion) walk to the same summit, with far fewer people.

While the 214 Wainwrights is by and far, the most well known classification of Lakeland Fells, it is often forgotten that there are more than just Wainwrights in the Lake District. In the Lake District, there are 541 fells over 1,000ft, referred to as Birketts. While 209* of these are Wainwrights (5 did not make the cut), this still leaves 332 extra fells that you can enjoy. There are, admittedly some Birketts (and Wainwrights) where the views and the walk could be described as lacklustre at best, but there are many more, outside of the public conscious, that offer commanding views rivalling and even surpassing the views from those iconic fells. While some are on popular routes, and are passed over, almost accidently, by people doing the more popular Wainwrights, should you venture to one of the lesser known fells and see another walker, you will know you are in the presence of another hardy eccentric. It would be hard, while standing on these more obscure Lakeland Fells, to think that the fells are overcrowded.

*depending on where you look, the number of Wainwrights that are not also Birketts varies between two and five

Is it then, just a matter of distribution? Should the sheer numbers of people who flock to the iconic fells decide to visit the full suite of Lake District fells (minus the rather dull ones) rather than just the popular ones, then surely it would not seem so overcrowded? Or is it more a matter of opinion from the locals. It is beyond a doubt that the fells have become busier over the years. Are those people who have grown up, used to abandoned tracts of open fell, disproportionately aggrieved at the thought of sharing a solitary pastime. While it is certainly the case that the roads and car parks are overcrowded, trying to drive down to either Wasdale or Buttermere on a busy day is a traumatic experience, once you start ascending a fell, especially if you avoid the tourist path, the number of people you see will drastically decrease.

The following day, I am standing on Whiteless Pike. A cool breeze blowing errant strands of hair across my face. At the summit, I am alone, not a soul in site. The few groups of walkers and runners I passed, seem a distant memory. The beauty of the Buttermere valley lay before me, the stunning, pristine lake with the high fell of Red Pike rising above it. I knew there would be a vast number of people walking round the lake, but, up here all was quiet. “No”, I thought to myself, “I don’t think the fells are too busy”.

Scafell and Scafell pike the two biggest mountains in england
The Scafells in the background, some of the busiest fells in the Lake District

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