I looked out through the tent doorway and watched the crepuscular reflections of the fell’s upper ramparts on the tarn a few feet away. Barely a ripple disturbed the surface and I sat alone enjoying the evening burst of colour in a location where the predominant colours are usually green and grey. The sun sunk lower and the colours and reflections faded, bringing the coldness of night. I retreated into the tent and settled down for another night alone on a Lakeland fell.
This is just one of many “tarn moments” that I’ve enjoyed during my hill walking “career”, but my first actual tarn sunset. It was made even more special by the fact that two hours before I’d nearly bailed out of an evening ascent to opt for the lazy option of a roadside camp site. The relief of finding the tarn where it was supposed to be as I raced the clock towards night was then overtaken by the realisation that I had the place to myself. So this would also be my first truly lonely wild camp.
Now Tarn at Leaves isn’t one of the Lake District’s best known tarns and is only likely to be visited by those making Rosthwaite Fell (or Bessyboot as the summit is also known) their specific objective, or those intending a traverse of the whole Glaramara group of fells. The tarn, in common with many others, sits in boggy ground and an excursion to find suitably potable water means a squelch and bog-hop. It’s also not especially dramatic in terms of its setting, in the way that a glacial tarn resting at the bottom of a corrie and surrounded by jagged arêtes is. So it’s not the “best” of the Lakeland tarns by the measures most people would use, but that night had a certain magic of its own nonetheless. Despite the magic experienced at this tarn, it still only comes in at number 15 on my current list of favourite tarns, and the main aim of this blog is to share memories of some of the 14 that outrank it.
The previous night had also been spent beside a tarn, so I’m nothing if not consistent. But a different experience altogether. I’d climbed up from Grasmere, pausing briefly to pay homage to Easedale Tarn where I’d had my Damascene conversion to Tarn Love, before the final pull up to Codale Tarn, nestling in the crook of crags below Sergeant Man and Tarn Crag. No sunset visible here but a couple of hundred yards east gave a view down towards Grasmere, especially by climbing Belles Knott. Not that I’d stopped to take it in for long as it was freezing, and my fingers numbed as a babbling beck filled my water bottle and spilled over the top and sides. Codale Tarn is a good spot for a camp – it must be as three others turned up and made their way around to the other side for their pitch. Although this reduced the potential magic and isolation of the experience, it was a shred of comfort, as this was my first wild camp after all.
Codale Tarn requires a detour from the main path to/from the valley, and so isn’t going to get the footfall that a tarn like Easedale does. And that made it a good choice for my first camp – somewhere not too much of a walk from the valley, but not right on the path. Codale Tarn will always be special to me as a result.
On the same trip, I also got the opportunity to revisit some other favourite tarns as well as make the acquaintance of new tarns. Packing up after the night at Tarn at Leaves, I made my way along the Glaramara ridge, first over unfamiliar ground – Rosthwaite Cam, Dovenest Top, Combe Door Top, Combe Head, all with small tarns sitting in the dips between them – before reaching Glaramara itself and the point I bailed out in 2009. Snowing as I climbed to Glaramara’s summit, it became hail as I reached the area of Lincomb Tarns and High House Tarn.
Many probably walk past these tarns without giving them much thought and without recognition of their names. But this for me is the best part of the Glaramara ridge walk. Looking south east over the tarns, the Langdale Pikes are easily spottable, and looking the other way means looking down on Seathwaite Fell, where another favourite tarn (Sprinkling) resides.
After all that excitement, I made my way down to Langdale via Rossett Gill, but not before a stop off to gawp at Angle Tarn. Now this is a “proper” tarn, nestling in a bowl below Esk Pike and Bowfell. It’s also very popular sitting right on the main path from Langdale to the very top of England. And that bank holiday Sunday afternoon, it had plenty of customers. A popular wild camping spot, I’ve even heard it described as the overflow camp site from the NT site in the valley below. But for all its popularity, it’s still a great tarn. I just wouldn’t choose to stay the night there.
Anyone who knows the Lake District at all well, knows there are two Angle Tarns, and the other one couldn’t be more different. I visited the Far Eastern fells cousin in 2009 and it’s my favourite spot in that area. It sits in a grassy depression between Angletarn Pikes and Brock Crags and it’s one of the larger tarns. The path passes down the eastern side, leaving plenty of scope for a camp without the crunch of boots on rock right past your tent. I plan to spend the night here soon. It just has to be done. But I’ll probably not opt for one of the islands in the middle of the tarn, like the person that I saw camped there on my first visit.
Across the Patterdale valley lie two very well known tarns indeed. Red Tarn sits below Helvellyn’s eastern face protected by England’s highest and most famous arête, Striding Edge, and it’s more modest sibling, Swirral Edge. It took 19 years from my first visit to Helvellyn before I stood by the waters of Red Tarn. I climbed up early from the youth hostel in order to hit Striding Edge before the crowds, but a stop off at Red Tarn is pretty much mandatory. Happy at last to be next to a tarn I’d only ever seen from above, I was in a good frame of mind for the scramble to the top of Helvellyn, and for what turned out to be one of the most perfect days walking I’ve ever had in the Lakes.
Head south along the ridge from Helvellyn’s summit and the descent from Dollywaggon Pike brings you to Grisedale Tarn. My first visit in 2005 was on a wet and misty late October day at the end of a tiring ridge walk from Stybarrow Dodd, and we didn’t really stop to appreciate the tarn. I rectified that on my next visit in 2008. A climb up over Seat Sandal from Dunmail Raise meant a lunch stop overlooking the tarn, although at times there wasn’t much to see. Low cloud swirled around the tarn and all was grey except for a steel coloured patch in the centre of my view. My son once saw a photo of Grisedale Tarn and having recently watched the Bond film You Only Live Twice where Blofeld’s lair is inside a volcano crater complete with lake, immediately christened the tarn “James Bond Lake”. That day there were no space rockets taking off from beneath the tarn, but the wisps of cloud helped with the effect.
A little way south of Grisedale Tarn and halfway up Heron Pike, lies Alcock Tarn which I discovered on a semi-rest day on a trip in 2007. It’s not much to look at, and a wall running close by it does ruin the tarn effect slightly. But it’s possible to find a comfortable rock to lean against and just listen to the water lapping gently at the edge. A view up into Langdale is also possible, and that day I lay by the rock in a persistent drizzle just taking in the atmosphere. I was there nearly an hour before the wind and rain intensified and as I made my way back down to Grasmere rumbles of thunder punctuated the air.
Tarns come in all shapes, sizes and varieties, as I found when on a wet day in August 2010 when I picked off a couple of Wainwright stragglers – Grange Fell and Great Crag. A morning of swishing through wet bracken and trying to find the summit of Grange Fell and then finding my way across the desolate depression between the two fells was rewarded with this sight.
Dock Tarn was the only splash of colour on a pretty grey day, and I spent a few moments taking in the scene. One of the more interesting tarns because it’s decorated with rocks, purple heather and grasses which made for a vivid contrast to everything else I’d seen that day. The tarn itself made the walk worthwhile.
The previous month, July 2010, and I’d visited the largest tarn in the Lake District – Devoke Water. Despite its name and size which might lead you to think it’s one of the lakes, it is actually a tarn. But clearly on a different scale altogether. This tarn is one of the highlights of the area, and I was only sad that my planned accommodation overlooking the tarn had fallen through meaning that I only had one opportunity to enjoy it.
So that was a selection of my favourite tarns and I hope that I’ve included at least one of your favourites. Of course it pains me to have to leave some really good tarns out – Stickle Tarn, Bleaberry Tarn, Greendale Tarn and Beacon Tarn for instance – but I had to draw the line somewhere. And I’ve still got plenty of good tarns I’ve yet to visit.