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Ancient Oaks of Ard Crags

Try and imagine the Lakeland fells as they were before people arrived.

Distance 5 miles (8km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 1,306ft (398m)

Level of difficulty Hard

Paths Road, narrow fell paths, one vague turning, no stiles

Landscape Heathery ridge flanked by steep slopes

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer OL 4 The English Lakes (NW)

Start/finish NY 229201

Dog friendliness On lead on road and on fell if sheep are grazing

Parking Small car park in old roadside quarry at Rigg Beck

Public toilets None on route; nearest at Braithwaite and Buttermere

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1 Leave the quarry car park at Rigg Beck and walk up the road. Keep right at a junction and rise gently past farms and fields. Pass Birkrigg Farm B&B, Gillbrow Farm and Bawd Hall. The road later descends gently across a more rugged fellside and reaches a sharply pronounced bend crossing the beck of Ill Gill. A steep slope covered in ancient sessile oaks rises to your right.

2 Immediately after crossing the beck, turn right and climb steeply uphill past Keskadale Farm. A wire fence is followed until the gradient eases. Look carefully at the flank of the fell to spot a grassy path rising uphill. Its line is clear when the path is flanked by bracken, and once it has been spotted, follow the path with confidence.

3 The path is narrow as it crosses a steep, heathery slope, and there are some stony patches. At a higher level the slope is boggy and the path is vague. Look up to the right to spot a gentle, rounded summit and aim for it. A small pile of stones sits on top. This is Knott Rigg at 1,824ft (556m), completely surrounded by higher fells.

4 A clear path heads roughly north east along the hummocky ridge. Mosses, sedges and rushes indicate wet ground. The path drops to a gap, then climbs uphill slightly to the right of the ridge. The ground cover is now heather, indicating drier ground. Gullies fall away to the right then the summit cairn on Ard Crags is reached, at 1,906ft (581m) the high point of this walk.

5 Walking along the heathery ridge is like walking on top of the world, with a fine view over the Vale of Newlands. Bilberry and crowberry grow among the heather, providing an autumn feed for birds or passing walkers. The descent is in two stages, dropping first to a heathery bump, and then dropping more steeply past outcrops of rock.

6 Heather gives way to bracken as the gradient eases, then the path runs level on to a blunt, grassy ridge. Swing left to descend alongside a wall and fence, where the slope is wet and boggy. At Rigg Beck ford the flow. If a narrower crossing point is needed, look a short way upstream.

7 Climb up from Rigg Beck and join a clear path, turning right to follow it down the valley. The slopes are covered in bracken with occasional clumps of gorse. The path leads back to the car park.

On this walk you can enjoy views of craggy fells and fine ridges. The landscape is very open, with gentle fields giving way to steeper slopes covered in bracken and heather. It's tempting to believe that the Lake District was always like this; bare, barren and wild. In fact, the natural state of the Lakeland fells, if humans had never set foot there or brought grazing livestock into the area, would be quite different. The climax vegetation would be deciduous forest, comprising oak and birch on most slopes, with alder in the boggy lowlands and rowan in the rocky clefts, leaving only the summits of the fells rising bare above the trees.

If it's hard to imagine what this kind of forest cover would look like, then study the patchy oak woods on the steep southern slopes of Ard Crags and Causey Pike. Short, gnarled oaks in these locations are thought to represent the last remaining indigenous Lakeland forests. They are sessile oaks, meaning that the acorn cups sit on the twigs, rather than pedunculate oaks, where the acorn cups are on stalks. The National Trust acorn logo, displayed all over the Lake District, shows a pedunculate oak.

Centuries of sheep grazing have led to the Lake District's current appearance; a process accelerated when distant monasteries encouraged large-scale grazing from the 12th century. Constant nibbling prevents woodland cover from regenerating, so that established trees simply get older and eventually die. Their fruit can find no safe place to germinate unless protected from livestock and rabbits. Holly, hawthorn, gorse and brambles survive simply because they are so prickly, and many fine specimens of gorse can be seen even on the sheep-grazed slopes on this walk.

While most walkers are keen to preserve the wilderness, it's likely that very few walkers would be happy with the Lake District if livestock were totally excluded, if blanket tree cover was allowed to re-establish itself. Gone would be the glorious views, replaced instead by dense woodland cover. Gone would be the fell paths, gradually choked by rampant vegetation and covered by drifts of leaf mould. In the case of Ard Crags, you wouldn't be able to enjoy the purple flush of heather that makes a walk along its ridge a joy in high summer.

Ard Crags, surrounded by plenty of loftier summits, isn't a particularly high fell but the view is interesting. The ridge is a splendid perch for studying the patchwork landscape of the Vale of Newlands. Although the fells around the head of Newlands rise higher than Ard Crags, you can see the highest Lakeland fells, including the Scafells, Helvellyn and Skiddaw, as well as groups of fells around Ennerdale, Buttermere, Wasdale and Langdale.

While you're there

Literary associations abound around Newlands. William Wordsworth penned some charming lines about Newlands church. Hugh Walpole used the area as a setting in the family saga The Herries Chronicle (1930-3) (PWalk 23). Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle (1905) mentions Little Town. Alfred Wainwright said that the valley 'hadn't changed in any way throughout fifty years of acquaintance'.

Where to eat and drink

The nearest pub offering food and drink is the Swinside Inn, a prominent whitewashed building tucked against the forested little hill called Swinside. Closer to hand, the Newlands Village Institute provides teas most Sundays. Low Snab offers farmhouse teas if you can find your way along the farm track to reach it.

What to look for

Vegetation cover is in a slow, but constant process of change. Bracken invades the rough pastures, but notice how it never grows on trodden paths or wet areas. Heather can tolerate wet ground to a certain extent, but not waterlogged ground, which is often colonised by mosses and tussocky moor grass. Rock is never really bare once you discover multi-coloured blotches of lichen encrusting almost every surface.

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