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Avoiding the Old Man

A mountain route on Swirl How avoids the hordes on the nearby Old Man.

Distance 8 miles (12.9km)

Minimum time 5hrs

Ascent/gradient 2,820ft (860m)

Level of difficulty Hard

Paths Well-defined mountain paths and tracks, no stiles

Landscape High mountain

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer OL 6 The English Lakes (SW)

Start/finish SD 303975

Dog friendliness Off lead on mountain ridges but sheep graze Prison Band in summer

Parking Pay-and-display near Coniston church

Public toilets At car park

Notes Not advised in poor visibility


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1 Turn left out of the main car park in Coniston to pass St Andrew's Church, then left again in the village centre, before taking the first right up Walna Scar Road. After passing the Sun Hotel go right to follow a path tracing Church Beck to the old Miners Bridge above some dramatic waterfalls.

2 Cross the bridge before climbing alongside the beck. The track comes to the vast area of the Coniston copper mines, and passes beneath some terraced cottages before swinging left behind the youth hostel. At the next junction, take the right fork, which zig-zags up the slopes of Tongue Brow to reach the shores of Levers Water.

3 From here the track becomes a path, climbing steadily up to the high pass of Swirl Hawse, which separates the summits of Swirl How and Wetherlam.

4 On reaching the pass, turn left and climb up a rough path that weaves and scrambles over the rocks of the Prison Band to reach the cairn on Swirl How's summit.

5 Continue along the cairned ridge path, descending to a saddle between Swirl How and the grassy whaleback of Brim Fell. Keep watch for a narrow path branching off to the right. This rounds the high sides of Brim Fell for a direct route to Goat's Hawse, the pass overlooking Goat's Water.

6 On reaching the pass, descend towards the tarn, passing beneath the cliffs of Dow Crag. A rough and rocky route traces the eastern shores of the tarn before swinging left into the grassy bowl known as the Cove.

7 The path meets the Walna Scar Road just above the Cove Beck packhorse bridge. Turn left to follow the ancient road round the south sides of the Old Man. In the lower regions, the road becomes a tarmac, hedge-lined lane, descending to the Sun Hotel and back into the village centre.

The Old Man of Coniston's too busy: he's always too busy at weekends and in summer. Swirl How's only a couple feet lower at 2,630ft, and if you've gone metric they're the same - 803m above sea level. We'll try Swirl How instead.

Coniston is the best place to start. The mountains show their finest rock faces to Coniston. Once you're through the green fields and woods surrounding the village the walk deposits you in a huge stadium of broken stone. In it, grassed-over spoil heaps, mill races and mysterious flooded mine shafts all lie in the shadow of quarry-terraced mountainsides.

Though copper mining here dates back to Roman times, large-scale mining began some 400 years ago. It reached its peak in the mid-19th century before going into decline in the 1870s. The hard rock of the Borrowdale volcanic group made the drilling difficult and slow and the sound of gunpowder explosions would have echoed round the valley. Some of the veins were over 1,000ft (305m) below ground and over 500ft (152m) below sea level. The miners could only access the veins by wooden ladders and staging platforms that were used for the tramming of the ore. The ore was known as chalcopyrite (sulphide of copper and iron), which has a yellow/gold colour, not unlike 'fool's gold'.

Today, the deep shafts are flooded and far too dangerous for serious exploration. Rock debris has fallen down on to the old platforms and it's difficult to tell whether you're standing on the floor of the pit or trusting your fate to rotten timber.

Beyond the mines you pass Levers Water, a natural tarn enlarged and dammed by the miners for a supply reservoir. The excitement begins at the pass of Swirl Hawse. From here climbing the Prison Band takes you into rocky terrain - steep, but not serious enough for the use of hands. Soon you're at the huge summit cairn looking across the grassy whaleback of Brim Fell to the Old Man. Chances are you'll see a hundred little silhouettes: walkers shuffling about against the backdrop of a Morecambe Bay skyline. We could go there now - it's easy.

But an afterthought is never worthwhile, so we'll continue with our route for purists and connoisseurs, taking the little path that rakes across the high sides of Brim Fell. It comes out at Goat's Hawse, a boulder pass with a wonderful view of the magnificent climbers' cliffs and buttresses of Dow Crag away to your right. And what more fitting way to end the walk than on Walna Scar Road, where the Romans transported their copper ore, over the mountains to the port of Ravenglass.

While you're there

Visit the Ruskin Museum in Coniston village, set up by his private secretary W G Collingwood, both as a memorial to Ruskin and as a guide to the area's heritage. There are exhibits about the geology of Coniston and its copper mines. The museum also has an extensive collection of Campbell family memorabilia, including photographs and press cuttings about Donald Campbell's fateful attempt at the water speed record on Coniston Water in 1967.

Where to eat and drink

The Sun Hotel is a 16th-century inn set just above the village - you'll pass it on the outward and return routes. It's a free house offering a choice of real ales and a good bar meal menu in the setting of an oak-beamed bar with a real fire or a beer garden if its sunny. The inn is pet-friendly.

What to look for

The Coniston area has two distinct rock groups. The older Borrowdale volcanic group was laid down around 460 million years ago. The area was then submerged beneath a sub-tropical sea and the sediments from it formed the impure Coniston limestone. In a collision of landmasses the rocks were intensely heated, and uplifted over 90 degrees. The volcanic rocks now formed the high peaks with the sedimentary layer underlying the lusciously wooded valleys.


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