Barf

Date: 21 May 2020 Weather: 16’C, partly cloudy
Height gain: 1,207 ft Distance: 2.9 miles
Time taken: 4 hours 15 mins Wainwrights: 121 of 214

Route:  From car park at Powter How taking the second footpath up the south side of Beckstones Gill, turning right for a short section on the forest track then right again to cross the Gill and up the final distinct path to the top and then back the same way. 


There was a short spell of damp and windy weather after our first successful venture out of lock down last week which happily didn’t stick around too long before good walking weather settled back in.  I’d been suggesting Barf a few times over the winter as it’s not a huge climb but we knew that it was very steep and S was nervous about the route being wet and muddy so wanted to wait until there was a good chance it would be dry underfoot.  We decided that it was a good choice for today as the route keeps us away from houses and farms and there should be no sign of mud after so many weeks of dry weather.

We last climbed Barf in August 1996 when we had a holiday in Keswick with our friends C&A.  It was my second trip to the Lakes and our friends were worried they would be left for dead by someone in her early twenties – they needn’t have worried – they were of course still young themselves and will still be much fitter than me when we’re all old and grey.  I think we picked Barf for it’s daft name back then and I remember really struggling with the ascent but enjoying sandwiches and great views from the top.  I was really looking forward to tackling it for a second time.

The weather today is pretty much perfect – sunny and clear with some puffy clouds to give a break from the sunshine and a gentle cooling breeze.  It feels quite decadent heading for Keswick but the traffic is light and we make good time.  The parking areas for Blencathra along the A66 only have one or two cars in them as we pass – they would normally be crowded on a beautiful day in May but it seems people are being sensible and not all heading for the well known areas.

We reach the small hamlet of Powter How and I’m relieved to find the parking area is away from any houses tucked into the edge of the woods so we’re well away from the locals.  The nearest building is a hotel which is of course well and truly shut and deserted.

We get our boots on and pack the rucksacks and remember the walking poles this time.  We set off deeper into the trees along the footpath.  We reach a gate marking a footpath to our right and S says this is not our path, we’re carrying on to the next one.  A good decision – this first path is the route on the north side of the Gill which passes The Clerk and The Bishop – two upstanding pinnacles of rock.

The path beyond them is of very steep scree and is a mountain rescue black spot – many people try the route, often by accident, and get stuck (“crag fast” being the technical term).  Back in June 2019 Keswick Mountain Rescue team announced the placing of a new sign at the foot of the route to help prevent future call outs.  We don’t get far enough to see that sign – which from the picture on their website warns of a danger of falling rocks and directs people back over to the south side of the Gill.  There is a very small notice on the gate which warns that the path becomes very steep and loose beyond Bishop’s Rock – that seems a more direct warning than the one about falling rocks but is easy to miss because it’s so small.

Happily we’re protected by S’s good planning and navigational skills which sees him confidently ignore this path and carry on along a short stretch of road until we spot a stile just into the woodland on our right.  We clamber over the stile and start heading up the track through the forest:

1a

It looks so gentle and pleasant in the picture and while yes, it was pleasant with the sunshine streaming through the trees it was very, very steep.  How can the gradient look so innocuous in the picture?!  We trudge on up the path and hope the gradient is easier around each bend but of course it’s not.  The path is nice and dry though – S was right, it would have been a big challenge both up and down if it was wet and muddy.

We’ve climbed around 700ft when we meet a wall of rock which needs scrambling up.  S makes good progress finding careful hand and foot holds but keeps going in a straight line into the wilderness to the left of the picture:

2

I make a start below him and can see a good path above the rocks leading off to the right, and also see a small sign indicating that the footpath heads off that way.  I let S know he’s gone too far up and he has a difficult manoeuvre to turn around and descend back down to the right hand turn.  He waits just above it while I haul myself up and pick my way across a short section of smooth rock face with very little to keep you sticking to it and get across to the path with relief.  S makes the same careful move across and we’re both safely on what is now a good but steep rocky path which heads right then bends to the left and onto more forest track.

If anything the path has got steeper and there are big steps up here and there, thankfully with good solid pine trees to cling onto – although we both get our hands covered in sticky sap and start to smell like a pine bubble bath.

We then reach a junction and we turn right to join a good forest road at a gentle gradient:

3

As we look behind us we can see it snaking upwards and, as we see on the map, joins other well made paths which snake into Whinlatter Forrest and towards Thornthwaite – great paths for a descent but sadly not going anywhere near where we’ll need to end up later.

We enjoy the few hundred metres of gentle path before heading right and down to a stile and across Beckstones Gill.  At the corner we have glimpses of the views towards Skiddaw and Bassenthwaite through the trees:

3a

There is a short but steep path down to the Gill and then back up the other side and the final section of the path to the summit becomes obvious in front of us:

7

We follow the path to the edge of the ridge and see the summit just 100ft above us to the left.  There’s a couple sitting on it having their lunch.  There’s a good sitting spot down here with great views across to Keswick so we decide that we’ll stop for our lunch here so we don’t invade their space (and maintain good social distancing of course).  They are the first people we’ve seen all day.

They finish their lunch and start their descent just as we’ve finished ours and we quickly cover the final few feet to the top:

3b

It is a really beautiful spot with good views all around us, especially down towards Keswick and Derwentwater:

6

The Skiddaw range is looking magnificent to the east:

5a

And Bassenthwaite is a lovely blue in the sunshine with Binsey visible far behind it:

5

Lord’s Seat dominates the view to the west – most people would do both peaks in the day but we climbed it in late August 2017 when S was full of cold and we didn’t make the trek across here that day:

4

It’s a little windy up here but we put on an extra layer and spend an enjoyable half an hour sitting and enjoying the views, the sunshine and the peace and quiet – and also the unusually soft and comfy fern and grass mix to sit on.

A lone man passes a few metres away to reach the top and then quickly heads off down the other side – he doesn’t pause to say hello or even to enjoy the top.  We see another couple on their way from Lord’s Seat – most people seem to be doing the ridge route from there to get to Barf today which made our ascent nice and quiet.

We eventually tear ourselves away to face the steep descent ahead of us – there is no choice but to retrace our steps.  As we start on the initial path we look longingly across at the nice gentle forest road that we will only be able to enjoy for a very short section – our route goes almost vertically down through the trees:

8

We go back across the Gill and enjoy those few metres of gentle track before reaching the sharp left turn back into the trees – I can’t believe we’ve got there so soon and it looks like an abseil, but as we start heading down we get into a rhythm and it’s not quite as bad as I feared.

We reach the rock climb again and this is very challenging in reverse – S has to drop himself the last 10ft and I’m very relived when he just lands at the bottom and doesn’t start rolling downhill.

We carry on with our descent and at last I take a picture which does a better job of showing the gradient:

9

It is unrelenting but not nearly as scary as I feared and we make good progress – we’re back at the car an hour after setting off from the top which isn’t bad for us.

I’ve been wanting to revisit Barf again for a while and he didn’t disappoint – yes he’s unrelentingly steep but the views at the top very definitely make it worth while, especially on a lovely day like today.