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Helvellyn from the air in December. Red Tarn (centre) is flanked by Striding Edge (left) and Swirral Edge
Elevation 950 m (3,117 ft)
Prominence 712 m (2,336 ft)
Parent peak Scafell Pike
Listing Marilyn, Hewitt, Wainwright, Historic County Top
Translation Pale yellow moorland (Cumbric)
Helvellyn is located in Lake District
Location in Lake District, Cumbria, England
Location Cumbria, England
Range Lake District, Eastern Fells
OS grid NY342151
Coordinates 54°31′38″N 3°00′58″W / 54.527232°N 3.016054°W / 54.527232; -3.016054Coordinates: 54°31′38″N 3°00′58″W / 54.527232°N 3.016054°W / 54.527232; -3.016054
Topo map OS Landrangers 90

Helvellyn (pronunciation: /hɛlˈvɛ.lɪn/) (possible meaning: pale yellow moorland) is a mountain in the English Lake District, the highest point in the Eastern Fells. At 950 m above sea level, it is the third highest peak in both the Lake District and England. The former county border between Cumberland and Westmorland lay along the Helvellyn Ridge; this meant that the summit of Helvellyn was the highest point in Westmorland.


Sketch map of the topography of Helvellyn


The top of Helvellyn is a north-west to south-east trending ridge, more than 900 m high throughout its length of about a kilometre between Lower Man and the start of Striding Edge. To the west the ground drops gently at first but then more steeply down to Thirlmere, while on the eastern side two spectacular ridges enclose a deep cove containing Red Tarn. In fact five ridges diverge from the summit ridge of Helvellyn at different points, along with two shoulders.

The north-west ridge continues from Lower Man over Browncove Crags, becoming almost insignificant when it reaches the shore of Thirlmere, yet still separating the valley of Helvellyn Gill from the reservoir, before finally rising again to the wooded height of Great How at its terminus.

The north ridge, the main ridge of the range, also descends from Lower Man, passing over White Side and Raise to Sticks Pass, then over Stybarrow Dodd and Great Dodd to terminate at Clough Head.

The north-east ridge is known as Swirral Edge, a sharp arête which joins the summit ridge at a point half-way along, and which terminates in the shapely pyramid of Catstye Cam.

The east ridge is another sharp arête known as Striding Edge. This joins the summit ridge at its southern end, not far from Helvellyn's summit. It passes over the subsidiary top of High Spying How and leads to Birkhouse Moor before descending to its final top, Keldas, beside the south end of Ullswater.

The south ridge continues the main ridge of the Helvellyn range over Nethermost Pike, High Crag and Dollywagon Pike to terminate at Grisedale Tarn.[1]

Subsidiary tops[edit]

Helvellyn and its Subsidiary Tops[2]
Name Grid Reference Height Prominence Classification

(height and prominence)


(authors’ listings)

Helvellyn NY 34246 15110 950 m 712 m Furth, Marilyn, Hewitt, Nuttall, Historic County Top Wainwright, Birkett
Lower Man NY 33745 15543 925 m 18 m Nuttall Birkett
Browncove Crags NY 33218 15682 859 m 3 m
Great How NY 31378 18719 333 m 136 m HuMP Birkett
Catstye Cam NY 34812 15822 890 m 63 m Hewitt, Nuttall Wainwright, Birkett
High Spying How NY 35062 14922 863 m 28 m Nuttall
Birkhouse Moor NY 36342 15975 718 m 9 m Nuttall Wainwright, Birkett
Keldas NY 38515 16300 311 m 35 m


Helvellyn, like much of the main ridge of the range, stands on the watershed between Thirlmere and the Derwent river system to the west, and Ullswater and the Eden river system to the east.

Streams on the west side drain directly into Thirlmere, apart from Helvellyn Gill which flows into a parallel valley to the east of Great How and empties into St John's Beck. However, when Thirlmere reservoir was built, a leat was constructed to capture the water of Helvellyn Gill, so that it is now directed into the reservoir.

Remarkably, a never-failing spring exists only 90 m below the summit of Helvellyn (about 500 m due west of the summit) at the head of Whelpside Gill.[3] In the nineteenth century a leat was constructed to direct the water of this spring into the nameless gill to its north (which Mark Richards refers to as Mines Gill,[4] though the name seems to be his own), to serve the needs of the Helvellyn Mine lower down. This leat has fallen into disuse now.

Whelp Side, between the two gills just mentioned, appears as a distinct shoulder of the mountain when seen from the west, largely grassy though with a few crags and boulders in places, and with coniferous plantations on its lower slopes which were planted to stabilise the land around the reservoir. North of the unnamed gill are the Helvellyn Screes, a more craggy stretch of hillside, beneath the north-west ridge, with a loose scree covering in places.

The eastern side of Helvellyn is far more spectacular than its western side, with three deep coves, each backed by steep cliffs, and two arêtes separating the coves. Brown Cove and Red Tarn Cove both drain into Ullswater via Glenridding Beck, while Nethermost Cove drains into the same lake via Grisedale Beck.

Helvellyn from Red Tarn

Red Tarn, enclosed between Striding Edge and Swirral Edge, is probably named from the colour of the surrounding screes rather than its water.[5] The tarn is now about 25 m deep, but in the the mid-19th century a dam was built to increase its capacity and supply the needs of the Greenside Lead Mine near Glenridding. The tarn contains brown trout and schelly, an endangered species of whitefish found in only four bodies of water in the Lake District.[6]

A second reservoir was built around 1860 in Brown Cove, between Swirral Edge and Lower Man, also to supply the needs of the lead mine. The dam is still in place, but water now leaks through the base and the extended tarn-bed is a smooth patch of luxuriant turf. It is unclear whether there was ever a natural tarn in the cove; the two small pools widening the stream probably bear little resemblance to what might once have been here.[6] Water from Brown Cove and Red Tarn unite below Catstye Cam to form Glenridding Beck, which flows through the village to Ullswater.


The whole of Helvellyn, above the conifer plantations to the west and the intake walls surrounding the valleys of Glenridding and Grisedale to the east, is Open Access land.[1]

Routes up Helvellyn can begin from the villages of Glenridding or Patterdale to the east, Grasmere to the south, or from a number of places along the A591 road to the west, and can follow any of the mountain's five ridges, or the ridges of its neighbours, as well as some of the gills and shoulders on the west side of the range. Walkers can choose between many routes.

The eastern ridges[edit]

Looking down onto Striding Edge from Helvellyn

Striding Edge is a classic scrambling route on Helvellyn, linking the summit ridge of Birkhouse Moor to Helvellyn's summit by what becomes a sharp arête.

Striding Edge begins at Hole-in-the-Wall and then stretches for over 1.5 km to the Helvellyn summit plateau. This starting point is accessible from both Glenridding and Patterdale. Hole-in-the-Wall used to be a prominent gap in the stone wall on the top of the ridge where a gate was missing.[7] Today the gap has been filled in and a ladder stile crosses the wall. From here the initial part of the ridge is relatively rounded and has a good path running along the right hand side. This changes upon reaching High Spying How, the highest point on the ridge (863 m). At this point a narrow path continues close to the top of the ridge, which becomes increasingly narrow, and scramblers will often follow the very top of the arête.

The path on the right hand side continues until near the end of the ridge where it switches over to the left hand side. Scramblers who continue on the top of the ridge are forced to descend an awkward short gully down from the final tower to rejoin the path.[3] At this point the ridge connects with the main Helvellyn massif. Reaching the summit plateau involves a steep walk or scramble up about 80 m of rough rocky terrain, known as the Abyss by W. A. Poucher.[7] From the top of this climb it is an easy two hundred metres to the summit. In winter a snow cornice often forms here and can represent the most dangerous part of the walk.

Striding Edge is a notorious accident spot among hikers and scramblers. In winter conditions the climb from Striding Edge up to the summit plateau can involve an icy traverse of a dangerous cornice. Without an ice axe or crampons this presents a serious obstacle. In January 2008 two walkers died after falling from the ridge in separate incidents.[8] Another walker died after falling from Striding Edge in May 2008.[9]

A panoramic view of the ascent of Helvellyn with Striding Edge on the left, then a steep scramble to the summit followed by a scrambling descent via Swirral Edge on the right, leading to Catstycam.
A 360 degree view from the middle of Striding Edge. Helvellyn is the highest summit just to the right of centre. Red Tarn is on the right and Ullswater and the village of Glenridding are visible on the horizon along the far left corner

Swirral Edge offers a shorter but equally exciting scramble along a similar sharp arête. The main path to it comes up from Red Tarn, which is linked by a surprisingly level path to Hole-in-the-Wall, making this ridge equally accessible from Patterdale as from Glenridding. The ridge walk can be extended to include the summit of Catstye Cam.

The climb up or down from the summit plateau onto Swirral Edge is another well known accident spot. In winter it involves climbing down another cornice onto steep icy ground. There have been a number of accidents at this spot in recent years, making it as dangerous as Striding Edge.

Nethermost Pike also has an east ridge which gives an alternative route to Helvellyn from Grisedale, which many walkers overlook. It can be combined with a scramble on Eagle Crag, or this part can be bypassed by taking the path to Nethermost Cove before joining the ridge.[3][10]

Other approaches from the east[edit]

From Patterdale a long but safe and easy walk (11.5 km) on a good path follows the track up Grisedale to the tarn, and then takes the old pony track up the south ridge of Helvellyn. The second part of this walk takes a safe route well away from crags on the side of the ridge (see The south ridge below.)[3]

From Glenridding a similar long but safe and easy walk (11.5 km) follows Greenside Road, past the old lead mine and towards Keppel Cove. This track, another old pony track, then zig-zags up the fellside to join the main ridge path at the col between Raise and White Side.[3][4]

The south ridge[edit]

Grisedale Tarn is the starting point for the south ridge of Helvellyn, and may be reached from Grasmere or Patterdale, or from Dunmail Raise by a path alongside Raise Beck. Above the tarn the old pony track zig-zags up the fellside, and takes a safe but unexciting route well away from crags on the side of the ridge, and avoiding all the intermediate tops. In suitable weather a more interesting and scenic route is to follow the edge of the crags as closely as possible, over the tops of Dollywagon Pike, High Crag and Nethermost Pike.[3]

The western approaches[edit]

Shorter and quicker routes to the top of Helvellyn, though with less attractive scenery, begin from several points along the A591 road along the west side of the mountain. Two of these may be combined to create a circular walk. And, incorporating the south ridge in the route can restore much of the scenic interest.

Stannah, near Legburthwaite, is the starting point for the bridleway to Sticks Pass, from which Helvellyn can be approached along the main ridge track from the north.[7] Dorothy Wordsworth recorded a glorious day in October 1800 when she rode to Legburthwaite and returned home to Grasmere over Helvellyn taking this route.[11]

From Thirlspot two routes lead up Helvellyn. The old pony route took a very safe and steady route for the benefit of early visitors, who took horses and a guide from the inn. The route traverses the flank of White Side to join the ridge at the col just below Lower Man.[4] The other route, known as the White Stones Route, originally marked by stones painted white, crosses the fellside at a lower level and fords Helvellyn Gill to join the path from Swirls.[3]

Swirls is the start of the most direct route to the top of Helvellyn, "the modern pedestrian highway"[4] which has been paved where necessary. It zig-zags up the fellside above Helvellyn Gill, over Browncove Crags and joins the main ridge at Lower Man.

Several possible routes begin at Wythburn Church. A bridleway winds up the fellside, over Comb Crags and traverses the slopes of Nethermost Pike to arrive on the ridge at Swallow Scarth, the col just below Helvellyn. In William Wordsworth’s 1810 guidebook Guide to the Lakes he suggests "Helvellyn may be conveniently ascended from the Inn at Wythburn." Other routes from Wythburn follow Comb Gill or Whelpside Gill, or Middle Tongue between these two gills.[4] The shortest route of all follows the unnamed gill past the old lead mine, better as a descent. Wainwright warned walkers with weak ankles to avoid it.[3]

Longer routes[edit]

Helvellyn may be included in a traverse of the full length of the Helvellyn range in either direction, but with a greater sense of climax when starting from the north.[10] Most of the ridge track is a bridleway and so the route can be completed by mountain bike in a challenging six-hour circular route of 16 miles off-road and 10 miles on-road riding. This may begin (and finish) at Mill Bridge near Grasmere.

Helvellyn can also be included in a circular walk from Patterdale: up Striding Edge, down to Grisedale Tarn and back over St Sunday Crag.[10]

Fell top assessors[edit]

The Lake District national park authority has two 'Fell top assessors' who ascend Helvellyn daily during the winter months of December to March.[12] Their job is to check the weather conditions at the summit and write a report containing information such as temperature, windchill, windspeed, snowdepth, and any dangers such as unstable snow or avalanche hazard and icy footpaths. This report is put on the Weatherline, which is a Met Office mountain weather forecast and is available on the internet, by telephone and at local shops and tourist information centres.[13] This information is important for people who go out winter hillwalking and climbing as it can help them plan their routes and to get an idea of the mountain conditions.

Camping on Helvellyn[edit]

Because of the picturesque scenery that Helvellyn offers, many people camp on Helvellyn throughout the year. Many campers will set up camp around Red Tarn as this gives the best views of Striding Edge, Red Tarn, and the summit of Helvellyn itself.

The weather should be taken into consideration when deciding to camp on Helvellyn. The weather can change suddenly, mist is also a problem at times. Although wild camping often is tolerated in the upland areas of the Lake District, camping wild is not legal without the permission of the landowner.[14] No trace of the campsite should be left: this includes litter, ground disturbance, and human waste.


The summit, looking north-west

The summit of Helvellyn takes the form of a broad plateau about 500 metres (1,640 ft) long. The highest point is marked by a cairn and a cross-shaped dry stone shelter; to the north is an Ordnance Survey trig point, slightly lower than the summit at 949 m (3,114 ft).

There is a subsidiary top, Helvellyn Lower Man, about a third of a mile to the north-west. Its summit is small compared to the plateau of Helvellyn and offers better views north-westward, as the ground falls steeply away from it on this side.


Geologically, the summit area and Striding Edge are formed by the Deepdale formation of the Borrowdale Volcanic Group. This consists of volcaniclastic sandstone with some intercalated tuff, pebbley sandstone breccia, and lapilli-tuff. Underlying this is the Helvellyn formation of dacitic lapilli-tuff.[15]


Wordsworth on Helvellyn (1842) by Benjamin Robert Haydon

Helvellyn is strongly associated with the poet William Wordsworth, who used to climb the mountain regularly. Benjamin Robert Haydon's painting Wordsworth on Helvellyn epitomises Romanticism in portraiture. In a sonnet that celebrates both Wordsworth and Haydon, John Keats speaks of the former "on Helvellyn's summit, wide awake..."[16] Wordsworth wrote about the mountain several times. In particular he commemorated the death of the artist, Charles Gough, a tourist in the Lake District. Gough set out with his dog to cross Striding Edge to reach the peak of Helvellyn. He perished there and his dog stood at his side for three months before his corpse was found. A plaque commemorating this event can be found close to the peak.

The somewhat flat summit made the first British mountain-top landing of a plane possible, when John F. Leeming and Bert Hinkler successfully landed and took off again, in 1926. An academic, E.R. Dodds (1893–1979), Professor of Greek at the University of Birmingham, recorded the event, signing an old bill (receipt) to that effect, before they took off again. The event is marked by a slate which reads: "The first aeroplane to land on a mountain in Great Britain did so on this spot. On December 22nd 1926 John Leeming and Bert Hinkler in an AVRO 585 Gosport landed here and after a short stay flew back to Woodford".

The western slopes bear witness to historic mining activity. Helvellyn (or Wythburn) mine operated from 1839 until 1880, after which the land was acquired for the Thirlmere reservoir scheme. Four levels can be found along the course of Mines Gill, from where lead was extracted. Despite the sizeable workings the venture was never a commercial success[17]


Helvellyn. The earliest known record of the name dates from 1577, but early records are spelling variations of the modern name rather than any help with the etymology.[5] Various attempts to interpret the name have been made in the past. W G Collingwood in 1918 tried to derive it from Old Norse elements, but unconvincingly. Richard Coates in 1988 proposed a Celtic derivation from the deduced Cumbric word hal, "moorland", and velin, the Cumbric equivalent of the Welsh word melyn meaning "yellow."[5]

Recent place-name studies have accepted the "yellow moorland" derivation, but have struggled to understand how Helvellyn can be regarded as a yellow mountain.[5][18] Colour, in the Celtic languages, is perceived differently from the way it is seen and described in modern English. For example, in Scottish Gaelic the spectrum of colours was "pastel rather than primary, gentle rather than bold."[19] Colours were related to a landscape context in which blues, greens, greys and whites in particular were both more diverse and more differentiated than in English. People who relied on the system of transhumance for their livelihood gained the ability to assess the nutritional value of upland grasses from a distance before moving their stock to a summer shieling, and used appropriate colour terms for grasses which would become progressively more green as the spring advanced.[20]:195 Yellow, at least in Gaelic, is not a bright colour. It describes hills which are distinguished by grasses such as Nardus stricta and Deschampsia flexuosa, both of which appear pale and bleached in winter.[20]:197 Both of these grasses are common on the Helvellyn range, in an area where transhumance also used to be practiced. Nardus stricta in particular is an unpalatable and unproductive grass, and the Flora of Cumbria specifically notes a possible connection between areas of late snow cover and Nardus grassland at high altitudes in the Helvellyn range.[21] A name describing the mountain as "pale yellow moorland" is therefore meaningful in a Celtic context.

Striding Edge. An edge in mountain place-names is a steep escarpment, on either one side or (as here) on both sides.[5]:396 The first reference to Striding Edge was by Walter Scott in 1805 as Striden-edge. A map of 1823 called it Strathon Edge. It is possible that "Striding Edge" has replaced an earlier name, now lost.[5]

Swirral Edge may be either "The precipitous ridge that causes giddiness" or "The precipitous ridge where the wind or snow swirls around."[18] An edge is a steep escarpment, as above.[5]:396 Swirrel, a dialect variation of "swirl" has two possible explanations. It can be used to mean "giddiness, vertigo", but it can also be used of a place in the mountains where wind or snow swirls around.[5]


  1. ^ a b Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 Explorer map
  2. ^ "Database of British and Irish Hills". Retrieved 23 June 2014. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Alfred Wainwright (2003) [1955]. "Helvellyn". A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells Book 1: The Eastern Fells. London: Frances Lincoln. ISBN 0711222274. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Mark Richards (2008) [2003]. "Helvellyn". Near Eastern Fells. Milnthorpe: Cicerone Press. ISBN 978-1-852845414. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Diana Whaley (2006). A Dictionary of Lake District Place-Names. Nottingham: English Place-Name Society. ISBN 0-904889-72-6. 
  6. ^ a b Don Blair (2003). Exploring Lakeland Tarns. Keswick: Lakeland Manor. ISBN 0-9543904-1-5. 
  7. ^ a b c W A Poucher (1983) [1960]. The Lakeland Peaks (ninth ed.). London: Constable. ISBN 0094654506. 
  8. ^ BBC News (14 January 2008): "Walkers warned after fells deaths"
  9. ^ The Cumberland News (7 May 2008): "Tributes to 300 ft fall walker Sid"
  10. ^ a b c Bob Allen (2005) [1987]. On High Lakeland Fells (revised ed.). London: Frances Lincoln. ISBN 0711225273. 
  11. ^ Dorothy Wordsworth (1991). Dorothy Wordsworth's illustrated Lakeland journals. London: HarperCollins. ISBN 0261660020. 
  12. ^ Fell Top Assessor: Behind the Scenes with Jon Bennett
  13. ^ *Lake District weather forecast with daily weather report from Helvellyn December to March
  14. ^ http://www.lakedistrict.gov.uk/visiting/wheretostay/wildcamping
  15. ^ Woodhall, DG: Geology of the Keswick District- a brief explanation of the geological map. 1:50,000 Sheet 29: British Geological Survey (2000)
  16. ^ http://www.bartleby.com/126/27.html
  17. ^ John Adams (1995). Mines of the Lake District Fells. Skipton: Dalesman. ISBN 0852069316. 
  18. ^ a b Robert Gambles (2013). Lake District Place Names. Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria: Hayloft Publishing Ltd. ISBN 1-904524-92-3. 
  19. ^ Peter Drummond, cited in John Murray, The Gaelic Landscape (see below)
  20. ^ a b John Murray (2014). The Gaelic Landscape. Dunbeath, Caithness: Whittles Publishing. ISBN 978-1849951005. 
  21. ^ Geoffrey Halliday (1997). A Flora of Cumbria. Lancaster: The Centre for North-West Regional Studies. ISBN 1-862200203. 

External links[edit]