A“proper little mountain”, a “family fell’, a “mountain in miniature”. If ever there was a hill to be fond of, it’s Cat Bells.
The iconic peak – believed to be a distortion of ‘Cat Bields’, meaning ‘the home of the wild cat’ – sits enticingly above the town of Keswick and Derwent Water. It’s universally loved, and for good reason – the panoramic views of the Lake District from its summit are the perfect introduction to the national park’s mirror-like lakes, wild mountains and lush valleys.
“It is one of the great favourites, a family fell where grandmothers and infants can climb the heights together, a place beloved,” wrote great lover of the Lakes Alfred Wainwright. “Its popularity is well deserved; its shapely topknott attracts the eye offering a steep but obviously simple scramble.”
Its popularity means that Cat Bells isn’t as isolated as some of the other fells (although, if you do want the summit all to yourself, try setting off at dawn). It’s worth sharing the trail, though – I’ve never climbed a hill that rewards the hiker more richly in views than Cat Bells. On your left, the clear blue lake of Derwent Water is dotted with sailing boats that look more and more like toys as you ascend. On your right, magnificent fells roll away into the distance. And, with the exception of a short, steep path at the start and a brief scramble to the summit, Cat Bells is easy to climb and simple to navigate – perfect for old legs, little legs and the four-legged alike.
Before climbing it, I like to make a pilgrimage to Friar’s Crag, a vista on the opposite side of Derwent Water, just outside Keswick. The view of Cat Bells’ undulating humps opposite, strikingly reflected in the lake’s surface, is the perfect appetiser to an ascent of the fell.
Our route begins in Hawse End. There’s a (busy) car park here, but for a more relaxing start, head to Keswick Landings and catch a boat anti-clockwise around the lake – you’ll be at your starting point in 10 minutes. There’s also a direct launch every morning at 9.45 that runs specifically for walkers.
From Hawse End, you’ll see the sheer mass of the fells right in front of you, and a sign reading ‘Cat Bells, 1 Mile’ pointing up the trail. Follow the narrow stone path as it begins to climb. The route is clear, leading on to a wide ridge.
With each step, the views become increasingly striking, and it’s not long before Derwent Water opens up in the valley below, dotted with sailing crafts and ringed on all sides by lush fells.
Holiday on a hill
Keep climbing and you’ll pass a memorial to Thomas Arthur Leonard, a pioneer in developing organised outdoor holidays for working people.
The path is straightforward, right until you reach the rocky summit, where there’s a bit of a scramble to reach the hilltop proper. It’s worth the extra effort to stand on the very top of Cat Bells. Despite being a modest 451m high, it offers panoramic views of water, mountains and valleys – a pocket Lake District.
To the north, Skiddaw and the wide saddleback of Blencathra dominate the skyline. Nestled below them is Keswick, tiny and gleaming white from this distance. While behind the summit lie the fells of Maiden Moor and High Spy. These tall, green peaks may be dream Wainwright country, but the gentle valleys that slope down from the mountains are the land of Beatrix Potter. The author rambled here in the early 1900s, and based Squirrel Nutkin on the red squirrels that still live in the woods, while imagined Mrs Tiggy Winkle lived behind a small wooden door built into the side of the mountain itself.
Once your eyes have had their fill, the wide grassy patch by the summit is a lovely place to stop and have a picnic. Be warned – rumour has it that the resident sheep are now so used to hikers that they like to get in on the lunch action, investigating the sandwiches of unaware ramblers.
You’re pretty unlikely to have the summit to yourself, but I’ve always found it full of friendly hikers, all stupefied by that tremendous view. Once I watched a paraglider hike to the crest and then launch himself off the mountain, adding a splash of bright colour to the landscape as he rode the winds into the valley below.
Onwards from the summit, the path continues south, now heading downhill. A number of tracks lead off to your right to Little Town and the neighbouring valley – ignore these and stay on the path until you come to a set of steep stone steps. Follow these down until you reach a path forking to the left – this is the Cat Bells bridleway.
Along the lake
The path hugs the side of the range all the way back to Hawse End, and while it doesn’t boast the epic views of the higher trail, it’s still very beautiful, with a pretty stretch of woodland clinging to the edge of the lake below you.
If the water is too enticing, branch off at the point where the trail meets the road and go for a paddle. Here, cross the road and follow a path to the small beach at High Brandelhow. Otherwise, simply continue on the bridleway and you’ll soon find yourself back at Hawse End, tired-legged with a proper little mountain conquered.
Click on the OS Map below for an interactive version of this route.