Walk: Old Man of Coniston, Cumbria

Walk beside high tarns and copper-mining relics to a magical fell-top vista in the Lake District National Park


The village of Coniston, an attractive little spot bisected by the bustling waters of a mountain stream, sits near the northern end of beautiful Coniston Water in Cumbria. 

Coniston Water – the third largest waterbody in the Lake District – sits beneath The Old Man’s russet-coloured slopes on a sunny day in autumn ©Alamy

It is an area that was made famous for Victorian tourists by John Ruskin, who has a grandiose memorial in the churchyard. There are still memories of those days in the rebuilt elegant 19th-century steam yacht gondola that offers regular trips on the lake. 

Historic home of the artist and writer John Ruskin (1819 - 1900) Coniston Water, Lake District, Cumbria.  Now preserved as a museum.
The historic home of the artist and writer John Ruskin (1819 – 1900) has been preserved as a museum ©Getty

The village was here long before visitors discovered the delights of the picturesque scenery, for this was originally a mining village, and the walk up the Old Man of Coniston reveals both these aspects of Lakeland life: the wild beauty and the all-but-forgotten industrial past. 

There are two great advantages to choosing the Old Man as a Lakeland summit: it doesn’t involve any climbing or mountaineering skills (though as with all high level walks, weather conditions can make a huge difference); and you don’t have to retrace your footsteps, adding to the variety of the scenic views. 

There are two ways to start the walk. Those staying in Coniston itself, who prefer to do everything on foot, can walk out from the centre of the village. Or you can drive a short way to a car park at the foot of the hill. This description provides directions for the more energetic who prefer two feet to four wheels.

 1. Mining ways

The walk leaves Coniston via Station Hill. The road was once a line to the local railway station, before falling victim to the Beeching Axe, an initiative that saw cuts to the rail network. The route continues straight up the road towards the car park at Fell Gate. Just before reaching that point, turn right on to the rough track, originally used to bring slate down from the hillside. Extensive mining remains can be seen on the slope to the left of the track. 

2. Metal valley

Follow the gentle hill until a track joins in from the right. This path has come up from Coppermines Valley, a name that tells you exactly what was going on down there. 

Coniston Coppermine, Lake District, England
Coniston Coppermine, Lake District, England ©Getty
3. High in the sky

Now the route to the summit turns sharply to the left through a complex of old slate workings, becoming notably steeper. Soon, Low Water Tarn comes into view, its waters often a startlingly bright blue colour due to the copper ore in the surrounding rocks. From the tarn, the path turns left and zigzags up hill, ending with a steep climb to the summit, marked by a tall cairn. 

This is a good place to pause and take in the spectacular views, dominated to the north by the distinctive shape of the Langdale Pikes. It is also worth looking up to the sky – red kites have been successfully reintroduced in the area, unmistakable with their rufous plumage and triangular tail.

4. Top to tarn

Enjoy an exhilarating walk along the summit ridge to the obvious path that looks down on to a steep stony slope. The rocks of Dow Crag rise above the combe. Turn left to take the path down to Goat’s Water, skirting left around the tarn. 

View towards Dow Crag and Goats Water from Coniston in the English Lake District Cumbria.
View towards Dow Crag and Goats Water from Coniston in the English Lake District Cumbria. ©Getty
5. Beer, Food and Bed

Join the very clear track down to Walna Scar Road. Turn left here and, where the road divides, take the obvious route to the right to return to Fell Gate and the road back into Coniston. Stop at the Black Bull Inn for a well-earned meal, a pint from their microbrewery and a comfortable bed.

Find out more about the Lake District, including the national park’s best walks.


Main image ©Alamy