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Langdale’s name derives from the Old Norse for ‘long valley’, and it’s been an irresistible draw for walkers since the early days of Lakeland tourism in the mid-19th century. It was a particular favourite of Alfred Wainwright, whose Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells are still the choice for many hikers. ‘No mountain profile in Lakeland arrests and excites the attention more than that of Langdale,’ he wrote in 1958, in the third book of his seven-volume series. ‘That steep ladder to heaven stirs the imagination, and even the emotions... especially so whenever the towering peaks come into view, suddenly and unexpectedly.’
Every year, thousands of walkers follow in Wainwright’s footsteps and set out to explore its famous fells – particularly the rugged chain of summits known as the Langdale Pikes, which stand guard like craggy sentinels along the valley’s northern edge and provide one of the national park’s most iconic hikes, not to mention some of its most unforgettable views.
If there’s one man who knows this valley inside out, it’s Nick Owen. He’s been tramping its trails for more than 20 years and, alongside his day job as manager of the YHA hostel in Elterwater, he’s also team leader for the Langdale and Ambleside Mountain Rescue Team, one of ten volunteer teams providing emergency assistance in the park. ‘
I must have seen every fell in Langdale from every angle over the years,’ he says, ‘but I still see something new every time I go out on the hills. That’s what makes this such a special place to hike.’
An endless web of trails crisscross the Langdale fells. Many were laid down as packhorse routes by shepherds and traders during the Middle Ages, but a few are thought to be even older. During Neolithic times, Langdale was an important centre for stone quarrying and toolmaking, and some of the valley’s paths are thought to have been established by ancient Britons to access a prehistoric ‘axe factory’, hidden away among the shattered slopes of slate beneath Pike of Stickle.
‘Langdale has a life of its own,’ Nick continues. ‘The fells can change by the minute – you can be in grey mist one moment, then hammering rain or dazzling sunshine the next. You need to keep your wits about you. Remember – the mountains are in charge and you’re just a visitor.’
As he talks, the afternoon sun casts long shadows over Langdale, burnishing the fields and fellsides a deep copper-gold. Along the horizon, two tiny figures can be seen picking their way slowly along the ridgeline – dark shapes silhouetted against an auburn sky.
Where to eat
The Eltermere Inn. This venerable country house hotel on the edge of Elterwater has been given a much-needed makeover. The pub’s a treat, with a blackboard of specials such as ham hock, chicken and wild mushroom terrine, and slow-roasted belly pork. Afternoon tea is served on the lawn overlooking the lake (lunch from £8).
Where to drink
The Britannia Inn. Perched above the village green, this inn in Elterwater makes a fine place for a post-hike pint. It has all the homely pub trappings and hosts its own beer festival. Cask ales include the pub’s own Britannia Special (ales from £3).
This slate-fronted inn in Great Langdale has been a hiker’s favourite for 300 years, and it’s still the valley’s best place for a night’s sleep. The 13 rooms are resolutely old fashioned, with well-worn furniture and floral wallpapers. Make the most of the views before heading to the Hikers Bar downstairs (from £100; odg.co.uk).