A walk to Eel Tarn, Eskdale, Lake District

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Eel Tarn, a glacial lake on top of a hill in Lake District’s Eskdale, is as beautiful as they say it is.

The village of Boot in Eskdale is a hub for hikers and mountain-walkers, providing a gateway to some of Lake District’s most spectacular fells. But an injured foot meant that I could not take on a long hike. While planning our visit, my partner Kshitij and I made note of Eel Tarn on the map, which was only a mile away from Boot. If we didn’t end up walking the fells, we said, we would sit by the shores of this lake and eat crisps. It sounded like an excellent idea.

After spending half a day walking in the Eskdale valley, we tucked into a good lunch at the Brookhouse Inn. On the way back, I saw a sign that said it was a mile to Eel Tarn. I decided to follow the sign while Kshitij said that he would join me later. For some reason it had completely slipped my mind that a tarn meant a “mountain lake”, I kept imagining a Wastwater-like lake in the valley.

The path was gently sloping upwards but was very mucky in parts from the previous day’s rains. I realized I was gaining considerable height after a while, and I assumed that I would have to climb down this hill on the other side to get to the lake. I startled a couple of sheep along the way, who looked annoyed at having their peaceful afternoon disturbed. Looking back I could see Gill Force snaking its way down through the large brown mountains. The light of the sun made the grassy meadow below shine. I love this about the Lake District: green squares of farm full of grazing sheep, like white billiard balls on a pool table.

Looking at Eskdale en route Eel Tarn

The walk got steeper, and as I climbed, I kept looking back at the view, which only got better. At some point, I encountered a morose sheep sitting on the path, which started baa-ing loudly at me. It just sat there, refusing to move. I even said hello to it, hoping that it would politely give way, but it looked pretty threatening (as threatening as sheep can look). I considered baa-ing back even louder in an effort to establish authority, but decided a squabble with a sheep was unnecessary. I walked around it and it followed me for a while, which made me feel like I had won.

I then came across a small stream that bubbled down into the valley. It was most unpleasant to walk on the slush in inappropriate shoes. I had given my hiking boots to Kshitij as I’d assumed I didn’t need them just to walk a mile to a ground-level lake. The mud was very loose and I kept slipping. Large fern fronds, red and brown, arched towards me. After twenty minutes of walking, I saw no sign of any lake in the valley below, and I was quite sure that I was lost.

I was grateful when I saw a couple sitting by the old peat hut about halfway up the hill. I asked them if they knew where Eel Tarn was and they looked quite blank and said that they were lost and were trying to find their way back to Woolpack Inn. I gave them directions and the lady said, “Good luck, love,” which I clearly needed.

It started to drizzle now, and I was started to doubt my navigation skills. As I walked on, my foot got stuck in the mud. I yanked my leg, and my foot obliged, leaving my shoe firmly fixed in the ground. I retrieved mud-covered shoe, and realized that my socks were soaking wet and my toes were as cold as ice. If you’re looking to do this walk, please wear sensible hiking boots. I stumbled on to the top of the hill, and was perplexed to find no sign of any lake. I settled down on a rock, thinking I might as well relax till the rain stopped. I looked at everything around me: the green-brown fells, the sunlit valley (in spite of the rain), the sheep. And for a moment the world went quiet: the sheep stopped baa-ing, the rain cleared up, the grasshoppers stopped chirping. It was a window for recalibration, for peace. I realized I didn’t mind not making it to the tarn: the walk in itself had been fun so far.

Taking a minute to recalibrate

I wondered if Kshitij was on his way with aforementioned crisps and possibly a bar of chocolate which I now felt I deserved. So imagine my delight when I stood up and saw a small figure with a backpack making its way up the hill. Oi! I yelled and waved frantically. In another few mitnues we were reconciled like long-lost lovers, and I found renewed hope. After some exploring, we managed to find this lake.

Eel Tarn is everything you read about online (“picturesque”, “idyllic”, “artists’ paradise”) and much more. Once I got over the initial surprise of it being at the very top of the hill, I realized it was much larger than I had expected it to be. The waters were steel grey, surrounded by rust-coloured grass and hills. Though it looked very inviting, I decided to wait for warmer weather to swim in it. We sat on the rocky outcrop beside the tarn, watching the landscape in awe, the crisps and chocolate completely forgotten.

Eel Tarn: a glacial bowl of water on top of the hill
Beautiful colours!

We reluctantly left, making our way down the hill through the steeper route that leads almost directly to the Woolpack Inn. From Eel Tarn you can walk further to Stony Tarn and the more intriguing Burnmoor Tarn, and there’s even a route to Wast Water, but that’s for next time.

I’ve always climbed hills for spectacular view of the valleys, I’ve rarely climbed a hill expecting to see something at its summit. I used to think think that large glacial pools were only found in mountains like the Himalayas or the Alps. I’ve always associated the Lake District with views of lakes nestled in valleys, surrounded by mountains. But now I know there are deep-blue glacial pools sitting on top of these mountains too. Tarns of Lakeland, here I come.

For more info see Woolpack Inn’s directions here.

Also read: Blea Tarn, Little Langdale: A Lake District gem

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