One of the best named fell walks in the Lake District, the Old Man of Coniston has an allure to hikers that goes beyond its unique title. Towering over the small town of Coniston, the fell draws the eye immediately.
It's a track that I (Joe) climbed on a family holiday 20 years ago and was keen to go back to. Back then it seemed a lot easier!
It is a picturesque walk with tarns, sweeping valleys and remnants of old copper mines.
"Although cruelly scarred and mutilated by quarries, the Old Man has retain a dignified bearing and still raises his proud and venerable head to the sky. His tears are shed quietly into Low Water and Goats Water, two splendid tarns, whence, in due course... find their way into Coniston's lake, and there bathe his ancient feet."
Alfred Wainwright, "A Pictorial Guide to the Lake Lake Fells, Book Four: The Southern Fells"
Wainwright said there were decayed skeletons along the track as well (from the miners, not hikers 😂), but we didn't see them!
The Old Man of Coniston Walk
Old Man of Coniston Height & Difficulty
At 2,633 feet (803 metres), Coniston Old Man is one of the higher fells in the Lake District. There are several possible routes to the summit, though two are used most frequently (these are the ones we took).
The difficulty of this track depends on whether you want the short steep route, or the long gradual route.
Low Water Route: Apple Watch Says
The route via Low Water (details below) is significantly steeper than the track that passes Goat's Water.
It is relentless in its gradient, giving barely any flat ground to catch your breath! The path is quite wide and has only a few sections of scrambling though, so it's a great option for getting to the top in the least amount of time.
Goat's Water Route: Apple Watch Says
We used the Goat's Water route to descend as it was a longer, flatter route which was easier overall.
You can therefore make a lovely circuit or if you are worried about the gradient on the steeper route just use the flatter option both ways. This is the way that almost all dog walkers take.
Overall, the track is harder (in terms of longer climbing time required) than some of the smaller fells such as Catbells and Helm Crag, but can be done by most people of average fitness. As with most of the fells in the Lake District, some scrambling can make it a little tricky underfoot and possibly be a little vertigo inducing. If you're worried about this try a smaller fell first.
We took four hours to complete the entire track, but went at a leisurely pace, taking a lot of photos. If you give yourself enough time, we believe most people could hike the Old Man.
The Wainwright Route
As well as the Low Water and Goat's Water routes, Wainwright discusses a third option via Boo Tarn. This was his preference as it avoided the quarries and was a lot quieter. The track isn't very obvious and required map reading and navigating from cairn to cairn.
Fearing our ability to navigate a track that wasn't clear, we took his second favourite option going up via Low Water and down by Goat's Water. Despite it being the choice of "courting couples, troops of Boy Scouts, babies and grandmothers, the lot", Wainwright does recommend it for its safety in all weather and the beautiful scenery (especially around Low Water Tarn).
His final route (the flatter route) can be used to create a loop back to the start. This is down the side which Wainwright describes as being rather featureless, but that's fine for the way down!
We highly recommend buying Wainwright’s Guide to the Southern Fells on Amazon (link below). It’s a beautifully written and illustrated guide that gives you an in-depth and intimate feel for Coniston Old Man and this whole area of Lakeland.
Our hike up the Old Man of Coniston
The Start: Walna Scar Car Park
The best place to start is by driving up to Walna Scar Car Park, skipping the unnecessary steep climb up from Coniston town centre.
It's a pretty big car park, so it's unlikely you'll have to worry about getting a space. We managed to find a spot on a stunning August afternoon.
From here take the path that follows the dry stone wall near the gate, heading north. The track at first is relatively flat, wide and easy under foot, winding up a hill before the big climb starts.
Climbing the Old Man of Coniston
After a short distance everything changes: the track turns to rubble and gets pretty steep, barely giving any relief until the summit.
There are a few derelict building foundations from the mining days and there are still some pretty huge cables that cross the track.
It's hard to escape the feeling that you're walking around a Victorian Quarry that had been devastated by an earthquake. You can explore the old buildings and see how the people who worked in them were blessed with some of the best views you could ever hope (although I imagine the working conditions were horrific).
The first bit of relief from the steady uphill climb comes from the stunning tarn: Low Water.
This tarn is set just below the summit and is an incredibly beautiful area. Whilst Wainwright describes it as "a good place for giving up and going to sleep", we'd more aptly describe it as a place to revive from the hefty climb.
It would be the perfect place to have a swim on a hot summer's day. However, we were focused on getting to the top.
From Low Water you can see the path zig zag continuously until it reaches a ridge which still looks like it's a good mile above you, hardly the motivation you'd be looking for!
Getting to the Summit
Once you've navigated the zig zag tracks (each of which has a better view of the tarn and surrounding fells than the last), the track disappears and it's a short rocky scramble to the top.
It looked like no one had a clear idea of where the track was as everyone took a different route on this rocky climb, heading up to the final cairn. It's not too long, and if you're fairly sure on your feet will pose no problem at all.
The summit of Coniston Old Man is a wide and flat plateau with an elevated cairn and a small pillar outlining which fells you can see in the distance.
Back when I was 13, I chose the grassy plateau as a place to rest and wait for the rest of my family to catch up, taking a nap to pass the time.
When an hour had passed and there were still people climbing (sorry Mum, you've been outed) I decided to wake up and press on back down!
Looking back, the nap was a waste of a stunning view. From the ridge and summit you can see as far as Morecambe Bay, you have the sea on one side and the distant fells in the other.
You can also look down on Lake Coniston and see just how high you've climbed. It is a view worth giving some time to really study.
The hike down
From the summit you can immediately see an alluring ridge line heading north, with dramatic drops either side.
After walking over this beautiful ridge you'll see Dow Crag and the other Coniston Fells come into view.
The track turns left (you can't miss it), before descending again and turning left towards Goat's Water. From here the land temporarily gets a lot rockier, with almost the entirety of the western side of Goat's Water to the top of Dow Crag being rubble.
The path navigates the eastern side of the tarn and is pretty good until the middle section. At this point the track requires some (easy) boulder climbing for about 50 - 100 metres, before turning into a track again.
The grassy plains back
The track back to Walna Scar car park from the summit is significantly longer, but also flatter than the track up. After navigating round Goats Water, the track seems to gradually descend through grassy plains looking back to Lake Coniston.
There is the occasional rocky drop, but they are pretty minor. You'll share this section of track with a lot more sheep.
Whilst Wainwright didn't rate this route, we found it extremely pretty and always prefer a loop track to returning along the same route. Before long, the path leads directly into Walna Scar Car Park.
Coniston to Coniston Old Man
Whilst you can start the walk from Coniston, we wouldn't recommend it. You can walk up to Walna Scar Car Park, but it is alongside a single lane road and incredibly steep. Whilst there are some fields to look at, the majority of the hike to the top is boxed in by trees.
Walking from Coniston adds on an additional two miles (return) to your walk and you'll have to pay the car parking charges in town (Walna Scar Car Park is free).
However, if this doesn't put you off, then head towards The Sun Inn (located on the map below). From here, follow the road that continues uphill.
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