Are you scared of heights? Even slightly nervous around cliff edges? Then look away now. For in the heart of the English Lake District there is a place where you can climb high up a mountain face by metal rungs, ladders and bridges – just for fun.
Yes at Honister Slate Mine there is a Via Ferrata – Italian for Iron Way – inspired by the popular mountain climbing route of similar construction that traverses the Dolomites in northern Italy. Surely it must be easier in England’s Lake District though, I foolishly thought. Next thing I knew, I was being strapped into a harness, helmet on head, and being sent over the edge of a precipice. I looked down to see a metal ladder descending to seemingly nowhere. Our guide, Adam, had a no-nonsense disposition and he seemed to particularly enjoy picking on us city folk among the group. “Down you go Rachel” he said in his lilting Cumbrian accent with a wry grin.
Luckily, we would be attached to 2 caribenas at all times and Adam had given a thorough safety run-through. So I clipped on my caribenas and down I went. As I got nearer the bottom of the ladder and realised that next I had to step out to my right onto a mere metal rung, I had my first freeze. I was only too aware of the gaping gorge behind me, and little metal bars did not feel sufficient underfoot. “Give us a smile, Rachel!” Adam yelled from above. I gripped tighter and peered up to see him taking photos of us. “Now on you go!” he hollered cheerfully. Cursing the day I thought the Via Ferrata would be an enjoyable thing to do, I tremblingly stepped out. Now I was at a corner of jagged rock – the next rung was round the other side of it, so we were required to take a leap of faith and swing a leg blindly round the corner to find the next foothold. Another freeze for me.
There was his voice again: “You alright Rachel?” “Do I look alright?” I stammered back as loud as I could. Clear and confident directions from Adam got me past this hurdle, but now I could see the full stretch ahead of me – metal rungs heading into the gorge, culminating with yet another ladder, going up this time.
“Watch out for that ladder!” called Adam – “Some of the rungs are known to pop out!” We all nodded in solemn acceptance until we realised he was teasing us.
I don’t know how I got through, but somehow I did. Then a whole new level of fun was ahead of us: we were to ascend what was essentially – following that morning’s heavy rain – a waterfall. At points I found I had my knee by my ear, water gushing down my sleeve as I reached up, desperately grappling for anything that would get me up and out of here – and fast.
After that, it was a bit more civilised – a gentler ascent up past the old miners’ ‘village’ where they slept in caves and sent the slate down in carts on a purpose-built tramway. After cutting through one such caves, we emerged triumphant at the top of the mountain. And what a view! As we walked back down the mountain, solid ground pleasingly beneath our feet, we quizzed Adam about the perils of the Via Ferrata. He explained how the perceived danger is much higher than the reality. He had been doing it for years and never known anyone to fall. Freezing was more common, but the guides are always able to talk people round it. Am I glad I did it? Most definitely! Would I do it again? Most definitely not!
Travel to the Lake District from London easily, with trains running from London Euston to Penrith for the north of the area within 3 hours, or to Oxenholme where you can change for Windermere, with a journey time of around 3 hours. Rail tickets are cheaper if booked in advance.
The region is very close to England’s key Northern cities of Manchester and Liverpool, both with international airports. All the usual car rental companies are in the main towns of the Lake District. I stayed at The Leathes Head Hotel, which is a short drive from Honister. For more on the Lake District, see the local tourist board website, Go Lakes.