There was something about the mountain spring that made me relax. I was alone, sitting on spongy grass, somewhere on the western slopes of the Lake District’s Helvellyn mountain. I had chased away two glugging Herdwick sheep that regarded the water source as their own, and I was now listening to the sounds of outdoor life around me. The curlew overhead, a sheepdog in the valley, and the herd of cows protesting that it was time for milking. Yet the dominant sound was the gurgle of the spring beside me, they call it Brownrigg Well, gushing clear water from the very innards of powerful Helvellyn. Brownrigg has never run dry and some say it carries England’s purest water.
The spring is often missed by casual walkers who reach Helvellyn’s summit along the well-trodden tracks that pass nearby. Brownrigg is difficult to find, as it is recessed low into the ground and sits on a featureless slope. There is no reason to go there unless you are thirsty. It is where dehydrated mountaineers can slurp much-needed water, if they can find it, with wind and rain all around and mist that makes viewing impossible. Lake District weather is not always friendly although for me the weather was good – blue skies and sun with plenty of temptation to linger. It was my first visit to Brownrigg, after many ascents of Helvellyn. The well was always unfinished business and I wanted to decide for myself if its water was truly pure.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Brownrigg’s water was diverted to supply lead mines in the gulley beneath it. In earlier times, around me would have been a thriving community – canteen, smithy, railway, and plenty more besides. Now there was nothing. Just me, a gurgling spring, and two resentful Herdwicks.
The well is a lonely place, which is one of its attractions, although I had met one solitary stranger an hour earlier as I had climbed towards my objective. A man in his early fifties, he had been dressed in black, with a multicoloured bandana around his head. He was relaxing beside the old gunpowder store of the earlier mines and looked up when I approached.
“I wouldn’t go that way,” he said, pointing in the direction I was travelling.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Lots of up, lots of down, slippery, and plenty of rockfall,” he replied.
“Oh,” I said, ignoring the instruction. I could not work out why he was there, alone by a ramshackle store that in the Second World War had been the hiding place for a German spy. I nodded thanks and hastened upwards.
An hour of huffing and puffing later, plenty of stumbles, several errors of navigation, yet all the time magnificent views, I made it to Brownrigg Well. The moment I reached it, I knew I had arrived somewhere special. Solitude, rich green grass, clear and beckoning water. Brownrigg was exceptional.
There is something about drinking from an open source when you know the water is pure. The liquid tastes…well…different. I realise it is not meant to taste of anything, but it does, so I gulped and slurped for at least ten minutes. The two Herdwick continued their staring, waiting for me to take my fill, annoyed that I was dawdling.
From one edge of the spring I could see a depression in the windswept grass, showing the line of the watercourse, the so-called leat, that had been made when the lead mines lower down were active. Mining started there in 1835, rarely made a profit, and by 1882 had been abandoned. When Brownrigg had been the water supply, there had been an assurance that through all seasons, water was available. Such is the nature of Brownrigg.
It is impossible to drink your fill at the well. I just wanted to keep slurping but the intolerant Herdwick gaze made me hurry. I soon headed further upwards, a short 300 metres east, to reach the summit of mighty Helvellyn. The contrast between peaceful Brownrigg and Helvellyn summit could not have been more obvious. The peak was busy – young and old, cyclists, walkers, boots and multicoloured rucksacks. There were even two walkers in flip-flops, and plenty dressed for the city, not the outdoors. Helvellyn is a popular mountain, said by many to be England’s favourite, irrespective of weather or season.
Yet not one of the summiteers had seen Brownrigg Well, as it lies just out of sight and down the western slope, and none had tasted the purity of its water. Should you ever be near Helvellyn, seek out that small area of solitude they call Brownrigg, the well that never runs dry.
But most important? Tell no one you have been there. It is a mountaineer’s secret.
You will find Brownrigg Well at grid reference NY338151. To reach it, park in Wythburn Church car park (NY324136) and follow the route shown at: www.mudandroutes.com/routes/walking-routes-helvellyn
Once at the summit, walk due west for 300 metres to reach Brownrigg Well.
Finally, I can always guide you. Try me on [email protected]
Rail to Windermere (London: 3 hours 7 mins; Manchester: 1 hour 44 mins) with taxi from there.
Drive the whole way (292 miles from London; 120 miles from Manchester) to Wythburn Church car park (see below).
There is a Pay and Display at Wythburn Church car park. Get there early. When writing this article, the car park was cash only. Bring at least £8 in coins.
In the Lake District, many have their favourites. Here are two of mine:
- Greens Café & Bistro, College Street, Grasmere, LA22 9SZ. Tel.: 015394 35790
- Lewis’s, 2 Oakbank, Broadgate, Grasmere, LA22 9TA. Tel.: 015394 35266
Do not miss
- Grasmere Gingerbread Shop, Church Cottage, Grasmere, LA22 9SW
- Windermere cruises depart from Ambleside (LA22 0EY), Bowness (LA23 3HQ), or Lakeside (LA12 8AS)
- Armitt Museum & Library, Rydal Road, Ambleside LA22 9BL