A Neophyte’s Guide to the Lingo of the Lakes

Any visitor to the Lake District will quickly be confronted by a range of unfamiliar vocabulary. But it is perhaps only when planning a mountain route that the requirement for this new lexicon becomes apparent: half way up an ascent, with nothing but the silhouette of distant mountains and your trusty OS Map to guide you, referring to features in language that might be perfectly sufficient elsewhere – such as ‘that steep bit’, ‘the scary bit’, or even just ‘the top’ – can be surprisingly ambiguous and inadequate.

This explains why most mountaineers will not only know the names of the peaks they are striding to reach, but also those of the features they will encounter along the way. Of course, the origin of certain topographical names is often easy to deduce, such as White, Red, and Brown Pikes, or Goat’s Water; some places will have obtained their names based on their shapes – Haystacks, Brown Tongue, and the Old Man of Coniston – or on the techniques needed to reach them – such as Striding Edge. Away from this mountainous landscape, there being more obvious features from which to get your bearings, they are less likely to have received names in this way.

Although these toponyms will be useful along your journey, an understanding of the more physical geographical language required in mountainous areas such as the Lake District is also indispensable – these meanings can also be far from obvious, and obscure in origin. Suddenly, a peak becomes a pike, a river is a beck, and several varieties of valley open up to you. Fear not, fell-walker! This guide shall help you sort your cairns from your crags, your dales from your dells, and give you all the vocab you need to scramble that scree.

A summit cairn - passing ramblers add their own to the pile

A summit cairn – passing ramblers add their own to the pile

Beck – [Old Norse] a brook or stream, typically running a stony course or rugged bed.

Cairn – [Scottish Gaelic] a sort of organic signpost: a man-made landmark consisting of a pile of stones. These can be used to denote summits, and to guide walkers along the right path – expect to see many on popular routes, such as the corridor route to Scafell Pike.

Crag [probably Celtic] – a steep or rugged cliff or rock face. A catch-all term for boulderous mountainside. A good place for scrambling.

Col – [French] a lower section between two peaks, or along a ridge. In layman’s terms, a lower, flatter bit.

Dale – [Germanic/Old Norse] Northern for valley.

The main crag of Pavey Ark

The main crag of Pavey Ark

Dell – [Germanic] like a dale, but smaller and with more trees.

Fell – [Old Norse] often a synonym for either a big hill, or a small mountain. Tend to be high up moorlands.

Gap – another word for col.

Ghyll – [Old Norse] a deep ravine, which can function as a toponym – e.g., Stickle Ghyll = steep ravine.

Kettle – [Old English] a wide valley with a deep inlet.

Ling – [Old Norse] heather – gives its name to Lingmoor Fell.

Moor – [Germanic] uncultivated land, usually covered in heather.

Pass – [Middle English] a route or road through hills or mountains.

The prominent ridge of Fleetwith Pike

The prominent ridge of Fleetwith Pike

Pike – [Scandinavian] a hill with a peaked top – picture a cartoon-like mountain.

Ridge – [Germanic] the line formed where the two sides of a mountain meet. Can be great fun, but quite terrifying, to walk or scramble up or down. Striding Edge is a famous example.

Saddle – [Germanic] another word for col. This variety is wider and rounder in shape.

Scramble – [c.16th English] somewhere between walking and climbing. By definition, for something to count as a scramble, you have to be using your hands. Scrambles are graded from 1-3 in the UK – the higher grade, the more the exposure and the technicality of the route.

Tarns on Haystacks - Alfred Wainwright's favourite location

Tarns on Haystacks – Alfred Wainwright’s favourite location

Scree – [Old Norse] loose stone or rock that covers the side of a mountain. Can vary in size from pebbles to gargantuan boulders, and come in a variety of types of rock.

Seat – [Germanic] yet another word for col. More like a saddle than a gap.

Tarn – [Old Norse] a small lake in the mountains. Gives Stickle Tarn its name.

Wainwright, Alfred – absolute legend. Dropped out of school when he was 13, and went on to write and hand-illustrate the 7-volume Pictoral Guide to the Lakeland Fells. He has a strong following of walkers, who like to visit his favourite locations in the Lakes.


2 thoughts on “A Neophyte’s Guide to the Lingo of the Lakes

  1. Lovely post, I thoroughly enjoyed this one. As a Norwegian I’m particularly fascinated by the Norse legacy resonating in the topography, and I recognise many of these names as part of my own native hiking trails. Just for fun, I’ll give you the modern Norwegian variants of the Old Norse terms.

    Beck = bekk (in Norwegian this is used for any minor stream of water)

    Dale/Dell = dal (one of many gradations of a hollow in the terrain in the Norwegian tongue)

    Fell = fjell (mountain of any kind)

    Ghyll = gjøl

    Ling = lyng

    Pike = pik (usually in dialects)

    Scree = skred (also means avalanche. For distinction we often say, when talking of a scree, “skred-ur”, which refers to the rocks no longer in motion, “ur” meaning a cluster of rocks)

    Tarn = tjern or tjønn

  2. Wonderful! Thank you for these, Steffen! I too was interested to see how many words came from the languages of our many conquerors – and I’m sure there are even more out there!

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