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A guide to St John

A guide to St John's in the Vale

Kim Brough 13 January 2023

St John’s in the Vale is a small valley tucked away to the east of Keswick. Many travellers sail right past this peaceful place as they look towards more famous locations nearby. But turn off the main road and you’ll find a day or two can be well spent wandering this valley. 

With only a handful of buildings and flanked by the steep slopes of the Helvellyn Range, St John’s in the Vale is a truly peaceful haven. Fell ponies can be spotted on the likes of Low Rigg and hiking options range from the easy to the challenging.

Despite its peacefulness, St John’s in the Vale is more easily accessible than many of the Lake District’s other hidden gems, with good roads from Keswick, Penrith and Ambleside. You can also reach the edge of the valley by bus before heading in on foot. Read on for our guide on what to do and see here.

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Walking

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Low Rigg and Tewet Tarn

Blencathra reflected in Tewet Tarn

Distance: 4 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

If you’re staying in Keswick and want to explore St John’s in the Vale while minimising your driving, this circular walk is perfect. Though this route description starts closer to Keswick, multiple places en route would be suitable starting points, including St John's Church.

Begin by having a wander around Castlerigg Stone Circle and admiring the ancient stones. Once you’ve had your fill of the views and history, leave the field and briefly walk along the road to your right, passing Keswick Climbing Wall. A wooden signpost will soon point you right, along the outer edge of the field, and on your way.

The path continues up to Nest Brow on the main road, which it briefly follows before you join another footpath to your right. From here, it’s on through open fields and towards the double-hump of Low Rigg and High Rigg. Once you’ve climbed up between the two, you’ll come to the church, where you turn left, heading up and over Low Rigg. Take some time here to explore the undulating hill and keep an eye out for the fell ponies. From the top, you’ll have amazing views of the Helvellyn Range and Blencathra.

It’s almost all downhill here, with a picturesque stop at Tewet Tarn on the way. Catch the clear reflections of mighty Blencathra in its waters. Beyond this, you’ll circle back through fields and along quiet back roads until you finish back at Castlerigg.


High Rigg Circular

High Rigg

Distance: 4.5 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Starting at the church, walk uphill past the youth centre and then take an immediate left onto the hillside of High Rigg. You’ll find two or three ascents here, so which one you choose is up to you – they’re all fairly steep. Make sure you don’t miss the top: you’ll have to take a slight diversion from the main paths, which follow the shoulder. The detour is worth it for panoramic views of Keswick, Tewet Tarn, Blencathra, the Vale and Thirlmere.

Now, take your time exploring the summit of this fell with its interesting terrain, rocky hummocks and gentle knolls. There’s no rush, after all! Once you’ve had your fill, continue south towards Thirlmere and Wren Crag, where you’ll descend into St John’s in the Vale. Follow the base of High Rigg anti-clockwise until you reach Low Bridge End Farm, where you can pick up some tasty cakes and local ice cream. Much needed after your wanderings!

The rest of the walk follows a path along the base of High Rigg until you end up back where you started.


Helvellyn

View of Thirlmere from Helvellyn

Distance: 4.5 miles (there and back)

Difficulty: Challenging

The most popular route up Helvellyn starts on the other side of the Range, from the Ullswater side. However, this route from Thirlmere, just south of St John’s in the Vale, is ideal for competent hikers who like to do things a little differently.

Parking at Swirls Car Park near the lake, you’ll find a signpost pointing you in the right direction for Helvellyn. Skirt the edge of Highpark Wood before veering right, crossing Helvellyn Gill, and then starting your ascent. This is a challenging route that requires a lot of stamina – you’ll be climbing steeply for quite a while, with loose rock underfoot at times. Don’t forget to take plenty of breaks and admire the views of Thirlmere over your shoulder.

Continue onwards and upwards until you find yourself at the peak and between Striding Edge and Swirral Edge.

You can retrace your steps back down the same way, or take a longer circular route over Dollywaggon Pike and down past Grizedale Tarn.


St John’s in the Vale Linear

St John’s in the Vale

Distance: 4 miles

Difficulty: Easy

If you fancy taking a long amble through the whole of St John’s in the Vale, then this flat, linear walk will be right up your street. Bus stops at either end of the walk are useful for getting back to your starting point, just make sure to check the times before you set off! You’ll need the 555 Kendal-Keswick for the south section, and the X5 Keswick-Penrith for the north.

Start this route, as you like, from Thirlmere or Threlkeld. You can extend it either way along either Thirlmere or the Threlkeld to Keswick Railway Path.

From the north, at Threlkeld, head onto the old railway line and walk a short distance until you cross the river. You’ll then veer left of the main path, through the woods and under the main road. Crossing a second road, a stile takes you onto open farmland and you can see the mountains surrounding St John’s right ahead. The open view is gorgeous!

The path ambles on pleasantly for quite some time, crossing a few quiet roads and eventually joining the river. Take a pit stop at Low Bridge End Farm for some sweet treats and drinks before continuing along the base of High Rigg. The path will eventually meet the main road again, just to the north of Thirlmere.


Eating and drinking

Low Bridge End Farm

Low Bridge End Farm is the only place to pick up refreshments within the valley itself. The farmhouse offers a small outside tearoom serving tasty cakes, hot and cold drinks, and homemade beverages. Nestled below the slopes of High Rigg, it’s also a perfect pit stop on several excellent walks in St John’s in the Vale.


The King’s Head, Thirlmere

The King’s Head

The King’s Head at Thirlmere serves numerous Cumbrian favourites, as well as a steak menu during the week, and a roast on Sundays. Enjoy your meal in the bar, where an open fire is kept blazing throughout the winter. The restaurant can also be booked for private groups.


Threlkeld pubs

The nearby village has two excellent pubs serving tasty and hearty meals. The Horse & Farrier and The Sally (The Salutation Inn). These traditional eateries have been serving customers for centuries, so they’ve had plenty of time to work out the perfect combination of yummy food, a relaxing atmosphere, and a warm welcome. Dogs are allowed at both.


Keswick

Market in Keswick

For a wider selection of cafés, restaurants, pubs and bars, head over to the popular market town of Keswick. Just a 5-mile drive from St John’s in the Vale, it has choices galore for all tastes and appetites. You can also pick up something from one of several local supermarkets or the twice-weekly market.


Attractions

St John’s Church

Pews in a church

This beautiful little church in St John’s in the Vale is worth stopping by on one of your walks. Still in use today, the current building was erected in 1845, but records have been found indicating a church has sat on this site since at least 1554. The stone building is warm and welcoming inside with wooden beams and panelling making up its simple architecture. Outside is a cemetery: look out for the ancient well in the far corner, as well as the many graves that tell of the social history of this place.


Threlkeld Quarry and Mining Museum

Steam train at Threlkeld Quarry and Mining Museum

Threlkeld Quarry and Mining Museum is a fascinating look into the industrial heritage of the area. The whole place is run by enthusiastic volunteers, while the quarry itself is a Regionally Important Geological Site (RIGS). Though no longer working, there is a tiny yet wonderful museum and steam engines that chug you along the short stretch of tracks into the quarry. Here, you’ll find enormous mining machines that you can get up close and personal with.


Thirlmere

View of Thirlmere at sunset

Just at the end of the valley is Thirlmere reservoir. Surrounded by trees, this was originally two separate lakes that were merged by Manchester City Corporation Waterworks in 1889. Two villages called Armboth and Wythburn were flooded as part of the damming process, and now only the modest Wythburn Church remains towards the southern end.

Perhaps because of this, Thirlmere can seem a melancholy and austere spot, but it enjoys some excellent walks and beautiful views. The surrounding woodlands are also a good place to spot red squirrels and other wildlife.


Castlerigg Stone Circle

Castlerigg Stone Circle

One of the most fascinating ancient monuments in the country, Castlerigg Stone Circle sits high above nearby Keswick, surrounded by panoramic views of incredible mountain scenery. It’s also one of the oldest British stone circles, thought to have been raised in approximately 3,000BC.

Now managed by English Heritage, entry to the site is free throughout the year, and volunteers are occasionally on site to provide talks about the circle’s history.


Outdoor activities

Rock climbing

Woman rock climbing

There are a couple of popular outdoor rock-climbing locations in St John’s in the Vale that are perfect for sport climbing. Bramcrag Quarry is perhaps the most popular, with over 70 established routes. The quarry is privately owned, though the owner is happy for it to be used as a venue as long as visitors are considerate of others while visiting.

Further down the valley is Castle Rock of Triermain. Steep and jaggy, it offers routes for all abilities. While some routes on the north crag are now in danger because of an expanding fault in the rock, there are still plenty of options to enjoy.

If you’d prefer your indoor climbing, or want some lessons, head to nearby Keswick Climbing Wall instead.


Fishing

Fishing on Thirlmere

Fishing is free on Thirlmere as long as you have a rod license. Though remote, it’s reasonably easy to reach with some fabulous viewpoints to enjoy. The quiet waters are home to perch, trout, char and pike and, while not the best-stocked location, the peaceful surrounds still make it a pleasant place to cast your rod. Boats can be launched from Armboth car park, but be aware of the conservation area around Wythburn.


Outdoor adventure providers

A group kayaking on the lakeImage credit: Keswick Adventures

There are a number of outdoor adventure providers operating around St John’s in the Vale. While most activities don’t take place in the area itself, locations are within easy reach. Keswick Adventures and Newlands Adventure Centre are two of the closest. Both run a number of exciting, guided activities on land and in the water.


St John’s in the Vale self-catering cottages

The tranquillity of St John’s is partly thanks to the fact that there are only a few buildings in the whole valley. We are lucky enough to be able to offer a small but mighty selection of self-catering accommodation in St John’s in the Vale.

Lowthwaite Cottage

Lowthwaite Cottage

Sleeps 4 + 2 dogs

A historic whitewashed cottage boasting elegant beams, flagstone floors, and a warming wood burner. The cherry on top is the spectacular views towards the mountains.


The Red In The Vale

The Red In The Vale

Sleeps 2

This gorgeous cabin makes the most of its spectacular surroundings with a hot tub, BBQ and patio seating. It’s perfectly set up for a relaxing break.


The Roe In The Vale

/cottage/89399-the-roe-in-the-vale

Sleeps 2

Sit back in the hot tub and soak in the panoramic views down St John’s in the Vale. Or cosy up inside this gorgeous wooden cabin and gaze out - coffee cup in hand - through the floor-to-ceiling window. Spectacular!


Visiting St John’s in the Vale

St John’s in the Vale takes its name from a 13th-century hospice built in the valley, and the same peace that they were seeking is evident in these modern times. A break from the hustle and bustle, you’ll feel your troubles melt away whenever you spend time in this landscape.

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing, please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.

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