Guide to Lake District tarns

Blea Tarn

The mountain lakes of the Lake District are known as tarns and are distinct from the other lakes, meres and other bodies of water in that they were never connected to larger expanses of water in valleys. The word tarn is thought to be derived from ‘tjorn’; the term the Vikings used for small teardrop-shaped lakes over a thousand years ago when they settled in the area.

Lake District tarns are classic glacial mountain scenery, mostly found high up in the hills and were formed when cirque (round) glaciers tore out huge blocks of rock and eroded the hollows, which then filled with melting water. The run-off from the surrounding hills continues to fill the tarns, many of which feed into the larger lakes in the lowland valleys.

The major mountain tarns are ever-present features of the Lake District landscape, but many of the reputed thousand others come and go depending on the amount of rainfall. The more obvious tarns are named, but on Ordnance Survey maps you’ll still see many that aren’t and the smaller ones can at times disappear altogether. Some of the tarns are incredibly deep, especially those that have a high mountain wall, known as a 'cwm', as a backdrop.

Levers WaterThere was no accurate measurement of the depth of the Lake District tarns until the Brathay Exploration Group Trust started conducting soundings in 1947. The changing nature of the tarns means that they are given a mean average depth and a maximum depth, which can vary by up to 35 m.

Tarns are iconic landmarks, make a great focal point for walking routes, and in summer, for a refreshing outdoor swim. The water temperature in tarns and lakes can be deceptive and is often much colder several feet below the surface, so if you do take the plunge enter the water gradually and stay within your depth.


Here’s our guide to some of the must-see tarns in the Lake District.

Angle Tarn
NY244076
Height 568 m, depth 15 m

Angle Tarn, Langdale
copyright: KA on geograph

Angle Tarn nestles north of Bow Fell in the Langdale Fells. Water from the tarn feeds into the Langstrath valley. Routes include following the Cumbrian Way up Langdale valley and then up Rossett Gill, or the path east from Sty Head. For high-level views of the tarn choose Rossett Pike, Hanging Knott or Esk Pike.

Blea Tarn
NY291140
478 m, depth 13 m

Blea Tarn in Borrowdale

Blea Tarn is situated in Borrowdale on Watendlath Fell, west of lake Thirlmere and south west of another classic tarn, Watendlath Tarn. Both tarns can be reached by the path that winds its way up from behind the Lodore Hotel close to the picturesque Lodore Falls, or an alternative path behind Rosthwaite past Birkett's Leap and then across the fell.


Blea Water
NY448107
488 m, depth 63 m

Blea Water
copyright: Ian Greig on geograph

The deepest tarn in the Lake District, and the third deepest body of water; only Wast Water (74 m) and Lake Windermere (67 m) are deeper. Blea Water sits like a dark blue teardrop between Mardale Ill Bell and Riggindale Crag, east of the mighty High Street. The water from the tarn feeds into the dammed Haweswater Reservoir below, and the tarn researcher Heaton Cooper claims that the water in the tarn rocks and spills over in strong wind.

South of Blea Water is a smaller tarn separated by Piot Crag, and imaginatively named Small Water. This can be reached by following Nan Bield Pass down to the tarn, then the path beside Small Water Beck and Mardale Beck down to the Haweswater car park at Mardale Head.


Bleaberry Tarn
NY165154
497 m, depth 5 m

Bleaberry Tarn
copyright: Michael Graham on geograph

Lying south-west of lake Buttermere, Bleaberry Tarn (meaning blueberry tarn) is a fine example of hanging valley and cirque glacial scenery. The tarn lies between Chapel Crags, Red Pike and the tough scree of The Saddle and can be reached via the path through Burtness Wood or views can be had from the high path along High Crag and High Stile. The outflow of the tarn flows into Buttermere via the quirkily-named Sour Milk Gill


Devoke Water
SD166978
236 m, depth 14 m

Devoke Water
copyright: Shutterstock

Devoke Water, known in olden times as Duvoleswater and meaning 'the dark one', is the largest tarn in the Lake District (although some people claim it should be classified as a lake). The water sits on Birker Fell and is easily accessible by a short walk from the unfenced Birker moor road running between Eskdale Green and Ulpha. On a clear day the tarn offers superb views of the surrounding fells including Ulpha, Birker, Muncaster and the more distant Harker Fells.

Black Beck provides the outflow from Devoke Water and nearby plunges over a 7 metre waterfall and then joins several other becks before joining the River Esk below

The outflow of Devoke Water is from the north-west via a small stream, Black Beck. It flows gently for a short distance before plunging over a rock down a 26 ft cascade and away through the village of Broad Oak towards the River Esk.


Goat’s Water
SD266976
Height 507 m, depth 13 m

Goat's Water
copyright: Shutterstock

Goat's Water, named Gaitswater on old maps, is framed by the side of The Old Man of Coniston to the east and the steep sided scree slopes of Dow Crag to the west. Goat's Hawse is the usual method of approach. Other worthy bodies of water in the area include Low Water (SD274982) on the route to the Old Man up from Coniston village, Seathwaite Tarn reservoir (SD253988), and Levers Water reservoir (SD279993).


Grisedale Tarn
NY347120
538 m, depth 34 m

Grisedale Tarn
copyright: Shutterstock

Grisedale Tarn can be reached by walking rouites of varying difficulty and is a popular stop on the Fairfield Horseshoe route starting in either Grasmere or Ambleside. It is surrounded by the high ground of the summit of Fairfield itself (873 m), Dollywaggon Pike (858 m) and Seat Sandal (736 m).

It can also be reached by the following routes:

  • up the Grisedale valley from the village of Patterdale;
  • from Grasmere via Mill Bridge and Tongue Gill;
  • a steep climb up from Dunmail Raise; or
  • south from Helvellyn over Nethermost Pike.  

In the past, the tarn was a welcome watering hole for traders on the packhorse routes that used to move goods through the Lake District and there are a few other historical stories associated with it. Legend has it that the last king of Cumbria, King Dunmail, was killed in battle at Dunmail Raise, buried under the large stone pile at the top of the pass and that his warriors that survived threw his crown into the waters of Grisedale Tarn.

A more recent tale concerns the Brothers Parting Stone at the entrance to Grisedale Beck. This is a memorial marking the place where John and William Wordsworth said their last farewell; John was killed in the sinking of the Earl of Abergavenny off Portland five years later. John's sword was salvaged from the wreck and is on display at Rydal Mount.


Innominate Tarn
NY197129
Height 528 m, depth 2 m

Innominate Tarn
copyright: Shutterstock

Innominate means 'not named or classified' and it's fitting that the shores of this unassuming little tarn was the place chosen to scatter A W Wainwright's ashes. Innominate Tarn is on Hay Stacks (as marked on the OS Explorer Map), commonly referred to as Haystacks or sometimes Loaf Tarn, and can be reached from Gatesgarth at lake Buttermere via Warnscale and Scarth Gap Pass, a route up from the slate mine at Honister Pass, or the high level route up from Buttermere itself via Bleaberry Tarn, High Stile and High Crag.

Blackbeck Tarn is about 400 m away from Innominate Tarn and there's a much smaller tarn on the actual summit of Hay Stacks at most times of the year at NY193131.

Lily Tarn
NY364040
Height 200 m, depth 1 m

Lily Tarn
copyright: Bill Boaden on geograph

Lily Tarn is at the eastern end of Loughrigg Fell, near to the village of Ambleside, and gets its name from the water lillies that can sometimes be found there. A beautiful tarn is a delightfully peaceful spot, it is often overlooked because it is a low level mountain lake. The tarn is easily accessible from paths via Miller Brow and Nanny Brow.


Red Tarn
NY348152
Height 718 m, depth 25 m

Red Tarn, Helvellyn
copyright: iStockphoto


A textbook glacial corrie tarn with surrounding backwall (cwm) lying beneath the summit of Helvellyn and surrounded by the southerly ridge of Striding Edge, the northerly Swirral Edge and Catstye Cam. Red Tarn is one of the best known and most visited tarns in the Lake District. Fed by a number of small streams running down the back wall, the water level of Red Tarn was raised by a dam in the 1800's to provide more water power for the Glendinning lead mines. 

Red Tarn is fed by a number of streams running down its back wall into the corrie and it flows outward down into Glenridding Beck. In the 1800s the Tarn was dammed with boulders, raising the level of water some eight or nine feet in order to supply power to the lead mines in Glenridding. Disused 'leats', artificial water courses used to drain water away for the delivery of water for washing the lead ore, are scattered to the north and north-east of Catstye Cam and still appear on the map.


Scales Tarn
NY328281
Height 598 m, depth 8 m

Scales Tarn
copyright: KA on geograph

Situated below the summit of Saddleback (or Blencathra) and Sharp Edge, Scales Tarn means the tarn by the shepherd’s hut. The outflow from the tarn runs into the flamboyantly-named River Glenderamackin, probably derived from Welsh, that drains most of the side of the southern and eastern flanks of the mountain.

Stickle Tarn
NY287077
Height 473 m, depth 16 m

Stickle Tarn
copyright: Shutterstock

Situated below Pavey Ark and Harrison Stickle in the Langdale Pikes, Stickle Tarn is well worth the climb to get there. The usual approach is straight up the side next to Stickle Ghyll, or if you want to see Dungeon Ghyll Force, take a westerly detour and rejoin the upward path at Miller Crag. Dammed at one end, Stickle Tarn drains south into Great Langdale Beck.

There's a couple of pubs, The Sticklebarn and the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel at the foot of the path for after-walk refreshments, or another favourite further up the Langdale Valley road; the Hiker's Bar at the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel (the original 'Dale Head Inn').


Sprinkling Tarn
NY227091
Height 598 m, depth 9 m

Sprinkling Tarn
copyright: Mike Garratt, geograph

Sprinkling Tarn lies under Great End (910 m) and has had a few other names such as Sparkling Tarn and from the old Norse Prentibioutern or Sprentaburn. It is regarded as one of the most beautiful tarns in the Lake District and is one of the largest of the many tarns and pools scattered amongst Seathwaite Fell. The main views from the tarn are north-west across to Great Gable and Green Gable.

Sprinkling Tarn can be reached by the path up from Stockley Bridge following Grains Gill to Low How, or if you'd like to combine Sprinkling Tarn and another Lakeland classic, Styhead Tarn, take the path up Styhead Gill then follow the main easterly path at Sty Head. 

Styhead Tarn
NY221098
Height 437 m, depth 8.5 m

Styhead Tarn
copyright: Shutterstock


Styhead Tarn can get very busy so unless you get there early or late, or go up in very bad weather you're unlikely to have it to yourself. Sty Head itself is a major crossroads for many paths to some of the most popular mountains in the area including Great Gable, Green Gable, Great End and Scafell Pike.

Styhead Tarn is mainly filled by Sprinkling Tarn further to the east. Water from the tarn flows down Styhead Gill to the Taylor Force waterfall, then meanders past Seathwaite and Rosthwaite in the Borrowdale valley. Finally it joins Stonethwaite Beck and several other gills before becoming the River Derwent flowing into Derwent Water lake.


Tarn Hows
SD331999
Height 498 m, depth 5 m

Tarn Hows
copyright: iStockphoto

Tarn Hows was formed from three tarns and surrounding marshes when it was dammed at the southern end by James Garth Marshall of Monk Coniston Hall in the 19th century. Don't expect to be alone at the tarns, it's one of the most popular places to visit in the Lake District and with surrounding planted woodlands of spruce and larch, easy access lakeside walks and stunning views across the mountains to the Langdale Pikes, Coniston Fells and the Langdale Pikes, it's not hard to see why. The tarn is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of its unique habitat and wildlife.

In 1930, Tarn Hows was bought by Beatrix Heelis (née Potter), who gave the tarns and woodland to the National Trust and bequeathed the rest of the property in her will.  


Watendlath Tarn
NY275161
Height 262 m, depth 17 m

Watendlath Tarn
copyright: iStockphoto

Accessible on foot from paths starting at Rosthwaite or Stonethwaite in Borrowdale, or via a single track road that goes over Ashness Bridge then climbs high up through Ashness Wood following Watendlath Beck. Although there's a car park near Watendlath Farm, parking is very limited and the road can get clogged up during the summer. Fed by Blea Tarn through Bleatarn Gill, the water eventually ends up in Derwent Water.


Final word

Visiting any of the tarns in the Lake District is a special experience because they're located in some of the most dramatic mountain scenery in the country. These small mountain lakes are walking route focal points and often stepping stones to some of the higher Lake District peaks and fells. They also have a tranquility and beautiful remoteness that will soon have you coming back for more.


Further information

Map of Lakeland tarns
http://www.cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk/images/stories/content/protectingpdfs/tarnsofthefellsmap.pdf

Pictures of all the Lake District tarns
http://www.gateway2thelakes.com/Lakeland%20Tarns/lakelandtarns2.htm

The Tarns of Lakeland, by John and Anne Nuttall (Cicerone, 1995-6)
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Tarns-Lakeland-West-Cicerone-Guide/dp/1852841710/ref=pd_sim_b_1

Exploring Lakeland Tarns: A Complete Guide, By Don Blair (Lakeland manor Press, 2003)

David Hall’s Lake District Walks – List of Tarns
http://www.davidhalllakedistrictwalks.co.uk/DIR_SEC.asp?DIR_TYPE=TARN

Guides to the Lakes - http://geog.port.ac.uk/webmap/thelakes/html/lakemenu.htm - fascinating, detailed historical maps of the Lake District and the Old Cumbria Gazetteer.


OS Explorer Maps for the tarns mentioned

Blea Tarn, Bleaberry Tarn, Innominate Tarn, Watendlath Tarn - OL4
Angle Tarn, Blea Water, Grisedale Tarn, Scales Tarn, Red Tarn - OL5
Devoke Water, Goat's Water, Styhead Tarn - OL6
Lily Tarn, Sprinkling Tarn, Stickle Tarn, Tarn Hows - OL7

Buy all the maps you need for this area.


Using the new Ordnance Survey getamap online mapping application http://www.getamap.ordnancesurveyleisure.co.uk you can plot routes, see ready-made routes, and print sections of OS Explorer Maps and OS Landranger Maps.

Location on getamap for the places mentioned

Angle Tarn
Blea Tarn
Blea Water
Bleaberry Tarn
Devoke Water
Goat's Water
Grisedale Tarn
Innominate Tarn
Lily Tarn
Red Tarn
Scales Tarn
Stickle Tarn
Sprinkling Tarn
Styhead Tarn
Tarn Hows
Watendlath Tarn


To find out more about getamap watch the welcome to getamap video or read the quick start guide.


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