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Wainwright Fells – What’s a Fell?

by admin on July 13, 2015

I decided a few minutes ago as I sat down to write a little about the Wainwright fells to look up the word “fell” in an online dictionary. The first one I tried gave two definitions, one unsurprisingly related to felling trees, and the other (of which I was previously unaware) a sewing term. Nothing, however, about the Lakeland fells or elsewhere in Northern England.

The second one added little; just something about felling an opponent – an extension, I suppose, to felling a tree.

Well, I thought I’d give these online dictionaries one more chance and looked up Meriam-Webster. Hmm! Their first definition is: “a thin tough membrane covering a carcass directly under the hide”. That’s another new one on me. Next they have the forestry and sewing definitions and I was about to give up when I spotted that they had more. First, as an adjective, it can mean sinister or cruel, as in “a fell disease”.

And then AT LAST! “A high barren field or moor” – Middle English, from Old Norse fell, fjall, mountain.

Phew! That took some doing! So much for online dictionaries. Wikipedia, though, does much better, with:

A fell (from Old Norse fell, fjall, “mountain”) is a high and barren landscape feature, such as a mountain range or moor-covered hills. The term is most often employed in Scandinavia, the Isle of Man, parts of Northern England, and Scotland.
[Credit: Wikipedia. – There’s much more there]

But now at last to the Wainwright fells. They’re in the Lake District, of course, and this area of north west England was settled by Norse people well over a thousand years ago. Many place names and local dialect words are the result of that migration – which, in spite of tales of Viking marauders, was probably fairly peaceful on this side of the country. These settlers of Norse extraction would mostly move across from the Isle of Man and Ireland where they had already been settled for generations.

Wainwright, of course, was less concerned with the history and the etymology than with the fells themselves and walking on them and up them. The dictionary definition “barren moor” is scarcely an accurate way of describing many of the Lakeland fells. Rocky crags are more common, especially in the central areas, and his seven volumes of guides to what are often nowadays called the Wainwright walks (or eight if you count his later volume on the Outlying Fells) provide excellent guidance on how best to experience them – particularly with more recent editions updating the details of the routes.

If you haven’t done so before why not plan a Lake District walking holiday, or at least a few days, maybe a weekend, and have a go at one or two of the Wainwright fells.

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