12 January 2011

The Fairfield Horseshoe

A circular walk taking in the Fairfield Horseshoe peaks (Lord Crag, Heron Pike, Great Rigg, Fairfield, Hart Crag, Dove Crag, High Pike and Low Pike). Starting and finishing in Ambleside.
Distance: 11.2 Miles | Time: 6h 18m | Difficulty: Easy to Medium

It was another one of those days where the weatherman lied wasn't wholly accurate with the truth. Rain and low clouds in the far western fells, clear from Ambleside eastwards. Bollocks it was, but having driven all that way we weren't going to let that deter us from putting a few fells behind us - no, we'd leave that to the white-out we'd encounter up top.

Ladder Stile

For some reason or another I'd decided to shoot in black and white on this trip, might have been something to do with the general crumminess of the light levels or a sense of foreboding brought about by skies that didn't look too promising - either way, I think they mesh nicely with the commentary to come...

Quick links: the map | photos on flickr | gpx file for your gps device

It all started off so well; a good weather forecast had filled us with optimism, there'd been sod all traffic on our drive up, we were packing mint cake (always something to look forward to, that mint flavoured sugar rush) , and the carpark in Ambleside was nicely quiet (not that it matters a huge amount, but it's always nice to park up knowing some berk isn't going to slam their door into the side of your car). So with a spring in our steps, we leashed up the dogs and headed out of town towards Rydal Park and the start of our route round the horseshoe.

Nab Scar

Leaving Ambleside the route heads up to the gatehouse at Scandale Bridge and through the grounds of Rydal Hall, an ecumenical retreat with some rather fine looking eco-pods to let. I can't help but laugh at the word ecumenical, always reminds me of the Father Ted episode where Ted teaches Father Jack to say "That would be an ecumenical matter" instead of his usual "Drink!" "Feck!" and "Girls!" (Series 2 - "Tentacles of Doom"). But anyway, rising above the Hall is the first of the peaks in the Fairfield Horseshoe; Lord Crag (480m-ish).


It's not a bad path up to Lord Crag no steeper than, Pen-y-Ghent say, but with much better views over Ambleside (well, duh!). As we headed up towards the cloud-base the gentle winds developed into stronger gusts, doing their best to whip dogs and people off the hills, and the remnants of the last few week's snow and sub-zero temperatures started to make themselves known, with the wet paths turning into slippery routes into oblivion. I really must stop assuming that because I'm no longer living in Sweden that winters here are silly mild - they are a bit hardcore in places, and do bring a few dangers with them.

"Not that way"

Maybe Bonnie's hesitation at continuing up the path should have been taken as a harbinger of doom, equally it could just have been a demand to stop and play some doggy games, either way, as we gained height and lost both traction and visibility, we might have been wiser to turn back - particularly as options for aborting the route are few and far between, that and we were doing the route from memory. Sure, we had a map, but where's the fun in knowing where you're going? As it was things didn't seem so bad, it might have been cold and damp (funnily enough like most of our walks this winter) but not enough to make us take a reality check.

At some point between Heron Pike and Great Rigg the foot of the clouds met with the snow-line (not too certain where as I didn't really want to take my gloves off so I could tap away at the iPhone. I know you can get "iPhone friendly" gloves but having tried some NorthFace eTips, I wasn't too impressed - they did what they said on the tin, but the glove construction wasn't right for my hands. I'll stick to my Baltoros thanks).

Into the Mist...

Visibility wasn't so bad, nor was the navigation - it's a ridge, so keep a drop on either side and you're fine. Besides, the path runs pretty much along the inner edge of the "horseshoe" so as long as we could see the snow sloping away to the right then we were pretty much on the path - just had to give it a bit of wide berth to account for any cornices that might have formed.

However somehow we came a cropper when we reached the top of Fairfield, not in a bad way, just the "how the hell did we end up here?" variety. I could put it down to the visibility, or the snow, or just the fact that the path was still heading uphill so "we can't be at the top yet, surely?". Either way, we somehow appeared at the top of a very steep, and snow laden, Cofa Pike - obviously not the correct route to Hart Crag... So back up to the summit (or at least what we took for the summit) for a second attempt; start descending (a wee bit too much as there's only 50m between Fairfield and Hart) to be met by the sight of Grisedale Tarn...!

"Right then, we've bollocked this up twice now, the only sensible thing to do is head back the way we came" And of course it's sound thinking like that that puts you on the correct path to exclamations of "I'm sure these cairns weren't here on the way up" and "Hmmmm, no dog prints", that and the ridge only being the best part of a few metres wide being dead giveaways we were on the right track.

Black Dog in Whiteout

The eastern side of the Horseshoe seemed to have got a greater pasting of snow than on our route up, making for tiring walking and a few moments of hilarity as I disappeared up to my waist on Dove Crag. Or at least it was hilarious for Lesley and the dogs, Bonnie thought it was a fantastic game - I was just fed up of traipsing through the snow in slightly leaky boots and was now arse deep in a drift - apt time to break out the sugary goodness that is Kendal Mint Cake. Amazing how something that's 99% sugar, 0.9% glucose syrup and 0.1% peppermint oil can pick you up, but it had the desired effect.

It wasn't until after High Pike that we mercifully parted ways with the snow - it's not that I don't like the snow, I quite enjoy it in fact, it's just that you eventually you reach a point where it goes from being a wintry wonderland to a downright chore. Things were certainly improving from here though, the skies lifted (a little) and we were heading for a good little scramble at Brock Crags. Looking at an OS map the recommended route veers well to the right of Brock Crag, but there's many a fun route to be found by heading straight down it (even with dogs and short people in tow). The usual caveats about accepting no responsibility and all that malarkey apply though.

Leaving the crags behind it was through steep, slippery, fields (with the inevitable doing a dozen metres downhill on my arse) back down to Scandale Bridge and onwards to Ambleside. And with that anticlimax I'll finish.

All in the route was just over 11.2 miles covered, in a slight less than 6.5 hours - not too shabby considering my rule of thumb is 3-4mph for flat, 2-2.5mph for the Dales and 1-1.5mph for the Lakes. I'll definitely be re-visiting this walk in the future when the conditions underfoot are better and there's a distinct possibility of a view from the top...

The Map

OS Maps: Landranger 90 | Explorer OL5 & OL7

View the trip at | See all the pictures on Flickr | Or go get the GPX file
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