Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Fairfield Horseshoe

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Route: Grasmere, Alcock Tarn, Lord Crag, Heron Pike, Great Rigg, Fairfield, Link Hause, Hart Crag, Dove Crag, Thack Bottom Edge, High Pike, Low Pike, Sweden Crag, High Sweden Coppice, Low Sweden Bridge, Ambleside

Date: 23/04/2013
From: Grasmere

Parking: N/A (CPs in Rydal & Grasmere are available)
Start Point: Grasmere
Region: Eastern Fells

Route length: 10.2 miles (16.4km)
Time taken: 05:24
Average speed: 1.9mph
Ascent: 1106m
Descent: 1129m

Wainwrights on this walk:
Heron Pike (612m), Great Rigg (766m), Fairfield (873m), Hart Crag (822m), Dove Crag (792m), High Pike (656m), Low Pike (508m)

Additional summits: Heron Pike North Top (621m)

Other points of interest: Grey Crag, Alcock Tarn, Rydal Head, Scandale Fell, Ambleside

One of the absolute classics in the Lake District, albeit with a slight alteration on our part. We were staying in a holiday cottage near to Grasmere that allowed several walks to be completed without ever having to jump in the car. Handy. This did mean not visiting the summit of Nab Scar though, that one will have to wait for another day. It is a little one after all.

The Fairfield Horseshoe is a real crowd pleaser and is a very popular walk, mainly thanks to its relatively straightforward climb, established paths and the ease of navigating around most parts. It's also next to Ambleside, a real Lakes honey pot. The route involves a 10-mile loop around the valley of Rydal Beck and covers 8 peaks (7 in our case). Staying in Grasmere, we'd always planned to do this walk during a week-long holiday and, catching a break in the typical April weather (and in high spirits), we made a rather late start to tackle Fairfield and its surrounding peaks.

The walk started from the front door of our cottage, it's not often you get to say that! Joining the path at Wood Close, we wound our way up the track towards Grey Crag and Alcock Tarn. Grey Crag offers some fine views of Grasmere and it's surrounding fells, as you can see below.
The path up to Alcock Tarn was easy to follow and climbed steadily
The excellent view of Grasmere and the Central Fells
Reaching Alcock Tarn signalled the point we needed the leave the path and head up the fell onto Lord Crag. Though not marked on the map, there is a path the leads from Alcock Tarn onto the ridge that constitutes the western side of the horseshoe. It is a fairly stiff climb, if not one of the steepest of the day, gaining around 200m in the process.
Grey Crag, a rocky outcrop just prior to Alcock Tarn
Alcock Tarn
The path from Alcock Tarn towards Lord Crag and the ridge leading to Fairfield
Once on the ridge, we gained our first view up and down the valley, towards Fairfield and Windermere respectively. The wind picked up as we reached the ridge and was gusting quite steadily as we made it to our first peak of the day, Heron Pike. At 612m, it sneaks over the 2000ft category though has quite a distinguished summit. It does have a less recognised northern summit that sits at 621m, high above Erne Crag. This is sometimes referred to as Rydal Fell.

Conquerors of Heron Pike, North Top can be seen in the background
Great Rigg, Fairfield and Hart Crag from Heron Pike North Top
Leaving Heron Pike, the next objective was Great Rigg, an impressive looking mound that guards the approach to Fairfield. As mentioned, the climb is very steady and probably suitable for those who are less conditioned to hill walking. That would go some way to explaining the popularity of the route. Prior to mounting an assault on the summit of Great Rigg, important matters had to be attended to, namely, dinner (lunch to some). After a brief, rather blustery stop, we climbed the final few metres up onto Great Rigg. "Rigg" in Old English means bumpy or knobbly ridge which is where Great Rigg gets its name. At 766m, it was the 4th highest mountain for the day. The summit of Great Rigg also gives you the first glimpse of one the Lakeland legends, Helvellyn.
Sara leads the way up the western ridge up Great Rigg
The cairn on the summit of Great Rigg
A short descent followed by a 100m or so climb along a very wide, well-maintained path puts you on the summit of Fairfield. Fairfield is a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde type mountain, the southern slopes being smooth and grassy whereas its northern flanks contain some impressive looking crags and precipices. The best views of the northern flanks are generally from St. Sunday Crag across the Deepdale valley. The summit was very windy when we visited and required a bit of courage to venture towards the northern edge to peer into Deepdale. Fairfield is a big mountain in its own right at 873m but is unfortunate to sit in the area of high ground containing Helvellyn, Nethermost Pike and Raise which are all significantly higher and (possibly) more impressive to look at. After a brief wander around the summit plateau, it was time to start the second half of the horseshoe.
Sara battles the strong winds on the summit of Fairfield
A glance into Deepdale showing Cofa Pike and St. Sunday Crag. Helvellyn can also be seen in the distance
Helvellyn and the famous Striding Edge. Cofa Pike stands to attention in the foreground
Hart Crag sits just south and east of Fairfield and is a peak Sara and I have climbed in the past while walking the Deepdale Horseshoe. I certainly didn't remember it being a rocky as it was, probably because it was shrouded in cloud the last time I visited. Hart Crag shares three valleys; Dovedale, Deepdale and Rydale but is not actually the true head of any of them. With several miles ahead of us, we didn't loiter for long.
Rydale, the heart of the Fairfield Horseshoe
Hart Crag still had some coverings of snow thanks to the unseasonable March weather
Leaving Hart Crag behind, the ridge becomes grassier as it starts its descent towards Ambleside. Three more peaks stand in the way, the first of which is Dove Crag at 792m. Though slightly overlooked by the surrounding fells (it was unnamed on maps for a long time), Dove Crag has it's place in fell walking history being the first ever chapter written by Alfred Wainwright in 1952. Dove Crag has some impressive 75m crags but these are best seen from the surrounding fells of Hartsop above How and High Hartsop Dodd. After the whistle-stop tour of Fairfield and Hart Crag, it was time to duck behind the slightly sorry looking stone wall for a quick break.
The path as it ascends Dove Crag
The summit of Dove Crag
A quick break before the final descent into Ambleside
Deliberating the next move
From Dove Crag, the path is much grassier and boggier than the one on the opposite side of the valley. It does, however, follow a substantial drystone wall that both aids navigation and sheltered us from the winds howling across the valley. The view down the ridge to High Pike is rather good as well and the wall adds an interesting focal point to photograph.
The wall leads you from Dove Crag, across the bogs, to High Pike
Sara hones her bog crossing skills
We followed the wall to High Pike, the penultimate peak of the day. Despite a prominence of only 5 metres and elevation of 656m, High Pike is mentioned by both Wainwright and Birkett in their guides to the Lakes. Who's to argue with them? The views from High Pike are best to the south towards Ambleside and Windermere.
Sara attempts to make High Pike just a little higher 
Scandale from the ridge between High Pike and Low Pike
The path that curves underneath High Pike
Dropping down the path further, still following the wall, Low Pike presents itself as the final objective of the day. At 508m, it's a fairly modest hill that Wainwright described as being 'sufficiently elevated to give an impression of loftiness'. After a long descent, the summit does require a brief uphill scramble which both Sara and my parents decided against.
The wall leading from High Pike to Low Pike
The summit of Low Pike with High Pike and Scandale Head in the background
The final part of the descent from Low Pike to Ambleside does feel like an awfully long way when it's only actually about 2.5 miles or so. A few more bog crossings were required before the path really hit the valley floor at Low Sweden Bridge, crossing Scandale Beck and joining a small road into Ambleside.
Trust the sign!
The appearance of sheep signals our return off the higher fells
An easy to follow path leads you back to Ambleside
Crossing Scandale Beck
The lane that leads into Ambleside
I was glad that the weather was reasonable for this walk as the previous few days had been a bit of a washout. It would have been a shame to tackle this in the rain as some of the views are awe-inspiring. This walk, and others like it, contain many of mine and Sara's favourite elements, gaining elevation at the start before a stunning high-level ridge walk taking in a number of peaks. You can't really ask for more, it really is great fun! Despite the length of the whole walk, the gradients involved are not as steep as you might expect, the two limbs rising out of Ambleside to meet at the summit of Fairfield are reasonably gradual. Well trodden paths make this a walk that can be easily navigated in all but the very worst weather though the actual Fairfield summit can be a bit tricky when the clouds come down. A walk around the Fairfield Horseshoe is popular for many reasons, and rightly so. If you get the chance to do it in the near future, take it.

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