There are strong arguments in favour of saying that Horseshoe walks – up one side of a valley, round its head and down the other side – are the best walks of all, and in principle I’m in favour of the argument. Whenever I’ve gone out walking, the one walk I’ve tried to avoid, in any way possible, is the “there and back again”, where the homeward journey is over the same ground as the ascent. All my expeditions have been planned to reduce to the barest minimum the amount of trodden ground I have to cover.
The Lakes, with their profusion of fells, their interlacings of valleys, are an ideal place for Horseshoe walks, and there are many famous ones. But not all such walks are worthy of the attention. As with everything, it depends on the territory, the ground underfoot, the views, both in and out.
The Fairfield Horseshoe is, for my money, one of the best. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that, on days of clear blue skies and crystalline clarity, it is one of the essential walks that any lover of the Lakes must do.
A word of warning beforehand. Other than in distance, there is no difficulty to this walk. The gradients are never excessive, the ground is not magnificent, not in the way that the ascent of Scafell Pike is, and there are no secrets like Taylorgill Force, or the Corridor Route, to be found on the way. The Horseshoe circles a shy, unnamed valley, to which Wainwright appended the unofficial name of Rydale, holding it with two, straight, south-west facing arms.
So what’s so damned great about it?
The base for the walk is Ambleside, and the first decision to take is whether to undertake the walk clockwise or anti-clockwise. From Ambleside, the nearer option is the eastern arm, which was the happy accident of my choice the first occasion I did the Horseshoe: the second time, driving up on a summer Saturday and hitting the trail even earlier than I’d do when holidaying in Ambleside, was gloriously chosen.
Those with cars should leave them in the main car park, to the left of the road for Grasmere and Keswick, just beyond a left hand bend on the further side of Bridge House. Having gotten into walking gear, cross the main road and turn up left along a side road signposted Kirkstone.
This road is memorably known as “The Struggle”, for the excessive steepness of its ascent to the summit of Kirkstone Pass, for Patterdale and Ullswater. The early section actually offers some of the worst gradients of the entire walk, although the bit that gets the road its name is much further uphill (and if you ever descend that way with a heavy laden car, make damned sure your brakes are working). On the right, which note for the evening, is the Golden Rule, Ambleside’s best pub.
Though it always feels strange to be tramping the streets in boots and rucksacks, the road quickly escapes into residential Ambleside, and quite clearly an expensive area. Bypass Nook Lane and continue as far as Sweden Bridge Lane on the left, which soon turns into a genuine lane before giving access to a rising path alongside sheep pastures that curves round to enter the wooded lower section of Scandale.
Purists will opt for Nook Lane, which leads to Low Sweden Bridge at the foot of the Eastern Arm, the Morning Arm, from where they can tackle the full ridge from bottom to top. I prefer the route into Scandale, which, if followed, would lead to Scandale Head Pass (occasionally known as Caiston Pass), which drops into upper Patterdale via the steep Caiston Beck.
Instead, when the route emerges into the open, look for a track on the left descending slightly towards the beck, and the picturesque High Sweden Bridge. Cameras out!
Up till now, we’ve not actually set foot on the Horseshoe, having been travelling outside it. But over the bridge, back downstream ten yards or so, and turning directly uphill towards the skyline above, a path negotiates boggy ground and gains the ridge just above a massive ladder-stile over a wall. Climb the ladder and look back down on Ambleside and Windermere beyond, the first excellent view of the day. If anyone has chosen to go by Low Sweden Bridge, look for them to be toiling up the ridge below.
We are now on the Fairfield Horseshoe itself, and the first views north appear, though for the Morning Arm, the opposite ridge will limit what can be seen beyond the immediate environs of the Rothay Valley below, and the ground rising ahead will cut off views towards the eastern high ground. Only Windermere, and increasing views of pastoral Esthwaite Water behind, will illuminate the day for now.
Route-finding is easy: the ridge is obvious, the path wide and clear and the wall ubiquitous. There’s a difficult spot almost immediately, a ‘Bad Step’, where the wall scales a short but sheer rock, about six feet in height. It’s scalable, but don’t look at me because, in two visits, I haven’t worked out how. The obstacle is easy to bypass on the right, but anyone whose pride is dented can salve a little of their conscience by a scramble up the easy bluffs to the right of the Step.
Above, the ridge gains height alongside the wall, over a series of short rises, though occasional boggy patches may temporarily force you wide. Low Pike, comes as something of a surprise: from below it looks no different than any of the previous rises and only when on top does the slightly larger dip beyond, and the long, stony field before the ridge starts to rise again, let you realise you are on your first summit of the day.
The next objective is High Pike. There is a brief descent and a short level walk before the ascent resumes, with the wall to your left. This section of the ridge is stonier, and as the summit approaches, gaps in the wall suggest that the path should veer towards the inner side of the ridge. Choose either side: the wall is a guarantee of accuracy, the flat summit, with its cairn overlooking the Scandale flank, lies a little off the path.
The depression is slight, and the path forges on, wider than ever, up grassy slopes that require no halts. The next destination is Dove Crag, the first summit of real height, and the point where the Morning Arm ends, and the route turns towards the west.
Dove Crag is a substantial fell, and from Patterdale in the east it is a sensational one, a place of cliffs and crags, a home to climbers, blessed with its own cave, inaccessible to all but the most experienced and agile of the walking community. But it hides its best features from the Horseshoe, offering only a grassy back, with no sign of rock unless a substantial diversion is made. As the wall, finally, begins to crumble, opposite the remnants of a fence crossing the ground to the right, the ridge loses definition and the walk to the cairn, on a small rock platform, east of the path, is easy.
Those who want to glimpse Dove Crag’s glories can walk north a quarter-mile, carefully, to find the edge of the cliffs above Dovedale, and peer, very carefully, down. Those who are beginning to get a touch peckish, and who are wondering when this walk transforms itself from an enjoyable high traverse into something that deserves the appellation of Great, will swing round to the left with the path, which begins to lose a little definition on the more level ground.
There is a real descent, on grass, beside the now-broken wall, and then a climb up to the rocky summit of Hart Crag, showing a stony face to the approach, but rimmed by rock to Deepdale in the east and to lonely Rydale below. Hart Crag offers the neatest summit seen to date, a small rise, unlike the broad plateaus of Dove Crag behind and Fairfield ahead, yet the bulk of the latter still restricts the views to the west, leaving the fells beyond hidden Ullswater, and the three most southerly lakes as the best part of the scene.
Then, at last, it is Fairfield, head of the Horseshoe and the highest fell in the immediate area, topping out at 2,863′. The path drops quickly and stonily to a surprisingly narrow hause at the very head of Rydale which, though seen at virtually its full length from this point, offers little incentive in its emptiness to take out the camera. So start upwards, marching at a fair clip until reaching the wide flat grasslands that comprise Fairfield’s summit, the cairn itself situated to the north of the plateau, not far from Fairfield’s own rim of rocks.
Rest, relax, eat sandwiches. Fairfield’s height, and the lack of higher fells in its immediate vicinity, should offer commanding views, but the plateau is too broad, too flat, to see much beyond its rim. The northern edge, approached carefully, offers the nearest views with some depth, and the north ridge immediately attracts the eye, with it’s steep, narrow, rocky descent interrupted by the shapely upthrust of Cofa Pike, not far distant. It immediately creates the urge to take that ridge one day, and when I did it was an exciting joy at every step, with superb views back to Grisedale Tarn and a worthy destination in St Sunday Crag at its further end.
Rest, relax, take your time. And when you’re ready to return, set off down the long, slow slope of the plateau, until at last you reach its rim. And, in a moment, the walk is transformed.
Most people assume the Lake District is a region of radiating spokes, ridges and valleys, centred upon the highest ground, but this isn’t entirely true. Lakeland is divided, geologically, by its great central rift, from the remoteness of Skiddaw Forest in the north, in an almost dead straight line to the foot of Windermere. East of the rift, the major ridges and valleys echo it, running in series of parallel, north-south lines, but westwards the spoke and wheel analogy is apt, and the fells bordering the rift are low, beginning a build up to the highest mountains.
So, when you step off the plateau, with the grassy ridge falling away beneath your feet, the whole of Western Lakeland – every major mountain system and ridge, the pattern of every valley – bursts upon you and stops you in your tracks. What makes the Fairfield Horseshoe a great walk? It has brought you here.
It’s like staring into the heart of a living map, on a scale bigger than any you can imagine, with more to see and to absorb than any other. Stay and look as long as you like: it’s all before you. And when you decide to move, you will be walking into this view, it will be before you at almost every step, and if you are anything like me, you will want to stop every ten yards and photograph everything in sight, in the faint, desperate hope that, just once, these photos will capture even a tiny part of what you can see.
But they won’t. That’s why there are no photos to illustrate the view: it’s too deep, too broad, too big for a single shot, and it is the totality of what can be seen that overwhelms.
The descent is on easy ground, on an overwalked path. Great Rigg and Heron Pike intervene on the view in their turn, grassy backs that you will rush up in order to get the west in your eyes again, neither noticing nor caring much for what is underfoot. The Afternoon Arm looks as if it would be tedious, and a grind to ascend, but in descent it is a pussycat.
Every step takes away from the breadth of the view, but as the field of vision shrinks, the Rothay Valley and its environs are seen in greater detail, Grasmere and Rydal Water, and Easedale Tarn in its bowl, the woods and lawns.
The Afternoon Arm ends at the rough, rocky top of Nab Scar, the eighth, lowest and last summit of the day. Nab Scar’s crags, hung above Rydal Water, are too steep to negotiate, and the path turns inwards, twisting and turning down steep slopes, through bracken and high grass. Much of it has now been rebuilt by the National Trust, and there are wooden fences along eroded corners, preventing the idiotic from crashing curves, and saving them from unsafe slopes. After a longer walk than anticipated, the path reaches the foot of Rydale, with the main road less than 100 yards away.
There’s a two mile walk back to Ambleside, but it would never do to take to the road, one of the busiest in the Lakes, and with no pavements for most of its length. Instead, turn left, cut through the grounds of Rydal Hall, and join a gravelled field path that leads in comfortable solitude nearly all the way home. When it emerges onto the road, via iron gates, there is not much more than a third of a mile left to the car park. Obey the old rule and cross (very carefully) to the far side of the road: there will be some pavements on the way, but it is always safest to walk facing the oncoming traffic. Be careful on right hand bends.
Those who want to learn more can find several other accounts of the Fairfield Horseshoe online, the majority of which tackle the route clockwise. Oddly, none of those I’ve read mention the magnificent western views, nor any views until they reach Fairfield’s summit, and turn for Ambleside and home, which leads me to wonder if they never ever turned round and looked behind them.
Whichever direction you walk, don’t make that mistake.