On a clear day in summer, there are no better walks for the lover of clean-lined fells and high, airy ridges than the Coledale Horseshoe, north-west of Keswick, taking in a half-dozen exposed and mostly narrow summits and circuiting the surprisingly deep, straight valley of Coledale.
Not only that, but the walk permits variations for the stronger walker, who can vary the test of the day in a number of ways.
The classic Horseshoe begins and ends at the village of Braithwaite, at the foot of the eastern end of Whinlatter Pass, a road route linking Keswick to Cockermouth, second only to Dunmail Raise in its ease of driving. The walk offers an almost-perfect start in the form of an old roadside quarry, a couple of hundred yards up Whinlatter from Braithwaite, on the left in ascent, which doubles as the access to the Coledale Mine Road. The quarry has long been converted into a small car park, allowing room for eight cars or so. As with all such walks of this nature, an early arrival is mandated if you don’t want to end up extending the approach by parking on the far side of Braithwaite.
Just inside the entrance to the quarry, a path supported by wooden steps leads upwards. Follow this to the summit of Grisedale Pike.
The truth is that, in terms of route-finding, that is all you need. Once on this path, it would take an act of positive genius, even in ten foot visibility fog, to lose the way, but who wants to do a walk with the views available from this in ten foot visibility cloud? (I can ask this question with experience, having once started out this way on a day where the cloudline was at 2,000′, proceeding with my usual bloody-minded determination to keep going until it was absolutely certain that the cloud was not going to lift).
The ascent breaks down into three distinct stages, the first two ending on reaching subsidiary ridges. On leaving the car park, the wooden steps rise into thick woods, before a long, gradually rising path forges ahead across the fellside for a quarter mile, before doubling back upon itself at a higher level, and emerging from the woods on the low ridge of Kinn. Glorious views over Keswick and the Vale burst onto the eye: from this point on, the views will be unrestricted all day.
The only tedious element of the walk occurs here: a wide grassy breach in the ubiquitous bracken leads blindly upwards, steep and dull, for a hundred feet or so, before the gradient eases and the way leads to a long, level subsidiary ridge. A good morning pace can be maintained, with the southern ridge of Coledale and the rocky frontage of Eel Crag in full sight. Given sunshine and a decent breeze, this is a pure delight of an approach, allowing progress to be made with almost indecent ease, until the main body of Grisedale Pike begins to loom above. The path veers to the right, starts to climb, and then switches back to the left, on a rising path that begins to get rocky underfoot as it approaches the ridge top of Sleet How. From there, another level walk follows, much shorter, before loins need to be girded for the direct ascent of the Pike’s eastern ridge.
When I was last here, the path was beginning to suffer serious erosion in places, and it would not surprise me now to find the National Trust had stepped in and rebuilt the way. Even so, the route will remain direct and challenging, interrupted only by a series of outcrops providing temporary relief from the rapid ascent. Progress can be measured as the north-east ridge comes into view to the right, narrowing and getting ever nearer. The final section involves a scramble that can be avoided by contouring to the right and joining that ridge, but serious walkers will pride themselves on maintaining the direct ascent and will enjoy the brief feeling of hands on rock. The summit cairn lies a hundred yards or so distant, up a gentle rise, from the head of the ridge.
Grisedale Pike – the final ascent
The hard part has now been done.
The glorious view open to the east is now at its finest, whilst the high mountains south, stretching towards the Scafell Range, beyond the head of Borrowdale, are also in sight, rising above Coledale’s afternoon arm. Only in the bulk of Eel Crag, highest point on this walk, is the view less than wide. Ahead, beyond the rocky upthrust of the subsidiary summit, and the broad lump of Sand Hill, the next summit, Hopegill Head, showing the ragged face of Hobcarton Crag in spectacular fashon.
The path heads in that direction before negotiating the rocks of the subsidiary summit. Here, a branch angles off downhill: if for any reason the walk needs to be curtailed, this will lead you directly to the top of Coledale Pass, from where the return can be made with relative ease to the quarry. On a sunny day, this thought is akin to heresy.
Instead, follow the path downhill into the wide, level gap between the fells, in which the path surprisingly disappears for the only time on the walk – a little unnerving when in cloud. In full visibility there is no issue. What is is which of the parallel paths ahead to take. One clings to the rim of what is obviously a very steep cliff, the other a comforting 2 – 3 yards ‘inland’. The choice of the safe route is only a temporary insulation from any walker’s tendencies towards vertigo, as the walks merge, on the edge of Hobcarton Crag, only half way up. There are no difficulties apart from the presence of such a drop, and in its highest section, the path veers away towards a small plateau and a three-way crossroads. Bear right for the simple walk to the exposed summit, coming exactly at the meeting of the two ridges that fall away so dramatically as Hobcarton Crag.
Hopegill Head and Hobcarton Crag
Return to the crossroads and take the path untaken, rising gently over Sand Hill and heading downwards to Coledale Hause. The way is long and gentle, and there is ample time to study the ground below, which can be very useful because, whilst it is no Esk Hause, Coledale Hause can be a very confusing place to be in mist, if you do not know how the paths lie. From above, it can easily be seen that the path arriving from Coledale in the east does not directly cross the Hause and descend into Gasgale Gill, but instead curves gently away into a shallow upland valley, rising to the broad plateau between Eel Crag and Grasmoor: the continuation of the Pass breaks off at a junction. What’s more, the Pass does not occupy the lowest point of the Hause, preferring to cross on the lower slopes of Eel Crag, requiring a small ascent to reach it from the Hopegill Head direction. There are also less well-defined paths criss-crossing in the lowest part of the depression, the direct route from Grisedale Pike rejected earlier joining onto this route in the shallow depression.
Both routes to Eel Crag start by following the main path into the shallow valley ahead, the upper waters of Gasgale Gill. A direct route is quickly available, ascending the rough scree beside the crags overlooking the Coledale face. This is a shorter but rougher approach to the highest point and the decision to go this way must be balanced out against the distances still to go before a return to the quarry and the car.
Eel Crag, showing the direct and indirect routes
I have not taken this route personally: it was on the list of walks I wanted to do. It’s considerably easier to follow Gasgale Gill to its lip, even though this route can sometimes act as a wind funnel, forcing you to walk into the teeth of a blast, except for the final section, which is sheltered by the upper lip of the valley.
The plateau beyond is surprisingly wide and empty, and is sufficiently short-grassed to arouse the temptation to produce bat and ball, and set up an impromptu cricket knockabout: it would take a long six to lose the ball downhill.
At the middle of the plateau, opposing paths start uphill, that to the south climbing the broad back of Grasmoor, somewhat doggedly and tediously, that to the north ascending the back of Eel Crag in like manner. The purist will trudge in this direction, but the dedicated peak-bagger will be attracted by an object lifting itself above the level horizon, less than a quarter-mile away. This is Wandope, which is no part of the Coledale Horseshoe, and is a plainly Buttermere fell with no Coledale connections. But it is less than fifty feet above the plain and can be reached with indecently little effort.
What is more, and which will appear decidedly unfair to the purist, is that Wandope lies on the edge of the great scoop of Addiscomb Hole. There is a spectacular path around the rim and heading across the flank of Eel Crag, which is an undeniably more attractive route than any other from this side of Eel Crag. Not that it continues to the summit, but by the time it definitively levels out, it is within ten yards of the ‘main drag’ up the whaleback of the fell, and a transfer is simple.
Eel Crag offers the widest and flattest summit of the day, a stony, littered and pathless top. It’s also the psychological halfway mark: the highest point and the beginning of the afternoon arm of the Horseshoe: the way is eastwards from here.
There are no paths but it is easy to angle half right towards the top of the eastern ridge, the ground narrowing until there is no possibility of misdirection. The descent was growing increasingly loose and degraded on my last visit, and the use sf hands to stabilise the descent was necessary in at least two places, but it is still easy enough to look down and see the nondescript top of Sail, and its shallow cairn, lying to the left of the path, half-hidden in the grass. There is a short climb from the col and the aerial surveillance is invaluable as the cairn is all but invisible from the path, which gives it a wide berth. The fell itself is probably the most indistinguishable of 2,500’ers, offering no temptation to stop either in its environs or its views.
The path continues smoothly down into the col of Sail Pass. This is not on the list of the Lake District’s ‘official’ Passes, but is a well-known walkers highway, linking Sail Beck in the east, for Buttermere and Stonycroft Gill in the west, for Stair in the Newlands Valley, though the Pass itself is a narrow gap in a long, declining ridge, crossed at an angle. Here is the point of decision as to how to proceed.
Scar Crags and Causey Pike, beyond – the Outer Wall
The purist route follows the ridge directly ahead, crossing the whaleback of Scar Crags and descending to the utterly delightful Causey Pike. Not only is the direct ridge, but it is the higher line, but it is the outer wall of Coledale, separated from the valley by the narrow confines of Stonycroft Gill. Furthermore, the ridge ends almost two miles from Braithwaite, requiring a long walk back down the road to recover the car: too long in my mind: anything more than a mile down the road to get back at the end of the day suggests that the walk should be better planned.
It wouldn’t take much, in time or effort, to reach Scar Crags and double back, whilst truly strong walkers will see no reason why they cannot continue as far as Causey Pike, and then retrace their steps to Sail Pass. I heartily (and enviously) applaud their strength and stamina whilst not promising to wait for them to return. The alternative is to transfer to the inner wall of Coledale, the lower ridge comprising Outerside and Barrow, for which descend the path, initially under the edge of some crags, as if aiming for Stair via Stonycroft Gill.
The path drops down to a shallow, dark green depression, which is obviously the bed of a dried out tarn. On my first visit, I carefully crossed the tarn, in case of still-soft spots, and contoured the pathless flank of the steep-sided Outerside, reaching its top with some unwelcome effort. ON my return, I found that a narrow path slips away, passing the head of the once-tarn, before climbing on a well-graded zig-zag onto the ridge west of Outerside’s peaked top. The final stage of the ascent is still steep, but the narrow summit, even with its views restricted by the higher outer wall, on which purist walkers can be easily seen, is a nice place to be on a summer afternoon, and the next stage of the route looks inviting, even if significantly lower. There are a profusion of paths in sight.
Outerside and Barrow, beyond – the Inner Wall
The final fell of this walk is Barrow, from whose summit the line of the ridge turns distinctively north. In between lies the upthrust of Stile End, not regarded as a separate fell and therefore, in extremis, may be by-passed around its back. Go out in a blaze of glory by crossing it and descending to the final col, from which a green path traverses bracken to reach Barrow’s top. By this point, the average walker’s legs will be getting tired, and it is nice to reflect that no further climbing remains.
A long, lazy descent down the long ridge of the fell ensues. Wainwright directs the walker ahead to the village, a route I took first time, but on second visit I found the gate at the intake wall above Briathwaite Lodge closed to walkers. According to Chris Jesty’s revision of Wainwright, notwithstanding the changes in Access laws, this remains the case, but the walk around it is still a pleasant diversion. Simply follow the wall down to the right on a broad grassy trod. When this begins to curl back south, among uncultivated fields, a path glides away left to a gate into the quiet road. Turn left for Braithwaite village and enjoy the peaceful surroundings.
When the Village is reached, seek out the Whinlatter road. Unfortunately, the quarry where the car has been safely parked lies up that road: a short, direct climb, a ninety degree turn right, and a hundred yards or so of rising road that will come as an unpleasant grind after a near perfect day of sun, air and high ridges. However, if the car has been parked so that you may approach it from the side opposite that from which you left it, several hours before, the joy of a genuinely circular walk can be experienced.