Great Walks: Fairfield to St. Sunday Crag

Grisedale on a Summer’s morning

Fairfield is usually climbed as the head of its Horseshoe, and a fantastic day’s walking that provides if, as I have previously explained, the choice is made to traverse anti-clockwise.
But to do so is to see only those expansive and grassy but somewhat dull and tedious parts of the fell, and to deny yourself sight of the cliffs that overlook Deepdale and Fairfield’s north-eastern flanks.
An alternate aphproac, preceded by a lot of comparatively gentle walking, does repair quite a lot of that omission and, once the climb from the valley is completed, offers a beautiful and enthralling high level traverse from Fairfield to St Sunday Crag to return to Patterdale.
The start for this walk is once again Grisedale, and all the usual warnings about an early arrival so as to take advantage of the very limited parking available at the mouth of the valley applies equally here. On the other hand, if forced to park at the opposite end of Patterdale Village, there is an alternate, slightly contrived ending to the walk that brings you back almost directly to your car.
Assuming arrival at Grisedale in sufficient time to claim advantage, take the road into the valley. This is quiet and shaded, and its dips and rises help get the legs into shape for the heavy work to be done later. Where the road emerges into the valley and turns ninety degrees right, leave it at a gate directly ahead for the start of the long walk to Grisedale Pass.
The route along the valley is wide and level, and offers frequent patches of shading from what will hopefully be a very yellow sun in a clear blue sky. A good marching pace can be maintained until the valley begins to narrow and the path to rise, emerging from its accompanying fence and following the beck as it climbs towards the summit of the Pass, on the very lip of Grisedale. Once a clear, low skyline makes itself apparent, look rightwards for a flat-faced rock, angled slightly towards the north side of the valley. Cross to this when you see it, to inspect the famous ‘Brothers Parting’.

This marks the point at which the poet William Wordsworth last parted from his sea captain brother John, the latter dying at sea five years later without seeing his brother again. The lettering is very weathered: indeed, the last time I was here, it was only possible to read the inscription by looking across the rock from left to right at a very tight angle. The time will come, if it has not already, when the inscription will fade into complete illegibility.
Opinions vary on the best way to start a walk. My own preference is to start gaining height as soon as possible, to get above the valley and start to experience the breezes and the expanding horizons. But a walk like this offers the opposite experience, the appeal of tracing a valley to its head, as the high fells surrounding it enclose the narrowing space, and the ridge is reached, offering a view into a different landscape.
The head of Grisedale is the summit of the Pass. It reveals the glacial bowl that holds Grisedale Tarn, below, to the west of the ridge. An initially ill-defined line leads forward and round to the foot of the Dollywaggon Zigzags, the classic foothold onto the Helvelyn Range, butFairfield lies in the opposite direction, and the way is not particluarly attractive.
This is because from here to the summit of Fairfield, there is a lot of height to be gained for a relatively short movement forward. In short, this section of the walk is a grind, an unremittingly steep ascent with little to interest but getting it over. It’s sole merit is that all the worst of the climbing is concentrated into one single session, and once Fairfield’s broad and flat top is reached, you can relax in knowing that everything ahead is delightful.
Glimpses will already be had of the continuation of the walk, northwards back to Patterdale, and most walker’s eyes will have been drawn to the outcrop of Cofa Pike, high and steep-sided on a clearly narrow ridge. For the moment, take a breather at the cairn, the highest point on the walk, rehydrate with the liquid of your choice, and have a bite to eat.
St. Sunday Crag lies northwards, but first time visitors are urged to wander towards the south, descending gently to the edge of the plateau, until they emerge above the Afternoon arm of the Horseshoe and can take in that extraordinary broad and deep vista of the west of Lakeland (previous visitors will need no urging to renew acquaintance with the sight). Plans to walk the Horseshoe will be accelerated immediately.
But now the best part of the walk is ahead.
Leave the summit cairn due north, towards the one point on Fairfield’s top that narrows to a defined ridge. It’s rocks, and the steep upthrust of Cofa Pike, only a short distance down the ridge, will have most walkers looking forward intensely to the next half hour. The ridge demands concentration, especially on the approach to Cofa Pike, which looks formidable and difficult to pass. The experienced walker will take this in their stride, though it’s a place to be avoided in high winds or snowy and icy conditions.

Cofa Pike and St. Sunday Crag.

The adrenalin burn continues down its further slopes to the broad and easy col at Deepdale Hause, from which Fairfield’s cliffs, unsuspected from the Horseshoe, give a new impression of the fell to those only familiar with its western and southern aspects. Deepdale lies to the right, drawing attention.
Ahead lies St Sunday Crag, offering a wide and comfortable ridge to ascend. It offers no difficulty except to stamina in older walkers, and time should be taken to appreciate the superb views back to Griasedale Pass, and the Tarn beyond, nestled in its sheltering hollow. It’s a view that begs to be photographed, and I am still kicking myself that in my eagerness to get out to the Lakes that June Saturday I forgot to grab my camera case and have no record of it.

Grisedale Tarn, looking to St. Sunday Crag

The slope eases as it rises, but the back of St Sunday Crag is broad enough to conceal all sight of Ullswater until reaching the summit cairn.
The best views are from the north-east ridge, including the classic scene of the upper reach of Ullswater, rich and blue among the fields of Patterdale, which comes into prominence only a short way down the ridge. This remains in view ahead during a long descent that is a delight at every step.
At the foot of the ridge, those walkers who have had enough (a stance justified only by injury, complete fatigue or a soullessness that I can’t believe) may continue downwards, on the northern flank, descending to cross Glenamara Park (which readers of the First edition Wainwrights will always know as Glamara Park). But it is better in every respect to follow the flat ridge directly ahead, which has been fully exposed on the descent, to the summit of Birks, the primary outlier of St Sunday Crag, itself with an excellent, more intimate view of the head of the Lake.
Descend directly from Birks to join the path into the lightly wooded Glenamara Park, though be warned that this is a bit of a knee-cracker. All that is left is a gentle stroll towards Grisedale Beck, which is crossed by a bridge at the mouth of the valley, returning to the valley road for a short walk back to your car.
Those who were not early enough to park in the limited spaces on the valley road face a walk of half a mile or more, either to the other end of Patterdale Village or, in extremis, the car park in Glenridding Village. The former can avoid the necessary tramp down the road by a slightly contrived diversion off the route described, starting fro Birks’ summit.
Instead of descending north towards Glenamara Park, leave the summit in the opposite direction, scrambling down a largely pathless slope towards the company of a broken wall. At its foot, an intermittent path can be picked up, bearing left, which leads to the oddly-shaped Trough Head, an enclosed dell at the head of the tiny valley of Hag Beck. Drop round and into Trough Head and take a rambling path from its further flank that leads to the miniature outcrops of Arnison Crag, a second and much-removed spur of st Sunday Crag’s north-east ridge, whose main claim to fame is that it is the first fell in the first Wainwright, The Eastern Fells.
Descend from the summit alongside the wall, to pick up a path at its foot that follows the edge of Glenamara Park past Mill Moss – once a rubbish tip but now delightfully restored to beauty, according to Jesty – before emerging from behind a block of Public Conveniences to the only other parking area in Patterdale.
It all makes for a memorable day and a memorable walk, but I hope that any who take this way will walk it without the memories that indelibly attach to my visit. I set off to return home by rounding Ullswater and heading for Shap and the M6. I had a cassette in the player, which ran out about 3.50pm so I decided to have ten minutes of radio and take in the 4.00pm news. The news lead with the item that had been occupying the broadcasts since mid-morning, of which until that moment I knew nothing: The IRA Bomb in the centre of Manchester.

3 thoughts on “Great Walks: Fairfield to St. Sunday Crag

  1. An account that sounds heavenly until the last paragraph.

    I’ve never done this walk in this direction, but other than the steep pull up Fairfield (on a path that’s becoming increasingly eroded), it sounds wonderful. So true about the contrast in the faces Fairfield shows to the north and south. I like the walk over Birks and Arnison Crag via Trough Head. Some great views from Arnison too.

    Thinking about doing the first bit up through Grisedale soon, but diverting off to climb Nethermost Pike via Nethermost Cove. Have you ever done that route?

  2. No, never got round to Nethermost Pike except on a high level walk, up Sticks Pass, down Grisedale, five tops between.

    As for the aftermath, once I’d avoided driving into the wall through shock, I put my foot down and raced to Shap in search of a phone (I was not an early adopter of mobiles) for reassuraance that neither my girlfriend nor my sister had been anywhere near the bomb. Thankfully, neither had.

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