For all that it’s a prominent, spacious, great grassy lumpish wodge of fell, thrusting itself out in front of Great Gable yet still managing to be overshadowed by it, Kirk Fell is a difficult fell to climb. At first glance, it seems as if it should be easy from Wasdale Head (from Ennerdale Head it might well be another fell entirely), but the only path on this side of the fell is one that goes straight up, literally, that Wainwright describes as unremittingly steep, and in other terms that permanently inoculated me from the urge to take that route. It’s there, it’s big, it’s green all over, but there’s something about Kirk Fell that makes the eye slide off it to more photogenic fells, namely, everything else you can see. Denied that route, any ascent I attempted of Kirk Fell, would have to be from either Black Sail Pass or Beck Head, and again Wainwright’s descriptions of the stringent routes involved, steep, rocky, requiring skill, experience and caution, did not seem conducive to attempting the fell from either side as part of a longer expedition. Funnily, I remember Kirk Fell appearing in an ITV TV Play titled ‘The Mosedale Horseshoe Club’, about a party of middle-aged walkers, two men, two sisters, who met each year to walk the titular Horseshoe, only to fail for varying reasons every time: that was either very-late Sixties or very-early Seventies, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it again, if it still exists. So when it came time, with the number of Wainwrights winding down, to account for Kirk Fell, I took it as a separate walk, driving up from Manchester one Sunday morning, to a Wasdale Head darkened by loose clouds that drifted around the higher tops. It was going to be up one way and down the other. My usual instincts kicked in and I headed anti-clockwise, towards Sty Head on a path I’d not taken in twenty-five years, before cutting off to head for Gavel Neese, which is every bit as arduous route as it looks from Down-in-the-Dale. Despite some glorious ravine scenery on the Kirk Fell side of the gill, I was glad to bear left on an easier gradient to Beck Head itself, for a breather. Then I tackled the spiny, rocky scramble onto Kirk Fell’s top, traversing the littered ground from one top to another as the cloud line danced only a short distance ahead. No point hanging round, or searching out the view down to Wastwater: another stony, loose, careful scramble, this one a little more severe to get me down to Black Sail and a descent back to the Wasdale Head Hotel that was much more familiar than anything my family would ever have imagined, to be followed by a Sunday evening drive home and work on Monday morning.
Not all Great Walks are Horseshoes, and not all Horseshoes are Great Walks, but the epithet certainly applies to the Mosedale Horseshoe.
There are no less than six Mosedales (one being spelt Moasdale) in the Lake District, and the name means dreary valley. In theory there could be six Mosedale Horseshoes, but in reality there is only one, and that circuits the valley least deserving of the name it has been given. That Mosedale lies at the head of Wasdale, and its Horseshoe is a grand day out.
Technically, the Horseshoe should encompass five fells: Kirk Fell, Pillar, Scoat Fell, Red Pike and Yewbarrow, in anti-clockwise order, although it would be a hard-hearted and extremely purist walker who could resist a diversion from Scoat Fell to Steeple en route. The full Mosedale Horseshoe is an enormously draining experience, and most everyday walkers will leave one or other of the outlying fells off the agenda. When I tackled this walk, I ended up leaving both outliers out, but the walk was still a fine experience, on a gloriously sunny day, and I ended up with a long walk home round Yewbarrow, instead of over it, but that’s not compulsory.
The walk begins from Down-in-the-Dale, the triangle of green land at Wasdale Head where the cars have parked since time immemorial (since well before I was a lad, basically). The choice of starting route varies as to whether Kirk Fell is to be incorporated into the day’s plans. If it is, take the rougher, right hand fork towards Great Gable and Sty Head, relishing the morning sun. This crosses the beck, and subsequently a gill bubbling rapidly downhill from the flanks of Kirk Fell, and gains a foothold on the lowest slopes of Gable, at which point a track springs off left, uphill.
Kirk Fell, flanked by Black Sail Pass, left, and Sty Head Pass, right, from Dore Head
Much collar work is required to gain height. This route ascends towards Gavel Neese, the direct route to Gable via the Hellgate screes and Westmorland Cairn and, as such, it is demanding work, especially at the very start of the day. The Kirk Fell bound pedestrian is allowed to escape left, on a gentler gradient, towards Beck Head, but the first stage is a draining experience at a point when the body is first drawing on its reserves for a long day.
Beck Head is wide and littered with stone, and Gable does not present its best face to this flank, but we are not concerned about that today. Kirk Fell offers a broad and flattish top, but the access from either side is steep and treacherous. If anything, the descent to Black Sail Pass is the rougher of the two approaches, and extreme care is required to ensure you are in a fit state to proceed once you reach that point.
It’s not necessary to go as far out of the way as Gavel Neese to ascend Kirk Fell from Wasdale Head, as this can be accomplished direct from the approach to Black Sail. This utilises the road as far as the Wastwater Hotel, and beyond, past the last buildings in the valley. The track makes a short leap up to the intake wall, and once through this, turns left and descends slightly to enter Mosedale. At this point, the direct ascent goes up the grassy fellside.
I’ve never taken that route, but Wainwright advertises it as a virtually straight line on a consistently steep gradient, with only two places along the way where the walker can stand upright. If you’re going to expend energy on Kirk Fell, don’t do it this way: Beck Head is far more interesting.
Unless you are a very strong walker, I would recommend leaving Kirk Fell out of it and gaining the ridge via Black Sail Pass. Unlike its more famous neighbour, Black Sail rises on grass for almost all its length. A wide path descends into the openness of Mosedale, offering a round of views to the steep, plain-sided fells surrounding the valley. That directly ahead is Pillar, though it shows its best features to Ennerdale, over the ridge. Leave the valley walk at a fork, right, heading straight towards a prominent gate, beyond which the walk turns inwards, rising to cross the beck below some high moraines, and zigzagging around these to enter the upper valley. The path offers no great difficulties on the way to the shallow col, and on my last visit a gate still stood on the very top, though the fences to either side had long since gone.
Those walkers who started with Kirk Fell will also come to this point. Pillar beckons, a long, rocky and, on my visit, surprisingly lonely route of ascent, incorporating three ascents and two levels between. First comes the subsidiary lump of Looking Stead, offering views down into Ennerdale Head, which should be visited before tackling the main route.
Strong walkers have another option open to them. The average walker will mount the long ridge with a rising tide of anticipation, but the exceptional walker will, just beyond Looking Stead, look for a narrow track turning away on the right, towards Ennerdale. This is the High Level Route to Pillar Rock which begins with a splendid traverse across the Ennerdale flank of the mountain, ending at Robinson’s Cairn, below the full majesty of the Rock’s eastern face. From here, a zigzag path scales the rocks above, crossing Shamrock Traverse, a tilted groove in the rock face, before arriving above the Rock itself, in ravaged and magnificent surroundings. From here, proceed up the long scree slope to the surprisingly broad and flat summit of the fell, joining the walkers who have stuck to the ridge.
Pillar is the highest, and most magnificent point of this walk, offering stunning views of the high mountains, but that does not imply a falling off in interest when you are sated and move on.
The path continues down the west ridge of Pillar, requiring a mini-scramble to cross the subsidiary top of Black Crag, before settling to the task of gaining the top of Scoat Fell. Routefinding is not an issue, a substantial wall accompanying every step of the way and, in fact, occupying the highest point of Scoat Fell, the summit cairn being consequently built on the wall itself.
Here is the point to break out of the strict Horseshoe to Steeple, which lies north of the summit and wholly over the ridge. The parent fell’s top is so wide open and level that it is difficult to think of it as an actual top, but Steeple offers a classic contrast: an elegant rocky spire with a summit on which no more than two people could stand together, and even then if already intimately involved. Ten minutes from Scoat Fell should be enough, and fifteen minutes back because the ascent is longer.
The wall and the ridge, indefinite as it may be at this point, continues westward towards Haycock, but the Horseshoe executes a ninety degree turn here, away from the wall. At the edge of the top, the line of descent comes into view, a clear, broad path dropping to the col before Red Pike, and continuing across the green back of the fell, whilst a side route rises along the edge of the shattered crags overlooking Mosedale. The summit balances on the edge of the downfall, with superb views of the valley.
As the ridge declines, heading for Dore Head and Yewbarrow, the views stretch and grow. The walking is easy, on a well-defined path: two may walk abreast, talking the whole way down. For a long stretch, the walk overlooks the whole length of not merely Black Sail, but also Sty Head. It’s impossible to squeeze into a single photograph though.
In the end, the enjoyable downwards tramp comes to an end under the rocks of Stirrup Crag, on Yewbarrow. Three options are available. The best is to continue across the col, following the path towards Stirrup Crag. This looks fearsome, especially in the late afternoon sun, which will cast it into shadow, but the way is distinct and whilst it involves hand and foot scrambling at every step, it involves nothing worse. For an experienced walker, the only realistic danger in dry conditions is exhaustion at the end of a long and demanding day. If going this way, bear in mind that whilst the walk from Stirrup Crag to the summit rocks, a quarter mile or so distant, is easy, the only realistic descent from Yewbarrow is along the long prow of the fell, walking away from Wasdale Head at every step. A return to Dore Head by descending Stirrup Crag is not recommended.
The next best option is to descend Dore Head to Mosedale. Once upon a time, this would have been a gleeful romp, for Dore Head was one of the greatest scree-runs in the lakes, and walkers would plunge down the fellside, head arched backwards, running/sliding through the scree in a controlled manner, dropping 1500′ feet in something like twenty minutes. But the years and the runs have made their toll, and no scree remains: indeed, for a long section, the channel of Dore Head runs in a wide trench, scooped more than ten foot deep into the fellside.
I baulked at a descent by that route, not prepared to risk starting down a scraped-clean channel where progress was invisible after only ten feet. Following two contrasting later ascents, I would know now to retreat a short way towards Red Pike, look over the Mosedale edge until I could see a shallow dell with a boulder in it, and look for a narrow path going round behind it. This path turns into a delightful twisting descent, often on the edge of that horrendous trench, that doesn’t peter out until about 300′ above the valley bottom. When this happens, contour left above some small bluffs and use sheep trails to finish the descent to the ground, after which follow the Mosedale path out of the valley, and ultimately across the packhorse bridge behind the Hotel. The car is only a couple of hundred yards away.
My own walk, frightened off by the impossibility of setting myself at Dore Head, was the least favourable, but utterly safe option. Over Beck leads down from the back of Dore Head, a shallow, green valley behind Yewbarrow. To find the path, aim for the Yewbarrow flank and you’ll soon find it. It’s an unexciting march, even when the descent from Yewbarrow, dropping dangerously from the Great Door, joins from the left. It ends on the prow of the fell, following the wall down to ground level, and leaving a mile and a half of road back to Wasdale Head.
I walked it in a gloriously sunny early evening, the air so clear and bright that I felt that I could reach across the lake to touch Scafell and the Pike. Even this unwanted diversion still felt like a welcome part of a superb walk.