If you want to undertake a long, serious walk that incorporates Helvellyn – the Lake District’s third-highest and most-visited mountain – then it must be approached from the Patterdale valley, to the east of the range. There are a profusion of walks from the west, from Wythburn and Thirlmere, but this is the grassy, sleek, dull side of the range, long miles with few features.
The best long-distance walk from the east is one I call ‘The Outer Circle’. It takes advantage of the fact that Sticks Pass, to the north, and Grisedale Pass, to the south, disburse into Patterdale little more than a mile apart, enabling one to be used to gain the ridge, and the other to leave it, with a long, high traverse and five high summits between.
There are only two drawbacks to the Outer Circle. One is Striding Edge, the other is Swirral Edge, and is an ascent of Helvellyn from the east really worth it if it doesn’t incorporate at least one of these narrow, airy, hands on rock approaches?
But the walker who completes the Outer Circle can walk tall, even as he (or she) stumbles sore-footed back to the car once back to the road.
Circular walks pose the immediate problem of which way to go round. I don’t know if it’s some instinctive prejudice, but the vast majority of my circle walks have been done anti-clockwise. It just seems to be the way that produces the better walking, and in the case of the Fairfield Horseshoe, it certainly produces the best views.
So take advantage of the car park in Glenridding Village, parking as close to the entrance as possible: this will matter. Walk north along the main road, and turn off down a side-street, feeling incongruous in boots and rucksack, as you pass between residential terraces. When the road opens up at the far end, veer right, then left, onto the Glenridding Lead Mine road (rough, unmetalled). This is a long, straight walk, towards the hills, flat and slightly tedious, especially if under a hot sun: the valley is sufficiently enclosed to choke off any cooling breezes.
Ahead, the derelict buildings of the former lead mine grow slowly larger, until you finally reach their foot. There are various routes from here towards the massif. The main walk, bearing half-left to follow the beck, ascends past the gradually healing ruins of the former Kepple Cove Tarn. The Outer Circle route turns off right, onto the base of the steep slag-mound directly behind the disused buildings, though the walk will catch up with the path by the beck further along.
The former slagbank is steep, and the route zig-zags across its face, loose and loud underneath, until it reaches a long, angled terrace that runs from left to right across the upper face, and leads to the final scramble up and beyond.
Above is the bed of the former Sticks Reservoir, drained in 1962 when the mine was abandoned. It occupies a large hollow in the fellside, and the path follows its old bank, taking a long detour north, then west along half its shoreline. A beeline could be made across the drained bed, but the grass is darker, somehow forbidding, suggesting that it may still be soft underfoot, and many walkers will just keep to the path and try to picture the scene as it was for Wainwright, in the early Fifties.
Beyond this basin, the valley narrows into a miniature defile, twisting and turning as it follows Sticks Gill (East) upstream. There’s no views to gauge progress by, and this stage is frustrating as it never seems to end. Finally, it does debouch onto the long, wide plateau that is the top of Sticks Pass.
The Helvellyn range lies south, its first summit, Raise, overlooking the Pass. Leave from the cairn at the highest point, and the ascent is an uncomplicated, uphill walk, that steepens slightly when you reach the summit rocks, but which is without any difficulty whatsoever. If there is wind about on the day, this is where it will first make itself effective.
South lies White Side, a simple rounded fell with a broad swathe sweeping up out of the valley of Kepple Cove and crossing the bare top without a break. There’s no path off Raise initially, but one soon develops on the easy southern slopes, merging into the route – the main path through Glenridding Lead Mine, left below – and crossing the top of White Side. There is nothing on top, no rocks, nowhere to sit except on the ground, and no reason to pause except for registering your next conquest.
But the ridge gets very interesting from this point, after a short descent into the final hollow before the climb onto Helvellyn itself.
To the left, the jagged ridge of Swirral Edge approaches the main bulk of the fell from the col at the back of shapely Catstycam (sometimes, but rarely nowadays known as Catchedicam). There’s ample time on the descent to look for stick figures, walkers following the ridge, moving into and out of sight behind outcrops. Once you reach the foot of the long climb, up the towering flank of Helvellyn Lower Man, there is little opportunity to observe as effort will be concentrating on the ascent, the most direct and therefore steepest of the day.
Things start to ease as the top of Lower Man, a subsidiary summit itself over 3,000′, is reached at the northern edge of the curved, broad plateau that constitutes Helvellyn’s popular summit. It’s hard to distinguish an actual path, given how many millions of boots have tramped here, every year, but the way onwards is obvious: uphill, along the broad crest or, in clear weather, veer left to follow the rim of the cliffs overhanging the comb in which Red Tarn lies, between the twin arms of the Edges.
Helvellyn’s highest point is marked by three things: a large cairn, a cross-shaped wind-shelter, and hordes of people. I climbed by this route in low cloud, spent twenty minutes lunching in five yard visibility, during which time not thirty seconds passed without a new arrival at the top. Do not expect solitude and the privacy of your thoughts in silence.
When ready to leave, descend half-leftish to the top of Striding Edge. The sickle-curve of the ridge that lies below you is the scene of a million postcards, not a one of which can duplicate anything of the reality of the view from this point. Though it lies off a direct route south, for this reason alone it must be visited.
Besides, from the top, a narrow path skirting the edge of the steep decline leads around the curve of Helvellyn’s top, to the little col between it and Nethermost Pike. This narrow trod is far more interesting than the main highway, and it will be far less frequented, which after twenty minutes on Helvellyn on a nice day, will be extremely welcome.
From the col, the main path along the ridge stays mainly to the western side as far as Grisedale Pass, omitting to visit either of the two remaining tops. Ignore it and bear left to gain Nethermost Pike’s flat and uninteresting top, which is decorated by three cairns, in a widespread triangle. From each cairn, at least one of the others looks higher, so trek round each one, return to the highway and drop down to the col before Dollywaggon Pike. This Pike has a much more attractive and appropriate shape, and when the highway levels off to cross the back of the fell, leave it by a narrow path that follows the crest to the day’s final summit, and follow the crest down and right to return to the main route.
This leads to the top of the (in)famous Dollywaggon Zig-Zags. These are a wonderfully graded series of gentle terraces, criss-crossing the broad back of the fell that overlooks Grisedale Tarn and its Pass. For years these have been hacked about, as many such routes have been, by crude, impatient walkers, too hasty and ignorant to understand that the zig-zags make the steep ascent so much easier, who have short-cutted the zig-zags (usually in descent) by straight line routes that have torn and scarred the fellside. The National Trust have, of course, stepped in to relay the original route, and it is gradually re-establishing its ascendency: it is certainly the best way, up or down.
Grisedale Pass marks the southernmost point on the ridge in this walk. The actual summit of the Pass lies beyond the further limit of the Tarn, but the descent now is left, over the lip of Grisedale itself, firstly steeply through the upper parts of the valley, still high in the hills, before the way eases at the Climbers Hut, and a choice has to be made as to which side of the valley is to be followed. But, on the first part of the descent, look left, among the tumbled and littered stones, for the rock known as The Brother’s Parting, marking the place at which William Wordsworth took his last leave of his Sea-Captain brother John, who would die at sea five years later. The rock is carved with faded letters that can best be made out from the extreme left, looking across its surface, and is far easier to locate in ascent than descent.
Beyond the Climbing Hut, the path forks. The branch to the left follows the northern flank of the valley, and is slightly shorter, but it is exposed to the air. Should the afternoon sun now be beating down on your head, better to stick with the right fork, leaving you a long, mostly level walk back along the valley, several sections of which being, however, under the cool shade of trees.
Eventually, this route emerges at the roadhead in the lowest part of the valley, with a mile to walk, undulating, mostly under shade from the copious woods, emerging at the northern end of Patterdale Village.
There is a further half-mile or more to Glenridding Village, along a narrow, busy road, with no pavements. Keep to the left, in defiance of the most sensible practice, and a track turns away behind the wall, paralleling the road in complete safety for most of the way back to the head of Ullswater, and the road to the boat-landings. Transfer to the other side of the road, so as to have the nearest traffic in your sight, ahead of you, and after crossing the beck in the Village, go back to the pavement on the left side, and turn into the car park. There is a small, but painful ascent to turn up, but if the car has been left at this end, relief is shortly available.