Yewbarrow in October

Deep blue sky from visible horizon to visible horizon. A glowing yellow sun. Diamond sharp air. Hard edged sun-cast shadows.

Today’s weather takes me back over twenty years to a similar week in a mid-Nineties October. Day after day it was cold and blue and crystal clear, and I was anxiously eyeing the sky for signs of it changing before I could get to the Lakes on Sunday for a day’s walking (United were at home on Saturday).

With the night drawing in from about 4.30pm, I couldn’t plan a long expedition, and I’d already been frustrated at Yewbarrow on a rainy, cloudy Saturday in the summer, so that former my plan. I was away up the motorway, crossing the south of the Lakes and cutting out the corner behind Black Combe on the Corney Fell Road. This gave me my first surprise.

I breasted the ridge, about 900′ or so, and saw the Irish Sea appear before me. It was amazing.

The sea spread out from side to side, and was a deep turquoise blue that I have never seen before or since. The Isle of Man lay in the middle of this, looking bigger and nearer than I have ever seen, before or since, as if the sea on the western side of the island were also visible. Further along the coast, there was a white circle, like a silver coin laid down on the turquoise, which puzzled me until I realised, from its position, that this was the estuary at Ravenglass, and that the white had to be the fresh water, pouring out into the sea, a different colour from the seawater and not yet merging.

It was stunning to see, but the first thought I had was frustration, at not having foreseen just how clear the air would be. Had I realised it would be, could be like this, I would have set the alarm a couple of hours earlier, and aimed to be at Wasdale Head in time to get up Scafell Pike: they say that it is possible from there to see the mountains of Ireland, and if they weren’t visible in those conditions, they never would be!

I motored on to Wasdale Head, parked at Down-in-the-Dale, and headed for the Hotel, cutting through its grounds and across the Packhorse Bridge for the path into Mosedale.

On my previous visit, kit had been a grey day, with cloud swirling about all the Wasdale tops, but I had set off with my usual grim determination optimism, banking on it clearing by the time I got that high. It didn’t. What was worse was that I had taken the broad green ride that rose from the Mosedale path, meeting the Dore Head scree run about halfway up, only to find when I got there that the scree-run had been dug into a scree-less rough channel, with ten foot overhangs guarding it, and no possible way across to the path on its further side.

I could have descended four to five hundred feet to the valley floor, and tried going up the far side, but I was not prepared to make that kind of retreat. This side of the channel was pathless, but studying what lay above, I figured I could get up that, especially if I angles over left, towards the base of the crags. Since I’m still here to write this, it obviously worked, but I’d not take that decision again.

I climbed carefully, a few steps at a time, studying the ground immediately ahead, and once I had got to the cliffbase, clinging on to it for comfort and support. It was slow progress, a couple of steps at a time where needed, working my way back towards the scree run at the centre.

The worst part was discovering there was no way onto the safety of the ridge on that side, not without climbing the base of Stirrup Crag itself. To get onto ground from which I could complete the ascent, I had to contour across the top of the trench, deep, scraped bare, no support under foot. It wasn’t as bad at Sharp Crag, but only Sharp Crag was a worse moment.

I’d reached the ridge safely, but the cloud hadn’t departed in the meantime. It was swirling around Stirruip Crag: no going on, no going back. My only option was to retreat down Over Beck, to circumnavigate Yewbarrow instead of climb it. And I hadn’t gone more than about four hundred yards before it started raining.

It rained hard. I’d gotten into my waterproofs as soon as it started but after a certain point, when it sluices down like it did then, waterproofs become waterlogs: I tramped back to Down-in-the-Dale, got behind the wheel and drove as close to the Hotel as I could and sprinted for the gents. By some incredible chance, I’d brought a change of clothes with me. I never did that, but I had that day, so I could get into dry things even if I wasn’t perfectly dry.

The only drawback was that I had not thought to bring replacement underwear. I was not prepared to go commando, though I really wish I had: my wet y-fronts immediately soaked through my jeans and I spent the rest of the day, returning via Cockermouth and Keswick, looking like a superhero around the loins.

But there would be no such occurrences this October Sunday. All well calm and crystal clear, bright and dry.

I passed under the broad green ride, and beneath the debouchment of the old scree-chute, after which I started looking for a path bearing upwards. The first I found was a narrow trod, on grass, gaining height through a sequence of minor dells, in which the grass underfoot sparkled with  miniature frost.

This played out after about three hundred feet and I contoured left, across the top of a prominent bluff, to reach a more firmly defined, but still narrow path near the edge of the trench. This was one of those superb, will-o’-the-wisp paths, never heading in the same direction for more than about six or seven steps at a time, zig-zagging to and fro, gaining height comfortable, before emerging in a little dell, dominated by a boulder in its centre/ I rounded the boulder, pulled myself up to the top and found myself on the ridge, about ten yards north of Dore Head.

Stirrup Crag was black against the sun. I tackled the scramble, hands and feet, twisting backwards and forwards and having a glorious time of it. It could have lasted at least twice as long as far as I was concerned, I was enjoying myself massively and sorry to come out on top of the Crag, on the rooftree of Yewbarrow, with an easy stroll to the summit rocks.

Many years ago, with my Dad and Uncle Arthur, we’d gotten close to here, leaving my mother and sister behind at Great Door and going ahead enough to look across and see Burnmoor Tarn on its boring moor. The western wall of the Scafell range looked magnificent: I usually gravitate to the eastern aspect, above Eskdale but this day the Wasdale front was worth every atom of daylight.

And then a slow descent, via Great Door, and down into Over Beck and, for the third time, the long slow walk back along the lake road. It was not as good as the first time I’d finished a walk that way, completing the Mosedale Horseshoe on a brilliant day, not being prepared to descend Dore Head, sight unseen, and coming this long way round, tramping the road at a September 6.30pm, the Pike and Scafell looking close enough across Wastwater that I felt as if I could reach out and touch them.

There was a long drive back, and it was dark before I was in Manchester, but the preternatural clarity of the weather had made it a magical experience for me. Today has brought it back, and I have wallowed in it!

A Duddon Fell

A Duddon Fell

I have always loved the Duddon Valley, ever since first discovering it as a ‘secret’ valley, when I was still a child.
As I’ve mentioned before, for years we used to stay at Low Bleansley farm, on the west flank of the overlooked Lickle Valley. Low Bleansley was at the end of a narrow road from the hamlet of Broughton Mills, connecting all the farms on that side of the valley. The tarmac road ended there, but a cart-track continuation continued, through a gate and into woods, leading up the hillside. One night, after our evening meal, Dad and I went for a walk along this track. It lead us up to the top of the low fell, and down again into another valley, one I hadn’t suspected existed. It was heavily forested and we followed the track down far enough to see the road below.
Back at the farm, Dad traced the map and identified our newly-discovered valley as the Duddon, and it wasn’t too much longer before we explored it for the first time. I don’t know if this was our first visit, but I vividly remember my Uncle driving us along the valley to Seathwaite (6 miles) and a bit beyond, as far as a forked junction, but refusing to go further since the valley road, at that point, became extremely narrow, with no possibility of two cars passing each other. We explored a short distance on foot, but all this was late afternoon: perhaps a side-visit when returning from Ravenglass.
We did go further, into the surprisingly wide openness of the upper valley, though this came after Dad died, in the early Seventies. There were two such trips for I remember two walks from Cockley Bridge, at the foot of Hard Knott and Wrynose: up Hard Knott on foot on the tarmac, and then the short walk to Hard Knott fell, and, at my suggestion, into Mosedale, almost to the valley head, where it would have been possible in theory to look down on Lingcove Beck, but this petered out, like the path, on increasingly wet ground, causing an abandonment.
These excursions aside, since the Duddon was not a convenient base for walks my family preferred, more often we would see only the lower valley, the pastoral, forested three miles from Duddon Bridge to Ulpha, where my Uncle would increasingly often risk his engine on the steep, zigzagging road behind the Traveller’s Rest to cross the expanse of Birker Moor and take a wide corner off the drive to Eskdale.
Sometimes, he’d compromise, by going over Corney Fell, from which, in ascent, there was a superb view over the Duddon Valley.
When I started going on holiday alone, free of the need to compromise to my family’s physical limits, and able to choose my own walks, I covered most of the Coniston Range in my first full year. I did Wetherlam – Swirl How – Great Carrs in the spring, and Dow Crag – the Old Man – Brim Fell in the early autumn. Later, as described here . I would do the whole Round in a single walk, but before that, I needed Grey Friars to complete the Range. And, so as not to cover ground already trodden, and because I’d never done a serious walk out of the Duddon, I made a point of a climb from this direction.
The obvious approach from the Duddon Valley was by the south-west ridge, which gave me a choice of starting points. The longer route was to base myself at Seathwaite, take the right hand fork from that long ago narrow junction and make a gradual ascent to Seathwaite Tarn, or to choose a base further north, near Troutal, and ascend across the base of the ridge to gain the valley of the Tarn on a more direct route. This latter enabled me to use the extensive car park at Birks Bridge, a short stroll along the road.

Seathwaite Tarn

This was a bitty, twisty ascent to begin with, under the lee of the ridge with no view of the way ahead until I was descending to the Tarn’s outflow. The ridge itself was pathless in those years, as Wainwright originally indicated, and it was a question of correctly identifying the grassy ride he recommended for access to the ridge. In the end, it was not difficult to spot, and I started to gain height steadily, in the centre of a wide channel.
Wainwright described the ridge as ‘a bewildering succession of abrupt craggy heights and knotty outcrops’, though there now appears to be a continuous path to the summit, but even then I found no great difficulties: just keep moving upwards, and eventually the summit crown comes into sight and it’s an easy ascent onto the round top and to the cairn. The highlight of the view is the Scafell range, seen in a great ring from Slight Side round to Esk Pike, but this was a greyish day, with the cloudline cutting across the range, so that was somewhat disappointing.
You should know by now that I find ascending and descending by the same route an anathema. There’s not much geographical alternative, so I decided to vary my route of descent by crossing the top and dropping down to Fairfield, the wide open plateau between Grey Friars and the wall of Swirl How. There wasn’t a path but by angling round to the right, it was easy to find the head of Seathwaite Tarn’s valley and turn down that.

On such a day…

I hadn’t seen anyone throughout the course of the walk which, even then, was how I liked it. The upper valley was lonely and empty, and the slope was easy and uncomplicated. I marched out steadily and confidently, and at a pretty fast rate. It curved to the right, and there was still no sight of Seathwaite Tarn, when I found my rapid course approaching a curious patch of light green standing out from the reedy grass around. It made me curious as to what it was, but my near headlong march took me to it, and upon it rapidly. Without thinking, I planted my right boot down on it. And kept going down.
My boot plunged through the nearly non-existent surface and kept going until I was in above my knee. And, between my insouciant momentum and the natural imbalance caused by having one leg shoot down about two and a half feet below where it should be, my left boot, like night following day, crashed down on the sickly-green patch and didn’t stop until it was almost at the knee.
There I was, in a bog, with no-one in sight and no-one remotely likely to come in sight in the foreseeable, up to an average of both knees in the muck and well and truly stuffed.
If you’ll permit me a brief digression: in those days I still owned a short satirical comic story by Howard the Duck creator Steve Gerber, using his experience in writing for TV of having his scripts submitted to Standards & Practices, i.e., the censors. Systematically, they gut every point of tension, drama and natural human response to crisis from his scene. There is a glorious moment when they instruct, ‘instead of the pilot reacting to his spaceship going out of control by banging his fit on the dashboard and shouting, “dammit!”, have him demonstrate a positive coping reaction.’
Positive Coping Reaction! What a gem! You cannot make things like that up, only real life can produce something so astonishingly perfect.
So here I was, in my own little real-life crisis, my opportunity to demonstrate a Positive Coping Reaction. And how did I positively cope? I panicked and, by main, fear-fuelled strength, wrenched my right leg far enough out of the bog to get my knee onto the firm ground on the bank immediately before me, and use that as a lever to drag my left leg out after it.
Now, look here, kids. I know that the likes of Douglas Adams and actual responsible adults will advise you Don’t Panic, but trust me and be flexible. There are circumstances where panic is your friend and you should be prepared to embrace him fervently.
Nevertheless, though I was now safe, and determined to give all spots of bright green the legendary wide berth, I was pretty much sopping wet, and sedgey from the knees down to my socks and boots, which had thankfully emerged with me. Make sure you tie secure knots in those laces.
So I resumed my downhill progress in a somewhat more circumspect manner, eager to see the curve of the valley expose Seathwaite Tarn, though this was still some way below. Walking its shore was calming and gentle, but I had one further obstacle to pass as I neared the outflow and recognised the point where I had to regain the lower part of the ridge to drop down to Troutal.
To get there, I had to cross a wide expanse of wet and soft ground. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have given it too much thought, but I was still rattled by my sinking experience, and was wary of any treacherous repetition. There was no way round it, I had to cross it, but how should I do this? The answer was ridiculous, but unexpectedly practical: a Groucho Walk.
Yes, I do mean the bent-kneed, half-crouch of the late Julius ‘Groucho’ Marx, and no, I am not joking. If you examine the movement, it has clear advantages. For one, the bent-knee stride means more ground is being covered at each step, and consequently a more rapid movement across the ground, whilst by splaying the stride, the centre of gravity is supported by a wider area, and only passes directly over the boot for a split-second. Of course, I didn’t have one fist clenched in the small of my back, nor another wielding an imaginary cigar, but in every other respect I adopted the position and made a very rapid transition to drier and firmer ground.
I don’t know how the theory stands up aerodynamically, but if it was all a load of gubbins, it was nevertheless a very effective placebo. I heaved a sigh of relief, descended to Troutal, the road and the car, and yanked my soggy socks and boots off. I could do nothing about my tide-marked jeans until I was back in Ambleside, however, and that called for a shower too.

The beautiful Duddon Valley

Despite all this, I have never lost my love for the beautiful Duddon Valley, though the only other time I returned to Grey Friar, I stayed firmly out of that valley. No more bog-trotting for me.

Obscure Corners: East of Longsleddale

Longsleddale from Great Howe

Longsleddale, even after all these years since Wainwright’s Far Eastern Fells was first published, is an Obscure Corner, and deservedly so. Not because it is dull and drab and deserves to be overlooked, but because it is quiet, shy and beautiful, and should be allowed to retain that character.
The valley is a long, straight affair, some six miles in length, a deep trench opening in secluded circumstances onto the A6 Shap road, a few miles north of Kendal. Though it is seen daily by thousands of motorists travelling north, Longsleddale offers no hints of what lies beyond its wooded mouth, and so it remains for the most part unspoiled.
I say for the most part, because in the past when I have visited, there was rough space beside Sadgill Bridge, where the Longsleddale road ends, for three to four cars, and that was sufficient, because three to four visitors at a time was all this sentinel of peace commanded. Now, a proper car park has been built by the Bridge, a sign that Longsleddale’s peace may be under threat.
That sense of isolation is, for me at any rate, compounded by the fact that the only road access to Longsleddale is from the A6: like Swindale, and even Mardale to the north, there is the feeling that to get to Longsleddale it is necessary to go out and come back in from outside the Lake District. No road crosses Gatescarth Pass (may that remain so eternally), no road from Kentmere enters the valley at mid-level.
The eastern flank of Longsleddale is more obscure even than the valley, for Grey Crag and Tarn Crag are the Lakes’ most easterly outliers: this is up against the edge.
From the east itself, Grey Crag can be reached from the A6 by four ridges. When I was still reading the Wainwrights obsessively, wondering about places it seemed unlikely I would ever see, the two pages that cover those routes were among the most fascinating. They spoke of places outside, names not shared with any other fell: Huck’s Bridge, the Jungle Cafe (long gone but from the name alone a busy place to conjure in the mind).
But none of those ridges are properly thrown out by Grey Crag, though from Sadgill, the ascent does make use of the fell’s one true sub-ridge, thrown out south, culminating in the lower height of Great How, topped by a survey post.
The walk starts opposite the car park, a gate into a grassy enclosure, the stile at its top left corner already visible. Walk uphill to this. Rough ground and rock appears above: make fo the base of an easy, grassy gully and veer right across the slope for the next stile, which lets you out onto the open fellside at the base of Great How.
Those who wish to save Grey Grag until last should turn back along the wall at this point, gradually rising across the pathless fellside until it is possible to make a near bee-line for Tarn Crag’s summit, but a better plan is to go straight ahead, curving up steeper ground until emerging by the survey post. Stop here to admire Longsleddale.
From here to the summit of Grey Crag is an easy uphill walk. Follow the ridge along its easy, shelving back, angling across Grey Crag itself, until a fence comes into view, on the narrow tongue between parallel streams. Swing to the right to cross the waters that become Stockdale Gill, lower down, and make uphill to the summit.
Here is Lakeland’s most easterly peak. Beyond is the edge, the point at which Lakeland becomes not-Lakeland, in the indefinite ridges between here and there. If you have expected something exceptional about this place, here you will be disappointed. Grey Crag is no peak, it holds little of interest as a top. In theory, it should command stunning views, outwards and eastward, but it is not high enough, in itself or in its elevation above the spreading ridges, to command a panorama, and the chances are that whatever might be of value in this view will be blurred by haze, or dullness, or cloud: clear days on Grey Crag are few, and such clear days are usually a demand to go somewhere more worthy.
But we are here, close by the edge. Those ridges and their lesser tops may now be collected in The Outlying Fells, still without recommendation, but they remain outside, across a border that exists only in the heart, and we are here today because this is as close as can be to that border.
Tarn Crag lies north and west. Wainwright recommends heading north initially, to pick up a fence at the apex of a tight corner, and Jesty indicates a rudimentary path leading the way. The fence leads left behind Tarn Crag’s top, requiring only an easy detour to its top. A more direct route is not recommended as being too marshy,though on my visit I found the direct route far drier and firmer that its reputation. Curiously, this corner being Obscure because of its solitude, I made this traverse in the company of an older walker who joined me just below Grey Crag.
Tarn Crag allows a first sight of the upper valley lying beyond Longsleddale’s narrow and rocky jaws, where the staid levelness of the valley gives way to a sudden, steep climb. From here, Harter Fell and the head of Gatescarth Pass come into view, and a sense of even greater loneliness and isolation appears: ironic, since that area will be far busier with walkers than here where you stand.
There are options from Tarn Crag for a direct descent to Longsleddale, either by the route towards the base of Great How, or north of west, accompanying a nameless beck and a wire fence, to the head of the quarry road, above the gorge. Better though to continue north, on open, featureless grass flanks, as far as the peaty, low saddle separating the upper valley, left, from the head of another of Lakeland’s Mosedales.
This latter curves in dull and grassy loneliness around the base of Branstree, directly ahead, debouching above waterfalls that tumble prettily into Swindale. It also offers access over a low ridge to Wet Sleddale, and there is a bothy, Mosedale Cottage, a half mile in that direction. But I’m bound to say I found it a cheerless place (Mosedale means ‘dreary valley’ after all), possessed by an emptiness that I found distinctly off-putting. It felt as if walking in Mosedale would take longer than the actual clock measured: far longer.
Here, decisions must be made. The enthusiastic walker, whose energy has been barely tested by the walk so far, or the Wainwright bagger keen to count coup, will want to ascend Branstree. It’s dead ahead, we’re here, there are no complications: ascend towards the prominent wall and follow it, on your right, to nearly the summit. Descend alongside the fence left, to the head of Gatescarth Pass and turn left again for Longsleddale.
However, be warned that the walking is dull and tedious both ways, that Branstree’s summit is dead flat, making its highest point a matter of guesswork, and you will be tiring yourself in a far from good cause.
Better to follow the indeterminate track left from this saddle, descending carefully, in view of the wetness underfoot, into that hidden upper valley where the quarry used to be and the wreckage of industry still fascinates.
From here, bear left to reach the top of the quarry road. The steep descent between the rocky jaws on Longsleddale is absorbing, especially when considering that ponies used to negotiate this road, pulling heavy loads of stone. At the foot, the road becomes level and eay and there is no more than an afternoon stroll back to the car.

Obscure Corners: The Head of Swindale

swindale 2

Swindale is a lovely, lonely valley on the eastern side of Lakeland, the kind of place for which the word ‘unspoiled’ is usually coined.
That’s not entirely the case: sixty years ago, when Wainwright was working on the Far Eastern Fells, plans were well in hand to construct a dam and flood the valley to provide another reservoir for the benefit of Manchester. Though there was a change of heart, enough things had been done in preparation for sending Swindale after Mardale to leave render ‘unspoiled’ as forever inappropriate.
Yet sixty years or so have gone since the threat to drown Swindale receded, and the valley has been all but untouched since: an oasis of quiet beauty, a window upon an older world, a living memory.
And this effect has been enhanced in recent years by the decision to ban all cars from the valley, except for those of its few residents. Parking used to be restricted to the grassy banks around Truss Gap, in the middle of the valley, but even this is now forbidden. Those who want to walk in Swindale must needs rely on their feet from the valley mouth onwards. Needless to say, this has cut down on the already few visitors to begin with.
For Swindale’s is a rural beauty, of low ridges and silence. It shares but two Wainwrights, only one of which truly belongs to the valley, this being Selside Pike, the reasons for both the visits I paid to Swindale.
My first visit was a geographic disaster. I completely misread my maps and Wainwright and, parking at Truss Gap, took to the western flank of the dale, gaining a wide, low ridge on an afternoon of cold wind and clarity, a very long way uphill to my target. On my second visit, I was extremely cheeky: I ignored the Truss Gap sign about there being no parking after that point, drove the extremely narrow road to its end at Swindale Head, and sought permission to leave my car there until about 3.00pm (I planned an early end to the afternoon as I was going to interrupt my week away by driving back to Manchester to see United play in the Champions League and, as Swindale was decently handy for Shap and the M6, as well as Selside Pike being among the few remaining Wainwrights on my list, it was convenient all ways round). The farmer (?) was happy for me to stay as long as I was gone by 5.00pm, which I assured him was not a concern. Walkers in the twenty-First Century have miles to go before reaching this isolated farmstead.
A more adventurous walker can make a longer day of it by ascending to the ridge from Truss Gap, as if planning to creep up on the Naddle Horseshoe from behind. Neither the Outlying Fells nor the bog standard Far Eastern Fells cover the country between the Naddle valley and Selside Pike – a blank behind the name Swindale Common – but though pathless, it looked to be innocuous from afar.
But if the walk is also to experience a slice of history, there is no alternative to Swindale Head and ascending the Mardale Corpse Road. This leaves virtually from the farmyard, ascending alongside a wall before breaking off on a gently graded straight angle across the fellside that provides little excuse for stopping and looking back into Swindale, but do that often anyway.
There are no difficulties in the walk, as is to be expected. The Corpse Road has not been used for its original purpose in over 275 years, since the consecration of a burial ground in Mardale relieved the farmers of that dale from the need to transport their dead across the fells for burial at Shap, but the way was made for men carrying a coffin shoulder high, and was made with (relative) ease and comfort in mind.
From the ridge, there are no difficult gradients to Selside Pike’s summit, which can be reached with an overall ease. The best of the views are those to the west, over Mardale and the lower reaches of Haweswater. Selside Pike is neither high enough nor prominently sited to see beyond the western flank of Mardale, but Swindale lies behind, and on a clear day, the Pennines fill the eastern horizon, across the Eden Valley.
The obvious ridge route from here is to the undistinguished Branstree, a mile and a half of grass and a broadening ridge, but the return from here, without retracing trodden ground, is very roundabout: down Selside Brow to Gatescarth Pass and the long, empty walk through Mosedale. Unless ultimate loneliness, and a brew in the Mosedale bothy is utterly compelling, a better option is to turn to the afore-mentioned Outlying Fells.
This will provide directions for a circuitous return to Swindale by keeping to the high ground above Hobgrumble Gill to the subsidiary top of Howes, an indefinite shoulder of Branstree, and descending to Nabs Moor before working down to the indistinct path emerging from Mosedale, where the beck begins to break into cascades on a surprisingly steep fall back into Swindale.
This section offers the best views of the day, though the gill is not seen to any real advantage from this side of the cascades.
Eventually, the path descends into the valley head, which is strangely lower than the moraines that guard it. Presumably, Swindale had its own body of water in some past time.
The path ambles round the valley back to Swindale Head, where – at 3.00pm as I predicted – I reclaimed my car and headed for Manchester and a 4-2 victory. Those who want to partake of this remote and quiet place will have a long walk along the road to return to their transport, but they will walk in quiet pleasure at their experience of the Lakes as it once was and never will be again.

Great Walks – The Mosedale Horseshoe

Mosedale, dominated by Pilar

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.

Steeple from Scoat Fell

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.

Red Pike

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.