Cofa Pike and St. Sunday Crag
Climbing Fairfield over Cofa Pike. St. Sunday Crag behind.

Date completed: 19th April 2019 (Good Friday).

Weather conditions: Stupendous. And on a Bank Holiday too. Instant classic status.

Summits bagged: Birks (2040 feet above sea level, number 194 of my second round), St. Sunday Crag (2756’, no. 195), Fairfield (2863’, no. 196), Hart Crag (2698’, no. 197), Hartsop Above How (1870’, no. 198).

The first two were previously bagged on walk 23 in August 2010, the last three on walk 36 in June 2011.

Deepdale Hause and Grisedale Tarn
Deepdale Hause and Grisedale Tarn

Cofa Pike counts as a Birkett (2,700 feet, no. 41 on that list by altitude).

Start and end points: Started in Patterdale: specifically at the bus stop at the end of the lane to Grisedale, around NY390162. This point can be reached all year by buses from Penrith station, and when the #508 bus runs its full route, it also connects with Windermere station.

Finished at the bus stop just north of the Brotherswater Inn, on the Kirkstone Pass road at about NY404120. This bus is also served by the #508 — but only in the summer. If this bus is not running its full route then the walk needs to terminate back in Patterdale. This will add another couple of miles to the distance. See the route notes below.

I started walking at 10.20 on alighting the bus from Penrith, that had departed the rail station at 9.20. The walk took me five hours so I was comfortably at the pub in time to have a pint (two, in fact) and get the 16.12 service back to Penrith.

Birks summit
On the summit of Birks. Place Fell behind.

Distance walked: 10 miles approximately.

Total ascent: 3450 feet approximately.

Pub at end: It was about time I visited the Brotherswater Inn, and something of a surprise that I have not done so before. One problem with it is the busyness of the road past it, making it awkward to come up here if finishing a walk in pub-free Hartsop nearby. It is easily reached from the back, though, and the path that goes from Hartsop Hall to the Sykeside campsite (from where it clearly acquires the majority of its custom — indeed, I think they are all basically the same business). Fine beer, and a very pleasant seating area outside. Now I’ve finally made it — recommended. I should sort it out as the terminus of a couple more walks before I’m through. Use the campsite access road to reach the bus stop, which is a hundred yards north of the pub: it’s much safer to do this than walk on the main road.

It can also be awarded the earliest “I can see the pub from here” moment on any walk, being clearly in view from Hart Crag summit and all the subsequent way down.

Fairfield summit plateau
View from the Fairfield summit plateau, with High Street on the horizon

Route: Oh yes oh yes. This is a cracking walk pretty much from start to finish, with great scenery all around, whether under foot — Fairfield is magnificent from this side, a revelation — and in view, notably Helvellyn and company. Not to mention another classic view of Ullswater. No walk undertaken in the Patterdale/Hartsop district is going to suffer scenically. It’s just long enough — an effort, sure, but one easily enough done in the time available between buses. A thoroughly recommended walk. However, it does require clear weather, and definitely should not be done in conditions of poor visibility.

At least on a weekend or public holiday, you’ll have got off the bus with a bunch of other people I’m sure, most of whom will probably be going up Helvellyn via the Striding Edge path. Your walk starts the same way, up the lane to Grisedale with all its police warning notices. Follow the tarmac round past the first farm: the footpath sign you see here is not the one you want. (This path goes up Arnison Crag, so that summit is easily enough added to this walk if you haven’t already bagged it.)

Tents and St Sunday Crag
A camp with a view of St Sunday Crag.

Instead take the next path on the left, above which the buttress of Thornhow End is clearly rising. This view promises quite a steep climb up Birks, and so it proves. Past the wall, where things level out and St Sunday Crag comes into view ahead (see the picture with the tents), there should have been a path somewhere on the left which goes up to the summit of Birks, but if it was there, I missed it. Eventually I struck upwards on my own, following a dry gill. This was rather tedious and the only dull few minutes of the day all told. However, I did encounter the path eventually.

After that the walk across the flat summit of Birks offers a bit of a relief before the next pull, up the shoulder of St. Sunday Crag. Remember that neither of the first two prominent cairns you reach indicate the summit. Indeed, from the north-west cairn, with its famous view (depicted by Wainwright, for the only time ever in his books, with a comely female figure admiring the panorama), you are still a good 15 minutes from the summit.

North-west cairn and view
The north-west cairn of St Sunday Crag and its famous view of Ullswater

Once again the pattern is repeated with another easy bit of walking, down to Deepdale Hause, but as you make this descent, Fairfield rises above in an increasingly intimidating manner, particularly the rocky nodule of Cofa Pike, over which your route obviously lies. It’s not as bad as it looks, however: although some scrambling up a bouldery slope is required at one point. But it’s not difficult. (Although I don’t think coming down this way would be very enjoyable.) Once over Cofa Pike (a Birkett) there seems to be a choice of routes up the final slope.

To get from Fairfield summit to Hart Crag is a matter of just following the well-blazed Fairfield Horseshoe path, but inevitably this will be busy with other walkers, so those that do prefer a little more solitude and some more dramatic scenery can instead skirt the edges of the crags to the north and see views that will be lost to those on the main path (like this one, for example). But don’t start scrambling down any slopes on this side. Return to the main path and follow everyone else up to the summit of Hart Crag.

View back to Fairfield summit
View back to Fairfield summit

From here, the way down over Hartsop above How lies at right angles to the Horseshoe. There is a path, of sorts, which emerges and leads down through a rocky area in the direction of the ridge visible below, but take it carefully. At one point the slope ahead seemed to be leading over a very steep drop, and I felt it more prudent to drop down over grass to the right, where then did lie a clearer path that I may have drifted away from. The summit of Hartsop above How is then prominent ahead.

Consideration needs now to be given to the descent. If you are doing this walk on a day when the #508 bus terminates at Patterdale, rather than running all the way over Kirkstone Pass, then you need to head back to that village. This means just carrying on along the ridge until it drops down to the main road at Bridgend, but then you will still have a mile or more to go to Patterdale — if so, don’t use the main road, but the back road through Rooking (see the OS map).

Hartsop above How
Hartsop above How, from the ridge. The possible descent heads down to the right.

However, finishing by going down Dovedale, which is a very beautiful valley, does give a bit more variety and is a good way to end the walk. In the book, Wainwright notes that the H-above-H ridge can be safely left, off either side, at just one point, which is from the col immediately below the summit — see this picture here. The ‘safe route’ down to Dovedale drops to the right. Now, having done this, I do think it is safe, but it is terribly steep and grassy; the risk of a slip ever present. Hence my approach, which was to go down the first 200 feet or so by literally sliding down on my bottom, in a controlled descent. The evidence is here: that ‘path’ didn’t exist five minutes earlier, I can assure you. However the final third, roughly, of the slope is brackened — even when dead the roots make the ‘bum-slide’ approach less comfortable.

Descent of Hartsop above How
Drew’s bum finally makes its mark on the Lake District

All the same, while the bracken will then impede things in the summer, I do not think it will do so enough to debar this alternative route from consideration. The payoff is the descent down the gorgeous valley of Dovedale. When you get to the footbridge there are clear paths on both sides of the stream; both lead down to Hartsop Hall, but having done both of them now (see also walk 120) my advice is to use the one on the right-hand side of the stream, that is, by crossing the footbridge compared to where you came down into the valley.

Upper Dovedale
The upper reaches of Dovedale

Once at the Hall, take the concrete farm track through the meadows and to the Sykeside campsite ahead. The pub is at the top of a final, cruel little slope; the bus stop a hundred yards north (use the campsite access road to reach it).

Very very Good Friday commentary: The Fairfield Horseshoe, starting and finishing in Ambleside, is one of the Lake District’s classic walks. Which does not necessarily equate to being one of its best. Dozens — on busy days, I suspect hundreds — of hikers venture upon it daily, and there’s certainly much to appeal about it. Ambleside is easy to access and it bags you eight fells, and plenty of decent exercise, without ever putting anyone in any danger, whether from rocks or from getting lost.

Brothers Water
Looking over to Brothers Water from the very end of the walk

Were those eight fells all there were to the Fairfield range then on both these bagging rounds I could have just done the Horseshoe and ticked them all off in a very straightforward fashion. But there are outliers: specifically, Stone Arthur and Hartsop above How, both of which stick out from the otherwise nice, clean Horseshoe like twigs. The result of this is that in both rounds, I have ended up carving this crescent of fells into smaller parts — three, to be precise (on both occasions).

Dollywaggon Pike from Deepdale Hause
Dollywaggon Pike from Deepdale Hause

But there have been advantages to this. It has taken me more off the beaten track — and the Horseshoe path is very thoroughly beaten. Scafell Pike aside — possibly, Catbells — there is no busier footpath in the District; six times I have trodden part of it now, six times there have been a large number of other people around. Admittedly, I had to expect it today, a Bank Holiday of superlative weather. I suppose what gets me slightly irked about the Fairfield Horseshoe is how blatantly it does a disservice to the fells it traverses, particularly its eponym, Fairfield itself. Anyone doing the Horseshoe and sticking religiously to the path will miss all the dramatic north face of this handsome fell; and that would be a damn shame.

Hart Crag and Rydale
Hart Crag, with Rydale below (the valley around which the horseshoe bends)

As is probably very obvious, I thoroughly enjoyed this walk. The superb weather certainly helped but it would have been a fine walk on any clear day. With it being Good Friday I didn’t want to risk the Borrowdale or Buttermere buses — so yes, I know, I still haven’t revisited the Western Fells — and the Penrith – Patterdale bus was packed enough. But this is not a complaint. Every train and bus I caught today was perfectly punctual, the weather could not be faulted and all in all, this was a spectacularly good day out in the fells. (Except that I think I left my copy of The Eastern Fells on a train… it’s disappeared, anyway.)

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