Little Hell Gate
Looking up Little Hell Gate, from the South Traverse.

Date: 24th July 2021. A year to the day since the family and I walked up Muncaster Fell on walk 180. I would normally have expected to do more than 11 walks in the intervening 12 months — but thanks to lockdown, I lost almost the whole of the winter. Not my decision.

Weather conditions: Like the other two walks this weekend, an excellent day. A little cooler than yesterday’s sweat-fest: being at a higher altitude helped, but it was also a bit hazier.

Summit bagged: Another walk with just one felltop reached: that of Kirk Fell (2630 feet above sea level, number 279 of my second round). This was last bagged on walk 60b, in considerably less clement weather in July 2012.

Kirk Fell summit
Walker on the summit of Kirk Fell.

Although the walk does not visit its summit, I also become very acquainted with certain parts of Great Gable today.

Start and end point: Started at Mountain View, and finished at Seatoller. Both these points (which are only about a third of a mile apart) are served by the #78 Borrowdale bus, which runs all year.

I could have finished at Honister Pass, which is served by the #77 bus, but this does not run outside the summer months, and in any case I do my best to avoid it these days. It is inevitably overcrowded, and generally unpunctual. In any case, while Honister can just about muster up teas and snacks, there is no proper refreshment here (yes, I mean beer). All in all I find it a rather charmless and inhospitable place to be honest: a place to walk away from, not to.

View into Wasdale
View down Gavel Neese, into Wasdale.

This is a walk needing a full day. It took me 6½ hours.

Distance walked: 11 miles approximately. (Or about 9.5 miles if you end at Honister.)

Feet of ascent: 2,800 feet approx.

Pub at end: For the first time ever, I could end a walk at Seatoller with a beer. Hurrah! for the Glaramara outdoor centre, which has opened up in the last few years and served a very nice local beer (from the Tirril brewery).

Great Gable
Great Gable, as seen from Kirk Fell.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that sometimes this place closes its doors to non-residents. I appear to have been lucky today: according to the barman, the rules vary on a fairly random basis. If it is closed to walk-ins, there’ll apparently be a sign at the gate indicating this — but that will be of no consolation to you if you’ve hiked 11 miles to get there (and down from Honister, to boot).

Route: This is a very fine walk with marvellous views and dramatic scenery. But the inclusion of the South Traverse means it is not one for novices, nor for any non-experts if in winter conditions. Anyone attempting it needs a reasonable head for heights and to generally feel secure when negotiating rocky ground. But it is certainly worth doing and engendered a healthy feeling of achievement in me — a kind of ‘yeah! still got it!’ vibe.

Buttermere Valley
The Buttermere Valley, seen from Moses’ Trod.

Kirk Fell might seem an optional extra, added purely to get a fell bagged on the day, but it did offer great views of Great Gable and of the Traverse and so also contributes to this sense of pride. But you should be prepared to take your time over the walk, and save it for a day of good weather. It’d be a good idea to take along The Western Fells as Wainwright’s maps in the Great Gable chapter will be much more useful today than the OS map.

Whenever a route requires you to pass through Seathwaite, it is greatly preferable to get off the bus at Mountain View, the stop before Seatoller, and take the public bridleway from there rather than use the road. This path can be a bit muddy sometimes but it is much nicer experience than the walk down the Seathwaite lane, dodging the cars.

Sty Head
At Styhead Tarn.

From Seathwaite I am sure you can find your way to Sty Head; just remember to take the right-hand of the two paths at the junction near Stockley Bridge. The stretcher box is about 3¾ miles from Mountain View. Here, the start of the South Traverse is fairly clear, being between the main paths to Wasdale on the left and up Great Gable on the right.

There are no dangerous bits on the Traverse, but there are some awkward sections. The worst comes early on, with the ‘huge boulders at base of crag’ (marked B on Wainwright’s map on page Great Gable 9). These were unavoidable; I could see no real sign of the shortcut mentioned in the book, and even if it does exist, it cannot be a great deal easier (and certainly would involve a considerable loss of height). So I faced the boulders, not without a ‘what the f*** am I doing here’ moment or two.

Cat Rock
Definitely a cat sat with its back to you; but no tail, sorry.

But this is the worst of it. There is nothing as scrambly to come; a couple of the scree runs are a little unpleasant but the path is usually always visible ahead, and when it is not, there are cairns. Losing the path was the main worry for me but I took my time and ensured I always knew where the route lay. The views down into Wasdale are stupendous. Perhaps I was expecting to get up a bit closer to the rocks of the Napes, but there are still some dramatic moments, particularly the view up Little Hell Gate (pictured at the top of the page), and of the Cat Rock (above), which really does look like a cat, although surely Wainwright’s addition of a tail to its depiction on Great Gable 12 is facetious?

After Little Hell Gate you might think the hard labour is over but reaching Beck Head then requires you to negotate a long passage of scree-covered ground. Energy levels are also not boosted by the sight, ahead, of Rib End, the rocky slope which must be climbed to attain the summit of Kirk Fell — which you still want to do, right? Of course you do. Up you go, then.

Kirk Fell
Kirk Fell, from Beck Head.

My previous visit here took place on walk 60b, still acclaimed as my Lakeland Walk With The Worst Weather, so this was the first time I had properly seen Kirk Fell’s extensive summit plateau. Although, in itself, it’s a little dull, it does at least offer the hike’s only passage of relatively level walking on grass, and the views are stellar, particularly of Great Gable, which looks like a hulking brute of a fell from here, utterly unassailable. There are two tops, and sadly, the highest point of Kirk Fell is the one further away. But there is a wind-shelter up there that offers a spot to sit and have lunch, and believe me, I took advantage of this.

Kirk Fell’s cake-like shape means there are no particularly easy descents off it, whichever direction you are heading. The drop back down Rib End to Beck Head is not great but is still the least worst option. There is then a short, steep climb up, a real killer, but at the next level bit, Moses’ Trod heads off to the left.

Kirkfell Tarn
Kirkfell Tarn.

This is not a walkers’ path, but an old highway between Wasdale and Honister Pass, and so the contours are gentle, although it’s still rather stony. The views of, first, Ennerdale, and then the Buttermere valley, are awesome. Eventually you drop onto the old tramway that once served the quarries, which takes you down to the industrial wastes of Honister. One can catch a bus here in the summer months, or, just walk down the road to Seatoller, which takes about 25 minutes.

Off-piste commentary: In his Wainwright Companion (a book I’d have written if I’d thought of it first) Clive Hutchby notes that one of the many reasons to admire the Pictorial Guide is Wainwright’s interest in really getting ‘off-piste’, attempting and then describing routes up some fells that may well never have been done before.

Tophet Bastion
Tophet Bastion, one side of the Great Napes. Kirk Fell is in the background.

As I mentioned when I went up Barf last autumn, sometimes this has caused future problems, when people have followed in AW’s footsteps and then found themselves not quite as able to get up certain difficult bits as he was. My personal limit was probably reached on walk 112, five years ago, when I nearly found myself crag-bound in ‘Easy’ Gully on Pavey Ark, and that’s not even the hardest route shown up that particular fell (ranking an obvious second to Jack’s Rake). There are others in the book that I am very sure I have no interest in trying — including Grasmoor direct (no chance), Scafell via Lord’s Rake (having seen it from below — nope), and others.

On the other hand, I am not a total wuss in this regard, and some of these harder routes have proven to offer a marvellous experience — take Nethermost Pike for example. The trick, of course, is to be able to judge the suitability in advance; but that can’t always be done for sure. In the end then one can only test one’s limits by doing it. And although the first part of the South Traverse, over the big boulders, did give me cause to doubt my sanity (and ability) today — once they were past, all was fine, and I felt proud of myself at the end of this walk.

South Traverse
The South Traverse seen from afar.

Although a little cooler than yesterday, it was another hot one for sure. On the way down to Honister, along the old tramway, I was passed by a number of people with numbers on their chests, but none of them running; I did ask one guy if an event was on and he said it was the Buttermere Horseshoe race, which will be a ferocious hike at the best of times and they all still had to get over the High Stile range. All were walking up the tramway, and I don’t blame them. But give me this weather rather than what it was like the last time I was at Kirk Fell and Beck Head, for sure.

One more to go, on Monday. I haven’t decided what yet — but whatever it is, after the first fell of the next walk, I will have just 50 Wainwrights left in my double round.

Fell runner above Honister
Fell ‘runner’ above Honister.


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