The Fairfield Horseshoe
It’s not hard to see the appeal of horseshoe walks. After the initial effort of reaching high ground, that’s where you’ll stay all day until it’s time to come down again. Look around and you’ll see the route that’s gone before you, plus what’s on offer later in the day. And whether you are an ardent ticker of hill lists or not, there’s no denying people will be impressed when you tell them you’ve conquered umpteen mountains in a single outing.
When it comes to fine horseshoe walks in the Lake District, we are spoilt for choice. Names like Kentmere, Newlands and Coledale are well-known to keen walkers. But the Fairfield Horseshoe is the most famous of them all.
The Fairfield Horseshoe needs no introduction. Located smack bang in the middle of the National Park, it’s easy to access and puts you in reach of countless facilities in nearby Ambleside, Windermere and Grasmere. Serving up views on all points of the compass, it’s a peak bagger’s dream, with eight Wainwrights to scratch off in the pub afterwards. What better way to get closer to that magic total of 214?
There are few navigational challenges, save perhaps for the flat summit of Fairfield you’ll meet halfway round. There’s even a handy wall to guide you along the eastern arm of the horseshoe. Tackle the route clockwise or anticlockwise – it’s your choice. Not that you’ll have it to yourself, mind; the Fairfield Horseshoe is rightly popular across all four seasons.
Partly by choice and partly due to 2020’s annoying ability to change plans at short notice, this walk ended up on the agenda for December. Winter mountain walks when there’s snow and ice on the ground demand an enhanced skillset. Ice axe, crampons, winter boots, goggles and the right clothing (not to mention the skills to use them) are vital if you don’t want to end up another statistic for Mountain Rescue. But keep a keen eye on the weather forecast and you’ll occasionally spot a gem of a day when the snow and ice stays away, welcoming those of a three-season disposition to sample the delights of higher ground, without necessarily sliding about like Bambi.
Motoring along the A591 into Grasmere before the sun comes up is routinely a solitary pursuit. Other than the occasional van driver or early morning dog walker, you’re unlikely to see many signs of life. But today the lay-bys along the lake shore are full of activity. People buzzing about like bees in the hive. Canoes are carefully removed from roof racks. Hikers lace up boots by torchlight as cyclists reattach lightweight wheels to brightly coloured bikes. Seems I’m not the only one who got the message about this brief weather window in the run up to Christmas.
The pre-dawn chill has me shivering in seconds. The sun won’t rise for another hour so there’s no time to hang about. Boots on, pack shouldered, I make my way for the grounds of Rydal Hall and a leisurely stroll to warm up.
I sense the presence of huge trees towering above me like skyscrapers. The resident birds noisily express their displeasure at my intrusion. A cacophony of silhouetted shapes. Soon the whole neighbourhood is awake. But realising I am no threat, they soon settle, leaving me to pass without hindrance.
I’ve shaken off the cold now. Scandale Beck funnels clear, churning water, fresh from the fells, towards Windermere, like veins carrying oxygenated blood towards the beating heart of the Lake District. I feel energised as I arrive in a sleepy Ambleside; the roads quiet and oblivious to my presence.
Low road high road
The usual route takes you through the grounds of the Ambleside campus of the University of Cumbria to Low Sweden Bridge. But there’s an alternative and altogether more tempting option via High Sweden Bridge. The track climbs gently, offering better-than-anticipated-views for such a low vantage point. The Central Fells are tinged with purples and pinks as the gloom of the dawn gives way to a crisp winter’s morn.
Scandale Beck is sensed rather than seen at the foot of the slope to my left. And it remains so until the picture postcard sight of High Sweden Bridge comes into view as the path forks. Warm-up complete, it’s time for the main event.
Crossing the bridge, I climb the opposite slope to meet a wall which shall be my companion along the ridge for much of the first half of the horseshoe. Low Pike, High Pike, Dove Crag and Hart Crag stand in the way of the fell which gives the horseshoe its name, Fairfield. Then it’s on to Great Rigg, Heron Pike and Nab Scar to complete the octet.
Low Pike is a fitting name for the first fell on the round. Not that it’s a pushover. Its name disguises an exciting but avoidable secret that’s not obvious if you stick to the main path. Most only become aware of it on descent after absent-mindedly following the wall. All of a sudden they are atop an awkward drop in the crag, the wall snaking impossibly over the precipice. This is Low Pike’s bad step.
A soft golden glow now warming the colours of the fells draws my gaze to the small crag ahead. The lower part of the hurdle is hardly worth talking about. Anyone used to wandering the Lakeland fells will tackle this without realising it has special status. But then I come face to face with the upper part. What looked tiny from below now stands before me as a smooth face of rock, taller than your average human, with no apparent hand or foot holds. On this cold winter’s day, the rock is slick with water and ice, offering no friction for my rubber soles.
After much bending and stretching, I find a way through. But it’s not easy and, despite its diminutive size, a fall from here could be nasty. In terms of difficulty, it’s on a par with the bad step on Crinkle Crags, a hazard Wainwright described as ‘the most difficult obstacle met on any of the regular walkers’ paths in the Lake District’.
Follow the wall
The route now serves up some of what the Lake District does best. Miles of lofty paths with the occasional minor scramble over rocky outcrops injecting some spice into proceedings. The going underfoot is boggy. An icy crust gives the illusion of solid ground but is powerless to stop even the most delicately placed foot from plunging into the cold sludge beneath. It makes for slow progress but that’s no hardship on a day like this. Apart from a thin veil of cloud refusing to budge from the mass of Fairfield, the rest of the horseshoe remains in sharp focus.
To avoid the worst of the squelch, I frequently hop across the wall. The Kentmere fells are particularly striking; the tall summit cairn on Thornthwaite Crag appears to be within touching distance. Behind me sits England’s largest lake – Windermere. Its vastness emphasised when you only see half the lake in shot.
Approaching Dove Crag and Hart Crag, the scenery becomes more mountainous. Ullswater creeps into the picture as I step tentatively over frozen rocks and glassy puddles. The breeze on the backs of my hands turns from a gentle caress to the stabbing of thousands of tiny pins on exposed skin. It’s time for gloves and extra layers. Despite the sunshine and inviting forecast, this is still a big mountain day at the start of winter, where conditions on the summits are in complete contrast to those in the valleys. I’m grateful for all the extra kit I’m carrying, even if that doesn’t include the pointier bits of winter equipment.
This scenery brings with it the terminus of the wall guiding me steadfastly along the ridge. There’s the makings of a path in parts but it’s best to know what the different lines on the map mean to avoid straying on to cliffs which abound these higher peaks.
Fairfield’s bulky summit is notoriously confusing, particularly in mist. What feels like a plateau is more of a slope at a jaunty angle, which can play havoc with your internal compass. The first time I tackled the horseshoe, as a naive and fresh-faced young hillwalker, the mist descended and we ended up heading on to Cofa Pike and the ridge leading to St Sunday Crag. A classic schoolboy error, which was quickly rectified before we ended up in Patterdale. Thankfully, my navigation has improved a little since then but the experience taught me to respect the summit of Fairfield.
The mist descends right on cue, forcing me to test out my skills. Now it feels like a winter walk, the rocks tinged with tiny ice crystals, the bright mid-morning sun silhouetting those approaching from a clockwise direction.
It can be difficult to ascertain the true high point of this fell but it’s definitely a summit to explore. The flat expanse of high ground serves up views in abundance. Looking to St Sunday Crag is arguably the most dramatic. But I find myself drifting towards the north-west facing slope to gaze upon Grizedale Tarn. Dollywaggon Pike and Seat Sandal standing guard. The long list of fells unfolding north towards Helvellyn and beyond sustain some of the highest ground in the Lake District, prompting dreams of past and future adventures to fill my head.
Big mountain days
I head south to pick up the western arm of the horseshoe. It feels like the hard work is done but I’m only just past the halfway stage. By this point I feel blasé about summiting the remaining discrete peaks and instead start to appreciate the walk as a whole. This is a big mountain day to enjoy in its entirety.
And with big mountain days comes big mountain views – the Coniston fells, the Langdales, the Scafells. I pick out Easedale Tarn, where I first wild camped on a Duke of Edinburgh’s expedition far too many years ago – one of our party sporting a home-made ‘fast-and-light’ waterproof poncho fashioned from a bin liner. Grasmere and Rydal Water look like puddles far below, as each step draws me closer to sea level.
After seeing just one person on the eastern ridge, this part of the walk is positively heaving for such a cold day. The crowds abate as I descend the badly eroded path from Nab Scar, giving me time to reflect on this final walk of 2020. I’ve tackled some of the finest mountain walks in the Lake District this year and The Fairfield Horseshoe feels like the ideal way to round off proceedings. My final glance around places me on the hub of a wheel, nodding appreciatively to now familiar mountain tops everywhere I look.
These mountains have brought so much pleasure this year. The one place I’ve been able to escape the madness of 2020. The Fairfield Horseshoe might not be my favourite route but this terrific tour is perhaps the most symbolic reminder of how much we all need this connection with the outdoors as we head into 2021.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: There are a few roadside parking spaces by Rydal Church. Park considerately and make a donation. Otherwise, you can start in Ambleside where there are more parking options but it can get busy.
Distance: 11 miles (17.6 km)
Wainwright count: 8
Navigation: Popular route with a good path in most parts but Fairfield can be confusing, particularly in mist. As with any mountain walk, strong map and compass skills are necessary.
Terrain: Long, lofty ridges. Quite boggy in parts. Badly eroded path on Nab Scar. Tricky obstacle on Low Pike (but this is avoidable).
Facilities: Plenty in nearby Grasmere and Ambleside. This is the heart of the Lake District for tourists.
*These routes and descriptions are only ever intended to be a personal record of my adventures, which may inspire your own. Hillwalking involves a degree of risk, so please make sure you are properly equipped and prepared if you choose to follow them.