“No group of fells in the Lake District exhibit a more striking contrast in appearance when surveyed from opposite sides than this lofty Fairfield group… On the north side the Fairfield range is magnificent: here are dark precipices, long fans of scree, abrupt crags, desolate combes and deep valleys: a tangle of rough country, small in extent but full of interest, and well worth exploration.”
It may seem a tad odd that while sitting at the breakfast table in Bethesda, Snowdonia, I decide to write about horseshoe hikes in the Lake District. However, it so happens that something has been playing on my mind these past few days: which way round should one consider tackling a long horseshoe trek?
There are probably at least a dozen great horseshoe hikes in the Lake District, and if I had to name the ‘honey pots’ among them I’d probably plump for the Fairfield, Kentmere and Langdale Horseshoes. For someone who has done all those or fancies inventing their own classic loop, I’d advise simply reaching for an Ordnance Survey map (assuming the ability to navigate by it with confidence!) to work out a horseshoe hike in any given area of the Lakes. It just takes a little imagination and a sense of adventure!
A few weeks ago I visited Fairfield for the first time this year, having previously been up with Jen in October 2016. On that occasion, as recounted in my Fairfield Horseshoe blog post, we chose to hike the route clockwise, i.e. from Rydal Hall, heading northward up the left/west side of the valley, climbing the steps to Nab Scar. The question is: What influenced that choice?
Is it because I am left-handed? Yes, yes I am one of ‘those’(!). Was it something to do with the prevailing winds on the day…? Or does the choice generally depend on whether one intends to run or walk the route? As luck would have it, in autumn 2017 I had the pleasure of hiking the route in both directions within the same week, so here’s the verdict as this simple man sees it!
Firstly, I should say that the Fairfield Horseshoe is quite an undertaking from either direction. Depending upon the exact start and finish point (Ambleside? Rydal? Other?) the distance adds up to something like 17 km, and in the right conditions this hike offers a spectacular experience. The views, as one would expect when surrounded by some of the Lake District’s most majestic peaks, are magnificent and dramatic in half-decent weather conditions, and… well, when things aren’t so clement one would struggle to notice an unfastened shoelace… the clag can get really dense. Therefore, it’s a good idea to be very well prepared, as there is of course a point of no return. Assuming this point is around the 8km mark, I’d advise folks not to tackle the route in flip flops or ‘disco’ gear! Oh yes, I think Jen and I have seen it all 😉 Also, take plenty of water and snacks, as the hike is likely to take most people a good 5 hours.
Anyway, back to the point in question…
In the last twelve months I have had the privilege of hiking Fairfield three times. Twice I took it clockwise, heading past Rydal Hall up the steep path to Nab Scar and beyond, and once anti-clockwise from Low Sweden Bridge (exiting Ambleside north-ish along Nook Lane). I’d probably describe the latter as the gentler route up to the ultimate goal and dizzy heights of ‘Flinty Grave’, and ultimately Fairfield’s high point cairn at 873m (2864ft).
I shan’t go into depth about the route itself, as I have a previous Fairfield Horseshoe blog post which conveniently does just that! Feel free to access it via the following link. Today, I am more interested in the dynamics of the route and, as previously stated, which way to take it on!
I should state, for those who don’t know me I’m actually the wrong side of 40, not in the best of shape, and occasionally watch the odd 60-odd year old cruise past me dressed in what I’ve heard described as a swimsuit and Y-vest! However, I take some comfort in the thought that such nimble hardy types probably skip round the entire route in a couple of hours, having done so for 30 years or more!
Personally, I’m not into the ‘pain’ side of hillwalking; my ultimate goal has always been to enjoy some solitude, fresh air and outstanding views. I am probably also a bit of a fair-weather hiker – rain, clag and storms don’t really bring out the best in me (Lol). However, I freely admit they can be a necessary evil to help teach what on earth to do when they suddenly sweep in, along with competency in dealing with them. The English Lakes, like mountainous areas across the globe, can throw some interesting surprises at walkers, unsuspecting or otherwise…
My last two Fairfield visits were entirely different in terms of “group dynamics”! The first, with friend and Mountain Leader Jonny Wallace, was conducted clockwise from west -> north -> east, and the weather was not exactly on our side. Other than offering great navigation practice, it was a rather frustrating day, as we had set off gazing straight up at a clag-free Fairfield summit, which unfortunately became shrouded in clag – with a high wind chill to boot – by the time we reached it. Some minutes after we finally relinquished our lunchtime space in the summit’s stone shelter and headed onwards towards Hart Crag, Dove Crag etc… the clouds suddenly parted behind us and revealed the summit bathed in sunshine. Sometimes that’s just how it goes, annoyingly! That said, if we were always promised a perfect route with guaranteed clear views, everywhere would probably become intolerably busy and I’d then be far less likely to visit, preferring the solitude of peaks less dense with grockles!
The second time I visited, at the back end of the same week, was with Jen and her Dallam running club pals. I can’t say I was surprised they chose to take the anti-clockwise route, as fell ‘runners’ do sometimes walk uphill bits but also want to achieve a reasonable time. So, on that basis I can’t blame them; the clockwise route includes some treacherous rocky descent sections that are difficult enough to navigate at a snail’s pace so (surely!) only a maniac would attempt to skip down them in swimming trunks with nothing between the craggy rock surface and their bare skin!
The anti-clockwise route also offers a lovely wide, scenic track on which to run back down from Fairfield, and believe it or not, even I, dressed in full hiking gear including daysack, was drawn into running part of the way on the downhill route off the summit. Somebody did mention it being a bit odd for the one hiker to be leading the group of runners, albeit for just a few hundred metres… there must be life in this old dog yet!
The question remains as to which way round is best, and I think it just comes down to personal choice…
If I were a runner I think I would go anti-clockwise every time; this way up (via Low Pike, then High Pike) is a little more gradual and “runnable”, creating an opportunity to cover the distance at a slightly higher overall speed, if running is the intention of course!
As a hiker? Hmmm… the decision perhaps depends on which side of the bed I happen to fall out of on the day. Personally, I tend to fall out on the left side (lol), am left-handed and prefer the “left side of the valley” option, i.e. the leg-burning pull up to Nab Scar from Rydal… simply to gain height – and views! – quickly! Once up there, 455m (1492ft), and with half of the height gain to Fairfield (disregarding other undulations) covered, I tend to relax more, and soak up the Lakeland air and outstanding views in a more ‘relaxed’ mode of operation!
You can learn more about Dallam Running club by visiting their webpage – Dallam running club.
Thanks for reading 🙂
This post was edited by the lovely Jennifer Lyon who can be contacted for editing, proofreading and translation using the following link; Contact Lioness Translation Services
Simon Duringer is an award-winning blogger, interviewer and author. His own books can be found on Amazon too by clicking any of the following icons…