Planning my next hike, I feel very drawn to the classic loop known as The Greater Kentmere Horseshoe. Stuart Marshall suggests adding Gray Crag and High Street to the loop in his book ‘Walking The Wainwrights’, but I have other plans for High Street, so I’ll keep Gray Crag, it’s out there on its own so hard to tag it on to another loop.
Planning a long walk
I know from the outset that this is going to be a real hike for me. The longest walk I have been on was probably the first time I went up Kinder Scout, 10½ miles with an ascent of about 1300ft. This horseshoe traditionally passes over 8 of the Wainwright fells (plus Gray Crag if I get that in), turns out to be 19 miles long and has a total ascent of over 4000ft with the highest point being Thornthwaite Crag at 2572ft! These are proper mountains.
I tried last night to find a hike that would be more leg friendly, one that I knew I could get around in one portion of daylight. Still, I felt like all other walks were invisible to me so I got up at 530 and squeezed a gym session in before visiting a supplier so I would get time to get to the shop and buy a better tent and sleeping bag.
The decision has been made.
The forecast at the moment looks good. On the day I’ll find out it’s actually ‘better’ than the forecast, more on that later.
Although Sallows is very close by the track taken heading for my first stop of Yoke it will have to wait. That’s one for a nice day out with the wife I reckon.
Driving up to Kentmere takes a single track, and it gets smaller, this isn’t great in a transit van. Whatever they say about parking by the side of the road or at the church is just wrong. Talk to the locals about this; something has to be done. I thought I would have to go out where the roads were bigger to park; I don’t know what the answer is but I’m sure it’s only early days and I’ll learn. My plan is to sleep in the van, all organised, of course, I have a new 4 season sleeping bag and a stove, but I saw a sign earlier for Maggs’ Howe Camping Barn, I’m intrigued if only to get a parking space.
Up I go, a smaller road than before and the side of the van might brush up against the trees, and walls, but at least there are no other vehicles, the thought of reversing this van down this hill is a bit worrying.
Maggs Howe, Kentmere
When I get to Maggs’ Howe I leave the van in the road hoping if the handbrake goes the gear will hold her and walk up the driveway, I thought I might not get down if I take the van. Paddy answers and soon I have two nights booked in their garden in my tent for £5 per night! There’s a B&B and a barn that you can stay in with a group. There are only basic amenities, but what a wonderful place to stay.
I know in 5 minutes that I’ll be back here in the B&B with Teresa when we do Sallows. I won a Mercedes SLK for the weekend when I got ‘Gym Member of the month’ in March and haven’t cashed it in yet; I’ll book this in with Teresa on my return and get up here.
Paddy has been at Maggs’ Howe for 19 years and like my dad has bad memories of Ireland, Dublin in particular, and since leaving at 15 never went back. He tells me that nobody is staying in the barn so I can use the shower there tomorrow after my trek.
The weather is perfect, the new Bandicoot tent goes up in the advised 10 minutes and my first night is the most comfortable I’ve ever been in a tent.
If you zoom in to this photo of the tent in Paddy’s garden, with the barn to the left, you can see Badger Rock just above the barn’s white vent pipe and then to the left Crabtree Brow which leads to the Garburn Pass, our route up to Yoke. The beauty of the Nikon D3300.
I take a walk down to a waterfall I hear to get my bearings on the map (Force Jump), it runs alongside Low Lane not far from the descent from Shipman Knotts, I see another track off that leads straight through Paddy’s land. The night disappears.
I’m up at six and on foot by seven.
The Kentmere Horseshoe
Starting from Kentmere, passing the church there’s an obvious route up to Yoke. Follow the road past the church, and you’ll soon come to the first of two junctions on this route. There’s a sign for ‘The Garburn Pass’ and leads up to the second junction. The walk up this track is challenging but rewarding physically if you like pain. There’s a big rock called Badger Rock South of the track and Alfred says there’s a ruin, but it just looks like a square dry stone wall, I realise later that I’ve missed the ruin and I’m looking at the ‘sheepfold’. I’ll keep my eyes open next time (or learn how to use a map properly!).
When you get to the second junction through a gate in the wall, you turn right. You’ll soon see the ascent up Yoke, a good climb as you’re ascending nearly a thousand feet to get there from this point but it’s pretty boring this bit, keep your eyes on the ground and don’t look back until you reach the top.
The sun’s beating down on me now, and I don’t realise how much effect it’s going to have on me later, I’ve not brought enough water, no sun cream and no hat. I have a hoody on because of the morning chill, but it soon comes off, this will protect me somewhat from the sun later but will, of course, bake me, increase the amount I sweat and thus dehydrate me even more, joy.
I welcome and instigate exchanges with other walkers. I like to learn and someone like Philip, who I met on the way up to Yoke, has more information inside him about mountains than I will for a long time. He’s on his third round of the Wainwrights. He’s now in the middle of doing The Nuttalls of England. You hear of stories from other walkers about getting lost up a mountain, ending up coming back the way they came, going down a mountain the opposite way they wanted to and ending up miles from the car. There’s not much chance of that I think on the horseshoe.
I bought a Casio watch with all the gear on it a couple of weeks ago for £87, compass, altimeter, thermometer and barometer. I won’t need it here, but you need to learn how to use these things in these situations because I assume, it won’t be long before I’m saying that £87 was well worth it.
Let’s get something straight before we start. The Kentmere Horseshoe is one of the Lake Districts’s finest ridge walks. You’re in for a treat, whatever the weather. Today, I’m blessed with clear skies as far as Scotland.
When you get to Yoke there are a couple of cairns, one obviously higher than the first (and the first has the better view so I stop here for a minute to check out the views). The second cairn marks the summit; you’re at 2309ft—time to calibrate the Casio.
I take a while to soak in the views, they’re better as you get higher up the range, but you need to take what you see now as a reward I think for what you’ve just done. The view across the Kentmere Valley is getting better but before you head for Ill Bell take a detour over to the North East of Yoke’s summit for a great view of the Kentmere Reservoir.
Taking a minute out of this, if I’m honest, I don’t even really know why I’m here. Of course, the views are amazing, unbelievable and the sense of achievement is fantastic, but I just got an urge only a few weeks ago to set out on these journeys, and I’m just going with it. I don’t know where it’s taking me, but I feel like it’s somewhere I need to be.
Philip cracks on with it, he’s seen it all before of course and doesn’t even stop, we say our goodbyes. We’ll meet again.
Onward and upward. You’ll need to descend some before ascending 300ft to Ill Bell. It’s an easy climb and less than a mile. At 2476ft Ill Bell is the one that will stand out as you look over the tops following the horseshoe round.
The three cairns on Ill Bell summit are really something; the middle one is at the highest point. Check out the remains of the old fence along the top and the viewpoint to the east looking down on Kentmere Reservoir.
Right, that’s another mountain climbed, picture taken on the cairn and on we trot. Froswick might be boring on paper, but I’m not bored standing on it. Rumour has it that this was actually Wainwright’s first Wainwright.
His first trip to the Lake District took him to Orrest Head but the next year he brought some pals on a tour of the whole district, starting up the side of Froswick to the summit cairn.
It’s a good hike up to Thornthaite Crag, it’s only a mile, but the ascent makes up for it, 480ft. My legs are getting a treat today.
I meet Philip at the summit, he’s got a new best friend Billy, and they’ve just returned from Gray Crag. Philip heads on round the horseshoe whilst Billy heads for High Street and a descent to Mardale Head.
Gray Crag sticks out there on its own to the North West of the horsehoe. If you climb it from somewhere else, you have to go all of the way up then either all the way down or on to Thornthwaite Crag so it has to be done now. Lovely place to have Quorn sausages.
The walk to Gray Crag led me to great views, especially overlooking Hayeswater and 20 minutes laying still without seeing another soul other than the ants over on The Knott and High Street. I couldn’t hear a thing the whole time but a light breeze in my ear. The quietest moment of my life, I think.
From the cairn, head East (you’ve got a compass right?), down the hill a little and there’s a great seat for your view (unless it’s misty of course, rough with the smooth remember).
The ascent back up to the Thornthwaite Beacon felt like quite a trek. I’m running out of water now and the River Kent seems miles away, unreachable. I’ve only brought a litre and left the canteen in the tent to keep the weight of my pack down. Bother. I need to get a move on now, luckily the wind cools and allows me to don the hoody again and protect me a bit from the sun, I feel slightly crispy. I stop against the wall at Thornthaite Crag and open my tin of rice pudding – sugar and carbs to replace some of the 6000 calories I’m getting through on this hike. I head off East now toward Mardale Ill Bell.
Mardale Ill Bell
I’m sure there’s a path somewhere that isn’t the one heading north to High Street, I see a wall on the right and cut in before it, thinking it can only lead me East. North is High Street, and south is down into the valley, unpassable, we’re at the head of the horseshoe now. After a mile, I get the feeling that the hill to my left is concealing something from me, so I mount it and soon enough see some folk gathered at a cairn. I got here anyway; the young couple didn’t feel the pull, so they carried on to face Harter Fell, probably thinking I was wandering into the abyss.
A nice view over Small Water and Haweswater Reservoir but it’s time to move on. Little did I know the hardest climb is yet to come, the best leg workout of the year (my coach at the gym was gutted to hear this), climbing up to Harter Fell.
The descent from Mardale Ill Bell is rocky, and you can’t see where it leads. When you reach the bottom, you meet the crossroads of the old Roman Nan Bield Pass, the old track leading down through the valley to Kentmere. There’s a nice stone shelter from the heavier wind at the junction and having more time I would have a look around for the shelters Alfred talks about around here although they don’t sound like the sort of place you want to be bedding up for the night, spiders and all.
Here is the only opportunity you have to pick up water. However, you have to descend to Small Water. It’s some scramble but if you’re desperate, it’s your only option. Next time I do the Kentmere Horseshoe, I’ll wild camp at this tarn.
I do have time for a breather before the 500ft ascent up the rocky face of crag, shame I don’t have any more water, an old fellow at the top will tell me it’s over 2 hours to Kentmere still.
It’s a grand climb; the legs are really feeling it. There are plenty of opportunities to fall off an edge and die. When I get to the top, it’s a relief as the next two mountains are relatively easy going.
Steady enough walk over to Kentmere Pike now, although boggy in places, it must be really bad after rain and in mist. The weather has been great this weekend, but after this day I still have 204 fells to do, my mouth is as dry as an Arabian’s flip flop, and my face and arms are burned.
Note: The marker for the summit at Kentmere Pike is not the cairn to the West of the wall, but an Ordinance Survey stone column on the East side you could easily miss, reading the book beforehand is a good idea! It’s easy enough to climb over the wall with large slate steps fitted into the wall.
Don’t mistake Goat Scar for your next Wainwright. Keep track of the way the wall bends around the ridge.
The bogs don’t stop, but it’s dry enough today not to go around too far. The Highest point at Shipman Knotts is the other side of a drystone wall; the books say you’re not allowed over so respecting the hard work that has gone into building such a wall I have Emma, the daughter of the only other bloke here, take my photo on the West side. I return the favour; they started The Wainwrights this morning on a whim, so Shipman Knotts is their 9th, they did High Street without Gray Crag. I’ve bagged 10 now after Wansfell last week.
That’s it, ten done – 204 to go!
Now, let’s get out of here. Head directly south until you get to Wray Crag, there’s no signpost of course, but when there are rocks sticking up out of the ground, that’s a crag, and if you can see the village you started from (Kentmere), you’re nearly home. If it’s misty and you can see nothing hope for the best and just follow the compass South, be careful of the bogs, you’re best sticking close to the wall that has been there since up near Harter.
Note: Hoping for the best is not the best strategy in the mist! Since I am now a Mountain Leader, I can:
1. Safely say my ‘strategy’ would be slightly more positive and…
2. Offer you a navigation Workshop to learn how to make sure you make it home.
As you come down from Shipman Knotts, take a seat at Wray Crag and marvel at what you have just done. With Kentmere Village to the far left looking West over the valley you have Yoke straight in front of you, then very clearly the two pointy peaks of Ill Bell and Froswick followed by Thornthwaite Crag below the patch of cloud at the head of the horseshoe (the cloud won’t necessarily still be there when you go). It takes your breath away really to look at what you’ve accomplished.
When you get to a bridleway, a track good enough for horses and Land Rovers, take a right. My camp is up a path that tucks in behind that lovely lush green sheep field to the South West just below Hollow Moor, but I’ll never use that track again, it was terrible on a day like this, I would hate to think what it’s like after rain. Take the bridleway right and turn left at the bottom onto High Lane. This will lead you into the village or back up to Maggs’ Howe if you’re me.
If you wander around long enough, you may find a bit of signal to call the wife.
You’ll hear her wonderful voice…
‘Hi, this is Teresa, please leave a message.’
Kentmere Horseshoe Route
Here’s my Kentmere Horseshoe map.
- Fells – x 9
- Ascent – 4000 ft
- Distance – 19 miles
- Time – 15 hours
- With – Solo
- Ill Bell
- Thronthwaite Crag
- Gray Crag
- Mardale Ill Bell
- Harter Fell
- Shipman Knotts
- Kentmere Pike