including Gibson Knott, Calf Crags and Far Easedale
distance: 13km/8¼ miles time: 6½ hours ascent: 610m/2000ft grade : moderately strenuous
PARK: Three pay & display car parks within the village, with only modest free parking, opposite White Bridge Forge and the long lay-by beside the A591 north of the old Swan Hotel junction.
WALK SUMMARY: The inspiration of this walk is not only the achievement of Helm Crag, but also the delightful spinal ridge curving over Gibson Knott to culminate upon Calf Crag near the head of Far Easedale, backtracking down that wild dale. Both ridge and dale alternative conclusions to the Borrowdale to Grasmere stage of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk. AW was no alchemist, he wove gold from gold with this route, it’s an all round treat.
MAPS: Ordnance Survey Explorer Map OL7 The English Lakes, South-eastern area (though be aware the very head of Far Easedale transgresses onto OL8); Harvey Lake District Outdoor Atlas and/or their new plastic Mountain Map.
Hats off to Helm Crag
Studious tourists and serious trekkers have long paid homage to Grasmere. The village means a variety of things to a variety of folk, but whether you’re a devoted Wordsworthite, Heaton-Cooperite or dedicated Wainwrightite, the green vale with its sparking lake owes its ultimate charm to its glorious encirclement of fells. William Wordsworth and the Heaton-Coopers were inveterate fellwalkers, their respective study centres and art galleries creative acknowledgement of the village’s beautiful setting.
The speedy A591 main road through the vale follows an age-old path, a trade and travel highway from time immemorial. Its course defined by the natural break in the high fell guard north to south through the district made by the pass of Dunmail Raise. Ancient travellers doffed their caps to the mighty cairn at its crest and knew well the striking rock-topped fell to the west en route south. Helm Crag is one of Lakeland’s most distinct heights, the term helm meaning ‘cloud-capped hill’. Two rock tors stand at either end of its summit ridge lending scope for tourist guides of former years to offer a plethora of descriptive names to entertain their passengers: lion and lamb, the howitzer, old lady playing an organ. These tops are hard for the average hill-goer to climb notably the tilted summit tor§, the Lion couchant, which probably receives the attention of barely one in every hundred visitors.
I have conquered this peak on three occasions, but not on my most recent visit, time was pressing as I was distracted by multifarious conversations, most notably with Mr Riley the shepherd from Underhelm Farm. He was working his dogs gathering the sheep in a sweep over the summit to separate the ewes and lambs. When I finished the walk there was much plaintive bleating in the in-bye pastures! The cold damp Spring had been a bad time for the flock and numbers were seriously down. Mr Riley’s one beam of light the milk from his small dairy herd of fifty Friesians.
The Calf Crag/Helm Crag ridge is more often followed eastwards so there’ll be many encounters with fellow fellwanderers. Some will be tackling the Coast to Coast Walk, while others engaged in the greater Easedale Round. The latter walk leaves Grasmere heading for Sour Milk Gill, Easedale Tarn and Sergeant Man before tracking north either via High Raise and Greenup Edge, or more directly by the old fenceline over Codale Head.
Stridus insistus... let the walking begin
The defining start point of this walk, is Sam Read’s Bookshop, right at the heart of the village. An appropriate shop-name, indeed it was founded as a bookshop a hundred years ago. If, like me, you simply can’t walk past such fountains of the imagination then you’ll probably start the walk, by walking in and promptly be wrested out by your walking companions – I walk alone so don’t have such constraints, though even I know the compelling insistence of tempus fugit with a walk to do! Opposite the shop is a bus stop with a tidal flow of Stagecoach buses, so this is definitely a walk you can entertain minus your car… ‘park, ride and stride’ being very much in order.
Head off up Easedale Road, traffic along this cul-de-sac road has descreased in the last two years since the small car park beyond Butharlyp How youth hostel was built upon! Keep to the tarmac roadway through the open meadow to Little Parrock, fork right upon the bridleway which promptly becomes a narrow, slate cobbled path close by a cottage. Reaching a gate, note the wicket-gate right for later reference; the signed path leads through woodland to Lancrigg Hotel where ‘walkers teas’ in graceous surrounds may be enjoyed – at walk’s end.
Pass through the wide gate, now in a broad walled lane, that quickly constricts, bear right - yellow waymark ‘Helm Crag’. A damp embowered passsage leads smartly to the steep bracken and rock slopes at the foot of Helm Crag proper. Veer right and quickly left on a rising path, cross the small patch of quarry spoil to rise by wooden handrails. Momentarily the ground levels, beside an old quarry, thoroughly restored in nature’s raiment. Rising again on a pitched path close by a wall, veering left under the yew-clothed White Crag, clambering by ice-smoothed rock shelves, enjoy fine views down into the verdant pastures of lower Easedale and across to Silver How and Great Castle How with Swinescar Hause between and the juniper forest of Blindtarn Moss.
The path dips then with a a lovely view up Far Easedale the path switches right climbing on grass to a saddle of the ridge. Here peer over the brink to Town Head and the Great Tongue leading up to Seat Sandal, Grisedale Hause and Fairfield. The lion’s share of the Helm Crag climb is all but complete. Walk up the ridge to the first eye-catching outcrop, a lion if ever there was, with a jumble of boulders cluttering the rift hollow beneath. The ridge path is a joy to tread and leads majestically to the main summit outcrop 405m/1,329ft, a tilted jagged mass of rock which will draw an camera from any pack. If not hands to rock, the scramble and subsequent descent are not really difficult as long as you have the basics of bouldering. Be consoled, the view from the top is no different from the grass below, this is a fine spot to view Steel Fell and Dunmail Raise with its backdrop of the Helvellyn range.
The main atttraction is the enticing ridge continuing to the north-west over Gibson Knott. The path pitches down easily from directly behind the main outcrop to reach Bracken Hause. Paths exist trending down either side into Greenburndale and Far Easedale, in each case bracken dominates, the former the more pleasant trail if you’re thinking of curtailing the walk.
However, our walk keeps to the ridge path, though this contrives to hold a leftward bias off the true ridge-top leading to the summit knoll of Gibson Knott above Horn Crag 421m/1,380ft, a small summit cairn a good spot to pause. On my visit, in early September, the cairn was swarming with a cloud of flying ants which seem to love sweaty walker’s heads, sticking like glue, though they don’t seem to sting: after all the pop entertainer Sting has a holiday home in Grasmere so they wouldn’t, would they?
The ridge continues pleasantly undulating, note the throne among a mass of boulders on the right. The path dips briefly through a trough then slants steadily over Pike of Carrs and patches of eroded peat - hence the stepping stones, inserted to reduce the impact of us walking types!
The wet ridge to Steel Fell drifts right, but the main path strides on to the cairn on Calf Crag 537m/1,762ft, from where Deer Bields Crag, invariably hard to see being in heavy shadow by the time you arrive – unless you come on a morning yomp. The whole mass of high ground backing the crag, Tarn Crag leading to Codale Head fills the southern gaze while westward the flat horizon of Greenup Edge leads the eye round right to Ullscarf, often considered the centre-point of Lakeland.
The ridge path is never in doubt, though you may be tempted to drift right onto the marshes fringes of a lochan to catch the lovely reflections of clouds and blue sky mirrored in its waters. The path arrives at the saddle at the very head of Far Easedale marked by a bleach white cairn and the remnants of a metal fence, the old gateway still intact slightly right of the cairn.
The trans-ridge path to Greenup Edge bound for Stonethwaite and Borrowdale, dips west through the wild head of Wythburndale across the northern slopes of High Raise below the broken Ash Crags. Our route turns left following the well-trod and maintained path into Far Easedale.
To untrained eyes it’s a sparce landscape but far from dull, wild gills tumble down the fellsides into the marshy basin, a patchwork of colour and abstract textures. The broken wall of Ferngill Crag is followed by Deer Bield Crag which becomes strikingly apparent up to the right as the path weaves on by minor fords. Horn Crag, and as the path paces along the narrow trod, Helm Crag have their moments vying for your attention. Indeed there is even a Moment Crag between Pike of Carrs and Horn Crag.
The regular path from Easedale Tarn on the popular circuit via Sour Milk Gill joins on the lead down to Stythwaite Steps. The stepping stones have gone, replaced by a substantial timber footbridge - used as much by sheep as man. The character of the path changes again as the beck becomes more companionable.
Duly walls draw in about the path. Rugged walls and a stone-bedded path lead on beyond Brimmer Head Farm to meet the outward trail at the fork in the walled way near the branch to Lancrigg. Perhaps now you can consider that buttered scone and tea or cool sparkling water with ice and lemon?
After walk refreshment
Grasmere has no shortage of post-walk retirement, from temperance or tipple, from Baldry’s Tearoom to hotel bars the choice is yours by inclination.