The Big Routes: Kentmere Round from Kendal

© Chris Scaife

There may be people out there who follow meticulously planned training regimes in the runup to big walking routes. Mine was: do the 40-mile Lyke Wake Walk one week before, hobble around for a few days, go caving, rest for a few days, then do the Kentmere Horseshoe from home.

Yoke, Ill Bell and Froswick from Harter Fell  © Chris Scaife
Yoke, Ill Bell and Froswick from Harter Fell
© Chris Scaife

Also known as the Kentmere Round, this is one of the Lake District's finest ridge walks. The standard route starts in the quiet valley of Kentmere, then heads up to the Garburn Pass and over the undulating peaks of Yoke, Ill Bell and Froswick. The optional extra tops of Thornthwaite Crag and High Street can be summited before descending to Nan Bield Pass and ascending steeply to Harter Fell. The long, easy eastern ridge is then followed over Kentmere Pike. This gives a grand day out, quintessential Lakeland fell-walking.

A glutton for punishment, I decided, however, not to start the day in Kentmere, but instead to walk from home in Kendal. Looking at today's route on the map, the Horseshoe itself is just a small section in the middle, with really quite some distance to cover to reach the start and to return home.

Once upon a time the plateau of High street hosted summer fairs, with barrels of ale and horse racing; I'd give that five stars on TripAdvisor

Yoke and Windermere from Ill Bell  © Chris Scaife
Yoke and Windermere from Ill Bell
© Chris Scaife

I set off early and followed the path from Kendal into Burneside. It surprised me how many people were up and about in Burneside at 7am, but then I suppose the lives of morning people will always puzzle the indolent. I crossed the bridge over the River Kent and joined the Dales Way, initially on a fairly muddy path skirting round the edge of the paper mill, then through bedewed fields beside the river.

At Bowston, I left the Dales Way and stayed north of the Kent. The water levels were looking pretty high as I remained alongside the river as far as Beckmickle Ing – an all too small patch of native broadleaved woodland – and then walked through meadows as I approached the village of Staveley. These wildflower meadows can be great for butterflies, but not today as it was now raining quite heavily. In typical British summer fashion, this rain that felt as though it had set in for the day soon came to an abrupt end, and the village was illuminated from above by a rainbow.

From Staveley, I followed Browfoot Lane up into the Kentmere valley. Like most people, I prefer not to walk along paved roads if possible, but it would have taken a huge detour to avoid walking a couple of kilometres along this road, and it would have been for nothing as there was no traffic at all. After a short, steep descent to Browfoot, I followed the path north past the tarn to Kentmere Hall, a 14th century pele tower built to defend against raiders from across the Scottish border. The path led up through some fields and I joined the standard Kentmere Horseshoe route on the byway leading up Garburn Pass. In places this rocky track was awash with flowing water.

Near the summit of Ill Bell - already far from Kendal, but there's a lot further still to go  © Chris Scaife
Near the summit of Ill Bell - already far from Kendal, but there's a lot further still to go
© Chris Scaife

The path up to the top of Yoke is easy to follow and despite the clouds rolling across in front of me, with there being nothing as high as Yoke for many, many miles to the south, the views behind me were extensive. I reached the first summit of the day at high noon. Although I had been walking for hours and hours by now, once I was up there it felt like just a normal day walking the Kentmere Horseshoe. This part of the Lakes never sees the sort of visitor numbers you find in places like Helvellyn or Scafell Pike, but equally, it's not a place you tend to have entirely to yourself, and there were a few other walkers here and there.

On the last top I had to remind myself that the day was still far from over

The second and third peaks of the Horseshoe, Ill Bell and Froswick, are like two peas in a pod. Both follow in quick succession with short, easy descents and ascents, both tower over Kentmere Reservoir providing views down into the valley and, well, they also look similar – two green, grassy pyramids with a little exposed rock.

Thornthwaite Crag and High Street are optional extras on the Horseshoe. Many people cut the corner after the Wander Scar col north of Froswick and follow the course of the High Street Roman road briefly, before heading east to Mardale Ill Bell, so I could have missed out the two highest peaks and still had a clear conscience that I had completed the route. But if you're going to look at things that way, you don't really have to do any of it, do you? I could have just sat at home watching the tennis.

The dramatic grassy pyramid of Ill Bell, from Froswick  © Chris Scaife
The dramatic grassy pyramid of Ill Bell, from Froswick
© Chris Scaife

Well worth the minuscule additional effort, the top of Thornthwaite Crag is marked by an enormous cairn – nay, Beacon – and at this point I was able to see far to the north, a new field of vision. The dominant feature to the north-east was High Street, at 828m the highest peak of the day, and a mere stroll away.

At the risk of sounding like one of those people who leaves a one-star review for Skiddaw on TripAdvisor because there is no café, I always feel there should be more at the summit of High Street. These days there is only a trig point and the remains of a wall, but once upon a time the plateau on Racecourse Hill, as it is also known, hosted summer fairs. Barrels of ale were rolled up the hill, stray sheep were ceremoniously returned to their owners, and the entertainment included horse racing and wrestling. I'd give that five stars.

I could see Haweswater stretching away to the north-east and, far beyond, the distinctive North Pennine trio of Cross Fell, Little Dun Fell and the radar-topped Great Dun Fell. Those distant peaks, the highest in England outside the Lake District, looked understandably small from here, but then so did the rest of the Kentmere Horseshoe. Perhaps it was just the wispy clouds hazing my view, or maybe weariness was kicking in now, but the jagged peaks of the western side and less defined eastern fells looked a long way off.

Looking back to High Street and Nan Bield from the ascent of Harter Fell  © Chris Scaife
Looking back to High Street and Nan Bield from the ascent of Harter Fell
© Chris Scaife

It was quite cold and windy up there, and there is not much in the way of shelter, so whilst I would have quite liked to stop for a brew I pushed on to warmer climes. I returned south and followed the path on to Mardale Ill Bell, all jolly easy. My knees were beginning to ache on the steep descent to Nan Bield Pass, and the wind was howling now – so strong that I had to hold on to my hat lest it be blown off to the north into the depths of Blea Water, reputedly the deepest tarn in the Lake District.

As luck would have it, at Nan Bield Pass I found the stone wind shelter to be empty and facing in exactly the right direction. At last I could have my lunch. The next peak, Harter Fell, looked quite dramatic from this col. The summit may be a plateau, but the ridge leading up from the pass is steep and rocky.  

After a hearty rest, I began the last major ascent of the day. Heading straight up the rocky path, I had great views across to the serried peaks of the western side of the Horseshoe, and before long I was at the top. Harter Fell has another unusual summit cairn, this time one that is adorned with old iron fenceposts. Here I turned right, following a modern fence, which gives way to a drystone wall after a kilometre or so, and runs the full length of the Horseshoe's more featureless eastern ridge. This means that navigation is child's play, but it does rather reduce any feelings of wildness.

Looking south form Kentmere Pike, and it's not over yet  © Chris Scaife
Looking south form Kentmere Pike, and it's not over yet
© Chris Scaife

From Kentmere Pike, the last major fell of the day, I could see Morecambe Bay and Ingleborough to the south; and far beyond that, the vague outline of the eastern flanks of Pendle Hill. With no more ascending to do, I felt as though my day was nearly over, but had to remind myself that walking up Kentmere Pike from Kendal is still a marathon day out – a 26-mile round trip – so perhaps it was not quite time to crack open the champagne.

I stuck to the ridge, crossing the minor summits of Goat Scar and Shipman Knotts. This latter peak afforded views of the Horseshoe, now behind me; and ahead, the final leg of my journey – the long, leisurely valley of Longsleddale.

As the classic Horseshoe route returns to Kentmere, the descent towards Longsleddale from Shipman Knotts is nothing like the big, obvious track to which I had become accustomed. Now I was following a faint, grassy path, with several boggy sections. But it's not as if my feet were dry at this stage. The boggy bit was followed by a byway leading down into the valley. All easy going now.

Looking back at the fells I've climbed from Shipman Knotts  © Chris Scaife
Looking back at the fells I've climbed from Shipman Knotts
© Chris Scaife

A few weeks before walking this route, I had been for another big walk from home. On that day I had walked over the eastern fells Whiteside Pike, Capplebarrow, Swinklebank Crag and Harrop Pike, before dropping down to Mosedale Cottage bothy for lunch, then across to Gatescarth Pass and back home through Longsleddale. I walked that route mainly for pleasure – naturally – but it also acted as a reconnaissance, meaning that the long southerly amble through Longsleddale was fresh in my mind; so even though I still had a few hours to go, it felt as if I was on the familiar home straight.

I always enjoy walking through this peaceful valley. The bridleway stays close to the true right of the River Sprint all the way down to Garnett Bridge and the ridges on either side of the valley change gradually from the soaring rugged scars at the northern end to the gentle rolling hills closer to Kendal.

The quickest and easiest route between Garnett Bridge and Burneside would be to walk along the minor Garnett Bridge Road, but where's the fun in that? I went up the winding track into Garnett Bridge Wood, a tiny patch of woodland, then followed the footpath down to the Potter Fell Road. At Potter Fell Little Library – a roadside book exchange, great idea – I turned left and followed the scenic bridleway down past Shepherd Green and Beetham Bank, then took the path through a magnificent field to join the road for a short distance.

At last, Kendal is in sight  © Chris Scaife
At last, Kendal is in sight
© Chris Scaife

As is my wont, I had my head torch with me, but it stayed in my bag all day as there were still a few hours of daylight left. I was in no danger of being benighted, but it certainly felt like the end of a long day as I walked back through Burneside and into Kendal. And then it was over; earlier than expected, I was home. I hope you'll not think me overly dramatic when I say that that was a satisfying day out.

Start/finish Kendal

Distance 52.5 km (32.6 miles)

Total ascent 1,579m

Time 12 – 16 hours

Maps OS Explorer OL7 - English Lakes: South-eastern area (1:25,000) or Harvey Mountain Map (1:40,000) Lake District - good for the hills but doesn't quite cover Kendal

Terrain Between Kendal and Burneside, there is a riverside path and a pavement beside the road, then the Dales Way is followed to Bowston. There is an obvious footpath and some walking on a minor road between there and Kentmere, then the clear and well-walked Kentmere Horseshoe path. The bridleway through Longsleddale is flat and easy to follow, then there is a mixture of footpaths and minor roads to return to Kendal.

Seasonal notes As high-level Lakeland walks go, the Kentmere Horseshoe is not particularly difficult in winter conditions and is walked throughout the year, but this extended version is best saved for a long summer's day, when daylight is plentiful.

Overnight options Kendal has a full range of options including cottages, apartments, inns, hostels, hotels, camping and caravanning sites

Public transport Kendal has a railway station and a bus station

Route variants There is a railway station in Burneside and starting from there would reduce the length of the walk by a couple of miles.

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