The Big Routes: Keswick to Ambleside the High Way

© Chris Scaife

The long ridge of the Dodds, Helvellyn and Fairfield begs to be walked in a one-er. Chris Scaife makes good use of the bus to extend this  classic linear high route into a bigger day linking Lakeland's two key tourist towns.

Anyone who has ever given any thought to the layout of the Lakeland fells can't have failed to notice the long ridge running from Clough Head in the north, over numerous summits including Helvellyn, before dropping down to Grisedale Tarn. For over eight miles, walking more or less in a straight line along this ridge, you stay far above 2,000 feet. A steep ascent from the tarn leads up to Fairfield, and a long descent can then be made on half of the Fairfield Horseshoe. The Pennines are often called the 'backbone of England' and that must surely make this line of hills England's bulging left bicep.

Looking towards Helvellyn from Raise  © Chris Scaife
Looking towards Helvellyn from Raise
© Chris Scaife

Threlkeld to Ambleside is the fell walk, but I decided to extend it a bit by starting in Keswick and walking to Threlkeld along the old railway line before heading up to the ridge. Taking advantage of the £2 deal on one way bus journeys, I travelled up to Keswick on the 555. I think most people would agree that public transport in all national parks could be improved, but this bus route is certainly a useful way to travel through the heart of the Lakes, and some of the best days out to be had around here are '555 walks'.

I could now see most of the rest of the day's walk; not just the peaks, but the broad, dusty path winding across them. I still had a long way to go...

After a horrifically early rise, I was hoping to sleep on the way, but as usually happens with this bus route I failed as I ended up looking at the scenery. I was not alone; the passenger on the seat in front was filming the whole journey on her phone. Much though I enjoyed the views from the bus window, I'm glad I'm not in a WhatsApp group with her.

Clough Head is the first steep ascent of the day  © Chris Scaife
Clough Head is the first steep ascent of the day
© Chris Scaife

I set off walking from the bus station, and it only seemed right to aim first for the Moot Hall. This medieval landmark is used as a starting point for various challenges, including the Bob Graham Round – a 24-hour run of 66 miles over 42 fells – and I suppose it helps to start a tough day by considering others who have undertaken far greater tests of endurance. Anyway, quiet contemplation over, I followed Station Road across the River Greta and past Fitz Park, up to the old railway station. I was then on the Keswick to Threlkeld railway path, which has changed no end since I was last there.

Having been pretty badly damaged by 2015's Storm Desmond, this trail – interwoven with the River Greta – has now been repaired, with new bridges, flood defences and tunnels with in situ lights. This is a thoroughly modern walkway/cycleway, with information boards scattered about and marker posts every kilometre. All on smooth-surfaced tarmac, the trail worked as an easy warm-up for the long day ahead. Big deciduous trees provided shade but still allowed views of little Latrigg and the dark curves of Blencathra. Every now and then, through a gap in the trees to the right, I would spot Clough Head, my first peak of the day. Perhaps it was magnified by the fact that I was into the swing of taking it easy along this entirely flat trail, but Clough Head looked big.

From Great Dodd the ridge-top path snakes on towards Helvellyn  © Chris Scaife
From Great Dodd the ridge-top path snakes on towards Helvellyn
© Chris Scaife

At the end of the Keswick to Threlkeld trail I crossed the A66, then carried on along the old railway line, now narrow, unpaved and devoid of people. With Blencathra dominating the view to the north, I set off south on the track to Newsham, then through the gate and on to the track uphill. This was a hot and sunny day, right in the middle of a drought and heatwave, but thankfully there was a slight breeze to cool things down a little. After a steep ascent, a world away from the tarmacked old railway trail, along a path that wasn't marked on the Ordnance Survey map, I reached the trig point and small stone shelter at the top of Clough Head. I could see the Dodds – Great, Watson's and Stybarrow – ahead of me. In fact, I could see most of the Lake District; it was one of those days.

My first descent of the day was on a broad, grassy path and I was surrounded by small heath butterflies, with one or two wood tiger moths to add a bit of colour. The path soon led up to Great Dodd with a cairn and stone shelter about 100m apart and the highest point probably somewhere in between. Looking south, I could now see most of the rest of the day's walk; not just the peaks, but the broad, dusty path winding its way across them. With blue skies, but slightly hazy, it looked as though I still had a long way to go. It was at this point that I picked up the pace as I began to think I hadn't made the most of my early start. Already early afternoon and it felt as though I still had everything ahead of me.

Heading for Helvellyn  © Chris Scaife
Heading for Helvellyn
© Chris Scaife

You could easily walk in a straight line to Stybarrow Dodd, bypassing Watson's Dodd, but I made a brief detour to this intermediate Dodd because it's there. Slightly to the west of the main line of fells, this summit affords great views of the Thirlmere reservoir and the anomalous, crag-laden High Rigg rising out of the valley floor to the north.

Stybarrow Dodd followed effortlessly. It was almost like being back on the railway path, with a negligible ascent and then a steady descent down to Sticks Pass where I was surprised to see a building. I had forgotten there was a ski hut and tow here, on the northern slope of Raise.

Since Threlkeld I had barely seen a soul – although I should probably point out that this was a midweek walk – but Sticks Pass is where a well-used track comes up from Glenridding, so now there were a few people here and there. Still not exactly a crowd though.

It's hard to get lost up here - the path from Nethermost to Dollywaggon  © Chris Scaife
It's hard to get lost up here - the path from Nethermost to Dollywaggon
© Chris Scaife

Until now, I had been plodding across grassy mounds, but Raise breaks the mould with bare rock all over the place. From its rocky summit with a rocky cairn, I could see Helvellyn and Fairfield in the south; looking north, Clough Head looked pretty far away too. This had a semi-satisfying halfway feel to it. I had an easy amble across to Whiteside, and Helvellyn was starting to look impressive, with the justly popular scrambly approaches of Swirral and Striding Edges clearly visible now. I followed the obvious path quite steeply up to Lower Man and then across to Helvellyn. Although this was a big day out in the fells, I realised at this point that if I had been walking in Scotland, this would be my only Munro.

It was half past four in the afternoon when I stood at the highest point of the day. I had passed two people where the path split for Swirral Edge, but otherwise I had the summit to myself. This doesn't happen often up here; midweek late afternoon is clearly a good time to summit Helvellyn. Perhaps I should have made more of this rare solitude, but I pushed on along the broad track to the flattened cairn on the rocky summit plateau of Nethermost Pike, the cairn on High Crag and a detour from the main path to follow a far more interesting rocky ridge to Dollywaggon Pike. I've never fully understood the whole wild swimming craze, but I must admit that from here the deep blue waters of Grisedale Tarn below me looked more inviting than the arduous ascent of Fairfield beyond.

Fairfield and Grisedale Tarn  © Chris Scaife
Fairfield and Grisedale Tarn
© Chris Scaife

Having stayed high for hours and hours, the next stage was something of a comedown. I descended steeply to the tarn and had a quick paddle, enough to cool down. According to legend, this high-altitude (for England) body of water is where the crown of the kingdom of Cumbria was laid to rest after the last king, Dunmail, was slain in battle. I skirted round to Hause Gap and began the last big ascent of the day. With most of the day's effort complete, it was then simply a matter of walking the eastern half of the classic Fairfield Horseshoe. Fairfield is a jumble of cairns, stone shelters and rocks. This plateau is notorious for navigational errors, but the way on was easy enough to find – a broad track heading south-east.

Ambleside came into view and, whilst it was still far away, this was a sign that I was on the home straight. The short, steep ascent to the rocky summit of Hart Crag was tough on the aching muscles, and I saw someone pitching his tent near the top. I felt a little jealous at the thought of him not having to keep walking, but that's hardly the spirit now, is it? Perhaps he was jealous of me still having some excellent Lakeland walking to do in the evening.

Evening on the long descent towards the finish  © Chris Scaife
Evening on the long descent towards the finish
© Chris Scaife

I reached Dove Crag by a less onerous ascent and could see the long grassy ridge ahead of me just heading down, down, to Ambleside. Navigation had been pretty straightforward for most of the walk, and from here it couldn't really have been much simpler – just following the drystone wall down the ridge towards Ambleside. At half past eight, as the path veered off to the left slightly and the steep hillside to my right blocked out the sun, I took off my sunglasses for the first time since I had started walking. Thus, in blessed shade I approached Ambleside in time to catch the bus home.

That day out cost me £4; not bad.

Ambleside - the end of a long, productive day  © Chris Scaife
Ambleside - the end of a long, productive day
© Chris Scaife

The Route

Start The walk proper begins by the old station, at the start of the Keswick to Threlkeld railway path, but if using public transport, the logical start point is the bus station, at NY 262235, which is conveniently located next to a Booths supermarket.

Finish Ambleside: The bus stop is on Kelsick Road, NY 375043.

Public transport I used the Stagecoach bus 555 to transport me to the start and back from the finish, and would recommend this to anyone else considering walking the route.

Distance 35.4 km (22 miles)

Total ascent 1,750m

Time 10 – 14 hours

Maps Harvey British Mountain Map Lake District (1:40,000); OS Landranger 90 (1:50,000); OS Explorer (1:25,000) OL4, OL5 and OL7

Terrain The Keswick to Threlkeld railway path is totally flat and has a paved surface. The ascent of Clough Head is steep and via a narrow grassy path, but thereafter there is a broad path to follow. Although numerous summits are reached along the route, Clough Head and Fairfield are the only big ascents, with most of the day spent high up and losing little ground between the fells. Navigation is generally straightforward.

Seasonal notes This is a long walk, mostly spent above 600m altitude. It'd be a very big day in winter conditions, and with limited light. Easier in calm, settled weather in spring or summer. It is also definitely worth saving this for a day when the skies are clear, as the views stretch right across the Lake District and beyond.

Overnight options Both Keswick and Ambleside have options to suit all budgets. A high camp mid-way is not a bad option, too.

Food and drink Keswick has numerous cafes and pubs, including Booths cafe beside the bus station. It's unlikely any cafes will be open by the time you reach Ambleside, but there are several pubs here. You could make a detour into Threlkeld to visit the coffee shop or one of the pubs. Bear in mind that between Threlkeld and Ambleside there are no ready sources of fresh water directly on the route, other than Grisedale Tarn (filter definitely requiered).

Route variants You could make the day a bit shorter, and miss out the initial flat bit, by starting in Threlkeld. There is an hourly bus service from Keswick to Threlkeld. It's also possible to shorten the walk along the ridge by dropping down to the west in numerous places, eg from Helvellyn down to the road beside Thirlmere, which is another stop on the 555 bus route.

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Thanks for this Chris. It's a great route and I love the use of public transport to help make it a logical linear day. Also good to have the option to start at a cafe for breakfast in Keswick and a pub for dinner in Ambleside.

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