Helvellyn and Striding Edge

England, Lake District, United Kingdom

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

This is an account of my crossing in May 2016 from Grasemere to Patterdale, as a diversion from the Coast to Coast.

Today was always going to be a lovely day’s walking, but becomes a marvel, as the weather allows us to divert to Helvellyn and Striding Edge. It didn’t appear thus when we peered out of the window first thing: glistening paths and the beginning of a shower.

After paying our respects to Wordsworth’s grave and Grasmere’s decidedly unusual church, we take the back road via Goody Bridge to where the path up beside Tongue Gill leaves the main Keswick road. This is one lovely valley, climbing north-east between the steep slopes of Great Rigg and Fairfield to the east and Seat Sandal to the north, amid whole hillsides of tawny old bracken which light up when the sun comes out, which it increasingly does between the showers. High up there are waterfalls to admire as we clamber up to a fine grassy cirque and on to the Hause Gap ridge. The changes of world at these ridges are always something to look forward to in the Lake District, and this does not disappoint: below us is the quiet sheet of Grisedale Tarn (when does a tarn become a lake? This one is substantial) in its perfect bowl between three hills: beyond its foot we can enjoy glimpses toward Grisedale and the Ullswater hills. Gorgeous, and definitely time for a snack.

With the clouds off the tops and the sunny interludes getting longer, we decide we can  tackle the Helvellyn ridge, starting with the long trudge up the southern side of Dollywagon Pike, Walkopedia’s favourite among a host of contenders for Most Eccentrically Named Hill. So, we miss the Brother Parting Stone (another Wordsworth moment) and the beautiful descent through the Grisdale Forest and Patterdale Common to the Grisedale valley and finally Patterdale.

This is an unremarkable climb on a well maintained path (grass now grows between the securely laid stones, erosion is kept to a minimum, but descreetly), with reasonable gradients and enlivened by grander views which open up further we climb: there beyond the Langdales is the Scafell massif. Reaching the summit ridge is a gasp-inducing moment: there before us is the full panoply of the north-east fells: St Sunday Crag next door, the High Street ridge looming beyond the fells by the pewter sheen of Ullswater. Far below are the wild upper reaches of Grisedale. A huge, inspiring view. Lunchtime, although, with a stiff breeze up high (coats on), we creep behind a rock of shelter. A blissful 15 minutes.

Then it is on up the western flank of the long Helvellyn summit ridge, below the peaks of Dollywagon, High Crag and Nethermost Pike. It has to be said, Helvellyn would be a dull mountain were its western side the only aspect: steep grassy slopes persist, and it is a long, unvaried slog to the summit ridge from the deep valley below. Fortunately, that is not all, as we are to experience. The traverse around the backs of the peaks is a pleasingly easy walk made glorious by the views north and west, the fells dappled by the rapidly moving clouds.

We reach the top (England’s third highest mountain) with lots in reserve – there’s still some fight left! We slightly rush Helvellyn’s peak: the lee of the cruciform wall-shelter is packed, so I say I’ll go over for a quick look down at the famous Striding Edge arête, which we’ve agreed to miss in favour of northerly and easier Swirral Edge. We should have gone back for more peak time and then a march north the Swirral Edge, but Reg decides on the spur, as we gaze down on the zig-zag path descending the sheer slope to the start of the great knife-edge, that this is for him, so off we go.

The descent to Striding Edge is fine, steep but not dangerous. The views and atmosphere are nothing short of ecstatic for the next hour, the odd gut-wrench aside. Far below, the blue waters of Red Tarn lie quietly below Swirral Edge and the wonderfully named Catseye Cam. Some 1,500ft. below are the Glenridding valley and, on the southern side of the knife-edge, the upper end of Grisedale.

At the start of Striding Edge proper, we are confronted by a tower the far side of which looked sheer from Nethermost Pike, so, while Reg and Ali clamber off up it, I give it a miss and drop down the slippery slope to the right and round its base. It looks like it was perfectly doable when I get round to the other side, which Ali confirms with a hint of pleasure, but what’s done is done. Reg has shot forward, the bit suddenly between his teeth, so no chance for him to crow.

Thence it is a scramble up onto the next tower, to strike poses on its flat and wide top. An easy climb down gets us to another little gap.

I had thought there was a cable/chained stretch but none is to be seen.

We have a choice of a long scramble along the ridge top in a stiffish breeze, or a traverse across the cliff fast below – Ali and I take the latter.

We get back to the high ridge, now a pavement of broken upended strata. The views over upper Grisedale are unforgettably pretty. Farewell to the high emptiness, apart from the many well-established paths, of the Red Tarn cirque and valley: the bright fields in their orderly walls begin, hemmed in by rough grass and rock on the slopes above.

We now have a long and lovely walk down the ridge that becomes Striding Edge, then gradually down the huge hillside to the valley floor. Ali’s knee, hurt in a slip yesterday, becomes painful on the downhill, and we move very slowly.

We are pattered by flecks of rain – out of an apparently clear sky, although clouds are now gathering above the ridge top far behind. We reach the end a few minutes before the heavens burst. A lucky day.

A pretty road walk at the bottom, then on the main road` through Patterdale, such as it is. The Youth Hostel, when we finally get there, is much smarter than the last time we visited one – they have moved upmarket. Our dorm has a carpet!

Supper in a cheerful Patterdale pub. Two glasses of 8% cider leave their mark…

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