Lake District Hikes: Fairfield Circuit

Lake District Hikes: Fairfield Circuit

I had so much fun on a recent hike that I thought I’d write about it for you, and add in some of the beautiful pictures I took along the way. Perhaps it’ll inspire others to do the same hike, or help those actually planning on it. If not just enjoy the photos, from Cumbria at its summery best. Perhaps I’ll write some more trail accounts in the future.


So this one is about the Fairfield Circuit. We’re in the Eastern Fells here, a knot of peaks between Ambleside and Ullswater. Thanks to glaciation thousands of years ago there’s a whole series of loops you can do following ridgeline spines around U-shaped valleys. Practically every little stream round here has its own loop of ridges, gills and peaks. We did one that took in two watersheds: that of Tongue Gill and Rydal Beck, meeting at Fairfield, the highest point nearby at the head of both valleys. You can find a map of the route here.


We started from a layby on the A591, with the trailhead just past the Grasmere Hostel. From there we headed up Tongue Gill, a small tributary of the Rothay, the river that runs through Grasmere and which connects Grasmere and Rydal Water. In gorgeous summer morning sunshine we followed the line of the river, forking right at a little bridge. We walked up a beautiful green gully, full of ferns and luscious grass. It had rained heavily the day before so the trail was slippery, but up ahead were great views.

The view up Tongue Gill valley

The higher we climbed the more the view spread out behind us. Immediately across the A591 from us was Helm Crag, a great little peak overlooking Grasmere that I’d climbed a few years before. Behind that were the Wythburn Fells, the Langdale Pikes and all of the central Lake District. We could see Coniston Water, Windermere and all the way out to the Morecambe Bay.

Seat Sandal (l) above the valley

The first highlight was a wonderful waterfall high up in the valley. It was beautiful, but even better was the fact that you could easily scramble up the side of it and get really close to perch on rocks right beside the fall. This made for a very cool photo opportunity.

A view of Grasmere from below Seat Sandal

After that I’d recommend sticking to the path, which will take you up to the saddle between Seat Sandal (736m) on the left and Fairfield (873m) on the right, where you can see Grisedale Tarn. But, because we’re stupid, we left the path and struck straight uphill for a very steep scramble up Gavel Crag. This was a shorter but much more challenging route to the top of Seat Sandal. I was on my hands for much of it, hauling myself up with clumps of hill-grass.

The view west over the central Lake District from Seat Sandal

So Seat Sandal is Wainwright number 1. We paused there, soaking up the views. Looking west we could see a fantastic panorama of Lakeland fells, while to the north lay Grisedale Tarn, prettily perched in the lap of surrounding mountains like a gem in rumpled green velvet. The Helvellyn ridge was north of us, Fairfield to the east, and in-between was Grisedale Beck leading down to a distant glimpse of Ullswater. We could see St Sunday Crag, a striking rocky hump to the northeast, and even the distant bulk of Skiddaw, far away to the north.

Looking down over Grisedale Tarn from Seat Sandal, with Dollywaggon Pike (l), St. Sunday Crag (r) and Fairfield (far right)

After a short pause for refuelling and some photography we loped down the far side of Seat Sandal, skirted Grisedale Tarn to the right and slogged up Dollywaggon Pike (856m). Really we just wanted to tick off another Wainwright, but we were also proved right in thinking that it would offer better views of the both St Sunday Crag and the long ridge which leads to Helvellyn via High Crag and Nethermost Pike. Glorious.

St Sunday Crag
Looking down Grisedale to Ullswater from Dollywaggon Pike

From there it was back down to Grisedale Tarn, where we lunched at the spot where Grisedale Beck leaves the tarn to begin its journey down to Ullswater. Sitting by some lake-edge boulders and with sunlit peaks all around like a natural amphitheatre, this was a charming and peaceful spot to get my second wind.

Grisedale Tarn

Resisting the temptation of other great heights away north, we took the eastward path and began up Fairfield. This is a very steep and rocky section of trail, and my going was made much slower by a bout of cramp. I had to pause every hundred metres or so to stretch off, fearing I’d need to be carried back down by my brother, but thankfully I managed to walk it off and reached the top safely.

Seat Sandal from Fairfield

Now we could see the long, picturesque ridge which we were to follow down to Rydal. This would take us along and over Great Rigg (766m) and Heron Pike (611m) on the way, two more Wainwrights. If you’ve got more time and fancy a longer loop, you could go further east and hike the corresponding ridge on the far side of Rydal Beck.

The U-shaped valley of Rydal Beck

More glorious views, especially of the perfect U-shape of Rydal Beck’s valley, a perfect example of what once would have been a sharply-cut V-shape, but which has since been bulldozed by a glacier into a smooth U with the river running through the middle. All the way down that ridge you’re treated to wonderful southward views to Ambleside and Windermere beyond, especially if you had great visibility as we did.

Heron Pike and the ridgeline
Looking back on the trail
Looking down at Grasmere from Heron Pike
Windermere and Ambleside from Heron Pike

At the end of the ridge you’ve got two choices: you can go straight down not far from Rydal Beck and come out after some steep fern-flanked switchbacks at Rydal Mount, or you can veer left where trails will take you along a steep hillside back towards Grasmere. We did the former because Lucy was waiting to meet us there, and we celebrated the end of the trail with some cool drinks at the Badger Bar on the main road.

End of the trail

It was a fantastic walk – cramp aside – and one I’d recommend to anyone in the area. That’s the great thing about the Lake District, so many trails in such a comparatively small area, so many hidden gems and beautiful spots lying in rugged folds of the land. I can’t wait to come back and do more.


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