Outline of Route
Swirls car park - Helvellyn - Lower Man - Whiteside - Raise - Stybarrow Dodd - Watson's Dodd - Great Dodd - Legburthwaite - Swirls car park (Grid ref. NY 316169)
Total Distance 9.6 miles, Total Ascent 3700 feet, Equivalent Distance 17.0 miles
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Details of Route
Swirls Car Park is about two thirds of the way along Thirlmere, travelling north, and is owned by NWWA. Parking is no longer free, it was £5.00 for 12 hours on my last visit. If you are lucky you will find free parking across the road, a few yards to the north at the National Trust's Station Coppice car park; little more than a lay-by. Following the signpost (Public Footpath - Helvellyn) go over the footbridge and through the gate to the open fell. The path is well worn and provides the easiest way I know to ascend over 2500 feet. It is usually a safe way up in snow but is very hard work without crampons. The first visible eminence is Browncove Crags (photo), so don't imagine it's the top: there's another 500 feet to climb after that. There is a good view back down the path (170° panorama) and of the northern section of the Helvellyn ridge before the summit (photo). Pass Lower Man on your left and reach Helvellyn's flattish summit (photo). The views on the way up are hardly inspiring, but once at the top, with the eastern vista opened up to the Pennines, and views down on Striding and Swirral Edges (photo) Ullswater and Red Tarn (photo) and with a wonderful (panorama), the effort is all worthwhile.
Trace your route back and after almost half a mile bear right onto Helvellyn Lower Man. At this point great care must be taken to avoid going northwest down to Browncove Crags, which unfortunately seems the obvious way to continue. The direction of our route is just a few degrees east of north down a narrowish ridge (90° panorama). After that little navigational problem the way to White Side becomes clear and the route along the chain (photo from Catstye Cam) becomes obvious. Between Helvellyn Lower Man and White Side there are excellent views of Catstye Cam in its normal state (photo), and under snow (photo). Continuing over and beyond White Side we reach Raise (360° panorama), the top of Sticks Pass, and Stybarrow Dodd. Here there's a fine (80° panorama) and when we continue to Watson's Dodd there are good views southwest to Thirlmere (photo) and northwest towards Keswick (photo). The path along the ridge to Great Dodd is simple to follow. In snow I have left this ridgewalk between Raise and Stybarrow and descended Sticks Pass to Stanah. From the summit of Great Dodd there are excellent views to the north (photo) and particularly of Blencathra (photo), the Helvellyn range to the south (photo), and Grasmoor etc. to the west (photo).
From the summit of Great Dodd set off WSW, heading towards Pillar or Dale Head on the horizon, and continue down the grassy slope. There is no footpath here: keep the valley of Mill Gill to your left. When you see Mill Gill head into a ravine (photo), you will find traces of a footpath descending on your side of it (photo). Don't enter the ravine but keep to this path by its right-hand side. Some way down, at the 1000 feet (300 m) contour, there is a break in the ravine where the path turns to cross the gill (photo).
As an alternative for walkers who are happy to walk straight down the fell with little to guide them I suggest the following. From the summit of Great Dodd head down the fellside directly towards the gap between High Stile and Red Pike on the horizon. You may find yourself following a path but you should ignore it when it bears off to your right (for Calfhow Pike). About halfway down you will come to a cairn (photo) built on an outlying rock. It looks only about two feet high from above but four from below. This is the only indication you are on the right track. As you descend, High Stile and Red Pike vanish behind the intervening fells; so pick a marker down in the valley to aim for, such as the caravan site by Bridge End farm. Eventually you will join the path mentioned above and reach the crossing of the gill.
Follow it across, this is the only safe place for a walker to do so, past the rowan tree. When the bracken is high it is not easy to see where to go next, but keep to the same contour, traversing the fell until a path coming down the fell from Watson's Dodd is reached, then continue downhill on the left bank of the ravine, to the right of Castle Rock. There is no clear path but occasional wear shows that it has been used. It is very steep here, on grass with small rocky outcrops, and would be dangerous in snow or on frozen ground. The face of Castle Rock appears on your left (photo) as you descend towards a wall, at the bottom of the steep slope, with a gap through which the gill disappears. Followers of Wainwright's guide will find his route blocked here by a much-repaired fence in the wall, and are advised not to try to follow it. Turn left and walk south alongside the wall, there is the semblance of a path, with Castle Rock towering above on your left. Clamber over the broken-down section of wall that comes down the fell and crosses your path, and keep going. Soon you will notice a footbridge over a leat (drainage channel) which drains water from Mill Gill and other streams into Thirlmere. Cross this bridge - at the time of writing it consists of a plank with a single handrail - and follow the path downhill to join a farm track, which leads to the B5322 at Legburthwaite.
Turn right and follow this road for about fifty yards, then turn left along an old road signposted "Permissive cycletrack to Grasmere". Cross straight over the main Keswick road when you meet it, continuing down the road directly opposite towards the Thirlmere dam. Just before the dam a set of steps leads up to the lakeside footpath. Follow this rise-and-fall footpath alongside the reservoir (photo) back to the Swirls car park. If on the way you find yourself reaching a signpost while walking away from the lakeside then turn right towards ST(ation Coppice). If you find yourself near a large whitewashed building then you should pass to the right of it - the true path is near the lake here. When you hear the sound of rushing water you will know you are approaching the Station Coppice car park.
Rev. 17 July 2012