Grey Knotts, Brandreth, Fleetwith Pike

Date: 29 Nov 2019 Weather: -3’C, sunny, still
Height gain: 1,755 ft Distance: 6.4 miles
Time taken: 5 hours Wainwrights: 112,113,114 of 214

Route:  From Honister Slate Mine up to Drum House then left up to Grey Knotts and Brandreth and back to Drum House to turn right up to Fleetwith Pike and back down on the quarry road.


Three or four days of sunny weather with low wind speeds are forecast – a real treat after all the drizzle and strong winds of recent weeks.  We put together an itinerary of good walks to make the most of the weather.  In the event we don’t do any of them as planned, starting with today’s adventures.

I’ve been looking forward to getting up Great Gable again – the first big, well known mountain I climbed on my first holiday here in 1993 – and although we have climbed him again since it has been a good few years.  We decide that today is the day as conditions are going to be best on this first day of the good weather.

We’re up early and put our defrosted homemade pasties and veggie sausage rolls in the oven to warm through as we eat breakfast.  We also get the brownies out of the freezer to start to defrost.  It’s very cold outside and we turn the car on to defrost as well as we pack up our stuff.

The journey to Honister is nice and quiet and we make good time – just under an hour and a quarter.  However, it gets colder and colder as we drive and the Honister Pass is quite hairy with all the ice on it but the car copes admirably.

As we park up it’s -3’C and the car park is very frosty.  We go into the slate mine to pay for our car parking and to use their (very well appointed) loos.

I shiver and struggle with cold hands while lacing up my boots, despite the thermal layer, fleece layer, padded jacket and thick furry hat.  Once all kitted up I plunge my freezing digits into two pairs of gloves and hope to feel them again soon.

We set off up the well known path up to the Drum House and access to lots of great mountains.  The sun is shining and there is virtually no wind so in less than 15 minutes we’re all warm and toasty.  The first 500ft is much steeper than I remember but we make good time – done in 26 minutes.

I hasn’t appreciated that it was going to be quite so cold, though, and I’m nervous about the frost and icy patches as we climb but in truth it’s easy to avoid the more slippery bits.  We reach the Drum House and turn left onto the well trodden path towards our target mountains for the day – at this stage Grey Knotts, Brandreth, Green and Great Gable.

The gradient is much gentler now, but the rocky path is icy and the wetter ground either side of it is partially frozen.  There was a pile of mountain bikes leaning against the slate mine building when we were there earlier and I had shivered at the thought of being on a bike in this cold icy weather but sure enough they were out to be used – a party of five cyclists starts to pass us – sometimes riding and sometimes carry their bikes.  I can see that this is a great path for mountain biking, but maybe not today with all this ice.  I tell them I think they are they are very brave as they pass.

As we gain more height the views down towards Buttermere and Crummock Water start to open up and it looks fantastic with Haystacks, High Stile and Mellbreak prominent above them:

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We keep plodding upwards, stopping to take photos of the valley as it changes with each extra 10ft of height.  We know we need to turn left onto the hillside at some point soon to find the top of Grey Knotts – I remember it being difficult to find on our last ascent and we scrambled around the hillside for what seemed like ages.

At the 2,000ft contour we see what looks like a faint path to our left and we start to head up.  A couple who were behind us had disappeared and we can now see them above us – they had taken an earlier left turn and look like they know where they’re going so we aim to intersect their route.

The path seems much more straightforward than last time and although steep it’s a relief to be on crunchy, frosty grass rather than icy stones.  We reach the shoulder of the mountain and have our first proper view of Great Gable (on the left) who is remarkably well hidden on most of the path up:

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We can’t climb much higher now but there are two distinct rocky outcrops that could be the summit – the closest has a fence post sticking out of it and at the other end of the mountain and beyond a gate is what looks like a slightly higher rocky outcrop with a distinct cairn on the top.  The capable couple we followed up are making their way to the further top but S is already scampering up the icy rock immediately above us.

I assume that he’s doing a bit of needless ice scrambling and wait patiently for him to come back down and join me on the path to the other top.  After about 5 minutes he’s shouting to find out where I am.  The gadget tells him this is the real top so up I go.

The rocks are slithery and icy and we have to be careful taking our summit pictures, but happily both of us manage to stay upright.  Here’s the view across to the other top from here:

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We take photos of the great views and slither and scramble back to the path and head for the second summit.  I’m calling this the “real” top:

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Great views all around – here looking north east towards Skiddaw and Blencathra:

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And south west to our next objective, Brandreth, with Kirk Fell behind it:

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We scramble back off the rocks – not quite as icy as the other top was – and start to head towards Brandreth.  Wainwright says of this ridge route “Only those of unusual talent could go astray on this simple walk, the line of fence posts being a sure pointer to the top of Brandreth”.

I’m sure I could be that person of unusual talent if left to my own devices, but happily I have S who is an ace navigator and we make swift progress down into the minor depression and up the 100ft to the top of Brandreth.  We did find ourselves on the wrong side of the fence at one point when we encountered a large patch of partly frozen water on our side but luckily the fence was low enough for us both to scoot quickly over it.

In one of our fastest ever ridge walks we reach the summit of Brandreth in 16 minutes – although admittedly it is only half a mile and 100ft of ascent.  We then face our next challenge – where on this wide, flat stony top is the actual summit?  Wainwright says it is sited at a meeting of fences and adorned with a boundary post.

The only post around here doesn’t look much like the highest point.  There’s what looks like the remains of a horse jump at where the fences look like they used to meet but again it doesn’t look like the highest point.  We move to the western edge where there is a pile of stone and this is 2ft higher than the other two possibilities, but we can see a much more impressive pile of stone with a cairn on top on the south edge which looks higher still.  We trot across and yes indeed, it is 1ft higher.  So, it may not be near any fences but this is what I’m calling the summit:

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But it could be any of these three spots – we visited them all just in case:

Brandreth summit

The views are again excellent all around us.  It takes me a while to realise that to the south east we’re looking at the back of the Langdales, with Harrison Stickle to the right in the picture:

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Beautiful views north west towards Buttermere and Crummock Water looking over the ridge of Haystacks with High Crag and High Stile behind it and Mellbreak again beyond them.  Ennerdale Water is peeking out on the left:

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We decide to stop for some lunch and find some rocks which aren’t too icy to perch on.  We’re facing into the sun as we sit with Green and Great Gable looming above us:

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The route up Green Gable looks icy but do-able.  The path up Great Gable isn’t distinct as we squint into the sun but he looks a long way up and I know the path is steep scree followed by steep rocks.  We both decide that today is not the day to tackle Great Gable.  S suggests we turn back and head for Fleetwith Pike instead and I agree this sounds like a very good idea.

Despite the sun and lack of wind we get quite chilly as we eat so we soon decide to start our descent back to the Drum House.  We head north down the grassy hillside and cross the fence again.  We carry on down the grass heading for the main path – it’s a distinct path on the OS map but not very distinct up here.  It’s not challenging, though, we can clearly see where we need to get to.  The only slightly unsettling thing is when the ground starts to crunch beneath my feet and I realise I’m walking on partially frozen patches of deep bog.

We get back to the main path and make our way down, picking our way through the icy patches.  It’s not as bad as I had thought it might be in descent.  We get back to the Drum House and go straight across and up the quarry road for a few feet to pick up the path to Fleetwith Pike.

The route is mostly on grass and quite steep and to start with is very obvious but then we keep losing it.  We spot it again to our right and pick our way through partially frozen marshy ground and start our way up again.

At least in this weather the bigger boggy patches look a bit more interesting than usual:

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It takes us 40 minutes to tackle the 450ft of ascent from the Drum House and we’re at the top – and no issues with knowing where the top is this time, it’s all neat and compact up here:

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We get a good view of Great Gable and Kirk Fell with Scafell between them in the distance.

Also good views north and west towards the Newland Horseshoe with Causey Pike and Eel Crag behind look glorious in the late afternoon light:

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One of the best views from here is down to Buttermere and Crummock Water:

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As we take our photos a lone walker arrives at the top and very kindly hangs back until we’ve finished photographing the summit.  He then gets a call on his mobile.  He takes the call, moving a little away from us, then comes back to the summit and apologises for disturbing us – he couldn’t have planned that bad timing if he’d tried.  He doesn’t hang around – we all agree how great the views are and he then heads straight down towards Crummock Water – a brave descent route but he strides down very confidently.

We sit on a rock for a while and soak up the views.  The sun is just starting to move down below the tops of the mountains although it’s only 3pm.  We decide it’s time to start descending.  We pick up a grassier looking path to the right of the one we came up on and it meets the quarry road about 150ft above the Drum House.  We decide to stay on the quarry road all the way down to avoid the steep and icy rocks of the usual path.

It’s a quick and easy route, if a little unrelenting on the knees, and we’re back at the car 40 minutes after leaving the summit of Fleetwith Pike.

It’s been a beautiful day in this lovely part of the Lakes.  It’s shame we didn’t get to the top of Great Gable today but he’s still there to be done on another slightly warmer day.  I’m really pleased that we added Fleetwith Pike in to today’s walk – saves leaving him awkwardly on his own and still leaves a good walk up Green and Great Gable sometime soon.