We count ourselves particularly lucky at the Three Shires Inn to host our own annual fell race. This year the race would have taken place on September 19 but, sadly, it had to be cancelled due to coronavirus.
Every September, the Three Shires Fell Race starts and ends at the inn, with runners covering 20km and taking in some of the best scenery in the Lake District.
We say “runners”, but those familiar with fell races will know that - except perhaps for the elite - running the total distance of many fell races is nigh on impossible.
The Three Shires Fell race, which is organised by Ambleside AC, requires competitors to start and finish at the inn and hit four checkpoints en route - the top of Wetherlam, Swirl How, the Three Shire Stone, Pike O’Blisco and Lingmoor. How they get between the points is up to them. A big part of the art of fell racing is finding the fastest route between the checkpoints (which is not always the shortest!), as well as knowing when to run and when to stride quickly up steep terrain over rough ground.
The optimum ‘racing line’ often doesn’t follow distinct paths (or any path at all) and different routes will suit different runners. Suffice to say, if you decide to take on the route be prepared for some boggy, rocky and steep ground and the need to navigate.
Running in the mountains adds an extra element of risk and requires practise before embarking on a relatively long race like the Three Shires. However, the route described can also be undertaken as a very pleasant long walk, although you’ll still need all the equipment, knowledge, fitness and skills required for navigating for a long day in the hills in potentially poor weather.
The Three Shires Inn to Greenburn
From the Three Shires Inn turn right and head down to the tarmac lane leading left, downhill, where the sign points towards Tilberthwaite. Go down the lane until you reach a small set of steps and wooden gate on the right, with a signpost pointing across a field to Slater Bridge. Go uphill through the field to another kissing gate and then down to the bridge.
After crossing the bridge follow a path to a track below a wall of slate slag and turn right. Follow the track to where it goes uphill quite steeply passing the white Low Hall Garth mountaineering hut. This track begins as tarmac but soon becomes quite rough as it turns right and contours along the hillside.
You will pass a junction where a path leads uphill (signposted to Tilberthwaite). Ignore this and continue on the track (signposted to Fell Foot). Continue until the path forks again and bear left heading up the valley, with Greenburn Beck on your right, until you reach a gate and wall.
Greenburn to Wetherlam
This is where the route can start to be a little indistinct (it probably helps when there are scores of runners to show you the way!).
Heading slightly uphill and diagonal from the gate is a narrow path through thick bracken. When the bracken is high in the summertime it is very difficult to see, but does become more clear in the autumn and winter. If you can pick this track up it will gradually take you up the fellside towards Wetherlam. However, it is up to you how steeply you decide to attack the slope or whether you prefer to climb a bit more gradually. You may also end up going a different way entirely, but that’s all part of the fun.
If you do manage to stick with the initial little path (which slips over rocks and requires some bog hopping) you’ll eventually hit a steep path heading up the fellside in a straight line. A zig-zag system of indistinct paths and occasional cairns leads up to the main ‘tourist’ path climbing the north east flank of Wetherlam to the top.
All in all, this can be a steep and exhausting experience. But don’t worry, some lovely runnable ground is to follow and a chance to get your breath back.
Wetherlam to the Three Shire Stone
From Wetherlam you can follow a lovely clear path that gradually descends across the plateau towards Swirl How. If you’re intent on getting a good race time, you can, of course, cut corners as you see fit, but don’t neglect to take in the beautiful views to both the north (across to Langdale and the Scafell massif) and the south (towards Coniston). It really is a fantastic place to be.
There is a short steep drop down to Swirl Hawse (passing the path going down to Levers Water) before another energetic climb to the top of Swirl How itself. From here you can follow the path north over Great Carrs and Little Carrs (passing the wreckage of a crashed World War Two bomber) and pick up the path which heads first down the ridge line of Wet Side edge and then steeply to Wrynose Pass and the Three Shire Stone. Again how directly you want to tackle this descent is up to you!
The Three Shire Stone to Pike O’Blisco
The Three Shire Stone was first put in place in 1860 to mark the meeting point of the old counties of Westmorland, Cumberland and Lancashire. Westmorland and Cumberland were all absorbed into Cumbria in 1974, as was part of Lancashire. It can be found at the top of Wrynose Pass, although cars have a nasty habit of knocking it over, so whether it will actually be standing when you get there is uncertain.
From here a very well defined path climbs gradually north east up the valley with Pike O’Blisco at its head on the right. If you want to take the real racing line here you can leave the main path and head between the crags of Long Scar and Black Crag directly to the summit.
You can also stay on the path until you reach Red Tarn and then take the obvious direct path, to the right, to the top. Whichever way you go, in clear weather you are rewarded with a wonderful outlook onto the fells and crags crowding around the heights of Great Langdale.
Pike O’Blisco to Blea Tarn
The next part of the race takes you over the shallow, lumpy saddle of land between the summit of Pike O’Blisco and Blea Tarn. From the top of the fell you can follow the main path heading east. There are some steep rocky drops to negotiate initially so watch your step.
Once you’ve dropped down from the initial summit it really is up to you how you get to Blea Tarn. There are little tracks which run across the plateau but the main thing is to head east until you reach the steep slope dropping down the side of Blake Rigg to the tarn. There are rough paths heading down here, but it is very steep and slippery and has been described variously as “fast”, “technical” and “nasty”.
The Three Shires Race organisers stipulate using the footbridge at the southern end of the tarn, which is reached through a copse of conifers. A path then heads alongside Blea Tarn. This is deservedly one of the most photographed locations in the Lake District and, if time and weather allow, you might even want to stop for a quick swim. This may affect your time, but is very refreshing.
Blea Tarn to the Three Shires Inn
From the Blea Tarn car park the direct line fires straight up the steep flank of Lingmoor by a beck and then across to the main path which heads through heather to the summit.
However, you can also head down the road to the north and pick up the more well-defined path which climbs up next to a beck and woodland. This path eventually crosses a wall and then heads up through heather to the top.
From the summit a well travelled track heads east and descends to a track heading south to the Little Langdale road. If you’re doing the actual race then the route goes left here and picks up a footpath to the right going across fields back towards the inn. However, it’s just as easy to go down to the Little Langdale road and turn left back towards the inn.
Don’t forget to drop in and see us for a well-deserved beer and a feed afterwards!