This was the trip that had been on and off for what seemed an eternity. My first foray into the uncharted territory of the Northern fells, and for Matt a necessary trip to lay to rest some stragglers. Unable to escape until Thursday evening, I’d taxi’d to Crewe to try and make the Penrith train. A delay at Preston looked to be going to scupper my chances of catching the last bus to Keswick but I made it, and duly received a text announcing that Matt was lurking on a dimly lit street corner to direct me to the YHA Keswick. Having speedily offloaded my bag there was time to visit the Bank Tavern to test the local ale and then back to the hostel for some much needed sleep.
The cold, grey waters of the river Greta sploshing away, combined with the wind fiercely buffeting the window panes led to a less than restful night. By 8 am though I was standing outside the hostel, waiting for Matt to emerge and photographing the dark waters that had earlier disturbed my dreams. I’d been somewhat nervous about this trip, even though we’d quite sensibly abandoned the idea of actually camping in it, as the weather forecast had suggested that attempting to stay upright on the tops of mountains for prolonged periods of time might not be advisable. Nevertheless we were cheerful as we headed off in search of sustenance, having eschewed the usual YHA offerings. This proved to be a massive mistake, as one’s chances of finding a cooked breakfast in Keswick before 9am in winter appear to be as rare as rocking horse poo. This delay meant it was gone 10 when we set off for our epic conquest of Blencathra from Keswick, via Brundholme woods.
Just the name sends a small shiver of anticipation through me. I’ve wanted go up there since my first proper trip to the Lakes in October 2013. Last year it was in the press as the owner was selling it, and the outdoor community rallied together via social media in an attempt to buy it as a community asset. I was one of the many that chipped in their £10, so I felt an affinity with it, although I’d never seen it up close or walked on its slopes. As we passed the Blencathra field centre & slogged up a steepish field I was hungry for my first view. As we started up the zig zagging but excellent path the view opened out behind us and I had to keep stopping and looking, and taking pictures.
Unfortunately my poor blurry photos do not do the view (or the mountain) justice on this occasion. As we ascended, the mist descended and any hopes of a view from the top were summarily abandoned. There was also a quantity of residual snow, pretty but dangerous, blurring the sheer edges and filling in unseen crevices. I shuddered and resolved to stick a bit more closely to Matt and the path, as I felt that a wander off piste up here today might prove to be a misjudgement.
The wind was really getting up by this point, a stiff breeze (by Lakeland standards), or a howling gale (by mine,) attempting to blow me off course and into those snow filled gullies. As opposed to using my Pacerpoles to maintain my momentum I was now using them in an attempt to remain vertical. When we finally reached the trigpoint we very paused briefly for a photo, as the view was hardly worth lingering for.
Then the descent to Mungrisdale Common, another one of Alfred Wainwright’s least favourite fells. I won’t say I was completely underwhelmed by it, but it definitely falls into the same category as its boggy cousin, Armboth Fell. I was fortunate enough to tackle Armboth at the tail end of a particularly arid June, but Mungrisdale in early March lived fully up to its reputation of being a wet one. I’m pleased I’ve done it, but I’ve not got a burning urge to revisit on a clear day as I have with Blencathra and its Northern fellows.
Then I saw it, rising in splendid isolation out of the mist. The slightly forbidding grey stone building dates back to around 1840, and has formerly been used as a shooting lodge and shepherds bothy. It features in Alfred Wainwright’s iconic guide to the Northern fells, and its current incarnation is as an independent hostel affiliated to the YHA.
It’s like no other hostel I’ve ever been to. No regulation green YHA duvets and cloned metal bunk beds here, or Japanese tourists with suitcases instead of rucksacks. Here it’s basic. There’s no mains electricity, water is from a well and cooking is done on LPG gas which also powers the boiler for hot water. And when the last weary hiker has clomped up the wooden stairs, field mice play in the stone flagged kitchen at night, so your food has to be stored in sturdy perspex boxes, or they’ll eat it for you.
In the bedrooms upstairs, away from the warmth of the kitchen log burner it’s cold, very cold. It’s certainly inadvisable to remove any items of clothing before retiring to bed. But Skiddaw House has a warmth that can’t be measured by the mercury on a thermometer. You feel it in the welcome you receive from Martin and Marie. From the minute you arrive you’re made to feel like you’re stopping at a friends’ house for the night, albeit a somewhat remote and draughty one, not like one of a million members to be ‘processed’ in and out, as at some of the larger YHA’s. There are whispers that the current warden is due to retire in the next couple of years, and you wonder if anyone else would be brave enough to take this place on – 3½ miles from the nearest road, with no TV, mains electricity or phone signal.
Bannerdale Crags and Bowscale Fell, plus a first test of my Microspikes
As we left Skiddaw House I hungrily devoured the view. This soon disappeared though, as the mist rolled over, to be followed by its friends the rain and the wind. We plodded on ok over the familiar ground of Mungrisdale from yesterday, and from there headed towards Bannerdale Crags. The first obstacle in the mist was an unexpected snowfield, so I popped my Microspikes on and just followed the footprints. Where the snow ended the bog began, and by now there was also a complete lack of visibility so some nifty compass work was required by Matt to maintain our course. From Bannerdale we headed towards Bowscale Fell. No view again here, but again the compass came out to ensure we didn’t fall off the crags into the tarn, whose outline kept eerily appearing through the mist. After descending a gentle grassy slope we found the bridge at Roundhouse across the river Caldew and decided that the sheer blackened scree of Carrock Fell was off the menu for today. We chose instead to follow the Cumbria Way back to the shelter of Skiddaw House. On the way, we met a lone hiker with whom we exchanged a few words. At the mention of the foul weather he said he’d rather be out here in this than stuck indoors in front of the TV. This did make me wonder whether on such a day perhaps even the prospect of Ant & Dec on a Saturday afternoon was not so unappealing! This chap was clearly made of sterner stuff than me.
As we slogged along through the frogspawn filled puddles with the icy rain splattering our faces, I resolved to try and cope better in conditions like this, like the hardcore hiker we’d just encountered. The problem is I’m a fair weather walker, and I like (need) to be rewarded with the adrenaline hit that accompanies a suitably stunning view. There was no view from Blencathra, or the fells we’d visited today, just rain studded mist and slippery snow cloaked places left, right and centre, where you really shouldn’t venture. But I know I need to man up a bit if I’m to make a better attempt at the 10 in 10 challenge for MS research in June this year, instead of the rather paltry 7 peaks in 9 hours that I managed last year.
Latrigg Fell at last
An earlyish start was in order to depart from Skiddaw House on Sunday as I had the joys of work to look forward to on Monday. Matt, the jammy sod was to continue his adventure to see off some of his remaining Western Fells. So as is usual on the day of my departure, the rain clouds miraculously rolled back to reveal the promise of blue skies and a fine day later. Although I was sad to be leaving, I really enjoyed the walk back down towards Keswick. This was Lakeland as I love to see it. White foaming gills swollen from the recent rains, coursing down the fell sides to the Glenderaterra Beck. The greys, browns and olive greens of moorland in the winter in contrast with the blacks of peaty heather covered slopes. Not 60 mile an hour winds, lashing rain, and low thick cloud obscuring any hopes of a view.
Latrigg is supposed to be one of the easier, more accessible fells to climb, whilst still offering stunning views over Derwentwater. I must say it didn’t seem that easy as we puffed our way up its north eastern flank but once there, the views were even better than I’d anticipated. Unfortunately I was experimenting with a new phone camera, and the results were disappointing to say the least, so for some decent pictures I’ve attached a link to Matt’s Flickr stream at the end of this post.
It occurred to me as I gazed down on the grey houses of Keswick from the summit of Latrigg that it’s not dissimilar to where I live. Just a market town in the north of England. Except it’s not. When I fall out of work befuddled and bemused, and roll my eyes skywards I see buildings, and pigeons and blue skies, if I’m lucky. When a discontented bank clerk in Keswick does likewise they see the trees, sky and yes, the pigeons. But overshadowing all this is the brooding bulk of the fells that have stood, static and immobile for millions of years. A view like this would surely be a tonic to the soul ?
Matt’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/hillplodder/sets/72157650905491110
Social Hiking Maps of Northern Fells wander